After 40 years, ‘drug war’ still a failure
Forty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon declared that “the tide of drug abuse which has swept America in the last decade” had become a national emergency. In a statement to Congress and at a press conference, Nixon called for an “all-out offensive” against “public enemy number one” and thus launched the “war on drugs.” In challenging the nation to harness its moral and material resources to address the emergency, he declared that “the final issue is not whether we will conquer drug abuse, but how soon.”
Forty years later, we have the answer. We will never “conquer” drug abuse, despite spending about a trillion dollars and arresting tens of millions of Americans since 1971. In 2011 a greater variety of drugs is more available, less expensive, more potent, and more widely used than ever.
How did this happen? As a former police officer who spent years on the front lines of the drug war, I believe the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s folly (and that of every president since then) is a great time to address that question.
The failure has clearly not been with the rank-and-file cops who enforce the drug laws. Those men and women have shown exemplary courage in carrying out their perilous assignment. Hundreds of police officers have lost their lives in the line of drug-war duty. The failure is not due to inadequate resources. The government spends more and more of our money every year to wage this war.
The reason we have lost the drug war is that we have defined it in a way that ensures failure. The main effect of prohibition, which frames drug trafficking and use fundamentally as law enforcement issues, has been to create obscenely profitable global markets managed by thugs. The alarming violence that prohibition engenders – in the U.S. and Mexico – is a result of turf battles for dominance in these markets.
We saw the same dynamic in the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal in America. Thanks to Al Capone and his competitors, liquor remained readily available, profits exploded, and spectacular violence ensued. We learned then that no degree of law enforcement courage, commitment, or resources can end an activity that is extremely profitable and popular. President Nixon’s 1971 declaration said, “When traffic in narcotics is no longer profitable, then that traffic will cease.” True enough, but his way of trying to make drugs less profitable by arresting and jailing people hasn’t worked; it’s had the opposite effect.
Over the last forty years, as the futility of prohibition has become evident, support for a new approach has increased. Today, polls show that 76 percent of Americans and 67 percent of police chiefs believe the drug war has failed. Still, President Obama, despite some encouraging rhetoric from his administration about treating drugs as health issue, has ramped up funding for the drug war and its punishment-oriented approach just like every chief executive since Nixon has.
At the same time, global support for prohibition has eroded steadily. Last month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy published a study that described the drug war as a massive failure with “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Commission members included Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, and the former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. The Commission recommended new policies based on public-health goals, reputable science, and fiscal responsibility – in other words, a fundamental shift from the last four decades.
It’s impossible to know how President Nixon would assess today’s drug war. But we do know that prohibition has not only failed but has made our drug problems much worse. It’s time for America to chart a new course by regulating all drugs the way we regulate alcohol and tobacco. It’s time for America to put a dent in the drug gangs’ profits, do a much better job of protecting our kids and stop spending billions of dollars on policies that can never work. Let’s end the war on drugs.
Norm Stamper is the former chief of police in Seattle, Wash. and a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.