Consequences of the War on Drugs

In 1971, if you asked Nixon what public enemy number one was, you may guess communism, but in fact, it was drugs. This was the genesis of what we now know as the “war on drugs.” This policy was enacted as a response to heightened drug-related crimes and deaths. Nearly fifty years later, we’re still waging the war with no clear end in sight.

Why the War on Drugs is Not Effective

The policy has transcended half a century, which could lead one to think that it must be working. However, this assumption cannot be further from the truth. The policies surrounding the war on drugs are ineffective because it has led to the demand for drugs being fulfilled by cartels, stigma surrounding addiction, and discriminatory practices.

Increased Cartel Involvement, Overdoses, and Crime

Similar to the rise of the Mafia during the alcohol prohibition from 1920-1933, the war on drugs has scaffolded Mexican cartels. The cartels can make 30% more money off of the same drugs in America compared to in their home country, so of course, they follow the money. Although it goes without saying, cartels fulfilling the demand for drugs is not preferable to regulated drug industry.

With neither oversight nor rules for the cartels to abide by, there is an incentive to cut the drugs with other drugs (e.g. heroin being cut with fentanyl) or chemicals like asbestos since it is an easy and cheap way to increase your stock and thus, profits. This means people are then consuming drugs that are either much more potent than expected  (increasing chances of an overdose) and/or ingesting substances that are not meant for human consumption (increasing the probability of health problems and death).

Unfortunately, the deaths don’t stop there. Given the nature of the work these cartels carry out, there is crime and murder manifesting before the drug ever even enters a user’s palm. Organized crime just leads to more crime, yielding the world with more trauma, heartache, and suffering. 

Strengthened Stigma Around Drug Addiction

It’s difficult to advocate locking up your neighbors. However, by using selective narratives it becomes much easier. It’s not your neighbor that’s being locked up, it’s the “good for nothing junkie scumbag.” Given the already high tensions fueled by the “hippie” counterculture of the 1960s, it wasn’t difficult to hone in on this negatively connotated narrative by the time 1971 came around.

While no one wants to be deemed a junkie or a scumbag, the repercussions of this stigma are much more significant than hurt feelings. It correlates with fewer people seeking treatment for their addiction because they don’t want to be considered as part of the stigmatized group. It also lowers self-esteem, which is something people facing drug addiction have enough trouble with already. Finally, it leads to a system where everyone is seen as a drug-seeker until proven “innocent” instead of the inverse.

This means people with chronic pain are denied the drugs they need to be productive citizens to society, leaving them with few options other than going to the streets for impure forms of the substance or using suicide as a means to end their suffering. “For 100 years, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them because the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection,” – Johann Hari. 

Increased Racial Prejudice and Discrimination

The war on drugs has been coined the “New Jim Crow” and it is simple to see why. 55% of those convicted for non-violent drug charges are black. Incarceration rates for African-American men are four times as high as the rate was during South African Apartheid. Equally as shocking is the fact that the number of black men in prison has reached the number of black men enslaved in 1820. The aforementioned stigmas help lay the prejudiced foundation necessary to carry out this sort of discrimination, and it was not by coincidence. Nixon’s former domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, is on record stating:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

However, the disenfranchisement of these men doesn’t end with their prison sentence. These men lose their right to vote forever, even if they never spent a day in jail. Taking away the voice of those most impacted by the war on drugs is a thinly veiled methodology to maintain this policy in spite of its shortcomings and wreak havoc on the social fabric.

“All wars cause human rights violations, and the war on drugs is no different.”

Ending the War on Drugs

Increased cartel involvement, overdoses, deaths, crimes, stigma, prejudice, and discrimination are all among the developments that the war on drugs has brought upon us. The objective of this policy has not been achieved after half a century. It’s about time we stop treading this path and find a real solution to the problem we’ve been facing for so long.

An effective policy will need to address the problems we are now seeing as a direct result of the war on drugs. An effective policy will take power away from organized crime groups. An effective policy will give the issue of addiction the care and sympathy it deserves instead of strengthening stigmas. An effective policy will get more people seeking treatment instead of more family members picking out their loved one’s casket. An effective policy will prioritize help over incarceration for ALL. The war on drugs is not the solution, but it can be the motivation behind enacting real, positive change. 

By: Courtney Judd

Further Reading

Boyd, G. (2001). The Drug War is the New Jim Crow. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from

Coyne, C. J., & Hall, A. R. (2017, April 12). Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from

Godlee, F., & Hurley, R. (Eds.). (2016, November 14). The war on drugs has failed: doctors should lead calls for … Retrieved February 20, 2020, from

Hari, J. (2015, June). Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from