End Our Addiction to the War on Drugs

America’s War on Drugs is a fruitless, outdated endeavor. Look to Europe for a better strategy

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The U.S., whose prison system is often criticized for excessive punishments and crowded jails, contains only four percent of the world’s population, but boasts 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Of these, 45 percent are imprisoned for drug possession and dealing. Seventeen percent of prisoners have broken the law to obtain illicit substances. It’s obvious that the U.S. is in desperate need of an overhaul of its prison system. The best way to start is to end the decades-long War on Drugs, which costs the country millions of dollars and destroys the lives of countless American citizens.

When a drug or substance is made illegal, those who sell it no longer have the law on their side and resort to criminal methods. Violent gangs and mafias are financed by illegal drugs, and rise in power and wealth with each new violent and uninformed campaign against such substances. During the Prohibition era of the 1920s, crime bosses like the infamous Al Capone made their money selling and transporting illegal alcohol all across the country. For years, violence and crime proliferated as organized drug cartels trafficked huge amounts of outlawed substances all over the country. But when the government repealed the Constitutional amendment that implemented Prohibition and lifted the ban on alcohol, gangs that sold it under-the-counter disappeared overnight.

America and its neighbors face a similar dilemma with the modern War on Drugs. In South America and Mexico, drug lords accumulate massive wealth and political influence, leveraging their advantages in manpower to gain power and spread their criminal empires. Drug gangs control vast swaths of land in Mexico and Columbia, where rape, murder, and violence are commonplace. The cartels, like the mafia before them, cannot be stopped through sheer force or violence. Instead, America must take the right step and end its War on Drugs before the situation gets worse.

America must turn to the alternatives that have been tried successfully elsewhere. In the 1990s, a similar epidemic ravaged Portugal. They had tried the “brute force” method of outlawing and actively combating drug use and failed miserably. The government began an innovative campaign to decrease drug use and drive down crime. Portugal decriminalized all drugs and ended the established process of punishing drug users with legal penalties. It also reallocated money spent on imprisoning and punishing drug users and addicts to funding rehabilitation centers and quality healthcare. Additionally, the Portuguese helped many drug addicts regain financial stability by paying part of their wage or providing loans to help them start their own businesses.

Switzerland adopted similar, yet more comprehensive policies to combat its own drug crisis. The Swiss government, on top of decriminalizing all drugs, opened safe and regulated injection centers where addicts were allowed to use medically pure heroin. Under the Swiss system, any addict must have been dependent on heroin for over two years and must have tried the other recovery options available in the country. Under proper medical supervision, addicts who went to injection centers did not overdose and almost always voluntarily took a smaller dose of drugs than they would have otherwise.

The results of the decriminalization programs speak for themselves. In Switzerland, overdose deaths fell by 64 percent, HIV contraction rates by 84 percent, and armed robberies by 98 percent. These numbers are impossible to ignore. If the U.S. is to have any reasonable chance of combating organized drug cartels, decreasing drug use, and reforming an overcrowded and arcane prison system, the first step is to follow in the footsteps of Portugal and Spain. Opening safe injection clinics is a start. Decriminalizing all drugs will be a long campaign, especially in a country where medical marijuana is still outlawed on the federal level, but the prize is worth it. Let’s end the War on Drugs and take a meaningful step toward the future. The American people need it.