Who is Winning the War on Drugs? Not Us
Who is winning the war on drugs? If you ask most people, particularly those whose lives have been altered by drugs and addiction, the answer is, “not us.” Begun in 1970 under the Nixon Administration, the war on drugs had admirable goals, but in the 40 years since, it has proven not to be the most effective program. In fact, this past summer, The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group which includes several respected, high profile leaders, declared the war on drugs a failure, and 3 out of 4 Americans agree. That is not to suggest the legalization of drugs is the answer. Rather, our approach needs to be adjusted and our resources reallocated accordingly. Along those lines, in 2009, Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s head of National Drug Control Policy, announced he was retiring the term “war on drugs” because, “people see a war as a war on them.” Treating drugs more as a public health issue than a criminal justice matter may be the key to solving our nation’s drug problem. Perhaps the most important shift, however, needs to occur in the home.
While the conversation about drugs has evolved over the years, we are still making some critical mistakes. The first is defining drug and alcohol use in terms of character and not decision making. Good people make bad decisions all the time. Drug and alcohol abuse are bad decisions. To some this may seem like an irrelevant issue of semantics, but it actually reshapes the dialogue and fosters an environment that encourages honesty. No one wants to admit to being a bad person or knowing bad people. Mistakes, on the other hand, are far easier to acknowledge and discuss.
Also, conversations still tend to be in response to an issue rather than as a preventative measure. The time to talk about drug use is not when you suspect or learn something has occurred. Those conversations should begin at an early age and seek to prevent any drug use or underage drinking from happening. Of course, those discussions also need to be realistic and acknowledge that, at the end of the day, we all make choices and are ultimately responsible for our own well-being.
We also need to be more open and understanding about mental health issues. We have made great strides when it comes to mental health. Awareness and compassion have increased considerably. Still, there is a lot of shame and ignorance surrounding issues of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. It is important to acknowledge that these problems exist; they are diseases not character flaws; and help is available. Many who struggle with mental illness, whether it is an acute or chronic condition, turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Addiction itself is a disease and would also fall under the category of mental health. If mental health issues are treated appropriately, we could prevent a significant amount of substance abuse from occurring. Even if you are not able to stop the onset of substance abuse as a form of self-medication, viewing it as a bad solution to a real problem removes the judgment and reduces the stigma associated with treatment. After all, being able to admit one’s addiction and ask for help really is the first and most critical step to treating chemical dependency.
Similarly, policy needs to shift from punishment to treatment. Programs such as drugs courts and Access to Recovery focus on the root causes of addiction and have proven to be quite successful. In fact, they are not only cheaper than incarceration, but also far more effective. On average, only 16% of those who complete a drug courts program are repeat offenders in contrast to 46% of those who are incarcerated for similar charges. By cultivating a population that is healthier and happier, we decrease the demand for drugs, which will inevitably affect supply.
We should also reconsider other investments of our tax dollars. Unfortunately, there will always be a need for law enforcement and prisons, but there is a far greater need for education and schools. A lot of kids experiment with drugs out of boredom or lack of opportunity. After-school programs and genuine skills, however, are the antidotes to those problems. When kids have things to do and value themselves, they are far less likely to jeopardize their well-being and their future. Even those who do not have children benefit from happier and healthier generations. Choices such as these address the systemic causes of substance abuse and prove to be far more effective in the long-term.
It is simply not realistic to think we will stamp-out drug use and addiction entirely, but we can decrease its effect on our society and our loved ones. By shifting the emphasis onto treatment, education, and understanding from prosecution, punishment, and judgment, we will forge a brighter future and loosen the drug trade’s pernicious grasp on our world. Someday the answer to “who is winning the war on drugs,” just might be, “us,” if we make it a fight for one another instead of against each other.