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It’s 2020. Why is the War on Drugs Still Happening?

This week, Mila is joined by retired Seattle Police chief and author Norm Stamper for an eye-opening inside look at America’s police force. They discussed why US police culture, something espoused and protected by organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police, makes police forces around the country incapable of change. They also touched on how we can capitalize on this moment of change and create a better standard of policing for America. 

Listen to Norm’s interview here:

According to Stamper, one way to curb violent deaths at officers’ hands is to end the War on Drugs. 

“When Richard Nixon famously declared drug abuse public enemy number one and declared all-out war on drugs, he was really declaring war on his own people,” he explained during the show. “So by definition, from very early on in the early 70s, the police were the soldiers in a frontline war against their own people. What a tragedy of monumental scale and, frankly, Shakespearean proportions.”

The War on Drugs wasn’t a well-meaning accident in an attempt to stave off the rising drug use of the late 1960s. The Nixon Administration knew exactly what its heavy-handed policies were doing. 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy head John Ehrlichman once told writer Dan Baum. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but 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 so, with a nationwide mandate, the US police force went to war with stunning results. The number of incarcerated Americans grew from 300,000 in 1970 to more than 2.3 million. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, half of all federal prisoners are in for drug charges, and a whopping two-thirds of those are minorities, even though whites are more likely to use drugs. Shockingly, every 25 seconds, an American is arrested on a drug-related charge.

According to Stamper, police viewed the War on Drugs as an opportunity to remove drug kingpins. In reality, a different, darker story played out.

“Mostly, America’s cops are dealing with young people, poor people and people of color in wildly disproportionate numbers who are dealing a half a baggie of weed or various pharmaceuticals on street corners,” he noted. “It’s a medical problem. It’s a public health problem. But we made it a criminal problem.”

Looking past the inherent racism and militarized treatment of US citizens, the War on Drugs has been an expensive, abject failure. Incarcerating drug users has no positive impact on recidivism rates and makes people more likely to die from overdose upon release. Drug use rates remained steady since the policy took effect. Not surprising, considering it emulates the failed policy of Prohibition. As the opioid epidemic ripped through rural America, the War on Drugs actively made the situation worse by burning through money which could have gone to rehabilitation efforts and life-saving treatments. 

The War on Drugs is woefully inefficient, designed to further entrench systemic racism, and remains jaw-droppingly expensive. Since 1971, the US spent more than $1 trillion on it. The federal government spends more than $9 billion per day incarcerating Americans convicted of drug offenses. The impact is similar in other countries. Colombia, one of the world’s largest cocaine exporters, is considering buying the entirety of the nation’s harvest because it costs less than their prevention and destruction efforts. 

The War on Drugs is even uniting both sides of the political spectrum of our deeply polarized country. Democrats and Republicans alike decry it as racist, outdated, expensive, and ineffectual. When The Nation and The Cato Institute agree on something, it’s probably worth considering. 

Works Cited

Billings, Sean. “Why Prohibition Failed.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 24 Jan. 2019, 

“Colombia Is Considering Legalizing Its Massive Cocaine Industry.” VICE, 

“Defunding the Police.” Future Hindsight, 22 Aug. 2020, 

“Every 25 Seconds.” Human Rights Watch, 28 June 2019, 

“Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs.” Cato Institute, 22 Sept. 2020, 

Initiative, Prison Policy. “How Many People Are Locked up in the United States?” How Many People Are Locked up in the United States? | Prison Policy Initiative, 

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 | Prison Policy Initiative, 

Knafo, Saki. “White America Does The Crime, Black America Gets The Time.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 18 Sept. 2013, 

Kristof, Nicholas. “Republicans and Democrats Agree: End the War on Drugs.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2020, 

Lapham, Lewis. “The War on Drugs Is a War on Human Nature.” The Nation, 29 June 2015, 

LoBianco, Tom. “Report: Nixon’s War on Drugs Targeted Black People.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Mar. 2016, 

“Nixon Adviser Admits War on Drugs Was Designed to Criminalize Black People.” Equal Justice Initiative, 14 July 2020, 

Pearl, Betsy. “Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers.” Center for American Progress, 

Sayen, Brook. “What Is the Fraternal Order of Police?” Future Hindsight, 28 Aug. 2020, 

“The State of Opioids.” Vera, 30 Nov. 2020, 

“The War on Drugs.” American Civil Liberties Union, 

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