Treatment: more sane than drug war

Dr. Christopher White

I started reading about the drug war 17 years ago, and I quickly realized that literally every single in-depth study by credible authors (professors, journalists, police, judges) concluded that the Drug War was a failure. What’s more, most advocated for the complete legalization or decriminalization of all or some drugs. This kind of uniformity of conclusions is rare, and it’s coming from a variety of perspectives, which almost never happens.

I hope to sell you on the notion that we need to use history as a guide for future drug policy. Imagine if we had known 20 years ago, just before the opiate epidemic hit our region, that treatment was far cheaper and effective at reducing addiction than incarceration. Pills and heroin could have been much less damaging to our area if local leaders had an understanding of history. Countless places (Vancouver, Oregon, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, etc.) have been hit with drug problems since the 1970s, and they all eventually responded with treatment, and succeeded. Huntington is moving in the right direction, but my hope is that we see this year’s reforms (needle exchange, diversion programs, etc.) as just the tip of the iceberg.

The main leaders of the Drug War over the past century have told us that incarceration, aerial spraying of drug crops, and fighting drug dealers are the methods for success. Well, we can measure the legitimacy of this claim through global historical analysis, and the history shows us that this has utterly failed. Heroin, cocaine, and marijuana were all sold legally in this country by legitimate companies like Sears, Merck, Halls, Coca-Cola, and many others until laws passed between the early 1900s and 1930s restricted and then criminalized these drugs. The results were literally catastrophic beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Hundreds of thousands of murders, tens of millions of arrests, and mountains of money and guns and power for criminal enterprises that did not exist prior to the drugs becoming illegal. Let that sink in for a moment.

Fast forward to 2005, when four teenagers were gunned down in Huntington on prom night. Companies like Sears and Merck had no reason to murder their customers, competitors or anyone else associated with the drug trade because they sold drugs legally. People did not die at nearly the rate they do now from drugs back then because the drugs were pure, cheap, sold by legitimate companies, and often administered with the help of a physician.

And yes, I understand that we do not want our children to have access to drugs, but what makes us think they don’t have all the access they want right now? This is the only choice we really have as parents, because we live in a world with drugs: Do we prefer the possibility of our children becoming addicted to drugs sold legally, or do we prefer them to become addicted to drugs cut with other dangerous substances, and sold by criminals with guns who could rape, kidnap or murder them? And if they’re caught by the police, our children go to prison.

Is that the world we prefer? Because that’s the world we have and there’s no way to eliminate drugs. You can’t even hope to reduce them one bit without a systematic treatment program. The U.S. government spent over $7 billion eradicating opium crops in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2014, and the amount of opium grown there tripled. We spent $4 billion in South America in the 1990s, even killing or jailing the top traffickers, and there was an increase in cocaine at the end of the decade. We then spent $7 billion in Colombia in the 2000s, and the cocaine was still grown there, but it was also in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and the Mexican cartels increased their control. Billions have been spent to fight the cartels in Mexico since 2006. Possibly 100,000 murders later, the cartels are as powerful as ever, and our children are dying at the highest rate ever from Mexican black tar heroin.

In the world that the drug warriors created a century ago, our children are not safer. Somewhere along the way, our government decided to use anger to quell the human being’s natural response to powerful molecules, and after a century, it has only led to devastation. Mexico, Colombia, Central America, Afghanistan, the United States, and on and on it goes, around the globe: multibillion dollar drug cartels full of rational (albeit detestable) human beings that have responded to a market force behave with violence when threatened with the loss of their livelihood as well as imprisonment. Like it or not, the utopian desire to eliminate them cannot succeed. It has never succeeded, and the reason is because the methods and the goals are not grounded in reality.

We need real examples to follow. The Netherlands, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and many more places had drug epidemics between the 1970s and 1990s, and they implemented programs that shifted away from imprisonment and toward treatment. They worked. Portugal’s decriminalization program in the past 15 years has led to one of the lowest drug mortality rates in the world (3 in every million). They did that by halting the imprisonment of drug users and even small-time dealers in order to put money where it needed to be: treatment. Their drug arrests reduced by 66 percent in order to shift law enforcement toward only the “big fish” and now they can also concentrate more on serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery, etc. Huntington’s drug mortality rate is literally 400-600 times higher than Portugal’s now.

I’m happy Huntington is moving down the road toward harm reduction. My hope is that we will continue progressing boldly forward and adopt the same platforms as those very successful programs in other places that have witnessed drops to a fraction of their former levels.

Lastly, consider the fact that a joint can send a person to prison while the crime of laundering drug money for Mexican drug cartels only elicits a fine. The case I refer to is that of HSBC, but there are many more instances in which petty drug crimes are given priority in our justice system, while corporate crime involving billions of dollars goes unpunished.

If anyone is interested in reading legitimate studies on the drug war, please do not hesitate to write me at

Dr. Christopher M. White is an associate professor of history at Marshall University.


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