Just Say “No” to the War on Drugs

Image from pixabay.com

The “war on drugs” has been an absolute failure on many levels. Since the introduction of this “war” in the 1970 and the escalation in the 1980s, drug use — both illicit and prescription — has increased. The social costs on taxpayer funding of policing and incarceration of non-violent drug offenders is astronomical and has done little to deter users from getting their next fix. With our politicians continually vowing to be “tough on crime” and advocating for us to “just say no,” while citizens in several states have begun to vote “yes” on legalizing marijuana, now is the time to discuss the validity of the “war” waged on drug users, possessors, dealers, and prescribers.

Are there better ways to use our resources? Are we fighting the “war on drugs” in the best possible ways? What alternative policies exist that would help solve the problems of illicit drug uses and abuses? These are the types of questions that can be solved by looking at and analyzing data that media and politicians seem to ignore.

The History of War

One century ago, what we now refer to as illicit substance or drugs were almost all legal and available. However, as government began to attempt to marginalize certain populations, specific drug laws were implemented as a means of social control. The first was the prohibition of opium in the 1870s which exclusively targeted Chinese immigrants. In the early 1900s, cocaine was deemed illicit as a means to control the recently freed Black population. Mexican immigrants faced penalties in the 1910s and 20s as marijuana became illegal. However, it was not until 1971 that Richard Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs” and dramatically increased federal funding for battle. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was formed in 1973 as the premier task force for combating drug smuggling and distribution in the United States of America (drugpolicy.org).

The 1980s saw another major development in the war on drugs as President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, dug their heels in deeper with the “Just Say No” campaign. During this time, drug enforcement targeting the crack form of cocaine also increased. This disproportionately affected African-Americans who were the primary users of this form, while Caucasians more often snorted powdered cocaine. “Experts” argued that crack was more potent, and prison sentencing disparities were about a 100:1 ratio for crack vs. powder (Provine, 2007) — now 18:1 thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Despite the waging of war during the cocaine explosion of the South American cartels moving into Miami, drug use and associated violence continued to escalate. “Zero tolerance” policies in New York and California saw a massive spike in drug related incarcerations — which was particularly devastating to Black and Latinx populations. In the past decade, we have

seen an explosion of opioid use in the United States leading to President Trump to declare the opioid epidemic a “national emergency.” Several states have voted to legalize marijuana in order to relieve the overcrowding of prisons with non-violent drug offenders. However, there have been no additional calls to end the war on drugs (drugpolicy.org).

The Financial Costs of War

Annual federal spending totals about $25 BILLION. About 42% of that was on prevention and treatment. The remaining 58% was on domestic and international policing and interdiction (drugwarfacts.org).

Federal and state governments spent $3.3 trillion in 2005 to operate government and provide public services such as education, health care, income assistance, child welfare, mental health, law enforcement and justice services, transportation and highway safety (drugwarfacts.org).

The Social Costs of War

Incarceration has dramatically increased. In 1973, there were about 325,000 drug arrests out of over 9 million total arrests. In 2017, 1.6 million of 10.5 million were drug related — 85% of which were for possession (drugwarfacts.org).

As of 2015, more than 33% of federal and state prisoners were Black, which represents 2.5% of the entire American Black population. 11% of Black children have at least one parent incarcerated — almost triple the rate of Hispanics. 15.7% of all state and 52% of federal inmates were convicted for drug offenses (drugwarfacts.org).

In addition to the increase in drug offenses prosecuted, violent crime is linked to prohibition of alcohol and drugs. Murder rates were the highest in America during eras of Prohibition (1930–40s and 1970s-80s), and about half of all homicides are drug related (Miron, 2004).

About 44 million American adults have a mental illness. Another 19 million have a substance use disorder (SUD). An estimated 8.2 million adults suffer both from a mental illness and SUD. 2.6 million have a serious mental illness and SUD. Less than half received treatment for one disorder or the other, and only 2.9% received treatment for both (drugwarfacts.org).

Alternatives to War

Treatment would save $7.46 on crime and productivity costs for every $1 spent on treatment. Less than 20% of those who need treatment actually receive it. About 46% of users do not return to using after receiving treatment. Of those who need, but do not seek treatment, 20% do not seek treatment because of social stigmas like negative perceptions at work and among neighbors/friends (drugwarfacts.org).

Legalization would save American taxpayers over $41 BILLION each year on enforcement alone. It would also produce over $46 BILLION in tax revenue from sales (drugwarfacts.org). More users would seek treatment that has proven to be more effective than incarceration. It would also reduce some stigmas that keep users from seeking treatment. Furthermore, it would have positive effects on marginalized communities by releasing hundreds of thousands of people of color back into their homes.




Miron, J.A. (2004) Drug War Crimes. Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute.

Provine, D. (2007). Unequal under the law. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alexander Simmons

Mr. Simmons has an MA in Sociology from UNLV and is an accomplished author with a published book and over 150 blogs and articles.