Is the War on Drugs the Answer?

The war on drugs has been raging for more than 30 years in the United States and around the world. First introduced as a means to battle the large cartels and drug networks around the world, the reality is that the true targets are most often low-level dealer and users, while the big players remain largely untouched.

Between 1980 and 1996 there was an almost tenfold increase in the number of drug convictions in the United States, and the United States incarcerates drug offenders seven to 10 times more often than other developed countries. [1] If the US incarceration rates are any indication, it would appear that we are winning the war; but if we are winning, then why are drugs still a serious issue in this country?

The reality is that the war on drugs is actually doing more harm than good, largely because it criminalizes and targets the people who need help the most. Additionally, inequalities inherent in the system mean that certain groups are targeted more than others.

The Criminalization of Drugs

This is not an argument for the legalization of all illicit drugs. While some groups have strong arguments for the legalization and safety of marijuana, the fact remains that there are several prescription and illicit drug that need to be restricted because they are highly addictive and very dangerous to human health when used incorrectly.

However, the issue with criminalizing the drugs is that it also criminalizes the people who use them, which ultimately makes it harder for people to stop using them.

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Look at it this way: If seeking help for a problem means that you are in danger of losing your job, and even getting arrested, you will be less likely to seek help – even if it means that you will eventually lose your job or get arrested anyway. You will be more likely to try to manage the problem on your own, and probably fail, rather than take the risk. This is the dilemma that many addicts face every day.

To make matters worse, when drug users are incarcerated, they are usually placed in environments where the drug use continues. Prisoners find ways to smuggle drugs into prisons [2], as well as ways of making their own. Add to that the fact that there are very few drug rehab services within the prison system, and incarceration often serves only to make the existing drug problem worse.

However, despite the fact that mass incarceration has proven an ineffective weapon in the war against drugs, it is still the primary weapon used against many drug users.

The Alternative to Criminalization

Some countries, and even some communities within the United States, have adopted harm reduction and prevention [3] instead of criminalization. Harm reduction and prevention works on the concept that you can never completely eradicate drugs from society, but that you can take steps to reduce and prevent the harm that drugs can do to individuals and societies.

The harm of drugs goes beyond addiction and crime and includes things like child abuse and neglect and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

Harm prevention and reduction uses a nonjudgmental approach to reach out to individual addicts, encouraging them to seek help, and provides the resources and information that addicts need to make decisions about their care. It also includes addicts and the community in policy-making decisions, and acknowledges the inequalities in the system, especially as they pertain to race, social class, and gender.

Examples of harm reduction and prevention programs include:

  • Decriminalization of drug use, which includes imposing civil instead of criminal penalties on drug users, providing mandatory drug treatment and monitoring instead of incarceration, and reducing the number of drug use-related arrests;
  • Syringe and needle exchanges, where IV drug users can exchange their used paraphernalia for new, sterile supplies. This reduces the risk of needle sharing among IV drug users, which reduces the spread of blood-borne diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV;
  • Drug replacement programs, which provide alternative treatments for opiate addiction, such as methadone or bupropion;
  • Supervised drug injection sites, which are safe and supervised places where addicts can use IV drugs. These sites also provide rehab and education services for those who choose to pursue them; and,
  • Community education, which provides information on the dangers of drug use, including information on HIV and other blood or sexually-transmitted diseases, as well as information on needle exchanges, treatment options, drug replacement, and other health services.

Countries like Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada are currently using some or all of these harm reduction and prevention strategies with great success in that they all have lower drug incarceration rates than the United States.

Proponents of harm reduction and prevention see these programs as a way of empowering addicts to seek help and take control of their lives. It also helps reduce the impact of drug use and abuse on the surrounding communities.

Opponents of harm reduction and prevention programs see them as nothing more than a way to enable drug use to continue.

However, the current philosophy of criminalizing drug use, and punishing drug users with incarceration, has proven ineffective in solving the problem.

Perhaps it’s time to try a different approach.

1. Time: Incarceration Nation:,9171,2109777-1,00.html
2. RTE News: New Measures Announced to Tackle Drug Use in Prisons:
3. Futures of Palm Beach: Harm Reduction and Prevention:

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