hclark13_ Erik McGregorLightRocket via Getty Images_war on drugs Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

A Half-Century of Endless Drug War

With his evidence-based, public-health approach to drug policy, US President Joe Biden is signaling that America’s longstanding strategies of repression and punishment have failed. The US should also champion a similar shift toward harm-reduction policies internationally.

GENEVA – Fifty years ago this week, US President Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” requiring a “tough on crime” approach in the United States and abroad. The “war on drugs,” which expanded in parallel with the global political, military, economic, and cultural hegemony of the US in the post-World War II decades, has delivered the exact opposite of its own stated aims. Today we have both plant-based and synthetic production; low-scale and high-level trafficking of illicit narcotics; disproportionate sentencing and over-incarceration; violence and rights violations; and money laundering and enrichment of organized crime – all strengthened, not weakened, by repressive responses to illegal drugs.

Since 1971, every US administration has reaffirmed the war on drugs approach. This policy choice has become so culturally, socially, and politically embedded in our societies that political leaders feel constrained not to change it. Under President Barack Obama, an assertive policy known as the Attorney General’s Smart on Crime Initiative attempted to address the disproportionately harsh and ineffective federal prison sentences for drug offenses, but without questioning the deep-rooted flaws of the war on drugs, this initiative ended up merely tweaking incarceration rates.

In 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration sought to re-energize the war on drugs by hosting a global call to action at the United Nations General Assembly. This diplomatic display, which lasted 15 minutes, highlighted the end of the prohibition consensus: a number of countries, including Germany and New Zealand, refused to endorse it.

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