The United States of America has a problem. Drug usage is extraordinarily high- anyone knows where to find a drug dealer, even elementary school kids. Violent crime is on the rise, especially in cities, and drugs seem to be a key factor. Prisons are overflowing with people convicted of drug-related crimes. Taxpayer-funded welfare is loaded with people addicted to cocaine, heroin, meth, etc. The news is full of stories of overdoses. Even legal prescription drugs, which are meant to help people, are being abused and becoming tools of self-destruction.
America has a drug problem, and it’s time we did something to fix it. Actually, maybe the real problem is, we have been doing something to fix it. For forty-six years. Ever since President Nixon coined the term in 1971, the War on Drugs has been a prominent movement in the politics of this country.
It’s been a valiant, dedicated effort- but it isn’t working. In 1969, many Americans viewed drug use as a serious problem in society when the actual usage was relatively low. According to Gallup polls, only 4% of Americans had reported having tried marijuana. Despite increased funding, enforcement, and awareness of the War on Drugs, today the number stands at 45%.
Heroin, hallucinogens, opioids, and methamphetamines have had similar upwards trends. The funding for the War on Drugs is an interesting aspect in itself. Congress has spent a lot of money on a war against some plants and powder. Currently, the US government spends $51 billion on enforcement of the War, which is enough on its own, but what about even after the law has been enforced?
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there are 186,000 inmates in federal prisons around the United States. 46% of those are serving time for a conviction of possession of drugs. An additional 18% of inmates report committing their respective crimes in order to attain money for drugs, most commonly robbery, burglary, and larceny. This makes 64% of federal inmates convicted because of drug-related crimes, or about 119,000 people.
In 2017, the BOP requested about $7.3 billion in federal funding from the government. This money would pay for correctional officer and administrative salaries, medical expenses, construction, security, and reentry programs. Divided by the total number of federal inmates, it costs $39,200 to keep a person in jail.
This means the United States is spending about $3,175,200,000 on the 64% of inmates related to drugs. This doesn’t even include inmates at the state or county level. Suppose you’re walking down the street in town and come across an obviously high pothead passed out in the alley.
Would you pay almost forty thousand dollars to lock him up? Apparently, the government would. Clearly, the cost-benefit ratio between the expenses and the results is discouraging- but not surprising. In fact, this has happened before. The rather-infamous 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16th, 1919. This Amendment prohibited the making, transportation, and selling of any and all alcoholic beverages.
The idea behind this was to reduce crime rates and decrease the need for welfare and prisons. However, it had several unintended side effects. Thousands of jobs were gone overnight- breweries, distilleries, saloons; as well as truckers, waiters, even barrel makers. Restaurants closed because they could not make profits without liquor sales. Nationally, the US government lost over $11 billion from liquor taxes, in addition to now spending $300 million to enforce the new amendment.
Prohibition caused the economy to degrade on a legal scale, but illegally, the drug trade flourished. When alcohol was no longer plentiful, it became expensive, which meant there was a profitable gain for anyone who could make it and sell it. Common men turned to bootlegging in their basements, especially as the Great Depression worsened. Organized crime was established and violent crimes rates drastically increased across the country.
Even if the intention for Prohibition was to decrease the need for prisons, the jails overflowed as any regular citizen caught with alcohol was suddenly a criminal. And even still, statistics suggest the entire country actually began drinking more alcohol than when before the amendment was instituted. The Prohibition Era is a classic example of human (and economic) reaction to unwarranted and unnecessary authority. This reaction is historical, dependable, and predictable- and it’s happening right now. Prohibition didn’t work the first time and it’s not working today.
Despite every government attempt, despite every dollar spent and every court case ruled, the War on Drugs continues to achieve the exact opposite of its intention. There is a cycle that occurs when an authority outlaws a product. The product becomes rare and therefore profitable to anyone who can supply it. An illegal trade develops. The authority, wishing to stop the illegal trade, employs harsher enforcement strategies against anyone involved. Thus, the product becomes more rare, and more expensive, and an even bigger asset to instigators of organized crime.
They are willing to become more violent to get it. The authority employs even harsher tactics, and organized crime becomes more violent, and the cycle continues. This is why drug trafficking is directly related to violent crime. Violent crime is directly related to over-population of prisons, which is directly related to expensive funding. All of this for a war that, simply put, isn’t working. So what to do about it?
The solution is simple: Decriminalize all drugs.
Simple, yes, but not easy to accept.
In popular opinion there seems to be something morally wrong with a society that allows drugs to be lawful, because there’s a widely agreed-on but false connection between lawfully accepting and morally accepting.
Are the people who want to do drugs going to be stopped by the law? No, they aren’t- which is why the problem is still relevant. Drugs are immoral, and that’s why moral citizens don’t do drugs and immoral citizens do. The unlawfulness does not matter and there is no connection. If drugs aren’t illegal, they aren’t rare. Who’s going to corner a black market on a product anyone can find in the convenience store?
If they aren’t rare, they aren’t expensive. Who’s going to steal from friends and family to pay for a product someone could just lend them? If they aren’t expensive, they aren’t valuable. Who’s going to murder someone for something just not worth it anymore?
The United States government spends almost $60 billion every year on this War on Drugs. If drugs were decriminalized, this funding could be put towards something much more effective at fighting the drug problem, like rehabilitation and care centers, or drug education. But just as easily, those services could be left up to private organizations (that, most likely, would do a better job) and the money could be put towards the national debt. Today, eight states have almost fully decriminalized marijuana.
This is a step in the right direction- a democratized decision made at the state level. It is unlikely that more dangerous drugs will be soon to follow, but the inefficiency of the War on Drugs is slowly becoming apparent to the general public. Gallup polls record 60% of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana, opposed to 15% in 1971 when the War began. Someday soon, we may all be living in a safer, more peaceful country.
- “Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses, http://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- “Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP: Population Statistics, http://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/population_statistics.jsp. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- “Prisons and Drugs.” Drug War Facts, http://www.drugwarfacts.org/chapter/drug_prison. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- “The 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center – The 18th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-xviii. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- “Prohibition: Unintended Consequences.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/unintended-consequences/. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- Gallup, Inc. “Decades of Drug Use: The ’80s and ’90s.” Gallup.com, 9 July 2002, http://www.gallup.com/poll/6352/Decades-Drug-Use-80s-90s.aspx. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- Gallup, Inc. “Decades of Drug Use: Data From the ’60s and ’70s.” Gallup.com, 2 July 2002, http://www.gallup.com/poll/6331/Decades-Drug-Use-Data-From-60s-70s.aspx. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.
- Gallup, Inc. “Illegal Drugs.” Gallup.com, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1657/Illegal-Drugs.aspx. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017. · “Federal Prison System.” Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Emily Cunningham is a high school student from central Pennsylvania. I am a traditional conservative with some libertarian views and Roman Catholic.