The war on drugs: Fighting a losing battle

In the days since we learned of the death of former first lady Nancy Reagan, there has been an array of articles about her legacy. For many she was an icon – a stylish dresser, a pop culture maven, and the definition of a modern first lady. But for others, particularly those living with HIV, she was an angel-faced killer.

As someone who wasn’t alive for most of her time at the White House, I have little first-hand knowledge of her intolerable cruelty and I’m not a fan of her “lady in red” style of dress, but I can speak to her influence on pop culture – which has had severe long-term effects on my generation.

If you ask anyone in my age group about Fancy Nancy, they’ll likely exclaim, “Just say no!” or “Crack is Wack!” Emblazoned on the back of my summer camp t-shirt was “this is a drug-free body.” On face value, these are good things to tell children. Crack is wack – prolonged use of crack cocaine can cause anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, heart disease, stroke, seizure, sexual dysfunction, and infertility. The use of other “illicit” drugs can be just as dangerous, particularly for developing bodies and minds.

The problem with that seemingly innocuous campaign is it launched America into a 30-years war that has done little to quell the tide of drug use, marginalized those that needed help and propagated false theories about drug use that will not subside.

What is the war on drugs?

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs. The term “war on drugs” was initially coined by Richard Nixon in 1971. With this war, Reagan promised a rigorous campaign against all drugs. For him, it was an all-out war – using terms like ‘battle’ and ‘surrender.’

Reagan dispatched his wife to be the public face of the campaign. She went from school to school, discouraging kids from using illegal drugs. She visited drug rehabilitation centers, went on the talk show circuit and starred in a PBS documentary about drug use. Before you know it, the “Just say no” campaign found its way into sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes.

While Nancy was smiling for the cameras and hugging Gary Coleman, her husband was behind the scenes creating an imaginary war.

Why is the war on drugs imaginary?

The war on drugs is imaginary (to me) for two primary reasons – (1) at the time of this campaign, illicit drug use in the United States was on the decline. According to a survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reported use of marijuana among young adults, aged 18 to 25 years, dropped by about 15 percent between 1979 and 1982. Reported use of cocaine by the same age group also fell by approximately 15 percent between 1979 and 1982. Meanwhile, reported alcohol consumption in that age group rose slightly during the same period.

(2) You can’t wage “war” on defenseless civilians.

What do you mean?

War is basically an attempt to civilize an uncivil act. To do so, governments have ground rules and regulations for “war” – we generally call them “rules of engagement” or “Laws of War.” The United States, being a civilized nation, has a host of rules for war. According to the United States Marine Corps, the Law of War is meant to “prevent unnecessary suffering, safeguard certain fundamental human rights of those involved in a conflict, and to ultimately restore peace.”

Breaking apart families seems like unnecessary suffering to me. Criminalizing addiction instead of providing treatment, and then creating policies that make returning to society almost impossible sounds like a grave violation of human rights. Neither of those things sounds remotely peaceful.

When you look at the realities of the war on drugs – it was a war on poor black and brown people, fueled by white fear. That fear dates back for hundreds of years, but to stick to the topic, we’ll just look at the black junkie fiction of the 20th century. In 1914, The New York Times printed a full page feature, entitled “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ a New Southern Menace.” This article told the story of an Asheville, NC man who went on a murderous rampage after a cocaine binge. This story isn’t unique – according to The Nation, this type of article was regular in newspapers and was used to justify lynching black people and later legislation like the ones enacted after Reagan declared the “war on drugs.”

In the 1980s, when this war began it was specifically targeting the “urban centers” where black and brown people lived. Police and federal officials focused this war on street level drug offenses, mostly perpetrated by black and Latino people. So started the rise of incarcerated black and Latino men and women. By 2008, blacks and Hispanics made up 58 percent of the U.S.’s incarcerated population, despite representing only a quarter of its total population.

Althea, you’re hyperbolic. You’re making it seem like “many things that have happened to people of color were done purposely. Is it an accident when someone BREAKS A LAW? So we should change them in order to ALLOW certain races to not be incarcerated for breaking laws?” (I am directly quoting a comment made on an opinion piece I wrote about Hillary Clinton.)

When minorities, who are less likely to do drugs, end up in jail more often than white people, who are more liable to do drugs, it sounds purposeful to me. In 1992, the U.S. Public Health Service Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 76 percent of drug users in the United States were white, 14 percent were African-American, and 8 percent were Hispanic. Cocaine users were estimated to be 66 percent white, 17.6 percent black, and 15.9 percent Hispanic. White people weren’t just using drugs more often than black people, but they were selling it more too. According to a report from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, whites were about 45 percent more likely than blacks to sell drugs in 1980.

So, we are allowing a certain race to not be incarcerated for breaking the law. They just happen to be white.

But my issue with the war on drugs is why is it even illegal?

What do you mean? Drugs are bad for you – it’s a no-brainer.

Yeah, I agree (see above – Crack is wack).

But since when did the government start caring about what’s right for us? Tobacco is legal. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, “smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined, with thousands more dying from spit tobacco use.” And a pack of cigarettes is like $50. Alcohol is also legal. According to British scientists, it’s worse than crack and heroin. If crack is wack, I don’t even know what alcohol is.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture allow McDonald to toy with our emotions every few years and put out a “McRib” sandwich that seems to be missing ribs. There are a lot of theories about why drugs aren’t legal, and I don’t really have the time to go through all of them but suffice to say, the safety thing is not the issue.

But people die from using drugs all the time!

This is a tragic truth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 47,000 people died from drug overdose in 2014. But putting people in jail for using drugs doesn’t treat drug addiction. According to the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 85 percent of people in prison and jail meet the medical criteria for substance abuse users or had histories of drug addiction. Of that population, only 11 percent receive treatment while incarcerated.

I saw Reefer Madness; I know that drug users are raping, robbing and killing when they are high!

It is true, drug addicted people do commit crimes. That same CASA report found drugs or alcohol were involved in 78 percent of violent crimes and 83 percent of property crimes. But CASA argues if we were treating the underlying addiction instead of criminalizing the drug, we’d be saving lives, property and money. The report showed that if all inmates who needed treatment and aftercare received those services, the nation would break even in a year if just over 10 percent remained substance, crime free, and employed. Each inmate who stayed sober, employed and crime-free would provide a net gain of $90,953 per year.

“States complain mightily about their rising prison costs; yet they continue to hemorrhage public funds that could be saved if they provided treatment to inmates with alcohol and other drug problems and stepped up use of drug courts and prosecutorial drug treatment alternative programs,” said Susan E. Foster, CASA’s Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis.

If you’re so smart, what do you think we should do?

Well, the Justice Department released 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders last year and society hasn’t crumbled so that’s a start.

But more importantly, we need to end this infernal war and begin to treat addiction properly, no matter the race of the addict. Recently there has been a shift in the dialogue on drug addiction – that is due in large part because the face of substance abuse is overwhelmingly white.

Whatever we do, it can’t be what we’ve been doing, because it just doesn’t work.

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