The Trillion Dollar Fail: How the War on Drugs Was Lost

Gabrielle Acierno


“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us.” –Richard Nixon, 1971.


After an often-spiteful campaign season filled with hyperbole and defensive posturing, the 2012 election proved to be exceedingly successful for the Democratic Party. Amidst Barack Obama’s reelection and several key Senatorial wins, the Progressive Movement also celebrated other understated, albeit significant, ballot victories. For the first time in United States history, two states, Colorado and Washington, voted to legalize the personal use of recreational marijuana. These ballot triumphs represent an unprecedented step in the liberalization of America’s drug laws and the upward trend of Americans coming to favor the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana.


It has however been a long and arduous battle to realize such successes, necessitating not only political savvy, but also an existential shift in the sensibilities of the voting public and politicians on an issue that has been typically accepted at status quo. Until very recently, America’s drug policy has echoed the model of the “War on Drugs” Richard Nixon infamously declared in an address to Congress in 1971, precipitating a wholly austere, merit-based credo characterized by unrelenting prohibition and interdiction.


According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, The War on Drugs costs the federal government approximately $15-20 billion per year, and with negligible success in lowering the supply of drugs or drug abuse rates, politicians and experts on all points of the political spectrum have deemed the War on Drugs an objective failure. With particular emphasis on cutting off the supply of narcotics, the United States drug policy has been predicated on the theory that eradication of an unwanted external malefactor can only be achieved through persecution of the malefactor and its backers. As the War has escalated, funding for rehabilitation and prevention has diminished, and resources are instead carved out, many believe imprudently, for law enforcement, mass incarceration, SWAT style raids, and militarization of the US/Mexico border, the entry point through which most of America’s drugs are smuggled. According to the World Health Organization, the United States still has the highest rate of illegal drug use in the world.


Now, more than forty years after Nixon declared the United States drug problem as “public enemy number one,” there is nothing to show for the eradication efforts except for over a trillion dollars spent, an incarceration rate eight times higher than any other industrialized nation, devastating collateral penalties for drug users, and perhaps most indicative of a policy failure, stagnant rates of drug use among Americans. With overcrowded prisons and violent crimes going unnoticed every day, Americans are fed up with the warped priorities that were championed by their parents and grandparents. In 2011, 50.8 percent of federal inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses. This compares to just 4.2 percent for robbery, 2.7 percent for homicide/assault/kidnapping, and 4.7 percent for sex offenses. In a congressionally mandated annual report to the U.S. Sentencing Commission on the operation of federal sentencing guidelines, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said in August of 2012 that continuing increases in the federal prison populations and spending are "unsustainable."


Although drug prohibition speaks to a number of controlled substances, reformation of marijuana laws has been the most reasonable starting point in addressing failed drug policy. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States, and according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation more than 757,000 people were arrested in the U.S. in 2011 for marijuana-related offenses, an overwhelming majority of them for simple possession, costing the tax payers approximately $8 billion. Reform advocates are waiting anxiously to see how the state ballot victories will fare once implemented, provided that marijuana is still a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance under federal law, the most severe classification for a narcotic.


There is reason to believe that Colorado and Washington are no anomaly, and simply the first experimenters in a wave of impending marijuana reformation throughout the country. According to Gallup, in 2011 a record high 50 percent of Americans said that use of marijuana should be fully legal. In 2002, that number was only at 34 percent, in 1994 it was about 24 percent. Today, over 70 percent of Americans believe marijuana has valuable medical usages and should be decriminalized (which is different from legalization).


Reform efforts on the state level reflect the frustration with federal prohibition, and although in the past such efforts were glossed over as fringe movements peddled by a feckless counterculture, the successes in 2012 and rapidly changing public opinion suggest otherwise. Tom Angell, the Chairman of Marijuana Majority, says the election results will indeed catalyze a ripple effect upon the rest of the country. “I do think you will see polling support for legalization go up significantly now that Colorado and Washington have taken the first step and shown that legalization is possible,” says Angell, noting that California, Oregon and Rhode Island could be next in line for legalization initiatives.


Widespread acknowledgement of the statistical failure of drug prohibition begs the question why we have remained faithful to these policies for so long. To answer that question, we have to look at the history of the War on Drugs, not just as it relates to facts and figures, but the hearts and minds of the American public.


There was a small window in the 1970s to shape drug policy such that it could have prevented much of the mire we find ourselves in today. In the same speech Richard Nixon declared War on Drugs, he also thoughtfully noted, “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand.” In theory, it appeared he understood some of the inherent problems with prohibition, namely, the mistake of ignoring unyielding demand. However in practice, Nixon defied his own wisdom and pinned the drug problem on the moral deterioration of America, labeling drug abusers as criminals for whom the only recourse was punishment.


The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was created under Nixon in 1973 and the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to stifle drug trafficking throughout Latin America. Nixon identified marijuana as a ‘gateway drug’ to experimentation and addiction of other harder drugs and thus invested largely in efforts to stamp out production and refinement of cannabis plants throughout Mexico (there has been little evidence to support the ‘gateway drug’ theory). Nixon’s efforts in Latino America ended up helping large-scale narcotics traffickers and estimates today show there have been at least 55,000 deaths that can be attributed to the grave violence propagated by the War on Drugs.


Nixon’s rhetoric and centralization of drug policy began to induce a shift in the mindset of many Americans, and more tangibly in the distribution of funds from prevention and rehabilitation toward the targeted enforcement and prohibition that we see today. Neil Franklin, the Executive Director at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) says, “Local authorities being recruited by President Nixon during the onset of the drug war in the early seventies is partially the blame for what’s wrong with drug enforcement today.” There was little questioning the Nixon approach throughout the next several decades, and any attempts to do so were usually futile.


As drug abuse spiked during the 1980’s with scores of cocaine coming over the border and the advent of the crack epidemic, America’s hysteria over drugs heightened. The average annual amount of funding for eradication and interdiction programs increased from an annual average of $437 million during the administration of his predecessor Jimmy Carter, to $1.4 billion in Ronald Reagan’s first term. Reagan’s harsh language linking drug use to moral decay fueled the American public’s complicity in increasingly severe laws, which included mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws and the death penalty for “drug kingpins.” The coinage of incendiary terms like “crack babies” and “gangbangers” cemented the wickedness Americans now associated with drugs. For politicians, it was foolish to take anything other than a hardline stance on the issue and risk seeming soft on crime. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the number of people in prison from drug-related crimes increased tenfold between 1980 and 2010.


Although Bill Clinton attempted to allocate more funding to prevention and rehabilitation, the forgotten demand side of the drug war, the 104th Republican Congress rejected such efforts, and supply side tactics remained the mainstream strategy. According to the Pew Center, from 1987 to 2007, nationwide spending on corrections increased by 127 percent, while there was only a 21 percent increase in spending on higher education. Clinton, who has in recent time has come to disavow the Drug War, authorized more than $16 million for the expansion of state and local police forces and state prison grants. Additionally, under Clinton’s welfare reform, anyone convicted of a felony drug offense was punished with a lifetime ban for federal economic assistance.


The George W. Bush administration continued to intensify the surveillance and control culture; overseeing a new strategy that included paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans, mostly for nonviolent drug law offenses, often misdemeanors. While federal reform mostly stalled under Bush, state-level reforms finally began to rein in the rapid expansion of the Drug War. By the time President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, 13 states had legalized medicinal marijuana. On Election Day in 2012, Massachusetts become the 18th state to do so.


While the War on Drugs has had devastating effects on all Americans, people of color have been disproportionately on the receiving end of its worst effects. According to federal statistics, today African Americans represent about 13 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, but are 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 45 percent of those held in state prisons for drug offense. What is particularly insidious about federal drug policy is that it functions under the guise of protecting communities, when in fact in has severely escalated crime and misery. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, by criminalizing drug users who would be much better served by treatment, the United States has created a cohort of citizens being shuffled through the criminal justice system, coming out losing their voting rights, employment opportunities, and furthermore are often severely psychologically damaged.


Despite high hopes of drug reform advocates, President Obama has not enacted the kind of policy shift surrounding marijuana prohibition that many thought he might. Over the past three years, the DOJ has undertaken more than 200 SWAT-style federal DEA raids on legitimate medical marijuana businesses in at least six states. This represents a raid rate twice as high as under the Bush Administration. In addition, U.S. Attorneys have threatened public officials who attempt to pass laws regulating local distribution. Some theorize that President Obama had to relegate drug reform to a very low priority on his first-term agenda, provided the tremendous scrutiny he was under in remedying an ailing economy. Others believe drug reform would have been far too progressive a policy goal to pursue in his first term and would have damaged his chances in 2012.


With the President’s reelection, activists are hopeful the federal government will begin to scale back their assault on medical marijuana dispensaries, and that the administration will not fight, or better yet even support, state efforts to liberalize marijuana laws. In a bipartisan coalition, Representatives Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA), who have fervently supported the legalization of marijuana in the past, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to respect the will of the voters in Colorado and Washington. In an interview with Barbara Walters on December 11, the President said drug prosecution in states that have legalized marijuana would not be “a top priority” of federal law enforcement. However, skeptics note that the President made similar comments about states with medicinal marijuana laws at the beginning of his administration.


While federal law has remained fairly untouched, rhetoric surrounding the Drug War is changing under President Obama. In fact, in 2009 R. Gil Kerlikowske, the current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, signaled that the Obama administration would no longer use the term “War on Drugs,” rendering it “counterproductive.” The new drug strategy, at least in theory, reflects a more holistic and realistic approach to America’s drug problem. The Obama administration has made a point of defining the drug problem as one that requires a response not only by law enforcement but also by systems that provide education, mental health services, job training, community development and other infrastructure. Kerlikowske has extensively discussed of the need to treat small-time users rather than criminalize them. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says the new approach will “target screening and early intervention, so we can avoid the enormous human and economic costs of full-blown addiction.”


Part of the challenge in ending the Drug War has been the inability to frame the issue in a tone that appeals to patriotic values. It was easy for us, deeply dedicated to merit-based principles, to get on board with the law and order approach espoused by Nixon and his successors. Drugs are criminal, and people who use them are obviously deserving of punishment. This ideology has underscored the Drug War and represents the crux of the struggle today between competing dogmas on how to approach issues of drugs, violence and poverty. However, even among Americans who will never use drugs or be affected by drugs, there is a growing receptivity to ending the Drug War, because it simply does not align with our priorities anymore. Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer who helped write Colorado's winning Amendment 64 says of garnering support for marijuana reform, "If we can focus attention on the fact we can bring in revenue, redirect law enforcement resources and raise awareness instead of focusing on pot, that's a message that works."


Retribution is accepted as an essential tenet of our justice system, however, growing frustration with the federal government has ushered in an era of libertarian-minded activism that deems freedom the most fundamentally American principle.


The marijuana ballot victories in 2012 will likely assist in further mainstreaming a political affront that had been generally ignored until recently, the War on the War on Drugs. Although marijuana reform covers only one drug in an expansive battle, it is a crucial stepping-stone in helping Americans reach a consensus about our drug policy. Now, policymakers who have been pressured to ignore the Drug War for fear of political ramifications will continue to come out of the shadows and help to inform public opinion that is indisputably shifting. Confronting the failed prohibition policies of past generations will no longer be seen as radical, but responsible, rational, and indicative of an agenda that has our nation’s best interest at heart. Washington’s legalization went into effect on December 6, 2012, and Colorado’s will follow no later than January 6, 2013.


Author Bio:

Gabrielle Acierno is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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