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Would a “War on Drugs” Strategy Work?

By Taylor Davis

With more than 64,000 Americans dying from drug overdose in 2016 and 50,000 of those related to opioids,1 fighting the opioid crisis has become a top priority for the Trump administration. In October 2017, the president declared the crisis to be a public health emergency, and in March 2018 he shed some light on his response plan. The plan includes public health-focused policies informed by a commission on drug addiction, as well as a criminal justice component that allows the death penalty to be used in specific drug cases.2 Given the rhetoric used and the measures proposed in the plan, there are many factors to consider when evaluating the success potential for this approach.

Let’s take a look at what a new War on Drugs could mean for the current opioid epidemic.

Following in the Footsteps of Others

Drugs seized in evidenceThe modern incarnation of the War on Drugs is not the first of its kind. Both Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan implemented similar strategies when fighting the heroin epidemic of the 1970s1 and the cocaine crisis of the 1980s.3 Neither of these campaigns was considered successful, and there is concern that the current approach has too many similarities to its failed predecessors.

Nixon initially approached the heroin epidemic with a law and order platform and claimed correlation between drug use and criminal behavior. When this didn’t work, he switched to a more pragmatic, reform-based approach. This included new enforcement programs and diplomatic efforts focused on demand reduction and resulted in 80 percent fewer heroin deaths over five years.1 While expensive, making the demand lower rather than the punishment greater turned out to be much more beneficial and may produce similar results for the opioids crisis.

Understanding Affected Populations

An additional concern with the current War on Drug strategy is the impact to minority communities. Because opioid addiction is typically thought of as being more prevalent among white populations, more resources and funding may be allocated to primarily white communities while others may be overlooked.1

Additionally, President Trump has often claimed criminals crossing the Mexican-US border use sanctuary cities as their base for distributing drugs to Americans. Given that Latino and black populations are already targeted by law enforcement and incarcerated at a much higher rate than white populations, there is also potential that minority groups will be disproportionately punished for drug-related crimes under the new campaign.1

Negative Consequences Across the Globe

President Trump was recently quoted speaking out in favor of drug-related capital punishment laws in Asian countries, including the Philippines where 12,000 people have been killed over the past two years for using or dealing drugs. While Asia is a major producer of opiates and precursor chemicals for the production of methamphetamine, governments in that region typically view drug use and abuse as a criminal activity.4

Even though these death penalties are enforced, they have not resulted in a decrease in drug addictions. In fact, the opposite has happened. In China, 13 percent of death penalty sentences are related to drug crime, but the number of registered addicts increased by 6.8 percent in 2015. Because of this and other examples, most Asian governments have changed their approach to drug epidemics, except for the Philippines which continues to enforce the death penalty.4

Looking to other countries for examples can help the US determine how best to deal with the opioid crisis and determine if capital punishment for drug traffickers would have the desired impact.

Medical Disease vs. Criminal Behavior

Ultimately, the current War on Drugs strategy does not view drug addiction as a medical disease, but rather as a criminal behavior that needs to be punished. The focus on law enforcement does not directly help those who suffer from drug addiction and does not encourage understanding or opioid awareness in our culture.

On the other hand, when addiction is treated as a disease rather than a crime, it opens the door for people to seek help and makes recovery the end goal. Shifting this perspective could have a long-term impact on how our culture and individual communities view and fight opioid addiction.


1 Dufton, Emily. “History shows we can’t arrest our way out of the drug war.” February 28, 2018.

2 Newkirk, Vann R. II. “The People Trump’s War on Drugs Will Actually Punish.” March 26, 2018.

3 “Trump wants a new war on drugs.” March 20, 2018.

4 Minter, Adam. “Killing Junkies Doesn’t Work in Asia Either.” March 1, 2018.