The War on Drugs is a Failure

I have been opposed to the War on Drugs for political, social, and moral reasons for over 15 years, since I was made aware of the issue. I could probably write a lot on this issue, so I will try to keep this simple, and limited to three main points. Included will be a source for each point. Keep in mind that right now Montgomery County and Dayton Ohio are experiencing a heroin abuse epidemic like never before seen in history, with our region leading the nation in opioid overdose deaths per capita:

My three points are as follows:

  • The War on Drugs was created and is perpetuated as a war primarily on the poor and people of color.
  • The War on Drugs is a source of massive income for the prison-industrial complex and associated industries.
  • The War on Drugs is a very expensive failure in stopping or even limiting drug use, and there are superior alternatives.

  1. The War on Drugs was created and is perpetuated as a war primarily on the poor and people of color.

In April of 2016, former Nixon Administration official John Erlichman stated the following about the reason for the creation of the War on Drugs:

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


I believe this statement speaks for itself. The evidence supporting this fact is staggering and appalling. Although whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates, the rates of arrest, sentencing and conviction are highly disparate. For example, in 2010, arrest rates for marijuana among black Americans was 716 per 100,000 people, and for whites it was 192 per 100,000. The rate of arrest was four times higher for African Americans. As far as prison populations are concerned, even though the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of the entire world’s prisoners. The prison population has increased 700 percent since 1970. Of state and federal inmates, blacks and Latinos are imprisoned at far higher rates than whites. Here’s a really good article laying out all the data:

Since the prison population has exploded, that leads into my next point.

  1. The War on Drugs is a source of massive income for the prison-industrial complex and associated industries.

According to ( ), four major industries support the War on Drugs, and they all spend money lobbying state and federal governments to tighten drugs laws and increase punishments. These four industries include the Drug Testing Industry, the Alcohol Industry, the Private Prison Industry, and the Addiction Recovery Industry. Obviously the drug testing industry would lose most of their business if drugs were to be decriminalized or legalized. Their industry would only be necessary for drug testing in fields where industrial safety is an acute concern. This is why they fund lobbying in support of things like drug testing of welfare recipients. The alcohol industry is opposed to any kind of reforms because they do not want competition in the marketplace. Alcohol is merely another drug, but because it is legally and socially acceptable, alcohol sales reap massive profits. Any decriminalization or legalization would probably cut into those profits significantly. The alcohol and tobacco industries fund D.A.R.E. because they want to advertise to children that they shouldn’t use drugs, not because they care about the children’s well-being, but because they want those kids to grow up and spend their money on their legal products instead. The alcohol industry has been caught spending money campaigning against legal marijuana initiatives. The private prison industry obviously is opposed to any form of sentencing reform, decriminalization or legalization, because reducing the prison population in any way would be a direct threat to their profits. Here is an excerpt from explaining the kind of money at stake:

“Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the country’s largest private prison company, has donated almost $4.5 million to political campaigns and dropped another $18 million on lobbying in the last two decades. The company, and others like it, is up to its elbows in drug war spending. Its facilities house low-level drug users and contain in-house rehabilitation programs. CCA even trains its own drug-sniffing dogs. In 2010, the company had revenue of $1.67 billion.”

Finally, the addiction recovery industry spends millions lobbying politicians to keep drugs illegal and to continue funneling drug offenders in the justice system through their rehab facilities. Large sums of public tax money goes to pay for these addiction treatment facilities, many of which are simply not that effective. Most drug users relapse or go back to using after a short period of sobriety. states:

“Since 1989, addiction services trade groups and individual companies have donated a combined $869,405 to political campaigns and spent almost $5 million lobbying in order to secure direct and indirect government funding of addiction services.”

The DEA, the police and the courts also profit from the Drug War. Because there is so much money at stake, powerful special interests oppose any kind of drug arrest, sentencing or imprisonment reform. It is hard to estimate the amount of corruption connected to the War on Drugs because of the massive amount of money at stake.

  1. The War on Drugs is a very expensive failure in stopping or even limiting drug use, and there are superior alternatives.

Prosecuting the War on Drugs is extremely expensive, and in 2012 CNN reported that since 1971 the United States has spent over a trillion dollars arresting, sentencing and convicting drug offenders, along with all interdiction efforts. Legalizing drugs would save the United States and all state and local governments at least 41 billion dollars a year, and would also provide possibly 47 billion dollars in higher tax revenue from drug sales. ( ) We have 2.3 million people in prison and drug use has not appreciably changed and may in some cases actually be getting worse, like in Dayton which I mentioned before with heroin. It costs at least 30,000 dollars per year to house someone in jail, while it costs an average of 11,665 to educate a public school student. It’s easy to imagine the myriad of different ways this money could be better spent, like on healthcare, education and infrastructure. In Colorado, where marijuana was completely legalized, the state collected 70 million dollars in tax revenue in 2014 alone. ( ) Much of this money is going to the school systems in the state, to build new construction and support their operations. The doom and gloom that it would destabilize society and cause crime has not materialized. Legalizing drugs would also completely remove the financial incentive for drug dealers to operate and fight over territory, money and product. I predict if this were to happen that violent crime would be significantly reduced as a result. We even have a model for how this would look, the nation of Portugal. In 2001 in response to their country’s drug problem, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and instead began referring drug users to science based treatment programs. Since then, drug use, drug related deaths, and HIV infections caused by drug use have all decreased significantly. Also, the country has saved time and money no longer arresting and imprisoning drug users. Here’s an article that provides a good breakdown of the data:

The success of medical marijuana in some states is noteworthy, and provides a crucial and urgent example for our city and state which are in the midst of a heroin epidemic. Johns Hopkins University researchers found that in states that had legalized medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, overdose deaths from prescription opioid painkillers were reduced by a whopping 25 percent. ( ) Clearly, more research needs to be done to explain why this is happening, but I suspect it is because some people suffering chronic pain do not need something as powerful as Percocet or Oxycodone and can manage their pain successfully with marijuana, which is not nearly as addictive as opiates and provides virtually no chance for an overdose death. Even Ohio, which is dominated by the Republican Party, has just passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana. The bill was passed by a Republican legislator and signed by a Republican governor. This is historic and noteworthy because the Republican party has typically opposed any kind of drug reform or legalization. They rightly saw that the writing was on the wall and that the people would demand it had they not acted. I believe this is the first time that a Republican majority state passed any kind of state law legalizing marijuana in some form.

I believe I have laid out a compelling argument for why the War on Drugs is unjust, corrupt, and an expensive failure. I would propose decriminalization as a good first step for righting some of the many wrongs perpetrated by the Drug War.