A Cure Worse than the Disease

The United States has taken a hard line on “drug use”, and it is easy to understand why.  While I recognize the problems that drugs can cause, I don’t think that our current “War on Drugs” is really the best way to fight them.

Having a “War on Drugs” literally makes American citizens minding their own business the enemies of government, something that should be impossible in a democratic country.  This war on its own people has been expensive in every way: In monetary cost, in human cost, and in damage to our freedom.

In monetary cost, it is $20-$25 billion per year.  When numbers get that big, it can be hard to understand the value being wasted, but I can try to put it in perspective.  NASA’s budget for 2016 was only $19.3 billion.  The budget for my home state, North Carolina, was only $22.3 billion this year.  And unlike either of those two, this War on Drugs has not provided any substantial benefits.  Drug use remains high, and is not even pushed out of sight.

The human cost is terrible, as well.  Many of our prisoners are non-violent “drug offenders”, who did nothing else wrong.  This isolates them from their communities and families, and stigmatizes them when they are just looking for honest work.  This comes in spite of research that indicates that living conditions, rather than the drug itself, are responsible for creating the powerful addictions that we see (see Rat Park).  The vaunted “War on Drugs” is creating the conditions that trap people in inescapable addiction.

The place where I want to focus the most (and that I think gets the least attention) though, is the cost to our freedom.  Starting in grade school, police officers patrol our schools, leading drug-sniffing attack dogs around our schools and searching lockers without a warrant.  This creates a culture of fear and intimidation that persists well after people are no longer in schools.  These are children who largely do not know their rights and are not being treated with respect.  And, because lockers are so poorly secured, even innocent students have good cause to be afraid that a malicious student has planted the evidence that will be used to destroy their lives.  This conditioning pays off when warrantless searches continue under the guise of the “War of Terror” even once people are not in school.  This kind of invasive, disruptive, and destructive behavior was one of the things the American Revolution was fought over, but our country today views them as “the price of freedom” instead of an affront to freedom.  The war on drugs is used to condition our citizens to accept government intrusions into their lives, and it is un-American and opposed to our principles.

It seems like our country has forgotten what it was that was supposedly so bad about drugs in the first place.  They waste your time and money, and they destroy your body and life.  They can undermine your ability to be professionally successful.  These are all things that our “War on Drugs” also does, but the government carries them to an extreme not achieved by the drugs themselves.  Furthermore, when people choose to abuse drugs, it is the drug abuser and those around them who get hurt most.  This is in contrast to the war on drugs, where completely innocent people are being killed by our own government.  At least drugs have the mercy to primarily affect the guilty party.

And, just to add one more wrinkle to the problems of drug abuse, many of the drugs being abused by our citizens today were originally prescription drugs.  It is not unusual at all for someone to be prescribed a medication for one condition or another, see them develop an addiction, and then find that addiction destroys their life.  The rhetoric of the “War on Drugs” fails to capture this important point whenever they talk about keeping drugs out of our country all together by cracking down on the border.  The border is not where the problem is.  This problem is within us.

I realize that drugs carry with them many negative side effects, and I would not want anyone I am close to addicted to them.  As Americans, we delight in enemies that can be fought and wrestled to overcome, but that is not the kind of enemy that addiction is.  Declaring a war on drugs was just about the worst thing we could possibly do, because addiction thrives among the isolated, and naming them an enemy isolates them even more.

On the whole, I do think that a certain amount of letting people make their own decisions is called for, even if they choose to hurt themselves.  For the people who want to escape addiction,  I think the solution ought to be building a “rat park” for them, giving them opportunities and helping them integrate into a community.  That could be building a physical place for them to go (as some addicts have nowhere to go), but more likely it would be setting up and funding better programs to help them where they are.  It would be expensive, but I know a program we could cut to make the money for it.


Supporting Links:







“Rat Park Heroin Experiment” shows cultural roots of drug addiction


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