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What lessons can we learn from the origin of the War on Drugs?

Feb 3, 2023 by AFP

Americans for Prosperity Senior Criminal Justice Fellow Greg Glod and actor, writer, and comedian Clayton English recently launched a new Lava for Good podcast titled “The War on Drugs.”

The podcast examines the failed policies of America’s “War on Drugs” and its repercussions that persist to this day. A constant string of fentanyl-related headlines dominate the news cycle, drug overdose deaths are numbering more than 100,000 each year, and more than half of all Americans personally know someone who has died from an overdose.

It’s clear the country needs help handling its drug crisis. So, how did we get here? Why did the “War on Drugs” fail so spectacularly?

The podcast answers those questions, with the first two episodes exploring the origins of the “War on Drugs” — revealing that it was never really about combatting drug use in the first place.

The War on Drugs’ origin story (it’s worse than you think)

In the series’ first episode, special guest Johan Hari reveals the sinister beginnings of the “War on Drugs.”

Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the end of Prohibition, fabricated vicious stories about drug use and minority communities to keep his agency in power once alcohol became legal. The seeds of the “War on Drugs” were about control,  not helping people.

Hari also unpacks addiction, noting that the “War on Drugs” is based on the false premise that addiction is caused solely by exposure to a drug itself. He cites research showing that addiction is, ultimately, fueled by pain and despair.

How have we handled this delicate issue? Government overreach and over incarceration, which have done nothing but tear families apart, trap people within the criminal justice system, and burden taxpayers.

“The United States has imprisoned more people as a proportion of its population than any human society ever,” Hari notes. “People have an addiction problem. We don’t help them reconnect. We put barriers between them.”

Mandatory minimums, maximum damage

The second episode elaborates on the big-government approach to incarcerating our way out of the problem of drug addiction, and how this has backfired.

Guest Eric Sterling, special counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary from 1979-1989, helped draft the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which instituted harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws for many drug offenses.

As he explains, these sentences did not come from a place of reason, evidence, or a desire to solve the issues surrounding drug abuse but were meant to be as punitive as possible. In fact, they were essentially decided by a D.C. cop who, it turns out, had lied about his expertise and perjured himself countless times.

There are better ways to approach our drug crisis than the War on Drugs

To repair families, fight addiction, and reduce crime, we need to develop a bottom-up approach to the drug crisis that ends its reliance on big government.

The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to handle addiction issues. On top of that, being branded with a criminal record makes it that much harder for justice-involved people who may be fighting addiction to successfully re-enter society. And the reliance on incarceration has led to staggering racial disparities.

The response to drug use in America should instead be based on community-centric rehabilitative programs proven to work. Treatment programs, the legalization of marijuana,  further research on the benefits and risks of other controlled substances, and right-sizing government involvement can help us  tackle the drug crisis without needlessly ruining families and lives.

The next eight episodes of the podcasts debut season will touch on issues ranging from the fentanyl crisis to no-knock warrants. Tune in on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.