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Understanding the War on Drugs

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Treatment for Three Decades and Counting

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drug wars

It’s common for legislators to use the word “war” to define some kind of legislative initiative. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.”1 In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror.”2 These legislators hoped to motivate the public with their words, inspiring everyone to join in an effort that was likely to be cumbersome and lengthy.

The Backdrop of the War on Drugs

number prisonersIn the 1970s, President Richard Nixon started the “War on Drugs.” While this initiative likely had good intentions,it has been very controversial. The War on Drugs encompasses many areas of public life, including money, medical care, and even global power.

During the early 70s, life in the United States was complicated. The Vietnam War was still raging on, and many soldiers were returning home with drug addictions. In one study by the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found that about one-fifth had an addiction and did not want to stop drug use.3 Studies like this seemed to suggest that the men and women who used drugs, simply didn’t want to get better. They used drugs, they liked them, and they would continue to use them.

crime rate floridaAt the same time, the United States experienced an unprecedented level of violent crime. In Florida, the index rate of crime per 100,000 people stood at 7,245. By comparison, that index in 2016 was 3,184.4 This means more than twice as many crimes committed in Florida during that time period.

The War on Drugs allowed the President to attribute the rise of crime to the use of drugs, rather than suggesting that crime was due to some other factor, such as:

  • Income inequality
  • Lack of education
  • Poor policing
  • Few job opportunities
  • Undiagnosed mental illness

As more people who used drugs were arrested, rather than treated for their addictions, more people were sent to jail. In addition, families had to come to grips with the many challenges of having a loved one incarcerated.

Rising Worries

Drug ProblemSurprisingly, many communities did not rebel against the rising tide of arrests due to drug abuse. Many people thought addiction was a problem that only the police could solve. In 1989, when people were polled 64 percent agreed with the idea that drug abuse was the “number one problem” faced by the country as a whole.5 It’s possible that people held this opinion due to the overwhelming amount of coverage produced about drug abuse.

According to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, there were only 15 articles in nationwide periodicals in 1970 to 1980 about drug use and abuse. By 1984-1985, the number increased to 76 articles.6 As a result, anyone who read a newspaper would feel drugs were a major concern to the health and happiness of all Americans. As a result, these readers were often remarkably supportive of the idea of punishing drug crimes with jail time.

A Subtle Shift

While newspapers and news magazines focused on the rise of addiction and crime, researchers discovered that addiction treatments really could make a difference in someone who abuses drugs. For example, a study found that addiction treatment caused a decrease in crime and an increase in “productive activities.”7

In addition, a Federal Bureau of Prisons study found that 43.9 percent of convicted criminals commit the same crimes again.8 Clearly, locking people up didn’t solve the drug problem. This new information likely prompted a shift in the War on Drugs.

A New Direction

By the mid-1980s, the support for incarceration began to fall. A movement started toward supplying treatment for people who had addictions. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that included $200 million earmarked for drug education and $241 million was allocated for drug treatment.9 Instead of a bill that gave the incentive to place drug users in jail, this bill provided funding to help people overcome their drug addiction.

new targets war on drugsIn the 1990s, the FBI shifted its priorities to the individuals bringing drugs to the country and selling them on the streets.10 The FBI began to:

  • Patrol seaports and confiscate drugs
  • Arrest drug kingpins in this country
  • Extradite drug dealers from other countries
  • Focus on vehicles that cross borders

The prosecution of drug dealers should, in theory, make it easier for individuals to get care for their addiction. Those who are addicted to drugs could be seen as victims of an international plot, not weak people who couldn’t control their urges.

However, there was a significant amount of stigma that was still associated with a drug habit. A study found that people who were addicted to drugs were seen as “more blameworthy and dangerous” than people who had other mental illnesses or those who had physical handicaps.11 People still chose to stigmatize those who had addictions, and that might have persuaded some people to stay out of treatment programs.

Much of that changed in 2011, when the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) revised its definition of addiction. ASAM defined addiction as a “brain disease” instead of an activity that stems from “bad behavior.”

Doctor And PatientThis shift is monumental. President Barack Obama built upon this change by including addiction care as an “essential health benefit” in the health care overhaul movement. This means insurance companies are required to cover the treatments for addiction, just as they might cover the treatments provided for other medical conditions, such as diabetes.12

Substance abuse coverage enables more people to get care. It also signals a shift in governmental responses to addiction. Rather than treating drug users as combatants in a war, now they are considered to be patients. They need help—not incarceration or obliteration.

Now that a number of people have been through addiction care at this point, many are willing to discuss those treatments openly. In one study,13 10 percent of all American adults report that they are in recovery from an addiction. The more people share about their healing, the more likely others will seek help. In addition, the less likely the word “war” would be used as a label for these people. They become survivors of a war, not enemies of upstanding people.

Where We Are Today

While the War on Drugs may have shifted from individual users to drug dealers, there is still a stigma attached to addiction. The good news is that when people are open about their addiction and their recovery, others are able to find help. At Michael’s House, we provide compassionate care for drug addiction. We never judge anyone who comes to us for help. Please contact us now. Our admissions coordinators will gladly answer your questions and give you more about how treatment can help you.


1The War on Poverty 50 Years Later: A Progress Report.” House Budget Committee Majority Staff. 3 March 2014.

2 Sterbenz, C. “This 60-Word Sentence Started the ‘War on Terror’ and Much More.” Business Insider. 30 April 2014.

3 Robins, L., D. Davis and D. Goodwin. “Drug Use by U.S. Army Enlisted Men in Vietnam: A Follow-up on Their Return Home.” American Journal of Epidemiology. 1 April 1974..

4Total Index Crimes.” Florida Department of law Enforcement. Accessed 4 October 2017.

5 A Brief History of the Drug War.”The Drug Policy Alliance.Accessed 4 October 2017.

6 Goode, B. and N. Ben-Yehuda. “The American Drug Panic of the 1980s.” Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. 1994.

7 Simpson, D. and L Savage. “Treatment.” Bulletin on Narcotics. January 1980.

8 Gaes, G., H. Lebowitz, and E. Singleton. “Recidivism Among Federal Officers.” National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 5 October 2017.

9Thirty Years of America’s Drug War.” PBS. Accessed 5 October 2017.

10 Thomas, Kelly. “A Model for Success in the Drug War.” The Federal Bureau of Investigations. 1 February 2011.

11 Corrigan, P., S. Kuwabara, S. and J O’Schaughnessy.“The Public Stigma of Mental Illness and Drug Addiction.” Journal of Social Work. 1 April 2009.

12Substance Abuse and the Affordable Care Act.”Office of National Drug Control Policy. Accessed 5 October 2017.

13 Feliz, Josie. “Survey: Ten Percent of American Adults Report Being in Recovery From Substance Abuse or Addiction.” The Partnership at 6 March 2012.