The War on Drugs is an aggressive drug policy aimed at bringing the fight towards drug suppliers and cartels. It began during Nixon’s term when he escalated America’s problem with drugs as a moral equivalent of war (Ratliff). Presidents Ford and Carter expanded Nixon’s resolve when they focused the war by attacking the supply lines of drugs. Reagan followed through by militarising and launching strikes to suppliers and drug cartels and tripling its funds in drug eradication. The War on Drugs went on for years with the United States running a foreign policy that “sought to encourage, persuade, bribe, or coerce its neighbouring countries” (Ibid) to join them in their giant crusade against drugs. South American countries mostly supported this war because this increased their chances to receive U.S. aid. War on Drugs became a media maelstrom in the mid-80s when basketball stat Len Bias died of cocaine overdose. What followed was the signing of the Drug Policy known as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act that placed the problem of drugs as a national security problem. With the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the U.S. government started to use military and intelligence forces in the war against drugs.
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What started as a metaphor actually escalated into reality when the US. Military invaded Panama to seize Manuel Noriega in 1989, who was then imprisoned for drug trafficking. Afterwards, during the Clinton administration, the United States increased its funds in countering the supply-side of drug trafficking. George W. Bush added billions more to the war on drugs effort, though by this time. The so-called “war on drugs” have become a very unpopular issue and many have become opposed to it. The war on drugs has also lost steam since it has been a foregone priority as the United States has become focused on countering international terrorism.
Despite this the debate continues, for almost 40 years in its existence, U.S. has shuffled opinions on what to do with the decades-old policy on the crusade against drugs. Should they hang up their gloves and look for alternative solutions. The government has weighed in the pros and cons of the matter.
The pros on the war on drugs are looked in the sociological importance of continuing the crusade. It is believed that drug trafficking is a flagrant disrespect of the law, and society is compelled to punish such rebellion through overt force. Punishment and retribution are the keys to stopping drug trafficking and therefore the justice system should criminalise the activity and all its forms. Therefore, putting traffickers behind bars is part of the literature of war. When they’re shut out, drug availability is reduced; and so when you decrease the availability of drugs, abuse goes down too. In short, the war on drugs is really about tackling the supply side of drugs. The U.S. government directs its efforts in purging all supply lines and drug cartels to stop the availability of drugs. When the United States elevated this priority into their foreign policies, what they actually did was to compel other countries to take care of their citizens in terms of health and safety, protect its youth from becoming corrupted by drugs and pushers. The U.S. war on drugs spread like wildfire reminding that this is not just one countries war, the problem of drugs is a global human problem that everyone should take seriously. In the process, because of the war on drugs, elaborate institutions and industries around the world emerged from prison systems, anti-terrorism, anti-money laundering-governments became more aware.
However, the downside of the war on drugs is staggering. To many, the war just ended up as the militarization of Latin America. Mexico is now spending $800 million to a billion a year on the drug war (Tavis), just because they don’t want Americans invading them just like what they did in Panama. So Mexicans do it themselves: 90% goes to enforcement and the military to purge drug trafficking and only 10% goes to drug treatment. A good number of local officials argue that good share of that gargantuan budget should have gone to Mexico’s under-education, impoverishment, etc. The same goes with Colombia and the rest of South America. To the general opinion of many, the U.S. led war on drugs is just a silent Vietnam War that is putting civil war into a boiling point.
Dissidents on the war on drugs argue that the term itself “war” is an inappropriate metaphor. It gives the wrong idea. Yes, there is nothing wrong about thinking war on drugs in the context of law enforcement. Law enforcement is an indispensable tool in control and outlawing drug market-related violence. Very few contend on this argument. But when you start to think a war on drugs as sending troops to other countries then that is a different matter entirely. This is something many have opposed to, like the way Americans now bitterly opposes the war on Iraq.
In this case, the war on drugs truly fits its description, a war that amounts to billions that are operated from a situation room, targeting an exact enemy; the suppliers, the factories, the Colombian drug cartels, the problems they cause. But to operate the war on drugs as if America is up against the Nazis is looking at the problem from the wrong end. Here, drug trafficking runs in two ways: there are the foreign suppliers and theirs the local demand. You just can’t solve the problem by military strength when the problem also comes from within? Thus, here’s where the biggest criticism of the war on drugs: it’s too short-sighted. It’s examining only one side of the pole.
This “war” on drugs has escalated so far that the U.S. government no longer mind about collateral damage. They want to win the war conventionally. But what should be understood is that this is a war against people. For example, Colombia is a place of continued violence between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing militias. Peasants have nothing more to live on besides growing coca because there’s demand for it. Now, with the war on drugs, the United States want to stop growing coca at all costs, without giving aid to peasants to do other profitable livelihoods. So the peasants end up as collateral damage.
By killing the supply lines, the U.S. believes that the demand will die. And so they keep focusing on the killing supply by all means possible, even by arrogant policies such as the potential annual “decertification” of Latin American government that are determined not to cooperate with the United States (Ratliff).
Why the war on drugs became so criticised, it is because of this very policy, which has strained and continues to strain relations with Latin American countries. The negative effect of these policies has weakened foreign institutions of garnering support from their own countries, especially if they adhere to the United States. In fact, there’s a growing number of Hispanics that are already disenfranchised with the whole crusade (Tavis). There are generally two factions: one started supporting guerillas (who wants America to be decertified) and the other looking for ways to distance themselves with the U.S. and not cooperate like Mexico has done.
For experts, they are of a strong opinion that America should not continue the war on drugs on the basis that focusing only on the supply side of the problem will not amount to anything, it will only be a waste of money. What U.S. should do is start facing the reality that the real problem comes from the demand side; that the root of the problem is from within. You can’t call a war when the problem is within. You need alternative solutions. One example is to look at the problem not as a security threat or even a delinquency but rather as a health problem, stemming from a lack of education or youth cultural disillusionment. The way to treat drugs is to spend more money on schools, treatment efforts, not on prisons and on the military.
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Another problem with the war on drugs is that it looks at very limited solutions. For example, the so-called war is too focused on marijuana (Conan). Other drugs, like crack and other harder drugs, tend to be overlooked. Violent crimes are mostly committed by someone on hard drugs, not on marijuana. Now if they only focused on harder drugs, you can get a little more done.
After President Obama’s inauguration, the new drug policy was to drop the war on drugs term from the language of the administration. This is a drastic change from the approach of previous presidents and steer the new drug policy towards prevention “harm reduction” strategies that is much favoured in Europe (Glaister). The new administration embraced new drug policies supporting federally funded needle exchanges with an aim, according to David Johnson, assistant secretary of state, was to establish a policy based on public health needs (ibid). The objective of this new policy that replaces the war on drug stance is to create stronger and broader regulations than the drug policies in the past. The executive director of the Drugs Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelman, has long sought for alternatives to the old policy of war on drugs, and the changed that Obama instigated was a welcome relief to his organisation.
Washington officials reaffirmed in a congressional meeting held in March 2009 that the administration had to shift the age-old national drug policy as a response to the growing trend that drug-related violence has been transferring from the US to Mexico despite the aggressive military campaign against drug suppliers. The meeting followed a report from former presidents of South America, particularly, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, who all opined that the war on drugs policy was a complete and utter failure (Ibid). Many conservative politicians in the South blamed the United States for emphasising more on criminalising drug use and drug supplying rather than tackling the addiction problem itself. The criminalization and the aggressive approach of the war on crime only create an increase death toll. The new approach must, therefore, be based on public health.
Obama is looking at a more proactive side in creating a new drug policy aimed at reform and rehabilitation, rather than intimidation. This is a lesson learned from the damages that the War on Drugs has created. Through over-criminalization, it has so far assaulted American civil liberties, clog the jails and courts. This new policy also paved the way for police corruption, like what happened in the 1999 Rampart Scandal case that involved department-wide corruption and racketeering of the LAPD. The war on drugs is also open for abuse by misguided police officers that confiscate drugs to criminals and then enrich themselves by reselling it.
Worse, the war on drugs has so far cost the taxpayers approximately $3.2 billion during the Reagan and Bush presidency and then another set of billions were spent during Clinton’s administration (Drug Policy). Furthermore, because of it, the United States was suddenly propelled as having the highest per-capita incarceration rate for any nation in the world.
The problem is drug use has not decreased and crimes committed in connection with addiction and drug use continue the upward trend. It seems there is no stopping a great number of Americans of wanting various drugs and they always have the money to buy a quick drug fix. $3.2 billion was spent on law enforcement, not a dollar went to rehab centres. Most of them went to the military to combat alongside Latin American governments to build para-militaries against cartels. What should have been done is to spent that money back home and treat the root of the problem of addiction and lack of education on drug use.
Obama, who described in his autobiography having used marijuana and cocaine, steered his administration to finally get rid of the war on crime and treat needle exchanges for intravenous drug users a healthcare issue (Sullivan). Because it is true, obviously, that putting drug users in jail would not do anything concrete if you don’t treat them. Once released, they return to the same neighbourhood and is back to the same problem. This is what the new drug policy should be addressing.
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