The Associated Press has just dropped a bombshell on America's longest running war and the headline says it all: "The US Drug War has Met None of its Goals".
The extensive piece reviews the last 40 years, starting with President Nixon's official launch of the War on Drugs all the way to President Obama's annual strategy released this week.
I have been the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance for ten years and this is one of the hardest hitting indictments against the drug war I've ever seen. And because the story comes from the Associated Press, it will run in hundreds of papers around the world, reaching tens of millions of people.
The piece packs a punch from the start: "After 40 years, the United States' War on Drugs has cost $1 trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence more brutal and widespread."
Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets, and interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where that money went -- and found that the U.S. repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did nothing to stop the flow of drugs. The AP article states that in 40 years taxpayers spent more than:
- $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico - and the violence along with it.
- $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
- $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
- $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
- $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses.
Former Drug Czar John Walters sounds personally insulted by the argument that the war on drugs has been a failure. "To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said."It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforecment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."
Yes, Mr. Walters, the tanks, bullets, prison bars and "reefer madness" have been misguided. Prohibition didn't work with alcohol in the '30s, it didn't work in our 40-year War on Drugs, and it never will.
It is time for an exit strategy from this failed War on Drugs. Let's make sure that it doesn't take another 40 years, millions more lives ruined, and billions of wasted tax dollars before we accept the obvious solution -- ending prohibition. It's up to us - as people who care about science, compassion, health, and human rights -- to make sure that the time comes as soon as possible.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)