7 facts about the War on Drugs that will make you ask: What the F%#@?

Is the war on drugs racist?

Some could make the argument that since its inception, the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted minority groups while usage rates of various drugs have remained similar between these groups and other citizens. While it is often dangerous in a discussion to broadly generalize an idea, it’s very difficult to ignore documented statements and actions from people throughout history who played an instrumental role in forming policy and public opinion.

Harry J. Anslinger

"Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death -- the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."

-Harry J. Anslinger

Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner 1930-1962

Anslinger didn’t always feel this way though. Prior to the end of alcohol prohibition, Anslinger was actually in favor of the use of “Indian Hemp” as a pharmaceutical supplement. It would take the end of alcohol prohibition, and what could have been his entire purpose in the federal government, for him to change his outlook. But he only began the fear mongering. It would be more than 40 years from the time Anslinger took the helm until Richard Nixon would start what we now know as the war on drugs.

Does the war on drugs make economic sense?

This is another facet of the war on drugs that becomes more confusing the more it’s examined. It’s already very difficult to argue against the idea that there is a systemic racial problem embedded in the war on drugs. But looking past these ideas, economic ones alone make this campaign an utterly ridiculous one to try and justify. Below are some findings from various research groups that throw a big question mark in the face of advocates for the drug war.

Even if you choose to ignore the numbers, you can’t ignore the choices made by leaders who helped form public policy. After Anslinger there was the Nixon administration. I’m sure you’ve read what his domestic policy chief had to say years after Richard hopped on that plane.

"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but bygetting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

-John Erlichman

1. The Shafer Commission, a group appointed by Richard Nixon in the early 1970’s to study the problem of illicit drugs concluded that possession and distribution of marijuana should no longer be deemed a criminal offense (and then the report was ignored and stifled by Richard Nixon)

Oh yeah. The same president who appointed the commission to investigate every potential avenue regarding the issue of drugs didn’t like the facts that they found, so he completely stifled the findings. What this commission found was that any harm caused by possession or distribution of marijuana, of which they found very little, was not enough to justify criminal penalties. The Federal Government literally discovered that distribution, possession, and use of Cannabis was not at all the problem they had already spent a great deal of money creating a campaign for. Or it was simply contradictory to their broad generalization of drug use. So they never released the report and continued to spend enormous amounts of money on law enforcement to eradicate the problem. Another finding of this commission was that money spent on treatment and prevention had a much better return on investment than incarceration.

Come again? Yes, you read correctly.

2. Robert Randall, a man who would have gone blind if not for Cannabis, became the first medical Cannabis patient courtesy of the Federal Government in 1976

Five years after Richard Nixon declared a full on assault on illegal drugs, the Federal Government began providing Robert Randall medical Cannabis from their research farm in Mississippi. Randall, who had been prosecuted for growing his own Cannabis to treat his severe glaucoma, began undergoing serious testing in the early 1970’s, which concluded that it was the only substance available to treat his ailing vision. While this case concluded it was the only substance of medical value to help his vision, Cannabis remained and still remains on the list of Schedule 1 narcotics— with no accepted medical use.

3. A Cato study found that nearly 10% of all felony convictions nationwide are for Cannabis

That’s right, 10%. Nearly one out of every ten felony convictions across the country is for Cannabis. We’re talking the same category of criminal offenses as things like murder, aggravated assault, kidnapping, rape, and child pornography. Something to the tune of 1.5 million arrests are made every year for drug related offenses. Of those, over 82% were for possession alone. Of possession arrests, over 42% were for Cannabis, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics as well as Cato. And between 2001 and 2010 there were over 8 million arrests specifically for Cannabis.

4. Black Americans are 4x more likely to be arrested as white Americans for drug possession while the usage is nearly identical between the two groups

This is no bullshit. The ACLU released a study concluding that while usage rates between white and black Americans is extremely, statistically, comparable: black Americans are 4x more likely to be arrested for drug possession. In some cities and counties those numbers were as high as 6-8x and even 25x more likely with 4 being the average across the country. And over a lifetime one out of every three black men will have spent time in jail or prison, with most of this time being served for drug related offenses.

5. In terms of reduced crime and lost productivity, supply-control programs, specifically law enforcement, return $0.52 for every $1 spent. Treatment programs, however, return $7.46 for every $1 spent. Yet a majority of state and local budgets go towards law enforcement and not treatment

Purely from an economic perspective: federal, state, and local budgets are invested in programs that have a nearly -50% ROI. And it’s not like there are other metrics used to define the return on investment in this case. Reduced crime and reduction in lost productivity are the defining measures of programs aimed at promoting the benefit of the public. Why, might you ask, would we invest our money in programs that have a negative return on investment vs. programs that have potentially over a 700% return? It’s a great question.

6. Police precincts have a financial incentive to incarcerate more and more people

JAG, which stands for Justice Assistance Grants, and COPS, which stands for Community Oriented Policing Services are the two leading organizations that funnel money into various police precincts that are deemed high-risk drug zones. The defining metric used to determine these zones is the number of arrests made in a given precinct. So the more arrests made for drug related crimes, the higher the risk that zone is deemed; which means more money that precinct could see.

7. It is projected that drug legalization nationwide would save an estimated $41.3 billion per year in government expenditures ($8.7 billion of that would be from Cannabis alone)

At a time when the national debt is at the highest it has ever been with only projections to climb; does this make sense to anyone? What if that money could go towards programs that have been proven to reduce drug abuse at exponentially higher rates? Are there such programs? Oh, right, treatment. Since the 1970’s we’ve known that treatment programs are far more effective at combating drug abuse than incarcerating people for it.

Even without examining the racial implications to the war on drugs, and these are pretty egregious to try and ignore, look at this situation from an economic perspective.

Does this make sense? After diving into this rabbit hole, I have some serious doubts about the efficacy of fighting for this so called war. Typically, wars are fought to combat a threat to an accepted way of life, or just to take something one party feels entitled to. Now, nearly 50 years later, the only stride this combat has made is the incarceration of more and more citizens who otherwise have done nothing wrong.

So ask yourself, why is this war continuing to be waged? What has been wasted and what has been gained?

The only way to move forward is to understand the mistakes of the past and work to ensure those mistakes aren’t made again. Recognizing there’s a problem is the first step towards finding a solution. And there is a problem. It’s not only up to us to decide whether we want to find a solution— we have an obligation to do so.

Patrick Riddle is the author of this blog as well as the co-founder of Third day co-op, which strives to get Cannabis medicine to those who need it most.

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