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Happy 40th Anniversary, War on Drugs!

Today marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of “war on drugs”, a quagmire that has proven far more expensive and deadly than the Vietnam War that he inherited. Put simply, the war on drugs is an ongoing decision to address America’s drug problem as a fundamentally criminal, rather than for example a medical, one. This means that low-level distribution and even possession of certain drugs can land you in prison for surprisingly long periods of time, particularly if you happen to be poor and/or non-White.

Needless to say, mass incarceration has done little to stem the tide of drug use and distribution. Many argue that it has in fact made the problem worse in many ways:

1. Connecting Criminals: One plausible explanation for the globalization of the drug trade was the war on drugs’ simultaneous imprisonment of large numbers of African-American and Latino-American gang members. The connections they made in prison gave the African-American gangs access to suppliers in Latin America and the Latin American gangs access to a distribution network in the inner cities. In other words, more effective criminals were created.

2. Destroying Employment: It is extremely difficult for ex-convicts to find well-paying jobs. Drug dealers are often the only people willing to hire them, making it difficult to leave the trade even for those who would prefer to do so.

3. Destroying Families and Communities: A staggering percentage of men in certain neighborhoods are imprisoned on drug related charges. This means more single-parent households and more children growing up without adequate supervision and without positive male role models.

Michel Foucault, French philosopher and namesake for this blog, considers the problem of prisons in Discipline and Punish. He argues that even at the inception of the prison system there were people who knew that they would not prevent crime. Why, then, were they built anyway, and why do we continue to rely upon them? Why does the US spend $40 billion a year on a “war” it cannot win?

The most immediate answer is that politicians are cowards. They are, perhaps not without reason, afraid of being branded “soft on crime” if they suggest a different approach to dealing with drugs. There are some former politicians who have spoken out against the war on drugs, but few candidates or current leaders.

We should ask who benefits from this war, though. One possible answer is law enforcement agencies whose budgets are bolstered by anti-drug funds, but even many of them are calling for an end.

The whole thing made no sense to me until I realized what a big business prisons are. Many prisons in the US are operated by private, for-profit contractors who are paid by the head. More prisoners equal more money for them, and they spend millions on lobbying every year.

Interestingly, the towns that house prisons can also benefit. In addition to jobs in construction and prison operation, they are sometimes allowed to count prisoners towards their population for the purpose of allocating seats in legislative bodies and receiving state and federal funds.

Many people in the American poker community are outraged by recent Department of Justice actions that adversely affect our interests. I have seen many argue that prosecuting poker sites is a waste of government resources. That may be true, but there are many more government resources being spent to even greater harm in this disastrous War on Drugs. Let’s not get so caught up in our own problems that we lose all sense of perspective.

The harm inflicted upon our country by this failed policy is incalculable. I’m not pro-drug use, but I am convinced that this “war” is only making the problem worse. It has gone on for far too long, and it’s time for a new approach.

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  1. I really enjoy reading your articles and respect your opinion but I believe you need to provide an alternative option or strategy rather than just stating that something is not working. I cant say that I’m in disagreement with any of your points and I have read similar writings for many years. I guess that things haven’t changed because no viable alternative has been found. I’m sure any government that could fix the drug problem would be hailed as the greatest ever and remain in office for many terms. May you provide a new approach.

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