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The Failure of the United States’ Drug
Policies and

The Need for Drug Reform

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Ashley Martinelli

Rutgers University

The Failure of America’s Past and Current
Drug Policies and

The Need for Drug Reform

Drug use and abuse has been and continues
to be a hotly contested social and political issue in the United States, dating
back to the early 20th century. This paper discuses how the past policies
implemented in the United States, i.e. The War on Drugs, has failed to curb the
immense problems drug use has caused in America and emphasizes the need for
reform; it also discusses the compounding problems related to the
implementation and execution of said policies, such as covert racism and the
disproportionate sentencing of youths and minorities, as well as the collateral
problems thus resulting.

Although many associate the first
significant implementation of drug policy in the United States to be President
Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971, drug policies began to be
enforced early in the 1900s. Many studies have concluded that the framing of
such policies has been deeply rooted in systematically oppressive practices,
amplifying racial biases and stereotypes through drug criminalization. As a
result, racial tensions remain, and we are left with mutually inclusive social
issues, healthcare system issues, and economic issues.

The United States has suffered in a
plethora of ways from the abysmal failure of its zero tolerance, law
enforcement approach to drugs. We have had some of, if not the highest
incarceration rates in the world, not to mention incurring exorbitant costs as
a result of these rates. And even with these increasing arrest rates and
convictions, drug crime and use has not declined in the least bit, with drug
prices dropping and the problem of drug suppliers left unsettled. Illicit drug
use remains as high in the United States as it was prior to the War on Drugs
and still remains a primary threat to public health and safety. Additionally,
racial disparities in our country have not ceased, and America’s claims of
sought-after democracy and equal opportunity are threatened. . The
implementation and enforcement of our drug policies have not successfully
resulted in any amount of tangible progress; there is a desperate need to
reform our drug policies and begin to repair the collateral damage that has
ensued over the last number of decades.

Recently, as of the beginning stages of
Barack Obama’s presidency, many states in the US have been changing the legal
practices and social attitudes regarding drug involvement. Although no state
has adopted drug liberalization in its entirety, states such as California,
Colorado, and Washington have decriminalized marijuana, setting the foreground
for future drug policy reform. Over the last few years, these states have
benefitted significantly from decriminalization and may potentially move
towards a path of liberalization, though we cannot accurately predict so.

America has much to learn from other countries that have adopted lighter drug
enforcement practices and the dialogue to begin shifting away from the criminal
approach to drugs has already begun.

In this paper, I will discuss the
historic framing of past drug policy and how it has changed over the twentieth
century. In these sections, I will review literature discussing the basis of
said policies, including the social attitudes of our country at the time that
they were formed and the immense failures of them, including the War on Drugs.

The ‘Discussion’ section of my paper will illustrate the harm these policies
exacted and will quantify the amount of loss we have suffered from economically
and socially. As I previously mentioned, jurisdictions that have taken
decriminalization and liberalization approaches have benefitted tremendously,
and through necessary reform of our current policies the United States could
experience similar prosperity.


Literature Review

Understanding Drug History
in American Culture

use of illicit drugs is not a contemporary feat; drug use has been an aspect of
human culture and society, dating back to as early as 5000 years B.C. In order
to understand why drug policies and legislation were enacted, the social
culture of the United States must be explained. Around the mid-1950s,
middle-class America was confronted with an unprecedented drug epidemic that was
attributed to urban outpouring and external threats. This incited many calls to
legislative action, which many believe to have been a constructed tactic to
implement a new Jim Crow: “…constructed the war on drugs
through the framework of suburban crisis and positioned white middle-class
youth as innocent victims who must be shielded from both the illegal drug markets
and the criminal drug laws” (Lassiter 2015, 127). The first official policy
criminalizing illicit drugs in the 1950s was the Boggs Act of 1951 created by
Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; the Act imposed
mandatory-minimum sentences for distribution of marijuana and heroin (129).

This began the path of ‘tough-on-crime’ policies and legislation. Then followed
the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 and the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and
Prevention Act in 1970, to name just a couple. Despite these policies, pushers
and users alike were not deterred, and this is when President Nixon declared
his infamous War on Drugs, linking “urban crime control to the suburban
marijuana subculture” (134). The result of this War was a completely revamped
police force, effectively militarizing law enforcement. Additionally,
mandatory-minimums became increasingly harsher and policies continued the
growing political script of drug crime. Nixon’s War on Drugs has been the
foundation of the law enforcement approach to drug crime, and little has
changed in federal policy to date (Whitelaw 2017).


of Our Drug Policies

The overt goals of drug
control policy are to decrease drug use, therefore decreasing addiction and
dependence, and to hold suppliers and pushers accountable; the covert goals
that I will argue include using drug control policies as a form of social
control policies. Although these arguments for covert goals may not be general
consensus, we cannot ignore the racial disparities involved in the creation of
these policies, nor can we ignore the disparities that have resulted from them.

The Boggs Act and
legislation that followed were developed with bipartisan support and coupled
with the support of suburban voices with the help of media sensationalism
(Lassiter 2015). According to Provine (2011), sensationalist journalism helped
to incite moral panic and to “stoke the racial fears and dislikes of white
voters” (44). Lassiter (2015) explains that people of color have been the
target of racially motivated campaigns likening them to violent drug pushers,
while whites are seen as sympathetic victims of the narcotics trade (139); “a
1989 HBO documentary…juxtaposed a
black male street dealer boasting of the “money in the drug game” with two
white fifteen-year-old girls confessing cocaine addiction…” (140). Media
content like this emphasized the stereotypes making white middle-class users
‘victims’ and nonwhites ‘pushers’, and these biases have shaped the actual
enforcement of legal practices.


Has the War on Drugs Accomplished?

There is no doubt that
the War on Drugs has failed. Research by Whitelaw (2017) proves that the United
States continues to lose its war (81); criminalization of drugs has not
decreased use and has incurred heavy costs on our penal system, healthcare
system, and economy as a whole. Jacobsson (2009) found that in spite of an
increase in law enforcement policies, drug-related crime has increased and drug
prices have dropped, and even drug consumption has shown an increase (324-325).

The blatant failure has produced “unprecedented public support for easing the
U.S. drug war (that) has catalyzed state-level drug law reform across the country”
(White law 2017, 81). Additionally, the United States’ penal
population is outrageous, and up to 60% are of ethnic background due to the War
being waged in exclusively in poor communities of color (Alexander 2010, 76).

Arrest rates for drug possession outnumber rates for drug sales and
distribution, and increases in arrests correlate with increases in convictions
that disproportionately favor nonwhites over whites (Mitchell and Caudy 2015).

Mass incarceration hurts
all; convicted and incarcerated individuals are at a higher risk for continued
drug use and abuse, resource deprivation, marginalization, and high sexual
risks are exacerbated (Kerr and Jackson 2015, 32-34). But due to disparate
sentencing, African American and Latino individuals suffer the most.

Empirical research done by Mitchell and Caudy (2015) shows that minorities have
bore the brunt of the War, and since then racial disparities have been more
extreme and variable: “a sizeable body of research
using aggregate data finds that all drug users do not have an equal likelihood
of facing criminal sanctions” (287-288).

Attack on Urban Communities. The
War on Drugs and drug policies in general have resulted in a racially motivated
separation by geographical area. As I mentioned previously, the law enforcement
approach to drug crime has militarized the police force, and “cultural
stereotypes linking disadvantaged minorities to drugs appeared to affect how…police
utilized their considerable discretion in making drug arrests” (Mitchell and
Caudy 2015, 297). The greater exposition of drug offending in lower class areas
seems to be due to greater police surveillance in these areas, and with
increased surveillance, there are higher probabilities of detection (292).

Additionally, inner-city individuals often lack the same privileges of the
suburban middle-class, who tend to conduct drug business in private settings
also adding to the chance of being detected (295). More support of these
findings comes from Provine (2011) that minorities receive a disproportionate
share of street stops (51); and a study by Cooper (2015) found that by “increasing the frequency of
aggressive police/civilian interactions, stop and frisks increase the chances
that violence will occur” (1192). When measuring attitudes about
police stops in these impoverished communities, members of the community
described heightened police activity as violent in psychological, as well as
physical, aspects- thus finding that war policing tactics increase brutality
and make little progress in reducing drug activity (1192). All of these
factors: police surveillance, stops, arrests, convictions, and incarceration
stem from stereotypes and social stigmas and continue to cycle, increasing the
racial disparities involved in drug crime. And as racial inequality grew, this
increased minorities’ vulnerability to drug use, addiction, and temptations of
employment within the illicit drug economy (Mitchell and Caudy 2015).

            Conviction and Its Adverse Effects. Now
that I have established the disparate sentencing and conviction rates of
nonwhite versus white individuals, I will discuss the economic and social
damage a conviction holds
for said individuals. To begin, low-income individuals are already more likely
to be convicted of possession, and over 10% of minors from low-income
households are convicted (Thompson 2016, 131); “conviction has a larger
negative effect on upward transitions among non-white than among whites” (144).

Such statistics are alarming because urban and suburban teenagers are found to
sell/distribute and consume legal and illicit drugs at near similar rates
(Lassiter 2015). And some studies even indicate the white individuals may be
significantly more likely to engage in distribution than nonwhites (Alexander 2010).

More generally: “The tough-on-crime rhetoric has overemphasized crime as a major
social problem, leading Americans to irrationally fear crime; this public
trepidation…has had an impact on the soaring incarceration rates” (Patten 2016,

an arrest record or conviction history, and especially having an incarceration
record sanctions legal denial and discretion of welfare resources, employment,
and fundamental rights and privileges. The objective mandatory-minimum
sentences and felony drug convictions allow legislation to inevitably ban drug
offenders from a number of other social services, such as public housing and
basic benefits (76). For those individuals who are born into or who are living
impoverished lives, being convicted of any offense perpetuates long-standing
poverty (Kerr and Jackson 2016, 35), and through empirical research done by
Thompson (2016), a conviction decreases one’s chances of upward mobility by an
average ten to fifteen percentage points (145).

from stunted economic mobility, incarcerated individuals face adversity within
the criminal justice system, namely in jails and prisons. Kerr and Jackson (2016)
have found that HIV prevalence in prisons is triple the amount for individuals
outside of prison, and six times that of individuals with incarceration history
(35); “considerable percentage(s) of inmates report illicit drug use, sexual
activity, and sexual victimization” (34). This provides support for a mutually
inclusive relationship between economic disadvantage and HIV vulnerability as
well (35).

Resources. Again, the United States’ anti-drug propaganda
has placed a heavy burden on multiple facets of our society and economy (Thompson
2014, 66). We have an unnecessary militarized police force focusing their time
and efforts towards putting non-violent offenders in our overcrowded jails, and
“since 1970 we have spent more than $1 trillion on the drug enforcement effort”
(70). And we have attained essentially nothing of value for those efforts. In
the next section, I will explain why our law enforcement, crime-centered drug
policies were destined to fail, and I will discuss potential strategies of



Why It Has Failed; what
this means for reform

(2014) has illustrated the reality of our drug laws perfectly: “Making certain
psychoactive drugs illegal, regulating others, and leaving still others
completely unregulated requires a difficult balancing act, and an easy one to
get wrong” (61). In his paper, he compares the implementation of the
prohibition of alcohol- and its subsequent failure with our legal prohibition
against marijuana. The Prohibition was a short-lived era that is notable for
its failure to curb alcohol consumption and its success in strengthening black
market sales and mafia involvement; in fact, consumption increased nearly “70%
above pre-Prohibition levels” (62). The same can be said of the consequences of
the War on Drugs, with additional fallouts; penal system spending alone amounts
to about thirty billion dollars, not including funding to law enforcement and
criminal justice agencies and costs incurred through economic hardships: “felt
most acutely in communities of color” (Whitelaw 2017, 86). While prohibition of
drugs has left the United States worse than before, there is hope for future
policy and reform. Through advocates of civil rights equality and supporters of
drug rehabilitation over incarceration, many states have abandoned the law
enforcement approach and now utilize a regulated system of drug control. Our
reflection began with data in 2009 that found that “83% of marijuana
prosecutions involved black or Latino defendants” (Provine 2011, 47). In 2010,
President Obama passed the Fair Sentencing Act in order to decrease the racial
disparities that resulted from unequal treatment in mandatory-minimum
sentencing of crack-cocaine versus powder. And following this, states began to
decriminalize drug laws for certain illicit substances such as marijuana (44-45).

I will discuss the outcome for states that have decriminalized drug laws and
discuss the potential benefits of complete liberalization.

and Liberalization. States,
like California, that have decriminalized possession of drugs (marijuana) are
experiencing overall lower drug use rates and higher rehabilitation rates.

Additionally, this alleviates the heavy burden on law enforcement, the
healthcare system, and saves the state unnecessary government spending:
“jurisdictions that treat drug use and addiction as a public health problem and
not as a criminal problem have benefited from…lower public health care costs
and fewer public funds squandered on “drug enforcement” (Thompson 2014, 69). In
addition to decreasing frivolous spending and decreasing the amount of
nonviolent offenders in overcrowded jails and prisons, regulation of a popular
commodity such as marijuana generates massive revenue, which helps boost that
state’s economy. On a national scale, applying decriminalization on a federal
level could do much in helping alleviate our deficit. A strong case for the
pros of decriminalization is Portugal; they decriminalized drug use,
possession, and acquisition fully in 2001. According to Whitelaw (2017),
Portugal ended penal sanctions and fully implemented a health-oriented approach
to addressing their drug epidemic (90). By focusing on health and away from
stigmatized drug use, this allotted increased resources for prevention, harm
reduction, treatment, and social integration (95). Portugal benefits from
falling arrest rates, decreased prevalence of drug use, less deaths and disease
as a result of use, and thus eliminates the collateral harm associated with
incarceration (96). Whitelaw (2017) predicts that applying this approach to a
state such as California will produce the same positive outcomes: an overall
decline in arrests, saving up to $103 million, an increased drop in drug use
and addiction rates, and saving over $4.5 million in healthcare costs (104). All
of these actual and projected numbers are merely from decriminalizing our drug
policies; in the case of drug liberalization entirely, the potential benefits
would expand, although highly improbable.

of Reform. Although we
are finally realizing the blunders of the War on Drugs, drug law reform is a
lengthy process that includes multiple different areas of concern we must take
into account. After many decades of developing a ‘tough-on-crime’ perception of
drugs in the political scope, it will take many arguments and much work to
reverse the sentiment associated with drug use. Provine (2011) believes that
the United States is unlikely to abandon the War and its implications
completely because doing so would result in the penal enterprise…drawn into
question, and prosecution would lose leverage, policing would have to adjust,
and incarceration-related professions placed in jeopardy (48). But with the
aide of civil rights advocates and increasing dialogue in our contemporary
society, there is hope for reform in the near future.



social attitudes regarding drug use are, for the most part, already changing in
our progressive society. After over thirty years of unsuccessful drug policy
that has done little to attack the root of our drug epidemic, it is time for
reform. We can no longer utilize an approach that fails to accomplish what our
government has claimed its intentions to do were, all while contributing to a
systematically oppressive system that exacerbates racial disparities and
disproportionate practices that lands thousands of nonviolent individuals into
jail. States that have decriminalized marijuana are on the right path towards
progress; hopefully the rest of the United States can follow through.


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J., & Jackson, T. (2016). Policy analysis: Stigma, sexual risks, and the
war on drugs:

Examining drug policy and HIV/AIDS
inequities among African Americans using the Drug War HIV/AIDS Inequities
Model. International Journal Of Drug
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M. D. (2015). Impossible Criminals: The Suburban Imperatives of America’s War

Drugs. Journal Of American History, 102(1),
126. doi:10.1093/jahist/jav243

O., & Caudy, M. S. (2015). Examining Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests. JQ:

Quarterly, 32(2), 288.


D. (2016). The Mass Incarceration of Nations and the Global War on Drugs:

the United States’ Domestic and Foreign Drug Policies. Social Justice, 43(1),

D.M. (2011). Race and Inequality in the War on Drugs. ANNUAL REVIEW OF LAW


G. O. (2014). Slowly Learning the Hard Way: U.S. America’s War on Drugs And

Implications for Mexico. Norteamérica, 959-83. doi:10.20999/nam.2014.b003


Economic Policy, 34(1), 127-145.


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