The American Dream or the American Nightmare: How the War on Drugs is Damaging America

In 1971, our country went to war.

“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse.”

With these words, Richard Nixon officially started the war on drugs in America—a battle to rid the country of the devastating effects of illegal drug use. Almost a half century later, this war is still being fought each day in every city across the US. These forty five years of hindsight allow us to look back on the effects of this war and determine whether it is a fight still worth fighting. Since Nixon’s declaration against drugs, what has been done to rid America of drug abuse? The war on drugs has helped cut down on the supply of drugs entering America by reducing the amount being produced outside the US, in countries like Mexico, Colombia, and Afghanistan. Death by heroin overdose is down throughout America, as is heroin addiction in general (Stanford). These successes, among others, are praiseworthy—but have they helped us win the war on drugs? Over the past forty five years, we have spent $1.5 trillion on the war on drugs, and have made 45 million arrests, imprisoning our population at a rate higher than any other country in the world (Jarecki). Despite these efforts, a stark truth remains—we have seen virtually no change in overall illicit drug use (Jarecki). The amount of resources lost in this fight alone should make us question whether the war on drugs is working, but the damage is deeper than money—the war on drugs is hurting the soul of America as well its wallet. The war on drugs has not impacted all Americans equally. The policies and practices of this war have discriminated based on class, and as a result, have fostered inequality throughout the country. The same number of people are using drugs now as when the war on drugs started. Instead of success, lost resources and discrimination are the legacy of this war. To those of you who value the economic stability of our country, and feel every individual in America should have an equal opportunity to succeed, I ask you to consider the economic and social cost of this war we have waged on drugs.


A growing number of individuals are beginning to oppose the policies and practices of the war on drugs for a very simple reason—the net losses far outweigh the net gains. As mentioned previously, overall drug use in America has remained basically unchanged (Jarecki), but this hasn’t been for the lack of resources spent in an attempt to fight drug use. If the war hasn’t produced the results we want, what have been the resources lost during the fight? The most costly resources lost have been money, time, and human potential.


Every second, $500 is being spent on the war on drugs (Office of National Drug Control Policy). Over forty five years, total costs for fighting this war have totaled over $1.5 trillion. I would be one of the first people to advocate spending that kind of money if it meant getting rid of drugs in our country, but if that money has not created a noticeable change in drug use, it can only be seen as a massive waste of our country’s wealth.


Source: Matt Groff

One of the biggest changes brought about by the war on drugs was the intense criminalization of drug use in America. As a result, we are arresting our citizens at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world. While the United States represents just 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners (Drug Policy). These skyrocketing incarceration rates have become enormously expensive. Each of the 2.3 million people in US prisons (imagine the entire state of Utah becoming a prison and all its population becoming prisoners) costs $24,000 a year to keep in prison. To put this in perspective, the government spends $10,658 a year for each student in K-12 schools (Desert Beacon). We spend twice as much to keep a prisoner in a prison cell than we do at building the future generation of America. The costs of keeping up our bloated prison systems have quickly become an overwhelming burden on state and federal budget expenditures. We have the war on drugs to thank for this. Over half of the prisoners in our federal prison system are there on drug-related charges (Miles). The rates of incarceration spiked sharply at the start of the 1970’s, directly after the war on drugs was officially declared by Richard Nixon.


Source: Friends Committee on National Legislation

Maybe these exorbitant costs would be worth it if we were arresting the individuals at the core of the drug problem in America; however, this is far from reality. While some drug kingpins have been arrested, the overwhelming majority of arrests are of blue-collar workers involved in the buying or selling of very small amounts of drugs.


Over the past decade, the New York Police Department spent over 1 million hours on marijuana arrests alone (Flatow). In the never ending fight against crime, 1 million hours spent dealing with marijuana has become a huge burden on police officers in cities throughout the country. Instead of investigating more pressing or violent crimes, our officers are being bogged down with drug arrests, the vast majority of which are non-violent (Jarecki). In fact, as shown in the following graph, as marijuana arrests increase, violent crime arrests decrease.


If officers didn’t have to invest so much time in routine drug arrests, more of their time and effort could be concentrated on violent crimes, and bringing those criminals to justice. When police officers are pressured with arrest quotas, drug users on the streets become a quick and easy way to meet these quotas (Flatow). Unfortunately, this has created a system where the number of arrests matter more than the type of arrests being made. Many violent crimes remain unsolved because we don’t have the time necessary to solve them, in large part due to the hours being spent on non-violent drug arrests.


Kevin Ott is in prison for life. As a 40 year-old, Kevin has nothing but the steel bars and cinderblocks of his Oklahoma federal prison cell to look forward to for the next 40 or 50 years. His mother is able to see him from time to time, but when she does, he is in shackles and a jumpsuit. Kevin is not in prison for murder, theft, or violence of any kind; Kevin, after having been let go from a manufacturing job, turned to drugs for money and sold 3 ounces of methamphetamines. Because he had been charged with possession of drugs previously, his arrest with 3 ounces of meth guaranteed him life in prison. Why such a heavy punishment? Federal law mandates that repeat drug offenders be given certain minimum sentences, below which a judge cannot go when charging the drug user. This means that, regardless of what the judge may feel is right for a particular individual, the federal law requires a minimum sentence, and for repeat offenders, that minimum sentence can be anywhere from 20 years to life without parole (Jarecki). Because of Kevin’s circumstances, his charge could be no lower than a life sentence (even though his judge wanted it lower). 3 ounces of drugs cost Kevin his life. Faced with the same circumstances—no job, no income, no food for a family—millions of others have made similar decisions and are paying the consequences.

Every 20 seconds, someone is arrested for drug use (Flatow). Forty five million total drug arrests since the start of the war on drugs have resulted in a large portion of the US population that struggles to live with the burdens that come with a drug arrest on their record. Drug users should be punished; what they chose to do was illegal. However, stories like Kevin’s help show that the incredibly heavy prison sentences handed down with drug use are excessive and unnecessary. If it in any way helped solve the rampant drug use problems we are facing in America, it would make sense to lock these people up with massive prison sentences, but the startling reality is that it does not help. Even with the heavy sentences associated with drug use, we are seeing unchanged rates in the amount of drugs being used (Jarecki). Locking people like Kevin up for life doesn’t stop the drugs from being used or sold—someone will replace Kevin, filling the void he left and selling drugs in his place. Attacking the individuals who use drugs is not fixing drug use. If the prison sentences are causing more damage to the individual than the drug ever did, we have a real problem. This cycle of drug-users being arrested, someone taking their place, and these replacements also being arrested results in essentially no impact on drug trade, but millions of people behind bars. (Jarecki)

When asked about the growing number of individuals in prison for drug use, Neill Franklin, a police officer of 34 years, stated that those who are incarcerated “represent a tremendous loss of human potential” (Flatow). By choosing to lock these people up, we are not helping them get over their drug addiction, but instead hurting them more, creating a cycle that makes it even more difficult for them to escape from their drug use. Imagine when they are finally released from prison. What happens when this individual gets out of jail and tries to find work? In every job application, they must check the box that says: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Take a moment and ask yourself if you, as an employer, would hire someone if that box is checked and another applicant’s box isn’t? A downward cycle begins, where more and more opportunities get withheld from the individual, which then impedes their ability to ever become a fully functioning member of society. Now that they are branded as a prisoner, what chance do they have of getting to a place in their life where they can effect positive change around them? The lost potential of millions of Americans incarcerated for drug use is truly one of the most devastating effects of the war on drugs.


The lost resources of time, money and human potential are indictments against the effectiveness of the war on drugs. But perhaps the strongest indictment against this war comes from realizing that these resources were systematically used against one group of people, the poor, more than any other group. The policies and practices of the war on drugs are discriminatory towards the poor, and help create a growing social inequality between the poor and the rest of America.

As previously mentioned, arrest quotas are a part of many police departments throughout the country. The quotas demand that officers make a set amount of arrests in a week or month, and great pressure is put on the officers to reach these quotas. Since drug use is so prevalent, drug arrests are typically low-hanging fruit for these officers, and are a quick way to increase amount of arrests. A couple of options are available: you could seek out drug use in college dorm rooms by gathering evidence on specific individuals and obtaining a search warrant; you could track down drug use in offices and businesses by a similar method; or you could walk into a poor neighborhood, and pat down people until you find drugs. Unfortunately, the easiest, quickest option is to target the poor neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are less protected by lawyers and attorneys ready to fight the charges. It’s also much cheaper to set up a sting in the streets of a poor neighborhood than it is to do so on a college campus or in an office or business (Western). When you are the low-hanging fruit of low-hanging fruit, you quickly become a target. Apply these principles across the nation, and you can see the widespread effect this can have on poor communities.

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at Harvard and prolific author, has succinctly stated,

“Drugs are intensively criminalized among the poor but largely unregulated among the rich. The pot, coke and ecstasy that enliven college dorms, soothe the middle-class time bind and ignite the octane of capitalism on Wall Street are unimpeded by the street sweep, the prison cell and the parole-mandated urine tests that are routine in poor neighborhoods.” (Western)

The poor have become disproportionately targeted for drug use, simply because they are the easiest to reach. Rich, middle class, and poor people use drugs, but the poor are more vulnerable.

These harsh drug laws create a growing divide between the opportunities available to the poor compared to those available to others. Instead of reform programs to help with addiction or teach trades that can be used in a workplace, we are locking these drug users up, and we are throwing away the key. These overly harsh, punitive laws disproportionately hurt the poor more than they do any other class. When an individual comes out of prison, they are in a worse state than they were when they were put in prison. What hope does that leave them and their family of ever getting out of poverty? When a middle or upper class individual uses drugs and gets arrested, they have safety nets to fall back on. But when a poor person uses drugs and gets arrested, they have nothing to fall back on. So, not only are the poor being targeted more often, but when they are targeted, it hurts them more than any other social group. What effect does this have on entire poor communities? With their situation worse than before, the poor readily return to drugs. A downward cycle of prison, release, and imprisonment, intensely focused on poor communities, is one of the most damaging results of the war on drugs.

In 1971, our country went to war. The past forty five years are a testament that we are losing that war. Not because the enemy is indestructible, but because we have focused on punishing individuals, instead of tackling the root causes of drug use. Unless we improve the status of our poor, we will never see a decrease in the drug problems in America. No amount of locked up drug users or border patrol will keep the drugs from flowing. We are at risk of having our policies on drug use turn millions of people’s American dream into an American nightmare. We have already done it to Kevin; we have already done it to 45 million others. The war on drugs must focus less on punishing individuals and more on changing the social structures surrounding drug use. We must stand with those individuals who are in favor of using federal funds not to keep someone in a cell, but to give them access to addiction recovery programs and skills-building programs that improve drug user’s chances of quitting drugs. We must provide better education in poor areas, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to lift themselves out of their conditions if they so choose. We must lower the charges filed against those who have fallen into the trap of drug use. We must change the way we are fighting this war. Instead of fewer drugs, this war has resulted in lost resources and discrimination. Let us end the war on the people who use drugs, and let us start the war on the cause of drug use.





Works Cited

Desert Beacon. Blog. <>

Drug Policy Alliance. “Mass Criminalization.” Web. <>

Flatow, Nicole. “Police Made More Arrests For Drug Violations Than Anything Else In 2012” Think Progress. Web.  <>

Groff, Matt. Blog. <>

Jarecki, Eugene. The House I Live In. Documentary. 2012

Kathleen Miles. Just How Much The War On Drugs Impacts Our Overcrowded Prisons, In One Chart. Apr. 3 2014.  <>

Office of National Drug Control Policy. Web. <>

Stanford presentation. <>

Western, Bruce. The Nation. Web. <>


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