In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was passed by the Nixon administration, codifying a national strategy to prohibit drug use and target certain communities. Since then, the “war on drugs” has failed to reduce supply or demand, while steadily increasing drug overdose deaths and perpetuating the stigmatization of individuals with addiction. It has fueled wide-scale militarized policing, cost taxpayers over $1 trillion since its inception, and expanded punitive institutions outside of the criminal legal system — including punishment-oriented systems embedded in schools, hospitals and social service agencies. After 50 years of failures and substantial evidence that drug prohibition is not only ineffective but also incredibly counterproductive, we clearly cannot afford another 50 years of the same. The time has come to repeal the Controlled Substances Act and transition toward a more evidence based and realistic approach to drug use in our society.
On its face, the CSA’s stated purpose to create a tiered system with five categories based on potential for problematic use, medical use and safety sounds like a reasonable plan. But the reality is far more grim. It has been primarily wielded as a political hammer to justify arbitrarily criminalizing and targeting certain marginalized communities, and used to restrict research that might prove any kind of medicinal benefits.
And while most would agree the war on drugs has been a failure when it comes to public health, we must recognize that it has accomplished its architects’ real goals. Since the Controlled Substances Act was enacted 50 years ago, drug arrests — the vast majority of which have been for possession alone — and incarceration rates in the United States have skyrocketed, decimating communities of color which have been disproportionately targeted. In 2019 alone, there were over 1.5 million drug arrests made, nearly 87 percent of which were for possession. And regardless of whether or not people arrested on drug charges are convicted, an arrest alone can prevent people from accessing employment and educational opportunities, housing, or government nutritional assistance programs like SNAP and TANF. It can even cost them their children or immigration status.
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As arrests have increased, political leaders have vilified drugs and the people who use them, painting them as a dangerous part of society. Those who use drugs recreationally or might struggle with substance use disorder have been labeled “criminals” and pushed even further to the margins of society, creating a web of life-altering challenges and reinforcing stigma and fear that prevents people from accessing help if they need it.
The drug war’s pattern of destruction is vast: it is also one of the main forces responsible for the militarized policing that the nation has been reckoning with since the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Because of funding schemes connected to the drug war — such as civil asset forfeiture laws, the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant and 1033 programs — local police departments receive military weapons transfers and other financial incentives connected to drug arrests, which put our communities further in the crosshairs of state-sanctioned violence.
The Controlled Substances Act also serves as an enduring vehicle of government waste, costing over 1 trillion taxpayer dollars in the first 40 years alone. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the federal agency tasked with implementation and enforcement of the CSA, had an annual operating budget of $3.136 billion in 2019, yet, 47 years after its creation and countless lives lost, it has failed to accomplish its sole stated purpose of reducing the illicit drug supply. Drugs are more accessible now than ever before.
Not only is it wasteful, but spending this extent of money on failed drug enforcement and incarceration limits funding for more effective programs that impact public safety, including addiction treatment, mental health services, public education funding and employment opportunities — all of which could greatly improve the standards of living for all people, especially in the communities most targeted for enforcement.
Proponents of the drug war have argued that banning certain substances should remove them from the market, while prosecuting drug use should lower demand. But it turns out, the opposite is true. Since 1970, drug overdoses have steadily increased, with approximately 70,000 people dying per year from accidental drug overdose in recent years, and new data shows a concerning upward trajectory over the last year and more acutely since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Alternatively, countries such as Portugal and Switzerland that have decriminalized drug use have seen demand and overdose rates decline, in addition to other health benefits such as greatly reducing infectious diseases, all while removing the burden of a criminal record and the many collateral consequences that follow.
It’s time we follow their evidence. And that means building a public health-centered approach to drugs.
By abolishing the DEA and decriminalizing all drugs, we could save tens of billions of dollars annually, which could be redirected toward funding research and health services, such as evidence-based treatment, harm reduction and other health and housing resources. These steps could greatly improve the lives of people who use drugs, begin repairing the devastation caused by the drug war and reduce the cost burden on taxpayers to fund failed enforcement and incarceration.
After 50 years of failure, it is time to reshape American drug policy away from the antiquated, draconian punitive approaches of the past and into a new era of scientifically informed, evidence-based, human-centered policies.