If Election Day 2016 proved anything, it’s that Americans’ attitudes towards once-illicit substances are evolving rapidly. Eight states on Election Day loosened their approaches to cannabis use, with four states legalizing the substance for recreational use and four others establishing medical cannabis regimes. So if our country is making such clear strides on the cannabis issue, what is holding us back from truly ending the mistake that is the War on Drugs?
The war on drugs: A royal mess
The folly of the Drug War has its roots, unsurprisingly, in a series of misinformation campaigns. In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, who was tapped to run the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), manufactured the drug scare in order to secure greater amounts of federal funding.
Nowadays, public opinion appears to decidedly against the Drug War, at least insofar as it relates to cannabis: One recent poll found almost two-thirds of American adults supportive of cannabis legalization.
Sadly, much of the thinking guiding the Drug War has persisted throughout the Obama years – and may stretch indefinitely into the future.
Statistics show that over 47,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2014, a record high. The federal government responded by enacting a budget for the drug war in 2015 that totaled a staggering $25 billion, with an extra $25 billion spent at state and local levels.
For some perspective: Over half a million people are reported to have died from cancer in 2013, more than ten times the number of people who died by drug overdose, though Washington reportedly provided just $4.8 billion in cancer research for that entire fiscal year.
A majority of the money allotted by the federal government towards the Drug War is geared towards reducing drug supplies and drug enforcement policies.
This does not sit well with the Drug Policy Alliance, which would like to see the money redirected elsewhere,
Money funneled into drug enforcement has meant less funding for more serious crime and has left essential education, health, social service and public safety programs struggling to operate on meager funding.
The spike in overdose-related deaths stems from the country’s rampant opioid epidemic. The federal government may be getting the message: Earlier this year, President Obama signed a bill aimed at providing modest funding for opioid addiction treatment, though he came under fire for not also targeting opioid accessibility.
The concern about targeting opioid accessibility is in keeping with the notion of drugs being a law enforcement issue.
In a sign of progress, or that cannabis legalization measures are starting to show results, the number of arrests for illicit drugs was lower in 2015 than any year since 2001.
So what’s the deal?
The continuation of the Drug War may ultimately be laid at the feet of politicians.
On the one hand, President-Elect Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of getting tougher on crime. While Trump’s real thoughts on the issue remain something of a mystery, the law-and-order approach favored by many politicians most often promises a continuation of Drug War policies that have persisted since the Nixon administration.
Even allies of the effort to revamp drug policy appear uninterested in waging the battles necessary to change the government’s approach.
A good example is none other than President Obama: For first six years of his presidency, Obama did surprisingly little in regards to altering the course of the War on Drugs.
Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor in Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, is one of several who has voiced this opinion.
I don’t think it’s controversial by any stretch of the imagination to say that drug policy was not a priority [for Obama.]
Advocates for a change in the federal government may be in for a long wait, with President-Elect Trump’s reported shortlist for Attorney General not providing much comfort.
Yet if Election Day 2016 was any guide, it is that incremental yet real change on matters pertaining to the Drug War is within reach of the voters – and that real change sometimes comes much sooner than we expect.