Ending the War on Drugs: The Social and Financial Benefits
The war on drugs has persisted for nearly a century, yet cases of addiction, overdose, and child drug abuse have sharply risen with every harsh crackdown from the government. While the war on drugs has long had bipartisan support, more people than ever are questioning this approach to addiction in the wake of the United States’ opioid epidemic. Marijuana has recently been legalized in many states with many other states decriminalizing the drug and notably the state of Oregon decriminalized all drugs. So far, none of these states have seen deluges of new addiction, overdose, or child drug use cases since these policy changes, as prohibitionist policy advocates would predict. Unfortunately, drugs and addiction have touched most families in the United States in one way or another - but this fact only serves to illustrate the importance of looking at new, potentially more effective approaches to this pressing issue.
So why might ending the war on drugs actually improve our national addiction epidemic while also simultaneously saving the government money and generating it revenue? What solutions should replace the war on drugs? And what science backs up these conclusions?
Step One: Defining Addiction’s Underlying Causes
Before delving into this topic, it is important to have a clear working definition of drug addiction. Contrary to widely accepted beliefs that drug addiction is purely chemically based (called the pharmaceutical theory of addiction), the Office of the Surgeon General has found that an average of only 17.7% of people addicted to nicotine could quit using when given nicotine patches, suggesting that even for those addicted to the most chemically addictive widely used drug, the root of the majority of their addictions was not chemical (Hari, 311).
So, what is the true, predominant cause of addiction if the pharmaceutical theory of addiction is wrong? Addiction is a complex issue with many factors contributing to its development in individuals, but the underlying cause of most addictions is childhood trauma, with scientists discovering that, “for each [of ten] traumatic event[s] that happened to a child, they were two to four times more likely to grow up to be an addicted adult (Hari, 160).” The result of childhood trauma for many who experience it is social isolation driven by a loss in the ability to trust others. Many historical examples of widespread addiction were also driven by isolation, on a wider, more culturally targeted scale (Hari, 175). Isolation was proven to be a central driver of addiction in rats in the infamous Rat Park Experiment, in which rats that were isolated with nothing to do but sip morphine, almost without failure, did so to the point of death, whereas rats in enclosures with other rats and many other activities for them to do, rarely ever took morphine, even while having the option to do so (Hari, 172).
The accomplished psychologist, Bruce Alexander, when speaking on how drug addiction epidemics happen, said: “The answer doesn’t lie in access. It lies in agony. Outbreaks of drug addiction have always taken place when there was a sudden rise in isolation and distress – from the gin-soaked slums of London in the eighteenth century to the terrified troops in Vietnam (Hari, 228).” The example of the Vietnam War is worth explaining, as “some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (Hari, 172).” At the time, the wide belief in the pharmaceutical theory of addiction led the general public to fear the return of Vietnam soldiers, as supposedly the soldiers would bring with them a surge of heroin addiction. However, something unexpected happened: “The study in the Archives of General Psychiatry - and the experiences people could see all across the country - show that 95 percent of them, within a year, simply stopped (Hari, 173).” This is because the soldiers were separated from the source of their trauma and because their isolation from their families and friends ended with their return back to the United States.
Specific areas in the United States that have experienced cultural isolation and economic abandonment, have also suffered subsequent rises in drug addiction. As Johann Hari writes in his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs: “The American middle class had been painfully crumbling even before the Great Crash produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Ordinary Americans are finding themselves flooded with stress and fear … It is not a coincidence that opiate addiction is dramatically higher in West Virginia – where people have lost their communities, their economic security, and their sense of status… (228 & 314).” Across cultures and historical chronology, widespread occurrences of drug use have been shown to be tied more to isolation on a societal and cultural level than mere availability of addictive substances. Unfortunately, almost every nation in the world is currently trying to address problems of addiction by attacking drug supply, rather than addressing the underlying causes of drug addiction that when addressed, would reduce the demand that is the true driver of drug use.
The Detriments of the War on Drugs
The war on drugs worsens the underlying causes of addiction in a number of ways, benefits organized crime syndicates, and catalyzes their creation of drugs far more dangerous than legal alternatives:
The phenomenon of illegalizing a drug, only for this act to facilitate a dramatic increase in consumption and sale of the drug occurred in recent US history during Prohibition. The dynamics at play during the prohibition of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are incredibly similar to those present during the infamous alcohol Prohibition of the 1920’s. As is common knowledge, Prohibition in the United States facilitated a monumental rise in organized crime – and in alcohol-related mortality. When a drug becomes illegalized, the risk to provide it rises significantly while competition for consumers decreases with every ‘dealer’ that gets put behind bars. As such, the price of the drug can be increased to a far higher amount than it was when it was legal; after all, there is not as much competition to drive prices downwards and most people would not do something so punishable for a cheap price. This economic incentive is what drives crime syndicates to do what they do. And soon enough, crime syndicates during Prohibition were rich and powerful enough to pay local police to turn a blind eye to their operations – and to the many other crimes the syndicates committed. Today, Mexican cartels have bought their way to controlling the highest levels of the Mexican government, plunging our Southern neighbor’s cities and towns into a state of unchecked terror (Hari, 137). The influence of this state of terror often transcends borders as Mexican cartels commit frequent acts of violence in the United States as well (Hari, 125). United States drug gangs have had more limited success in gaining favor with law enforcement, but they also terrorize the communities where they are most prevalent. Ironically, it is the war on drugs that made these powerful drug gangs possible, just as occurred during Prohibition.
The aforementioned dramatic price increases that occur when a substance becomes illegal not only make crime syndicates that provide the substances very powerful, but it creates a debilitating cycle of imprisonment for drug users. Under a prohibition, drug prices rise to levels where most people would have to commit crimes to get the money they need to fuel an addiction. Somewhere along the line, whether from these crimes or the ‘crime’ of using drugs, addicts often get arrested, convicted, and jailed. Not only does the addicts’ time in prison worsen the underlying causes of their addictions in the trauma and isolation it facilitates, but becoming a convicted felon makes it incredibly difficult to obtain a legal job that pays a living wage. The poverty and struggle that ensues after release from prison once again adds to the trauma and isolation that drives many addictions. It also makes it difficult for addicts to break free from needing to commit crimes to fuel their addictions. The US drug addiction epidemic functions similarly to a pyramid scheme in this respect, with those who become addicted often becoming drug dealers themselves to pay for their addictions. The drug dealers work as ‘salespeople’ to get more people addicted to drugs so that they have the income they need to fuel their own addictions. The prohibitionist system makes addictions worse and generates more addicts in the process as a result of the cycle of imprisonment, crime, poverty, and new drug dealers it creates.
The increase in alcohol-related mortality in the United States during Prohibition was driven by the emergence of immensely more potent alcohol. This emergence was due not to a change in drinkers’ tastes, but to a change in what drinks were available, as alcohol was then provided almost exclusively by the criminal syndicates. Mike Gray explains why: “When you are smuggling a substance into a country, and transporting it in secret, ‘you have to put the maximum bang in the smallest possible package’… (Hari 230).” This dynamic exists for two main reasons. The first is that drug smugglers have to carry drugs over borders and past law enforcement without the substances being detected. A smaller package is always going to make this feat easier. Secondly, a more potent form of a drug is going to make these small packages capable of supplying far more people than if the packages contained the diluted forms of drugs that most users prefer. Due to this dynamic, during Prohibition there existed a popular drink called White Lightning which was, “so strong that even hard-core alcoholics would turn it down today,” as well as moonshine, which caused countless cases of fatal alcohol poisoning. And this ‘iron law’ that produces today’s incredibly potent hard drugs explains widespread overdose-related deaths from heroin, cocaine, and other illegal substances. Notably, after Prohibition was lifted, White Lightning and moonshine faded into distant history and even today’s strongest commercially available alcoholic beverages pale in comparison to their potency (Hari, 230).
Even if successful, cutting off supply does not ‘cure’ addiction:
This was illustrated when the port of Vancouver was successfully blocked, temporarily cutting off all heroin flows into the ordinarily heroin-saturated city. However, heroin addicts in Vancouver did not rise above their addictions and continued to inject powder into their arms, despite it consisting of 0% heroin (Hari, 175). According to predominant societal views of addiction that follow the pharmaceutical theory of addiction, this event should have liberated addicts from their addictions, forcing them to become clean and adjust to a new way of life. But why didn’t this happen? Johann Hari eloquently explains why: “If your problem is being chronically starved of social bonds, then part of the solution is to bond with the heroin itself and the relief it gives you. But a bigger part is to bond with the subculture that comes with taking heroin – the tribe of fellow users all embarked on the same mission and facing the same threats and risking death every day with you… The world stops being indifferent to you, and starts being hostile – which is at least proof that you exist (176)…” For many addicts, the social circle that drug use subculture provides is more the cure for the root of their addiction (isolation) than the drug itself. Additionally, the reality that many addicts prefer to be hated by society than to be ignored by it is truly indicative of isolation as the primary cause of addiction. The fact that an addict’s main possible outcomes are either being hated by society or being ignored by it illustrates how today’s prohibitionist culture fuels addiction, as either of these outcomes only serve to worsen the underlying causes of addiction. One of the only offshoots of US society that accepts drug use is the drug use subculture itself, which undoubtedly plays a role in both pulling new individuals into drug use and sustaining the unhealthy habits and behaviors that come with drug use. Furthermore, the example of Vancouver serves as proof that an abstinence-only approach to addiction does not solve the underlying problems that cause it, even if a government can become successful at completely cutting off drug supply.
Other Solutions to Drug Addiction
Fortunately, recent history illustrates possible solutions that could be proposed to address the issue of widespread drug addiction in the US. The first potential solution is something that was actually implemented right at the dawn of the war on drugs: clinics with medical professionals that can legally prescribe the drug that the addicts are addicted to. This solution may seem counterintuitive, but in reality, it counteracts some of the key aspects of today’s modern dynamics that worsen our addiction crisis; maintaining a drug addiction is incredibly expensive, and when addicts cannot readily pay for their drugs, they frequently resort to crime to obtain the necessary funds. The cycle of becoming arrested for crimes committed, becoming unemployable, and having to resort to crime once again to pay for drugs after release from jail prevents addicts from achieving the higher standard of living and genuine satisfaction with life that will truly get them off of drugs. Dr. Daniel Martin, a psychiatrist at a similarly designed clinic in modern-day Switzerland explains this best: “Most addicts here … come with an empty glass inside them; when they take heroin, the glass becomes full, but only for a few hours, and then it drains down to nothing again. The purpose of this program is to gradually build a life for the addict so they can put something else into that empty glass: a social network, a job, some daily pleasures. If you can do that, it will mean that even as the heroin drains, you are not left totally empty. Over time, as your life has more in it, the glass will contain more and more, so it will take less and less heroin to fill it up. And in the end, there may be enough within you that you feel full without any heroin at all (Hari, 221).” At this program in Switzerland, addicts can remain in the program as long as they want, but the average patient will stay for three years, with only 15% of addicts still using every day past this point (Hari, 221).
Programs such as these provide further benefit to addicts in that the drugs they are given do not cause the abscesses, diseases, and in many cases overdoses, characterized by street drugs. According to Allan Parry, who worked for a local health authority in Britain, street heroin may have, “brick dust in it, coffee, crushed bleach crystals, anything (Hari, 209).” So, providing addicts with their drug of choice, in a medical-grade, safe form can actually give addicts the time, health, and stability they need to make the significant strides in their personal lives that they need to make to decide to get off of drugs for good. This was done in the United States’ past by Dr. Edward Williams before his clinics and those of many other altruistic doctors were illegally shut down by Harry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Hari, 34). In the United States today, addicts are immediately cut off from their prescription drugs once they are found to have become addicted, thus denying them access to their preferred drug and siphoning them into the market for harder street drugs like heroin – where they may be inadvertently forced into a life of crime (in taking drugs and committing crimes to pay for their drugs) and into the debilitating cycle of imprisonment that accompanies this lifestyle. If, instead, addicts were provided a safe alternative to street drugs, they would be free to lead a happier life free of crime that would eventually lead to an organic quitting of drug use. While the destruction of the careers of Dr. Edward Williams and his colleagues is discouraging, drug clinics have been successfully revived in other parts of the world with overwhelmingly positive results.
Another solution comes from Iceland, where one of the greatest concerns with addiction epidemics ran rampant: child drug abuse. Their solution, a program called “Youth in Iceland”, was designed to address the problem not by cutting off the supply of drugs, but by strengthening Icelandic children’s relationships with their parents, reducing the social/familial isolation that teens in particular go through while growing up, and by investing in other more enjoyable activities for children that build social bonds between them (sports, clubs, music, art, etc.) (Young, 2017). Some laws were also changed: “It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20, and tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organizations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives (Young, 2017).” These parental organizations hosted events professing the importance of parents spending a quantity of time with their children as opposed to ‘quality time’, and the importance of talking to their children about their lives (Young, 2017). “State funding was [also] increased for organized sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities.” Making these activities and parental education groups accessible to all families and children prevented there from being dull or lonely moments for children – reminiscent of Rat Park where nearly no morphine was consumed because the rats had such rich opportunities for social interaction and fun. The results of these efforts in Iceland speak for themselves: “Between 1997 and 2012, the percentage of kids aged 15 and 16 who reported often or almost always spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled—from 23 percent to 46 percent—and the percentage who participated in organized sports at least four times a week increased from 24 percent to 42 percent. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking, drinking and cannabis use in this age group plummeted (Young, 2017).” Instead of the children forming some of their first bonds with drugs, their bonds are being formed with each other, with exercise and the arts, and with their families; Iceland has formed an environment for children that is the opposite of isolation, and thus drug use has plummeted.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and effective solution to our addiction problem in the United States is the decriminalization and subsequent legalization of all drugs. Decriminalizing drugs ends the criminality of addiction, meaning that addicts will no longer be sent to jail for using – and thus addicts’ addictions will not be made worse by the trauma faced in prison, the trauma that comes with the poverty that ensues from being unemployable, and the isolation that comes with being officially condemned by society (at least in the eyes of the law). Portugal is one country that has recently successfully decriminalized all drugs – and not only did this decision shrink the population addicted to heroin (1% of the population of Portugal was addicted to heroin prior to this change), but it also saved the government money. Portugal reinvested the money that it used to use on hunting, prosecuting, and jailing addicts into helping them. They created safe rooms to inject, administered programs that connect addicts to each other and to therapists to build the foundations for trusting relationships, provided yearlong tax breaks to those who hire addicts, provided free methadone to addicts who need it, facilitated open discussion of drug use in educational institutions, and provided many other governmental benefits to addicts (Hari, 247). Police were no longer there to arrest addicts and thus trust between police and addicts were built – a critical connection between the government and its people that facilitated thousands of people accepting help for their addiction (Hari, 240). Addicts never received a criminal record for their use and the most severe penalties were relatively minor fines. This reuse of resources previously used to wage war on addicts actually saved the Portuguese government money while helping addicts.
Part of these savings lie in how the Portuguese government targets their services; they recognize that a mere 10% of drug users actually become addicted to the drug, while the other 90% do not, (Hari, 240). Their procedure for filtering out the non-addicts is run by the Dissuasion Commission: “The police don’t go looking for drug users anymore, but if they stumble across you, they will write you a ticket that requires you to come [to the Dissuasion Commission] the next day. The job of the Dissuasion Commission is only to figure out whether you have a drug problem. You can be honest with them, because nothing you say or do here will ever get you a criminal record. If the interview with the psychologist in the next room reveals that you are a drug user who doesn’t have a problem, they will bring you in here, warn you about the risks, tell you how to make your use as safe as possible … and send you on your way (Hari, 240).” This procedure for discerning between addicts and non-addicts makes Portugal’s programs financially viable while giving the maximum possible impact to those who could benefit from the programs the most. So, has Portugal’s grand decriminalization experiment succeeded in addressing the country’s addiction problems? As Hari writes, “The British Journal of Criminology confirms [the number of problematic drug users] is down … from 7.6 per thousand to 6.8, while confirming that injecting drug use had indeed been almost halved, from 3.5 injectors per thousand people to 2. When they compared the situation to the nearby countries of Spain and Italy, which are still waging the drug war, they found that ‘Portugal is the only one of these nations to have exhibited declines’ in problematic drug use… So there are fewer addicts after decriminalization. At the same time, the British Journal of Criminology found that overdose [rates have] been “reduced significantly,” and the proportion of people contracting HIV who get it from drug use has fallen from 52% to 20% (Hari, 249).” Concerning child drug use, Hari highlights that the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) found that after 6 years of decriminalization in place, “Children aged 15-16 also reported one of the lowest lifetime prevalence of cannabis use in Western Europe (13%),” cocaine use among teens in Portugal was almost half the European Union average, and heroin use among teens was down to 1.8% from 2.5% (Hari, 250). These metrics that prohibitionists use to justify illegalization of drugs – addiction rate, overdose rate, and teen use – were all down under decriminalization.
While the results of decriminalization on the long-term are very encouraging, complete legalization is the ultimate cure to the United States’ addiction problems. Legalizing drugs in the United States would, “…save $41.1 billion a year currently spent on arresting, trying, and jailing users and sellers, according to a detailed study by the Cato Institute. If the drugs were then taxed at a similar rate to alcohol and tobacco, they would raise an additional $46.7 billion a year, according to calculations by Professor Jeffrey Miron of the Department of Economics at Harvard University (Hari, 252).” Imagine how far this annual $87.8 billion could go towards helping addicts recover and creating programs like Iceland’s that replace the role of drugs in teens’ lives. For this amount of money, the Portuguese method of drug use addressal and treatment could be provided for every drug addict in America. But why else might legalization be a better option than decriminalization?
The answer to this question lies in legalization’s ability to financially cripple the cartels and drug gangs that currently control today’s drug supply. If drugs become legalized, consumers would undoubtedly prefer to buy regulation-approved, pure drugs in the safe setting of a shop over the dirty street drugs diluted with harmful powders and chemicals bought from a gang member in an alleyway. Decriminalization takes some of the drug supply away from criminal organizations through the reduction in addiction it can facilitate, but addicts taking drugs still buy them from cartels and gangs under decriminalization. Legalization finishes the job that decriminalization starts.
Another positive to legalization relates to the manner in which criminal syndicates compete for the drug market. Criminal syndicates do not steal market share by providing a better product or service to consumers as legal organizations do; they gain their market share by killing their competitors and furthermore by becoming so feared, by committing acts of terror and violence, that no competitors ever arise to challenge them in the first place. Under legalization, the violent reign that criminal organizations hold over communities can finally be lifted – through economic impairment rather than retaliatory gunfire.
Drug gangs and cartels must also fight the government to hold their place in the market; if the gang members are arrested or killed, needless to say, they lose their market share. One way that criminal syndicates have done this in the past (during Prohibition and in modern-day Mexico) is by buying their way past the law and bribing law enforcement to turn a blind eye to their operations. Another aforementioned strategy that is more common in the United States today is the smuggling of drugs in the smallest packages with the drugs having the highest possible potency. With legalization comes a better alternative to the syndicates’ highly dangerous, highly potent drugs in the form of regulation-approved drugs that are in the far milder forms that drug users prefer (Hari, 230). These milder forms were too bulky for smugglers to profitably provide, but legal companies would have no issue doing so under legalization, giving them a competitive advantage that will both cripple the criminal syndicates even further and give drug users safer options that better match their preferences. The quick shift after Prohibition from drinks like White Lightning being the predominant available alcoholic beverages to the far milder beer once again becoming America’s favorite alcoholic beverage demonstrates proof of concept (Hari, 231). Perhaps, for example, legalization could mark the replacement of today’s cocaine with the much milder coca tea, which was preferred by consumers before cocaine’s illegalization (Hari, 269). This effect would undoubtedly reduce overdose deaths significantly, given that the drugs users would be taking would be far milder and have far less toxic contaminants within them.
Lastly, legalization reduces the appeal of drugs that arises from their being forbidden. As Danny Kushlick says, “There’s a real danger as we move toward the end [of the war] and the beginning of the new [system] that we continue to associate the horrors and the excitement of prohibition with a new regime that is [actually] incredibly boring (Hari, 263).” Hari elaborates: “The culture of terror will turn – slowly, but ineluctably – into a culture of tedium (263).”
In the wake of the legalization of marijuana in many states and the decriminalization of all drugs in Oregon, the United States is slowly making progress towards complete legalization. The drug abuse epidemic will not end engulfed in flame and riddled in bullet holes; it will end by fading away from memory slowly as new regulations cause drug use to become an increasingly unexciting and insignificant facet of society. It will end not by systematically abusing addicts and worsening their underlying conditions, but by approaching the problems that addicts have just like one would approach any other human being’s suffering: proven results, motivated by compassion.
Hari, J. (2015). Chasing the scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.
Young, E. (2017, January 19). How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/01/teens-drugs-iceland/513668/