It's the 41st Anniversary of Our Shameful, Deadly and Costly War on Drugs. Can We Call a Cease-Fire?

by Mark Perry.

Almost half of all U.S. inmates in federal prisons are serving time in cages for drug offenses.


This Sunday will mark the 41st anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of America's War on Drugs Peaceful Americans Who Voluntarily Choose To Use Intoxicants Not Approved of by the Government, Who Will Put Users in Cages if Caught. On June 17, 1971 Richard Nixon delivered a"Special Message to the Congress on Drug Abuse Prevention and Control," where he appealed to Congress to give the highest priority to provide funding and authority to the federal government to "destroy the market for drugs," with "increased enforcement and vigorous application of the fullest penalties provided by law" and to "render the narcotics trade unprofitable."

Specifically, Nixon asked Congress to "authorize and fund 325 additional positions within the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to increase their capacity for apprehending those engaged in narcotics trafficking here and abroad and to investigate domestic industrial producers of drugs." 

In addition, Nixon asked Congress to provide $45 million in funding for America's new war ($255 million in today's dollars) "to enable the Bureau of Customs to develop the technical capacity to deal with smuggling by air and sea, to increase the investigative staff charged with pursuit and apprehension of smugglers, and to increase inspection personnel who search persons, baggage, and cargo entering the country. Funding of $7.5 million would permit the IRS to intensify investigation of persons involved in large-scale narcotics trafficking."

"These steps would strengthen our efforts to root out the cancerous growth of narcotics addiction in America. It is impossible to say that the enforcement legislation I have asked for here will be conclusive--that we will not need further legislation. We cannot fully know at this time what further steps will be necessary. As those steps define themselves, we will be prepared to seek further legislation to take any action and every action necessary to wipe out the menace of drug addiction in America. But domestic enforcement alone cannot do the job. If we are to stop the flow of narcotics into the lifeblood of this country, I believe we must stop it at the source."

Nixon concluded his special message with this prediction: "The final issue is not whether we will conquer drug abuse, but how soon. Part of this answer lies with the Congress now and the speed with which it moves to support the struggle against drug abuse."

MP: It's been 41 years since Nixon declared a "War on Drugs," and we know now that it has been a failed mission.  We haven't conquered drug abuse with an expensive, 41-year "War on Drugs," just like Prohibition didn't conquer alcohol abuse.  What the War has done is dramatically increase the number of Americans jailed for drug offenses, as the chart above shows.  As of the end of May, almost half (48.2%) of all inmates in federal prisons are serving time for drug offenses.   We've also exported our "War on Drugs" to other countries like Mexico, which has resulted in 55,000 drug-related murders there, almost as many war casualties as the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War.  

And even though we Americans take great pride in our +200-year history of "economic and political freedom," we should be ashamed of our War on Drugs, and our status as the "World's Number One Jailer," part of which is the result of our drug war.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies, the United States leads the world with an incarceration rate of 730 prisoners per 100,000 population, see table below and full list here. By comparison, Canada's incarceration rate is 117 per 100,000 population,  Germany's rate is 83, and Japan's rate is 53.

Here's one comparison: How does the U.S., which ranks No. 10 in the world for economic freedom, compare to the ten least economically free countries in the world (according to the Heritage Foundation's 2012 Index of Economic Freedom), for incarceration rates?  The table below shows that comparison.  It should be embarrassing that none of the ten most economically repressed countries in the world have incarceration rates anywhere close to the United States, except maybe Cuba with 510 prisoners per 100,000 population.  So as much as we think of America as the "land of the free and the home of the brave," and despite our high ranking for economic freedom, our record of putting people in cages for using intoxicants not approved of by the government tarnishes America's great legacy of freedom.     

Isn't it time to call a truce or cease-fire on our shameful, deadly, expensive and failed War on Drugs?   
CountryEconomic Freedom
Prison Population
Prison Population
per 100,000
United States101730
Timor Leste16921920
Equatorial Guinea17020639

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