ViewPoint: 50th Anniversary of “War On Drugs”


By Peter Chow


June 17  marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon famously declared drugs “public enemy number one” and launched the War On Drugs.

This War On Drugs waged a full-out offensive that has pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into law enforcement, leading to the over-surveillance and incarceration of millions of people, disproportionately Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, destroying the lives of millions of young people and their families.

John Ehrlichman, Counsel and Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs under Nixon, in an interview in the magazine Harper’s in March, 2016 stated:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies:  the Vietnam antiwar left and Black people.  You understand what I’m saying?  We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.  Did we know we were lying about the drugs?  Of course we did.”

And so, the United States government developed a major policy, with massive implications on spending and societal impact, to declare that two underclasses of people should be destroyed, locked up if possible, for the convenience and pleasure of people in power.

Every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession.

The number of Americans arrested for possession has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2018 — six times the number of arrests for drug sales.

One-fifth of the prison population—or 456,000 individuals—is serving time for a drug charge.  Another 1.15 million people are on probation and parole for drug-related offenses.

Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite equal substance usage rates.

Almost 80% of people serving time for a federal drug offense are Black or Latino.

Since 1971, the war on drugs has cost the United States an estimated $1 trillion.

That America pursued a reckless policy, given how badly Prohibition proved itself not that many decades before, to reinforce the personal vendetta of a head of state should be shocking.

People’s mouths should drop open.

There is a certain degree of cynicism one can develop in looking at social and power structures in the world.

But sometimes you come across something so unexpected that it is like a sharp slap in the face.

Imprisonment, used as a state-enforced policy of racial punishment, has taken a heavy toll on personal economics.

Taking into account the number of Blacks locked away in prison, the Black unemployment rate is effectively undercounted by an additional 7%.

Even now, as the concept of marijuana legalization expands, Blacks continue to face arrest at much higher rates than other races, even in states where laws have changed.

Arrest means a harder time getting a job, impossibility of school loans or housing, fines, and, often, jail time, which is an enormous lost opportunity.

And yet, the country is slow to recognize how much it has targeted and continues to target the underclass, those with the fewest resources to protect themselves.

Once the machine starts, it keeps moving out of inertia and, over time, injustice seems normal.

Five decades on, in a world (and an America) accursed by poverty and drugs, there is universal agreement that the War On Drugs has failed  –  spectacularly and disastrously.

In the US and Europe and Canada, the war has been fought on the streets, in the courts and through the jail system, to no apparent avail.

Americans account for less than 4.3% of the world’s population but consume 80% of all opioids produced globally.

Roughly 1 out of every 100 American adults—or 2.4 million people—have an opioid-use disorder.

In the world that has “developed” since 1971, it has been fought in the barrios;  it has defoliated land and driven peasants into even worse poverty.

In the past 15 years, 200,000 Mexicans are estimated to have died or disappeared trying to meet the US’s voracious appetite for drugs.

From 1999-2019, nearly 500,000 people died in the US from overdosing on opioids.

Fentanyl is so pervasive that up to a quarter of supposedly non-fentanyl-containing illicit pills are now suspected of being lethal.

The political economies of much of Central and South America have been destabilised for decades.

The war in the so-called “producing” countries has ravaged Colombia, is currently tearing Mexico apart, and again threatens Afghanistan, Central America, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela.

Parts of Mexico and Colombia are ravaged by continuous warfare from supplying the American drugs market.

In places such as West Africa, the war is creating “narco states” that have become effective puppets of the mafia cartels the war has spawned.

Worldwide opiate consumption increased by 234.5% between in the two decades to 2009, and that of cocaine by 225%.

The UN estimates illicit drugs to be the third biggest industry in the world after oil and arms.

The laundered profits of the narco-trafficking underworld by the “legitimate” financial sector is what kept the banks afloat for years before they finally crashed in 2008.

The new poll shows the vast majority of American voters believe the policy has been a failure that has only increased drug-related harms and contributed to overcrowding the nation’s jails and prisons.

Among the poll’s findings:

66% of voters support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.”

Nearly two-thirds of the country believe we need a new approach based in public health, not law enforcement.

63% say drug use should be addressed as a public health issue while only 33% say it should be addressed as a criminal justice issue.

83% say the “War On Drugs” has failed.

65% of voters support ending the “War On Drugs.”

64% of Americans support repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

61% of voters support commuting, or reducing, the sentences of people incarcerated for drugs.

Change is brewing.

Even conservatives are reluctantly overcoming their natural love of judgment and punishment and beginning to understand — on their usual timetable, about a half-century after the rest of us — that criminalizing drugs doesn’t work.

The legalisation of marijuana in the US within 10 years is an inevitability.

In Europe, the Netherlands famously refuses to criminalise cannabis users, while Portugal became the first European country, in 2001, to abolish criminal penalties for personal possession of all drugs, sending addicts for counselling instead.

Italy has decriminalised possession of less than half a gram of most illegal substances.

Argentina’s supreme court ruled it unconstitutional to punish people for using marijuana for personal use.

Of course, here in Canada , the Trudeau government passed the federal Cannabis Act on 17 October 2018 and made Canada the second country in the world, after Uruguay, to formally legalize the cultivation, possession, acquisition and consumption of marijuana.  Canada is the first G7 and G20 nation to do so.

Even Mexico, which has since 2005 been the theatre for a singularly vicious drugs war, has elected to legalise limited amounts of all drugs for personal use, for example: 0.5g of cocaine, 40mg of methamphetamine and 50mg of heroin.

A landmark proposal was made by three former presidents: Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, César Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

It opened with the salvo: “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption simply haven’t worked … The revision of US-inspired drug policies is urgent…..what is needed is a complete global overhaul of drugs policy.”

Unregulated and criminalized, hard drugs kill.

They feed national and international crime and curse the people of the world’s poorest countries.

Hard drugs need to be decriminalized and regulated.

On the 50th anniversary of the War On Drugs, think of all the lives and families that were ruined and absolutely devastated only because they were caught in a vast trawl net from the highest reaches of governments.