How 'the War on Drugs' Is Actually a War on Traumatized People
So, all of us in our right mind can agree that the war on drugs is a horrendous policy disaster that has stretched for decades and continues to traumatize individuals who use drugs. Much of what has come out of all episodes of being “tough on crime” has been hysterics and moral panic and has been strategically designed to criminalize people of color. Drug Policy Alliance explains that racism has always been at the forefront of laws involving substances.
“The first anti-opium laws in the 1870s were directed at Chinese immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at black men in the South. The first anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, were directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, Latino and especially black communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.”
While some may associate the war on drugs starting with Nixon when he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” none of this rhetoric was new if we recall the reactions of certain people during “reefer madness” and alcohol prohibition or even the mere mention of jazz music. Among other offenses, Nixon created and beefed up law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and signed the Controlled Substance Act into law. John Ehrlichman, an aid to Nixon later revealed how deliberate their strategy was in targeting specific groups: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or [Black]. but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” From the beginning, the war on drugs was never about drugs.
The Reagan administration made shit worse. They exponentially increased spending for law enforcement agencies that handled “crime related to drugs,” enacted mandatory minimum sentencing on the federal level including atrocious sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack cocaine, and pushed us into the situation we are in today — the nation with the largest prison population in the world with the majority of individuals that are incarcerated being people of color. First lady Nancy Reagan also contributed the situation. She toured the globe preaching “Just Say No.” Wait… it’s that easy, Nancy? We probably should have let the other 19 million individuals with a substance use disorders know.
Fast forward 35 years, and only one administration has done anything to correct the war on drugs and its consequences. Obama pardoned and commuted the sentences of a ton of people, designated $1 billion for the opiate crisis over two years, and made Michael Botticelli, an individual in recovery (*gasp*), head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (Lopez, 2016). But this has not been nearly enough as overdose deaths for synthetic opiates (i.e. fentanyl) have skyrocketed the past few years and places like Los Angeles County Jail and Cook County Jail are some of the largest providers of mental health services in the country. And, although Trump is a very stable genius and the least racist person in any given room, it should be noted that he supports capital punishment for certain drug crimes (yeah… that’s a thing… in the United States of America. It has never been carried out here, but 2021 is not over yet).
The truth is: The. War. On. Drugs. Is. A. Complete. Failure. The United States has spent more than $1 trillion over the past 50 years and we have nothing to show for it besides the millions of people who are dead or in prison and massive amounts of trauma on all levels. Imagine what we could have accomplished if that $1 trillion have been invested in treatment and solutions or even… a cure?
Substance use continues to run rampant and often individuals have to deal with these issues alone. Words like “addict” or “dirty” are stigmatizing and have been used as a tool to ostracize and attach a label to people. If we label someone as “different” or a “problem” it is easier to turn our backs and abandoned them. This type of behavior can have a powerful effect on a person.
More often than not, an individual with a substance use disorder has a history of trauma and many people report significant abuse and neglect beginning in childhood. Individuals who use drugs often continue to endure struggles into their adulthood, as well. And what is often seen is that these individuals are experiencing a never-ending cycle of struggle that is being kept alive by demanding that they get “clean and sober” without fixing the circumstances that brought them to this point in the first place.
“You take these abused, traumatized people, you place them outside the law, you put them in jails, and you hound them all their lives, treating them like criminals and bad people and failures and rejects and less than human. And then we wonder how come they don’t get better.”
So, it is a self-perpetuating cycle of taking traumatized people and then retraumatizing them. And then hoping at the same time: “why don’t they listen? Why don’t they get better? Why don’t they give it up?” Well, they don’t give it up because the more hurt they are, the more they need to escape.”
How does this fit in with the war on drugs you ask? It fits in perfectly. A majority of the people who are arrested on drug charges are usually in possession of a small amount, for personal use. To be clear, most drug arrests are not some multimillion-dollar scheme that involves trafficking kilos of cocaine through Miami à la Scarface. The vast majority of drug arrests are individuals keeping up with their habit.
When we arrest people for possession of drugs, they get criminal records. And when we arrest people multiple times, they can get felony records and may have to serve time in prison. What happens next is the person who may already experience the stigma of substance use and trauma, now has a felony record. Individuals with felony records are not done serving time when they get out of prison. They are monitored because we have stipulations on their freedom (even though they already served their time). However, we do not make it easy for these people to survive.
Individuals with felony records have an incredibly hard time obtaining employment and housing because of background checks and bans from living in public housing. People with felony convictions are often not eligible for financial aid and grant programs which makes it virtually impossible to go to college. And, because they are not able to vote in some areas, they have little say on changing legislation related to these issues. So, what do you do when you have been totally disenfranchised, have limited positive outlook and are stressed tf out? Whatever you do, do not (*gasp*) get high because they will send you straight back to the penitentiary while asking what you did wrong. Some people never had a chance at recovery, and some were never intended to be given one.
So, what would happen if we did something like, I don’t know, no longer treated substance use and addiction as a criminal issue and treated it like a public health issue?
First, there needs to be a shift in perspective regarding substance use and perceived criminal behavior. Marijuana is legal in a bunch of states, so we should ask… why is it legal for some people to sell marijuana, while many people are serving prison sentences for… selling marijuana? It’s a rhetorical question. Aaron Covington (@bearcov) said it best when he tweeted, “When the dispensary looks and operates like an Apple Store it’s time to release a lot of incarcerated human beings. A lot, a lot.”
We are also going to have to reckon with the fact that when Black Americans were struggling during the crack epidemic, they were met with punitive measures and placed in cells, while white Americans that are currently struggling with the opioid epidemic, are being more frequently met with compassion and placed in treatment. As a nation we need to recognize that many difficult conversations need to be had about the role that systemic racism has played (and continues to play) in the war on drugs and begin the process of making sincere amends. Symbolic gestures are not enough, we need concrete plans of correction.
Another shift we need to make is learning the difference between the decriminalizing of drugs and encouraging the use of drugs. We will not have to spend a lot of time on overhauling this part of the system because Portugal has been doing it for almost 20 years with incredible results. According to Drug Policy Alliance (2019), “In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of drug-related AIDS in the European Union, the second highest prevalence of HIV among people who inject drugs, and drug overdose deaths were rapidly increasing.” Did Portugal declare a war on its own people? Nope. Portugal acted with compassion. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs and launched programs that includes harm reduction techniques, education and outreach, and expansion of treatment options including medication assisted treatment (Drug Policy Alliance, 2019). Because they recognized that individuals who use substances are human beings and not criminals, they were able to effectively address the issues. Drug Policy Alliance (2019), reports dramatic results, “The number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, while overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug-related offenses have plummeted.”
Also, we are going to have to have to address the decades of individual and collective trauma in the communities of color that have been destroyed by the war on drugs. If it’s no longer a crime to be in possession of drugs, then certain agencies like the DEA will become obsolete and can be dissolved. That leaves us with a ton of cash that can be used to help people and their communities who have been terrorized for decades by the war on drugs. Additionally, these individuals and their communities will need sole ownership of any dispensaries in that neighborhood, as well. While this barely scratches the surface of the magnitude of repairs that needs to be done, it is a start.
Once we have begun to overhaul the larger, societal issues that has jammed up so many people, we need to look at how we treat individuals who actively use drugs. Traditionally, it has been said that a person has to “hit rock bottom” in order for them to be willing to accept treatment. Tragically, with the number of drugs that are being laced with deadlier substances, rock bottom is often death. If they are dead, how are they going to get treatment?
We need to re-evaluate the way we treat people and start meeting them where they are at. As discussed, people with substance use disorders more often than not, have extensive histories of trauma. Joe Foderara, co-founder of the Sanctuary Institute, suggests that we should move away from asking “what is wrong with you” towards asking “what happened to you?” This shift of responsibility and blame can have a profound effect on people who use drugs.
This collective attitude adjustment needs to also include being respectful of people’s journey in recovery. We cannot continue to make demands of people who are already struggling to survive- mentally, physically, spiritually etc. We can, however, make life less lonely and hopeless by demanding services that will keep them alive until they ready to get help. Does this mean dedicating our lives to taking care of the individual and running around like a chicken with its head cut off? Absolutely not. But, what we are doing is not working; we can no longer look away and abandon people who use drugs.
In conclusion, the war on drugs was never about drugs. From the beginning it was a coordinated effort to make certain people, largely people of color, illegal. Over $1 trillion dollars has been spent on hunting down and imprisoning people who use drugs, while substance use treatment options, including trauma treatment, have dwindled. Mixed messages on how to recover has further confused the situation. Drastic change is needed on the individual and societal level to correct our path going forward. None of this is impossible, we just have to do the work. It is time to end the war on drugs, which will subsequently end the war on people who have been traumatized.
- “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander
- “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” by Gabor Mate, MD
Getty image via Srdjanns74