BRAUN: War on drugs an epic failure after 50 years

The sooner a truce is declared the better

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It was 50 years ago that U.S. President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs.

Not exactly an anniversary to celebrate, given that 81,000 people died of a drug overdose in America between May 2019 and May 2020.

Fentanyl and meth overdose deaths are on the rise and there was a 38% increase in synthetic opioid deaths in the same period.

Then there’s all the collateral damage — poverty, broken families and prisons jammed with people arrested on drug charges, many of them minor offences.

Even a minor criminal conviction can create lifelong havoc in terms of lost employment and education opportunities, ongoing housing issues and the like.

A bag of fentanyl pills.
A bag of fentanyl pills. Photo by Supplied photo /Toronto Sun

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was created two years after Nixon’s declaration of war, starting out with 1,470 agents and a budget under $75 million.

Today, there are more than 5,000 DEA agents and their budget is about $2 billion.

Bigger, badder, deadlier: The war on drugs has been an epic fail.

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In Canada, it’s also a failure, albeit on a smaller scale.

(Mind you, according to the United Nations, Canada is the world’s largest producer of ecstasy and methamphetamines.)

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Drug-related law enforcement in Canada costs about $2 billion annually, and closer to $50 billion when you count healthcare, justice, lost productivity and everything else.

There were 22,989 drug-trafficking, production, or distribution offences nationwide in Canada in 2019. That’s a drop from 2018 — no doubt because that’s when cannabis became legal.

At any rate, overdose deaths everywhere began to climb in 1999, really escalating about 10 years ago, via opioids.

You can spend any amount of time looking over statistics, but the conclusion remains the same: This is a war we’re losing.

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FILE – In this Jan. 21, 1985, file photo, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, right, stand with Vice President George Bush and Barbara Bush following the oaths in the Capitol Building in Washington. A family spokesman said Tuesday, April 17, 2018, that former first lady Barbara Bush has died at the age of 92.
FILE – In this Jan. 21, 1985, file photo, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, right, stand with Vice President George Bush and Barbara Bush following the oaths in the Capitol Building in Washington. A family spokesman said Tuesday, April 17, 2018, that former first lady Barbara Bush has died at the age of 92. Photo by Bob Daugherty /AP

After Nixon, the next big tough-on-drugs president was Ronald Reagan. It was Nancy Reagan who told people, “Just Say No” in the 1980s, although that didn’t work out so well.

“The thrill can kill” was another one of her catchy drug slogans — what’s a war without marketing, right? — and you can see her on YouTube peddling that ad copy alongside Clint Eastwood and other celebrities.

Drug laws began with a race agenda and the criminalization of drug use (such as the 1908 Opium Act) was also about controlling various parts of the population, especially the parts that aren’t white.

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Drug policy.org says bluntly that anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s were directed at Black men in the South, just as the first anti-marijuana laws were directed at Mexican migrants. Even now, Black and Latino communities “are still subject to wildly disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.”

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Nixon, according to John Ehrlichman, criminalized drugs specifically to disrupt the anti-war left and Black Americans — his two perceived enemies.

Reagan escalated the war on drugs.

The Anti-Drug Abuse act was passed in 1986 and with it came mandatory minimum prison sentences and increased policing power, such as the no-knock raid, a tactic recently scrutinized in the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY.

Though the tide began to turn about 30 years ago, with calls for better harm reduction policies, treatment and decriminalization, George W. Bush added fuel to the drug war fire during his presidency.

Protesters gather at Times Square to march uptown via the Henry Hudson Parkway on August 9, 2020 in New York City.
Protesters gather at Times Square to march uptown via the Henry Hudson Parkway on August 9, 2020 in New York City. Photo by David Dee Delgado /Getty Images

In particular, he raised the law enforcement stakes, and on his watch paramilitary-style SWAT raids on Americans escalated.

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Things improved under Barack Obama, shifted backward under Donald Trump, and look more hopeful now, especially with Measure 110 in Oregon, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act — an all-drug decriminalization measure that swaps punishment for treatment and recovery.

Canada took the lead with the legalization of cannabis in 2018. Many drugs formerly viewed as evil — psychedelics, for example — have lately proved their value for use in PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, eating disorders and other psychological ailments, and Canada has led the way with that as well.

Those are hopeful signs.

The sooner a truce is declared in this particular war, the better.

lbraun@postmedia.com

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