In 1971, the United States of America declared a war on drugs. Forty four years and at least $1 trillion later, the goals of the war on drugs have clearly not been met.

The war on drugs was developed to reduce drug use, crime and harm, but the only thing this war has accomplished is giving the United States the highest prison population in the world. The United States holds a mere 5 percent of the world’s population but a shocking 25 percent of its prisoners.

Instead of focusing on the rehabilitation of drug addicts and reintegrating them into society, the war on drugs focuses on being tough on crime. Meaning that instead of prioritizing our nation’s mental health, the war on drugs prioritizes mandatory minimum sentences for even nonviolent drug related crimes regardless of the circumstance, especially if you are part of a minority group. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, black offenders are 13 times more likely to be arrested for a drug related crime despite having similar rates of drug consumption as white Americans.

Drug addiction and dependence is a mental illness, and contrary to our nation’s belief, jail time is not an acceptable substitution for rehabilitation.

These laws were enacted decades ago with good intentions, but that is not a good enough reason to continue to keep the laws in place if they are not working. And if something is not working, you are left with the choice to either continue to let it fail or to find a better solution.

The time has come to admit that the war on drugs has failed, but it is not too late to right some of its wrongs. Currently, there are two bills pending for drug reform. One of the bills, called the Smarter Sentencing Act, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. According to the Justice Department, if this bill is passed it is estimated to save over $20 billion over the next 20 years. The second bill, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, would focus on the reintegration of prisoners into society and reducing the likelihood of re-entry to the prison system. 

The war on drugs has not been effective in eliminating drug dependence. The current policies focus on putting those suffering from addiction in prison rather than actually treating their addiction. Fair use image by: Jonathan HarrisThe war on drugs has not been effective in eliminating drug dependence. The current policies focus on putting those suffering from addiction in prison rather than actually treating their addiction. Fair use image by: Jonathan Harris

While these bills are substantially better than what is currently in place, we could still do better. $20 billion sounds like a considerable sum of money, but it is estimated that our federal and state governments spend more than a combined $40 billion annually on combating the failing war on drugs.

Despite the unforgiving sentences doled out to those unlucky enough to be caught with menial amount of illicit drugs, addiction rates in the United States have not faltered and drug overdoses, including illicit and prescription drugs, are at an all-time high. However, a few countries have taken on a successful approach that seems foreign to our “tough on crime” mindset.

One of these countries is Portugal. In 2000, 1 percent of the Portugal’s population was addicted to heroin, and despite the country’s best efforts to combat this, the drug problem continued to get worse. At this time, Portugal handled drug crimes similarly to how our nation currently handles these delinquencies, but unlike the United States, they were able to recognize that this approach was no longer working.

Instead of continuing to waste time and money on incarcerating the nonviolent drug offenders, many of them being addicts, Portugal decided to try something crazy and decriminalized all drugs. According to the Transnational Institute, in the fifteen years since this policy has been introduced, addiction, overdose, and HIV among addicts has decreased substantially.

Instead of punishing addicts with harsh prison sentences, Portugal began to offer treatment programs to help reintegrate addicts into society by creating jobs specifically for them to give the addicts a sense of purpose.

It is important to recognize that Portugal did not legalize all drugs and make copious amounts of cocaine or heroin available to purchase over the counter at the local pharmacy. When Portugal’s government decriminalized all drugs, being caught with a small amount of a prohibited substance was no longer seen as a death sentence. If someone is caught with those drugs, the substance is forfeited to law enforcement. If the offender is determined to be an addict, they may be admitted to a voluntary treatment center, charged with a small fine, or given community service that is designed to keep the addict out of tempting situations. 

Most people find it difficult to relate to drug addicts because it is easy to see them as dirty because they have made different mistakes than someone that does not suffer from an addiction.  The people that believe addicts deserve to be ostracized do not understand why addicts are not able to stop and assume it is simply because they do not care or do not want to. Yet when addicts make a conscious effort to become sober, those same people still do not want companionship from the addict because they believe that person has been tainted and continues to see the former addict as nothing more than a junkie.The war on drugs assumes that if we punish drug addicts severely, they will stop. But it is not possible to publicly shame and humiliate another human being into becoming a person that we find acceptable. Oddly enough, even though the national debt increases by the second, United States seems reluctant to let go of a “war” that has been a 44 yearlong $1 trillion failure.