In the decades since President Richard Nixon declared an “all-out offensive” on narcotics abuse in 1971—which later came to be described as a “war on drugs”—the nation experienced both an epidemic of mass incarceration, and increased addiction rates.
A forthcoming research paper argues those consequences are the primary reasons why it’s long past time not only to declare the drug war a failure, but to analyze “what we got wrong.”
“The War on Drugs is effectively over,” wrote the author, Mark William Osler, a lawyer and law professor at the University of St. Thomas. “Drugs won.”
Osler believes that this “colossal failure deserves a thousand thoughtful reflections,” which led him to research how the massive undertaking to eradicate illegal drugs in our country broke down.
Osler charged that the federal government ignored endemic racism in the justice system and the complexities of the drug market in its determination to go after drug dealers and users.
“We spent, we imprisoned, we broke down doors, and yet overall drug use has remained relatively constant,” he wrote.
Criminals convicted for drug offenses account for the incarceration of nearly half a million people in the U.S., with nonviolent drug convicts making up a defining characteristic of the federal prison population, the Prison Policy Initiative has found.
The Prison Policy Initiative also found that the police still make over one million drug possession arrests every year, introducing new people into the justice system constantly and further exacerbating the problem.
The American Progress Organization estimates that every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession.
Yet still, as Osler pointed out, drug use has remained constant — even increasing now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first error Osler identified was the government’s politicization of its anti-drug crusade, and the inherent racism of the campaign.
He quotes former Nixon assistant John Ehrlichman who said in 1968 that the Nixon White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.”
Ehrlichman is also quoted as saying, “by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
And disrupt they did, Osler wrote.
He cited the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that during the height of the War on Drugs, “Black and Hispanic people accounted for over 95 percent of crack convictions,” despite the fact that more than half of crack users were white.
This is still the case today. A 2020 study found that racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white people.
Osler also wrote that U.S. law enforcement handled narcotics crimes like any other type of criminalized behavior, when the punitive approach to drug possession or abuse should have replaced with a focus on mental health and the tragedy of addiction.
Osler shared a personal anecdote about a client, Ronald Blount, whom he aided in a petition for clemency. At the time, Blount was in a federal prison in Texas serving a life sentence for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute crack cocaine.
However, Blount wasn’t the “drug kingpin” that the court made him out to be, Osler claimed, arguing he was rather a “hard-core crack addict” who spent his days begging for change, and his nights sleeping on his mother’s porch.
Blount was the perfect example of a criminal who didn’t need punishment; he needed help for his debilitating addiction and homelessness.
“Somehow our system locked him away for life and pretended that this routine cruelty was somehow solving a problem,” Osler wrote.
President Barack Obama granted Blount clemency in 2016.
The Drug Market
Osler argued that it was within the government’s proper role to curb rampant drug use, but this conceptual goal was overshadowed by its focus on the growth of the narcotics drug market.
When the War on Drugs began, drug sellers figuratively went underground to escape detection, giving rise to a black market. But federal authorities ignored the role of highly addictive, and legal, prescription drugs like Oxycontin in fueling that black market.
Once addicted persons could no longer receive legal prescriptions, they moved to buy from the black market, blurring the lines. It seemed moral to take certain drugs once prescribed, but illegal once that same pill became part of an addiction routine.
“That, of course, made the War on Drugs a lot more complicated,” Osler wrote, because “the civilians and opposing soldiers looked alike, and defining the enemy became more difficult.”
Such factors contributed to America’s failure to effectively fight the War on Drugs.
“Ronald Reagan compared the War on Drugs to the Battle of Verdun, and he was right,” said Osler.
“Fortunes were spent, many lives were lost, and nothing really changed.”
Mark William Osler is a Professor of Law and the Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
Prof. Osler’s full report can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: COVID-19 Deepens Toll of Opioid Crisis, Webinar Told