History of America’s War on Drugs: Failing then, failing now

History of America’s War on Drugs: Failing then, failing now

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Anti-drug campaigns, zero tolerance policies, and harsh punishments were all implemented in order to combat the drug problem in the United States. None of these has helped.

1885 Poster featuring the photograph Cocaine Medicine Ad, 1885 by Granger.

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2016 – The drug epidemic has been a problem in America for decades. Communities being affected all over the United States. With so many people getting incarcerated, losing their families, and even losing their lives as a result of rampant drug use, something had to be done.

In 1971, President Nixon declared an official war on drugs. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of drug reform and policies ranging from marijuana being deemed a schedule one substance to the decriminalization of marijuana, with varying policies on every other controlled substance as well.

In an effort to make a positive impact on those affected by drug use in the U.S., the war on drugs was fought for years. But is it really making a positive impact on drug use overall?

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Scare Tactics

Scare tactics have been a common method employed to prevent drug use since the war on drugs began. Reefer Madness was a popular film re-released in the 70s. The “This is Your Brain on Drugs” PSA was popular in the 80s and 90s, and the “Not Even Once” PSAs running today all use scare tactics as a way to deter young people from using drugs.

Scare tactics aren’t just used to deter drug use either. They are also used to promote STD prevention and to deter tobacco use. These campaigns display disturbing images, describe worse case scenarios, and employ shock value to deter drug use and focus on prevention.

Do scare tactics work? Some believe they do, and some believe they do not. The real answer depends on many factors.

Whether or not the scare tactics work, however, the issue is that these PSAs actually alienate addicts looking to recover as well as addicts who have recovered. These depictions of worst case scenarios and graphic images further push the stigma of addiction that already exists.

While scare tactics may or may not be useful in preventing drug use, they prove definitely harmful in opening up communication about addiction from those who have lived it.


Prevention is still absolutely necessary to keep people from becoming drug abusers. Education and communication are still the best ways to accomplish this. Promoting substance abuse education in schools, promoting conversations about substance abuse, and encouraging honest facts about drug use are all great ways to educate youths about the dangers of drugs.

Drug prevention is all about educating those at risk as well as parents and community members on the risk factors, signs of drug abuse, and how to talk to children about drugs. Drug prevention programs should discuss risk factors associated with drug use such as risk of disease, drinking and driving, and risks to the body in an educational way instead of deploying risks as a scare tactic.

There are also considerable prevention efforts aimed at young people but not so much at other age groups. In order to prevent drug abuse, prevention activities need to address everyone. Right now, prevention, too, has largely relied on the scare tactics mentioned earlier, not only in PSA form, but also in educational material.

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The key is to educate insividuals on the realities of drug use without manipulating them with worst case scenarios and, in so doing, pushing those in recovery further away from learning to be open with their issues. For example, with many jurisdictions across the U.S. working to decriminalize marijuana, it’s become a much more open and accepted topic that it ever has been and more people are feeling comfortable discussing it.

Treatment over Incarceration

Since the beginning of the war on drugs, incarceration has been a huge part of the battle. During the Reagan presidency, the drug war expanded and incarceration numbers grew. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997.

Anti-drug campaigns, zero tolerance policies, and harsh punishments were all implemented in order to combat the drug problem in the United States. Instead of focusing on treatment for these debilitating addictions, we focused on punishment. Now, nearly 50% of the prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses and our prisons are notoriously overcrowded.

President Obama has commuted the sentences of 248 people as of March 2016, many of whom are serving time for nonviolent drug crimes, or have been imprisoned under other outdated sentencing laws.

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Obama’s pardoning of more individuals than the last six presidents combined shows that there is a dire need for reform in the criminal justice system. Implementing more treatment options for drug offenders and focusing on treating the addiction before incarceration will have a major impact on the amount of nonviolent drug offenders behind bars and prison overcrowding.

Social workers focusing on treating drug addiction, treatment centers within prison systems, and a focus on the health issue over the criminal justice issue will all work to change what the war on drugs has done for this issue. With a mindset that understands the science behind addiction, treatment facilities will be a much better option for those committing drug crimes that are nonviolent. Not only will this help overcrowding and lesson harsh sentencing. It will actually have an impact on U.S. drug use, motivating individuals and governments to treat the problem instead of strictly punishing it.

With drug use affecting so many American lives, it was a natural response to work towards changing our attitude towards drug use in order to help those affected by it. Unfortunately, the war on drugs seems to have dismissed the war on drugs and focused on a war against drug addicts.

The scare tactics used in prevention have created a stigma against those seeking help, while the harsh punishments involved have ended up making treatment difficult to obtain. A focus on education and treatment will not only help the core issue of addiction. It will also help address the health issues associated with addiction, the families affected indirectly, the overcrowding in prisons and the negative stigma for those working towards sobriety.

Luckily, views concerning the war on drugs are changing on a much larger scale. The end of the war on drugs and the beginning of the reform on drug policy is drawing near.

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