Everything You Need to Know About the War on Drugs

from Vox.comC

What is the war on drugs?

The war on drugs is a decades-long campaign by the United States government to eradicate illicit drug use. It was formally launched by President Richard Nixon and Congress in the 1970s.

Richard Nixon

President Richard Nixon, who resigned over the Watergate Scandal, launched the war on drugs. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

“If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us,” Nixon told Congress in 1971. “I am not prepared to accept this alternative.”

Nixon inaugurated the the war on drugs at a time when America was in hysterics over widespread drug use. Drug use had become more public and prevalent during the 1960s thanks in part to events like Woodstock, and many Americans felt that drug use had become a serious threat to the country and its moral standing.

Over the last four decades, the US has committed more than $1 trillion to the war on drugs. However, the crackdown has failed to produce the desired results: the effort hasn’t significantly decreased drug use, and it didn’t cause drug prices to rise. The war on drugs is also blamed for several unintended problems, including the proliferation of drug-related violence around the world.

While Nixon began the modern war on drugs, America has a long history of trying to control the use of certain drugs. Laws passed in the early 20th century attempted to restrict drug production and sales. Some of this history is racially tinged, and, perhaps as a result, the war on drugs has hit minority communities the hardest.

Given the failures, unintended consequences, and racial disparities, many drug policy experts and reformers have called for reforms ranging from a larger focus on rehabilitation to the decriminalization and legalization of all drugs. But so far, few steps have been taken in that direction — and the US continues spending $51 billion on the war on drugs each year.

Is the war on drugs succeeding?

The goal of the war on drugs is to reduce drug use. If the campaign against drug dealers and producers were succeeding, drugs would become scarcer and prices would increase. Yet the data show just the opposite occurring.

The prices of most drugs, as tracked by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, have plummeted. Since 1981, the median bulk price of heroin is down by roughly 93 percent, and the median bulk price of powder cocaine is down by about 87 percent. Since 1986, the median bulk price of crack cocaine fell by around 54 percent. The prices of meth and marijuana, meanwhile, have remained largely stable since the 1980s.

heroin price

Much of this is explained by what’s known as the balloon effect: cracking down on drugs in one area doesn’t necessarily reduce the overall supply of drugs. Instead, drug production shifts somewhere else.

The balloon effect has been documented in multiple instances. Throughout the 1990s, drug production moved to Colombia from Peru and Bolivia after crackdowns in both the latter countries. In the 2000s, production moved to Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) from Mexico after America’s southern neighbor ramped up anti-drug efforts in 2006. In these cases, production didn’t appear to slow for long — if at all.

The result: despite decades of efforts by US law enforcement, the rate of illicit drug use appears to be holding steady and perhaps rising. (The federal drug use survey, charted below, underwent major methodological changes in 2002, so it’s difficult to compare trends for all Americans prior to that year.)

past-month drug use

The Monitoring the Future survey, which tracks illicit drug use among high school students, found drug use has greatly fluctuated over the past few decades. In 1975, four years after President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, 30.7 percent of high school seniors reportedly used drugs in the past month. In 1992, the rate was 14.4 percent. In 2013, it was back up to 25.5 percent.

past-month illicit drug use seniors

These ups and downs, which are uncorrelated with enforcement of the war on drugs, are one of the reasons many drug policy experts argue recreational drug use is largely unaffected by federal policy. Isaac Campos, a drug historian at the University of Cincinnati, points to the late 19th century, when hard drugs like cocaine, which was new at the time, were almost entirely unregulated. “We had the perfect storm for a wave of drug abuse,” Campos said. “Even then, within a system far less regulated than anyone advocates for today — a system of radical legalization — we know that rates of abuse were not significantly higher than they have been in the last decade or so.”

How does the US enforce the war on drugs?

The US fights the war on drugs both domestically and overseas.

California law enforcement guns

Law enforcement in California seize weapons in what they called the largest gang takedown in US history. (David McNew / Getty Images News)

On the domestic front, the federal governmentsupplies local and state police departments with funds, legal flexibility, and special equipment to crack down on illicit drugs. Local and state police then use this funding to go after drug dealing organizations.

“[Federal] assistance helped us take out major drug organizations, and we took out a number of them in Baltimore,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs. “But to do that, we took out the low-hanging fruit to work up the chain to find who was at the top of the pyramid. It started with low-level drug dealers, working our way up to mid-level management, all the way up to the kingpins.”

Some of the funding, particularly from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, encourages local and state police to participate in anti-drug operations. If police don’t use the money to go after illicit substances, they risk losing it — providing a financial incentive for cops to continue the war on drugs.

“One of the requirements for completing a federal grant application for funds to combat drugs was showing how many drug arrests we made,” Franklin said. “So what did we do? We had our officers go out and make as many drug arrests as they can.”

Although the focus is on criminal groups, casual users still get caught in the criminal justice system. Between 1999 and 2007, Human Rights Watch found at least 80 percent of drug-related arrests were for possession, not sales.

It seems, however, that arrests for possession don’t typically turn into convictions and prison time. According to federal statistics, only 5.3 percent of drug offenders in federal prisons and 27.9 percent of drug offenders in state prisons in 2004 were in for drug possession. The overwhelming majority were in for trafficking, and a small few were in for an unspecified “other” category.

Mexico army marijuana burn

Mexican officials incinerate 130 tons of seized marijuana. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Internationally, the US regularly aids other countries in their efforts to crack down on drugs. For example, the US in the 2000s provided military aid and training to Colombia — in what’s known as Plan Colombia — to help the Latin American country go after criminal organizations and paramilitaries funded through drug trafficking.

Federal officials argue helping countries like Colombia attacks the source of illicit drugs, since such substances are often produced in Latin America and shipped north to the US. But the international efforts have consistently displaced, not eliminated, drug trafficking — and the violence that comes with it — to other countries.

Given the struggles of the war on drugs to meet its goals, federal and state officials have begun moving away from harsh enforcement tactics and tough-on-crime stances. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy now advocatesfor a bigger focus on rehabilitation and less on law enforcement. Even some conservatives, like Texas Governor Rick Perry (R), have embraced drug courts, which place drug offenders into rehabilitation programs instead of jail or prison.

Has the drug war contributed to violence around the world?

Instead of significantly reducing drug use, the war on drugs provides a black market of illicit drugs that criminal organizations around the world can rely on for revenue that payrolls other, more violent activities.

As a result, when the war on drugs displaces drug production, it also displaces violence related to the drug trade. In several cases, this has thrown countries into serious internal turmoil.

Colombia drug paramilitaries

Paramilitaries in Colombia drove the country to chaos as they fought to keep drugs, particularly cocaine, flowing. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP via Getty Images)

Most recently, the drug war significantly contributed to the child migrant crisis. After some drug production was pushed out of Mexico, gangs and drug cartels stepped up their operations in Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. These countries, with their weak criminal justice and law enforcement systems, don’t seem to have the capacity to deal with the influx of violence and crime.

The war on drugs “drove a lot of the activities to Central America, a region that has extremely weakened systems,” explains Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America. “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a strong commitment to building the criminal justice system and the police.”

As a result, children have been fleeing their countries by the thousands in what’s now considered a major crisis. Many of these children have ended up in the United States, where the refugee system simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle the rush of child migrants.

Although the ensuing child migrant crisis is fairly unique in its circumstances and effects, the series of events — a government cracks down on drugs, production moves to another country, and the production brings violence and crime — is pretty typical in the history of the war on drugs. In the past couple decades, it happened inColombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Ecuador after successful anti-drug crackdowns in other Latin American countries.

The Wall Street Journal explained:

Ironically, the shift is partly a by-product of a drug-war success story, Plan Colombia. In a little over a decade, the U.S. spent nearly $8 billion to back Colombia’s efforts to eradicate coca fields, arrest traffickers and battle drug-funded guerrilla armies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombian cocaine production declined, the murder rate plunged and the FARC is on the run.

But traffickers adjusted. Cartels moved south across the Ecuadorean border to set up new storage facilities and pioneer new smuggling routes from Ecuador’s Pacific coast. Colombia’s neighbor to the east, Venezuela, is now the departure point for half of the cocaine going to Europe by sea.

As a 2012 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime explained, “one country’ssuccess became the problem of others.”

Is the war on drugs racist?

In the US, the war on drugs mostly impacts minority, particularly black, communities. This disproportionate effect is why critics often call the war on drugs racist.

Although black communities aren’t more likely to use drugs or sell them, they are much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses.

drug use and arrests

(Joe Posner / Vox)

When black defendants are convicted for drug crimes, they face longer prison sentences. Drug sentences for black men were 13.1 percent longer than drug sentences for white men between 2007 and 2009, according to a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission.

One explanation for the sentencing disparity is that possession of crack cocaine, one of the few illicit drugs that’s more popular among black Americans, carries the harshest punishment. The threshold for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence of crack is 28 grams. In comparison, the threshold for powder cocaine, which is more popular among white than black Americans, is 500 grams.

crack cocaine

A vial of crack cocaine. (New York Daily News via Getty Images)

As for the broader racial disparities, federal programs that encourage local and state police departments to crack down on drugs may create perverse incentives to go after minority communities. Some federal grants, for instance, require police to make more drug arrests in order to obtain more funding for anti-drug efforts. Neill Franklin, a retired police major from Maryland and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said minority communities are “the low-hanging fruit” for police departments because they tend to sell in open-air markets, such as public street corners, and and have less political and financial power than white Americans.

“Doing these evening and afternoon sweeps meant 20 to 30 arrests, and now you have some great numbers for your grant application,” Franklin said. “In that process, we also ended up seizing a lot of money and a lot of property. That’s another cash cow.”

The disproportionate arrests and incarceration rates have clearly detrimental effects on minority communities. A study published in the journal Sociological Science found boys with imprisoned fathers are much less likely to possess the behavioral skills needed to succeed in school by the age of five, starting them on a vicious path known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Internationally, the war on drugs has affected Latin American countries the most. As the drug trade shifts from country to country in response to the war on drugs, several Latin American countries, including Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, have seen more drug-related violence.

How has the war on drugs changed law enforcement?

The escalation of law enforcement’s reach and powers in the past few decades, ranging from the increase in SWAT raids to the use of civil asset forfeitures, can be traced back to the war on drugs.

Civil asset forfeitures, for instance, have been justified as a way to go after drug dealing organizations. Law enforcement can take the organizations’ assets — cash in particular — and then use the gains to fund more anti-drug operations. The idea is to turn drug dealers’ ill-gotten gains against them.

Los Angeles Swat Team

Police have this kind of equipment largely due to the war on drugs. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images News)

Similarly, the federal government helped militarize local and state police departments in an attempt to better equip them in the fight against drugs. The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which gives surplus military-grade equipment to police, was created in 1990 as part of President George H.W. Bush’s escalation of the war on drugs. The deployment of SWAT teams, as reported by the ACLU, also increased during the past few decades, and 62 percent of SWAT raids in 2011 and 2012 were for drug searches.

Various groups have complained that these increases in police power are often abused and misused. The ACLU, for instance, argues that civil asset forfeitures threaten Americans’ civil liberties and property rights, because police can often seize assets without even filing charges. Such seizures also might encourage police to focus on drug crimes, since a raid can result in actual cash that goes back to the police department, while a violent crime conviction likely would not. The libertarian Cato Institute also criticized the war on drugs as far back as 1992, because anti-drug efforts gave cover to a huge expansion of law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities, including wiretaps and US mail searches.

The militarization of police became a particular sticking point during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown. After heavily armed police responded to largely peaceful protesters with armored vehicle that resemble tanks, tear gas, and sound cannons, law enforcement experts, journalists, and government officials criticized the tactics. In response, the Obama administration ordered a review of the programs that gave police the military-grade equipment.

What are the roots of the war on drugs?

Beyond the goal to curtail drug use, the motivations behind the US war on drugs are often rooted in fears of immigrants and minority groups.

The US began regulating and restricting drugs during the first half of the 20th century, particularly through the the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, and the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. During this period, racial and ethnic tensions were particularly high across the country — not just toward African Americans, but toward Mexican and Chinese immigrants as well.

cannabis extract marijuana

Marijuana extracts like this were commonly sold at grocery stores in the early 20th century. (National Library of Medicine)

As the New York Times explained, the federal prohibition of marijuana came during a period of national hysteria about the effect of the drug on Mexican immigrants and black communities. Concerns about a new, exotic drug, coupled with feelings of xenophobia and racism that were all too common in the 1930s, drove law enforcement, the broader public, and eventually legislators to demand the drug’s prohibition. “Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of ‘immoral’ populations who were promptly labeled ‘fiends,'” wrote the Times’s Brent Staples.

These beliefs extended to practically all forms of drug prohibition. According to historian Peter Knight, opium largely came over to America with Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. Americans, already skeptical of the drug, quickly latched onto xenophobic beliefs that opium somehow made Chinese immigrants dangerous. “Stories of Chinese immigrants who lured white females into prostitution, along with the media depictions of the Chinese as depraved and unclean, bolstered the enactment of anti-opium laws in eleven states between 1877 and 1900,” Knightwrote.

Cocaine was similarly attached in fear to black communities, neuroscientist Carl Hart wrote for the Nation. The belief was so widespread that the New York Times even felt comfortable writing headlines in 1914 that claimed “Negro cocaine ‘fiends’ are a new southern menace.” The author of the Times piece — a physician — wrote, “[The cocaine user] imagines that he hears people taunting and abusing him, and this often incites homicidal attacks upon innocent and unsuspecting victims.” He later added, “Many of the wholesale killings in the South may be cited as indicating that accuracy in shooting is not interfered with — is, indeed, probably improved — by cocaine.… I believe the record of the ‘cocaine n—-r’ near Asheville who dropped five men dead in their tracks using only one cartridge for each, offers evidence that is sufficiently convincing.”

opium ranche San Francisco

A depiction of an opium “ranche” in San Francisco in the late 19th century. (The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Most recently, these fears of drugs and the connection to minorities came up during what law enforcement officials characterized as a crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Lawmakers, judges, and police in particular linked crack to violence in minority communities. The connection was part of the rationale for making it 100 times easier to get a mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine over powder cocaine, when the two drugs are pharmacologically identical. As a result, minority groups have received considerably harsher prison sentences for illegal drugs. (In 2010, the ratio between crack’s sentence and cocaine’s was reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.)

Hart explained, after noting the New York Times’s coverage in particular: “Over the [late 1980s], a barrage of similar articles connected crack and its associated problems with black people. Entire specialty police units were deployed to ‘troubled neighborhoods,’ making excessive arrests and subjecting the targeted communities to dehumanizing treatment. Along the way, complex economic and social forces were reduced to criminal justice problems; resources were directed toward law enforcement rather than neighborhoods’ real needs, such as job creation.”

None of this means the war on drugs is solely driven by fears of immigrants and minorities, and many people are genuinely concerned about drugs’ effects on individuals and society. But when it comes to the war on drugs, the historical accounts suggest the harshest crackdowns often follow hysteria linked to minority drug use.

For a deeper dive into the major events that led to and followed the declaration of the war on drugs, check out Vox’s timeline.

How does the US decide which drugs are regulated or banned?

The US uses what’s called the drug scheduling system. Under the Controlled Substances Act, there are five categories of controlled substances known as schedules, which weigh a drug’s medical value first and its abuse potential second.


Under the US system, heroin is in the same schedule as marijuana. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A controlled substance is placed in its schedule based on its medical value and potential for abuse. Medical value is typically evaluated through scientific research, particularly large-scale clinical trials similar to those used by the Food and Drug Administration for pharmaceuticals. Potential for abuse isn’t defined by the Controlled Substances Act, but for the federal government, abuse is when individuals take a substance on their own initiative, leading to personal health hazards or dangers to society as a whole.

Under this system, schedule 1 drugs are considered to have no medical value and some potential for abuse. Schedule 2 drugs have high potential for abuse but some medical value. As the rank goes down to schedule 5, a drug’s potential for abuse decreases while its medical value may increase.

It may be helpful to think of the scheduling system as made up of two distinct groups: non-medical and medical. The non-medical group is the schedule 1 drugs, which are considered to have no medical value but aren’t numerically ranked based on abuse potential. The medical group is the schedule 2 to 5 drugs, which have some medical value and are numerically ranked based on abuse potential.

Marijuana and heroin are schedule 1 drugs, so the federal government says they have a potential for abuse and no medical value. Cocaine, meth, and opioid painkillers are schedule 2 drugs, so they’re considered to have some medical value and high potential for abuse. Steroids and testosterone products are schedule 3, Xanax and Valium are schedule 4, and cough preparations with limited amounts of codeine are schedule 5. Congress specifically exempted alcohol and tobacco from the schedules in 1970.

Although these schedules help shape criminal penalties for illicit drug possession and sales, they’re not always the final word. Congress, for instance, massively increased penalties against crack cocaine in 1986 in response to concerns about a so-called crack epidemic and its potential link to crime.

Other countries, like the UK and Australia, use similar systems to the US, although their specific rankings for some drugs differ.

To read more about the American drug scheduling system, read Vox’s full explainer.

What are the most dangerous drugs?

This is actually a fairly controversial question among drug policy experts. Although some researchers have tried to rank drugs by their harms, some experts argue the rankings are often far more misleading than useful.

In a report published in The Lancet, a group of researchers evaluated the harms of drug use in the UK, considering factors like deadliness, chance of developing dependence, behavioral changes such as increased risk of violence, and losses in economic productivity. Alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine topped the chart.

most dangerous drugs

There are at least two huge caveats to this report. First, it doesn’t entirely control for the availability of these drugs, so it’s likely heroin and crack cocaine in particular would be ranked higher if they were as readily available as alcohol. Second, the scores were intended for British society, so the specific scores may differ slightly for the US. David Nutt, who led the analysis, suggested meth’s harm score could be much higher in the US, since it’s more widely used in the states.

But drug policy experts argue the study and ranking miss some of the nuance behind the harm of certain drugs.

Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, gave the example of an alien race visiting Earth and asking which land animal is the biggest. If the question is about weight, the African elephant is the biggest land animal. But if it’s about height, the giraffe is the biggest. And if the question is about length, the reticulated python is the biggest.

“You can always create some composite, but composites are fraught with problems,” Caulkins said. “I think it’s more misleading than useful.”

The blunt measures of drug harms present similar issues. Alcohol, tobacco, and prescription painkillers are likely deadlier than other drugs because they are legal, so comparing their aggregate effects to illegal drugs is difficult. Some drugs are very harmful to individuals, but they’re so rarely used that they may not be a major public health threat. A few drugs are enormously dangerous in the short-term but not the long-term (heroin), or vice versa (tobacco). And looking at deaths or other harms caused by certain drugs doesn’t always account for substances, such as prescription medications, that are often mixed with others, making them more deadly or harmful than they would be alone.

Given the diversity of drugs and their effects, many experts argue that trying to establish a ranking of the most dangerous drugs is a futile, misleading exercise. Instead of trying to base policy on a ranking, experts say, lawmakers should build individual policies that try to minimize each drug’s specific set of risks and harms.

Why are alcohol and tobacco exempted from the war on drugs?

Tobacco and alcohol are both explicitly exempted from drug scheduling, despite their detrimental impacts on health and society as a whole. The reasons for this are cultural and economic.

From a cultural perspective, tobacco and alcohol have been acceptable drugs in the US for hundreds of years. This has ingrained both substances into American culture, and they are still the most widely used drugs, along with caffeine, in the nation.

In the 1920s, the federal government attempted to prohibit alcohol sales throughthe Eighteenth Amendment. Experts and historians widely consider this policy, popularly known as Prohibition, a failure and even disastrous. It took Congress just 14 years to repeal Prohibition.

goodbye alcohol prohibition

People celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Alcohol and tobacco are also major parts of the US economy. In 2013, alcohol salestotaled $124.7 billion (excluding purchases in bars and restaurants), and tobacco sales amounted to $108 billion. If lawmakers decided to prohibit and dismantle these legal industries, it would cost the economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Lawmakers were well aware of these cultural and economic issues when they approved the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. As a result, they exempted alcohol and tobacco from the definition of controlled substances.

If the drugs weren’t exempted, some experts argue tobacco and alcohol would be tightly controlled under the current scheduling regime. Mark Kleiman, one of the nation’s leading drug policy experts, argues both would be considered schedule 1 substances if they were evaluated today, since they’re highly abused, addictive, and detrimental to one’s health and society.

How much does the war on drugs cost?

Enforcing the war on drugs costs the US more than $51 billion each year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. As of 2012, the US had spent $1 trillion on anti-drug efforts.

colombia war on drugs

The US helps fund anti-drug efforts in Colombia. (AFP via Getty Images)

The spending estimates don’t account for the loss of potential taxes on currently illegal substances. According to a 2010 paper from the libertarian Cato Institute, taxing and regulating illicit drugs similarly to tobacco and alcohol could raise $46.7 billion in tax revenue each year.

These annual costs — the spending, the lost potential taxes — add up to nearly 2 percent of state and federal budgets, which totaled an estimated $6.1 trillion in 2013.

How much of the war on drugs is tied to international treaties?

If lawmakers decided to stop the war on drugs tomorrow, a major hurdle could be international agreements that require restrictions and regulations on certain drugs.

There are three major treaties: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961,the Convention on Psychotropic Drugs of 1971, and the UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. Combined, the treaties require participants to limit and even criminalize the possession, use, trade, and distribution of drugs outside of medical and scientific purposes, and work together to stop international drug trafficking.

cocaine seizure

Soldiers guard nearly 4 tons of cocaine seized in Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / AFP via Getty Images)

There is a lot of disagreement among drug policy experts, enforcers, and reformers about the stringency of the treaties. Several sections of the conventions allow countries some flexibility so they don’t violate their own constitutional protections. The US, for example, has never enforced penalties on inciting illicit drug use on the basis that it would violate rights to freedom of speech.

Many argue that any move toward legalization of use, possession, and sales is in violation of international treaties. Under this argument, Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay are technically in violation of the treaties because they legalized marijuana for personal possession and sales.

Others say that countries have a lot of flexibility due to the constitutional exemptions in the conventions. Countries could claim, for instance, that their protections for right to privacy and health allow them to legalize drugs despite the conventions. When it comes to individual states in the US, the federal government can also argue that America’s federalist system allows states some flexibility as long as the federal government keeps drugs illegal.

“It’s pretty clear that the war on drugs was waged for political reasons and some countries have used the treaties as an excuse to pursue draconian policies,” said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. “Nevertheless, we’ve seen a number of countries drop criminal penalties for minor possession of all drugs. We’ve seen others put drugs into a pharmaceutical model, including the prescription of heroin to people with serious addictions. This seems completely possible within the treaties.”

uruguay marijuana legalization

Uruguayans rally for marijuana legalization. (Pablo Porciuncula / AFP via Getty Images)

Even if a country decided to dismantle prohibition and violate the treaties, it’s unclear how the international community would respond. If the US, for example, ended prohibition, there’s little other countries could do to interfere; there’s no international drug court, and sanctions would be very unlikely for a country as powerful as America.

Still, Martin Jelsma, an international drug policy expert at the Transnational Institute, argued that ignoring or pulling out of the international drug conventions could seriously damage America’s standing around the world. “Pacta sunt servanda (‘agreements must be kept’) is the most fundamental principle of international law and it would be very undermining if countries start to take an ‘a-la-carte’ approach to treaties they have signed; they cannot simply comply with some provisions and ignore others without losing the moral authority to ask other countries to oblige to other treaties,” Jelsma wrote in an email. “So our preference is to acknowledge legal tensions with the treaties and try to resolve them.”

To resolve such issues, many critics of the war on drugs hope to reform international drug laws in 2016 during the next General Assembly Special Session on drugs.

“There is tension with the tax-and-regulate approach to marijuana in some jurisdictions,” Malinowska-Sempruch said. “But it’s all part of a process and that’s why we hope the UN debate in 2016 is as open as possible, so that we can settle some of these questions and, if necessary, modernize the system.”

How do other countries deal with drugs?

There is a lot of variety in how different countries have adopted the UN conventions, ranging from levels of enforcement even more stringent than US drug laws to outright decriminalization. Here are a few examples:

• China carries out some of the harshest punishments for illicit drug trafficking. In the lead-up to International Anti-Drug Day, Chinese officials unveiled executions and other harsh punishments for drug traffickers in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2010, and2009.

China drugs

Chinese officials watch as they burn opium, heroin, and other seized drugs. (AFP via Getty Images)

• The United Kingdom maintains a classification system similar to America’s scheduling system, with criminal penalties set based on a drug’s classification. For example, selling class A substances can get someone up to life in prison, while class B sentences are limited to a maximum of 14 years.

• Portugal in 2001 decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. A 2009 report authored by Glenn Greenwald for the libertarian Cato Institute found drug use fell among teenagers in Portugal following decriminalization, but use ticked up for young adults aged 20 to 24.

• Uruguay in 2012 legalized marijuana for personal use and sales to eliminate a major source of revenue for violent drug cartels. The government is now working to establish regulations for the sales and distribution of pot, but the entire schemecould collapse if it’s not established before a critical election in October. Other drugs remain illegal.

What’s the case for focusing more on rehabilitation and addiction treatment?

The most cautious reform puts more emphasis on rehabilitation instead of locking up drug users in prison, but it does this without decriminalizing or legalizing drugs.

Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) approves of drug courts. (Allison Joyce / Getty Images News)

This is the approach recently embraced by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which plans to increase funding for rehabilitation programs in the coming years. The Obama administration also approved several legal and regulatory reforms, including Obamacare, that increased access to addiction treatment through health insurance. (However, the federal government still spends billions each year on conventional law enforcement operations against drugs.)

Drug courts, which even some conservatives like Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) support, are an example of the rehabilitation-focused approach. Instead of throwing drug offenders into jail or prison, these courts send them to rehabilitation programs that focus on treating addiction as a medical, not criminal, problem. (The Global Commission on Drug Policy, however, argues that drug courts can end up nearly as punitive as the full criminalization of drugs, because the courts often enforce total drug abstinence with the threat of incarceration. Since relapse is a normal part of rehabilitation, the threat of incarceration means a lot of nonviolent drug offenders can end up back in jail or prison even through drug courts.)

Other countries have taken even more drastic steps toward rehabilitation, some of which acknowledge not all addicts can be cured of drug dependency. Several European countries prescribe and administer, with supervision, heroin to a small number of addicts who prove resistant to other treatments. These programs allow some addicts to satisfy their drug dependency without a large risk of overdose and without resorting to other crimes to obtain drugs, such as robbery and burglary.

Researchers credit the heroin-assisted treatment program in Switzerland, the first national scheme of its kind, with reductions in drug-related crimes and improvements in social functioning, such as stabilized housing and employment. But some supporters of the war on drugs, such as the International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy, argue that these programs give the false impression that drug habits can be managed safely, which could weaken the social stigma surrounding drug use and lead more people to try dangerous drugs.

What’s the case for decriminalizing drugs?

Pointing to drug war’s failure to significantly reduce drug use, many drug policy experts argue that the criminalization of drug possession is fundamentally flawed. To these experts, the answer is decriminalizing all drug possession.

Mark Kleiman, one of the leading drug policy experts in the country, once opposed the idea of decriminalization, but he warmed up to it after looking at the evidence. “What I’ve learned since then,” he said, “is nobody’s got any empirical evidence that shows criminalization reduces consumption noticeably.”

war on drugs protest

A demonstrator protests the war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on black communities. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Kleiman said decriminalization could be paired up with a focus on rehabilitation. He advocated for policies like 24/7 Sobriety Programs that require twice-daily alcohol testing for every single person convicted of drunk driving, and anyone who fails the test is swiftly sent to jail for a few days. In South Dakota, alcohol-related traffic deaths declined by 33 percent between 2006 and 2007 — the highest decrease in the nation — after implementation of a 24/7 Sobriety Program.

In a paper, Kleiman analyzed a similar program in Hawaii for illicit drug users. Participants in that program had large reductions in positive drug tests and were significantly less likely to be arrested during follow-ups at three months, six months, and 12 months.


A 2009 report from the libertarian Cato Institute found that, after Portugal decriminalized all drugs, people were more willing to seek out rehabilitation programs. “The most substantial barrier to offering treatment to the addict population was the addicts’ fear of arrest,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, who authored the paper. “One prime rationale for decriminalization was that it would break down that barrier, enabling effective treatment options to be offered to addicts once they no longer feared prosecution. Moreover, decriminalization freed up resources that could be channeled into treatment and other harm reduction programs.”

As with heroin-assisted treatment programs, supporters of the war on drugs arguedecriminalization legitimizes and increases drug use, particularly among teens, by removing the social stigma attached to it. (Greenwald’s report found drug use fell among teenagers in Portugal following decriminalization, but use ticked up for young adults aged 20 to 24.)

Some drug policy reform advocates and experts, however, are critical of decriminalization without the legalization of sales. Isaac Campos, a drug historian at the University of Cincinnati, argued that keeping the drug market in criminal hands lets them maintain a huge source of revenue. “The black market might even be fueled somewhat by the fact that people won’t be arrested anymore, because maybe more people will use,” Campos said. “We don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s possible.”

What’s the case for legalizing drugs?

Given the concerns about the illicit drug market as a source of revenue for violent drug cartels, some advocates call for outright legalization of use, possession, distribution, and sales. Exactly what legalization entails, however, varies from person to person.

marijuana business Colorado

A legal marijuana business in Denver, Colorado. (Seth McConnell / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Isaac Campos, a drug historian at the University of Cincinnati, for instance, said he would like to see a model in which people can obtain drugs legally through different controlled methods, depending on the drug. Under his scheme, cocaine could be obtained at very low doses in pharmacies. More addictive and dangerous drugs, like heroin, could be offered in controlled environments — similar to heroin-assisted treatment programs, but they would be open to people beside addicts.

On the other hand, Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard University and the libertarian Cato Institute, supports full legalization, even it means the commercialization of drugs that are currently illegal. This, he said, is the only complete answer to eliminating the black market as a source of revenue for criminal groups.

marijuana joint Colorado

A person in Colorado holds up a large marijuana joint. (John Moore / Getty Images News)

When asked about full legalization, Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert who supports decriminalization, pushed back against the concept. He said full legalization could foster and encourage more problem drug users. For-profit drug businesses, just like alcohol and tobacco companies, would prefer heavy users, because the heavy users tend to buy way more of their product. In Colorado’s legal marijuana market, for example, the heaviest 30 percent of users make up nearly 90 percent of demand for pot. “They are an industry with a set of objectives that flatly contradicts public interest,” Kleiman said.

Miron argued that, even if sales or distribution are legalized, the harder drugs could be taxed and regulated similarly to or more harshly than tobacco and alcohol, although he personally doesn’t support that approach. “You could absolutely legalize it and have restrictions on commercialization,” Miron said. “Those should be separate questions.”

The problem, according to Kleiman, is that the alcohol model has clear pitfalls. Alcohol still causes health problems that kill tens of thousands each year, it’s often linked to violent crime, and some experts consider it the most dangerous drug.

Still, some evidence suggests the alcohol model could be adjusted to reduce its issues. In a big review of the evidence, Alexander Wageneaar, Amy Tobler, and Kelli Komro concluded that increasing alcohol taxes — and, as a result, getting people to drink less alcohol — would significantly reduce violence, crime, and other negative repercussions of alcohol use.

Could marijuana legalization alone cripple drug cartels?

Following the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, some reportsclaimed that the legalization of pot use and sales had crippled drug cartels. But drug policy experts — and the available empirical evidence — suggest marijuana legalization alone won’t take away enough revenue from drug cartels to make them go away.

poppy field

A Mexican poppy field cultivated by drug traffickers to produced the key ingredient for heroin. (Alfredo Estrella / AFP via Getty Images)

Based on previous studies from the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness and theRAND Corporation, marijuana makes up roughly 20 to 30 percent of drug cartels’ revenue. While that’s a significant source of money, it’s only a partial reduction — and drug cartels could fill the gap with other sources of funds, such as the increasingly lucrative heroin trade, gun trafficking, or extortion.

Still, the reduction could do some damage to criminal groups. When discussingUruguay’s marijuana legalization plan, John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America said, “Even if it doesn’t eradicate the illegal market, but it shrinks the market significantly, that’s in and of itself an important outcome.”

How does the war on drugs affect states with marijuana legalization?

Marijuana is now legal for medical and recreational purposes in several states, but it remains illegal under federal law. Although federal officials have mostly taken a hands-off approach to these states’ laws, several federal policies ingrained into law can make it very difficult for states to carry out their legalization schemes.

California medical marijuana dispensary

California has some of the laxest laws for medical marijuana dispensaries. (David McNew / Getty Images News)

One of the biggest concerns in states where marijuana is fully legal, such as Colorado and Washington, is that marijuana businesses by and large can’t work with conventional banks. All but a few financial institutions refuse to work with marijuana businesses as of August, because they’re worried, even after a federal guidance that tried to ease their concerns, they could run into legal troubles at the federal level.

Another issue is that the federal government regularly raids state-legal marijuana shops. Sometimes these raids appear justifiable; in Colorado, for instance, the DEA and IRS went after a marijuana shop accused of money laundering and ties to Colombian drug cartels. But in some cases, the Huffington Post found the raids hit legitimate businesses who are compliant with state laws.

There’s some signs that Congress now wants to remove these hurdles to state-level experimentation with marijuana legalization. The House of Representatives in late May voted — for the first time — to prohibit the federal government from interfering with states’ medical marijuana laws, and the House in July voted to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses.


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