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End the War on Drugs


Instead of just treating the symptoms of the Drug War, we need to end it.

A heroin user shows the markings on a bag of heroin on February 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin recently devoted his entire State of the State speech to the scourge of heroin. Heroin and other opiates have begun to devastate many communities in the Northeast and Midwest leading to a surge in fatal overdoses in a number of states. As prescription painkillers, such as the synthetic opiate OxyContin, become increasingly expensive and regulated, more and more Americans are turning to heroin to fight pain or to get high. Heroin, which has experienced a surge in production in places such as Afghanistan and parts of Central America, has a relatively inexpensive street price and provides a more powerful affect on the user. (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

Recently President Barack Obama gave a speech, calling for $1.1 billion for expanded opioid addiction treatment in response to the heroin epidemic sweeping the nation.

Is this the right way to go? It's a step in the right direction.

But the president has failed to do anything productive in fighting the real cause of the increase in drug use.

The drug war itself.

A heroin user shows the markings on a bag of heroin on February 6, 2014 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  (Spencer Platt via Getty Images)

The United States spends nearly $50 billion on the war on drugs. And yet drug use continues to rise, people's rights are being violated, and nearly half of prisoners in federal prison are in there for drug offenses.

The United States needs to end the war on drugs, otherwise we will continue to see why the United States has the most prisoners in the world.

It is absolute madness that the United States has more prisoners than China and Russia, where they regularly violate human rights. The Obama administration has done more than the George W. Bush administration in releasing non-violent offenders, but he has not done enough.

He continues to follow the law-enforcement angle of the war on drugs, despite paying lip service to addressing drug use as an addiction problem. The United States had 500,000 thousand people locked up in 1980. We now have over 2 million people in our prisons. Many of these people are repeat offenders, returning to jail. Addiction is a real problem and treating addicts like they belong in jail continues to waste resources. It takes jail cells from people who actually belong in prison.

As A. Barton Hinkle writes in The Richmond Dispatch, "Most drug addicts would love nothing more than to straighten themselves out. But simply ordering them to do so is about as effective as ordering a diabetic to produce more insulin. They can't—or they would have long ago."

The epidemic sweeping our cities is cause enough to end the war on drugs. For it has fueled it. Deaths continue to skyrocket despite changing attitudes in this nation about the war on drugs. Street violence in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis are stricken by it. Alcohol prohibition lead to thousands of deaths in the 1920s and 1930s. Continuing the war on drugs will continue to lead to street violence in our most vulnerable and poorest cities.

As Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic, "This violence would not exist but for prohibition, a policy with costs that fall disproportionately on residents of poor, mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods."

This leads to an entire generation of African-American men being locked up, as Sen. Rand Paul notes in his op-ed in Courier Journal. This leads to people being sentenced up to fifteen years for something that cannot be treated by jail time, but needs to be treated as a medical problem. It continues a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

Mandatory minimum sentencing continue to affect minorities disproportionately as they are locked up for crimes that do not cause violence or harm another except for themselves. It's absolute madness that these mandatory minimum laws aren't overturned and judges are given more discretion.There is no justice for anybody in these laws and as Judge Mark Bennett wrote they are, "Unjust and ineffective."

The War on Drugs is not a just war. There is no justice in locking up people for a medical problem and there is no justice in continuing to perpetuate a cycle of incarceration. What we need to do is end prohibition and start to treat people instead of locking them up. The criminal justice system has to be geared towards locking up our most violent criminals, criminals that are being released early because our prisons have no room.

It also doesn't help when a certain Senator from Texas abandons criminal justice reform or a certain meglomaniac thinks building a wall will keep drugs from coming into this country.

As the three Libertarian Party presidential candidates in the Libertarian Presidential Forum pointed out last week, rescheduling all drugs from Schedule One to Schedule Three would be the first step in ending the war on drugs. At the very least, as Governor Gary Johnson hopes, President Obama can reschedule cannabis before leaving office.

Sen. Paul said in his speech at the University of Iowa in February," Justice begins when the war on drugs end."

Justice is the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, due to the war on drugs, justice is not being served.

Elias J. Atienza is a freshman pursuing his bachelor's degree at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo. Send him your angry (or friendly) emails to him at

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