Drug War

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Drug War

The Drug War has attempted to diminish the flow of drugs into the country, the manufacture of drugs within American borders and the desire to use drugs with supply and demand tactics. On the supply side, legislators have created severe penalties for possession and sale, and toughened border patrols. To reduce the demand for drugs, community programs, television campaigns and crime-watch programs educate citizens on the dangers of drug use and abuse. The Drug War helped create drug-free school zones and increased penalties for drug crimes that involved weapons.

Although the intensity of the drug war escalated in the mid-1980s, legislators first enacted drug laws in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Act which taxed narcotics and required licensure for those who dispensed drugs. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 categorized marijuana as a narcotic for taxation and legislation purposes. Mandatory prison terms for drug use and sale were first introduced in the 1956 Narcotics Control Act.

Prior to the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, highly addictive opiates were the primary ingredient in the widely used elixirs. The users were mostly middle-class women and their addictions were not seen as a societal problem. The Civil War, however, brought the subject of addictions to the forefront. When physicians treated soldiers with morphine, they developed an addiction referred to as "soldier's disease."

When drug abuse was confined to non-threatening social classes, public knowledge and debate were minimal. In 1900, society pitied drug addicts. They were considered unfortunate citizens with medical problems. By 1920, the drug user became known as a drug fiend, an immoral outcast who spread his addictive disease to everyone he touched. Anti-drug campaigns blamed Chinese immigrant laborers who were railroad workers in California for bringing opiates into the country and encouraging Americans to smoke opium. In the South, anti-drug campaigns said blacks developed super-human strength after sniffing cocaine. The Mexicans were blamed for marijuana's popularity.

Legislation and anti-drug campaigns helped contain drug use until it became mainstream in the 1960s. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declare the first a "war on drugs" when he coordinated drug policies and legislation, and provided federal funds for education and prevention. He consolidated federal agencies into the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Cocaine use rose in the 1970s and 1980s. With the media sensationalism of such events as the death of Boston Celtic Len Bias and the arrest and conviction of Manuel Noriega, the drug war grew rapidly. Despite the lack of proof that a national drug use epidemic existed, Americans bought the media portrayal of the "crack baby" and inner city drug busts. In reality, the "crack baby" was the result of poverty and malnutrition and crack the result of prohibition. The television reports of inner-city warfare and drug busts pinpointed young black men as the primary perpetrators.

By the mid-1980s, Congress and most state legislators enacted mandatory prison sentences based on the weight or quantity of a drug. The majority of federal and state drug offenders incarcerated in the 1990s were low-level sellers and dealers. High level traffickers and other dealers with information to share would trade information for lenient sentences. The prison industry grew faster than any other American industry in the 1990s and Americans incarcerated more of its own citizens than any other nation in the world.

The Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 set draconian penalties for drug possession and sale, including life in prison to property forfeiture. Other measures designed to curtail drug use and sale include denying convicted ex-drug offenders social programs such as government-backed college loans and grants, and welfare assistance. The Omnibus Crime Act of 1984 allowed police to confiscate property without due process. Authorities only needed an accusation or suspicion to enter such private domains as homes and cars, and conduct warrantless searches and seizures. Many critics argue that this practice violates basic personal liberties.

In the 1990, critics of the Drug War stated that American drug policies failed to put a dent in the drug trade. The U.S. government spent billions of dollars each year to improve border interdiction, increase the number of drug arrests and convictions, and build more prisons to house drug offenders.

The Drug War is also known for such issues as medical marijuana availability, legalization and decriminalization. Critics of the drug war argue that prohibition increases crime, deepens social and class conflict and defies basic democratic ideals. It increases health problems by denying treatment to and incarcerating addicts. It tears families apart by incarcerating small-time users and sellers for long prison sentences. It promotes poverty by denying welfare and educational assistance to ex-offenders and their dependents, and increases recidivism. Critics relate issues such as AIDS, IV drug use, street-level dealers, and gang-warfare to drug prohibition, not drug use.

—Debra Lucas Muscoreil

Further Reading:

Gray, Mike. Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out. New York, Random House, 1998.

Lindesmith, Alfred R. The Addict and the Law. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1965.

Musto, David F. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1973.

Wisotsky, Steven. Beyond the War on Drugs: Overcoming a Failed Public Policy. Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1990.