Addiction and the War on Drugs

Patricia Leret

English 5

Clifton Ross

In the last century the evasive solution to America??™s drug problem has become a controversial political issue that has divided the American populace [1]. One side argues drugs should be considered a serious crime defined by tough enforcement of drug laws punishable by severe sentences while others support their legalization and advocate personal responsibility for an individual??™s decisions about what to consume. However both usually focus on the side effects of the drugs themselves as opposed to considering the larger problem of addiction. It is because of the destructive behavior associated with addiction that drugs are not recommendable not due to the physical or psychological implications induced by the substance itself. Unfortunately, the criminalization and subsequent persecution of drug users has ultimately failed to produce the desired results. Therefore, drugs should be legalized and subject to regulation by the government to ensure the safety and well-being of users.
To begin discussing this subject the word drug must first be defined and explained within its historical context. A drug is a substance which modifies normal bodily functions and brain activity[2]. This general term refers to medicine, alcohol, tobacco as well as illegal drugs as defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration. For the purpose of this paper the arguments will be centered around the latter. Drugs have been used by human beings for millennia. Native Americans discovered the hallucinogenic properties of drug-bearing plants and even recorded them in hieroglyphics. Among the plants were precursors to modern cocaine and quinine[3]. Other substances such as marijuana have also been used for centuries by various cultures. However, withstanding the test of time does not excuse inhibiting substances from criticism.
While dangerous side effects of drug consumption are often cited when criticizing their use, the larger and more dangerous issue of addiction is often ignored. Addiction is medically defined as a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Illegal drugs such as cocaine, crack, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana induce a strong feeling of euphoria or relaxation upon which the brain becomes dependent for ???normal functioning??™. It is this property which makes them disruptive towards an individual??™s mental and physical health. It is important to note that drugs are not addictive to every person; it is estimated ten to fifteen percent of the population are highly susceptible to become addicted[5].There are several risk factors which contribute to addiction. Genetics have a definite role in its development. Studies of identical twins have shown the potential for substance abuse is usually determined by their genetic makeup. Early childhood experiences can also trigger predispositions to addiction. Cruelty or physical abuse to children often contribute to later addiction[5]. Sexual or mental abuse can cause deep underlying emotional problems which can increase susceptibility to drug abuse due to the euphoric brain reactions induced by it. The important influence of environmental factors cannot be ignored in the discussion of risk factors. For example, men and women differ greatly in their addictions. Men are more likely than women to abuse drugs while women far outnumber men in behavioral addictions such as eating, exercising and shopping [6][7] This can be explained by societal expectations about proper gender roles and the influence it has over their behavior. In America mass advertising of alcohol is largely geared towards men. Additionally, the symptoms of alcohol consumption such as uninhibited behavior and weight gain are less acceptable for women.[7]
Throughout the last century the government has increasingly used force and persecution to eradicate or at least substantially decrease the use of drugs; but this approach has failed and has had numerous negative societal consequences. In the United States up until the nineteenth century opium, morphine and heroin ???were as freely accessible as aspirin is today???[8] through prescriptions, over the counter, at drug stores or contained in patent medicines. It was only until 1906 that the first national drug law was passed called the Pure Food and Drug Act which required medicines containing opium and cocaine to be accurately labeled. In 1914 the Harrison Narcotic Act forbade the sale of opiates except by licensed doctors. Within the course of the century blanket prohibitions were imposed on a range of drugs which were increasingly criminalized. The drug prohibition policies enacted by the Harrison Act reached a zenith with Richard Nixon when he proclaimed the ???War on Drugs??? in 1971. There has been an unprecedented amount of federal resources dedicated to overseas operations to destroy the production of drugs, an attempt to stop the importation of the substances at the border and a persecution of dealers within the country all of which have become impossible for the following reasons. It is estimated the entire consumption of illegal drugs in the United States could be supplied by less than one percent of the worldwide crop. One percent is what the DEA along with foreign governments seized in their best year, leaving ninety nine percent available to supply demand in the US[9]. Border interdiction is similarly daunting; drug seizures would have to increase by at least 1400 percent to have any impact on the market[10]. Depending on the differing definitions of dealer used in the studies, there are an estimated twelve to forty million drug dealers in the U.S. With the current prison population at 1.5 million the futility of the task is obvious. Moreover, the war on drugs has had a devastating impact on the African American community. The war has been brutal in its tactics and ruthless in its operations. Perverted incentives have encouraged sheer number of arrests instead of capturing the drug lords. The police have a ???direct monetary interest??? in the ???profitability of the drug market??? since law enforcement agencies keep eighty percent of the items seized[11]. Subsequently, in major cities such as Washington D.C, New York and Baltimore over ninety percent of black men have arrest records[12]. Contrary to popular belief this is not due to higher crime rates within the black community, studies have consistently shown people of all ethnicities consume and sell drugs at very similar rates. The mass incarceration of the black community has perpetuated ethnic disparity since felons are unemployable. The drug war has proven ineffectual at combating drug abuse and despite the ever increasing spending ???illicit drugs are ???cheaper and purer than they were two decades ago, and continue to be readily available???[13].
The prohibition of drugs and the persecution of users has not solved the problem, therefore drugs should be legalized and regulated by the government for minimum safety and education of the dangers of their use. Proponents of the current strategy regarding illicit drugs often cite the decline in use by adolescents from 30.7% in 1975 to 14.4% in 1992. However, they fail to acknowledge that even though drug use fell sharply after the initiation of the war use among youth but has risen pointedly to 25.7% in 2001. In a situation remarkably similar to that of Prohibition, albeit much slower, the public drastically reduced usage of the illicit material immediately following the passage of legislation upon which after a period of time usage rose rapidly to record levels following the eroded deference to the law[19]. Therefore legalization is the most logical approach to the ???drug problem??™. Substances should not be illegal since the majority of people are not likely to become addicts and should be entrusted the same amount of personal responsibility as in the case of tobacco or alcohol about what to consume. However, some of the concerns regarding legalization are legitimate and must be addressed. The often cited dangers posed by legalization center around the increased risk of drug addictions which is a consequence that cannot be ignored and therefore proper steps must be taken to lessen the subsequent addictions and prevent more in the future. The war on drugs does not do either of these since it criminalizes drug users instead of providing the support which they need. Drug addiction is a medical problem which cannot be stopped merely with a threat of punishment. The nature of the addiction renders that strategy ineffectual since it does not consider the physical dependence and the extent to which the substance is prioritized above all other considerations. As for those who would become addicts due to the legalization of the drug, a consequence which cannot be ignored, proper steps must be taken to rehabilitate them. Studies have shown repeatedly that treatment is ten times more cost effective as compared to prosecution. Additionally, legalization provides the benefits of tax revenue as well as the annual billions saved upon the conclusion of the war on drugs. These can finance educational programs regarding the responsibilities which drug use entails as well as rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, with a legal market the government can also regulate substances and ensure substance control required for safe use.
It is not the government??™s position to enforce morality upon the people. The relationship between the rulers and the ruled is a fine line treaded between governmental control and personal responsibility. In the instance of drug use it is society??™s, and by extension the government??™s, duty to inform the people about the dangers involved with drug use. However, consumption is a personal decision which should not be infringed upon.


1. Gallup Poll 1995

2. Merriam Webster Dictionary

3. ???The History of Drugs??™ 2002

4.The Risks of Addiction

5. ??™The Addictive Personality??™ Bryce Nelson, The New York Times

6. Alcohol and Drug Problems

7. Brain Dependence: The Debate Over the Addictive Personality and Gender Implications, MaryBeth Curtiss

8.1. Hubert S. Howe, “A Physicians Blueprint for the Management and Prevention of Narcotic Addiction,” New York State Journal of Medicine, 55 (February 1, 1955): 341-348

9.US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) (Washington: US Department of State, April, 1993

10.Sealing the Borders: The Effects of Increased Military Participation in Drug Interdiction, Peter Reuter, The Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, 1988

11. The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste, Michelle Alexander.

12. Basic Facts about the war on Drugs-What does this drug policy do to the black community, Clifford Shaffer

13.Drug Data Summary, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Page 4

14. National Drug Control Strategy FY 2001 Budget Summary, Page 2, Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2000
15. State and Local Spending on Drug Control Activities, Page 3, Office of National Drug Control Policy, October 1993; the most recent available government figures are from 1991 when state and local governments spent over $15.9 billion on drug control activities, a 13% increase over the previous year.
16. Federal Strategy for Prevention of Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking 1982, Page 73, Drug Abuse Policy Office, 1982
17. Department of Justice. “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1999”. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C. 2000. See table 1.12.

18. Economic Consequences of the War on Drugs. Drug Police Alliance
19. Basic Facts about Drugs-Did Alcohol Use Decrease during Prohibition, Clifford Shaffer