A milestone in America's longest war passed quietly on Friday. Too quietly. On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that "Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive."
A milestone in America's longest war passed quietly on Friday. Too quietly.
On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that "Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive."
Forty years later, nobody is declaring victory.
Illegal drugs remain available and widely used around the world. The drug trade is now a global industry worth $320 billion. Here in the U.S., an estimated 25 million people use illegal drugs regularly.
It is an industry more destructive than any other. Its profits go to criminal gangs and murderous thugs. Thousands of people die each year from drug-related violence and drug overdoses. Factor in untreated addiction, and the human costs of a failed drug policy are incalculable.
Other costs are easier to tally. An extensive investigation by the Associated Press puts the 40-year cost of the federal government's War on Drugs at $1 trillion, including:
- $20 billion to fight drugs in other countries
- $33 billion on "Just Say No"-style campaigns that researchers say made no difference in drug use
- $49 billion in an effort to seal the borders, with no visible success
- $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million non-violent drug offenders, 10 million of them for possession of marijuana
- $450 billion to lock them up in federal prisons. Far more expense fell at the state level, where most drug crimes are prosecuted.
- $215 billion, the Justice Department estimates, for "an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction"
Drug use rises and falls. It peaked in the U.S. in 1979 and has drifted slowly downward ever since, with variations among drugs. That may be a tribute to the hard work done by thousands in prevention and treatment of addiction. It does not convince anyone that America can arrest its way out of its drug problems.
After four decades, it is finally becoming permissible for adults to state the obvious.
"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," begins a new report by the independent Global Commission on Drug Policy, an outfit with elder statesmen like former Secretary of State George Schultz, ex-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and entrepreneur Richard Branson among its directors. It advocates legalization, harm reduction strategies, treatment and de-stigmatization of addiction.
As is often the case, the Obama administration has taken modest steps in the right direction. It has banned the phrase "war on drugs." It repealed the odious disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine. Drug policy chief Gil Kerlikowske says the administration's goal is to shift resources, but Obama's proposed $15.8 billion drug control budget still spends twice as much on enforcement as on treatment and prevention.
Given the money spent, the lives destroyed and the fact that no one sees a light at the end of this tunnel, it is cold comfort that some in Washington know the truth about the War on Drugs.
"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told The AP. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."
It shouldn't take 40 months, let alone years, for Washington to carry that thought to its logical conclusion: If it's not working, try something else.
The MetroWest Daily News