A Different Approach to Warring on Drugs

Larry 'n NassauSince at least the era of Richard Nixon America has led a war on drugs. In the past 40 years the nation has spent at a trillion dollars or more trying to keep drugs from crossing our borders and being sold to an ever hungrier clientele.

Besides the economic costs there is also the cost of human tragedy. Countless lives ruined and lost to drug use and related violence. But, in spite of all the money spent and lives lost the appetite and violence remains rampant.

A friend recently told me about an article appearing in the New York Times about several studies on drug addiction that makes me think that the war on drugs is exactly the wrong approach to solving people’s addictions. These studies point to the causes of addiction being more closely related to the socio-economic conditions people live in than to the addictive chemistry of the drugs themselves.

There have been classic clinical studies showing rats preferring a lever to receive crack cocaine and not pushing one that delivers food. The accepted truth has been that the pleasure of remaining high supersedes the desire to avoid starvation. We have also accepted the idea that drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine are totally addictive. Take one hit on a crack pipe and you’re addicted for life. It’s these accepted truths, and others, that have persuaded us to accept the idea that the only way to lower drug abuse is to rid the nation of drugs themselves. Thus our 40-50 year non-productive war.

The referenced newer studies, however, fly in the face of some deeply accepted ideas. For example, they indicate that possibly 20 percent or less of crack or meth users become addicted. Yet, many times I’ve read and heard law enforcement officials make the claim that these drugs are totally addictive.

Furthermore, these new studies show that stopping existing addiction is not as difficult as has been thought. If the only choices the rat has is cocaine or food, it chooses cocaine. But if you give the rat greater opportunities, such as access to candy and to associate with other rats, they stop pushing the drug button.

I read the Times article and walked away thinking we would be far better off as a society if we spent far less on fighting a never-ending war on drugs and put that money and resources into helping Americans obtain a better standard of living. Maybe we should really get serious about creating meaningful jobs, increasing our spending on dealing with mental health issues, making quality health care available to all, improving educational opportunities, leveling the playing field for those who were born on the wrong side of the tracks, and so much more.

This may sound like just more liberal gibberish to some of you but what do you have to offer? Continuing the status quo is not going to make America a better place. It is not going to reduce the drug related crime rates in our urban and rural communities. It is not going to stop the gang violence we see most evenings on our televisions. For most of half a century we have tried and failed to win this war. We can continue fighting drugs but maybe it is time to try a new strategy and employ some new tactics.

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