War on Drugs in the United States


“War on drugs” refers to a set of policies and programs which include searching and stopping drug user or courier through law enforcement such as undercover operations, surveillance as well as punitive measures which are aimed at curbing the production, sales and the consumption of illicit drugs. Many United Nations countries, which adhere to the United Nations Drug control Convections, have taken various legal measures in order to outlaw any form of illicit drug trafficking, production or money laundering from drugs sale. Almost every country has failed to halt the production, sales and the consumption of illicit drugs.

According to a study by Hamid, global illicit drug trafficking and trade is thriving and is valued at 325 billion dollars per year (Hamid 212). The United States is known to be the world’s greatest enforcer of drug prohibition; however, it has the largest number of individuals in the world consuming illicit drugs. The trade of illicit drugs in the U.S. is considered to be extremely lucrative, estimated to be earning around 460 billion yearly and involving an estimate of 16 million customers. Drug trade is one of the top ten problems facing the United States. For instance, according to Lipton in 1999 American citizens spent an estimate of $6 billion on methamphetamines, $10 billions on marijuana, $11 billion on heroin and $36 billion on cocaine (Lipton 97).

Background Information

The United States has been trying to combat the problem of trade and use of illicit drug since 1971. The war on drugs was declared on 1982 by U.S. Chief Executive Ronald Reagan who pledged with his administration to embark on the task of curtailing the overwhelming drug trade in the country. In order to achieve these objectives, the expenditure on the control of illicit drugs programs were raised up to $4.3 billion in 1988 (Lipton 102). Also, tougher legislation measures were put in place. The United States military were also incorporated in the war against illicit drug trade by intensifying the interdiction efforts on the borders. Backing the president’s initiative, first Lady Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” campaign, which flooded the media and the American education system. All sectors of the United States economy were enlisted on the battle against illicit drug manufacture, trade and consumption. However, the state lost the battle against drug since by late 1989 many illicit drugs were readily available at even cheaper prices than they were before the declaration of the war (Lipton 215).

Other ineffective policies of dealing with drug abusers have been tried but have not been successful. For instance, Senator Alfonse denounced Reagan’s policy claiming that it was not “tough enough” to deal with drug traffickers. Thus, death penalty was passed for those convicted of murders arising from illicit drug trade (Lipton 217)..

Illicit drug consumption has led to various negative effects with drug related crimes and violence reaching epidemic proportions in most United States cities. In 1980s the public health system was unable to cope up with increasing demand of rehabilitation and treatment. Also, law enforcement agencies were underfunded and overworked, thus increasingly demoralized. Furthermore, many courts and prisons were besieged by the influx of trials related to drugs. Why has the most powerful nation in the world been unable to curb drug trade and consumption? Why has the anti-drugs crusade in the United States produced negligible results? What is wrong with the policies used?

Current Manifestations of the War on Drugs

Currently, the United States is still struggling to come up with new methods which could effectively combat the problem of illicit drug trade and consumption. There has been increased debate on the need to shift from the strategy that has prioritized on reducing the supply of illegal drugs rather than decreasing the demand. This is because the previous strategy has led to loss of lives, improper justice system and overcrowding in prisons (Mauer 34).

The Obama administration recently embraced the public health approach in combating drug abuse. Also, the political and social leaders from Andean countries and the United States had a policy dialogue where they debated on the various issues which were dividing the country such as drug policy. Some of the recommendation that were raised include; the government to lead public debate on other alternative drug policies, each government to develop policies to prevent drug consumption and also the government to seek alternative methods rather than incarceration.

How the Problem has been addressed

When the United State’s war on drugs was launched by President Nixon, many policymakers expected a lot of positive outcomes. They thought that the harsh laws which were enforced against the producers, traffickers and consumers would lead to reduction in market of drugs such as heroine, cannabis and cocaine and eventually an eruption of a “drug free world”. However, the illegal market of illicit drugs has been increasingly growing over the period.

The measures which have been in use to combat illicit drug trade and consumption have primarily been focusing on how the United States can control the importation of drugs from other countries. However, this method has been unsuccessful since it does not focus on containing the demand of illicit drugs in the country keeping in mind that the United States is largest consumer of illicit drugs. Measures which have been in use to control the supply of these illicit drugs include a combination of eradication, interdiction and other alternative developments. Until recently, the measures were highly concentrated on various efforts of interdiction and eradication. The United States accounts for over 26% of the global demand for illegal drugs (Mauer, Marc & Meda 346). A lot of money is spent on criminalization and repressive measures which are directed to the producers, traffickers and consumers of these illegal drugs. All these methods have failed to curtail neither the supply of the illicit drugs nor their consumption.

Challenges facing the War on Drugs

There are various consequences which have erupted due to the policy of war on drugs. For instance, individuals who had been involved or have criminal record are highly discriminated in job applications. This is more evident to the African American applicants. Also, incarceration has a negative effect to the families of drug traffickers, especially children. For the disadvantaged families, they are left unstable which might lead to children involvement in criminal activities in order to earn a living. The children are also forced to drop out of school and they also undergo other negative outcomes.

There has also been increased number of prisoners in American prisons which might be termed as ‘prison explosion’. United States has the largest number of prisoners in the world. For instance, in 2005, about 8 million prisoners subjected to correctional supervision while more than 2 million prisoners were incarcerated in jail (MacCoun, Robert & Reuter 215).   From 1980 to 2000, the population of prisoners in United States quadrupled. This was lead by the great number of individuals who were convicted with drug offences. The number of prisoners has always been rising and in 2001 it was noted that the number of prisoners admitted with drug offences exceeded those sentenced to jail for property offences. Those with drug offences were 251,000 while those with property offences were 238,500 (Mauer, Marc and Meda 310). Furthermore, the number of women who had been sentenced due to drug offences surpassed that of men.

Another feature which has defined mass incarceration is the increased number of prisoners from a given part of United States population. There are a large number of young African American men prisoners, who come from low income families. Most of them have low educational attainment. This racial disproportionality is due to drug offences. A research by MacCoun, Robert and Reuter, showed that the United States war on drug has led to increased number of African American at every stage of criminal justice system (MacCoun, Robert & Peter Reuter 212). 

Another challenge of the war on drug policy is the increased cost of criminal justice. A lot of resources have been directed to drug enforcement initiative. This has led to reduced resources on other law enforcement efforts. For instance, in January and February of 2008, the federal and state government spent not less than $7 billion fighting illicit drugs. This was done by trying to reduce the supply of illicit drugs (Hamid 252). This increased expenditure on imprisonment for drug offenders has led to a little allocation of fund for the community based correctional alternatives which might be more effective than imprisonment.

War on drugs has also been associated with various social costs. For instance, mass imprisonment leads to inequalities by derailing the level of employment and restricting the economic prospects of those who were formerly prisoners. It increases social and economic hardships causing strain in families. 

Alternative Policies of addressing the Issue

The United States has used various measures as a way to curb the trade and consumption of illicit drugs. This has led an overwhelming increase in the number of individuals arrested and also an increase in the incarceration rates. The U.S. had been treating the problem of drug addiction as a crime. On the contrary, the problem should be treated as a health problem since treating it as a crime compounds its negative impact to the individual affected. Most of ex-offenders emerge from prisons with untreated disorders and also while in jail they could have been exposed to various contagious diseases. Furthermore, most of them come out of prison with discouraging behaviors learnt from other prisoners.

The prisoners are separated from their families and friends whose support and advice may have a critical impacted to the prisoner’s healthy reintegration into the society (Hamid 232). Instead of reacting to illicit drug users with punishment and stigmatization, the government should realize that drug dependence is to some extent a complex health problem which may arise from social, psychological and physical causes. Thus trying to treat the individual through punishment is ineffective. In my own view the most effective way to deal with illicit drug consumption is by treating the affected individual as a patient requiring treatment rather than a criminal. By so doing extreme positive results would be realized including crime reduction, overcoming dependence and also health improvement.

The government should ensure proper education and public awareness on the effects of drugs and their negative consequences. These can be done hand in hand with implementation of health policies which would prevent or lower the consumption of drugs and also offer treatment to the affected users. Also, there is need to include the public view on the alternative drug policies. These can be done through open public forums of debates where individuals and non-governmental groups could be given an opportunity to evaluate the progress of various policies and also come up with new policies. In addition, other alternative to incarceration should be sort in order to reduce the number of prisoners in jail, hence reducing overcrowding.

Finally, the government should take the responsibility of rehabilitating homeless children whose families have died or are imprisoned due to illicit drug offences. Such children need to be counseled and taken care of to prevent them from engaging in harmful activities which would land them in prisons. Every American citizen should denounce illicit drugs production, sales and consumption and address the issue to the other citizens who may not be aware of negative impacts of illicit drugs consumption. 

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