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America and Drug Abuse: Was Richard Nixon On To Something?

President Richard Nixon originated the idea of a “war on drugs” in a 1971 letter to Congress (at least that is the widely accepted view). His declaration of “war” certainly resonated. In fact, it has waged for decades with no end in sight. Perhaps, it is time to examine President Nixon’s oft-overlooked strategy for ultimately winning the war he declared.

The purpose of President Nixon’s letter was to request additional funds to be allocated toward “programs to control drug abuse in America.” First, President Nixon identified the enemy in this “war” as the drug traffickers who were on the “supply side of the equation,” and who fueled the demand that resulted in the addiction epidemic. He proposed a law enforcement “strike” on drug suppliers. Notably, President Nixon did not propose a law enforcement response to “the ‘demand’ side of the drug equation—the use and the user of drugs.” Instead, he recognized that curbing demand required a rehabilitative response from government and private sectors equipped with the expertise to provide the necessary treatment. Nixon clearly understood that drug addicts were not the enemy, but a casualty in need of medical help. President Nixon’s strategy focused on “additional funds to meet the cost of rehabilitating drug users, and…additional funds to increase our enforcement efforts to further tighten the noose around the necks of drug peddlers, and thereby loosen the noose around the necks of drug users.”

Four decades have passed, but America forgot to adopt his strategy for success. Drug users and drug dealers—the demand and supply that Nixon saw as separate parts of the same equation—are often a distinction without a difference. Both receive a law enforcement response because both are the enemy. The result is America’s attempt to incarcerate its way out of its drug crisis. Across America, drug addicts are incarcerated alongside the traffickers. Americans are growing increasingly weary of this perpetual war they have been tasked with subsidizing with little to show and no end in sight.

Since 2007, states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina have come around to the idea that perhaps Nixon was on to something in 1971. These states have implemented policies that reflect separate parts of the equation—identifying a public-health response to the demand, and effective and proportionate criminal sanctions to correct the criminal behavior fueling the supply. These states have endeavored to limit the criminal justice system’s role in this war to the investigation, prosecution, and incarceration of major drug traffickers, while developing public-health policies that thwart the demand for drugs by rehabilitating the drug user.  These states are gaining an upper hand in the “war on drugs.” Others should follow suit. The alternative is the continued infliction of an unsustainable financial and human toll, along with the unquantifiable damage born by countless families touched by drug addiction. President Nixon projected the eventual view of a growing number of Americans when he declared, “I am not prepared to accept this alternative.”

As a nation, we need to revisit President Nixon’s 1971 letter, because some of us are fighting the wrong war.

Photo: Peter Haden

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