Wars, Rumors of Wars, and Our Nation’s Drug Policy

Drug Enforcement

Proponents of legalizing drugs like to roll out the moldy old chestnut that “The War on Drugs has failed,” thereby undermining our nation’s strategy to deal with substance abuse. It’s a trite and misleading way to attack our nation’s drug enforcement policy and ignore its actual impact.  The war metaphor was originally popularized by the media to describe President Nixon’s special message to Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control in 1971 in which he outlined a new strategy to prevent and treat drug addiction.  So, is there a “War on Drugs?” No. Rather, it is an ongoing effort to have a national drug policy that reduces the impact of drug use on individuals, their families and society and reduce the risk of harm to others as well because of the consequences of drug use.  It is a flexible approach seeking to provide treatment to those who struggle with addiction while imposing harsher penalties on those who facilitate addiction by engaging in the sale and trafficking of drugs.

Notable in Nixon’s message was the acknowledgement that focusing only on the “supply side” of the illegal drug market is insufficient, and that a stronger emphasis is needed on efforts to address demand, particularly through rehabilitation and treatment – something that, ironically, present-day critics of the “war on drugs” are generally supportive of.   But what is even more striking is the impact of the policies outlined in Nixon’s message some four and a half decades after their implementation.  Consider that today, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 50 percent of Americans over the age of 12 use alcohol on a regular basis while 25 percent use tobacco – both of which are legal, heavily-regulated substances.  Meanwhile, according to the same study, the amount of illegal drug use among this same population is 10 percent. If we were able to limit harmful behaviors of any sort to just 10 percent of America’s population, we would trumpet that success from the mountain tops. However, opponents of our nation’s drug policy disregard this success and call it failure. While it is true that the number of Americans using drugs has risen over the last several years, that increase in use has also occurred over a time of increasing efforts to normalize the use of drugs and legalize illicit drug use at the state level.

Unlike war, which can lead to outright victory, there is no foreseeable end to the need for our drug enforcement policies because they address a problem that is part of the human condition.  Just as no one expects we will ever be able to eliminate alcoholism or the harmful impacts of someone’s decision to abuse alcohol, we can’t expect to completely eliminate drug abuse and its effects. Nonetheless, even if only 10 percent of Americans regularly use drugs, we can’t give up on them.