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Drug Reform Needed as Continuing War on Drugs Erodes our Liberties

Updated on July 2, 2015

While the U.S. spends an excessive $51 billion annually1 on the war on drugs, the failed drug war has evolved into a war against our liberties. The numbers of non-drug crimes have remained stable over the years, however, the war on drugs has provided a rapid increasing number of drug-offense prisoners over the past 15 years as the availability of illegal drugs increase.1 The United States incarcerates more people, in numbers and per capita, than any other country in the world – having 25% of the world’s prisoners while only being 5% of the world’s population.2 We need to evaluate our criminal justice system and need to consider cost-effective alternatives to incarceration for drug users because the idea of waging war on those who use drugs is completely flawed as it does not reduce drug offenses.

Protesters against the war on drugs.
Protesters against the war on drugs. | Source

Drug War Erodes Liberties

The caustic effect of drug policies has destroyed the cornerstone of our democracy. While our freedoms erode, availability of illegal drugs increases indicating the failure of our country’s war on drugs.

One caustic effect of drug policies is ignoring the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. Drug laws and their enforcement have disproportionately targeted a specific group, disregarding equal protection under the law as provided by the Fourteenth Amendment. For African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29, almost 1 in 3 are currently under the criminal justice system.3 African Americans are arrested for drug crimes at a rate 10 times higher than whites,4 although, research shows that young African Americans are actually less likely to use drugs compared with whites, Native Americans, Hispanics, and people of mixed race.3

The graphic below was produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showing details about the United States prison population:


Another cornerstone of our democracy, freedom of speech, has taken fire in the drug war. In 1996 when California passed its medical marijuana initiative exempting patients whose doctors recommended the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. General Barry McCaffrey, who was the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, had threatened to arrest and revoke the license of any doctor who recommended marijuana for medicinal purposes or even discussed its benefits to any patient. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went to Court and won an injunction protecting doctors’ speech. 3

 In National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that drug testing doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment because employees have a "diminished expectation of privacy."
In National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab (1989), the Supreme Court ruled that drug testing doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment because employees have a "diminished expectation of privacy." | Source

Another caustic effect of drug policies is the erosion of the Fourth Amendment that has been set in place to limit the power of law enforcement during searches and seizures. In National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab (1989), the Court upheld the United States Customs Service’s drug testing program for employees stating that the drug testing does not violate the Fourth Amendment because employees had a “diminished expectation of privacy.”5 In disagreement, Justice Antonin Scalia stated in his dissenting opinion that the urine test was an “invasion of their privacy and affront to their dignity.” He further stated that “the impairment of individual liberties cannot be the means of making a point” that the employees are drug-free and even “for so worthy a cause as the abolition of unlawful drugs, cannot validate an otherwise unreasonable search.” In California v. Acevedo (1990), the Court ruled that the police may search a vehicle and any containers in it where police believe contraband or evidence is contained.6 In a dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens revealed that with the Court’s decision concluded that the Court had become “a loyal foot soldier”6 in the war on drugs.

In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that the state can deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for consuming peyote during religious ceremonies.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that the state can deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for consuming peyote during religious ceremonies. | Source

Freedom to practice religion has also taken fire in the war on drugs. As part of their religious ceremonies as members of the Native American Church, two Native Americans who worked in a drug rehabilitation organization consumed peyote and were fired and denied unemployment compensation by the state government. 7 The Supreme Court ruled that the state can deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for consuming peyote for religious purposes, stating that the Court has “never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.” 7 However Justice Blackmun in his dissenting opinion stated that the state’s “interest in enforcing its drug laws against religious use of peyote is not sufficiently compelling to outweigh respondents' right to the free exercise of their religion.”7 Justice Blackmun further reveals that since the state can’t enforce its criminal prohibition against them because they are protected by their freedom to practice religion, therefore “the interests underlying the State's drug laws cannot justify its denial of unemployment benefits.”7

"The drug crisis does not license the aggrandizement of governmental power in lieu of civil liberties. Despite the devastation wrought by drug trafficking in communities nationwide, we cannot suspend the precious rights guaranteed by the Constitution in an effort to fight the ‘War on Drugs.’”

— United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in United States v. Solivan, 937 F.2d 1146, 115

Drug Reform Needed

We need to evaluate our current criminal justice system and need to consider cost-effective alternatives to incarceration for drug users. Proponent of drug reform, former Congressman Ron Paul suggests leaving the legalization of drugs up to the states instead of having federal laws. While his son, Senator Rand Paul, through his proposed bill “Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment Act”, suggests reclassifying certain low-level drug possession felonies as misdemeanors and that food containing drugs are weighed fairly.8 For example, for marijuana brownies which contain other ingredients (flour, butter, etc.), instead of possessing the weight of the entire brownie, he suggests excluding the weight of the brownie when determining the amount the drug user possesses resulting in lesser charges.

In 2001 Portugal removed criminal penalties for drug possession, which to some surprise have not led to an increase in drug use.9 Drug users are dealt through a civil suit instead of criminal law. Portugal has allowed resources to be redirected to the treatment system, while having dramatic reductions in addiction, HIV infections, and drug-related deaths.9

The failed drug war has led our country away from its core beliefs of liberty and equality. It is the time where politicians need to evaluate our current criminal justice system and embrace the idea of reforming it.

What do you think?

Do you think the war on drugs is effectively creating a drug-free America?

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1. Drug War Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from Drug Policy Alliance:

2. The Prison Crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved from ACLU:

3. The Drug War is the New Jim Crow. (n.d.). Retrieved from American Civil Liberties Union:

4. Szalavitz, M. (n.d.). Study: Whites More Likely to Abuse Drugs Than Blacks. Retrieved from Time:

5. Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, (1989), No. 86-1879. (n.d.). Retrieved from FindLaw:

6. California v. Acevedo, (1991), No. 89-1690. (n.d.). Retrieved from FindLaw:

7. Employment Division Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872.

8. Campbell, Colin. Here's Rand Paul's to Reform Drug Laws.

© 2015 Sarah Ehling


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    • darren-chaker profile image

      Darren Chaker 

      3 years ago from Calabasas, CA

      Well written post and it supports what most people know. I hope as a society, we can seek alternatives to jail for people with drug problems. Can't save them all, but can do more than we are now.


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