President Richard Nixon coined the term “War on Drugs” in a June 17, 1971 press conference where he declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States.” The War on Drugs correctly recognizes the terrible toll that addiction takes on American society. The current economic impact is estimated at $215 billion dollars. The four primary strategies for drug control, as described by C. Peter Rydell and Susan S. Everingham of the RAND Corporation are:
Source-country control: crop eradication; seizure of crops, and final product in the country of origin.
Interdiction: drug seizures and asset seizures by the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Domestic enforcement: drug seizures, asset seizures, and arrests of drug dealers and their agents by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; imprisonment of convicted drug dealers and their agents.
Treatment of heavy users: outpatient and residential treatment programs.
Additionally, the government recognizes a fifth category of drug use prevention, which entails anti-drug education.
During Nixon’s presidency the majority of funding was allocated towards treatment rather than law enforcement but that soon changed when he left office. The change of emphasis to law enforcement came out of a desire to gain public support. Sadly, the magnitude of the public relations boost was not matched by a true improvement with regards to drug addiction.
Between 1979 and 1994 the government sponsored numerous studies on the effectiveness of drug control. not all studies were made public due to sensitive information and censorship. Almost all studies were pessimistic about the efficacy of source-country control, interdiction, and domestic enforcement. In the early 90s president Bill Clinton commissioned the RAND Corporation to do a study on the best methods for reducing U.S. cocaine consumption. The study, Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs by C. Peter Rydell and Susan S. Everingham, found that treatment was 7.3 times more cost effective than domestic enforcement, 10.8 times more effective than interdiction, and 23 times more effective than source-country control. Despite this finding, the Clinton administration decided to commit another US $1.3 billion towards fighting the cocaine cartels in Colombia.
No matter which side of the political spectrum you look, from NPR to NBC to Fox News, the consensus is that the war on drugs is failing. There are some promising policy changes occurring however. In 2003, the requested total funding for drug control went from an initial 19 billion dollars to 11 billion dollars. In 2002 32.6% of the total funding for drug control went to treatment and prevention, whereas for 2004 it was up to 42.1%. This trend has not continued, and as of 2009 was down to 35.5%, but the Obama administration has officially stated that the war on drugs is failing, which is a major change from previous official stances.