Anniversaries of all sorts are celebrated, they provide opportunities for reflection and learning, and today is an anniversary to learn from. Forty years ago today President Nixon declared war on America. Calling it a “war on drugs,” it has been waged across the globe in a futile effort to save us from ourselves. We have sacrificed freedom, liberty, and justice as a result.
100 years ago the crusade against drugs gained steam in America. The crusade was fueled by religious leaders wanting to save our souls and bigoted fear-mongers united to portray drug use as deviant, evil actions, and moral offenses of the highest order. Over time, race based fear mongering fell out of favor but was quickly assimilated into “other” classifications, including drug addict, criminal, and felon.
In 1971 it was no longer politically expedient to proclaim that certain people, based on genetic or biological factors, were less than human. It was no longer acceptable to identify “those people” as the ones to blame for all of the world’s ills. The racial divide was less evident as Americans united in a new classification of “good” and “bad” labels. [Please ignore the fact that more minorities are included in the “bad” category.]
With sleight of hand and sophistry, the justification for inequality shifted from genetic and biological factors to behavioral ones. Those engaged in “immoral” or deviant behavior could now be discriminated against legally. Arising out of the tumultuous sixties, the declaration of war on June 17, 1971 was a fortuitous opportunity to stabilize the status quo for the “good” Americans. So it was that President Nixon proclaimed:
“America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world.”
What are the results of this 40 year war? A May 13, 2010 AP News Story, AP IMPACT: After 40 years, $1 trillion, US War on Drugs has failed to meet any of its goals, provides some insight:
- Since its inception, the United States has spent more than $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries; including more than $6 billion in Columbia.
- Since its inception, the United States has spent more than $33 billion in marketing “Just Say No”-style messages to America’s youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have “risen steadily” since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
- The United States has spent more than $49 billion for law enforcement along America’s borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. In 2010 it was estimated that 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
- Between 1971 and 2009, the United States has spent more than $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies suggest that drug use increases as a result of incarceration.
- Similarly, the United States has spent more than $450 billion to incarcerate drug offenders in federal prisons. In 2009, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.
- At the same time, drug abuse is costing the nation in other ways. The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse — “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction” — cost the United States $215 billion a year.
- Estimates referenced in the article suggest the global drug trade accounts for one percent of all commerce on the planet, to the tune of $320 billion annually.
This war is a failure of epic proportions. It is true that drug-use may destroy lives. It is also true that the unholy alliance of police and law enforcement interdiction methods and tactics may destroy lives. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence of each in almost every home in America. It is unlikely that any family has escaped the carnage associated with this war.
Instead of re-evaluating these policies, the government marches on with increased funding, hoping for a different result, but mechanically following the same formula. A formula that has given birth to an entire industrial complex, complete with powerful special interest groups, to wage this war at home and abroad. This incestuous relationship, where law enforcement and military industries copulate freely, has grown into a monster to enslave and protect us from ourselves.
As a nation we have squandered the founding principles of freedom and liberty in exchange for tokens and platitudes of safety. Millions of Americans are isolated, segregated, and castigated in America’s prisons each year. Many are marked for life with labels, such as sex offender and drug addict. They are restricted from living, traveling, and associating with “certain” elements or places in society.
Former President Jimmy Carter, in a June 16th New York Times opinion piece, Call Off the Global Drug War, offers this perspective:
At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!
We are scanned, monitored, and recorded under the guise of “protection” or to keep us safe. Media campaigns and marketing messages spew propaganda to the masses in sound-bites of information that distract us from the machinations of those exercising control.
When will the war end? When more Americans recognize the futility of doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result; when the citizens start electing politicians who have the courage and tenacity to represent the people; and when we stop paying lip-service to equality as a fundamental right. When we stop fabricating artificial classifications and excuses for bigotry and hatred then peace will be possible.
Until then, it is likely this war on America will continue. Like a cancer, we are destroying ourselves from within. On this anniversary, let us reflect, reconsider, and learn from the past as we step into the future, unburdened of the perfunctory adherence to failed policies. Let’s divorce ourselves from this failed marriage and begin the healing of America. It is time to embrace the true meaning of equality while recognizing and honoring the differences that we share.
It is time for peace.