The war on drugs in the United States has been a failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune. It started during the Nixon administration with the idea that, because drugs are bad for people, they should be difficult to obtain. As a result, it became a war on supply.
As first lady during the crack epidemic, Nancy Reagan tried to change this approach in the 1980s. But her “Just Say No” campaign to reduce demand received limited support.
Over the objections of the supply-focused bureaucracy, she told a United Nations audience on Oct. 25, 1988: “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand. We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators. You see, the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellín, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”
Her warning was prescient, but not heeded. Studies show that the United States has among the highest rates of drug use in the world. But even as restricting supply has failed to curb abuse, aggressive policing has led to thousands of young drug users filling American prisons, where they learn how to become real criminals.
The prohibitions on drugs have also created perverse economic incentives that make combating drug producers and distributors extremely difficult. The high black-market price for illegal drugs has generated huge profits for the groups that produce and sell them, income that is invested in buying state-of-the-art weapons, hiring gangs to defend their trade, paying off public officials and making drugs easily available to children, to get them addicted.
Drug gangs, armed with money and guns from the United States, are causing bloody mayhem in Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American countries. In Mexico alone, drug-related violence has resulted in over 100,000 deaths since 2006. This violence is one of the reasons people leave these countries to come to the United States.
Add it all up and one can see that focusing on supply has done little to curtail drug abuse while causing a host of terrible side effects. What, then, can we do?