The cost of the failed War on Drugs

At its core, drug use is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue. It’s time for governments around the world to deal with it that way.

The war on drugs has been a complete failure. A massive amount of money has been spent, yet results are nowhere to be seen.

The abject failure of this policy is most obvious in the United States, as the Drug Policy Alliance makes clear:

“Over the past four decades, federal and state governments have poured over $1 trillion into drug war spending and relied on taxpayers to foot the bill. Unfortunately, these tax dollars have gone to waste. In 1980, the United States had 50,000 people behind bars for drug law violations – now we have more than half a million. The U.S. is now the world’s largest jailer, drugs remain widely available and treatment resources are scarce.”

It would have been better to light that $1 trillion on fire, since the social and economic damage caused by the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders goes far beyond wasting money.

This isn’t just a failure of American policy. Governments around the world have poured tons of money into the war on drugs. These governments have made the mistake of viewing drug use as a criminal justice issue, rather than as a drug issue.

Consider the massive alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries. Huge companies in these legal drug industries bring in immense profits, and can do so because their products are sanctioned by political authorities. Since these companies operate in a legal system, they are subject to regulation, can be held accountable by the state, and those who face addiction can seek help more openly. Contrast this with the consequences of the war on drugs which has pushed the trade of many substances underground. This means increased danger, no regulation and thus no safety standards. Worst of all, pushing drug use underground deters those facing addiction from seeking help.

The war on drugs has failed because drug use is a symptom, not a cause. By failing to recognize this, governments around the world have spent countless resources jailing people instead of helping them.

This is the true cost of the failed war on drugs. Every dollar it consumes is a dollar that can’t be spent on treatment, physical or mental healthcare, or education. This has caused tremendous harm – all in the zeal to punish “criminals” and achieve a pyhrric moral high-ground.

This must not continue. As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time to stop the insanity.

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Photo credit: 3dom (Flickr)

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