America’s War on Drugs vs. Legalization Kelley Suminski

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America’s War on Drugs vs. Legalization

Kelley Suminski

EDGE 297c

Bruce Lusignan

The United States has spent over 30 years fighting the war on drugs. Americans have paid a heavy price financially. The drug enforcement budget is now $40 billion. A lot of time, effort, and money go into America’s attempt in eliminating trafficking, dealing, and the use of illegal drugs. Many believe that this is a war worth fighting, while others feel that America will never conquer the war on drugs. The latter suggest legalization as an alternative plan that will help save the country millions of dollars. In this paper, I will examine the history of the drug war as well as the arguments for and against fighting the war on drugs.

Illegal drug use dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. At this time two to five percent of the entire population of the United States was addicted to drugs.1 Times were very different then though. There are two main reasons for the high rate of drug addiction in the early 1900’s. The first was the use of morphine for pain relief in patients that had just gone through a medical operation. The patients were given the medication throughout the surgery as well as throughout their recovery time in the hospital. Thus after spending an extended amount of time in the hospital, they would leave with a repaired body along with an addiction to morphine. The addiction was so prevalent among soldiers during the Civil War that it became known as the “soldier’s disease”. 1

The second reason for the high drug addiction rate at the beginning of the 20th century was due to the audience that it was targeted to. Along with the soldiers, women made up a large portion of the population that was addicted to morphine. It was sold over the counter in the drug stores and was handed out to help women deal with all types of ailments. They were given the drug without knowing what they were taking. In fact, addictions to morphine were largely due to lack of knowledge on the drug. The addiction was the result of accidental use and insufficient information on its effects.

Drug addictions were increasing and something had to be done to help the situation. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the single most effective law passed to help alleviate the effects of improper drug use. The Act accomplished three things:2

1) It created the Food and Drug Administration in Washington that must approve all foods and drugs meant for human consumption. The very first impact of that was that the patent medicines were not approved for human consumption once they were tested.

2) The Pure Food and Drug Act said that certain drugs could only be sold on prescription.

3) The Pure Food and Drug Act requires that any drug that can be potentially habit-forming say so on its label. "Warning -- May be habit forming."

These three requirements on drug use and distribution greatly decreased the amount of people that formed accidental addictions. The Act continues to stand as the law that made the most impact on the drug addiction population. The fight against the use of drugs started a long time ago, but as the years went on America experienced a more intense battle with the widespread use of illegal drugs. There has been a steady increase in the number of people that use or have used drugs. America needed another plan of attack that would combat the increasing numbers. In the buildup to the Reagan Presidency in 1980, three things were happening.  One, America was bombarded with high rates of cocaine use, and the media as well as rock and rollers were glamorizing it.  Two, parents across America were becoming vocal about the dangers of their children being exposed to drugs.  Three, the U.S. Congress turned decidedly conservative. In 1978 it amended the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. This Act provided for the seizure of all money and property by persons arrested for engaging in the exchange of a controlled substance.3  President Reagan was a person who believed that the drug problem was a matter of personal moral failure, and in order to emphasize his priorities in this area, he made sure that all drug czars from now on would be Cabinet-level officials in what he called the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). His wife, Nancy Reagan also took part in the war on drugs with her famous “Just Say No” campaign which launched the “This is your brain on drugs” commercials as well as posters with the slogan “Drugs Kill.”  The program known as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) was also elevated for use at the national level, in which uniformed police officers spoke to classrooms about the negative consequences of drug use.  In October of 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared the “War on Drugs.” Speaking to the nation in his weekly radio address, Reagan promised a 'planned, concerted campaign' against all drugs-'hard, soft or otherwise.’ Reagan described his campaign in military terms, using words like 'battle,' 'war,' and 'surrender.' '[W]e're going to win the war on drugs,' he vowed.4 As the chart shows below, President Reagan increased anti-drug spending from about 1 billion dollars to about 5 billion during his two terms.

Most importantly, the Reagan administration launched a public relations campaign designed to change the public perception of drug use and the threat posed by illegal drugs. The centerpiece of this public relations campaign was a new strategy that sought to demonize drugs and ostracize drug users. Presidents Bush and Clinton continued the Reagan administration's anti-drug policies. President Bush established a national office of drug policy, appointed a drug 'czar,' increased anti-drug spending and intensified drug law enforcement efforts. President Clinton, for his part, increased the anti-drug budget by twenty-five percent, proposed expanded drug testing rules and intensified efforts toward drug interdiction and prosecution.5 No matter who has occupied the executive branch, the United States has pursued the same overall policies throughout the drug war. Anti-drug policies can be separated into two general camps, supply-reduction and demand-reduction. Supply-reduction strategies seek to reduce the availability of drugs by limiting access to drug sources and increasing the risks of drug possession and distribution. Demand-reduction strategies, on the other hand, seek to reduce demand for illegal drugs through drug use prevention and treatment. The rhetoric of war helped shape the strategies that were used to combat the perceived drug threat. As the pie graph illustrates below, the Reagan administration embraced a supply-reduction strategy focusing on interdiction, seizure and criminal prosecution, rather than a demand-reduction strategy that focused on public education and drug treatment designed to reduce demand for illegal drugs.

The supply-reduction strategy adopted by the Reagan administration fits a war model for the drug problem. Viewing the drug problem through a war model implies that the perceived drug problem can be attacked through aggressive law enforcement measures. The goal would be to search for and destroy illegal imports and break up distribution networks. As you can see, in deciding to use the law enforcement as his major weapon in fighting the war on drugs, Reagan put the most money into the Criminal Justice System. These kinds of measures are more similar to the military tactics one would expect to see in warfare than are demand-reduction measures. Demand reduction measures are primarily social service based. The aggressive law enforcement also affects demand because it discourages the purchasing of illegal drugs.

The success of the national campaign against drugs has been unclear. At the interdiction level, it has not been successful at keeping illegal drugs from entering the United States. Evidence indicates that there is a constant supply of all forms of illicit drugs and that the street price has actually dropped. For example, the price of a gram of cocaine was typically sold for a little over $400 in 1981. In 2001 it dropped to about $200. Similarly, a gram of heroine could be sold on the street for $3,250 in 1981. That price went down to around $2,000 in 2001. 6 The effort has not been an unqualified success at reducing the use of drugs. Approximately 7% of all Americans have used an illicit drug during the past 30 days. Although this is a much lower rate than the 70's, drug use has been steady throughout the 90's and has actually increased recently.7 Drug use by high school seniors has also increased during the past decade. It is difficult to determine whether the statistics would be significantly different without the massive government anti-drug campaign. The criminal justice efforts have succeeded in flooding our court and prison systems with drug offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics of 1996, approximately 43% of all prison sentences in the State and Federal Court system were for drug offenses.8  A significant percentage of these prisoners do not otherwise have criminal tendencies. Many of them are serving mandatory prison sentences under sentencing statutes which were aimed at punishing habitual criminals. Their incarceration deprives them and society of lost productivity. There are currently about 1.5 million people in state and Federal prisons and jails throughout the United States. At the current time, at least 24 states are under Federal court orders to relieve prison overcrowding. The cost to put a single drug dealer in jail is about $450,000. This is composed of the following: The cost for arrest and conviction is about $150,000. It costs about t$30,000 per year to house a prisoner. With an average sentence of 5 years, that adds up to another $150,000. The same $450,000 can provide treatment or education for about 200 people. In addition, putting a person in prison produces about fifteen dollars in related welfare costs, for every dollar spent on incarceration. Every dollar spent on treatment and education saves about five dollars in related welfare costs.9 A big problem the United States faces is the illegal transportation of drugs into the country from other foreign countries. For example, about 80% of the cocaine and 90% of the marijuana entering the United States comes from Latin America, and the two main transit routes are (1) up through Central America and across Mexico (the Mexico-Central America Corridor), and (2) out of Venezuela and across the Caribbean islands (the Caribbean Corridor). The following map shows these and other various routes that are taken to export drugs out of Latin America.


Produced in the Andes region (Bolivia, Peru and Colombia), the drugs transit via the West Indies, Central America and Mexico, which are the trafficking centers of the international mafia allied with the Colombian drug cartels that lay down the law in the region. The United States has tried almost everything to stop the export of drugs from Latin America -- crop eradication, border interdiction, military special forces, private military forces -- all to no avail, or at best estimates, impacting 15% of the trade.  The average drug trafficker working the Latin American routes can afford to lose 90% of their business and still remain profitable.12  The highly militarized nature of U.S. counter-drug policy in Latin America has simply produced a "balloon effect" or "push down - pop up" effect characterized by a crackdown in one place and an increase in production someplace else.  The result has been an ever-growing increase in drugs along with a decrease in price. The drug cartels in Latin America were very powerful and profitable. Since the 1970's, Colombia has been home to some of the most violent and sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world. In the mid-1970s, marijuana traffickers in Colombia began exporting small quantities of cocaine to the United States hidden in suitcases. At that point, cocaine could be processed for $1500/kilo in jungle labs and could be sold on the streets of America for as much as $50,000/kilo.13 The astounding profits attracted an interesting mix of characters into the business. One of the most famous cartels was the Medellin Cartel. It was made up of Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, the Ochoa brothers, and Pablo Escobar. Escobar was a common street thief who masterminded the criminal group. The men from Medellin joined together with a young marijuana smuggler named Carlos Lehder, who convinced the leaders that they could fly cocaine in small airplanes directly into the United States, avoiding the need for countless suitcase trips. The large quantities and the growing appetite for cocaine in the United States led to huge profits, which the cartel began re-investing into more sophisticated labs, better airplanes and even an island in the Caribbean where the planes could refuel. The money and power got to the cartel though as they fought the government over many issues dealing with trafficking the drugs. Eventually Escobar was gunned down by the police, and the other members turned themselves in. Although the Medellin Cartel is no longer operating, the DEA and the Colombian National police believe there are more than 300 active drug smuggling organizations in Colombia today. Cocaine is shipped to every industrialized nation in the world and profits remain incredibly high. America’s war on drugs has taken up a lot of time, effort, and money. There have been different plans of attack by various presidents and other law officials to combat the devastating effects of illegal drugs, but we are still a long way away from completely controlling the problem. In fact, there are some people who believe that we should abandon the fight against drugs and instead, legalize them. Legalization advocates claim that the fight against drugs has not been won and is, in fact, unconquerable. They frequently state that people still take drugs, drugs are widely available, and that efforts to change this are futile. They contend that legalization is the only workable alternative. Many compare the current prohibition effort with the failed effort at alcohol prohibition. They argue that if drugs were legalized and regulated, the problem of drug abuse could be addressed as a medical problem. Legalization is still regarded as a radical idea and it does not have mainstream support. Most believe that legalization would lead to greater consumption of these drugs, and the resulting social costs because of disease, mental health, decreased job productivity, auto accidents and educational impairments would be staggering. They note that comparisons with alcohol are inaccurate. Although it is true that many social troubles and costs can be attributed to alcohol abuse, the addictive nature of drugs such as cocaine and heroin is substantially greater than alcohol. Moreover, unlike alcohol, all illicit drugs are consumed for the purpose of immediate intoxication. Marijuana presents a controversial subject for debate. Proposals to legalize or decriminalize marijuana have been part of the policy debate since marijuana first became popular in the '60s. The growing public acceptance of these proposals has led some states to reduce criminal penalties for marijuana possession to the equivalent of a traffic ticket and to legitimize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. There is no evidence that these changes have been directly related to increased marijuana use. The map below indicates the states that have adopted decriminalization and/or medical marijuana statutes.

Many have advocated the complete elimination of penalties associated with the trafficking and possession of marijuana. They maintain that there is no clear link between marijuana and the use of other drugs and whatever link does exist would be severed by removing this drug from the underworld. Opponents of marijuana legalization cite the same probable adverse social consequences of legitimizing other drugs. With respect to the medical use of marijuana, they observe that far better and purer medications are available for conditions which marijuana is suggested as a treatment. Studies indicate that most marijuana users are young and very few become addicted, long term regular users. Users who become addicted do not suffer significant withdrawal symptoms when discontinuing their use of marijuana. The adverse medical effects of occasional use are not completely understood but they appear to be mild. There is some evidence that long term use is associated with immune disorders, the onset of schizophrenia and a general lack of motivation but further studies are necessary to more clearly understand the severity of these consequences. Furthermore, proponents of the legalization of drug argue, current drug law enforcement is costly and ineffective. To begin with, law enforcement officials are spending a lot of tax money on the crusade against drugs. The current drug war costs 9 billion dollars on a federal level and 18 billion dollars on state and local levels.14 Over 100 billion dollars were spent on the war on drugs from 1980 to 1992.9 The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that in 1990 six million citizens were steady illegal drug users, double the estimate taken in 1980. The expensive drug war has certainly not reduced drug addiction.15 The government expenses for enforcement for the first ten years of Prohibition was 88 million dollars, or around 773 million in 1993 dollars. The cost was about 22 billion dollars during the Reagan years and about 45 billion during Bush's four years in office. The government spent 16 billion dollars on drug regulation in FY 1998. In FY 1999 they approved a budget of 17.9 billion dollars.16 Over a fifteen-month period ending in 1987, the Air Force spent 3.3 million dollars trying to stop illicit drugs at U.S. borders. They concluded the term with only eight successful seizures. Similarly, the Coast Guard and Navy spent 40 million dollars and completed the fifteen-month period with only 20 successful seizures of drug-carrying vessels.17 Also, legalization would reduce the profits of drug dealing. The illegal drug business is very profitable since the price of a product increases when it is made illegal. "Whenever there is a great demand for a product and [the] government makes it illegal, black market always appears to supply the demand". Yearly drug trafficking earnings average to about 60 billion dollars and range as high as 100 billion dollars a year.18 Marijuana is the largest cash crop in ten states and the second largest cash crop in the U.S., after corn. "Revenues from drug trafficking in Miami, FL., are greater than those from tourism, exports, health care, and all other legitimate businesses combined".11 The U.S. illegal drug market is one-eighth of the total world market, making it the largest illegal drug market in the world.19 Additionally, drug dealers show off expensive jewelry and clothing to young kids.20 Some of these kids are interested in making fast money instead of working legitimate jobs.21 Drug legalization would remove the "glamorous Al Capone-type traffickers who are role-models for the young.22 There are countless arguments and opinions on America’s Drug War. I believe that the war is worth fighting. At times it may seem as though our country is not making significant progress in conquering drugs, but what we have to keep in mind is that progress does not come overnight. America has had a long, dark struggle with drugs. It’s not a war we’ve been fighting for 20 years. We’ve been fighting it for 120 years. In 1880, many drugs, including opium and cocaine, were legal. People didn’t know their harms, but they soon learned. Violence as well as the number of addicts was at an all time high. However, those problems were solved by passing and enforcing tough laws and by educating the public about the dangers of these drugs. With a three pronged strategy combining education/prevention, enforcement, and treatment there was a significant decrease in drug use and crime. As long as there is a demand for drugs in the United States there will be a supply. If we can control and influence the demand for drugs by eliminating it all together then there will be no need for supply. In addition, we could greatly decrease the supply problem by stopping drug production in other countries. This would be a very hard task, but would impact the drug world immensely. A focus on treatment for addicts would also help. The success of drug treatment depends on the motivation of the patient and is directly related to the length of time that a patient remains in treatment, but the success rate of fully completing is significant. The graph below shows the significant effects treatment can have on keeping people off of drugs.

If we could succeed in preventing the production of drugs in other countries or stopping drugs at the border as well as stopping the sale of drugs in the United States, we could win the war on drugs. It may not happen in your life time or mine, but baby steps should continue to be taken for future victory. We must never give up on fighting against drugs because the repercussions of legalizing them would be far worse.

1 Whitebreak, Charles. The History of the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in the United States. A Speech to the California Judges Association. 1995.

2 United States Statutes at Large (59th Cong., Sess. I, Chp. 3915, p. 768-772). (C) 1995 -- Facts on File, Inc.

3 McWilliams, J. (1991). 'The History of Drug Control Policies in the United States. 'in J.A. Inciardi (ed.) Handbook of Drug Control Policies in the United States. NY: Greenwood Press.

4 Currie, E. (1993). Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities, and the American Future. NY: Hill & Wang.

5 McWilliams, J. (1991). 'The History of Drug Control Policies in the United States. 'in J.A. Inciardi (ed.) Handbook of Drug Control Policies in the United States. NY: Greenwood Press.

6 Cala, Michael. The Price and Purity of Illicit Drugs: 1981 Through the Second Quarter of 2003. November 2004.

7 Lyman, M. & Potter, G. (2003). Drugs in Society, 4e. Cincinnatti: Anderson LexisNexis.

8Gilliard, Darrell K; Beck, Allen J.  “Prison Jail and Inmates of 1996”  BJS Bulletin. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. August 1996.  NCJ 161132

9 Schaffer, Clifford A. Basic Facts About the War on Drugs.

10 Geopolitical Drug Observatory (OGD), Atlas mondial des drogues, PUF, September 1996; Yves Lacoste, Dictionnaire de géopolitique, Flammarion, 1997.


12 Bagley, B. & Walker, W. (Eds.) (1996). Drug Trafficking in the Americas. Miami: North-South Press.

13 Shannon, E. (1991). Desperados: Latin Drug Lords and the War America Can't Win. NY: Signet.

14 Duke, Steven B. and Albert C. Gross. America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. New York: Putnam Books, 1993.


15Riga, Peter J. "The Drug War Is a Crime: Let's Try Decriminalization." San Diego, CA; Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1996: 52-54.

16Currie, Elliot. "Toward a Policy on Drugs: Decriminalization? Legalization?" San Diego, CA.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1996: 55-64.

17 Wink, Walter. "Getting Off Drugs: The Legalization Potion." Friends Journal Feb. 1996. Rpt. in "Illegal Drugs Should Be Legalized." Current Controversies: Illegal Drugs. Charles P. Cozic, ed., San Diego, CA.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998: 107-114.

18 Duke, Steven B. and Albert C. Gross. America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. New York: Putnam Books, 1993


19Rodriguez, L. Jacabo. "Time to End the Drug War." CATO Institute 13 Dec. 1997. 23 Feb. 2004

20 Duke, Steven B. and Albert C. Gross. America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. New York: Putnam Books, 1993

21 Kane, Joseph P. "The Challenge of Legalizing Drugs." America 8 Aug. 1992. Rpt. in "Should Drugs Be Legalized?" Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Health and Society. 2nd ed., Eileen L. Daniel, ed., Guilford, CT.: Dushkin Publishing Group, 1996: 154-158.

22 Wink, Walter. "Getting Off Drugs: The Legalization Potion." Friends Journal Feb. 1996. Rpt. in "Illegal Drugs Should Be Legalized." Current Controversies: Illegal Drugs. Charles P. Cozic, ed., San Diego, CA.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998: 107-114.

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