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About America's "War on Drugs"

U.S. Drug Policy: The War on Drugs (1971-2020)

If there is one policy (and one phrase) that epitomizes the U.S. approach to illicit drugs and substance addiction over the last 50 years, it is this: “The War on Drugs.” The term was popularized by the U.S. media in 1971 after then-President Richard Nixon famously announced the beginning of his “War on Drugs,” having declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.”

Nixon immediately raised federal funding for both the military and the police.

Since 1971, the U.S., while fighting its war, the nation has witnessed a number of drug epidemics – heroin in the early 70s, cocaine in the 1980s, and opioids since the 1990s.

Now there’s one more for the list, and one far more lethal – fentanyl.

Last year, on November 17, 2021, the CDC announced that over 100,000 Americans – an absolutely unprecedented rate of mortality – had died from a drug overdose in just 12 months, following the first COVID-19 state and city lockdowns and the introduction of social distancing seen in 2020.

The exact total number – believed to be 100,036 – is higher than the number of U.S. fatalities caused annually by car accidents, gun violence, and the seasonal flu combined.

Unsurprisingly, over 60% of these drug overdose fatalities involved synthetic opioid fentanyl.

The U.S. War on Drugs: Facts & Stats

According to a variety of sources, here are the most notable facts and statistics from the 50 years of the U.S. War on Drugs:

  • Over half a million people are incarcerated in the US on drug charges – more than all of Western Europe’s prisoners, on all criminal charges, combined

  • However, more than 80% (or four-fifths) of all drug-related arrests in the U.S. are for possession – not for sale

  • The US spent $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs

  • The price of heroin has dropped by 81% since the 1990s, while its purity increased by 60%

  • Additionally, the price of cocaine has dropped by 80%, and the price of cannabis has also dropped – by 86%; however, since the 1990s, cocaine’s purity has increased by 11%, and the purity of cannabis has increased by up to a massive 161%.

  • 80% of all globally produced opioids are consumed in the U.S., and

  • 67% (or two-thirds) of U.S. citizens currently believe the focus should be on professional treatment, and not incarceration

The End of The War on Drugs

In December 2020, and very quietly, too, the final report from the congressionally-mandated Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission was published, and it called for much greater investment in substance addiction treatment and prevention, stating that it was impossible to control the supply of dangerous, potentially lethal drugs without reducing the actual demand for them.


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