The Failure of the War on Drugs

If you were around in the 80’s, you are probably very familiar with the message to “just say no” to 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, saying 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.”

The Commission recommended that states do away with penalties for possession and cultivation for personal use, and that they 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 of the interplay of biology and social conditions that pushed them to seek a means of escape.  Criminalizing possession doesn’t stop drug use; it 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 are 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?

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.

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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20 thoughts on “The Failure of the War on Drugs

  1. Paula Light says:

    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. says:

    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. Meg says:

    That is a beautiful post! In my opinion, as per jail sentences, I think that people who deal drugs, particularly people who do it willingly rather than by force or circumstance (I.e., women who have gotten trapped in drug or sex trafficking) need to go away for a long, long time. But I see what you’re saying about people who are only guilty of purchasing/using/owning (as well as people who aren’t calling the shots or aren’t free to walk away from it). Throwing them in jail is pointless and unkind.

    Oh my gosh, I totally remember the frying egg!! Yikes!

    I am concerned, though, that making drugs legal would lead more people to use them; or it would lead some people to use them more often. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, but I do think it might be an improvement over the dangerous backstreet market.

      • Meg says:

        You could be right! Huh… I’ve never thought about it! Oh, what about this compromise? Suppose they were made legal, but that you have to be 25 or older to purchase them (not counting if you have permission for medicinal reasons)?

  4. Kim Smyth says:

    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.

  5. Luftmentsch says:

    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.

  6. Michelle says:

    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. thelevinelowdown says:

    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. Brendan Birth says:

    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.

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