Many people hate drugs. It is easy to see why. Most families have had a loved one with a problematic relationship to alcohol or other drugs. People who struggle with drug problems can cause incredible pain to themselves and their loved ones. Broken marriages, loss of jobs, incarceration and even dying from an overdose are all possible tragic consequences of serious drug problems.
While it might be counterintuitive, people who hate drugs should be at the forefront of ending our nation’s failed drug war. The drug war makes all of the problems I mentioned above much worse.
Drug War = Mass Incarceration and Lack of Treatment
Let’s start with people struggling with drug misuse or addiction. Our drug war doesn’t keep drugs out of the hands of people who want drugs; drugs are as plentiful as ever. But getting caught with drugs can land someone in a cage for many years. Spending time behind bars is not the way to help someone who has a drug problem and most likely will make that person more traumatized. The sad fact is that we spend 50,000 dollars a year incarcerating someone for a drug offense, yet at the same time there is not enough money to offer treatment to people who want it.
Drug War = More Overdose and More Dying
People who have lost a loved one to an overdose feel an unimaginable pain and often want to wipe drugs off the face of the earth. Tragically, the drug war leads to many such deaths. Despite 40-plus years trying to eliminate drug use, there is an overdose crisis in this country right now. Overdose is now neck-and-neck with car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in the country. Most people who experience an overdose are with friends when it happens and would survive if someone called 911. But because of our drug war, people often don’t call 911 because they are too afraid that the police will show up and arrest them. It is outrageous that we discourage people from calling 911 to save a life because of laws that pit their interest to help someone who is ODing against their motivation to not be arrested.
Another way to save people who are overdosing is to provide them with an antidote called naloxone, which can reverse the effects and restore normal breathing in two to three minutes if administered following an opioid overdose. Unfortunately our society does not come close to doing enough to make naloxone available to people who use drugs and their friends and families.
Drug War = Unsafe Neighborhoods
People who live in neighborhoods with drug dealing out in the open and with violence associated with the drug trade are some of the most vocal supporters of the drug war. Of course people want and need to feel safe in their neighborhoods. But most “drug-related” violence stems not from drug use, but from drug prohibition. That was true in Chicago under alcohol kingpin Al Capone, and it is true now. The killings and violence in many U.S. cities are not from marijuana or other drug use, but because prohibition makes the plants worth more than gold, and people are willing to kill each other over the profits to be made.
Drug War = More Danger for Our Children
Many people may know the drug war is a failure but are afraid to change course because they worry about their children and want to keep them safe. Ironically, the drug war is a complete failure when it comes to keeping young people from using drugs. Despite decades of DARE programs with the simplistic “Just Say No” message, 50 percent of teenagers will try marijuana before they graduate. Young people often claim it is easier for them to get marijuana than alcohol because drug dealers don’t check IDs. Young people also feel the brunt of marijuana enforcement and make up many (and in some places most) of the arrests for marijuana offenses. Arresting young people will often cause more damage than drug use itself. Teenagers need honest drug education to help them make responsible decisions. Safety should be the number one priority. We have dramatically reduced teen smoking without tobacco prohibition and without a single arrest.
Drug Abuse is Bad. The Drug War is Worse
There is no doubt that drugs have ruined a lot of people’s lives. It is understandable why many people hate drugs and want to protect their families. But when you look at the greatest harms from drugs, the drug war and prohibition almost always make the problem much worse – and make our families and communities much less safe. We need the people who hate drugs to actively join the movement to end the war on drugs. Because the war on drugs is a war on all of us.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)