Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the start of our "War on Drugs," which was initiated by former President Richard Nixon in 1971. That was a crazy time in US history; the end of our involvement in Vietnam, the whirlwind of a counterculture of music and drugs, and the beginning of a shift in our way of thinking and living as Americans. Nixon saw the increase in the widespread use of drugs, and decided it was a bad thing for America.
Unfortunately, 40 years and many policies later, millions of Americans are still using drugs, if somewhat differently than they were in 1971. DHS points to historic highs in the sizes and number of drug seizures at our borders and ports of entry as a sign that we're winning the war. International observers look at the situation in places like Mexico and our continuing demand is evidence that we're losing the war. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, issued a report a couple of weeks ago emphasizing that current anti-drug strategies are failing.
The report said that a decades-long strategy of outlawing drugs and jailing drug users while battling cartels that control the trade has not worked. It also recommended that governments experiment with the legal regulation of drugs, especially cannabis, referring to the success in countries such as Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands where drug consumption had been reduced. But the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a statement that making drugs more available would make it harder to keep communities healthy and safe.
In my humble opinion, there are two key components of current US drug policy that are keeping it on these rails from which it won't deviate: morality and history.
Governments around the world have never shied away from legislating morality to their people, and the US is definitely no exception. Various kinds of drugs have been used by people around the world for thousands of years and for dozens of reasons, but only in the last few decades have many of them become illegal in the US. Cocaine became illegal (for non-medical purposes) in 1914, heroin in 1924, marijuana in 1937, and precursor chemicals and equipment for making methamphetamine in 1983. Marijuana and cocaine were initially thought to cause crazed rape and killing sprees in blacks and Mexicans.
Of course, we now understand that the abuse (and sometimes the one-time use) of certain illegal drugs can be deadly, which gives US lawmakers the impetus to maintain current drug policy. However, very strong arguments can be made that the effects of marijuana on the body are no worse than those of alcohol or tobacco. We know that alcoholics can die from cirrhosis and smokers can die from lung cancer or emphysema. Yet, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking are considered socially acceptable, and therefore laws aren't passed (other than age restrictions) to emphasize the moral underpinnings of their use. The US government is concerned that changing drug policy to a more liberal form would flood the market with these drugs and cause a spike in drug use among adults and encourage experimentation in children. There is, of course, no way to test this theory, which makes it all speculative. So, the US government is flying the flag of caution, maintaining its stance that all drug use is dangerous, immoral, and therefore should remain illegal.
The second component I mentioned earlier is history. What I mean by that is, the US government has a history of maintaining policies for decades that are obviously not working. For example (and with this I have extensive academic and personal knowledge), the embargo against Cuba. Cuba has been a communist state for half a century, and the US government has maintained an embargo against the island nation for roughly the same amount time. The goal was to get Fidel Castro to embrace democracy, free speech, elections, freedom of the press, etc. In over fifty years, not much in Cuba has changed. Cubans who were pro-embargo hardliners for decades have even started saying, you know, maybe this embargo thing isn't working out. Yet, the embargo persists.
In 1979, the US government created the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. The idea was to impose strict sanctions on countries on the list in the hopes they would, well, stop sponsoring terrorism. Only a handful of countries made the list, and have been added and removed at various times. Iran came on in 1984, Syria at the list's inception in 1979, and North Korea and Libya were only removed in the last few years. Yet, Iran is still sending Hizballah to do its dirty work, and Syria is still exporting some mean and nasty terrorists. Oddly enough, Cuba remains on the list, although there haven't been any examples of the Cuban government funding any sort of terrorist act in at least a dozen years. Yet, the list remains.
Morality and history aside, I think the US government is concerned that if it embraces the need for a change in drug policy, it would be seen as a sign of weakness. It might be perceived as an acknowledgment that the billions of dollars spent on drug enforcement and interdiction were wasted. Even worse, it could be seen as a concession to drug traffickers, that they're the ones winning the war and not the "good guys."
Even harder for the US government to acknowledge would be the fact that the "War on Drugs" cannot be solved by a mere shift in policy; it can only be won through a shift in American culture. Well-intentioned politicians - and Americans in general - really want to make a difference and feel like they're doing something to stop drug abuse and drug trafficking. Right now, the easiest way to do something tangible and publicly visible is to maintain a policy of interdiction, or go after the supply.
Going after the demand - while it's the ultimate solution - is not only incredibly challenging, but it might just be impossible. Many parents spent countless hours educating their children about the dangers of using drugs, and pray they'll "just say no" if offered a joint by a dealer after school. But there are also many parents who are users themselves, and their children have an uphill battle to fight to get out of that drug-filled environment.
Even more insidious is the morally- and societally-acceptable use (and often abuse) of prescription drugs. Not only is it easy to get hooked on sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication, but they're perfectly legal to use. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, prescription opioid (drugs based on opium) overdose deaths are increasing, primarily because the users took the drugs non-medically, other than as prescribed, or in combination with other drugs and/or alcohol. Some of these include codeine, fentanyl (Duragesic, Actiq), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), morphine (MS Contin), oxycodone (OxyContin), pentazocine (Talwin), dextropropoxyphene (Darvon), methadone (Dolophine), and hydrocodone combinations (Vicodin, Lortab, and Lorcet).
It's painful for me to say that I don't see an answer, either on the horizon or farther down the road. US drug policy isn't going to change because it's the only way our government knows how to fight drug use. They're just not capable of changing an entire country's culture, or American society's way of looking at drug use - both illegal and prescription. By maintaining course and sticking to its guns, the US government believes it's being steadfast and not compromising American values. Yes, DHS, its components, and state and local law enforcement agencies across the country are stopping some drugs from reaching users, but it's only a small percentage of what is getting out there. Only when we take a hard look at ourselves, what our country is becoming, and what US drug demand is inciting in Mexico and elsewhere can US drug policy truly change in a way that will actually make a difference.