The War on Drugs is a Racket

Photo by Cannabis Culture | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Cannabis Culture | CC BY 2.0

On a recent segment of Democracy Now, Tess Borden made an impassioned plea for the U.S. – both federal and state governments — to end the criminal prosecution of those possessing or using illegal drugs.

Quoting from a new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” Borden observed, “Every 25 seconds someone is arrested for possessing drugs for their own use, amounting to 1.25 million arrests per year.”  She reminded her audience, “These numbers tell a tale of ruined lives, destroyed families, and communities suffering under a suffocating police presence.”

The study is an impressive piece of rigorous research and analysis as well as a statement of moral conviction: it’s a political call to decriminalize all personal drug use.  It paints a devastating portrait of not simply the nation’s failed anti-drug policy, but reveals it to be a mean-spirited, moralistic – and racist — program of social repression.

Among the study’s key findings are:

+ Yes, every 25 seconds someone in the U.S. is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use.

+ Sadly, more than 1.25 million people are arrested each year for drug possession – this is more than for any other crime.

+ More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession — four times more people are arrested for possessing drugs as for selling them.

+ There are at least 137,000 men and women imprisoned for drug possession — 48,000 in state pens and 89,000 in local jails (most in pretrial detention).

+ This population consists predominantly of inner-city dwellers – African-American and Hispanic and largely youthful offenders.

+ In 42 states, possession of small amounts of most illicit drugs other than marijuana is either always or sometimes a felony offense; only eight states and the District of Columbia make possession of small amounts a misdemeanor.

+ State rates of arrest for drug possession range from 700 per 100,000 people in Maryland to 77 per 100,000 in Vermont.

A bust every 25 seconds adds up.  As the study reminds readers, “tens of thousands [of people] are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees.”

The study makes clear that the war-on-drugs is a punitive, vindictive form of policing, criminal justice and imprisonment.  It’s easy to be tough on those involved in mostly a victimless crime, drug use.  Cops pick the easiest target, notably inner-city minority youth (i.e., “Stop and Frisk”) and, increasingly, rural white youth; prosecutors show off how tough they are by “throwing the book” at some hapless soul; and judges get easily re-elected for being tough on drug criminals, especially people of color and repeat offenders.

The study makes clear that the war-on-drugs is a failure in terms of public policy and the toll it takes on those suffocated by the drug war effort.  Unfortunately, the study suffers from not pushing its inherent argument one critical step further – acknowledging that the police-court-jail system that manages the drug war is a racket, the domestic corollary to the military-industrial complex that Pres. Dwight Eisenhower identified a half-century ago.


Almost a century ago, the U.S. adopted the 18th Amendment establishing abstinence as the law of the land.  Prohibition was inforce for 13 years and was a failure, flaunted by many and leading to wide-scale corruption of law enforcement and politicians.  It was formally terminated with the adoption of the 21st Amendment in 1933 as the Depression mounted.  Now, nearly a century after Prohibition was proven a failure, we may be witnessing the end to the criminalization of personal drug use.

In the wake of the failure of Prohibition, the U.S. Congress enacted the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, effectively criminalized marijuana use.  Three decades later, in 1971, Pres. Richard Nixon formally launched the “war on drugs,” transforming a relatively obscure local – and very private – issue into a national concern. He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies; he promoted mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants; he also placed marijuana in Schedule One, the most restrictive category of drugs; and he called for a national commission to study the drug problem and recommend appropriate policies.

In 1972, Nixon’s drug-policy commission — the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, the Shafer Commission — unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon furiously rejected its recommendations.  And the war-on-drugs has barreled on for the last four decades.

As the Watergate scandal undermined Nixon’s presidency, New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller launched his presidential campaign in 1973 with a call to toughen the state’s drug laws.  He upped the war against drugs, calling for mandatory prison sentences of 15 years to life for drug dealers and addicts — even those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin.  In the wake of Nixon’s resignation, Rockefeller became Vice President and his signature effort was to implement his war on drugs as a national campaign.

The punitive anti-drug policy was further strengthened by Pres. Ronald Reagan, leading to a massive increase in incarceration rates.  The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) estimates that in 1980, “50,000 people were incarcerated for violating nonviolent drug law but by 1997 the number increased to over 400,000 people.”  In 1981, Nancy Reagan proclaimed a new era in the anti-drug wars, championing “Just Say No.”

The DPA also notes that during the mid- to late-1980s, the nation experienced a near-hysterical rage over the alleged threat of illegal drugs.  It points out that public opinion polls in 1985 found only about 2-6 percent of Americans saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem”; however, by September 1989 two-thirds of those polled (64%) considered drugs as the nation’s leading problem.  It adds, “Within less than a year [1990], however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest.”

A quarter-century later, the drug scene has changed.  During the ‘50s-‘70s, hipsters and hippies, white and black, smoking the evil weed.  In the ‘80s, a “crack cocaine scare” gripped the nation following the adoption of the infamous Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986); the Act made penalties 100 times harsher for crack than for powder cocaine convictions and 85 percent of those jailed for crack cocaine offenses were black, despite the fact that the majority of users were white.

Americans love to get high.  In 2013, the “legal” drug of choice was alcohol, where nearly three-fifths (58%) were drinkers and nearly a quarter (24%) binge drinkers.  The use of tobacco products (e.g., cigarettes, cigars) among whites is still over one-quarter (28%).   An estimated 25 million Americans were using illicit drugs, about 9.4 percent of the population aged 12 or older; this is up to from the 2002-09 rate of 7.9 percent.  The drugs used were marijuana/hashish, cocaine (including crack), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants and prescription-type psychotherapeutics.

Marijuana was Americans favorite means of getting high, accounting for four-fifths (81%) of illicit drug users, about 20 million users per month.  Among full-time college students, whites have the highest rate of illegal drug use at 25 percent.

Methamphetamine (“meth”) was once the drug of choice among white males (e.g., outlaw motorcycle gangs and blue-collar guys) and remains so, but is losing its appeal.  In the ‘90s at the height of its popularity, the Open Society estimates there were only one million meth users.  Today, its use has spread to white women and Hispanics.  Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health reported that between 2002-2005 and 2008-2011 there was a 75 percent jump in heroin usage among “Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.”


The new drugs of choice among Americans are psychotherapeutic drugs and heroine.  A 2010 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that, during 2009, 2.4 million individuals used psycho drugs, including pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives used for nonmedical purposes.  According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “Adolescent girls and women older than 35 years have significantly greater rates of abuse and dependence on psychotherapeutic drugs than men.”

More troubling, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), overdoses (i.e., “drug poisoning”) are “the number one cause of injury-related death in the United States, with 43,982 deaths occurring in 2013.”  It found, based on data from 28 states, that the “death rate for heroin overdose doubled from 2010 through 2012.”   Drilling down, it found there were 8,257 heroine deaths, most involving men aged 25–44 years.


No one knows how much money has been spent to fight the failed war-on-drugs.  According to a DPA estimate, “Over the past four decades, federal and state governments have poured over $1 trillion into drug war spending and relied on taxpayers to foot the bill.”  It adds: “Money funneled into drug enforcement has meant less funding for more serious crime and has left essential education, health, social service and public safety programs struggling to operate on meager funding.”

The Drug War Facts website provides a detailed breakdown on annual federal spending on the war-on-drugs for 2013-’17.  It estimates for Fiscal Year 2016, the federal government will spend $30.6 billion.   A third source, the Drug War Clock, estimates that federal spending is about 60 percent of that spent by states (i.e., $49 billion); total spending for the false war-on-drugs at about $75 billion.

The expenditures associated with the war-on-drugs are, like the military-industrial complex, a vast slush fund with costs covering a very wide assortment of federal, state and local – both government and private — services and fees.  Among these expenditures are:

+ Costs of policing, from the border guards to the cop-on-the-block;

+ Costs of prosecutors, courts and defense attorneys;

+ Costs for prisons, jails and probation.

These areas of expenditures do not itemize the directs costs for employment, facilities and upkeep (e.g., food, medical) let alone the profits garnered by private corporations to operate the vast infrastructure required to wage the war-on-drugs.

Nor do these expenditures included the $1 trillion that Americans spent on illegal substances between 2000 and 2010.  In a 2012 study for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Rand estimated the market for four illicit drugs — cocaine (including crack), heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine (meth) – at $100 billion for only one year, 2010.  It noted, “This figure has been stable over the decade, but there have been important shifts in the drugs being purchased.”

With a $100 billion in illegal drug money sloshing through the economy each year, one can only wonder how much of it goes to corruption pay-offs, to law enforcement officials who look the other way.  As experienced during Prohibition, the enormous cash generated by the illegal drug trade leads to endemic corruption.

Finally, as the ACLU and HRW study painfully makes clear, many, many peoples’ lives are destroyed for the possession on illegal drugs.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t mention the way questionable law-enforcement officials, like the notorious Brooklyn NYPD detective Louis Scarcella and former DA Charles Hynes, exploited drug busts to further their careers.  (New York has paid more than $100 million to wrongfully convicted victims of their arrests and prosecutions.)

Its time to embrace the ACLU and HRW’s call to end the criminal prosecution of those who possess or use an “illegal” substance.  Like alcohol, its needs to integrated into the market economy and, like alcohol, effectively regulated in terms of quality and age-of-use.  Sadly, like the military-industrial complex, to many corporations, unions and people with influence have too much invested in the war-on-drugs to see it end.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out