Just What Is So Wrong with the War on Drugs?

June 14, 2011
Guest Post

By Inimai M. Chettiar, Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. Ms. Chettiar serves as national legislative counsel to achieve smart criminal justice reform in states across the country. She has published scholarship on the use of economic analysis to promote laws advancing social welfare. This month, the ACLU has dedicated a blog series discussing the failed war on drugs.


All our lives we have been taught that when someone uses or sells drugs, justice dictates that he or she should go to prison. We are taught that those who commit drug crimes are a threat to society, either because they want to turn others into addicts or steal from them for drug money; they belong in prison, safely away from law abiding citizens. But lately, newspapers and legislatures are abuzz with a message that is just the opposite: relying less on prison sanctions for drug crimes can actually increase public safety.

The rhetoric and policies of the so-called war on drugs may be the cultural norm, but they aren’t always sensible. Our lawmakers should have listened to Milton Friedman, who from the start warned that the drug war would result in disastrous consequences for inner city neighborhoods with the only benefit being a highly profitable black market for drug cartels.

This Friday, June 17th, marks 40 years from the date President Richard Nixon first declared  a “war on drugs,” referencing the policies he implemented in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The progeny of this Act have left us with a convoluted maze of billions of pages of federal and state criminal codes that dole out stiff, lengthy sentences for drug crimes. The proffered goal: to reduce and ultimately end the production, distribution, and use of drugs labeled “illicit.”

So what’s the verdict 40 years later? Have we won the war on drugs? Quite simply, no. From a public safety perspective, the war has been completely ineffective at stemming the supply or use of drugs in this country. From a cost perspective, it’s been horrific – with a whopping $1 trillion price tag thus far and an unimaginably higher toll in lives and families lost to prison. In terms of fairness, it has been a total bust as well. The effect on communities of color has been astonishingly tragic: there are more African-Americans under the control of prison and corrections departments today than were ever enslaved by this country. Even the current head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, and more recently the Global Commission on Drug Policy, have announced that the drug war has been an abject disaster.

According to the federal government, drugs are increasingly widely available and the rates of drug use are actually up by 10 percent since the start of the war on drugs. Drug supply and use have increased despite the 2.3 million people languishing in prisons – about 25 percent of whom are locked up for drug violations. If we look at just federal prisons, things are even worse, with nearly half of those in prison locked up for drug crimes.

When we incarcerate drug offenders, they stay locked up for insanely lengthy periods of time – and often forever. We increasingly sentence them to life in prison under three-strikes-and-you’re-outlaws for petty drug crimes. And disappointingly, our Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of laws imposing disproportionate mandatory sentences of life without parole for simple possession of drugs.

To make matters worse, the policies of the drug war have made an intentional - though baseless - determination that certain segments of our population deserve to be imprisoned for drug crimes more than others. You don’t see cops busting through NYU dragging away young coeds for smoking up in their dorm rooms or selling coke to their friends at East Village bars. Instead, you see the NYPD executing massive drug sweeps in housing projects and on the street corners of Harlem, throwing black men into cop cars for minimal amounts of marijuana in their pockets. These types of selective enforcement practices are the reason our prisons are bursting at the seams with black Americans convicted of petty drug offenses - despite the fact that white Americans use drugs at a higher rate than African-Americans.

There is nothing rational about such drug policies. In no other area of criminal law do we lock up huge numbers of people because they might pose threats to themselves, but have done nothing to harm another person.

So what’s the alternative? Some say legalize and regulate drugs the way we do alcohol and tobacco. 

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing drugs would inject $88 billion a year into the U.S. economy.

But even if you think that drugs should be illegal, it’s hard to justify prison sentences for possession or nonviolent drug crimes. Imprisoning people for drug offenses basically destroys their liveseven if they’re lucky enough to exit prison. Prison neither treats nor trains nor rehabilitates. Instead, prison makes people more likely to commit crimes in the future and makes them effectively unemployable with little hope of a future. Evidence indisputably shows that treatment is far more cost-effective than incarceration for drug offenses, rehabilitating individuals so they can be productive members of society.

Recognizing this reality, several states have recently reformed their drug laws. Texas has increased the use of treatment and rehabilitation and now has its lowest crime rate since 1973. This year, Connecticut decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and California is considering a proposal to turn drug possession into a misdemeanor. These policies are far more sensible ways to address drug abuse than the drug war policies that not-so-blindly lock people up and throw away the key.

Driven by politics and fear, the war on drugs has been ineffective, fiscally irresponsible, racially biased, and just plain foolish. Simply put, it hasn’t worked and has actually made us worse off. If 40 years of failed drug policies and our status as the largest incarcerator in the world isn’t a sufficient wake-up call that we need to change the way we deal with drugs in this country, it’s hard to imagine what else could be.