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The War on Drugs
Opioids in America
In 2014, Nora D. Volkow, a representative of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, presented a speech concerning America's opiod addiction. According to Volkow, approximately 2.1 million people are suffering from substance abuse disorders, many of which are related to prescriptions for painkillers. And as John Oliver so humorously described, while these prescriptions have uses in alleviating uncomfortable, often unbearable symptoms, these drugs have been known for their high addictive nature, so much so that many people, whether it be patients or teenagers, have gotten addicted to them. This, in turn, has led to societal issues such as poverty, the re-examining of the role of prescribers, and the impact of pharmaceutical industries in America. There's even been talk that there might just be a war on opioids.
However, America's opiod addiction is more indicative of a larger problem, more specifically, a problem that the War on Drugs have caused.
The War on Drugs was a range of military-like policies implemented by the U.S government to try and stifle drug abuse in America. But despite their intentions, these policies have only promoted the growth of black markets, the disproportionate arrests of African Americans and Hispanics, and the destruction of urban areas. Their attempts have, more often than not, lead to more harm than good.
A Brief History
The War on Drugs, of course, isn't new. If anything, it's had a rather intoxicating relationship with Americans. The first America law that restricted drug abuse was that of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which regulated opiates in the American market. In 1919, during prohibition, the United States passed the 18th Amendment which prohibited the production, distribution, and sale of alcohol. However, the passing of the 21st amendment repealed this, not only because of the difficulties authorities had in enforcing the 18th amendment, but also because it led to the rise of organized crime. Efforts to stop drug abuse had been shown throughout this period, although none had pushed for more regulation and intervention in stopping drug use other than former President Richard Nixon.
Through Nixon, Congress enacted policies such as the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which had been used to modify present drug laws, alongside establishing five different schedules that will label which drugs are the most addictive. The administration began defunding drug treatment programs, as well as repealing minimum sentences. This almost militaristic view of drugs continued with Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, who had started to press the CIA and U.S military to intervene in drug abuses. One key piece of legislation during this time was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act Act of 1988. Under this act, the government would commit to creating policies that would combat drug abuse, as well as established the Office of National Drug Control Policy. This policy later became known for its anti-drug message, "Say No to Drugs", towards adolescents. An exception to this was Jimmy Carter, who managed to get the Senate Judiciary Committee to decriminalize marijuana of up to one ounce.
Over recent years, there has been criticism regarding this war. Both American legislation, as well as public opinion, have started favoring marijuana for medical purposes, as well as recreational uses. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy reported that the War on Drugs had failed, leaving "devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." While the war is still being fought, it has started to wane in intensity.
Another significant detail of the War on Drugs are the drug cartels and the border crossings between the U.S and Mexico. Increasing violence within the drug trade has led to a fight for trafficking routes in the United States. It'd even gotten to the point where the U.S Justice Department had called the drug cartels the "greatest organized crime threat to the United States." However, the U.S has often been considered to be one of the world's biggest market for drugs. But due to the legalization of marijuana, many drug traders have started to switching to other drugs.
How It Impacts Us
The War on Drugs has been proven to be more than troublesome. Not only has it promoted a stigma against drugs and drug users, but it's also prevented people from getting vital information to protect both themselves and their health. However, these aren't the only consequences of this war.
The fact that it was motivated by racial standards left something to be said about the underlying intentions of the war itself. John Ehrlichman, a top aide for Nixon, had stated that the war was to oppose anti-war leftists and the African American populations. According to him, "by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin...[they] could disrupt those communities. [They] could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news." Unsurprisingly, the war has revealed a startling statistic of the disproportionate arrests against blacks and Hispanics, despite the fact that they, alongside whites, use marijuana at similar rates. In fact, in a 2017 report on marijuana use in Buffalo, New York, an estimated 86% of those arrested were people of color, even though they consisted of less than half the city's population. Even after progress has been made regarding these policies, blacks and Hispanics were still are more likely to be arrested than any other race. Because of these negative stereotypes, there has been tension between various communities and the police, as well as an increase in police militarization.
Billions of dollars have also been wasted on this war, money that could've been spent on other issues, such as healthcare, education, or even technological innovation. In 2015, approximately $36 billion was used just for the war alone, not even covering the costs of incarceration, police services, and at times, social services. Another $40 billion was spent for drug-related crimes. In fact, according to an article published by Huffington Post, the budget for state prisons alone exceed that of state universities and public colleges. What's truly sad about this situation is that while the government keeps talking about drug treatments and the like, most of the budget still goes towards the military and criminal justice, which, of course, presses harsh punishments on many people who seek help, but can't access it.
The damaging stigma produced from this war is also horrifying. Reagan's own battle cry against the war, "Just say No," caused many people to associate drug addicts with moral decadence. This doesn't help when many prisoners are arrested for drug-related crimes. However, it doesn't end there; because of this stigma, many have difficulties getting housing, jobs, and an education. These limited options push people to go back to either taking drugs or selling them, which, of course, leads them back to jail.
Of course, with this war includes the devastating consequences on public health. The stigma produced has left many populations vulnerable to infections such as HIV/AIDS, with one glaring example being the HIV outbreak in Indiana in 2015. This was because of the legislation passed in order to prevent clean syringes to be given in pharmacies, alongside the U.S being one of the few western nation to actual fund a needle exchange program.
Correcting the Consequences
As of now, there are movements that are calling out the systemic racism that the war has amplified. The Black Lives Matter Movement has called attention to police corruption. There has been a more favorable attitude towards legalization marijuana, so much so that legislation has been passed in order to protect individuals who need it most, despite the fact that the black market has a plethora for sale. There is an increasing number of voices that are calling out to decriminalize individuals, specifically youths, as well as promoting the use of drug treatments in addition to a holistic view as to how these people could be dealt with. What's more, politicians have begun to move away from the war in general, in an effort to find other, more effective ways to combat substance abuse. Substance abuse treatment centers are opening up, and both Democrats and Republicans are coming together to try and solve this issue. It's comforting to note that many are coming together to solve this problem. Regardless of class, ethnicity, race, or beliefs, the American public knows this is a problem, and is attempting to take action against this war, as well as find other ways to quell drug abuse.
After all, we can't just address America's addiction with opioids with a war. Because if we do, we might just be perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence, tension, and hatred, things that wars have been known for fostering.