The War on Drugs and Why It Has Failed


The debate over how the governments and authorities are combating drug abuse around the world has escalated quite a bit after the policies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte against drug abuse and his war on drugs have claimed over 12,000 lives in the Philippines. Declared by American President Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s, the War on Drugs was supposed to eradicate drug abuse and end all drug-related crimes, sadly, however, that’s not what it did. The War on Drugs has failed to do what it needed to do and in the process, has destroyed millions of lives, both directly and indirectly.

In the 1970s, Nixon declared drug abuse, “public enemy number one” and what followed were a number of drastic measures to combat and eradicate drug-related crimes. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was formed which currently has 5,000 agents and a budget of $2.03 billion which might seem like a lot until you realize that the United States spends over $50 billion annually on its War on Drugs.

Statistics further highlight the inefficiency of the War on Drugs. There were a total of 1,572,579 arrests related to drug violations and 84 percent of those were for possession only. Due to the hardline policy in the United States, it now has the largest prison population in the world, despite having only a small portion of the global population. What’s worse is that most of those prisoners are jailed for possession only.

war on drugs in other countries

The War on Drugs is not limited to the United States. It was a global campaign, followed by various countries around the world. Some just did it differently than others. In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 Philippines presidential elections promising, ordering the police to adopt a policy of shoot to kill. and even urging others to kill drug addicts.  Since then, Duterte’s extreme policies have taken the lives of more than 12,000 people.

The Mexican Drug War broke out in 2006 between the Mexican government and the drug trafficking syndicates. Since 2006, the combined efforts of the government and the military to dismantle the drug syndicates have resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people and displaced 1.6 million people as of 2012. However, the damage that was done in both of these countries and many more is much deeper and we will have to deal with the consequences for a long time. So far, we’ve only talked about countries that have adopted hardline policies to combat drug violations, however, not all countries chose that route.

war on drugs in Switzerland

In the 1980s, Switzerland faced a drug problem. A rise in drug abuse caused crime rates, HIV cases and other drug violations to increased manifold. The Swiss authorities came up with a new strategy to combat this problem called harm reduction. Harm reduction includes a number of public health facilities and policies to decrease the negative effects of drug abuse, both social and physical. The national drug policy of Switzerland focused on rehabilitation and therapy rather than prohibition and imprisonment. Instead of locking up people who were found in possession of drugs, the Swiss authorities opened up rehabilitation centres that provided clean syringes (since syringe sharing can lead to a number of health problems) and also provided people with high-quality drug substitutes that reduced withdrawal symptoms. In a short period of time, Switzerland was able to successfully combat the problem of drug abuse. The treatment centres helped every two out of three people get jobs. Currently, 70 percent of all drugs addicts in Switzerland are getting treatment. Deaths from overdose have halved and HIV infections, drug-related sex crimes have fallen drastically.

The story of Switzerland is different. The country succeeded in its mission to reduce drug abuse. It won the battle against drugs but the same cannot be said for countries like the United States, Philippines, Mexico, etc. who adopted hardline policies and aimed at completely eradicating drug usage. In hindsight, it seems like a silly idea to have begun with but it wasn’t just the start that was wrong. More than forty years after Nixon declared the War on Drugs, we still haven’t been able to achieve any substantial progress, and that can’t be chalked up to just a bad beginning. It was the lack of much-needed change that caused the Drugs on War to fail. The war was campaigned as a war against drugs but it was in fact, a war against the users of drugs. It targeted both the drug trafficker and recreational user in the same manner. It was unfair. But times have changed now. Switzerland showed us the way thirty years ago, but bloodshed and hatred were chosen instead.

However, we are becoming more aware in the 21st century, things are changing. The intensity with which the War on Drugs was once fought has simmered down. The world is accepting that drugs are not all bad and that addiction is more than what it seems. We get addicted to substances when we are surrounded by things that we do not like. The key to a world free of drugs is realizing that we need to be together, to help each other, to help heal the damage that has already been done.

Statistics put it best. We have lost the War on Drugs. Not as a country, but as humanity and it is now time for a new approach. A more gently and more humane approach.

About the author

Prakhar Singh

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