The Business and War on Drugs: Supply and Demand

war on drugs

In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon made a bold proclamation. He declared the opening of a new battlefront more than eight thousand miles from the jungles surrounding My Lai—The United States of America. The conflict would take the lives of significantly more Americans than those lost in Southeast Asia between 1955 and 1975.

The enemy: illicit drugs, the people who use them, and those who sell the mind-altering substances. Nearly 50 years later, the “war on drugs” continues with no evidence of victory in sight, and every indication the problem is exponentially worse than before.

It’s often said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Do some drugs have the power to ruin and steal lives? Yes. Are the men and women who manufacture and get rich off the suffering of others beyond reproach? No. Should actions be taken to steer individuals away from harmful substances and dissuade the sale of drugs? Of course. But, at what cost?

There isn’t any way to justify the damage caused by criminalizing the disease of addiction and irrevocably changing millions of people’s lives for the worse. There is no excuse for having the most significant number of incarcerated people in the world despite the fact that United States only makes up a fourth or fifth of the global population.

A Troubling Policy

President after president has run on reigning in the “drug problem” in America platform. Hubris, self-righteousness, and racism led to enacting draconian drug laws. Addiction was long chalked up to a moral failing, and addicts became socially outcast deviants. Considering what we know now about the science of mental and behavioral health disorders, it’s impossible not to look back and gasp at the barbaric treatment of the afflicted.

Our war on drugs created the “prison industrial complex.” One in five incarcerated people is locked up for a drug offense, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In the 21st Century, you can still be sent to jail for a marijuana law violation (663,367 in 2018) in several states. It’s worth noting that many arrested for petty crimes were trying to get money to feed their addiction.

It’s also common to be charged with possession while committing a more serious crime; the more severe offense goes into the datasets. So, the number of people behind bars because of the war on drugs is much higher than what the data reflects.

What’s more, a disproportionate number of inmates are people of color. Black Americans make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population but represent only 13 percent of U.S residents. You cannot discuss the war on drugs without considering the role race and ethnicity have played.

The first anti-opium laws (1870s) targeted Chinese immigrants, The Guardian reports. Anti-cannabis laws (1910-20s) were meant for Mexican workers. Crack cocaine laws overwhelming impacted blacks in the 1980s and `90s.

One of America’s answers to our substance use problem is to pressure governments in other countries to crack down on drug manufacturers. Much blood has been spilled to that end, and cocaine, meth, and heroin are still coming to meet our demand. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that more than 200,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war since 2006.

The Business of Drugs: Supply and Demand

Millions of Americans battle with a substance use disorder day in and day out. Addiction is an epidemic in the United States, and incarceration is not a cure for the condition.

Most public health experts and many lawmakers know that the war on drugs is a failure. New policies are required, as well as a concerted focus on shattering stigmas and providing evidence-based treatment for all. Lives would be saved if the federal government diverted a fraction of the annual $47+ billion spent fighting the war on drugs toward addiction treatment.

As long as there are drugs, there will be people who use them; some will develop a problem, and others will not. While the nation huddles at home during the pandemic, it might be an excellent opportunity to reflect on what the war on drugs has cost us. A new documentary series aims to get us thinking about the policy of prohibition.

The premise of The Business of Drugs, former CIA agent Amaryllis Fox contends, isn’t about facing the truth that America has lost the “war on drugs.” On the contrary, the series calls for “looking at the policies themselves rather than the fight to enforce them, and asking ourselves if in fact prohibition has any logical hope of working, or whether it’s a residue of a moralistic stance that I think is no longer relevant in our society.”

“The only way for us to tackle this is to have a very logical, adult conversation as a nation about whether there’s any possibility of demand going away,” Fox said. “And if not, what do we need to do in terms of legalization and regulation to bring an end to the violence and mass incarceration that this policy has created?”  

Warning: The trailer depicts drugs. Please refrain from watching if you have concerns about being triggered.

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