Editorial: How to Combat the War on Drugs

President Richard Nixon’s administration began the “War on Drugs” back in 1971 and has since failed to achieve its original goal of reducing the consumption of certain substances. Illicit drug use has only risen and continued to wreak havoc on marginalized lives.

Most are all too familiar with the last time our nation decided to outlaw a substance, the prohibition of alcohol, which had such disastrous results that it ended merely 13 years after being issued. Unfortunately, according to former Assistant State’s Attorney Inge Fryklund ,we lack the same urgency with contemporary drug policy reform because the problems caused by our war on drugs are less visible to the average American than they are in drug producing and transit countries. In these nations, powerful criminal syndicates fueled by a billion dollar black market have, to varying degrees, destabilized the social and political system, leading to widespread corruption, violence, and displacement; whereas, in the United States, drug-related corruption is minimal, and the violence produced is concentrated within already neglected communities.

But in our country, people of color - predominantly Black, Latinx and Indian communities - are disproportionately subjected to the enforcement of our nation’s drug laws which means that these already marginalized communities are often further militarized as a result of the drug war. For instance, based on data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Black and Latinx people account for nearly 80 percent of those imprisoned for drug crimes, yet drug use and sale rates are practically identical between these groups and white Americans. When coupled with the fact that much of the drug violence happening in our country mainly occurs in impoverished urban areas, we begin to see how institutional racism and classism has allowed the disastrous drug war to continue this long.

However, we are - albeit gradually - changing our attitudes and policies regarding drug use and this can be seen in the increasing number of states that have adopted some kind of cannabis law reform, varying from decriminalization to legal medical or recreational access. Also, some states have adopted other harm reduction policies like needle exchange programs, increasing narcan availability (an opioid overdose antidote), and methadone treatment designed to address our nation’s current opioid crisis.

While progress is being made, for the hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders still languishing in our overcrowded prisons, it isn’t happening soon enough. One immediate way to help speed up the end of the drug war is to contact your U.S. representatives to support measures like decriminalizing all drug use, rescheduling substances that have shown medicinal value, and implementing nationwide harm reduction initiatives. Then, using our vote to elect policymakers capable of making compassionate and sensible decisions regarding drug policy that don't weaponize the poor and people of color.

Additionally, in states like Texas where we are unable to use signature-based ballot initiatives, political change moves at a very slow pace which makes it all the more necessary that we use the power of the upcoming election to elect responsible state legislators willing to support popular drug policy reform and harm reduction measures.

Locally, one reform that holds serious promise would be for Denton County to adopt Texas House Bill 2391 - the cite-and-release law - that allows those found with under four ounces of cannabis to receive a citation and avoid being immediately arrested. This proposal would save taxpayer money by avoiding costs of arresting nonviolent offenders as well as free up law enforcement resources to focus on more serious, dangerous crimes like drunk driving. Furthermore, such a policy would keep nonviolent offenders from missing school or work and avoid dealing with the added economic burden of posting bail which historically damages marginalized and impoverished communities. While this proposed law would ultimately not prevent those found with cannabis from facing the penalties currently listed for the offense - up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine for those found with under one ounce - it would, nevertheless, immediately help in remedying some of the local costs from our drug war. Dentonites concerned about the misuse of our police resources in pursuing nonviolent drug crimes ought to voice their support for cite-and-release during public meetings at the Commissioner’s Court and City Council in order to help make this law a reality.

Another possibility for community change can be found at the University of North Texas wherein UNT students are subjected to sanctions that more severely punishes those found with illicit substances often resulting in loss of on-campus residency while those found with alcohol usually just receive a warning. This practice is unnecessarily punitive as underaged drinking is also against the law which means that this isn’t really an issue of holding lawbreakers accountable but rather a reflection of the stigma forced upon those who consume illicit substances. Also, this practice undermines campus safety by indirectly promoting the use of alcohol which, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, kills approximately 88,000 people each year making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and causes greater societal harm through inducing car accidents, assisting in sexual assault and violence, than any other substances such as heroin or crack cocaine. With this in mind, one can quickly see that UNT sanctions aren’t rooted in evidence-based harm reduction but rather in an outdated and unscientific response to substance use. Students interested in promoting the safety and wellbeing of their fellow peers should reach out to the Student Government Association and demand they adopt fair disciplinary practices that treat all drug infractions the same by issuing warnings to first time offenders as well as offering rehabilitation for those in need.

Beyond these few selected policy recommendations, there are many different ways we can help end our counterproductive drug war, but one of the most effective ways to make any kind of change will be to vote so please go register and let your voices be heard.

Editor’s note: Tristan Seikel is one of the founders of UNT’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. For more information on the group, checkout the Facebook page.

Header image design by Tori Falcon.