This short news documentary examines the war on drugs in Baltimore, Maryland. It shows how in Baltimore, which has very high poverty and unemployment, poor residents get attracted to crime and the drug business as a means of economic survival. Through the war on drugs, these people are treated as the enemy and punished with incarceration. Ed Burns, one of the writers behind The Wire, says "I don't know how much progress is being made because we're not dealing with the root causes." For example, jobs have been leaving Baltimore (and other U.S. cities) since the late 1960s as a result of suburbanization and deindustrialization. So, rather than addressing the root causes of drug use and trafficking, the war on drugs attempts to address the symptoms of these structural issues (see our full analysis here).
As my co-editor, Lester Andrist, previously noted, nearly 1 in every 100 adults in the US are now in prison or jail. In fact, the U.S. incarcerates more people than those regimes Americans typically regard as repressive, such as China and Russia. In this video from Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains that 50% of the male prisoners in federal prisons and about 58% of female prisoners are there as a result of drug offenses. The same is true for 25.4% of all prisoners in state prisons. Human Rights Watch recently completed a study where they concluded that blacks were 10.1 times more likely to enter prison for drug offenses than whites. One result is that blacks constitute 40% of all prisoners under state jurisdiction, while whites only constitute 29% of all such prisoners, even though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates. The video concludes with a review of some of the deplorable conditions prisoners are now forced to endure, due in part to a move toward greater privatization.
Beyond those impacts on the poor, racial minorities, their families, and their communities, what impact does it have on drug use itself? As the data below shows, drug use declined in the 1980s but--despite huge increases to funding for the war on drugs since the early 1990s, it has risen steadily. In other words, there is no relationship between punishing drug users/traffickers and drug use. In short, the war on drugs has destroyed communities and wasted billions of dollars but has not led to a decline in drug use or demand.
The War on Drugs: Where it Came From
If the war on drugs has been such a failure, where did it come from in the first place? In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander examines the rise of mass incarceration and some of the racial implications raised above. As summarized on the book’s website, “The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement." Alexander traces this process back to 1971, when Richard Nixon first declared the "war on drugs." At that time, the Nixon administration concluded that the most effective way to win elections would be to demonize African Americans and stoke voters' fears of crime. Accordingly, the US became much more punitive in how it approached drug use and trafficking, and specifically targeted African Americans in carrying out this war (see our full post from co-editor, Valerie Chepp).
The media also played a big role in helping to expand the war on drugs. In a previous post, Lester Andrist wrote how the NYT video below chronicles the role media played in exaggerating the scale of the cocaine problem and the dire health consequences predicted for the children of women who used the drug. As expressed by one politician, there was a belief that crack babies would "overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come into contact with throughout the rest of their lives." As the video explains, many people born to mothers who were addicted to crack have been able to lead lives free of the health complications foretold by newscasters. So if the actual threat posed by the growing use of cocaine was something different than the one portrayed in the media, why did the moral panic about "crack babies" take hold in the public consciousness? This supposed "epidemic" coincided with President Ronald Reagan's expansion of War on Drugs. As the legal scholar Michelle Alexander notes, in an effort to secure funding for the new war, Reagan actually hired staff in 1985 to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine, and a national tragedy involving "crack babies" was just the kind of story they sought to promote. In summary, politicians seeking re-election, conservatives looking to scale back social programs for the poor and racial minorities, and media with an interest in telling sensationalized stories, produced similar narratives to help drive people's fear of drugs and expand the war against it.
The War on Drugs: An Alternative
One alternative approach is to treat drugs as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue. This principle underlies Portugal's drug decriminalization policy. In 1999, almost 1% of Portugal's population were heroin addicts, and they had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS deaths in the EU. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs (i.e., they decriminalized possession but the production and distribution of drugs remained illegal). Their goal is harm reduction for both the individual and society. This video examines social outcomes after 10 years of decriminalization (see also this New Yorker article): serious drug use declined significantly (especially among youth), the burden on the criminal justice system eased, the number people willingly seeking treatment increased, and drug-related deaths and infectious disease fell. Despite people's fears, Portugal has also NOT become a haven for “drug tourism.” The program has been enough of a success that drugs and drug decriminalization are no longer a political issue in Portugal.
Of course, no two countries are alike. We would expect that what works in one country might work a little differently in a different country that has a unique history, culture, and political context. Nonetheless, the lessons from Portugal are informative and suggest that treating drugs as a health issue offers many advantages.
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.