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Addiction to Prohibition - the Failure of the United States’ War on Drugs

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Addiction to Prohibition:

The Failure of the United States’ War on Drugs

João Cordeiro

Brigham Young University


In 1971, President Richard Nixon, started a national campaign against the consumption and distribution of illegal drugs, declaring them America’s public enemy number one. Over the next few years, this policy of drug prohibition and criminalization gathered increasing momentum, finally culminating with President Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which later became known, and commonly referred to as, the American “War on Drugs”. This paper explores the unintended consequences of this tough enforcement and harsh sentencing approach to illicit drugs over the last four decades. It examines the damaging effects of prohibition on drug related deaths, the spread of violence and the mass incarceration of US citizens. The paper concludes that the “War on Drugs” and its policies of prohibition and criminalization, worked against many of its initial intended goals and that a new approach, such as the legalization and regulation of illicit narcotics, might be necessary to solve the drug problem in the United States of America.

Keyword: war on drugs, prohibition, illicit drugs, legalization

Addiction to Prohibition:

The Failure of the United States’ War on Drugs

In a 1971 speech to Congress, former United States President, Richard Nixon, declared drug abuse as America’s “public enemy number one”, which lead to the start of a major national campaign by state and local authorities, as well as the U.S. government, to combat illicit drugs. The goal was to control illicit drug consumption and improve public safety of the American people. However, a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality revealed that an estimated 27 million people (10.2% of the population) aged 12 or older were current illicit drug users in 2014. (Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality 2015)  

In 1973, there were 328,670 arrests reported by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) for drug law violations. (“Violent and Property Crime Arrest Datasheet 1970-2003” 2004). FBI Uniform Crime Reports. By 2014, there were 1,561,231 arrests for drug law violations out of a total 11,205,833 arrests nationwide for all offenses. (“Crime in the United States 2014 – Arrests” 2015)

In 2016, close to $30 billion was enacted to support National Drug Control Strategy efforts to reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States. This represents an increase of more than $1.2 million over 2015. (Office of National Drug Control Policy 2015) 

Considering these frightening statistics, have the United States policies of drug prohibition effectively disrupted the trafficking and consumption of drugs? Today, the numbers are in and the policies of drug prohibition, not only failed in its efforts to stop drug consumption, they have produced several negative unintended consequences, including the increase of drug related deaths, the spread of violence and mass incarceration of American citizens.

Increase of Drug Related Deaths

The policies of prohibition are, supposedly, intended to reduce the use of drugs and drug abuse by banning certain substances, therefore disrupting the drug supply chain and eliminating the drug market. However, making drugs illegal does not eliminate the market for drugs, as it ignores the most fundamental of market forces, which is supply and demand. Reducing the supply of drugs without first reducing the demand does not eliminate the product from the market, instead it forces the buying and selling of drugs into an underground “black market.” The end result is fewer suppliers and higher drug prices. (Miron, J. A. 2003)

Although the decrease in supply and increase in price may at first appear to support the goals of prohibition, in reality, it does not, because the drug market is not price sensitive. Due to factors like addiction, drugs will be consumed no matter what they cost. The prohibition of drugs, however, increases their potency, because drug laws increase the risk of selling low potency substances, suppliers tend to prefer harder drugs, which will increase their profit to pay off the risk. (Boettke et al., 2013) Moreover, in order to minimize the risk of detection per amount of narcotic supplied, suppliers make drugs as compact as possible, further increasing their potency. (2013)

For the users, because they must act illegally and since the overall risk of obtaining drugs is big, they will seek to maximize their high. For this, users may switch to higher potency drugs, for example, going from substances like marijuana to harder drugs like heroin. (2013) Taking these factors into account, we can deduct that prohibition leads to a greater production and consumption of more potent narcotics, consequently increasing the chances of overdosing, which is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. The mortality rates from unintentional drug overdose have risen steadily since the early 1970s, and over the past years they have reached historic heights.  Rates are currently 4 to 5 times higher than the rates in the mid-1970s and more than twice what they were during the early 1990s. (“Trends in Unintentional Drug Overdose Deaths” 2008)

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