America's War on Drugs: Policy and Problems

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America's War on Drugs: Policy and Problems

In this paper I will evaluate America's War on Drugs. More specifically, I will outline our nation's general drug history and look critically at how Congress has influenced our current ineffective drug policy. Through this analysis I hope to show that drug prohibition policies in the United States, for the most part, have failed. Additionally, I will highlight and evaluate the influences acting on individual legislators' decisions to continue support for these ineffective policies as a more general demonstration of Congress' role in the formation of our nation's drug policy strategy. Finally, I will conclude this analysis by outlining the changes I feel necessary for future progress to be made. Primary among these changes are a general promotion of drug education and the elimination of our current system's many de-legitimating hypocrisies.

However, before the specific outcomes of Congressional influence and policy impact can be evaluated it becomes important to first review the general history and current situation of drugs today. Our present drug laws were first enacted at the beginning of the century. At the time, recreational use of narcotics was not a major social issue. The first regulatory legislation was for the purpose of standardizing the manufacturing and purity of pharmaceutical products. Shortly after, the first criminal laws were enacted which addressed opium products and cocaine. Although some states had prohibited the recreational use of marijuana, there was no federal criminal legislation until 1937. By contrast, the use of alcohol and its legality was a major social issue in United States in the early 20th century. This temperance movement culminated in the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Recreational drug use, particularly heroin, became more prevalent among the urban poor during the early ?60s. Because of the high cost of heroin and its uncertain purity, its use was associated with crime and frequent overdoses.

A drug subculture involving the use of marijuana and other hallucinogenic drugs began to emerge in mainstream American society in the late ?60s and was loosely associated with an overall atmosphere of political protest concerning the Vietnam War and civil rights. Drug use, including heroin use, was prevalent among soldiers during the Vietnam War and many of them returned addicted. Since that time, the recreational use of drugs, particularly marijuana, has been a constant aspect of youth culture in all social classes.

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"America's War on Drugs: Policy and Problems." 17 Jan 2017

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In the ?70s cocaine began to emerge as a fashionable new drug among professionals. Its high cost and allure fueled a major drug trafficking link between the United States and Latin America. Its popularity diminished when its addictive properties became more understood but a cheaper and more addictive form of cocaine, ?crack? cocaine, began its scourge of America?s poor neighborhoods in the ?80s.
President Reagan launched the first official ?War on Drugs? in 1982. A national office under the direction of the President was created to coordinate efforts to address the illegal drug problem. The budget has steadily increased since that time to its present level of 19.8 billion. Most of the effort is directed toward supporting stricter drug enforcement aimed at stopping the importation and sale of drugs. The effort is primarily based on targeting the drug supply through aggressive law enforcement. However, other programs have addressed the ?demand? side: treatment, prevention and education. As will be discussed in following section the War on Drugs has been structured through five basic goals.

Where is the Money Going?

It is my contention that the War on Drugs has been a failure of the most expensive kind. According to Barry Mcaffrey?s report: ?Reducing Drug Use and its Consequences in America,? the policies of the War on Drugs have five main goals. These goals include keeping young people off of drugs, reducing drug-related violence, reducing health, welfare and crime costs related to drugs, shielding America?s borders from drugs entering the country and stopping drugs at the domestic and international sources. (1996, 3). It is my belief that these policies have only achieved limited success on some of these goals while others have gone completely unmet.

Government reports state that the 1999 federal budget for drug prohibition was a record $17.8 billion, an increase from $6.7 billion ten years earlier and $1.5 billion in 1981. While overall drug use has declined since 1979, it has remained stable since the introduction of the astronomic budget increases in 1989. For a more specific look at the Federal budget please see the tables that directly follow this essay. The overall numbers of current drug users may have declined, but White House reports confess that a large part of the drop is due to declining rates of casual marijuana use. (Bertram et al., 10).

Bertram et al. also claim that the government has failed in its central goals of raising drug prices and lowering availability. As the tables show the prices of hardcore drugs such as cocaine and heroin have decreased dramatically since 1981, while the purity of the drugs has gone up at an almost equal ratio. The amount spent on drugs has thus declined since 1989, while the supply has remained relatively stable. The only drug that the Office of National Drug Control Policy claims is available in smaller quantities now than before 1989 is cocaine, even though they also admit to a lot of imprecision in estimates from year to year. Additionally, the number of hardcore users of cocaine and heroin has remained constant. The number of casual cocaine users has declined significantly, while the number of casual heroin users has increased significantly (ONDCP-1997).

Bertram et al. also claim that there are two major ?effects? that work against the success of drug prohibition policies: the hydra effect and the profit paradox. The hydra effect is named for the mythical beast who, every time you cut off one of its heads, grows two more to replace it. Bertram et al. claim the same thing occurs with drug suppliers.

?The key here is that cocaine, heroin, and marijuana are easy products to grow, refine, transport and sell. The amount of money and skill needed to enter into business is not high - there are low barriers to entry ? and the business is quite profitable?these conditions make even the success of drug-enforcement campaigns ephemeral. It is simple and lucrative for suppliers to produce more in order to offset what they might lose in seizures by drug enforcers. And there are always new recruits to take the place of those who are arrested. As a result, growing fields, production labs, and supply routes spring back to life and even expand despite repeated law-enforcement efforts.? (Bertram et al. 13).

The profit paradox contends that when the government is successful in raising the prices of drugs, they are also successful in increasing the profits that can be made by dealing drugs. This provides a constant incentive for drug suppliers to both enter and stay in the illicit drug trade. Thus, the influences of the hydra effect and profit paradox illustrate the complexities of the War on Drugs. Further, they highlight the weaknesses of our current policies and approach.

According to Arnold Trebach, political leader?s declaration that all drug users are ?the enemy? has also contributed to the War?s general failure. In doing this, leaders have failed to distinguish between use and abuse, criminal and citizen. Research indicates that marijuana, which is considered to be safer than legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, is the cause of violation in most drug incarcerations in the United States (Baggins, 1998, 103). Thus, the classification of all marijuana users as the enemy has produced more contempt than compassion from American citizens. The lack of distinction between levels and types of drug use has created a general policy doomed to fail. Trebach suggests, ?We are losing the great drug war because we do not now have and never had, the capability to manage a successful war on any drug.? (1987, 3). As an example, he reminds us that alcohol prohibition had more negative societal effects than alcohol use.

Drug Prohibition: More Harm than Good?

In addition to not achieving their stated and implied goals, many scholars argue that drug prohibition policies actually create more problems than they solve. The negative effects of drug prohibition policies include: increased violence, negative health effects, increased strength of drugs, corruption at home and abroad, misallocation of resources, an overload of the criminal justice system, and violation of civil liberties.
Bertram et al. argue that drug-related crime is not the result of drug use but of the conditions under which individuals are forced, by drug prohibition policies, to buy and sell drugs. The types of crimes related to drugs are largely created by drug policies. Laws that make drug possession illegal create the largest group of drug criminals. Other crimes, such as robbery and violent crime, are caused by the black market in which drugs are exchanged. If they were legal, Bertram et al. argue, the prices of drugs would be significantly less and therefore so would profits and incentives to participate in crimes like robbery, assault and murder. Additionally, since drugs are illegal, buyers and sellers have nowhere to turn to resolve disputes and must instead rely on violence. (1996, 33).

Drug policies criminalize activities related to drug use and prosecute drug users who are discovered through methods other than law enforcement. This leads to negative health effects. Many believe that the spread of AIDS was greatly assisted by the sharing of syringes and hypodermic needles, which are illegal to possess (users, out of necessity, shared needles and hence the virus). The policies also provide a disincentive for mothers who are drug addicts to seek prenatal care for their children, due to fear of being caught and prosecuted. Siegel et al. also point out that the federal government and many states have resisted or fought against the use of marijuana for medical reasons, despite the preponderance of medical evidence that suggest the drug is highly beneficial for chemotherapy, glaucoma and AIDS patients. That being said, decriminalization and medical statutes to legalize marijuana have been proposed and supported in 13 states. These states can also be viewed by in the graphs and tables that follow.

A recent increase in the number of drug overdoses is directly related to the unregulated strength of the illegal drugs available (Bertram et al., 36). Barnett adds that drug prohibition laws ??create a powerful (black) market incentive for clandestine chemists to develop alternative ?synthetic? drugs that can be made more cheaply and with less risk of detection by law enforcement.? (1987, 84). Thus, the creation of stronger drugs and an illegal market for their sale can be directly attributed to prohibition laws.
Further, the profits made in the illegal drug trade provide a strong incentive for corruption by law enforcement officials. ?Today, many law-enforcement officials believe that police corruption is more pervasive than at any time since Prohibition.? (Nadelmann, 30). In New York City, corruption is considered so widespread that a new undercover squad was created to try to and alleviate the problem. (Johns, 21). Johns also contends that the corruption caused by the drug trade extends to correctional personnel, lawyers, merchants and real estate agents. Additionally, corruption is also found in foreign regimes working with the United States to prevent the Drug Trade. The most famous incidents of corruption have been well rooted in Central American countries that are home to drug producers, such as Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, etc. (Bertram et al., 17). Most people believe that the billions of dollars spent on the failed prohibition of the drug trade are needed elsewhere. ?The time, resources, and energy devoted to policing complaint less crimes ?deflects police time and resources away from other more serious crimes, crimes that are associated with just as much violence and that are arguably more destructive to the social fabric?? (Johns, 16). The statistical breakdown of this phenomenon can be seen in the pie chart depicting the percentage of persons incarcerated for drug offenses that follows this text.

The extensive prosecution of drug users and dealers has taxed the criminal justice system millions of dollars. ?By 1990 drug cases accounted for 44 percent of all criminal trials and 50 percent of criminal appeals?The large volume of cases means that the court system is in a perpetual state of crisis, trying to process far more drug offenses than it can possibly absorb. As expected, the prison system is similarly overloaded.? (Bertram et al., 50). In 1980, drug offenders were 2.5 percent of federal inmates. In 1993, they were 61 percent of federal inmates. This phenomenon has led to overcrowding in many prisons and new laws that cap the number of prisoners that can be incarcerated. ?Under these regulations, every time a new drug violator is imprisoned in a facility that has reached its cap, someone else must be freed.? (Bertam et al., 50). And, perhaps more importantly, according to Betram et al, imprisonment seems to do little to slow the use of drugs by inmates. Users often continue to use drugs after they leave prison, and have little trouble obtaining drugs while in prison. They even suggest that many prisoners, who did not use drugs prior to imprisonment, started using them while behind bars. This has to be considered an ironic and alarming consequence of our supposed system of rehabilitation.

Also of concern to the War on Drugs are the civil liberties of American citizens. After the attack of 9/11, and the subsequent passing of the Patriot Act, the government was given a huge expansion of power to find and eliminate behavior associated with terrorist efforts. Almost immediately an add campaign was aired drawing a direct link between illegal drug use and the terrorists group of Al Qaeda. This connection allowed police and authorities to attack drug users more aggressively while paying even less mind to citizen?s previously protected civil liberties.

There are a variety of ways in which drug prohibition policies are associated with violations of citizen?s civil liberties. Individuals are often arrested because they fit the ?profile? of drug users. Additionally, drug offenders are routinely denied legal counsel. (Bertram et al, 47). Illegal searches and seizures are made without the proper warrants being obtained. Mandatory minimum sentences inflict harsh punishments for victimless and nonviolent crimes. (Bertram et al., 51). Meier and other authors have highlighted the alarmingly disproportionate arrest and prosecution of minorities for drug offenses despite the fact that most drug users are white. Bertram et al. found that whites were approximately 77 percent of all regular drug users while blacks were only 15 percent. ?Yet by 1991 blacks were four times as likely to be arrested as were whites on drug charges? Blacks, about 12 percent of the population, accounted for about 10 percent of all drug arrests in 1984, 40 percent in 1988, and 42 percent in 1990.? (Bertram et al., 37). These statistics help to illustrate the bias and hypocrisy of our current system.

Even more horrifying is the fact that black drug offenders receive longer prison sentences on average, than do white drug offenders. This is the result of a convenient distinction made by authorities between crack and cocaine. Sentences for crack cocaine are 100 times those of powder cocaine. Because crack is assumed to be an ethnic problem blacks are much more likely to face far longer sentences in federal courts than Whites. (Siegel et al., 118). However, medical researchers have found that crack cocaine has the same physiological effects as powder cocaine. (Hatsukami and Fischman, 1996). Yet again we see hypocrisy within our current system that needs immediate remedying.
In sum, drug polices thus far have failed in every attempt to achieve their stated goals. Policies have failed to reduce both the demand and supply of drugs. They have failed to increase the price of drugs beyond the capabilities of the public to buy them. Increased potency of street drugs, drug-related crime and violence, health effects, prison and criminal justice system overload, racist outcomes and violations of civil rights are just some of the negative effects that have been linked to the War on Drugs.

How does Congress Fit in?

Congress has passed numerous laws over the years in efforts to prohibit legal drug use. Prior to the Harrison Act of 1914, little was done on a national level, with some exceptions, such as the Pure Food and Drug act of 1906, which required the labeling of all products with opiates in them (Brecher, 1972). Sentences for drug offenses were increased and the Federal Narcotics Control Board was created in 1922. In 1924, Congress banned the importation of heroin, even for medicinal use. Additionally, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created in 1930 to aid in the Drug War. (McWilliams, 279). A 1937 law placed a transfer tax on marijuana. (Musto, 1987). The 1951 Boggs Act added mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The 1956 Narcotic Control Act increased these minimums and introduced the death penalty for dealers who sold drugs to minors. Finally, the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970. Although these are just a few of the most prominent laws passed by Congress they highlight the fundamental institutional influence of government.

While this brief look at the history of drug policy is by no means exhaustive, it shows that Congress is important in drug prohibition policies. In its role as primary producer of laws, Congress has been the creator of most national drug control policy. Meier found that ?Congressional laws receive strong support as a control over drug enforcement policy.? (1994, 97). Many of these laws have been influential in the overall direction of drug prohibition in the United States. Much of the legislation created by Congress has influenced the executive branch directly by establishing organizations under the president?s control. Obviously, it is up to the bureaucracy to implement much of the legislation passed by Congress and the judiciary has the primary role in prosecution and imprisonment of drug offenders. While individual states are also important in drug policies most of the national drug prohibition policies flow directly from the legislative branch.

According to Siegel et al. (1997) public opinion is the driving force behind Congress? inability to change drug policies that have not worked. They found in a study of public opinion data from 1994 that most Americans oppose drug legalization. Zinberg and Robinson (1972) found strong evidence of this as well. ?The public response to nonmedical drug use is overwhelmingly one of moral disgust, condemnation, and fear at the threat of social and personal chaos that drug use seems to portend.? (29). Further, they found that over 90 percent of the public surveyed in a 1969 Harris Poll associated drug use with moral decay. Additionally, Zinberg and Robinson found that this condemnation for drugs was strong across socioeconomic groups (36). In general the public seems to have several relatively consistent beliefs about drug use: all drugs are equally harmful, drugs are powerful, drugs cause crime, drugs are physically harmful to users and drug users suffer from mental illness. However, many of these beliefs can be traced back to Government sponsored propaganda.

Siegel et al. go on to say ?Because so many voters vehemently oppose legalization, if any politician does support legalization, he or she would not likely publicly support any attempts to loosen the current drug law.? (196). Bertram et al. agree, claiming that social groups and elite individuals have exerted influence on policy makers to sustain the War on Drugs and have systematically ignored evidence against the effectiveness of current drug laws. ?When evidence of failure is heard and accepted, a common tendency is to reject its implications or draw wrongheaded conclusions - focusing on the need for better coordination, greater force, or more resources.? (1996, 161). Since those who have a stake or believe they have a stake in the War on Drugs tend to have very intense feelings about the issue, the problem is further exacerbated and prevailing public opinion on drug policies is reinforced. ?When passion in public debate runs high, facts about the topic have no impact, we experience the power of mythology.? (Miller, 109). Policy makers become trapped by the power of these myths and feel that in order to win re-election, they have no choice but to continue past policies. Hill and Hinton-Andersson (1995) found that there is a reciprocal causal relationship between elites and the public when it comes to policy preferences. This suggests that even if policy makers are informed with information that drug policies are failures, they may ignore the information because the public also ignores it.

Interestingly, Johns (1992) argues that the real purpose of the War on Drugs is social control, both at home and abroad. ??The War on Drugs has been highly successful in diverting public attention away from fundamental social problems that plague society.? (Johns, 57). Paramount amongst the social problems being ignored are racism, unequal access to education and job opportunities, and low political participation from American citizens. He claims that drug prohibition policy is a lucrative tool and an effective tool for the expansion of state power and thus is too beneficial for certain groups to give up.

William Gormley (1986) argues that issues are more likely to be salient to the public when they are seen as a threat to the American dream or an affront to community values (601). In 1989 and 1990 public opinion polls, the American public stated that drug abuse was the single most important problem facing the nation. All House members, Fenno argues, have three primary goals: ?reelection, power inside Congress, and good public policy.? (1978, 137). It is no accident that he lists reelection first, because if a member cannot stay in office he or she cannot achieve power inside Congress or good public policy. Mayhew (1974) also agrees with Fenno in that all House members are primarily interested in reelection. One of the methods Members of Congress use to win reelection is called ?credit claiming.? In order to claim credit, a member tries to convince his or her constituency that policy outputs the constituent prefers are related to the members actions in Congress. Additionally, a member can claim credit for acting in a way that maintains present policies the constituency approves of or that attempt to address problems the constituency feels are important or salient. If drug policy is salient, and I believe it is based on the evidence, then it would be in a member?s best interest to support and maintain those policies that are in line with public desires concerning drug prohibition.

In sum, it seems to me that the driving factor behind the continuation of irrational, inefficient and ineffective drug prohibition policies is the reelection hypothesis. Members of Congress are primarily interested in winning reelection, so they engage in activities that aim to enhance their chances of returning to Congress. Aligning their policy preferences with those of their constituency on highly salient issues is one way to do this. This allows members to claim credit for drug prohibition policies, which are strongly favored by the general public. Unfortunately, the public is often misinformed about the effects of drugs and drug prohibition policies; therefore they favor the continuation and expansion of laws that attack sinners and sin. Accordingly, in order to ensure reelection, Members of Congress continue to favor these ineffective policies as well.

Because Drugs remain a moral issue for most people both Democrats and Republicans have supported more aggressive policy equally. There remains strong bipartisan support for an aggressive national campaign against drugs although some votes on the severity of penalties tend to be partisan. In the last Presidential campaign, Candidate Al Gore initially indicated that he supported the idea of medical use of marijuana but later changed his mind after learning that better medications exist. He then called for continued vigorous efforts at drug interdiction, policing and more money for drug treatment. President Bush was critical of the Clinton administration drug policy, citing it as a failure. The 2000 Republican Party Platform advocated a renewed aggressive drug campaign, especially at the interdiction level. Interestingly, both candidates acknowledged some illicit drug use during their youth but these revelations did not seriously affect their candidacy.

So What Now?

I believe that the provision of information on the failed drug wars to the public can lead to a change of attitudes. Authors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn M. Sanders (1996) found in experiments that getting individuals to think about issues in new ways can change public opinion. Similarly, Beckett (1994) found that the ?claims making activities? of the government (and to a lesser extent the media) influence public opinion about drug use. And if claims making activities have in the past shaped general attitudes on drug prohibition policies, then future claims making could recreate the effect, albeit in a different direction. Anthony Downs seminal work An Economic Theory of Democracy supports this contention as well. He suggests that rational citizens will look to more knowledgeable individuals for guidance on political issues. If those more knowledgeable individuals consistently suggest that current policies are ineffective, it follows that rational citizens will change their opinions based on the influence of those more knowledgeable.

In this paper, I believe I have, through extensive examination of the literature, shown evidence for a number of conclusions. First, drug prohibition policies in America have failed. Second, Congress, while not the sole involved actor, is an important actor in the creation of drug policies that, when enacted, fail. Finally, I have shown that institutional factors, such as Congress? observation of and adherence to public opinion and the reelection hypothesis, lead Members of Congress to enact policies that fail, despite a preponderance of evidence of said failure. So where does that leave us? What do we do next?

It is my belief that the first step towards progress involves fixing the current hypocrisies within our system. Until we eliminate our ethnically biased sentencing structure for crack and cocaine, stop jailing blacks at disproportionate rates to whites, and promote education throughout our communities we will continue to suffer the ill effects of our current War on Drugs. If Congress is serious about tackling our nation?s drug problem they need to acknowledge their current inefficiencies and accept new ideas for improvement. Primary among their concerns should be a greater emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. Additionally, increased resources and alternatives need to be created for former users as an aid to this rehabilitation process. Most importantly however, a general promotion of awareness and education about the policies and impact of drugs needs to be increased throughout society so as to create a conscious and educated public. Should Congress consider these changes I believe we would begin to see significant progress in our nation?s currently ineffective War Against Drugs.

Works Referenced

Baggins, David Sadofsky. 1998. Drug Hate and the Corruption of American Justice. Praeger Publishers.

Beckett, Katherine. 1994. "Setting the Public Agenda: 'Street Crime' and Drug Use in American Politics." Social Problems. 41(3). PP. 425-47.

Bertram, Eva, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas. 1996. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. University of California Press.

Brecher, Edward M. 1972. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Little, Brown & Company, Ltd.
Democratic Party National Platform. 1996. Complete text found at

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. HarperCollins Publishers.

Fenno, Richard F. 1978. Home Style: House Members In Their Districts. HarperCollins Publishers.

Gormley, Jr., William T. 1986. "Regulatory Issue Networks in a Federal System."

Hatsukami, Dorothy K., and Marian W. Fischman. 1996. "Crack Cocaine and Cocaine Hydrochloride - Are the Differences Myth or Reality?" Journal of the American Medical Association. November 20, 1996.

Hill, Kim Quaile, and Angela Hinton-Andersson. 1995. "Pathways of Representation: A Causal Analysis of Public Opinion-Policy Linkages." American Journal of Political Science. 39(4). PP. 924-935.

Johns, Christina Jacqueline. 1992. Power Ideology, and the War on Drugs: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure. Praeger Publishers.

Kinder, David R., and Lynn M. Sanders. 1996. Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals. University of Chicago Press.

Mayhew, David R. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. Yale University Press.

McCaffrey, Barry R. 1996. "Reducing Drug Use and its Consequences in America." Office of National Drug Control Policy.

McWilliams, Peter. 1996. Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do. Prelude Press.

Meier, Kenneth J. 1994. The Politics of Sin: Drugs, Alcohol, and Public Policy. M.E. Sharpe.

Miller, Warren E., and Donald E. Stokes. 1963. "Constituency Influence In Congress." American Political Science Review. American Political Science Review. March. PP. 45-56.

Musto, D.F. 1987. "The History of Legislative Control Over Opium, Cocaine, and Their Derivatives." In Dealing With Drugs.

Nadelman, Ethan A. 1990. "The Case for Legalization." In The Crisis in Drug Prohibition. PP. 13-44.

Office of National Drug Control Policy. Fall 1997. "What America's Users Spend on Illegal Drugs, 1988-1995."

Office of National Drug Control Policy. May 1998. "Data Snapshot: Drug Abuse in America, 1998."

Office of National Drug Control Policy. January 1999. "Reducing Drug Abuse in America: An Overview of Demand Reduction Initiatives."

Republican Party National Platform. 1996. Complete text found at

Siegel, Mark A., Nancy R. Jacobs, and Jacquelyn F. Quiram, editors. 1997. Illegal Drugs: America's Anguish. The Information Series on Current Topics.

Trebach, Arnold S. 1987. The Great Drug War and Radical Proposals That Could Make America Safe Again. Macmillan Publishing Company.

Zinberg, Norman E., and John A. Robertson. 1972. Drugs and the Public. Simon and Schuster.

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