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The Rising Cost of a Failing War on Drugs
The War on Drugs has been a massive failure. Is there a better way forward?
The War on Drugs has been raging for over 50 years. The initiative, which has significantly reshaped American politics, society, and the economy, has been a staple of Americanism for over five decades. However, the past few years have seen more people questioning the efficacy of the government approaching drug addiction by locking people in prison cells.
The nation has spent over $1 trillion since the War on Drugs was launched. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the numbers shows that the return on this investment has been severely lacking.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs, a campaign that aimed to eradicate all social, economic, and health problems associated with drugs and drug abuse. According to Christopher Coyne, a professor of economics at George Mason University, the goals of the war on drugs were incredibly ambitious.
"[The goals of the war on drugs] were to literally eradicate all of the social, economic and health ills associated with drugs and drug abuse," said Christopher Coyne, professor of economics at George Mason University. "It doesn't get much more ambitious than that."
The campaign led to the creation of a dedicated federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and gave law enforcement an unprecedented level of authority, aided by measures like mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.
Many observers argue that the War on Drugs has not paid off. Despite the vast amount of funding, illicit drug use in the U.S. is climbing, and drug-related deaths are on the rise.
According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, in 1981, the federal budget for drug abuse prevention and control was just over a billion dollars. By 2020, that number had grown to $34.6 billion. When adjusted for inflation, this translates to a staggering 1,090% increase in just 39 years.
The White House estimates that the national drug control budget will reach a historic level of $41 billion by 2022. The largest increases in funding are requested to support drug treatment and drug prevention.
The war on drugs has also had a profound impact on the U.S. criminal justice system. Mass incarceration has become a significant burden on both the federal and state governments' budgets.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank and criminal justice advocacy group, 1 in 5 currently incarcerated people in the U.S. are locked up for a drug offense. The same research estimates that it costs an average of about $37,500 annually to house an inmate in federal correctional facilities.
The mass incarceration costs the U.S. at least $182 billion every year. This significant financial burden is not the only consequence of the war on drugs. There is also a massive racial disparity in drug incarcerations, which disproportionally affect Black and Latino communities.
Despite the ongoing war on drugs, America's attitude towards drugs is changing. More states are legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and some are even decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of all drugs.
The criminalization of drug use in the U.S. has led to tragic consequences and mass incarceration, particularly affecting lower-income and minority communities.
Despite the fact that Whites, African Americans, and Latinos all use illicit drugs at similar rates, 45 percent of all convicted drug offenders in state prison are black compared to 28 percent that are white and 20 percent that are Hispanic.
In the last few years, opioid-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed, particularly affecting African Americans. Despite significant government spending and convictions related to fentanyl trafficking, the problem has not been effectively curbed.
What’s even worse about this matter is that the War on Drugs has not made people safer or less affected by drug addiction. Despite escalating efforts by Republican and Democratic administrations to combat drug use, there has been little success when it comes to decreasing the number of addicts and people dying from overdoses. To put it simply, more people are dying today from drug overdoses than they have in the past.
On average, there were about 3,576 overdose deaths per year in the 1980s, during the height of the crack epidemic. These numbers are disturbing enough, right? But today, the rate of overdose deaths has grown far worse.
In 2020, there were 93,655 overdose deaths in the United States. With the widespread dissemination of deadly fentanyl coming over the southern border, it might be tempting to attribute these deaths to the opioid. But a closer look at the numbers shows that even among overdose deaths that are not related to fentanyl, there are still far more fatalities due to other types of drugs as well.
About 60% of the overdose deaths in 2020 were due to fentanyl. This means that the other 40%, which breaks down to 37,462 individuals, died from other narcotics. This is about ten times as many as the amount of people who died from drugs in the 1980s.
Given these numbers, it is difficult to argue that the War on Drugs has been anything but an abysmal failure. Even further, the war has not only been ineffective, it has done far more harm than good — just like most government initiatives.
Felony convictions, including those stemming from a drug offense, can restrict job prospects, housing assistance, financial aid for higher education, voting rights, and erode other hard-won civil rights. This is one of the reasons why recidivism rates are so high. If one cannot obtain gainful employment because they decided to sell or consume a substance, then they will soon go back to what they know: Drugs.
These numbers raise several questions. For starters, how do we reconcile spending over one trillion dollars on a clearly failed endeavor? Was it worth it, given the fact that far more people are dying today from drugs than they were when the war started in the 1970s?
Even further, knowing that the War on Drugs has not brought about any real solution, what justification is there for continuing it?
While the U.S. might be on the path to potentially reversing some of the harshest impacts of the war on drugs, America's battle against illicit substances is likely here to stay for the time being, which unfortunately means more Americans will be victimized by the state.
The war on drugs has had a profound impact on American society, economics, and politics over the last 50 years. Despite the vast amount of money spent and the significant societal costs, illicit drug use and drug-related deaths are on the rise. As America heads into the next 50 years, it is crucial to reevaluate the strategies and policies surrounding the war on drugs. Only then can we begin to get enough support to end this farcical war and pursue better solutions for drug addictions.
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