Liberal Opinion: Should the U.S. end the war on drugs?

When a leader or a political party says that they will wipe out the drug menace from their territory in six weeks or three months, it sounds like a joke. Before their loaded utterances, they probably failed  to look at the United States, one of the most powerful nations, that continues to fight the drug menace even after 51 years of its avowed crusade.

The  US war on drugs that started with the historic address to the nation by then President Richard Nixon on June 17,1971, continues unabated.

Even after 51 years, the challenge to eradicate various social, economic and health ills directly related to drugs and their abuse continue to haunt American society. All efforts, including promulgation of legislations from time to time, and huge spendings over the years, estimated to be over a trillion dollars, have failed to yield the desired results.

Recent studies show that use of drugs has been on the rise again.

Though making comparisons are futile as various factors, including  socio-economic issues, terrains and people at helm of affairs differ from place to place, yet the fight against drugs has remained on the forefront of various nations. The war on drugs has universal appeal.

Till date no one has succeeded in its war against drugs.

In the United States, the war on drugs was started from the White House, when Richard Nixon declared that   the federal government would  treat drug addiction as “public enemy No. 1.” His declaration was to vanquish substance use  once and for all. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy,” Nixon had said, “it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive,” he had announced.

Where does the US stand in its war against drugs?

Those who have been religiously following the war on drugs say that it has not paid off. Researchers, irrespective of their backgrounds or ideologies, at least agree to disagree that the war has failed to deliver.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has been vested with sweeping powers and even after working under multiple administrations, it still finds itself fighting a non-conclusive battle.

The Enforcement Administration has been enjoying an unprecedented level of authority  that vests in it powers like mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. If Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit organisation that is mandated to end the war on drugs, is to be believed, the drug war “is a failed policy”. Kassandra Frederique says  “the things that they said would happen — people would stop using drugs, communities would get back together, we’d be safe, they’d get drugs off the street — those things didn’t happen.”

Agreed, there was a steep decline in illicit drug usage in the earlier years, but it has started picking up again and this time at an accelerated rate. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of illicit drug users rose to 13%   among 12 years or older Americans  in 2019, nearly reaching its peak from 40 years ago.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at Brookings Institution, says “We are still in the midst of the most devastating drug epidemic in U.S. history.” There were more than 90,000 deaths in the United State due to overdose of drugs that was far more than 70.630 drug overdose deaths in 2019, a report by Commonwealth Fund said.

Ten years after the war on drugs was initiated, the budget was a billion. It touched  $ 34.6 billion in 2020. The increase in budgetary allocation comes to more than 1000% in less than 40 years, say social scientists and researchers questioning the wisdom of increased funding without palpable results.

According to the White House, the national drug control budget has already  hit a new level of $ 41 billion with its major chunk going for drug treatment and drug prevention

The Administration has been trying different initiatives. Take mass incarceration for example which has been leaving a heavy burden on both the federal and state government’s budgets. The Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank and criminal justice advocacy group, found that 1 in 5 currently incarcerated people in the U.S. are locked up for a drug offense. The same research estimates that it costs an average of about $ 37,500 per annum  to house an inmate in federal correctional facilities and that mass incarceration costs the U.S. at least $ 182 billion annually

“States found their budgets enormously strapped by having to put funds toward correctional facilities that grew into enormous complexes,” explained Felbab-Brown. “One unfortunate way that states dealt with it was privatizing correction, something that’s a specific feature to the United States. That has been a very problematic and fraught policy, partially driven by the tendency to arrest nonviolent drug offenders.”

There is a racial angle to the issue also as there is a massive racial disparity that comes with drug incarcerations.

The Drug Policy Alliance says that nearly 80% of those detained in federal prisons and almost 60 % in state prisons for drug related offences are Black or Latino. Three years ago, when the Black or Latino population was 13.4 % of the country’s total population, the FBI reported that one in four  of the drug-related arrests were of Black American adults.

Needless to reiterate that Americans’ attitude toward drugs is changing. New York has become  the 15th State to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Oregon, in February, became the first state to decriminalize the possession of any small amounts of drugs.

Paul Larkin, a senior legal research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy think tank,  sounds cautious in saying  “Just as we don’t abandon our efforts to prevent violent crime because murders, rapes, and robberies are still committed, we should not abandon our efforts to protect our neighbors and their children from the harms illicit drug use causes. We should pursue our goal with every tool we have, such as education, interdiction, law enforcement and treatment.”

The United States may have in its 51-year-long war  reversed some of the harshest impacts of the drugs, yet its fight against forbidden substances continues unabated.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered  Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit  or follow him on