Ending the War on Drug Users by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on Buzzflash.com
April 17, 2012


Image by iVoryTowerz via Flickr

On April 8, 2012, our esteemed Editor/Publisher at BuzzFlash@Truthout, my good friend Mark Karlin, published a column entitled “The US War on Drug Cartels in Mexico Is a Deadly Failure” (1). In his column he noted that: “Approximately 50,000 or more Mexicans have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a so-called war on drug cartels. (In a recent appearance in Toronto, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta claimed 150,000 people have died in the drug war in Mexico, but the timeline Panetta was referring to was unclear, as was the origin of the figure he cited.).” Mark went on to say: “Here is the US policy in a nutshell: we pay Mexicans to kill Mexicans, and this slaughter has no effect on drug shipments or prices.” Nor on the use of those drugs in the United States, which has generally not significantly changed over the 40-plus years of the “War” (2).

Over the years I have written at length on this subject in the academic literature (2). The “War on Drugs” has never been such a thing. From its inauguration by Pres. Richard Nixon it has always been a “War on Certain Users of Certain Drugs”, for the most part minority drug users at that, although some non-minorities do get caught up in its tentacles. The so-called War on Drugs was begun shortly after the invention of the race-based “Southern Strategy” that has controlled the fortunes of the GOP and unfortunately the country for most of the time since Nixon installed it.

The correctly labeled “War on Drug Users” has primarily been a racist enterprise too. It has been aimed at the users of one minor class of the Recreational Mood Altering Drugs (RMADs), those that are currently “illicit” (as alcohol was nationally between 1920 and 1933. But Prohibition was for the most part actually aimed at the drug, ethyl alcohol, not at the users.) Although the ratios have declined a bit in the last few years, for most of its duration under the War on Drug Users, while approximately 75% of those in prison for drug-related offenses are non-white approximately 75% of illicit-drug users are white. Further, the War on Drug Users has been race-based in terms of the neighborhoods in which it has been waged.

The commonly used RMADs are alcohol, nicotine in tobacco, the non-prescription use of prescription drugs, and the illicits, primarily marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and fairly recently, methamphetamine. In terms of negative outcomes of RMAD use, for example, tobacco-use still kills about 430,000 people per year and alcohol between 60,000 and 100,000, depending upon how one counts. As of the turn of the century, in this country the illicits killed about 20,000, half that number as a result of drug-trade violence that would not exist absent the War on Drug Users and some of the other half due to forced unsterile use of the drugs. Tobacco and alcohol are not only the major drug killers but they are the “starter drugs,” most often in childhood, for almost every problem-user of them in adult life and almost every user of the illicits, regardless of age.

Logic has not ended the War on Drug Users. Neither has the mainstream drug policy reform movement which views RMAD use as the same false duality the Drug Warriors do. Logic did not end Prohibition either. Over-riding policy concerns did: rampant crime on the one hand and a major need for new tax revenues to deal with the Depression on the other. Major funding for the final Repeal campaign of the early 1930s came from a John D. Rockefeller-lead group of financiers who wanted to prevent any increases in income tax levels that an incoming Democratic Administration might enact.

There is a major series of problems that could be addressed by ending the War on Drug Users and legalizing the illicits. First, all of the ever-rising toll of death, both in the U.S. and abroad would be brought to an end. Second, a major new source of tax revenues would be created. The prison population would be significantly reduced, resulting in significant reductions in Federal, state and local spending on incarceration. Doing so would significantly unclog the courts, especially at the Federal level where they are so over-burdened with drug cases that the waits for trials on much more important matters, especially in the civil realm, can become interminable.

Third, there would be a significant reduction in the demands on the law enforcement sector of government, which could either save money or enable the diversion of resources to other important areas, such as financial fraud, that do not always receive the attention they deserve. The Taliban would be largely defunded. Finally, the recognition of the unitary nature of RMAD use would enable for the first time a comprehensive public health program to deal with all of the negative aspects of that use, especially among children for whom it is the major licit drugs which are the stepping stones both to later habitual, damaging use of them, and, currently, to the use of the illicits.

But this is all logic, which increasingly has less place in politics. There are major stakeholders in maintaining the current War on Drug Users who would have to be dealt with, and that would not be so easy. Many politicians of both parties, if given the chance would just love to run on the “soft-on-drugs” issue. Although the tobacco industry has reportedly for many years has registered a variety of names to use in the case of the legalization of marijuana, the alcohol industry would not welcome the competition from RMADs that produce results similar to those achieved by its products. Both the private prison industry and the workers in major prison systems would be negatively affected by legalization. (In California, for example, the prison guards union contributed to the campaign against a Proposition that would have legalized marijuana.) The powerful drug cartels, politically well-connected in certain countries, also have an interest in maintaining their very profitable enterprise. As for the non-prescription use of the prescription drugs (the latter of which has been a much more serious problem than the use of heroin and cocaine combined), a variety of approaches could be explored. The non-prescription use of illegally-produced methamphetamine (a prescription drug) presents a particularly serious problem.

This all would have be combined with a major public-health based anti- and safe-RMAD use program, combining tax policy, controls on advertising, packaging, and marketing, and effective education programs for both adults and children. The result would be a much healthier nation, in many senses. Since finding sources of new government revenues in the face of ever-increasing deficits has become such a major concern and since certain major foreign policy aims could be achieved so easily, now is the time to begin developing strategies and tactics for ending the War on Drug Users, once and for all. To deal with the Real Drug Problem, that caused by the use of alcohol and tobacco products, reform policy would have to go way beyond the current narrow “legalize marijuana” focus of the current drug policy reform movement. But if it were couched in the terms of saving money as well as saving lives, success just might be possible to achieve.


1. (http://truth- out.org/news/item/8371-the-us-war-on-drug-cartels-in-mexico-is-a- deadly-failure).

2. Jonas, S., “The Public Health Approach to the Prevention of Substance Abuse,” chapter 70 in Lowinson, J., et al, Eds., Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, 2nd ed., Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1992; chapter 77 in the 3rd ed., Baltimore, MD: Williams and Wilkins, 1997; chap. 79 in the 4th ed., Baltimore,MD: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2004.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for Truthout/BuzzFlash (http://www.truth-out.org/http://www.buzzflash.com), Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to Op-Ed News.com; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.


Tom Barry’s Border Wars, reviewed by Guadamour

Charles Shaw: The History of Police Militarization in the U.S. (must-see)

In Mexico, a Universal Struggle Against Power and Forgetting by John Pilger

Hemp Versus the Status Quo by Rand Clifford

Noam Chomsky: Drug Cartels and the Growing Border War, interviewed by Luis Fernando Cárdenas

Michael Parenti: Justice For Sale

Police State on Dandelion Salad