The Failure of the War on Drugs

Just Say No poster with two marijuana joints
National Library of Medicine

If you were around in the 80’s, you are probably very familiar with the message to “just say no” that was part of the overall war on drugs. In 1991, Saved By The Bell got on board with an episode that told viewers “there’s no hope with dope.” There was also the classic egg in a frying pan PSA.

The beginnings of the war on drugs

I was too young to be around for the beginning of the “War On Drugs” declared by U.S. President Richard Nixon. Things snowballed from there: the Drug Enforcement Agency was formed, mandatory minimum sentences were set for drug offenses, and huge piles of money were thrown into enforcement. A lot of people were being incarcerated, many of them poor, and many of them racial minorities.

Mass incarceration

In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report calling the War On Drugs an all-around failure. It stated that: “Above all, incarceration is the epitome of the human cost of these failed policies.” Furthermore:

Prison is inevitably an ineffective response because it does not take into account the social and psychological root causes of problematic drug consumption, nor does it consider the economic and social marginalization of traditional coca, cannabis or poppy cultivators, nor of women who smuggle small quantities of drugs, street dealers, or spotters. Prison is also the wrong response because people who are incarcerated are vulnerable, exposed to risks for which they are not well-equipped, and are dependent on those who manage their daily lives.

Mandatory minimum sentences can mean people end up spending an incredibly long time in prison for non-violent drug offenses, something John Oliver addressed on an episode of Last Week Tonight.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended that states abolish penalties for possession and cultivation for personal use, and end disproportionate punishments.

It requires a progressive-minded government to move beyond the idea that drugs are bad, and therefore we must criminalize them. Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, and there’s no reason to think it should work or has worked with drugs.

Why people use drugs

People don’t use drugs because the illegality of them is appealing; they use drugs because an interplay of biology and social conditions pushed them to seek a means of escape. The book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Maté does a good job of exploring this issue.

Criminalizing possession doesn’t stop drug use; it just creates criminals. 

It creates criminals who fill prisons. And what happens when you send someone to prison?  If they weren’t a hardened criminal beforehand, chances are they will be by the time that they get out.

Yes, drugs can be bad. Yes, they cause all kinds of problems. But what if, instead of focusing entirely on enforcement, governments were to actually do something about the factors like poverty, lack of opportunity, and trauma that actually fuel the onset of drug use? What if they took action to prevent and address adverse childhood experiences which contribute to problems in adulthood?

The opioid epidemic

In recent years, there have been increasing numbers of deaths across North America due to opioid overdoses. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, the “overdose capital of Canada”. In 2017, British Columbia saw more than 1420 illicit drug overdose deaths, around 80% of which were due to fentanyl. In 2015, a dear friend of mine lost his life due to fentanyl—one more statistic in the opioid epidemic.

Large amounts of cheap fentanyl are entering North America, primarily from China. It’s far more potent than heroin, but because it’s cheap, it’s commonly getting cut into drugs, so users really have no idea what they’re getting. Opioid overdoses shut down the drive to breathe in the brain, which will kill people if the overdose isn’t reversed with naloxone (Narcan).

A lot of people are dying of overdoses because they’re consuming fentanyl without realizing it, but people may feel reluctant to call 911 if their friend has overdosed if they’re worried they might get charged with drug possession. So instead, their friend dies. Criminalization means more people dying.

Alternative approaches

The Canadian city where I live has adopted a four pillars drug strategy, an approach that was first developed in Europe. It encompasses harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement, with the recognition that all four pillars need to be addressed simultaneously. We were the site of North America’s first supervised injection site, and there is currently a study underway that involves giving prescription-grade heroin to see if that can meet the opiate substitution needs of people who don’t respond well to methadone maintenance therapy. This is particularly important with the opioid crisis, particularly with fentanyl, stealing lives.

In my nursing career, I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve struggled with addictions – some in recovery, others in active use.  These are people who have had extremely hard lives. These are not people who cheerfully started using because they wanted to become a “junkie”. And yes, they realize that people dismiss them as junkies. To throw them in jail wouldn’t accomplish anything for anyone.

So, how about we just say no – to the war on drugs.

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18 thoughts on “The Failure of the War on Drugs”

  1. My ex and I moved to Huntington Beach, California in the early 1990s, an upper middle class community with good schools for our children. There were pockets of very wealthy people too, and some less so, a nice mix, we thought. Turns out, drug use was rampant, including a surge of heroin addiction and overdoses. I thought heroin was something gone with the Woodstock days!

  2. Fantastic post, Ashley! I couldn’t agree with you more on every thing that you stated. The “Just Say No” was a disaster, it only increased and elevated the problems. And, yes…Because of being imprisoned for such acts, made people hardened criminals within the system. A sad fact.
    Again… Excellent post!!!

  3. Good post, I agree with what you said. How is the four pillars drug strategy working out? Just curious. If it’s going well, maybe we should adopt the plan as well…if our leaders would even listen.

    1. The harm reduction side of things has definitely saved lives and cut down on communicable diseases, and I think a change in police approach has made some difference at the street level.

  4. I think cannabis legalisation is going to happen in the Western world in the next decade or two. It’s already started. I think I would probably agree with that.

    I’m not sure that I agree with legalising harder drugs. While I don’t think anyone decides to use or not to use it based on legality, like Meg I think keeping it illegal probably does keep it away from some people, particularly the young, in a way that would not be the case if you could get crack or heroin from a supermarket like alcohol. Prescription doses for existing addicts is sensible though. And I’m fairly anti-prison as a general rule (except for people who pose a clear risk to others), not just for drugs.

  5. I wish I could like this post a hundred times. I agree with everything that you stated! Thank you for sharing this 💞

  6. There is still a huge stigma on seeking help. Which is why people turn to drugs. It could also have to do with the stress with the rising costs of living.

    I agree that people everyone should go to prison for using drugs. But people who deal drugs should

  7. Thank you for this excellent post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I definitely agree with you! I have just published an article on my blog about why I think we need more medically supervised drug injecting centres. It would be great if you could check it out and let me know your thoughts! Thanks 🙂

  8. I ran into this post just this morning when I did a search on WP about criminal justice. I remembered hearing the slogan “just say no to drugs” when I was a little kid in the early 2000s. It sounded simple and logical. However, I have come to realize that it’s an issue much more complicated than simply running “just say no” ads.

  9. It’s never made sense to me that cigarettes and alcohol, two extremely harmful addictive substances, are totally legal but weed? Throw them in prison for 20 years! I’m all for legalization of everything so long as it’s highly controlled. IF ITS LEGAL THE BLACK MARKET DISAPPEARS! So less bad guys crossing the border illegally, less gang murders, less terrorist activity (yes they’re involved) and safer, cleaner regulated drugs! Why would we want our dollars given to a South American drug lords when we can grow it here and benefit from the tax revenue?? It makes no sense economically or medically. Some states have legalized but here in Texas, aka The Bible Belt, good luck with that! My city of 360,000 people just finally legalized liquor stores a few years ago!

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