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Rethinking the War on Drugs: A Call for Reform

America has a long, complex history with drug regulation, from Sears Roebuck’s surprising sales tactics in the 1800s to the serious laws that set the stage for the modern-day war on drugs. From the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act to the significant 1970 Controlled Substances Act, we’ll uncover how these laws intended to protect public health have led to unintended consequences.

As we unravel this story, it’s clear that the war on drugs didn’t quite work as planned, and its serious implications—like racial biases and the overwhelming number of people behind bars—highlight the need for a new, more effective approach to how we handle drugs in our country.

A Different Time… Not So Long Ago

Back in the day, Sears Roebuck once advertised and sold packages of syringes and cocaine for less than $2 in the 1890s. While some media reports that a few states enacted laws to ban or otherwise regulate drugs in the 1800s, the very first congressional act to levy taxes on drugs took place in 1890 and was on morphine and opium.

In 1909, the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was passed and implemented, prohibiting the importation and use of opium. This act is widely considered racially targeted at Chinese immigrants, as many of the places in which opium was being sold and consumed were predominantly Chinese neighborhoods.

During this time, the retail and medicinal use of drugs became highly regulated. Before 1938, over 25,000 American doctors were arraigned by the courts for writing patient prescriptions for illegal drugs. It wasn’t until the Harrison Act was passed by Congress in 1914 that regulations and taxes were applied to the distribution, importation, and production of cocaine and opiates.

Just 5 years later, the 18th amendment was ratified, and the prohibition era against alcohol began. This was solidified by the passing of the National Prohibition Act the same year, which set forth guidelines on how to enforce prohibition from the federal level.  This allowed for alcohol prohibition to continue through 1933.

The Next Era – Introducing the MJ Tax and Controlled Substance Acts

The MJ Tax Act was passed in 1937, four years after alcohol prohibition ended. While the MJ Tax Act wasn’t a full-on prohibition against cannabis, it has sparked the fire that has helped to fuel this prohibition ever since. It isn’t the MJ Tax Act alone though. Throughout the years since, there have been many other pieces of legislation that have ensured cannabis remain illegal, as well as many other substances and punishable to the greatest degree.

The passing of the Controlled Substances Act under President Richard Nixon laid the foundation for the real war on drugs — including a war against cannabis.

In 1970, the 91st United States Congress enacted the CSA, signed into law by Nixon in 1970. This statute was an effort to combine all previous federal drug laws and allow for federal law enforcement of controlled substances, serving as the legal foundation in the federal fight against drug abuse.”

While campaigning for the presidency, Nixon acknowledged the fears of the public regarding increased drug use nationwide. After winning the presidency and signing the CSA into law, Nixon went on to declare that drug use in America was “public enemy number one” and officially launched a War on Drugs in June of 1971.

Queue in the DEA and Continued Support for Drug Eradication

With drug use officially deemed a criminal issue, Nixon proposed mandatory minimum sentences for possession and distribution, along with other strict measures for drug-related crimes. Additionally, the Nixon Administration funded the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to establish a specialized policing force targeting illegal drug smuggling and use in the United States.

Presidents such as Ronald Reagen further supported the War on Drugs, as he passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This Act issued $1.7 billion in funds for law enforcement. Funds intended for enforcement and to build on mandatory sentencing for drug related crimes. Later in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton passed the Crime Bill. This was a $30 billion piece of legislation that help to fund 125,000 new state-based prison cells, added over 50 new crimes found worthy of the death penalty, and mandated life sentences for those violating three-strike laws implemented in several states.

By 1980, 50,000 individuals were incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes—a number that surged to over 400,000 by 1997. In the past 40 years, drug-related convictions have risen more than 500%.

Legislation That Has Impacted Millions

The War on Drugs has impacted countless lives, incarcerated millions, and spent trillions of taxpayers’ dollars attempting to eradicate illegal substances that persist in communities across the nation today. The War on Drugs continued to persist for over 50 years — and still has major implications today.

Essentially, the War on Drugs has no winner. The majority of studies conducted on the subject have found absolutely no evidence showing a correlation between drug-related incarceration rates and the use of drugs across most states. Incarcerating people for drug use shows little evidence of reducing the presence of drugs in our communities or their usage rates. Yet, we continue to support these regulations within our federal government today.

Not only does incarceration not result in reduced drug use, but some studies have shown an increased risk for overdose post-incarceration.This review of studies found that the leading cause of death among those recently released from prison was drug overdose. During that time, the study found that recently incarcerated individuals had a 129% higher risk of a fatal overdose compared to the general population.

The Lasting Impact of the War on Drugs

Many years after Nixon’s term ended, John Ehrlichman, his Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs stated:

“You want to know what this [war on drugs] was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the 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.”

Essentially, Ehrlichman is directly acknowledging the motivation behind the War on Drugs. And these aren’t just words. The War on Drugs has created a racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Black Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white Americans, despite similar rates of drug consumption.  This issue is still waging war against communities of color.

It is beyond time for states to follow Oregon’s lead and implement a new approach to substance use in the United States.

The post Rethinking the War on Drugs: A Call for Reform appeared first on Cannabis Central.

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