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The War on Drugs

The war on drugs has motivated authorities to pursue a zero tolerance of illicit drugs being possessed, sold or made in our society. Washington’s approach stems from eliminating drugs from the source of production to seizing them before they reach American soil (Bagley, 1988: 71). This war is one that is impossible to win, due to various reasons including the corruption entrenched in foreign governments and drugs being the crucial funding for guerrilla groups.

Historical interventions of illicit drugs is attributed to xenophobic traits, such as the opium dens of Chinese men (Lang, 2008: 6) or the Asians importing heroin into Cabramatta. The war on drugs has been said to fail because it is “diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that is wasting our resources, and it is encouraging civil, judicial and penal procedures associated with police states” (Buckley, 2002:30). The impact of the heavy handedness of the law has seen “nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans in jail today” (Buckley, 2002:30) a result of continuous crackdowns on drugs, which appears to have made little headway in impacting the drug trade or amount of users.

Despite the billions of dollars being wasted to enforce campaigns on the war of drugs, perhaps for the reward of political elections and votes, there seems to be no end in sight to the closure of the drug trade.

Mexican authorities seized more than 371kg of cocaine being transported toward the U.S. border inside a truck bearing the markings of the country's Social Security Institute
Mexican authorities seized more than 371kg of cocaine being transported toward the U.S. border

The Columbia drug trade

It has been reported that Columbia earns more from the drug trade than any other country in the western hemisphere (Bagley, 1988: 70), as they produce most of the world’s cocaine, heroin and a large amount of marijuana (Pardo, 2000: 66). As a well organised criminal organisation, they are able to produce the drugs, smuggle and distribute it through their extensive networks, which span much of the globe. America in response, have attempted to “include programs of eradication, crop substitution, interdiction and enhanced law enforcement” on Columbian soil (Bagley, 1988: 71).

“Efforts to combat crime are hampered by corruption and the lack of government institutions in large areas of the national territory” (Bagley, 1988: 72). It is difficult to penetrate the drug trade when various violent guerrilla factions, in particularly the notorious Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces, “an 18,000-strong drug-financed umbrella group” (Sweig, 2002: 123), have such a strong hold in the industry, as well as a hand in the corrupt governments. Deaths from fighting have exceeded 30,000 in the past ten years (Sweig, 2002: 123), making Columbia the world’s homicide capital.

It is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers depend on the cultivation of marijuana for their livelihoods, in addition to another 50,000 seasonal pickers making a living from it (Winslow, n.d.). If the American government attempt to subside this market for alternative crops, the economy would suffer due to the decrease in profits and availability of employment as a result. The drug trade has proved to “provide the population with income, comforts and a degree of economic stability that they had never before enjoyed” (Winslow, n.d.). Continuing the war on drugs in Columbia may risk the economy to collapse.

America’s determination to address the cartels of Columbia was based on a myth, creating a perception that the drug industry was officially controlled by the one group. In contrary, it has been reported that the drug trade was “simply small, independent groups” (Kenney, 2007: 234) who networked together to get the job done, effectively making it difficult for the American government to penetrate and eradicate. Initially Washington was interested in penetrating the Columbian drug trade due to “financial opportunities or crises” but now sees the country as a security threat (Pardo, 2000: 64).

Intervention into the Columbian trade is important if the right policies and actions are put in place, rather than emphasising heavy-handedly “the war on drugs”. Guerrillas and paramilitary forces rely on the financial backing of drug traffickers to keep fighting but American’s interaction could not possibly solve all of Columbia’s drug problems. (Pardo, 2000: 66). Bolivia has been able to wipe out the drug trade in their country, although the farmers now suffer from unemployment and impoverishment as a result (Sweig, 2002: 128).

The imprisonment effect - 'World's most overcrowded jail' where prisoners sleep dozens to a cell amid Philippine president's merciless drugs war
The imprisonment effect - overcrowding due to Philippines president's merciless drugs war

Imprisonment effects

Between 1972 and 2000, the imprisonment rate for young black minority American men has increased sixfold, resulting in 1.3 million incarcerated (Pettit et al, 2004: 151). As a result, America has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, which on average, equates to 690 per 100,000 population with the worlds average being 80 (Shelden, 2004:5). The so-called “land of opportunity” (Boyle, 2011) known as the United States, appears to fail to equip black minority men and immigrants with the opportunities they deserve in line with mainstream society. “Drug arrests for minorities went from 600 per 100,000 population in 1980 to 1,500 in 1990” (Shelden, 2004:6).

“In 1997, 60% of Federal prisoners were serving time for drug crimes, serving an average 40 months” (Pettit et al, 2004: 152). Between 1985 and 1995, the number of prisoners in state institutions for drug offences increased by 478% and for federal institutions, 446% (Shelden, 2004:6). The war on drugs appears to be about zero tolerance, high conviction rates and the lack of rehabilitative opportunities to redeem oneself from abstaining from the cycle of crime and drugs, once they are released from prison.

It is believed that the low social economic status and the lack of employment opportunities of poor urban neighbourhoods have contributed to the drug trade amongst young black men (Pettit et al, 2004: 154). Intensified crackdowns as a result of the war on drugs has increased the amount of Americans incarcerated for drug related crime, increasing the risk of imprisonment as well as the length of time given to serve. According to Shelden, as a result of the war on drugs that actually began in the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, it had the “consequence of filling the prison system beyond capacity, which resulted in a building frenzy unprecedented in American history” (2004: 6). “Street sweeps, undercover operations and other aggressive policing efforts target poor black neighbourhoods” (Pettit et al, 2004: 151), which in turn produce an inescapable cycle. These men are forced to turn to the drug trade to earn a living as a result of the lack of opportunities they suffer, the war on drugs has therefore magnified the risk of imprisonment for this class.

Like the opium dens that were regarded as something the Chinese were responsible for in Australia (Lang, 2008: 5) the American mass media tends to focus on black minorities for the face of violent crime and drug related offences (Shelden, 2004:8). The war on drugs increases the imprisonment risk for this class of minorities when instead, they may be able to solve a lot more of the drug issues if they tackled the social risks that lead to turning to drugs to make a living. Riddled with economic and poverty issues, these slums are a goldmine for drugs and violent crime as a result of not being equipped with the very opportunities that most Americans, or even most Australians, take for granted. To spend the same amount that is currently spent on incarceration and new custodial facilities, towards improving communities, living standards and employment opportunities, one could expect a substantial decrease in drug and crime offences.

Financial problems also are among the effects of drug abuse. An addict may do almost anything to get his next fix. Some drug abusers spend rent money or take out loans to buy drugs
An addict may do almost anything to get his next fix

The effect of drug laws

Police attention to particular drugs as a result of crackdowns, may cause more harm than good. Prices and the quality of the drug may be substituted as a result, the user may resort to alternating their drug of choice to something more harmful like marijuana to heroin (Kutin et al, 2008: 145). Police laws and tactics implemented that support harm reduction policies, are believed to have the most positive impact. These may include avoiding patrolling near needle exchanges, issuing cautions for minor drug possessions and offering diversion schemes as an alternative to persecutions (Kutin et al, 2008: 146).

It has often been said that it would be more productive to reduce the harm associated with the drug, than reducing the drug use (Weatherburn, 2009: 335). Drug use dates back thousands of years ago, “for rituals, ceremonies and medicines” (Lang, 2008: 5) and it has been suggested that drug use was previously not as much of a serious issue than it is today. Perhaps with the increasing technology, continuous flow of travellers and transport, in addition to favoured drug environments such as the ‘rave scene’ for ecstasy, drugs appear to be more commonly used than reported in the past few hundred years.

Imprisonment may include the use of methadone or some form of treatment but serving a sentence may not improve their situation upon release. Emphasis has been placed on diversion programs for reasons that include “particular groups of offenders are targeted . . . and concerns around the potential for net widening” (Kutin et al, 2008: 154).

Other forms of interventions have been introduced, although generally not associated with the war on drugs. Cautions for minor drugs such as cannabis, can prove to be successful, if it means the person at risk is able to abstain from receiving a criminal record and perhaps counselling or some form of treatment. Police are generally equipped with discretion but may be forced to use disciplinary measures during drug operations and street sweeps. South Australia introduced the first cannabis program, known as the “cannabis expiation notice scheme . . . which subjects the possession of small amounts of cannabis to a fine” (Kutin et al, 2008: 150). Although it was thought that there was no increase in the use of cannabis, it was realised that it was net widening, “people who would have been previously let off with an informal warning were now being "formally’ processed” (Kutin et al, 2008: 150).

Drug courts were first introduced in the United States and have since now spread to most Australian states to enable drug offenders to seek treatment with or without punishment. Instead of being placed directly in prison, the offender can deal with their drug issues and other aspects that may relate to the reasons of offending. The goal of the drug courts is to “help offenders overcome their drug dependence and thus end their associated criminal behaviour through court enforced and supervised treatment programs” (Freeman et al, 2000, p.1). “The participants who were followed for 12 months, demonstrated improved health, social functioning and reduced drug use” (Kutin et al, 2008: 153) once they had attended drug court.

The war on drugs can assist to increase the amount of people charged with possession of drugs or a related offence. In some circumstances, it has been found that decriminalisation has more positive effects that prosecution, therefore “treating drug issues as health issues rather than as law-enforcement problems” (Van de Wijngaart,1990:11).


The war on drugs appears to have been a failure, leaving widespread damage behind, within the communities it targets. From Columbia to America and even Australia, many users who are small fish in the drug trade hierarchy, are often targeted and persecuted. Instead of receiving treatment, many are thrown into prison with long sentences, particularly if they are black young men from disadvantaged communities that suffer various lack of opportunities that the rest of society take for granted. Instead of making a slight impact in destroying the drug trade, a simple charge of drug possession may compel the person at risk of becoming entrenched into the cycle of drugs and crime. A criminal record for many people, may be the difference from moving on to the straight and narrow, to continuing to live in a world of unequal opportunity.

Targeting Columbia to attempt to eliminate the amount of drugs from reaching American soil, can have a bigger impact on the country that could lead to a collapse in the economy and more violent crime occurring. Already leading the world with high homicidal rates, Columbia relies on drugs to fund the economy, lives of farmers and the community in addition to guerrilla factions that tend to fight each other more than anything else. As seen in Bolivia, destroying the drug trade to benefit western society has impacted farmers with deep impoverishment and lack of employment, whether this is being tackled to correct, it is hard to know.

Using the money funding the war on drugs, to more appropriate campaigns and programs to prevent the harm of drugs, may appear to have more benefits in the long term. Tackling the deep social issues and lack of opportunities may enable minority people and drug users to refrain from using, selling or making drugs, which has been in existence for thousands of years without any reported abuses.

It appears the war on drugs is a failure because although it is creating plenty of employment for the justice and prison industries of America, the problem of drugs will not go away as no long term solution has been introduced.


Bagley, B. M. (1988). Colombia and the war on drugs. Foreign Affairs. 67(1),pp. 70

Buckley, W.F (2002). Ethics in practice. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Freeman, K., Karski, R. L., & Doak, P. (2000). New South Wales drug court evaluation; program and participant profiles. Contemporary issues in crime and justice, 50. NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Sydney.

Kenney, M. (2007). The architecture of drug trafficking: network forms of organisation in the Columbian cocaine trade. Global crime. 8(3), pp. 233

Kutin, J. J., & Alberti, S. (2008). Law enforcement and harm minimisation. . In Hamilton, M., King, T., & Ritter, A. (Eds), Drug use in Australia: Preventing harm (2nd ed., pp. 144-158). South Melbourne, Victoria:Oxford University Press.

Lang, E. (2008). Drugs in society: a social history. In Hamilton, M.,King, T., & Ritter, A. (Eds), Drug use in Australia: Preventing harm (2nded., pp. 1-13). South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Pardo, R. (2000). Columbia’s two-front war. Foreign Affairs, 79, pp. 64

Pettit, B., & Western, B. (2004). Mass imprisonment and the life course: race and class inequity in US incarceration. American Sociological Review, 69(2), pp. 151.

Shelden, R. G. (2004). The imprisonment crisis in America: introduction.The review of policy research, 21(1), pp. 5

Sweig, J. (2002). What kind of war for Columbia? Foreign Affairs, 81(5), pp. 122

Van de Wijngaart, G. (1991). Competing perspectives on drug use: the Dutch experience. Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Weatherburn, D. (2009). Dilemmas in harm minimalisation. Addiction, 104(3), pp.335

Winslow, R. (n.d). A comparative criminology tour of the world. Retrieved from the Crime and Society Web site:

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