The “War on Drugs” was a national movement in the 1980s and 1990s that called for law enforcement to get tough on drug control and incarcerate individuals in order to deter people thinking about committing drug crimes and reduce recidivism for drug offenders (Kelly & Barker, 2016). Policymakers adopted initiatives such as “Just Say No to Drugs” and adopted harsh laws such as three-strike laws to accomplish the goals of deterrence, but it did not work. Instead, prison populations rose, and non-violent drug offenders are currently serving lengthy sentences. The war on drugs has not been successful because of common sense strategies and harsh laws that do not focus on drug treatment and acknowledge the drug user as an addict.

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Common sense strategies are those policies and initiatives that have been made by people who assume that the public simply needs to be educated about the negative aspects of drug use, and this will be enough to deter them. If that does not work, than fear of incarceration should be an effective deterrent. This has been called an anti-intellectual and anti-scientific way to handle drug control because it goes against evidence that states it does not work. It also subdues the want for further research because it uses common sense as an argument against further studying. In other words, it does not need to be studied because the solution is easy to understand (Kelly & Barker, 2016). This could not be further from the truth. People knowingly engage in behavior that is contrary to their health every day. The proof of this is in the global obesity epidemic, binge drinking statistics and number of smokers still getting their nicotine fix from cigars and cigarettes. Simply telling people not to do something or else they will suffer health consequences and jail time is not enough to prevent people from committing drug crimes, as is apparent by the number of drug offenders in the prison system. Currently, 50 percent of federal inmates are drug offenders, which is an increase from 22 percent in 1980 (Mitchell, Cochran, Mears & Bales, 2017). “Just Say No” assumes that people are rational animals that only make common sense decisions. While humans are capable of rational thought, they are also capable of irrational thoughts and actions that are unpredictable and complex (Kelly & Barker, 2016). It is naïve to think that common sense is the most effective approach to adopting drug policy.

Harsh laws are unfair and ineffective for drug offenders, who often commit non-serious and non-violent crimes. Mandatory minimum sentencing is obviously not a deterrent for these offenders (Mitchell et al., 2017). Three-strike laws have been created in many states, but it is used most frequently and most harshly by the State of California. California’s law was enacted in 1994 in line with the national movement to “get tough on crime.” A strike is a serious or violent crime, and on a second strike, an offender’s sentence is doubled. On a third strike, a criminal will serve 25 years or life. The catch in California is that the third strike does not have to be serious (Chen, 2014). This means that people may serve their time for two serious crimes but then be sentenced to life for something that was not serious, which does not amount to justice. The public has accepted and voted for this law believing that it would be a deterrent, but instead, people are being punished at a level that does not match the seriousness of their crime. Due to the perceived unfairness of this law, judges have been able to exercise discretion when applying the three-strike law to criminal activity, but discretion is not applied uniformly (Chen, 2014). Harsh law leaves some drug offenders with less-fair judgments than others, and in either case, it fills prisons with non-violent offenders.

The last reason that the “War on Drugs” does not work is that it fails to address the addiction problems that many drug offenders have. Prisons are not drug treatment centers, and statistics show that imprisoning drug offenders actually increases recidivism rather than deterring re-offenders (Mitchell et al., 2016). That is because prisons are not equipped with effective drug counseling and treatment, so inmates enter and leave the prison system as drug addicts. Drug offenders are more likely to get effective treatment from within their own communities, and they don’t suffer some of the ill effects of incarceration, such as lack of employment opportunities and social stigmas. Essentially, treating non-violent drug offenders like criminals instead of people with addictions fails to address the root of the problem. Therefore, these people are more likely to re-offend.

The “War on Drugs” has been a valiant effort by policymakers to address growing drug problems in society, but it has been ineffective because of common sense approaches, harsh laws and the failure to address the true problem of addiction that drug offenders have. Previous approaches fail to rely on empirical evidence that shows increasing levels of recidivism among drug offenders, and jails are becoming filled with non-violent drug offenders because of harsh sentencing laws. This has not prevented people from engaging in drug behavior and subsequent criminal activity, and the best way to treat these offenders is to get them into drug treatment centers where the true root of the problem resides. Until policymakers adopt a different way to treat non-violent drug offenders, they will continue to suffer from drug addiction and unfair sentences that do not prevent drug use.

  • Chen, E. (2014). In the furtherance of justice, injustice, or both? A multilevel analysis of courtroom context and the implementation of three strikes. Justice Quarterly 31(2).
  • Kelly, M. & Barker, M. (2016). Why is changing health-related behavior so difficult? Public Health, 136.
  • Mitchell, O., Cochran, J., Mears, D., & Bales, W. (2017). The effectiveness of prison for reducing drug offender recidivism: a regression discontinuity analysis. Journal of Experimental Criminology.