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America’s real longest war

Like the war in Afghanistan, America’s war on drugs has been fueled by false assumptions.

Richard Nixon in the Oval Office
The United States is still fighting a war on drugs which Richard Nixon officially declared over fifty years ago on June 17, 1971.
Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers

As we witnessed the agony of our nation’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, most of us thought that, after 20 years there, we were ending America’s longest war. But conventional wisdom is wrong.

The United States is still fighting the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon officially declared more than 50 years ago on June 17, 1971.

Both wars have been fueled by false assumptions. And when the concepts used to justify a war prove misguided, it’s reasonable to believe that our leaders, supported by the public, will change course. This is what caused us to leave Afghanistan. The same thing can happen with the war on drugs.

The false premises that have propped up the war on drugs are clear.

The first misguided assumption is that the best way to keep individuals from using, and too often abusing, drugs is to punish them.

Prohibition, which criminalizes drug use, does not work. As President Jimmy Carter famously observed, it is a cure worse than the disease. If punishment were a meaningful deterrent, we would have won the drug war long ago.

The second false assumption is that drug use, rather than the harm caused by drugs, should be the object of our concern and the metric by which we should define success. But our policy metric when it comes to drugs should be “harm,” not “abstinence.”

Tragically, it took the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s to even conceive of this approach. It’s so obvious when you think about it. As AIDS spread, it became clear that individuals using drugs were being infected by sharing contaminated needles, and that such infections could be minimized by making clean syringes available.

Like the decriminalization of certain drugs, harm reduction enjoys growing public support. Clean needles are now available in 300 exchanges across the country, and a federal ban on such services has been lifted. Naloxone, an antidote which can quickly bring an individual back from drug overdose, is legal in 49 states and available over the counter; there are more than 120 overdose prevention sites throughout the world, where individuals can safely test their drugs and use them under medical supervision. We will have such a site in the United States very soon.

Making clear the false premises of the war on drugs helps us understand what an end to that war would look like. We also have proposed federal legislation that would get us there. On June 15, 50 years after Nixon declared his war on drugs, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-New Jersey, and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, working with the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act.

This bill would decriminalize low-level possession of all drugs, treating such offenses like traffic violations. It would shift drug regulatory authority from the Department of Justice to Health and Human Services “to emphasize that substance use is a health issue and not a criminal issue.”

If passed, this bill would drive a stake through the heart of the war on drugs.

How close are we to the bill’s passing? Developing a national constituency for the Drug Reform Policy Act will require the same kind of state-by-state trench warfare that has brought us to the cusp of national marijuana legalization. Oregon took the first step in February 2021 when it decriminalized low-level possession of all drugs, in combination with access to 10 treatment centers across the state.

It has taken more than 50 years for policies to emerge that respond to the potential dangers of drug abuse and addiction with healing and compassion rather than the false assumptions that underlie punishment and incarceration.

It is time now to bring an end to what is, in fact, America’s longest war.

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