Richard Nixon was the first U.S. President to use the term “war on drugs.” It was 1971. Young people were smoking pot and taking LSD. Soldiers were coming back from Vietnam addicted to heroin.
“This nation faces a major crisis in terms of the increasing use of drugs, particularly among our young people,” Nixon said as he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention Control Act.
More than 40 years later, however, it remains unclear whether we are winning that war.
The Associated Press reported in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the start of the war on drugs, on some of the startling statistics in the drug trade.
–The office of National Drug Control Policy says “about 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the United States every year—almost all of it brought across the border.”
–Over 40 years, the U.S. has spent $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders.
–In 2009, half of all federal prisoners in this country were serving time for drug convictions.
The AP report concluded that four decades after start of the war on drugs, none its goals have been met.
For years, West Virginia escaped many of the problems associated with the drug trade, but it’s now catching up with us. State Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein says a majority of all the men and women in the state’s prison system have substance abuse issues and many committed crimes as a result of their addictions.
As a result, the state’s jail and prison system is filled beyond capacity. Over 1,700 prisoners who should be in a state prison are instead being housed in regional jails because the state institutions are full.
Housing prisoners is expensive. It costs taxpayers about $25,000 per inmate per year. And many inmates are just as addicted to drugs and/or alcohol when they get out as when they went in.
As a result, many just end up back behind bars again.
It’s time America started thinking differently about the drug problem. We don’t have to give up the war, just fight it in a more effective way. Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul is an outspoken critic of our country’s approach to drug use and abuse.
“This war on drugs has been a detriment to personal liberty and it’s been a real abuse of liberty,” Paul said in an interview with CNN earlier this month. “Our prisons are full of people who have used drugs who should be treated as patients—and they’re non-violent.”
According to Paul, if someone is an alcoholic, we say he has a disease, but if he is a drug addict, we call him a criminal.
The problem may not be that simple. Legalized drug use could create a whole other series of issues and actually lead to more people being addicted. Addiction does not exist in a vacuum. Spouses, children and parents are brought into the sphere of suffering.
Still, 42 years after we declared a war on drugs, it’s worth evaluating the progress. The growing number of Americans in jail because of addiction, and the increasing cost to this country, suggest that our tactics may be flawed.