Since Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs back in the 1970s the United States Government has spent nearly $1 Trillion towards eradicating the drug problem in this country. In 2015 alone $36 billion was spent on the war on drugs, but that number was just for law enforcement and some social services, and does not take into account the cost of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders once they are arrested and sentenced to jail.
Roughly $80 billion is spent each year on incarcerating American prisoners and since 50% of our prison population is serving time for drug-related crimes that means that an additional $40 billion needs to be added to $36 billion price tag for the war on drugs, bringing the grand total to $76 billion.
To put this into perspective The United States Federal Government allocated $154 billion for education in the 2015 fiscal year. That means that the war on drugs in this country costs the American Taxpayer about half of what it costs to fund public schools, apart from state and local funding. Think about for that a minute. Half of the entire education budget for the country is spent in an attempt to police arcane drug laws and fight a war that we have been losing for over 40 years now.
Since its inception, the war on drugs was a political and social misstep. It was born out of the need to help curb the growing drug addiction that the Nation saw during the 60s and 70s and the public outcry to do something about the problem. Nixon, following his own personal beliefs and the suggestions of his pundits, stepped in and in typical American fashion, declared a war because that is what you do when you have a perceived enemy.
At the time, it appeared to make sense, especially to the American public because little was really known about addiction. The misinformation among the general public was that drug addicts were a dangerous breed of people who stalked the shadows of the night, waiting to steal your money and hurt you. People didn’t really understand that addiction was a disease that anyone could suffer from and that it wasn’t a matter of being immoral or weak, but rather it was the result of having a serious illness that made the person afflicted pursue substances above everything else in life.
So the war on drugs began and from the beginning, it was an abysmal failure. It did not actually help stem the tide of drugs coming into the country or stop people from becoming addicted, it simply just criminalized addiction and created a Prison Industrial Complex in this country that is unrivaled by any other developed nation on the planet.
Then came the Nancy Reagan era and the war on drugs received its battle cry, “Just Say No.” These three little words set the public’s understanding of drug addiction back at least 30 years and people were once again informed that drug addiction was a choice and a moral failing on the part of the drug addict. Since people believed this, they felt justified in locking up drug addicts by the millions and in doing so, they perpetuated the failings of previous administrations, all while spending the American taxpayer’s dollars at alarming rates.
The 90s and early 2000s saw a shift in the war on drugs and as people focused on the policing of illegal substances that were now linked to terrorism, pharmaceutical companies were slowly creating a new generation of addicted peoples, causing an epidemic level opiate addiction crisis in this country. Millions of people were becoming addicted to Oxycontin and other synthetic opioids at an increasing rate and rather than deal with the addiction problem, the government stepped in again by making it more difficult to get these legal narcotics, which caused many addicted people to seek out illicit drugs to stave off their withdrawals.
In the past few years, the failure of the war on drugs has become apparent and as more people become addicted each year and the overdose rate increases steadily, we have finally decided to try something new. We have finally come to understand that the real cost of the war on drugs is the human casualties that have been caught in the political crossfire over the years. The drug addicts and alcoholics who have spent years in prison for nothing more than having a disease that they could not control, and the people that have died because they could not get federally funded help because all of the money was allocated towards enforcement and incarceration. That is the real cost of the war on drugs and not the trillions we have spent trying to fight the wind.
We seem to have finally realized that arresting 1,561,231 people like we did in 2014 for drug-related offenses, is insane and that to continue on this path is not only unwise but downright irresponsible. President Obama, the Surgeon General of the United States, and other important political and public figures have stepped in and said we need to create a new plan of action, one aside from the war rhetoric we have followed for so many years and attempt to truly help people who suffer from addiction, rather than just punish them.
If we truly do change the way we go about dealing with drug addiction in this country and we move towards education and prevention, then I guess that the trillion dollars we’ve spent so far wouldn’t be in vain. It could be chalked up to attempting to figure out what doesn’t work so that we can actually move towards real and lasting change.
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