3 Ways the War on Drugs Is Failing and 1 Way to Fix It

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The United States war on drugs arguably began in June 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” His declaration followed the the submission of a special message to Congress on “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control,” in which he laid the framework for America’s strategy in the war on drugs.

The strategy was predicated on one basic observation: the drug trade is a massive, international shadow economy. At the time, and even now, it’s hard to tell how big it actually is, but it was as clear then as it is clear now that it dwarfs even the considerable resources that the U.S. has brought to bear against it. In 1971, Nixon asked Congress for $371 million ($2.1 billion, adjusted for inflation) “for programs to control drug abuse in America.”

The figure today is hard to quantify because of the vast array of federal, state, and local programs, and because externality costs are hard to calculate, most estimates range from huge to enormous. A study conducted by the Cato Institute estimated that the U.S. could save $41 billion per year in enforcement costs if it legalized drugs, while the Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the U.S. now spends more than $51 billion annually to fight the war on drugs. This figure is dwarfed by the $1.3 trillion machine that the United Nations estimates is the global illegal drug economy.

Nixon described a strategy of attacking the illegal drug economy from both the supply and the demand side, but the results of that strategy have been poor. Today, the illegal drug trade is alive and well. Here’s some evidence.

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