Is drug legalization the next failed drug?

Now that America has surpassed 100,000 drug overdose deaths, is it time to examine “the failed drug war” mantra?

Ending the “failed war on drugs” has served as a key electoral issue for local district attorneys’ races, no cash bail and rampant street crime, as well as as a rationale to allow those afflicted to needlessly suffer in public. Curtailing incarcerations and promulgating drug use seems to be the justification for allowing two drug traffickers arrested in California for transporting 150,000 fentanyl pills to go free. Instead of squeezing these individuals for information regarding their criminal enterprise, they were released on their own recognition and later skipped their court dates. This occurred even though fentanyl is the leading killer for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45.

The war on drugs began in earnest in 1971 after President Richard Nixon signed the Drug Act into law with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. The impetus for this law was the elevated drug overdose rate of 3 deaths per 100,000 citizens, as America was in the grips of a heroin epidemic that coincided with the Vietnam War and the 1960s counterculture. The overdose rate was approximately half by the end of the 1970s. Today, the nation’s overdose rate is currently 10 times as high, which accelerated in 1998 after federal government policy enabled Big Pharma to vastly increase the distribution of pharmaceutical opioids to the public.

Bureau of Justice Administration data indicated that one of the largest jumps in the number of people incarcerated in federal prison for drug offenses occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the number tripled from 9,482 in 1985 to 30,470 in 1990. State incarcerations for drug offenses nearly quadrupled from 38,900 to 148,600 during this same time. Then-Sen. Joe Biden was a chief proponent of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that enacted harsher criminal penalties for crack cocaine possession than those in possession of the powder form of the drug. Mr. Biden vehemently advocated for this provision of the law on the Senate Floor, which proved to be detrimental to the African American community. Despite this historic increase in incarcerations, the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill was signed into law, which further exacerbated this trend. African Americans were being harshly penalized for crack cocaine, while white Americans were legally indulging in opioid pain medications.

Drug war or not, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ dubious decision to offer taxpayer-funded crack paraphernalia is nothing more than the active promotion of dangerous drug use that appears exploitative. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), the addictive potential of a particular drug is derived from both the immediacy and the intensity of effects when ingested. Crack cocaine was invented to achieve both properties to purposely ensnare people, as users experience an immediate explosion of euphoria. The more a person uses a drug, the more their addiction progresses.

In 2018, for the first time in 40 years, the US experienced a 4% decline in the number of drug overdoses, which was the biggest decline in overdose deaths in 40 years. Furthermore, while the overdose rate shrank so did massive incarcerations. According to BJA data, the sharpest declines in federal and state incarcerations occurred during this period as the number of inmates serving time under federal and state jurisdictions dropped by 25% from 2008. This was accomplished with a focus on a reduction in supply via a secure southwest border and an increase in treatment services that did not encourage dangerous drug use, free crack pipes or dubious guidelines on how to ingest fentanyl safely.

Unfortunately, “ending the failed drug war” seems to be a ruse to legalize all drugs and permit rampant crime in our cities. Our government has a duty to keep Americans safe from international drug cartels that are profiting by flooding our country with deadly chemicals. Instead of using public officials to help people get high, we should be encouraging sobriety, self-sufficiency and recovery.

• Art Kleinschmidt, MBA, Ph.D. is the former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he served on the Domestic Policy Council as an addiction and mental health expert. He is currently the CEO of Recovery for American Now Foundation and is a licensed therapist with over 20 years in recovery.

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