In 1971, President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” labeling drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” The creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) followed soon after; they were charged with enforcing federal regulations and combating the drug trade both nationally and internationally.
Nixon’s move signaled the start of nationwide mass incarcerations and minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses as a means to deter people from getting involved with drugs.
The War on Drugs continued well into the 1980’s, when Nancy Reagan famously created the “Just Say No” movement through the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. Mass imprisonments continued – and even increased – through Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. In fact, in the early 2000’s, a Florida State University Law Review concluded that the threat of harsh punishment was generally weak in terms of deterring people from abusing substances.
The New “War on Drugs”
President Obama tried to take a different approach to dealing with the drug crisis. He saw that addiction rates only increased as a result of these measures, despite over one-trillion dollars being poured into the initiative. The opiate epidemic became a nationwide health crisis; not a moral issue. Obama’s plan was to expand treatment options and make rehab programs more accessible to those seeking help.
Many treatment professionals and politicians believe the drug war failed significantly in terms of impacting chemical dependency. The number of Americans fitting the criteria for substance dependence is now over twenty-one million.
The new administration is taking different standpoints on drug policies. On one hand, the Trump administration has convened a panel to study ways to better combat the opioid epidemic; on the other hand, Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes we need to roll the clock back to a “tough on crime” stance to substance abuse.
Bringing back harsh minimum sentencing means people struggling with chemical dependency could serve more time than violent, dangerous offenders.
What Does This Mean for Users?
Often times, those battling substance abuse have exhausted their entire support system. Programs like Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) create a safe space for the sick and suffering to seek help from law enforcement and partners. By recharging the drug war, those requesting assistance might be afraid to come forward due to the risk of arrest.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, substance abuse is labeled a disability. Comparatively, the American Medical Association considers addiction a disease. By treating non-violent addicted persons as criminals, they may never have the chance to rebuild their lives.
We’ll have to stay tuned to see how Jeff Sessions and the rest of the Trump administration truly plan to halt our nation’s rising overdose and dependency rates.
Additional Reading: The Surgeon General Finally Gives Addiction Its Own Label
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