What’s Wrong With the War On Drugs?

 Kathryn DeHoyos explains how, after four decades of enforcement, the the racist drug policies of the U.S. have failed.

The war on drugs has failed. After 41 years and over $1 trillion spent what does the U.S. have to show for it? For starters, we have the largest prison population in the worldCNN reported recently,

[There are] about 2.3 million behind bars. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for a drug law violation.

About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population

On the surface these numbers would seem to indicate that the U.S. drug policies are working, right? Wrong. In fact, just like with prohibition in the 1920’s and 30’s, which gave rise to organized crime and increased hard liquor consumption across the country, these policies have only exacerbated the problem. Instead of reducing the number over the last four decades the US has managed to move into the No. 1 spot for illegal drug use worldwide.

But what is even more disturbing is the number of minorities who are imprisoned on drug charges. Some may argue that it is because minorities are the problem. That people of color are quite obviously the majority of the people who sell and use drugs. And again, on the surface the numbers would seem to support that argument. However, as the CNN report goes on to point out,

People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

So, not only can it be said that the federal government’s drug policy is ineffective, but that it is a blatantly racist one as well. If white people are just as likely as people of color to be both users and dealers, why is it that the majority of people in prison for drug law violations are minorities? Racial discrimination, whether touted as drug policy or not, is still discrimination and is unacceptable. The prohibition of alcohol was a failure, and although it has taken over 40 years for us to see, the supposed war on drugs is an abysmal failure as well.

Picture: erokism/Flickr

About Kathryn DeHoyos

Kathryn DeHoyos currently resides on the outskirts of Austin, TX. She has 2 beautiful children, and is very happily un-married to her life partner DJ.


  1. Those who fail to learn from history?

    Come back Cassandra, All is forgiven … I know it’s about 4000 years too late, but some may learn…. if we are all optimistic, join hands and sing a nice tune around the camp fire! Wee some may learn… until next time!

  2. So, do you all honestly think drug trafficking marijuana will stop when it’s legal to use it? Believe me when I tell you that the efforts will increase to stop the drug trafficking because it will hit the government where it hurts and that’s in their pockets. Home grown weed will be just like home made moon shine. The government is out to make money on this and they won’t let anyone get in their way.
    Back in the days when I was young and free, people grew the stuff on their window sill. That’s NT what’s being distributed today. The dealers are not selling your common home grown weed, it’s highly potant and often times mixed with other drugs.

    Dugs is BIG business and the dealers, manufacturers of the illegal drugs are not going to let this cut into their profits. The purpose of drug selling is to make money and sell more. You can expect a more drastic change in the so called “weed” that’s being sold. A change that will make the weed more addictive then ever before ….. and then what?

    Tax the blunt! Yup. A common recreational marijuana user will now have to pay through the nose for that which he got for almost nothing on the streets. Ahhh, the good old regulations. A pack of cigarettes cost less then two dollars. Add the taxes on to it, in Chicago, they are almost $10 a pack. Let’s see, in Chicago, 5 grams of high quality weed costs $100. That’s about 5 to 8 joints. Just think of what it’s going to cost when the government starts taxing it?

    Now it’s my understanding that a portion of the revenue made by government will be set aside for treatment of addictions. Isn’t that nice???? NOT. Because on the flip side of that, the government is introducing managed care to the treatment industry. 15years ago, when I started in this field, the residential treatment center was a 9 to 12 month program. Years later it was cut to 6 months. Two years ago it was cut to 15 to 30 day based on medical model criteria. Fortunately, thanks to a lot of campaigning and letter writing, the programs like our were brought back up to 3 months. Unfortunately there were several casualties. We had to close our 38 bed adolescent girls facility and two out patient centers. Other programs like ours closed all together. AND managed care is yet again lurking in the dark. It’s simply a matter of time before we get hit again.

    Take a look at your insurance plans. Look and see what kind of benefit levels are provided? 95% of our clients receive care that paid for by the government … Illinois, as with other states are broke.

    And all the time people think that the war on drugs is going to end?

    Absolutely correct that whites use drugs more. And at the same time whites move to harder drugs more often then other minorities. Two weeks ago, I went to my now 14th funeral of a former client. Whereas the funerals I’ve attended involving minorities were drug “related,” deals gone bad or gang related, ALL of the funerals that I’ve attended that the kid was white were drug overdoses. 98% of our clients are minorities … doesn’t add up now, does it?

  3. Taken from the CNN article, “In the United States, if illegal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, they would yield $46.7 billion in tax revenue. A Cato study says legalizing drugs would save the U.S. about $41 billion a year in enforcing the drug laws.” It’s all about the $$$. I’ve said it all the way along.”

    I believe that the war was lost in part due to people not buying into it. When you speak to parents, as I have, of teen users who say that they buy the drugs for their kids because they don’t want the kids getting in trouble …. Ya have to wonder who is the problem in this war.

    One last point, I read the article, not sure how you extrapolated the “race” issue out of it. There was no racial slant to the article.

    Also stated in the article ” Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population.”

    “excessively long” is not defined. What is excessively long? 2 months? 2 years? Most states simply slap the offender on the wrist for simple possession. It’s a different story when the person is on parole or probation and is found having the drug. It would be a violation of probation/parole and accordingly may result in longer jail time.

    • “I believe that the war was lost in part due to people not buying into it.”

      As the niece of a cocaine user who took his own life, no. No, and no, and no. Most people don’t turn to drugs unless they have a psychological void that needs filling. I firmly believe that most drug addicts (as opposed to casual users) have psychological illnesses, like depression, that aren’t getting treated. We need to encourage drug treatment as the solution to addiction. It works well for alcohol, yet we have failed to extrapolate this success to other drugs. Why?

      Because the illegality of drugs causes these people to hide where we cannot see them to help. Because they are more afraid of law enforcement and life in prison (and don’t kid yourself, 2 months is unheard of as far as drug charges go) than they are of whatever demons drove them to drugs in the first place.

      “What is excessively long? 2 months? 2 years?”

      Here you go. Note that these are the MINIMUM sentence–meaning that you are automatically sentenced to at least that many years AND the fine. Also note that if you have more than a certain amount of any given drug, you are considered a drug dealer and your sentence is extended–and since there’s no number given, we can safely assume that a biased judge could send that number all the way to life in prison for some people.

      A chart of prison sentence lengths for a FIRST offense. Note that drug offenses get you a longer sentence than anything else.

      More about “conspiracy” laws. Note that, essentially, knowing about drugs while also knowing people who use and/or sell drugs (even if you didn’t know they were using or selling drugs) is itself a crime under this law. People, mostly black, have been sentenced to life in prison under this law who didn’t know that their friends or neighbors were drug dealers (but maybe suspected it) and didn’t have anything to do with drugs themselves. It is not a just law.

      Again, I hate drugs. I despise them utterly for what they can do to people, and for taking away my uncle. I only take drugs that I am prescribed reluctantly. But drugs have done less damage to society than the laws designed, allegedly, to protect us from drugs. The “War on Drugs” has only given more dangerous drugs public exposure. More people know about cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and crystal meth than did before police crackdowns, TV coverage of drug busts, or laws restricting which over-the-counter cold medicines you could buy (Sudafed can be used as an ingredient to make methamphetamine–which is useless knowledge to those of us who only want to buy one box for our cold and have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to gather up the other ingredients for Homemade Speed).

      The “War on Drugs” has also ensured that it is easier to get drugs from abroad rather than from US growers. I shouldn’t have to tell you about foreign drug cartels and the misery they inflict upon innocent people.

      I agreed with you, once upon a time. But the more I learn about drugs, the more convinced I am that the U.S. government has made the wrong decision. Drugs hurt people, but that doesn’t excuse drug laws that hurt people–especially minorities–even worse.

  4. “That people of color are quite obviously the majority of the people who sell and use drugs. And again, on the surface the numbers would seem to support that argument. However, as the CNN report goes on to point out, (People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.”

    Is there somewhere I can get the study that CNN used to substantiate the information?

    I agree that the “war on drugs” as it stands has not worked. Does this mean we should give up? Does this mean that part of the problem will be eliminated with the legalization of marijuana?

    • It means that we should end the “war” part. Fighting a police war against drugs obviously hasn’t solved the issue at all. Instead we should start “The Long-Term Struggle to Identify Unhealthy and Addictive Substances and Educate Our Fellow Citizens in Their Dangers and Safe Use.” I know the title isn’t as catchy, but maybe if we made it any acronym! LTSIUASEOFCTDSU sounds just about right. It’s time to try other methods, like education!

      And yes, sadly CNN did not cite their sources. Fortunately, a little poking about and I found two interesting studies that support their claim. The first is Carol Boyd’s group showing that White Kids smoke the most pot (and do the most drugs period):
      And here Dan Blazer’s group (using a wonderfully large sample group) corroborates that finding, and shows that Native Americans and White Kids have the highest abuse rates too:

      Hope this helped!

      • Sorry, meant to add one more thing.

        YES, legalizing marijuana will do HUGE amounts of good. Most importantly will we stop throwing people in jail for a victimless crime, seizing their assets, and ruining their future. We will also stop spending lots of tax money providing those lovely services. We will (hopefully) also remove one of the major sources of bodies for the prison-industrial complex. We will take funds out of the pockets of the Mexican drug cartels. We will ensure that people who smoke weed do so in a safe and regulated way. We can finally start to do some serious science on Cannabis sativa and hopefully produce some new (and probably pretty cheap) treatments for diseases.

        So yeah! I think we can do a lot of good. And marijuana is just the tip of the iceberg!

  5. TRUTH!!

    I love this article. As a student heavily involved in fighting to end the drug war, I’m so glad these kinds of articles are being written and circulated in more and more places in our culture.

    Drug prohibition DOES NOT WORK.

    Criminalizing drugs and users DOES NOT STOP DRUG USE. In fact, it may even increase it. (See The Netherlands, Portugal, Argentina).


    From top to bottom, the war on drugs ranks one of the least successful legislative policies undertaken by the United States. Besides aiding and abetting racial discrimination, it has destroyed the lives of countless harmless individuals, done untold damage to our economy, and funded mexican drug cartels growth into some of the most powerful criminal organizations in human history. It has failed systemically, and needs to be ended.

    Drug use is a SOCIAL issue, not a criminal one.

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