3 reasons it’s time to end the War on Drugs

We're wasting our time and our money.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published May 14, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 8:15 pm CDT

Morgan Freeman likes pot. And increasingly, so does the rest of America.

Medical marijuana legislation just passed in the Pennsylvania Senate and with legalization efforts ramping up around the country, it’s becoming clear that support for state-sanctioned pot use is on the rise. The U.S. does not view marijuana the way it used to, and although it may be years before the country’s shifting viewpoints begin to take effect on a federal level, it now seems all too likely that sometime within the next decade or two, legalization will be the law of the land.

The only problem around the current pot debate is that it stops with pot. To be sure, marijuana is a unique drug, worthy of a separate conversation. But just as the legalization campaign has revealed how very little we actually know about pot, it has also revealed how little we know about all drugs in general. That pervasive misunderstanding of drugs has continued to be fueled by one thing: the government’s ongoing war on drugs.

The war on drugs has gotten plenty of attention in pop culture over the past few years, from big Hollywood movies like Traffic, to critically acclaimed TV shows like The Wire, to thoughtful documentaries like The House I Live In. And while the style of these efforts has not always been similar, the message remains the same: The war on drugs is terrible. Not only has the war on drugs negatively affected the country in more insidious ways, like fueling the war on terror, but the obvious racism inherent in its policies have directly impacted the violence in areas like Ferguson, Mo.

Going forward, there can be only one solution: ending the war on drugs. There are about a thousand reasons to do so, but here are three to start.

1) The DEA

The Drug Enforcement Agency has made a lot of headlines lately. But from Cartel-funded sex parties in Columbia to creating Facebook accounts with seized property, the biggest shame of the DEA is its contributions to the culture of surveillance which persists in threatening civil liberties across the U.S. In partnering with the NSA and the Justice Department, the DEA has undertaken the secret mission to monitor emails, phone calls, and other pieces of personal information that the government has essentially declared as “up for grabs” throughout the War on Terror

Of course, these were tactics that the DEA began using years ago, but their presence on a national scale became commonplace post-9/11.

A recent example of the DEA’s lack of respect for civil liberties involves a man named Joseph Rivers. As the Washington Post reports, Rivers was headed on a train to Los Angeles with $16,000 of seed money he intended to put towards his life’s dream of starting a music video company, when his trip was cut abruptly short in Albuquerque, N.M. That’s where DEA agents boarded his Amtrak car and began asking passengers where they were going. 

Rivers, the only black person on his part of the train, explained he was headed to Los Angeles and told the agents about his plans there. And when the agent asked to see Rivers’ luggage, he complied. When they found a large envelope of cash, Rivers explained that he had difficulties in the past withdrawing bigger sums of money out-of-state and that he needed every cent he had with him for his future business.

The DEA agents didn’t believe him. They told him they believed the cash was an indication that Rivers was involved in the drug trade, and even though they did not find any paraphernalia among his belongings, they took it anyway. 

How? As part of the Justice Department’s multibillion-dollar civil asset forfeiture policies. “There is no presumption of innocence under civil asset forfeiture laws,” writes the Post’s Christopher Ingraham. “Rather, law enforcement officers only need to have a suspicion—in practice, often a vague one—that a person is involved with illegal activity in order to seize their property. … Once property has been seized, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to get it back—even if the cops ultimately never charge them with a crime.”

The fact that makes Rivers’ case especially awful is that New Mexico recently outlawed civil asset forfeiture. However, this doesn’t apply to federal agents, giving the DEA ongoing permission to come in and take whatever they want. Rivers has hired a lawyer to help him get back his life savings, or at least to help him get back some of it.

Around the country, through, civil asset forfeiture remains one of the worst symptoms of the drug war. These seizures bring in $3.9 billion total for the Justice Department. The DEA specifically profits immensely from them, having already brought in $38 million in revenue through civil asset forfeiture this year. These policies trickle down to local law enforcement, who have also become financially incentivized to make drug busts (most of which are petty and don’t lead to major arrests). 

Attorney General Eric Holder has taken steps to curb the amount of these seizures, though a closer look at the data suggests his efforts will only prevent a few of them. Even as the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to issues like medical marijuana legislation (much to the DEA’s chagrin), civil asset forfeiture has more than doubled during Obama’s time as president.

With DEA head Michelle Leonhart stepping down last month over her handling of the Colombian sex scandal, the DEA’s public image is worse than ever. If ever there was a time for the agency to undergo serious reform, or to be abolished altogether, that time is now.

2) Mass incarceration

Although our perspective on drugs has changed, Americans still have a lot of work to do on how they view drug users. Starting with the policies of President Nixon, the predominant ideology labels serious drug-users as criminals, rather than addicts. Today, as the stigma around marijuana is fading, and the country has begun to see cannabis for recreational (and medical) use, our understanding of how to deal with severe drug addiction has remained the same. 

What makes this much more disappointing is that the rate of drug addiction itself has gone down, while the rate of drug control spending has skyrocketed, coming in at over a trillion dollars.

The result has been to cement America as a prison state, built largely on the back of drug offenses. Black Americans have been hit the hardest by these policies, with the politics of the Reagan administration continuing to target them in overwhelming numbers.

As Ohio State University Professor Michelle Alexander sees it, this has brought about the creation of what she called the The New Jim Crow, in the publication of a 2012 book by the same name. Alexander writes:

Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades—they are currently are at historical lows—but imprisonment rates have consistently soared, quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population. … In some states, African Americans comprise 80 percent to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.

There are a myriad of other ways the New Jim Crow has become evident. Sentencing for crack cocaine possession is disproportionately harsher than for powder cocaine possession, and since crack has had a worse effect on the black community, the double-standard is obvious. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations get rich off the prison-industrial complex, making millions of dollars by keeping Americans behind bars. Things have gotten so bad that we’re now the world leader in incarceration, exceeding the incarceration rates of larger countries like China.

Mass incarceration has become a worse crime than the offenses many Americans end up getting locked up for. Think about what’s worse: a first time narcotics offender who sold pain pills to a friend or sentencing that offender to 25 years in prison? Mass incarceration is more than just racist, it’s illogical. And as long as the War on Drugs is in place, it will keep on being harming the black community for years to come.

3) The cost

Like all wars, the War on Drugs has been expensive. Throughout its long and complicated history, the Nixon/Reagan era policies that have defined it have also diverted funds away from drug rehabilitation. Today, roughly 60 percent of drug war funds go to “fighting” the war, leaving less than half the funds allocated for treatment. The U.S. government isn’t even really that invested anymore in the Nixon/Reagan method of “arrest first, ask questions later,” but the methodology remains the same, apparently out of sheer laziness.

“The Obama administration has distanced itself from the war on drugs, at least rhetorically,” writes History News Network’s Aileen Teague. “And yet last year’s federal drug war budget—topping $25 billion—and the continued efforts of U.S. institutions abroad in the name of drug control, remind us that a war on drugs is still alive and well.”

This could not be more apparent than in Mexico. The resulting death toll in the DEA’s attempts to take down the cartels tops out at more than 70,000, and if anything, the DEA’s fight with the cartels is actually making the drug war worse. 

Here at home, things aren’t much better. Drug offenders comprise roughly 16 percent of the U.S. prison population. This equals roughly 210,200 inmates. And even taking the human costs of the drug war out of the equation, the financial repercussions are similarly unsustainable. Consider that the cost of drug treatment for the average offender is approximately $20,000 less than to lock them up.

Whether you want to look at in dollar signs or in actual human lives, the drug war does not make any sense. The cost is insurmountable, and yet it just keeps growing bigger and bigger.

As always, there are reasons not to despair. Both at home and abroad, committed individuals are finding ways to treat drug offenders rather than maintaining a system that utterly dehumanizes them. Despite the apathetic rhetoric of the Obama administration and the U.S. government at large, a war on the War on Drugs is winnable and should be viewed as such. But to really put an end to the drug war, we first have to acknowledge that it didn’t work. That it never worked. That to keep fighting it, that to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, is madness.

Drugs may arguably be a societal evil, but the War on Drugs has become a special kind of evil unto itself.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.

Photo via Photo Extremist/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: May 14, 2015, 2:02 pm CDT