Currently, I’m working on an article for the University of Memphis Law Review, wherein I seek to define opioid abuse as primarily a public health crisis to which the criminal justice system should play a limited supporting role in the resolution. In my research, I came across the letter that President Richard Nixon sent to Congress in 1971 that is widely credited for originating the “war on drugs” concept.

What really struck me was President Nixon’s recognition of who the real enemy was in the drug epidemic. The letter was a request for additional funds to be allocated toward “programs to control drug abuse in America.” His letter laid out his strategy for waging a “war on drugs,” which involved a law enforcement “strike” on drug suppliers, while decreasing the demand by rehabilitating the drug users. President Nixon seemed to understand that drug users needed treatment, not lengthy prison stays. This view is highlighted by the President’s request for “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.”

Unfortunately, President Nixon’s strategy was short lived. During the 1980s and 90s, the criminal justice system began to treat drug users and drug dealers as a distinction without a difference. The criminal justice system has usurped the public health community’s role in the treatment of substance abuse.  Drug addicts are incarcerated alongside drug traffickers and violent criminals without provision for effective treatment for their disease. Why do we scratch our heads and wonder why drug abuse is still a national crisis? I propose we go back to President Nixon’s 1971 strategy.  A strategy that limits the criminal justice system’s role 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.

To think we had the winning strategy all along…..