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No Signs of Surrender as War on Drugs Turns 50

No Signs of Surrender as War on Drugs Turns 50

After fifty years of mass incarceration and failed attempts at prohibition, the time for alternative solutions that put people first is long overdue.

The irony of it all is that Richard Nixon could definitely have benefitted from some adding some cannabis to his life.

Instead, the infamous figure lent his legacy to exploits of a different nature. In addition to Nixon’s historic misadventures at the Watergate Hotel, there’s also the time he declared an all-out war on drugs. Last week, the fiftieth anniversary of President Nixon’s address was “commemorated” with a slew of press coverage condemning the federal governments approach to the issue over the past five decades.

Simultaneously, two House Democrats unveiled a new bill to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level.

Intentionally timed to coincide with the anniversary, Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), which, according to Newsweek, would “decriminalize personal use possession of all scheduled drugs — including marijuana, heroin and cocaine — and automatically expunge records and provide for resentencing for those serving time for certain drug-related arrests.”

Additionally, the DPRA would also “prohibit the denial of employment, immigration status, public benefits, voting rights, and more based upon a criminal history for drug possession” and further calls for the country “to address substance abuse with more health-centered approaches.”

In a statement, Rep. Bush emphasized how a punitive approach to drug issues “creates more pain, increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation with limited support and healing,” adding that it is “time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”

Given the ongoing struggles bills focused specifically on cannabis reform are currently enduring in Congress, it’s all but certain that this collective effort from Bush and Coleman will be entirely symbolic in nature. Regardless, the mere idea that two elected members of Congress would even consider introducing a bill to decriminalize possession of all scheduled drugs is a sign of progress in and of itself.

But patience is in short supply when it comes this issue. It’s a matter that has unquestionably been further exacerbated by the advent of state-legal cannabis markets and recent developments with regards to psychedelics and other scheduled substances. Be it the voters of Oregon approving a similar, statewide version of the DRPA last year or the currently optimistic prospects of California’s own effort to decriminalize all drugs, things are happening.

o Signs of Surrender as War on Drugs Turns 50 police officer handcuffs

While the DRPA may not have much hope of ever becoming law, that isn’t to say that what Bush and Coleman are suggesting isn’t without merit.

In fact, as numerous articles focused on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Drugs made clear last week, just about every meaningful metric one can analyze suggests that a punitive approach consistently fails to actually stop people from doing the substances they desire.

The cost? America has spent over one trillion dollars fighting the War on Drugs, CNBC reported, with the results after fifty years amounting to drug use in the U.S. once more climbing upwards.

“Despite a steep decline in illicit drug usage in the earlier years,” explained CNBC’s Nathaniel Lee, “drug use in the U.S. is climbing again and more quickly than ever. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of illicit drug users rose to 13% of Americans 12 years or older in 2019, nearly reaching its peak from 40 years ago. If the goal of the war on drugs was to decrease drug usage and prevent drug-related deaths, it hasn’t made much progress.”

Indeed, “progress” is not a word one will find easily fits with War on Drugs narrative.

To the contrary, a recent deep-dive from NPR on the lasting impact of decades of policy revealed the rewards of these efforts: a militarized police forces and countless broken families.

“During months of interviews for this project,” the authors of the report noted, “NPR found a growing consensus across the political spectrum — including among some in law enforcement — that the drug war simply didn’t work.”

Later in the same feature, the authors also made a point about how the War on Drugs is very much still happening today.

“Much of the drug war’s architecture remains intact,” they wrote.
“Federal spending on drugs — much of it devoted to interdiction — is expected to top $37 billion this year. The U.S. still incarcerates more people than any other nation, with nearly half of the inmates in federal prison held on drug charges.”

In fairness, the authors also pointed to a few bright spots.

“[The] nation has seen a significant decline in state and federal inmate populations, down by a quarter from the peak of 1.6 million in 2009 to roughly 1.2 million last year. There has also been substantial growth in public funding for health care and treatment for people who use drugs, due in large part to passage of the Affordable Care Act.”

Taken together, it appears that war is clearly not the answer when it comes to drugs.

If we can accept that, that’s step one. From there, we must do the work that accepting such a truth necessarily demands of us. The kind of  work that can actually save people.

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