Re-thinking the War on Drugs

war_on_drugs2-2cba2Substance abuse and drug trafficking are unquestionably major social concerns that merit the attention of government.  Unfortunately, U.S. drug and crime policies have emerged which are grossly ineffective in terms of reducing demand.  Still worse, these same policies which were born out of animus for minority groups and immigrants, have wrought disastrous consequences for individuals, families, and communities by establishing a system of mass incarceration that has laid waste to the promises of freedom and liberty enshrined in our Constitution.  After briefly reviewing the history of the so-called “war on drugs” and considering its substantial ongoing costs to society, it will be clear that immediate action along the lines of policy overhaul and redressing individual harms is necessary.  Ultimately, the social work profession is required as a matter of professional core values and ethics to lead the way of reform and rehabilitation.

(This essay was written by the Site Administrator in October 2013 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Master of Science in Social Work Program at the University of Louisville)

A Brief History of the War on Drugs

At the turn of the century, substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and opium were sold on the free market and hailed for their medicinal qualities (Ferraiolo, 2007).  Early legislation, such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Act of 1914, related primarily to labeling requirements and tax regulation (Ferraiolo, 2007).  Soon thereafter, regulation turned away from the public health approach and towards a criminal justice paradigm with a focus on punishment.  As Ferraiolo (2007) points out, U.S. drug policy throughout the twentieth century has had as its impetus a desire to control those who were perceived as deviant and seen as a threat to American values and norms.  Outright prohibition of certain drugs was carried out in stages and is closely tied to stereotypes held by the majority against certain immigrant groups.  Opium was declared illegal due to a fear of “an alleged Chinese effort to undermine American society” (Schneider, 1998, p. 434).  Cocaine, which had been sold freely in the Sears catalog at the turn of the century, was now identified with an alleged African American menace and ultimately criminalized because it was feared that “black cocaine users might . . . attack white society . . . [and commit] the crime of rape” (Ferraiolo, 2007; Schneider, 1998).  The possession of marijuana was made illegal once the use thereof was tied to criminal and deviant behavior amongst Mexicans (Schneider, 1998).  Furthermore, drug use amongst women came under particular scrutiny at the turn of the century due to the perceived violation of acceptable gender roles (Ferraiolo, 2007).  As can be seen, with each piece of legislation, U.S. drug policy has sought to control and repress minorities.

The U.S. experienced a generational revolution in the 1960’s and early 1970’s when the baby boomers reached the age of adolescence.  During this time, there emerged a counterculture which questioned many traditional values including those related to race and substance abuse (McBride, Terry-McElrath, Henrick, Inciardi, & Leukefeld, 2009).  In response to increased use of a variety of substances which was tied to youthful rebellion and social unrest, in 1971 President Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one” (Block & Obioha, 2012).  The first salvo in the modern day “war on drugs” had been launched.  Notwithstanding the political hyperbole, by the time Reagan announced his intent to ramp up the so-called war in 1982, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as an important issue facing the country (Anderson, 2012).  This fact stood as no deterrent to what would lead to vast changes in U.S. drug policy including stepped up enforcement efforts and passage of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.  Anderson (2012) boldly asserts that the disparity in public sentiment and official policy is best explained by the fact that this so-called war had “little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race” (p. 49).  Then, in 1985, crack cocaine emerged onto the public and political scenes – a misfortune the Reagan administration quickly seized as justification to intensify its war efforts.  The media pounced and the public was bombarded with news stories which often featured descriptions of “’crack whores’, ‘crack babies’, and ‘gangbangers’, reinforcing the already prevalent racial stereotypes of black women as irresponsible, selfish ‘welfare queens’ and black men as ‘predators’ – part of an inferior and criminal subculture” (Anderson, 2012, p. 52).  In response, legislators enacted laws which penalized crack possession 100 times that of cocaine, and made possession of small amounts of the substance nonetheless a trafficking offense (Schneider, 1998).  The operation, funding, and political underpinnings of the “war on drugs”, fueled by blatant racism and xenophobia, has continued through every U.S. president since Nixon.

The Costs of the War on Drugs

If the effectiveness of U.S. drug policy were determined by the number of people incarcerated since 1972, then it would be a resounding success.  Approximately half a million people are in jails or prisons today as compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 (Alexander, 2012).  However, the skyrocketing number of people incarcerated as a result of the war on drugs has not resulted in comparable decrease in crime nor drug use.  On the contrary, the United Nations estimates that annual drug consumption between 1998 and 2008 increased 34.5% for opiates, 27% for cocaine, and 8.5% for cannabis (The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2013).  Moreover, the unequal enforcement of drug policy has had a devastating effect on people of color, and particularly on African Americans.  Alexander (2012) makes the convincing argument that the war on drugs has created a racial caste that is tantamount to the resurrection of Jim Crow.  The numbers strongly support her argument.

In 2000, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison (Alexander, 2012). Even though most drug dealers and users in the United States are white, three-quarters of all people sent to prison for drug-related offenses have been black or Latino (Alexander, 2012).  This shocking difference cannot be explained away by rates and patterns of drug crime based on race.  Studies have shown that rates of illicit drug use are roughly the same between blacks and whites (7.4% and 7.2% respectively) and lower for Latinos (Moore, 2008).  The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that as of 2000, white students use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students; use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students; and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students; and white youth have three times the number of drug-related ER visits as their black counterparts (Alexander, 2012).  And yet, in spite of these numbers, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times that of white men (Alexander, 2012).  These racial disparities have arisen due to a number of factors most notably the harsher penalties for crack-related offenses which, until very recently, were punished 100 times more severely than similar cocaine-related offenses.  This disparity in punishment gave police incentive to step up street-level enforcement in poor neighborhoods rather than focusing enforcement efforts against high-level distributors (Schneider, 1998).  In addition, the removal of drug policy to the federal level has resulted in a system where local authorities are provided large cash grants and other forms of aid, including the right to retain seized property, so long as they are willing to make the war on drugs a top local priority (Alexander, 2012).  To make matters worse, the Supreme Court has greatly curtailed civil liberties related to 4th Amendment search and seizure protection leaving police to enforce drug law with veritable impunity (Alexander, 2012). And these injustices are only the beginning.

Once swept into the system, poor defendants who are unable to hire a private attorney are often denied effective assistance of counsel.  Furthermore, significant power within the judicial system has been shifted to the prosecutors who can and often do use the specter of harsh sentences to extract felony plea bargains.  Mandatory minimum sentencing, which was sold to the public as a means to keep violent offenders off the streets, is most often imposed against drug offenders who are guilty of non-violent crimes (Alexander, 2012).  After incarceration, the situation gets no better for the victims of the war on drugs.  Branded a felon, individuals are

[b]arred from public housing by law, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to “check the box” indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy – permanently. (Alexander, 2012, p. 94)

Notwithstanding these limitations, those released from prison find themselves strapped with conditions of probation and parole which are nearly impossible for them to meet.  Even though by operation of a felony conviction they are essentially denied re-integration into society, they are nevertheless expected to quickly obtain employment, maintain stable housing, pay fines and restitution, and obtain transportation necessary to meet these responsibilities – all while remaining drug and alcohol free in the face of these challenges (Alexander, 2012).  Many offenders are ultimately returned to jails and prisons for technical violations of the terms of parole in what becomes a revolving door of mass incarceration in which the prison industrial complex has a vested financial interest (Alexander, 2012).

If these cruelties were not enough, the devastation caused by the war on drugs extends beyond the individual and reaches families and entire communities.  Spouses, parents, friends, and potential employees are swept away in the system of mass incarceration leaving behind broken families and communities.  Furthermore, communities which are already deprived adequate funding for education, jobs, and healthcare – all of which would serve as a protective factor against substance abuse – find their resources are cut while funding for the war on drugs skyrockets to more than $12 billion at the federal level and more than $30 billion amongst the states (Moore, 2008).  From a public health perspective, increasing police harassment in poor neighborhoods, oppressive drug policies, and mass incarceration have increased the incidence of AIDS and Hepatitis among black and Latino drug users by forcing them into clandestine shooting galleries where shared use of syringes is prevalent (Schneider, 1998; The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2013).  From a global and economic perspective, drug supply may have been squeezed somewhat, but demand has continued to grow.  The result has been the creation of a vast black market characterized by inflated prices and huge profits for criminal entrepreneurs all of which undermines the operation of a legitimate economy and fuels global conflict (Rolles, Murkin, Powell, Kushlick, & Slater, 2012).  Simply put, the war on drugs is a massive policy failure that harms individuals, families, communities, and all of society including the global community.  It is well beyond time to re-think U.S. and global drug policy.

The Social Work Response to the War on Drugs

Empowerment is defined as “a process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals can take action to improve their life situations” (Peterson & Speer, 2000).  Empowerment is an important theoretical perspective in social work which can be implemented on three levels depending on context:  at the macro level which focuses on political and objective change; at the micro level which focuses on personal change; and at the interface of both macro and micro levels which include the individual, the community and society as a whole (Peterson & Speer, 2000).  In confronting the failed war on drugs, social workers will undoubtedly utilize elements of the empowerment theory in their interventional approach.  Social workers are distinguished as professionals in their pursuit of social justice for oppressed populations.  Working to advocate for social justice for disadvantaged populations is a key component of empowerment theory particularly at the macro level where one can envision the formation of social action groups.  Such groups are comprised of policy experts, community members, and individual clients to address the inequities in both U.S. drug policy and to advocate for relief of the post-incarceration disabilities imposed upon individuals, their families and communities.  (Kirst-Ashman, 2013).  Carr (2003) proposes that empowerment theory is best conceptualized through a feminist lens which includes several distinct cyclical stages.  The first stage is position which Carr (2003) argues is the point of departure in the empowerment process marked by oppression, powerlessness, or deprivation.  The second stage is conscientization which endeavors to discover the political underpinnings of group oppression (Carr, 2003).  Conscientization involves three processes: group identification, development of group consciousness, and mobilization toward social action (Carr, 2003).  The third stage is interpretation wherein identification of common conditions allows a transformational awareness of one’s relationship to the environment to emerge from which possibilities for action are revealed (Carr, 2003).  In the fourth stage, individuals who have been rendered invisible by virtue of their oppression discover their identity (Carr, 2003).  The fifth and sixth stages involve mobilization and political action and change which may be “socially organized in group action or lived subjectively as personal commitment” (Carr, 2003, p. 18).  As previously noted, political action and social justice advocacy in the context of the war on drugs will involve lobbying for significant changes to U.S. drug policy.  The Global Commission on Drug Policy (2013) has recommended transformational policy changes which, if enacted, would advance the cause of social justice.  These recommendations include: ending the marginalization, criminalization, and stigmatization of those who use drugs but do no harm to others; encourage experimentation by governments including decriminalization and legalization as a means to undermine illegal markets; offer health and treatment services to those in need, including use of harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange programs and drug replacement therapies; invest in prevention programs that target youth and high-risk populations, and which also seek to prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems; limit repressive governmental action to violent criminal organizations.

In addition, social workers will play an important role intervening at the micro level in addressing social problems created by the failed U.S. drug policy.  Certainly, empowerment theory will apply equally at the micro level, particularly with respect to the legal disabilities imposed upon individuals by virtue of having been convicted of a felony.  However, if there is a shift in policy at the macro level and a new emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation of low-level drug users, social workers will likely find much utility in the recovery model.  The recovery model as conceptualized by Jacobson & Greenley (2001) takes into account internal conditions unique to the individual and external conditions that work together to produce the process of recovery.  The key concepts related to internal conditions include hope (belief that recovery is possible); healing (defining the self apart from illness and control); empowerment (through assumption of responsibility); and connection (recognizing that recovery is a social process) (Jacobson & Greenley, 2001).  Important concepts related to external conditions in the recovery model include human rights (equal distribution of power and resources); a positive culture of healing (collaborative relationships in empathetic, safe, compassionate and culturally competent environments); and recovery-oriented service (symptom relief, crisis intervention, case management, rehabilitation, enrichment, rights protection, basic support, peer-oriented services and self-help) (Jacobson & Greenley, 2001).


If the worst that could be said about the war on drugs were that it is only a policy failure in terms of reducing demand for drugs, then society would be better for it.  Unfortunately, this superficial observation barely touches upon the devastation U.S. drug and crime policies have wrought upon individuals, families, and entire communities.  From the time the first drug laws were passed in this country at the turn of the twentieth century, the intention has been to control, marginalize, exploit and otherwise oppress minority groups and immigrants under the guise of public safety.  The current system of mass incarceration – a relic of the crack cocaine hysteria of the 1980’s – has led to the establishment of a racial caste akin to a modern version of Jim Crow.  There is no doubt that current policy must be drastically changed and harms redressed.  In these efforts the social work profession must lead the way.  Social workers, in their unique positions as advocates for the cause of social justice, will be on the front lines of the counter-offensive lobbying for changes in policy at the macro level; empowering groups and individuals at both macro and micro levels; and employing recovery-oriented models of intervention as the focus shifts away from punishment and towards rehabilitation and treatment of individuals who use drugs.  While the tasks may seem daunting, as social workers, we are compelled by our professional core values and the Code of Ethics to act.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

Block, W. E., & Obioha, V. (2012). War on black men: Arguments for the legalization of drugs. Criminal Justice Ethics, 31(2), 106-120.

Carr, E. S. (2003). Rethinking empowerment theory using a feminist lens: The importance of process. Affilia, 18(1), 8-20.

Ferraiolo, K. (2007). From killer weed to popular medicine: The evolution of American drug control policy, 1937-2000. Journal of Policy History, 19(2), 147-179.

Greenwald, G. (2009). Drug decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Retrieved from Cato Institute website:

Jacobson, N., & Greenley, D. (2001). What is recovery? A conceptual model and explication. Psychiatric Service, 52(4),

Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2013). Human behavior in the macro social environment (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.

McBride, D. C., Terry-McElrath, Y., Henrick, H., Inciardi, J. A., & Leukefeld, C. (2009). Reflections on drug policy. Journal of Drug Issues, 39(1), 71-88.

Moore, L. D., & Elkavich, A. (2008). Who’s using and who’s doing time: Incarceration, the war on drugs, and public health. American Journal of Public Health, 98(5), 782-786.

Peterson, N. A., & Speer, P. W. (2000). Linking organizational characteristics to psychological empowerment. Administration in Social Work, 24(4), 39-58.

Rolles, S., Murkin, G., Powell, M., Kushlick, D., & Slater, J. (2012). The alternative world drug report: Counting the costs of the war on drugs. Retrieved from Count the Costs website:

Schneider, C. L. (1998). Racism, drug policy, and AIDS. Political Science Quarterly, 113(3), 427-446.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2013). The negative impact of the war on drugs on public health: The hidden hepatitis C epidemic. Retrieved from

Print Friendly