Which Was It?—A War on Drugs or A War on Addicts

One of the most famous sayings might be, “war on drugs”, and for all the wrong reasons.  Was this “war on drugs” ever a war or drugs? Or was this “war on drugs” label used to give the impression that a war was being waged on drugs when the war was being waged on addiction because going after society’s most marginalized was easier than going after criminal enterprises? The answer to the first question might be debatable, but the answer to the second part seems to be an absolute yes.

There may be a lot of misconceptions about the “war on drugs”, but what is consistent about that label is that it has become synonymous with the unjust sentencing that individuals near the bottom of half of the socioeconomic spectrum have had to endure.  In the past, the type and amount of drug that a person had in their possession did not matter because, during that period, all drugs were considered the same.  All were equally bad, and the equality between drugs was leveraged to further elevate the inequalities that existed between people and across society.  Precisely for these reasons, revisiting the legacy of the “war on drugs” should be of great importance.

Revisiting the legacy of the “War on Drugs”

If the “war on drugs” was a war on the criminal enterprise food chain and the individuals who made real money from trafficking drugs, then that war would be a good thing.  Perhaps when U.S.  President Richard Nixon coined the term in 1971 that might have been the idea, but the “war on drugs” veered off course and eventually ended up being an attack on drug users who were struggling with addiction and in need of support.  Not surprisingly, instead of providing support to individuals so that they could overcome their addictions, these individuals were punished with severe jail sentences which did not reflect the nature of their crime.

The Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) briefing book from 1975 defines the DEA’s early mission was to “control the accessibility of narcotics and dangerous drugs to current and potential drug abusers in the U.S.” The next sentence in this briefing book goes on to describe the desired outcome by saying, “As a result, fewer people will experiment with the drugs; fewer among those who experiment with the drugs will advance to chronic, intensive levels of use; and more of those who do advance to serious level of use will seek treatment and abandon their use.” Although all the right ideas were there, the thinking around issue of drugs was entirely linear when it should have been weaving in and out through the dynamic challenges.

Maybe the second biggest victim of this “war” were individuals who lived in poverty and who believed the lies they were told that the petty drug dealing path would lead towards a mountain of riches.  Instead, those individuals created a safety net around criminal enterprises and the individuals who made real money from trafficking drugs.  The strict laws related to drug possession and the absence of audio and video recording technology made it so that some police officers were able to exploit the times by planting drugs on individuals, and this resulted in large numbers of innocent individuals being convicted for crimes they did not commit.  To make matters worse, the moment the first case of police planting drugs on individuals came to light, every instance of an individual being arrested for simple possession opened a can of reasonable doubt as to whether those individuals had drugs planted on them by arresting officers or not.  Yet very few individuals would see their cases overturned, and it is unlikely that anyone will be able to calculate the immeasurable toll on society.

So, why did it take decades to pass before governments worldwide realized that the people that were getting jailed for drug crimes were more often drug users, while the big time drug traffickers were being left untouched, is a question with no good answer.  And what were the costs associated with the untapped potential of individuals who spent years in prison and whose lives held promise, but which were sent to decay behind bars, is another question with no good answer.  Perhaps these two questions can be summed up as the utter contempt for individuals living on the margins of society and the favoring of some groups over others.  It may sound harsh, but the regulatory apparatus at the time believed that jailing these individuals for the benefit of breaking them down and preparing them for new beginnings was an effective solution.  Instead, the shortcomings of this regulatory apparatus were such that the “breaking them down process” sentences often found themselves being upwards of a decade, and sometimes even more.

Whether it is in the U.S.  or in Canada, there still appear to be remnants of societal prejudice towards individuals who struggle with addiction. This prevents those individuals from getting the support that they need so that they can get back to living the lives they ought to live.  Although it may not be as ingrained as it once was, the disparity lies in how the highest chances of recovery are found at supervised consumption settings.  There is an abundance of examples of how these settings have managed to help individuals overcome their addictions and to recover that which appeared lost.

A Harvard Kennedy School Story

The Executive Education experience provided by Harvard Kennedy School’s faculty is precisely what made that learning experience so unique.  One of my professors was brought on by the newly created Drug Enforcement Agency as its lead thinker and to serve as the chief planning officer in the late 70s.  Today, they are considered one of the leading experts in criminal justice, policing, management, nongovernmental organizations, and nonprofit management.  Hearing what worked and what did not and contrasting that with the best ways to create public value and how to apply the necessary thinking principles is what makes that program a gamechanger.

One of the oldest arguments when it comes to addiction is to go cold turkey, but this argument has always ignored the biological aspects of addiction and the changes that a person who is dealing with addiction undergoes.  Even though there is research that is decades old and that explains how slowly weening someone off of drugs is the safest and most effective approach to overcoming addiction, the existence of this ancient argument leaves us to wonder whether ignorance is worse than apathy.  The path to slowly weening an individual off of hard drugs may not work the first time, but the difficulty of success does not relieve society of the obligation to keep trying.

Renowned addictions expert, Dr. Gabor Mate may have summed up the issue best, “There is no war on drugs, since one cannot make war on inanimate objects.  There is a war on drugs users, who are often the most abused and traumatized people in society.  In other words, our culture punishes people for having suffered, and for using substances to ease their pain.” For those still thinking, Dr.  Mate’s words should serve as the ignition to spark better thinking around addiction and to help individuals transition toward a position where their thinking is centered around the power of what is possible with the right recipe.

Looking back at periods of time where societal thinking has needed to evolve, those changes in thinking wiggled their way from the bottom upwards.  In those instances, it was often learners and thinkers who were armed with a strong education and who let their expectations drive their behavior that initiated the upward push.  Time and again, they understood that the high road of humility had twists and turns and ups and downs as well as heavy traffic, but the end destination was worth the ride.  And we must too.