Drug war has failed on every front

The US is thinking about dealing with drug abuse as a medical issue, says Martha Mendoza

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost US$1 trillion ($1.5 trillion) and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.  Even US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske said. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

President Barack Obama has promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that he says treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.  Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels in dollar and percentage terms; this year, they account for US$10 billion of his US$15.5 billion drug-control budget.

Kerlikowske, who co-ordinates all federal anti-drug policies, says it will take time for the spending to match the rhetoric.  “Nothing happens overnight,” he said. “We’ve never worked the drug problem holistically.  We’ll arrest the drug dealer, but we leave the addiction.”  In 1970, hippies were smoking pot and dropping acid. Soldiers were coming home from Vietnam hooked on heroin. Embattled President Richard Nixon seized on a new war he thought he could win.

“Public enemy No 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive,” he said.  His first drug-fighting budget was US$100 million. Now it’s US$15.1 billion, 31 times Nixon’s amount even when adjusted for inflation.  Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programmes that did little to stop the flow of drugs.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron says the only sure thing taxpayers get for more spending on police and soldiers is more homicides.  “Current policy is not having an effect on reducing drug use,” Miron said, “but it’s costing the public a fortune.”  From the beginning, lawmakers debated fiercely whether law enforcement – no matter how well funded and well trained – could ever defeat the drug problem.

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