Drugs are killing Americans in record numbers. In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, a whopping 10% increase from the previous year. Every day, 190 men, women, and children die from the opioid epidemic, with no end in sight. Is the war on drugs lost?
Nationwide, drug and alcohol-related deaths account for 150,000 to 175,000 fatalities every year. That’s more than the total number of US military combat deaths in The Revolutionary War, Spanish-American War, Korea, Iraq (both times), Beirut, Panama, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, The War of 1812, and Vietnam combined.
The War on Drugs is a frustrating and complicated quagmire made worse by the bizarre reasons for its failure. Let’s take a look at the five worst offenders.
1. The truth is, we have a long and sordid history of recreational opiate use.
While America makes up less than 5% of the world population, Americans consume more than 30% of its opiates, much of which are legally prescribed. In 2017, 50,000 people died from opiate overdoses alone. Every year, that number grows.
Emboldened by the Trump Administration, the DEA has imposed tight restrictions on prescribers. This has only made things worse. It pushes addicts into the illegal drug trade, or worse — encourages the use of heroin, a less expensive alternative to pain pills.
America’s history with opiates is as rich as it is rarely discussed. As far back as 1782, the French writer St. John de Crevecoeur detailed American opium use in his book Letters from an American Farmer. His description indicates that 18th century Americans really liked their narcotics.
In the 19th century, Harper’s Weekly reported that opiates mitigated teething in babies. It wasn’t an ad. This was something parents did with enough frequency to rate notice from a major magazine.
The 1950s saw the creation of Narcotics Anonymous as a response to heroin addiction, the use of which reached alarming levels during the War in Vietnam. The 80s and 90s saw a shocking rise in heroin use as well.
And here we are today, engulfed in an epidemic brought on by the wholesale over-prescribing of opioids. It’s a cycle that the country seems utterly disinclined to break.
2. Americans refuse to accept that alcohol is a ruthless killer.
Opioids only account for a third of all drug-related deaths in America. The majority, somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000, are caused by alcohol abuse. This points to another causal reason why so many Americans die from this epidemic. Culturally, we don’t acknowledge that alcohol is a drug, despite overwhelming evidence that proves that it is.
Consider the fact that alcohol kills five times as many people as heroin annually, yet is perfectly legal, heavily advertised, and a frequent component of social gatherings. The fact is that America tolerates alcohol, despite the lives it takes and the billions of dollars it drains every year.
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3. We do a *terrible* job of teaching our kids about drugs.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education (known as D.A.R.E.) is the gold standard for educating our nation’s youth about drugs. Founded in 1983 as a partnership between the LAPD and the LA public schools, it rests on a simple premise — local officers go into schools to talk to kids about drugs. The idea here is to empower kids to make good decisions.
The only problem with D.A.R.E is that there is no evidence that it works. Research studies like this one shows that the program has no effect. Not that we need a study, given the rates of fatal overdoses in the US continue to rise.
4. Conservative politics has poured gasoline on the fire for decades.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he immediately crippled substance abuse treatment services by repealing a Bill that President Carter had signed. It was called The Mental Health Systems Act, and it would have provided federal dollars for mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities across the nation.
Soon after, First Lady Nancy Reagan launched the ill-conceived and totally ineffective “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, which grossly oversimplified the complexities of drug addiction and encouraged Draconian drug laws that emphasized incarceration over treatment. When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he continued Reagan’s policies unchecked.
After 9/11, the War on Drugs seemed ready to die down, given the country’s focus on foreign terrorism. Not to be undone by his father, George W. Bush breathed new life into it with an unprecedented allocation of funds and a drug czar who zealously demonized marijuana and advocated the drug testing of students.
During his Presidency, the country bore witness to the militarization of domestic drug law enforcement. By the end of Bush’s term, law enforcement was conducting 40,000 paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans every year — mostly for nonviolent drug offenses.
Not only did this have zero effect on reducing illicit drug use — it ended up encouraging the current methamphetamine and opioid epidemics, including the resurgence of heroin.
So, 38 years after Reagan took office, drug overdoses are at a record high and more than 150,000 people are dying every year. The national deficit has suffered as well, due in part to the costs associated with all the hospital stays and trials and prisons and deaths and lost productivity that comes with a nationwide drug epidemic.
And now, as if all that other stuff isn’t awful enough, Donald Trump is the captain of this voyage of the damned, and he thinks a Wall will solve everything.
5. Donald Trump is making things worse.
In January of 2018, Trump tapped a laughably unqualified former campaign volunteer named Taylor Weyeneth to run the Office of National Drug Control Policy and combat the opiate epidemic. He was 24 years old. He ended up resigning just a few weeks later, but only after news broke that he had lied about his qualifications.
This really happened, by the way. Here’s the link to an article about it.
So then Trump put former stand-up comedian turned campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in charge of things, and one of the first things she did was to ignore a bunch of experts and create a cabinet full of a bunch of unqualified political types to help her beat this thing.
Now, of course, the federal government is shut down over the Border Wall, which Trump argues is necessary to combat the massive amount of illegal drugs entering this country. Whether we need a wall on our southern border is a much larger debate, but the idea that it would somehow stem the tide of illegal drugs is just silly, as is Trump’s insistence that solutions can solve complex social problems.
Trump isn’t responsible for America’s drug problem, but his rhetoric — shared by the Republican Party — is criminally negligent. The roots of drug and alcohol abuse are cultural, social, economic, spiritual, and medical in nature, and it’s foolish to think that criminalizing those affected by it is a sound strategy. However, that’s precisely what we do, and one only needs to look at the body counts to see just how well that plan has worked for us.
Conclusion: The Cost of the War on Drugs
It’s not just the ignorant rhetoric, or the over-reliance on the prison system, or the incredibly racist federal mandatory minimums, or the war on the black community — it’s the gross waste of money that has resulted from it.
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Substance abuse alone costs the US about 442 billion dollars annually, in terms of health care, accidents, lost work productivity, law enforcement, and resulting legal issues. That’s 442 billion. With a B. Every year. By way of comparison, we spent 113 billion on public education in 2016. Let that sink in for a moment.
By way of comparison, we spend about 14 billion annually on treatment and prevention. If you ever wanted to know just how little this country respects those who struggle with alcoholism and addiction, all you have to do is look at the amount of money allocated for treatment. This is also true for the mental health field, too. Dorothea Dix would be so proud of all we’ve done.
Fourteen billion dollars. That’s about 40 bucks a year for every man, woman, and child in this country. Or, you know, 3% of what it costs to deal with all the awful things in this country that drug and alcohol abuse causes. For the sake of comparison, the federal government spends about 2,000 dollars a year for every person in the country on defense.
While we should hold off on gutting the budget for national defense, we do need to expand our definition of what constitutes a threat to our security to include things that are killing Americans by the tens of thousands. ISIS, after all, isn’t killing 165,000 Americans every year.
America has lost The War on Drugs. Our strategy has proved completely ineffective, the cost of which can be measured in trillions of dollars and millions of lives.
There are myriad reasons why this is true, though a big one is how we have criminalized what is effectively a medical problem. And to be fair, some strategies do seem to be working. Drunk driving fatalities, for example, have been steadily declining for decades. Drug overdoses, on the other hand, have been steadily increasing.
Twelve-Step programs such as AA and NA talk about recovery being “an inside job,” meaning that people who are serious about getting better have to take responsibility for their own actions and be courageous enough to look inward for the solutions to their problems.
America is in need of a similar paradigm shift.
We do not need stronger walls on our borders — we need to take a long, hard look at why so many Americans turn to drugs in the first place. We don’t need to continue feeding our ever-growing prison population with people who are sick — we need to have the courage to think in terms of rehabilitation.
Above all else — what we must do is start investing more in treatment, not just in terms of dollars spent but in terms of how we prioritize the lives of those who are affected.