The Failure of the War on Drugs

And the mass incarceration that’s resulted

National Library of Medicine

If you were around in the 80’s, you are probably very familiar with the message to “just say no” to drugs. In 1991, Saved By The Bell got on board with an episode that told viewers “there’s no hope with dope.” There was also the classic egg in a frying pan PSA:

I was too young to be around for the beginning of the “War On Drugs” declared by U.S. President Richard Nixon. Things snowballed from there: the Drug Enforcement Agency was formed, mandatory minimum sentences were set for drug offenses, and huge piles of money were thrown into enforcement. A lot of people were being incarcerated, many of them poor, and many of them racial minorities.

In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report calling the War On Drugs an all-around failure, saying that: “Above all, incarceration is the epitome of the human cost of these failed policies.” Furthermore:

“Prison is inevitably an ineffective response because it does not take into account the social and psychological root causes of problematic drug consumption, nor does it consider the economic and social marginalization of traditional coca, cannabis or poppy cultivators, nor of women who smuggle small quantities of drugs, street dealers, or spotters. Prison is also the wrong response because people who are incarcerated are vulnerable, exposed to risks for which they are not well-equipped, and are dependent on those who manage their daily lives.”

The Commission recommended that states do away with penalties for possession and cultivation for personal use, and that they end disproportionate punishments.

It requires a progressive minded government to move beyond the idea that drugs are bad, and therefore we must criminalize them. Prohibition didn’t work with alcohol, and there’s no reason to think it should work or has worked with drugs.

People don’t use drugs because the illegality of them is appealing; they use drugs because of the interplay of biology and social conditions that pushed them to seek a means of escape. Criminalizing possession doesn’t stop drug use; it creates criminals. It creates criminals who fill prisons. And what happens when you send someone to prison? If they weren’t a hardened criminal beforehand, chances are they will be by the time that they get out.

Yes, drugs are bad. Yes, they cause all kinds of problems. But what if, instead of focusing entirely on enforcement, governments were to actually do something about the factors like poverty, lack of opportunity, and trauma that actually fuel the onset of drug use?

The Canadian city where I live has adopted a four pillars drug strategy, an approach that was first developed in Europe. It encompasses harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement, with the recognition that all four pillars need to be addressed simultaneously. We were the site of North America’s first supervised injection site, and there is currently a study underway that involves giving prescription-grade heroin to see if that can meet the opiate substitution needs of people who don’t respond well to methadone maintenance therapy.

In my nursing career, I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve struggled with addictions — some in recovery, others in active use. These are people who have had extremely hard lives. These are not people who cheerfully started using because they wanted to become a junkie. And yes, they realize that people dismiss them as junkies. To throw them in jail wouldn’t accomplish anything for anyone.

So, how about we just say no — to the war on drugs.

Originally published at on August 6, 2019.

Written by

Mental health blogger | MH Nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |

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