After thirty-three years the United States drug policy has failed to achieve its intended purpose. Drug related crime has increased, more illegal drugs are on the streets today as ever before, and drug use has reached elementary school children. The “war on drugs”, the longest running war in United States history, has cost the American taxpayers over $300 billion (Katel); and has ruined lives and claimed untold casualties. Supporters are afraid that without prohibition, the number of drug users will increase and that legalization would send the wrong message to the nation’s youth. Over the past ten years, the controversy over the legalization of drugs has stirred up debate among the terminally ill, politicians, and lawmakers. It has given power to some states to defy federal law. Regulation is the answer to the growing drug problem in America because it will accomplish what drug prohibition failed to do: reduce crime and drug addiction.
A brief look into American history is important to understand how the United States attitude towards drugs developed, and how the “war on drugs” started. Drug use began in the United States when injured Civil War veterans became addicted to morphine (Cooper). Addiction spread and grew among middle class Americans, who self-medicated with cough medicines, tonics and other medications that contained opium or cocaine (Cooper). According to Cooper, “Reports of adverse reactions to patent medicines fueled public pressure for regulation” (Cooper). As a result, in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act passed which required manufactures to list ingredients on product labels (Cooper).
In 1912, the criminalization of narcotics started when the United States joined “The Hague Opium Convention” which gave jurisdiction over drugs to the criminal-justice systems that regulated the production and distribution of opiates, and restricted its use to medical purposes (Cooper). The United States participation in the convention began when “fears about narcotic use compounded by racial bias, grew with the rapid influx of opium-smoking Chinese railroad laborers in California” (Cooper). In 1914, the United States passed the “Harrison Narcotic Act,” the first drug law which regulated “the production and sale of opium, cocaine and is later amended to ban heroin” (Cooper).
Alcohol, far more commonly consumed than any other mind-altering substance was banned in 1919, with the passing of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution; which made it illegal to make, sell, or consume alcohol (Cooper). However, the demand for alcohol continued and gave birth to bootleg alcohol production, which was accompanied by the rapid rise in crime associated with the struggle over control of alcohol distribution. In 1933, after thirteen years, the failure of the prohibition prompted the United States to pass the 22nd Amendment of the Constitution that rescinded the 18th Amendment leaving the power to regulate alcohol to the states (Cooper).
In the 1937, the United States passed the Federal Marijuana Tax Act requiring anyone who grew, used or distributed marijuana to pay a high tax (Marshall). The Marijuana Tax Act effectively “extended the drug ban to include marijuana whose use among Mexican immigrants in the southwest had sparked the same kind of racially motivated concern about narcotics use earlier targeted Chinese immigrants and at African Americans, who were said to commit crimes while high on cocaine” (Cooper). In the 1960s, Marijuana use spread to the middle class through musicians, artist, and soldiers returning from Vietnam.
In 1970, the “Federal Controlled Substances Act” was passed which made marijuana possession illegal (Marshall). In 1971, President Richard M. Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention that is designated to coordinate drug policy, which included prevention efforts, treatment and rehabilitation for addicts and to conduct research into addiction (Cooper). Additionally, in 1972, President Nixon’s National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse released a report to congress entitled “Marihuana [sic], A Signal of Misunderstanding,” which favored ending marijuana prohibition and adopting other methods to discourage marijuana use (Marshall). The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) petitioned the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a “Schedule 2” drug so physicians could prescribe it legally (Marshall).
In 1973, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) was established to supervise the federal prevention and treatment programs (Cooper); and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, signed the country’s most ruthless mandatory-sentencing laws for drug offenses (Cooper). Additionally, in 1979, illegal drug use among the population in the United States hit its highest point at 14.1 percent of the population, twenty-five million Americans (Cooper).
In the 1986, President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs” and dramatically increased the funding for the United States anti-drug policy with the passing of the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act” (Cooper). This Act raised the nation’s anti-drug budget from $2.2 billion to $3.9 billion. In 1988, the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act called for mandatory-minimum prison sentences for possession of crack cocaine as part of effort to strengthen drug-sentencing laws (Cooper). This Act created a cabinet position with the title of “drug czar” to oversee the newly created Office of National Drug Policy Control, (ONDPC) (Cooper).
In 1995, President Clinton’s first “drug czar”, resigned after the administration and congress rejected his emphasis on drug treatment (Katel). In 1996 California voters passed initiatives that shielded medical marijuana users from state prosecution (Katel). Despite a U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that found some medical benefits in marijuana the Federal government shut down six marijuana cooperatives in California that provided marijuana to patients (Marshall).
In 2003, The U.S. Supreme Court, by declining to reverse a lower court’s decision in Conant v. McCaffrey, held that physicians may recommend, but not prescribe marijuana to patients and in 2004, police arrested 1.7 million people nationwide for drug-law violations, twenty-two percent more than in 1995 (Katel). In November of 2004 voters across the country passed seventeen initiatives aimed at liberalizing marijuana laws. To date thirty-six states have laws that recognize marijuana’s medical value. Moreover, since 1996 twelve states have passed laws that effectively allow patients to use medical marijuana despite federal law (McVay).
It is obvious from American History that prohibition does not work. Drug prohibition like Alcohol Prohibition causes more crime by driving up the price of drugs. Moreover, prohibition forces drug users to commit crimes to pay for a habit that would be easily affordable if it was legal. The criminal nature of the business means that rival drug sellers must resort to violence to settle disputes among themselves. A look at Alcohol Prohibition of the 1920s and 30s shows that murder and assault-by-firearm rate rose steadily while alcohol Prohibition was in effect and remained there until it ended in 1933; then the murder rate dropped for eleven consecutive years and crime involving firearms went down for ten consecutive years (Ostrowski).
Politicians should recognize that Drug Prohibition and Alcohol Prohibition share the same problem and solution: regulation. The United States drug policy, has had little or no effect on the levels of drug addiction among American citizens, but has instead resulted in a tremendous increase in crime and in the numbers of Americans in our prisons and jails. With 4.6% of the world’s population, America today has 22.5% of the world’s prisoners (Katel). The United States needs to make drugs a controlled dangerous substance, just like alcohol.
In a country were the past is used to predict future behaviors of people demonstrate that Regulation will dramatically decrease drug related crime, drug addiction and drug use. The fact is in the last ten or so years, drug use has not dropped even with increased federal spending on the drug war (Ostrowski). Moreover, in spite of all the seizures, drugs are still available to children in elementary school. Drug laws greatly increase the price of illegal drugs, forcing users to steal, kill, and rob to get the money to buy them. It is estimated that at least forty percent of all property crime in the United States is committed by drug users so that they can maintain their addictions (Ostrowski).
Drug regulation is a better alternative to straight out legalization and is much more reasonable then prohibition. The United States should take a lesson from its past: that prohibition did not work then and does not work now. Regulation gives control back to the people and reduces crime, and the ill effects that come with it. “Drug abuse would clearly decline under a legalized system” (Johnson).Regulating drugs will reduce crime, take the profit out of drugs, restore order to the cities of America and it will remove the forbidden fruit aspect of prohibition that has been tempting the nation’s youth for over thirty three years. Regulation will provide our government with an accurate picture of the influences that drugs have on the United States and give control to the people to overcome its negative social and economical effects.
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