In 1971, then-president Richard Nixon declared a U.S. “war on drugs.” Forty-five years later, we have yet to make much progress.
U.S. political parties and individual candidates have varying opinions on what our country needs to do to confront drug abuse. But before deciding who has the best solution to the problem, here are a few facts you should know first:
1. In 2008, the United States still led the world in drug use.
In the last ten years, Americans have spent $100 billion a year on banned substances. That’s the the equivalent to one sixth of our defense budget. We use cocaine four times more often than the next closest country: New Zealand. We also use marijuana and cocaine at twice the rate as the Netherlands.
2. Our war on drugs hasn’t made any real impact to date.
An article in the Washington Post compared the effects of the war on drugs with its efforts to reduce tobacco use. According to a Monitoring the Future report, drug use hasn’t changed much in the United States since the 1970’s. Marijuana use by 12th graders today has only fallen .2% since 1975. With heroin use among 12th graders, the rate went up .1% since 1975.
Compare this to our country’s efforts against tobacco use and these numbers seem like even bigger failures. According to Surgeon General reports, our country reduced smoking rates by half between 1964 and 2014. From 1996 to 2013, the number of eighth-graders who had smoked within the past 30 days went from 21 percent to only 4.5 percent.
3. Meanwhile, drug-related cases have clogged up our judicial system…
A Washington Post editorial also reported federal judicial caseload statistics showing that over a third of all 2013 defendant filings in U.S. district courts were related to drugs. This made drug-related cases the biggest category of filings in our district court system.
4. …and our jails.
An article in the Huffington Post reported that according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons over half of inmates in federal prisons are charged on drug offenses. To put this in perspective, in 1970, the number was just 16 percent.
5. They have also disproportionately attacked people of color.
In 2011, Forbes cited statistics showing that 62% of drug offenders in state prisons are African-American, even though African-Americans only represent 12 percent of the U. S. population. Black men are also sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.
6. Our drug use has also given fuel to drug-related violence in Mexico and other forms of violence around the world.
A CNN editorial by Don Winslow put this quite succinctly:
“It always boggles my mind that people will be so particular about only buying fair-trade coffee or free-range chicken, but will think nothing of doing coke or weed that was transported or grown by slave labor forced to work in the fields by the cartels, women who are often raped and turned to prostitution. I don’t want to harsh your high, but consider the probability that your buzz comes to you with blood all over it.”
An article in Vice found that growing efforts to decriminalize marijuana in the States has already led to a loss of money for drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico.
7. Around the world, countries with different drug policies have experienced far more success.
An article by Attn listed the many ways countries like Switzerland, Uruguay, and Portugal have used progressive drug policies to successfully tackle the problem. For example, ever since Portugal began offering drug counseling and access to hospitals for drug addicts, the country went from experiencing a significant epidemic in heroin use to now having the lowest rate of drug usage in the European Union. Drug-related court cases also dropped by over 65%.
8. But in the United States, the public has lost faith that our drug policy works.
In 2012, the Huffington Post showed the results of a telephone survey finding 82% of Americans think the U.S is losing the war on drugs.
These dismal statistics make clear that current U.S. drug policy is not only ineffective and outdated, but detrimental to both U.S citizens and people abroad. In response to the current conditions, political parties have released these statements about drug policy as part of their 2016 election platforms:
Republican Party: “In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals. Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets. Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the state’s sentencing requirements.”
Democratic Party: “The “war on drugs” has led to the imprisonment of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, without reducing drug use. Whenever possible, Democrats will prioritize prevention and treatment over incarceration when tackling addiction and substance use disorder.”
Libertarian Party: “We favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.”
Green Party: “Our law enforcement priorities place too much emphasis on drug-related and petty, non-violent crimes, and not enough on prosecution of corporate, white collar, and environmental crime…Greens call for an end to the “war on drugs”, legalization of drugs and for treating drug abuse as a health issue. The “war on drugs” has been an ill conceived program that has wasted billions of dollars misdirecting law enforcement resources away from apprehending and prosecuting violent criminals, while crowding our prisons with non-violent drug offenders and disproportionately criminalizing youth of color.”
Only the Green and Democratic parties acknowledge the racial disparities in U.S. drug policy and call out the “war on drugs” specifically as an ineffective approach to drug abuse. But at least all parties acknowledge that nonviolent drug offenders can and should be treated less harshly by our judicial system.
In this election, consider these facts about U.S. drug policy, and each party’s approach to the problem when casting your vote.