First, we should define our terms. The “war on drugs” that was started by Richard Nixon in 1971 and persists to this day, refers to illegal “street drugs” – cocaine, heroin, marijuana and variations thereof. It is not used to mean a war on legal pharmaceuticals, whose excessive and often inappropriate prescribing takes over 100,000 lives a year in our country. Ironically, prescription opioids alone took 35,000 lives last year – about equal to traffic fatalities.
The argument to criminalize “street drugs,” and severely punish their sellers and users, is largely based on the assumption that a “tough on crime” approach will reduce addiction and abuse of these dangerous substances. Criminalizing drug use consistently fails to address the health problems of addiction, and drives the drug trade underground where crime, violence and death flourish.
Our country learned this hard lesson firsthand when it prohibited the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920 through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. That led to an underworld of organized crime and illegal undercover stills making “moonshine,” whose victims could hardly go for medical treatment. Considered a failure, the amendment was repealed in 1933 with the 21st Amendment.