The War on Drugs is America’s longest. Popularized in 1971 by President Richard Nixon — who declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” —, the War on Drugs has used trillions of dollars, claimed an obnoxious amount of lives, and concentrated the effort in the country’s most diverse and poorest neighborhoods.
While a good idea in theory, the War on Drugs is arguably one of the worst legal policies ever enacted. It allowed for the illegal drug trade to thrive, making it easier to access illegal substances no matter your age, race, or gender.
Despite failing in its attempts to do anything beneficial for our country, it has been majorly successful in one area: institutionalizing racism.
President Nixon, although not bringing in any new ideas, allowed for racism to make its way into law more heavily.
During a 1994 interview, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, provided information suggesting that the War on Drugs campaign had ulterior motives. Nixon’s campaign had two enemies, according to Ehrlichman: “the antiwar left and black people.”
“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…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” Ehrlichman explained in the interview.
Currently, there are three laws making their way through Congress that could save lives and money and help dismantle the failed War on Drugs: The Medicaid Re-entry Act, EQUAL (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law) Act, and the MAT (Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment) Act, all of which have bipartisan support.
These acts could help take the focus away from Nixon’s obvious racism and towards the real problem at hand: the misuse of drugs.
The MAT Act would eliminate the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) waiver doctors need to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication that helps reduce the craving for opioids. This would enable community health aides to administer this medication as long as it has been prescribed by a doctor. It would also give the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration the responsibility to start a national campaign to educate health care practitioners about medications to help opioid use and withdrawal.
The Medicaid Re-entry Act would allow states to activate Medicaid for inmates up to one month before their scheduled release from prison. These benefits are normally suspended or terminated during incarceration due to current laws prohibiting inmates from receiving federal health insurance. Reinstating health insurance after incarceration takes time and resources that many inmates who have just been released do not yet have access to.
Allowing for those post-incarceration to receive treatment would go a long way in reducing deaths. The Rhode Island Department of Corrections ensured inmates access to methadone, a synthetic drug that is used as a substitute drug in the treatment of morphine and heroin addiction, and buprenorphine both during and after incarceration, reducing its post-incarceration overdose fatalities by 60 percent.
The EQUAL Act would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. This disparity was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that equated 50 grams of crack cocaine with 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. It also enacted consequences for the possession of crack cocaine (predominantly used by poor and minority users) that were 100 times higher than for the possession of powder cocaine (predominantly used by wealthy, white users). In 2010, congress reduced the crack-to-powder ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. The EQUAL Act would eliminate that ratio altogether.
The nation’s five-decade War on Drugs has been an appalling failure. It is undoubtedly difficult to agree on what to do next. What is politically feasible does not always work with harm reduction, and what gets passed does not always make for sound public health. MAT, Medicaid Re-Entry, and EQUAL Acts meet both requirements.