Discussing The International War On Drugs Criminology Essay

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The idea of a 'War on Drugs' has been a major element of American policy for the last 50 years, and has roots that stretch back many years. Whilst the American president, Barack Obama, appears to be stepping down the war on drugs (through the slow reduction of the use of the term war on drugs and his insistence that we should now be focusing on the health aspects of drug abuse (Alleyne, 2010)), there are still many vestiges of the war on drugs present in American policy, both nationally (judicially) and internationally (i.e. actions against other countries. This essay will be attempting to investigate a seeming very simple question, is it possible to win this war on drugs? By extension I will also be asking, if victory is possible, should it be the ideology that should be applied? This will form a basis of one of the arguments invoked against the war on drugs.

Despite an ongoing persecution of both drug dealers and users, for example the number of arrests for narcotics offences has dramatically increased since the war on drug's inception, and with 31 million arrests in the U.S. alone (King, 2008), the number of users has obstinately failed to decrease. The F.B.I.'s statistics show the number of people who have used drugs at least once in their lifetime between 18 and 34 have stayed consistently around 50%. Moreover, the vast number of gangs and gang members (760,000 estimated members), whose main source of income is drug trade in the US (US Department of Justice, 2006), and the gangs in other countries, such as the cartels in Mexico, who provide them with the drugs in the first place (Cook, 2007) are criminal groups still in operation today. These are all simplistic examples of how the war on drugs is failing, but more than this needs to be addressed.

Namely this is the idea that the drug war causes more victims than it saves. Economists have reached a consensus that legalising drugs, in opposition to prohibition, will inject around $44 billion from law enforcement savings and $32.7 billion from tax revenue into the U.S. economy alone (Thornton, 2007). This is an incredible amount of money (and police time) that, if used for other more practical policy areas, could produce a huge benefit to society. I will show that this in parallel with the other detrimental aspects of the war on drugs, such as alienation of youth; destabilising the ideals of rehabilitation and treatment; the encouragement of diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV; the damage to not only the person arrested for drug abuse but the damage this cause to their children; and the implausibility of actually 'winning' the war on drugs. In addition, the war on drugs is not only a lost cause but it should have never been instigated in the first place.

Firstly I will give an overview of the history of the war on drugs and prohibition to enable an accurate account of the motivations behind its instigation, along with it's results. I will proceed to discussing the idea of harm reduction, along with it's benefits in opposition to the war on drugs and problems with it's introduction into drug policy. After this I will analyse the opposing factions in the drug war, drug advisory councils and opposition groups from both the U.K. and U.S. because, some would contend (Nutt, 2009; Bean, 2010), the U.K. has been drawn into this war on drugs alongside the U.S. This will be with an aim to assess the validity of the suggestions the oppositional groups have made and the grounds on which they have been accepted or dismissed. I will then discuss the various benefits and detriments to this argument in comparison to the ideas of prohibition and harm reduction. To conclude, I will draw together the above ideas to dispute the argument of the war on drugs, and support president Obama's decision to move away from the 'war' ideal, and in addition I will later present suggestions on how drug abuse should be tackled.

History of the war on drugs and military activities:

Interestingly enough, when beginning to look into a war on drugs, an early example is the opium wars, in which, during the 19th century, Britain went to war with China because the Chinese fordabe England to sell opium within the borders of China (Hanes and Sanello, 2004). Hanes and Sanello proceed to describe how, in the 19th century drug addicts were seen in the same way in which modern society sees alcoholics, with pity as opposed to vilification. However, early 20th century policy in the US and UK saw a shift from the view of drug use towards prohibition, starting with the Harrison Act in 1914. The 'Handbook of Drug Control in the United States' details how this act created the need to register and tax all those involved with the opium trade. This was the first sign of state control over drug use in the U.S. (1990).

Some commentators, such as French and Manzanarez (2004), claim that there is inherent corruption in the creation of many of the laws regulating drugs, such as with the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act in 1937. Allegations towards this act revolve around the destruction of business that would come about through hemp being a threat to major capitalist's monetary resources, wanting to replace it with new synthetic fibres and threaten the use of timber for pulp. The propaganda produced by Randolph Hurst encouraged the idea that cannabis was responsible for rampaging Negroes, Mexicans and orientals, committing rape and murder. French and Manzanarez suggest that this may form part of the ongoing racism that is shown through the focus of drug detention in today.

The phrase of war on drugs was first coined by president Nixon in 1969 (Incardi, 1990) which formed the basis for the creation of the Comprehensive drug Prevention and Control Act of 1970 and the D.E.A. (Drug Enforcement Agency). Over the years the war on drugs has been used as a justification for military intervention in other countries, and some have claimed that it is merely propaganda to justify those operations under a noble façade (Block and Bullington, 1990).

Cockburn and St. Clair (1999) describe the actions of the U.S. against Gen. Manuel Noriega. Despite institutional aknowledgement that Noriega was a known drug trafficker, whilst the D.E.A. wanted to indict him, the CIA and future president G. W. Bush blocked the D.E.A.'s attempts to arrest him and supported him as he had uses in Latin America. However, Noriega obtained information that made him a liability, and as a result Operation Just Cause was initialised, which involved the D.E.A. entering Panama and capturing Noriega at the cost of many Panamanian civilians. This occured after many years of unchecked drug trafficking and hundreds of dollars in support of Noriega.

Cockburn and St. Clair also talk about 'Plan Columbia', whereby the U.S. government provide the Columbian military with money, weapons and training in the name of the war on drugs against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. In addition, the Columbian military have not only been accused of heavy drug trafficking themselves but (Cockburn and St. Clair), the Columbian graduates from the school of Americas have also been reported to be, at least in part, responsible for numerous massacres, such as that in Trujillo (where 245 to 352 were tortured and dismembered) and Mapiripan (Livingstone, 2004). Another action in the name of the war on drugs is the method of spraying the herbicide 'Round-up' over poppy fields, targeting the production of heroin. However these operations have been noted to also cover civilians and schools, causing many reported health problems, along with destruction of non-poppy field crops, severly damaging the system that encourages farmers to stop growing it (Rohter, 2000).

An obvious effect of this constant attack on the growth of drugs is the militarization of rural areas producing these drugs. Alongside the mass of workers who grow plants that can create drugs such as cocaine, these plants are also used in tea and traditional cultural ceremonies (Livingstone, 2004). Many of the politicians that encourage and support the idea of the war on drugs are honestly trying to save America from the perils of narcotics. However, this section goes to show that others have instigated this war to service themselves, and many of the methods that have been used to facilitate this war are extremely counter-productive, unpopular and devastating to local inhabitants.

Opposition groups to drugs legislation:

There are, of course, many people who clamour for the decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs (for instance see any forum on www.4chan.org or www.angelfire.org). One of the leading opposer's of prohibition in the U.K. is former senior scientific advisor on the misuse of drugs, professor David Nutt. He was dismissed from this position after 'trivialising' the dangers of drug use by suggesting that ecstasy should not be a 'class A' drug, due to its lack of dangerous qualities (Alleyne, 2010). He has gone on to write paper which are primarily based around the understanding of the risk involved with drugs, both illegal and legal. In his paper, 'Estimating drug harms: a risky business?' he details the legislative controls over drug use and the 'risk' of drugs taking into account factors such as addictiveness and health risks, finding that risks involved with alcohol and tobacco are far higher than those of cannabis, L.S.D. and ecstasy. The conclusions of this paper bring some very relevant ideas to light, and his suggestions on where to proceed form a very persuasive argument. For instance he claims that:

''we have to accept that young people like to experiment...what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you're probably wrong''(p. 12)

Nutt continues to support the ideals of harm reduction and the attempt to reduce this 'moral debate' that has arisen around drugs (Nutt, 2009). Interestingly enough his successor as senior scientific advisor to the U.K. Government appears to be following in his footsteps, encouraging the decriminalisation of cannabis (Alleyne, 2010). Another U.K. group that opposes the 'war on drugs' is that of 'Transform'. The paper 'After the war on drugs: Options for control' ( Rolles, Kushlick and Jay 2006) hypotheses the failure of the war on drugs for factors noted throughout this essay, and continues to detail a road map of how drug policy will unfold in the next decade, on both a national and global scale in the face of 'prohibitions failings becoming increasingly visible' (p.37). Thet suggest that the ideal will easily shift to regulation of drug use and harm reduction. They also detail how, on a global scale this has already begun to happen, with countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain, Australia and Canada decriminalising the personal possession of some or all drugs. In the U.S. is the Beckley Foundation who also claim that government drug policy is failing to take into account evidence, and is required to move on to accept the need for regulation and harm reduction (The Beckley Foundation, 2009).

Results of Prohibition:

One of the major results of the criminalisation of a segment of society, many commentators (as described by Rolles, Kushlick and Jay 2006) have said that by criminalising drug culture encourages and enables an environment where other criminal activities are not only supported but are in fact necessary to survive, such as violence and murder. Furthermore the need for money laundering creates another market for criminality. This is because of the lack of legislative control over interaction between 'businesses' that run the drug world, no justice system has control over them so 'vigilante' justice become essential. Increasing homicide rates are directly correlated to the increase of prohibition and its enforcement (Jensen, 2000).

According to the F.B.I.'s website the most common arrest in 2008 was for drugs. Of that the vast majority was for possession, showing that it is not just the 'big bad' drug dealers who are the people targeted by the 'war' on drugs. For instance possession of marijuana was responsible for 44.3% of overall arrests for controlled substances. That's about 754,223 people arrested simply for marijuana possession (Arrests, 2008).

However through out the entirety of the 'war on drugs' the number of people that have ever taken drugs between 18 and 34 from 1979 and 2001 have stayed very stable around 50% (Drug use trends, 2002) and the use within the last 30 days staying around 12%. What are we to read into this continuing prevalence of drug use? One major concern in the use of drugs which constantly occurs in newspapers and television is not the drug itself but what it is 'cut' with, such as the Department of Health in the U.K. finding 'glass beads' on cannabis (TalktoFrank 2010), or the stories of cocaine being cut with Levamisole, a dog worming drug (Goldstein, 2009). These unfortunate, and very real worries that surround drugs can ultimately be laid at the feet of the prohibition of drugs. The fact these drugs are not only unregulated by government but, they are in fact driven to be supplied by people willing to break the law and therefore willing to transgress against their 'customers', putting those customers at risk.

A further detriment as a result of prohibition is the sociological rift between those deemed criminal and the rest of society. This stigma, as briefly mentioned earlier, causes reluctance to seek help for drug addiction in both taking drugs with needle exchange or cause aversion to seeking help with drug addiction (Stimson and Metrebian, 2003). However there are further effects that prohibition has on society. For instance some (Rolles, Kushlick and Jay 2006) have hypothesised, quite logically, that the already strained relationship between the youth and the authorities has a lot of added pressure due to the alienation brought about by the criminalisation of drug users. With so many young people taking drugs (around 30% in 2003, Statistics on young people and drugs misuse: England, 2003), the removal of the constant clashes between the police and young people would encourage a new cohesion between the police and the youth. Furthermore, Jensen (2000) suggests that the 'novelty value' provided by the probation state appeals to the 'naturally' deviant nature of adolescents, trying something that is 'wrong'. Essentially this section draws together ideas that suggest, whilst drugs have an obvious detriment to their users, the policy of a war on drugs does not only have a minor effect on the reductions of drug use, it in fact has a huge negative effect on the understanding and health care of drug users and social cohesion. This in coupling with the necessary constraint on civil liberties that are in opposition to the social security of the state suggest that the idea of a 'war' on drugs is highly counterproductive.

Harm Reduction:

This essay will only briefly discuss the different aspects of harm reduction as it outside of the scope for this argument. However, in relation to the idea of the war on drugs, the counterpoint of what other possibilities are available to accept, understand and treat drug dependence is extremely important to understand why prohibition is defunct.

One stance in opposition to the idea of prohibition is the idea that, whilst punitive measures may well be necessary for certain drug offences, the best step forward is to take an understanding and curative approach to drug abuse. As Incardi and Harrison (2000) describe; the prohibition of drugs only criminalises those that, from an alternative perspective, are suffering from addiction and only causes harm to themselves. The criminalisation of drugs only perpetuates a vicious cycle in which drug users are forced to buy over-priced drugs of unknown purity, often from criminals, along with the reluctance to obtain 'clean' needles, contact authorities in appropriate situations and gain knowledge about the possibility of overdose. There are many different methods of harm reduction that are available to the government, all of which are either under-used or are under-supplied in both the U.S. and the U.K due at least in part, to the stigma attached to drugs because of prohibition (Rolles, Kushlick and Jay 2006).

Incardi and Harrison also talk about heroin maintenance programmes and safe injection sites. In heroin maintenance there is a consistent source of verified purity of di-morphine, in which the amount to take and the price is very controlled, encouraging a reduction in overdosing and stealing to enable a drug addiction. Safe injection site are essentially self-explanatory, providing an area where drugs can be taken safely under supervision. In this they describe how, whilst there is much debate over the extent to which these techniques can dissuade some of the negative aspects of drug abuse, there is a general consensus upon the positive and essentially life saving attributes to these programmes. A detriment to these programmes is the aversion to applying to them due to the social segregation of drug users and the problem of trying to include those individuals in the programme who require it when, under current legislation, they should be arrested. Both of these problems are a result of the prohibitionist state (Incardi and Harrison, 2000).

This section details not only another possible route for dealing with drugs, and how not only is the war on drugs an idea that has alternative but actually has a negative effect on them.


Throughout this essay is one essential point: that the current legislation on drugs, the idea of a 'war' on drugs and their users, is ineffective and obsolete. The idea of criminalising drug users seems to have become an inherent state of mind, a blind spot, for governments in the U.K. and U.S., with policies based not upon evidence but a kind of moral hysteria. The idea of drugs policy needing to be completely overhauled has become the 'elephant in the room, with many of those who speak out, such as professor Nutt, villainized and declaimed (Alleyne, 2010). Whilst president Obama's retraction of the war on drugs should be applauded, I worry that the changes that will be enacted will be either too little or removed once his term is over. As he tries to adopt European ideals on harm reduction there need to be more done on the front of harm reduction here and all over Europe, along with U.N. legislation based upon healthcare needs, better than the seemingly meaningless establishment of earlier ideals, that encourages decriminalisation and education on the risks of drugs. The idea of a 'war on drugs' has not only failed, but is abysmally counterproductive, with numerous casualties around the globe. The question now is how long will it be until governments worldwide admit their failure to their citizens?