In US history the two largest spikes in the murder rate have happened during eras of drug prohibition. The first spike occurred from 1920 to 1933 during the prohibition of alcohol. The second from 1970-1990 when Nixon declared the war on drugs. From the very start, the war on drugs has been about suppressing the poor and the marginalized. And, even if it was about eliminating drug use and all the horrible issues related to it, such as addiction, mental health disease, poverty, and violence, it has proven a failure in stopping those as well. Instead, the war on drugs has worsened these problems causing more chaos, pain, addiction, and death. The war on drugs and drug prohibition as a whole has been completely ineffective at reaching its goals of eliminating drug use and the negative effects associated with it.
As ingrained as drug laws seem today, it was only in 1875 when San Francisco passed the nation’s first anti-drug law. The law wanted to stop the spread of opium dens and banned the practice of smoking opium. A federal law accompanied the San Francisco law, banning anyone of “Chinese origin” to bring opium into the country. The racist excuses didn’t end, the targeting of cocaine followed suit in 1909 when rumors began to spread that black men were getting high on cocaine and as a result were raping white women. These rumors allowed a mass hysteria to sweep the nation and anti-cocaine laws followed suit. Five years later in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act passed. While the HNA didn’t outright ban drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, and heroin, it expanded the government's ability to tax and regulate them. The goal being to tax drugs to the point of nonexistence. However, despite the HNA, cannabis still remained popular especially among the jazz and swing scene in the 1920s and 30s. At this point, Harry Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Narcotics and notorious for being racist even in the 1930s steps in. Anslinger warned the nation that jazz and marijuana created an opportunity for blacks to rise above the rest; and that it induced madness in Hispanic immigrants leading them to commit violence against whites. Then in 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act for the purposes of raising the prices of marijuana making it even more inaccessible.
The same trends of reactionary backlash are shown in the 1960s and 1970s, amidst a variety of social movements but mainly the civil rights, and anti-war movement. These movements caused the rightwing who were unwilling to acquiesce to any of the demands to crack down on drugs which they knew would harm those communities. John Erlichman an assistant to the Nixon administration, even admitted in 2016 in an article by Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine that racism and suppression of opposition to the Nixon administration was the reason why they further agitated the war on drugs. Stating, “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…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” From the very beginning, drug prohibition existed to suppress a society’s underclass. While there are numerous supporters with good intentions the unpleasant roots do not simply disappear. Thus, supporting prohibition ignores the history of ruthless attacks against minorities and contradicts America’s values such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Economics: The Iron Law of Prohibition
Racist origins and intentions aside, even if the war on drugs started out by attempting to lower drug use and by extension to create a healthier society, it still would have resulted in a massive disaster. Simply banning drugs doesn’t stop people from using them. The perfect example of this is alcohol prohibition. While it is true that alcohol consumption dropped significantly in 1921 from about 0.8 gallons to 0.2 gallons, the rate sharply rose in 1922 to 0.8 gallons and continued on an increasing trend through the 1920s. Prohibition failed at lowering alcohol consumption for most of its duration and made the alcohol more potent. This is due to the Iron Law of Prohibition by Richard Cohen which states that the stricter the law enforcement, the more potent a substance becomes. Prior to prohibition Americans spent a falling share of their income on alcohol and purchased higher quality and weaker drinks. They also spent similar amounts of money on both beer and spirits. However, after Prohibition spirits replaced beer as the drink of choice for almost all consumption and production of alcohol. Hard liquor and spirits are more potent than beer and wine which made it easier to hide and transport. Liquor and spirits could also be sold to greater amounts of people.
The largest cost in selling an illegal good is avoiding detection by the authorities. Weaker products like beer were too bulky and indiscrete. As a result of the law, the prices of beer rose more drastically than that of brandy and spirits (700, 433, and 270 percent respectively). Beer consumption and production all but disappeared with the exception of homemade beers. However, after prohibition was repealed total expenditure on distilled spirits as a percentage of total alcohol sales severely dropped and people returned to drinking beer and other milder forms of alcohol. The lesson gleaned from this experiment gone wrong is that prohibition is completely ineffective at reducing drug abuse and addiction. Prohibition is completely counterintuitive because rather than stopping people from using drugs it makes drugs more potent and more addictive which increases drug use.
Black markets are like all markets, the profit motive is king, which means drug dealers want the biggest bang for their buck. Especially when the largest cost of buying and selling drugs on the black market are the social and legal consequences. In order to get the best deal, drug dealers must satisfy the demand of as many consumers and create new ones without getting caught. This means that they have a financial incentive to increase the potency of the drugs because stronger drugs are easier to hide and transport thus lowering the social and legal risks. Along with lowering the costs, more potent drugs are able to meet the demand of more consumers than weaker drugs. Take the example of alcohol, while a gallon of beer can only be sold to two people, a gallon of spirits can be sold to ten people. The seller makes more money selling spirits to ten people than only selling beer to two people. In the situation of transporting the drugs since beer is bulkier and satisfies less demand, there is more of a legal and social incentive to produce and distribute spirits.
However, the Iron Law of Prohibition doesn’t only apply to distributors it also applies to the consumer. Take the example of a college football game, stadiums typically ban alcohol, as a result, college students who are typically beer drinkers now become hard-liquor drinkers. Since it's easier to sneak in liquor in a flask than it is beer bottles which are heavier and less discrete. While there certainly is a problem with drinking and alcoholism in the US, prohibition is simply not the solution. Drug Prohibition forces drug use and distribution to occur under a black market which creates more addictive and potent drugs. The results of Prohibition merely exacerbate the overdose crisis and line the pockets of drug lords.
Expense of the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs is perhaps one of the largest scams in US history. According to the Center for American Progress, the federal government has spent an estimated 1 trillion dollars on the war on drugs, increasing every day since the 1970s. From 2015 the government has spent more than 9.2 million dollars every day to incarcerate people with drug offenses alone. The federal government isn’t the only party that spends outlandish amounts of money on drug enforcement. In 2015 alone states spent about 7 billion dollars on incarcerating people on drug-related charges. Georgia spent about 78.6 million dollars just to incarcerate people of color on drug charges, an amount that is 1.6 times more than the amount it spent on treatment services for drug use. However, enforcement isn’t the only cost, what happens once the person convicted of drug charges gets released? Their employment and economic prospects are ruined.
For example, the Cato Institute estimated that the cost of the diminished employment aspects of felons ranges from about 78-87 billion dollars. In total the war on drugs costs the US about 51 billion dollars annually. That is 51 billion dollars every year for a crusade that has done nothing but destroy the lives of millions, rob Americans of their freedom, and create countless unproductive members of society. Bear in mind that there are many better alternatives to using 51 billion dollars for a racist witch hunt, a great alternative would be ending homelessness which would only cost about 20 billion dollars. Having access to a shelter would make it easier for people to get a job since most job applications require an address. Having a home would also encourage people to live in a stable supportive community where there would be support for them to go to rehab. In an era with greater wealth inequality and a growing deficit, hunting people down for doing what they want with their bodies should be the last thing on the mind of the state. Especially a state that is well known for committing horrible atrocities to minorities and reinforcing institutions such as Jim Crow and slavery which continue to leave a lasting scar on millions of people.
Crime and Punishment
Aside from taking away the right of every American the liberty to do whatever they want with their body, the war on drugs also punishes thousands if not millions by locking them up in a cage if even caught with a single trace of a drug, even something as innocuous as weed. In 2018 the U.S arrested more than 1.6 million people for drug-related charges, of those arrested more than 1.4 million were for possession only, and of those arrested for possession about 608,000 of them were for marijuana possession. However, the penalties are almost never distributed evenly, despite making up only about 13% of America’s population, blacks make up about 27% of drug arrests. Nearly 80% of people arrested for drug-related charges in federal prisons and 60% in state prisons are black or Latino. Prosecutors were also more likely to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for blacks than whites. In 2011 of those who received a mandatory minimum, 38% were black and 31% were Latino. However, despite unequal enforcement blacks and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates yet black people face harsher punishments if caught using drugs. The war on drugs is nothing more than an excuse to deny America’s problem with systemic bigotry. Rather than solving the problems arising from systemic racism, the war on drugs associated minority communities with drugs and poor behavior instead of actually solving these problems at their root cause.
However, has locking up people for drug offenses actually reduced drug use and crime? The answer is no, drug overdoses have skyrocketed since the 1980s. The drug abuse rate has remained stagnant since the 1970s at 1.3 percent despite US spending on drug control significantly increasing since the 70s. The Center for American Progress adds that incarceration has shown to have had a negligible impact on drug abuse rates and in fact are linked with higher rates of overdose and mortality. Prisoners in the first two weeks upon release faced a mortality rate that was 13 times higher than the general population. The leading cause of death among these people is overdose. Incarceration is a traumatic experience for most people. In prison, violence is a constant presence by both inmates and guards. Many also face solitary confinement, a punishment so torturous that it’s been called out by the UN and has been proven to induce a variety of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, self-harm, and suicide.
Upon release, all opportunities for decent employment are nonexistent, as are paths to being able to enroll in higher education, and not being able to live in public housing or to be able to buy a home. All of these factors create the perfect conditions for addiction and drug use. Contrary to popular opinion the substance itself only plays about a 20% role in addiction. The Office of the Surgeon General found that only 17.7% of nicotine patch wearers stopped smoking. While 20% is still significant it nonetheless shows that chemical hooks aren’t the overwhelming reason why people are addicted and that there are greater causes of addiction outside pharmacology. In regards, of the 80% gap the psychological state of the user is perhaps more influential than the chemical hooks. According to a study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente called the “Adverse Childhood Experiences Study” the scientists looked at ten different traumatic events that could happen to a child such as physical and sexual abuse to the death of a parent. Discovering that for each traumatic event the child’s chances of becoming an addicted adult increased 2-4 fold.
They also found that nearly two-thirds of injection drug use was the result of childhood trauma. Addiction isn’t the result of bad morals it’s the result of pain. Of course, people with pain will try to numb it whether it's as simple as taking an aspirin for a headache, drinking after work after a rough day, or injecting heroin to forget about a traumatic event. The only difference is that society condones the first two while tossing the third one in jail. By criminalizing people with substance abuse disorders society is criminalizing mental illness rather than treating it. Therefore, when society throws these people who already deal with unbearable amounts of pain and which resort to self-medication with illicit drugs, they are not getting rid of the problem, they are aggregating it by creating more suffering for the person who is already in pain.
The War on Drugs has been a disaster of epic proportions from locking up millions of people and ostracizing drug users, to stripping Americans of their liberty to do as they please with their body. The War on Drugs dehumanizes drug addicts who most likely faced some sort of traumatic event in their life and further exacerbates the problem by adding more trauma via incarceration and the denial of support upon release. All of this added pain makes the susceptible person more likely to self-medicate. Since safe versions of the drugs are gone because of prohibition they have to rely on shady dealers peddling products with questionable quality and deadly potency as a result of the Iron Law of Prohibition. And if they get caught with the substance, they’re thrown into prison which creates a downward spiral. Prohibition regards drug users as below human and only worthy of contempt. It is only care and community that help people get over their problems. Thus, repealing drug prohibition would stop the stream of both non-problematic drug users and drug addicts being imprisoned. Thus, encouraging people to seek medical help for their problems without the fear of law enforcement and it would leave the non-problematic users in peace. While there certainly are many ways to go about the problem of drug abuse and the negative effects associated with it, prohibition is simply ineffective at reducing both and will continue to harm millions of people until society finally realizes the error of their ways.
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About the Author:
I am N.C. Cai. I am a Chinese American Marxist Feminist. I am interested in socialist feminism, Western imperialism, history, and domestic policy, specifically in regards to drug laws, reproductive justice, and healthcare.