The War on Drugs was initiated in June 17, 1971, by President Richard Nixon. Any way you look at it, this effort to reduce drug use and the consequences of addiction has failed. Meanwhile, it has arguably been responsible for many of the most destructive criminal justice policies we see today, from aggressive policing to mass incarceration.
Although many Americans still believe that drugs should be forbidden, a large majority of voters from both parties – 71%, according to a recent study – believe that the War on Drugs is not working and needs to be reformed. Most believe that drug abuse is a public health issue, not a criminal one.
Moreover, many voters believe that the War on Drugs has led to ineffective and discriminatory policies and counterproductive outcomes. For example, 60% of likely voters agreed that our current federal drug policies are too harsh and exacerbate racial inequality. 70% said the War on Drugs has failed to improve community safety, and 68% feel it focuses too much on punishment.
Legalization of marijuana, other drugs lurches forward
Over the course of the last decade or so, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for adults. Now, the majority of states allow at least medical use of marijuana. Federal legislation has been proposed to decriminalize marijuana for adult personal use.
States and municipalities have decriminalized other drugs, too, such as psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Last year, Oregon decriminalized all drugs in small quantities, including heroin and meth.
Recently, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives that would decriminalize all drugs federally and shift the national response to drugs to a public health model. Although it has virtually no chance of passing, it is part of a larger trend of rethinking what we need from government in drug interventions.
The drug war was always racially biased
According to NPR, studies show that Black people and other minorities have always been disproportionately targeted by drug enforcement. The U.S. Justice Department acknowledges that Black men are almost six times more likely than their white peers to be incarcerated for drugs, even though Blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates.
In 1994, a major Nixon adviser admitted that racial animus was one of the main motives for the War on Drugs. “By getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Yet our streets are flooded with more drugs than ever – many of them legal prescription opioids. Meanwhile, the U.S. still incarcerates far more people than any other nation, with nearly half of all federal prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes.