According to the National Vital Statistics System, prescription narcotics such as OxyContin and morphine cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. In at least 15 states, prescription drug deaths occur more frequently than auto accident deaths. This represents new evidence that could help shift the dialog on the failed War on Drugs.
The term War on Drugs is attributed to President Nixon, and was first used on June 17, 1971. The current Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, does not use this terminology; however, he has essentially kept the same philosophy we’ve used for the last 40 years, which we can confidently say has failed miserably.
In the 80s and 90s, the slogan of the failed War on Drugs was “just say no,” which was pushed by Fmr. First Lady Nancy Reagan. This slogan only makes matters worse, as it implies a sort of moral deficiency. Drug addiction is a proven medical problem, an illness. Treating addiction as a moral deficiency or personality defect not only contributes to stigma, but also serves as negative reinforcement which ultimately ends up pushing addicts away from treatment centers, and into the darkest corners of the globe.
The incorrect accusation that addicts are “morally deficient” encourages an atmosphere where people expect rehabilitation to occur when addicts are sent to prison. Such an atmosphere is not conducive to a stable recovery. We attempt to resolve a social and individual problem by criminalizing the possession of drugs, but once they get to court, they are given sentences to be carried out in prison instead of rehabilitation centers. Just as bad are judges who give split sentences, where part of the sentence is carried out in jail and part in rehab. Although studies reveal that marijuana is much safer than alcohol, our system often punishes casual marijuana users, who are otherwise law-abiding.
American and world citizens need an honest education when it comes to drug addiction and dependency. The D.A.R.E. program, another product of the failed War on Drugs, employs scare tactics and partial education. D.A.R.E. needs to be abolished and replaced with a learning system that not only promotes abstinence, but educates individuals and families about the biology and psychology of addiction, and includes a harm reduction approach in addition to abstinence.
Scare tactics and imprisonment do not resolve the many issues associated with drug addiction, especially when drugs are often a symptom of an underlying problem. Understanding that addicts cannot be forced to stop is another important step in this process. Until we undergo a massive reconstruction of our drug policies, including adopting a new strategy for casual users of marijuana, we will continue to make the same mistakes that created this problem, while deepening the nation’s dependency on illicit and licit substances.