American War on Drugs

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Illegal substance abuse has plagued the United States throughout history. Beginning with the nation’s heavy dependency on alcohol in the early 1800’s to today’s opioid epidemic, substance abuse has led to millions of deaths, child neglect and domestic violence. In response, the United States has made multiple efforts in attempt to minimize illegal drug use, yet many question the effectiveness and impact such actions have on today’s society. The United States’ first attempt consisted of prohibition laws, followed by the installation of public fear, and currently the a more proactive approach of education and rehab. The stereotypes and stigma surrounding immigrants due to the evolving American War on Drugs has heavily impacted domestic drug and border policy and created a prominent divide between the Democratic and Republican parties.

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The popularity and face of drug use and illegal substances has changed dramatically over time. In the early 19th century, alcohol served as the main culprit behind substance abuse. This was mainly due to the fact that the dangers associated with opioid, cocían and morphine were unknown. These highly addictive substances could easily be found in children’s medicine.(textbook) In the early 19th and 20th centuries cocaine was used to soothe toothaches, heroin was used as a cough suppressant, chloroform was used to treat cold symptoms, morphine was used as a soothing syrup and opium was a common pain reliever. (Adler). These previously noted “household” or “over the counter” drugs, have proven to have detrimental impacts on one’s health and are often the main causes of addiction. Research has proven the dangers of such drugs as they all fall under the five categories of drugs: depressants, stimulants, opiates, hallucinogens and cannabis.(Dope on Drugs). As data and research were collected throughout the following centuries, the dangers behind such drugs were revealed.

The history behind drug use trends in the United States heavily impact the stigma behind illegal substance use and addiction. In the 1800’s cocaine was brought to Europe and popularized in Coca Cola as a cocaine induced tonic. This trend continued into the early 1900’s as, in addition to cocaine, opium was a popular ingredient found in drinks. In turn these ingredients led to addiction and overdose. The use of opiates and stimulates were not only found in drinks but in several medicines and foods. Unfortunately many of the consumers were unaware of the ingredients in their beverages, medicine and food and thus continued to consumed the addictive products. (History of Cocaine). In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed which “halted the sale of contaminated food and drugs and required proper labeling”(textbook). In addition, in 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act was passed “regulating and taxing the production, importation and distribution of opiates and coca”(Terry) Despite the labels and precautions provided, the use of such dangerous substances and drug addiction prevailed. While cocaine addiction slowed down post the 1906 Pure Food and Drug act and the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act,(History of Morphine) it once again gained popularity in the 1970’s and the 1980’s crack epidemic. By the 1970’s hollywood had glamorized cocaine and it had become the preferred illegal substance of the elite. Cocaine was primarily popular for the wealthy due to its high price tag. This changed with Thomas Reese’s founding of crack, “a hard, rock like form of cocaine”. The new cheap drug increased substance abuse targeted marginalized communities and particularly targeted African Americans. In response to this influx in crack addiction, congress passed the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, “establishing tougher sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine”(History of Cocaine) .

In addition to the popularization of drug addiction through drinks and food, medical use has led to overdoses on and addiction to substances such as morphine, heroin and other opiates. Previously morphine was used as an anesthetic and as a pain reliever in the Civil War, and as a result, addiction followed (History of Drug Trafficking). This trend parallels the history of heroin, opiates and cannabis as they too were used for medical purposes, but their addictive properties caused much harm. Despite the criminalization of these drugs, their popularity was heightened in the 1960’s. The “hippie era” of the 1960’s brought much attention to the increase (Decades of Drug Use).

Today, the main source of drug addiction comes from the abuse of painkillers, yet much of the stigma behind drug trade is rooted in the large quantity of international illegal drug trafficking. The inevitable continuance of drug trafficking to the United States began in the mid 1800’s with the opioid trade from China. Chinese immigrants on the west coast introduced opium to Californians and the new drug spread throughout the state. Smuggling was also heightened during the Vietnam War. The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War made smuggling heroin into the America easier. During the years of the Vietnam War “the number of people dependent on heroin in the United States soared to 750,000”(History of Drug Trafficking) the illegal trafficking of cocaine became a profitable international industry in the late 1970’s. The most notorious group of drug smugglers and suppliers was the Medellin Cartel. Based out of Colombia this cartel partially led by the infamous Pablo Escobar, at “peak of its reign, the Medellin cartel brought in up to $60 million a day in drug profits.” After years of smuggling through Panama, the Medellin Cartel was brought down, but was soon replaced by the Cali cartel. “As the [Cali Cartel’s] peak it was thought to have control over about 80 percent of the cocaine supplied to the United States”. Monopolizing on the huge profits reaped from drug trafficking, cartels continued through El Chapo, Los Zetas and other Mexican drug cartels. In the most recent years, “organizations in the Middle East, including the Taliban and al-Qaida, have become major players in the production and shipment of illegal drugs.” (History of Drug Trafficking). It is the horror stories associated with these drug lords that has caused many Americans to view immigration in a tainted perspective.

Paralleling the ambition of prohibition, the American War on Drugs sought to eliminate illegal drug use and trafficking. This movement ultimately failed leading to division amongst the nation that continues to this day. Beginning in 1971, with President Richard Nixon, the evolving war on drugs has made multiple efforts in attempt to limit illegal drug use. These tactics highly contrast today’s leaniance and legalization of certain recreational drug uses. Unfortunately, Nixon’s efforts received similar outcomes to the 20th century prohibition movement. The earliest efforts against substance abuse is the prohibition movement of the early 1800’s and progressive era. Wives suffering from the reprimands of their husband’s drunken violence and neglect, advocated for the prohibition of alcohol as it was seen as the route of all problems. In 1920 prohibition was passed nationally and the consumption and selling of liquor was illegal. This law of prohibition did little to stop the American people from purchasing illegal alcohol from bootleggers or attending speakeasies for their daily fix. Similarly the aspirations behind the American War on Drugs had minimal effects on the minimization of American drug abuse. As drugs became signs of “youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent” in the early 1960’s, “the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy”. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the first American War on Drugs claiming “ America’s public enemy number one in United States is drug abuse”. During his presidency, Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency, which encompasses the efforts of Office for Drug Abuse Law Enforcement, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs as well as the Office of Narcotics Intelligence in order to “consolidate federal efforts to control drug abuse”(Britannica) Nixon made efforts to minimize the drug demand in the United States through the methadone maintenance program. The methadone maintenance program consisted of prescribing methadone to reduce opiate addiction. This program has seen positive results in opiate addiction reduction, but many fear that the replacement of opiates with methadone is only fueling another addiction. (Soldiers Hippies and Richard Nixon) In addition, one of President Nixon’s first actions toward was a major interdiction effort in Mexico. Despite these efforts the American demand for drugs remained and the cartels made sure to deliver despite obstacle imposed by the U.S. government.

In 1977, President Carter advocated for the decriminalization of cannabis. Feeling that the punishment should not overbear the crime, Carter moved toward the decriminalization of marijuana. Carter believed that government funds could be used toward interdiction and eradication programs. Unfortunately the decriminalization did not have the results Carter had hoped for. Marijuana was viewed as a gateway drug and in turn, the United States saw an influx in cocaine in the early 1980’s. (The United States War on Drugs)

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan emphasized his aspirations that aligned with Nixon’s ambitions of stopping drug trafficking by addressing the issue of demand. Both President Reagan and President Nixon claimed that education and rehabilitation would be far more effective than attempting to shut down and prevent international drug trafficking. Despite these claims,“ the average annual amount of funding for eradication and interdiction programs increased from an annual average of $437 million during Carter’s presidency to $1.4 billion during Reagan’s first term. The funding for programs of education, prevention, and rehabilitation were cut from an annual average of $386 million to $362 million”. Reagan’s efforts are were strict and more commonly referred to as as the “zero tolerance program”. Heightening the punishment and criminalization of drug users, Reagan used tactics of instilling the association of fear with drug use in order to cut down the demand for illegal drugs.(The United States War on Drugs) One notable effort during Reagan’s presidency was his wife, Nancy Reagan’s, “Just Say No” campaign against drugs. Just Say No began in the 1980’s and “encouraged children to reject experimenting with or using drugs by simply saying ‘no’.”(Just Say No)

Clinton advocated to stop the suppliers from transporting drugs to the United States. In his presidency, Clinton “earnedmarked an extra 1 billion for both the demand and supply fronts of the government’s drug policy”, yet he made even greater efforts to enhance the United States eradication and law enforcement (United States War on Drugs).

Contrasting previous methods of fear and criminalization, today’s “war on drugs” can more appropriately be referred to as a “war on addiction” as today the United States has placed an emphasis on education and rehabilitation. As research on addiction and drug use continues many people view addiction as an issue of public health rather than an issue of criminalization. The approach toward addiction must evolve with the face of drugs in the United States. While in previous decades drugs were associated with glamour and teenage rebellion, today the United States is suffering through an opioid epidemic. A majority of the opioid epidemic can be credited toward overdoses on prescription painkillers. This is a costly addiction as as “every 16 minutes a person in America dies from an opioid overdose” and the “opioid epidemic costs the United States an estimated $504 billion per year, including the costs to the health care and justice systems as well as the economic impact of premature fatalities” (Pearl). Effort to fight this epidemic include making naloxone an opioid overdose reversal drug more accessible, facilities and locations where individuals can safely inject pre-obtained drugs, and drug courts. Broadening naloxone accessibility will save live and potential overdose deaths, injection sites will prevent the sharing of needles and spread of diseases and drug courts help provide just punishments and reduced sentences for users (Pearl).

Although the U.S. has created a more proactive approach toward stopping the use and abuse of illegal drugs, because the U.S. credited much of the drug trafficking to international drug lords, stigma around and resentment toward immigrants continues to be prevalent. Today the War on Drugs initiated by Nixon is seen as a failure due to its harsh and ineffective punishments for drug use and possession, resulting racial disparities and the economic loss due to his policies. Nixon’s tactics intensified punishments for drug related crimes prove to have little effect on substance abuse decreases and instead increasing expenditure by incarcerating Americans with punishments that do not justly match their crime. This injustice is seen through the punishment discrepancies amongst races. According to the Betsy Pearl of the Center for American Progress, “In the federal system, the average black defendant convicted of a drug offense will serve nearly the same amount of time (58.7 months) as a white defendant would for a violent crime (61.7 months)”.

As the American War on Drugs fails to meets is founders’ ambition, the Democratic and Republican parties have differing views on how to approach to the current drug epidemic. The differences are especially highlighted in the parties’ differing views on foreign policy. Democrats believe the solution to winning the war against substance abuse and the opioid epidemic is by “vastly expanding access to prevention and treatment, supporting recovery, helping community organizations, and promoting better practices by prescribers” (democrats.org) Democrats advocate for creating health care and insurance policies that address the need of those who suffer with alcohol and drug addiction. Taking a proactive approach, democrats aim to incorporate drug education programs and accessible addiction education and information to families and teachers and children. In regards to immigration policy, democrats feel that the stigma surrounding immigration due to drug trafficking should not defer a person’s chance at a better life and opportunity. The democratic platform also calls to keep families by “prioritizing immigration enforcement so that it is focused on those with criminal records and doesn’t arbitrarily separate families”. Democrats feel strongly that The Wall President Trump advocates for will not only be expensive but ultimately ineffective and damaging to families from Mexico and South America.

Contrastingly, the Republican Party has a more conservative and strict view on how to address the opioid epidemic that plagues the United States and how to deal with international drug trafficking. Like Democrats, Republicans believe that education is vital to the prevention of drug abuse, and strongly believe that this duty to inform youth on substance abuse falls upon the responsibility of parents. Much of this education focuses around the consequences of drugs and the reprimands that will result in such use. Unlike the Democratic Party, Republicans call for stronger enforcement and protection in order to prevent drugs from entering the United States. This belief is directly seen in President Trump’s advocacy for The Wall. One of The Wall’s purposes is to prevent traffickers and cartels from transporting drugs and illegal substances across the southern U.S. Mexico border. Trump and his administration claim that creating a $5.7 billion wall will significantly reduce drug smuggling, yet studies have shown that a high percentage of illegal substances are smuggled into the United States through legal access points. “According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, 90 percent of heroin seized along the border, 88 percent of cocaine, 87 percent of methamphetamine, and 80 percent of fentanyl in the first 11 months of the 2018 fiscal year was caught trying to be smuggled in at legal crossing points.”(Gomez). Trafficking though legal entry points is not a new concept as drug lords such as El Chapo have masked their drugs in food containers other disguises and brought through the border. Today, many believe that establishing more thorough checks will do more help than a wall.(**nytimes)

As seen within the past decades there has been much discord amongst American citizens and the immigration controversy. Many people feel that illegal immigrants deserve a better life for themselves and their families, and are heartbroken to see the divided and distraught immigrant families. Others feel that immigrants bring trouble to the United States and take jobs away for tax paying American citizens (Gambino). This controversy has severely divided the country, as seen in the most recent government shutdown. Fueling Trump’s insistence on the construction of the Wall is the hatred and negative connotations associated with immigration. This stigma has is not a new concept as the reluctance toward foreigners has occurred throughout American history and amplified during the height of the American War on Drugs. This deep rooted tradition of hatred toward foreigners is causing much unrest within the United State and detrimentally impacting the lives of those seeking a better life through immigration, refugee status and asylum. President Trump constantly fuels the stigma that surrounds and represses immigrants. Continuing the tactic of imposing notions of fear to be associated with foreigners, Trump has advocated ideals that strongly promote nativist ideals that bring upon bigotry and hatred for foreigners.

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