The ‘war on drugs’ in the United States has been waged for 44 years now – so why are drug abuse and overdose rates still on the rise?
This year marks the 44th anniversary of the United States’ declaration of a ‘war on drugs,’ and yet after billions of dollars spent, statistics reveal that rates of drug abuse and overdose deaths are continuing to rise. It seems the US is losing the war, but what does the current situation look like and what can be done to turn the tables?
Drug Abuse and Overdose Statistics
Almost 10% of Americans admitted illegal drug abuse in 2013, up from 8.3% in 2002. The most commonly abused illegal drug was marijuana, with 20 million people over the age of 12 admitting marijuana use in the past month. However, marijuana is now legal in four US states and regulated in a way comparable to tobacco and alcohol — but even though marijuana use may no longer be considered illicit, marijuana addiction and other negative consequences will continue, despite being free from criminalisation.
Prescription opiates are the second most commonly abused drug, with approximately 6.5 million people admitting to prescription painkiller abuse. The use of and addiction to prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions in America, and now over half of all overdose deaths are related to prescription drug abuse. Most states have implemented tighter restrictions and monitoring of prescription opiate distribution, yet the problem still persists.
Other illegal drugs topping the list include cocaine, with 1.5 million users, methamphetamines with 595,000 users, and heroin with 289,000 users in the US. And while the use of these drugs seems to have stabilised, their potency has increased and overdose deaths are on the rise.
The majority of US states saw an increase in deaths due to overdose from 2009 to 2013. In 2013, 44,000 people died due to drug overdose which overall exceeded that of motor vehicle accidents in 36 states.
The USA is Fighting a Losing Battle
It has been over forty years since President Richard Nixon metaphorically declared a war against drug abuse in America — is it time to admit that what the country has been doing to fight against drug abuse is not working?
The number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses rose from 40,000 people in 1980 to 500,000 today. There is practically no rehabilitation taking place in prisons which leads to a vicious cycle of people with drug problems being released, returning almost immediately to drug use, then getting arrested and incarcerated again. America spends twice as much money to keep an inmate incarcerated each year as it does to provide one student public education — an imbalance that paints a bleak picture of the current use of limited funds.
The billions of dollars allocated to fight drug abuse and drug trafficking stem outside the borders of the US. In Juarez, where many drugs make their way from Mexico into the US, the drug cartel is notoriously violent and the city is deemed as one of the most murderous cities in the world. However, whenever one key leader is taken out another is lined up to take his place immediately. International efforts to reduce production and supply of illegal drugs to America have all but failed and the fight is seemingly endless.
But it is America’s endless hunger for drugs that seemingly fuels the violence, and the supply will never decrease until the demand decreases. This means rehabilitating the millions of people who suffer from the disease of addiction, instead of incarcerating them. Approximately 23 million people in America need treatment for drug abuse and dependence, yet only 2.5 million receive it.
However, getting people into treatment is not that easy. Stigma plays a major role in society’s perception of drug addiction, and the negative stigma of addiction in America can at least in part be attributed to harsh US drug laws and the government’s declaration of war against drug abuse — with no mention of addiction or recovery.
Stigmatisation and lack of resources keep people out of treatment, and the belief that addiction is a moral failure rather than a medical illness is still rampant.
What Can be Done?
While there is no clear or simple solution to end the despair and violence worldwide that can be attributed to drug abuse and trafficking, there are ways in which the United States can improve the situation — and the key seems to lie in addressing addiction as a public health problem and working to rehabilitate, rather than incarcerate, those struggling with drug problems.
Ideally, the US would like to see a decrease in drug related problems, including overdose deaths. Drug overdose deaths are preventable and recently there has been an increase in the availability of naloxone — a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose from both opiate prescription painkillers and heroin. As the widespread availability of naloxone is new, it is difficult to say how well it is working. However, in one preliminary report of 188 communities, naloxone saved 10,000 people from overdose. By keeping people alive, they may have the chance to recover.
The US currently spends 51 billion dollars a year on the drug war — and a large portion of the budget is spent on criminalisation. It costs approximately $25,000 to house one person per year in prison. Just imagine how far that money could go if it was spent on providing long-term addiction treatment programmes.
Investing more in education and healthcare could help keep people from turning to drugs in the first place, but it is the investment in holistic and effective treatments which address addiction as a medical disorder that seem to be the only way to reduce drug use and abuse.
People in addiction recovery also deserve an official voice at all levels of government. When government officials, and the public they represent, recognise that addiction is a treatable disease they can do more to see that people get the care they deserve. There are millions of people living happily and healthfully in recovery, and each time their story is told, the stigma is addressed and reduced so that more people will ask for help.
The US can see a decrease in the impacts of drug abuse on society by recognising the current failures of the drug war and focusing on treating and rehabilitating addicted citizens that fuel the demand for illegal drugs.