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The War on Drugs was likely bad public policy from the beginning. It was an over-reaction to what politicians believed was a major social problem. The major social problem was society's method of dealing with the perceived problem and not the actual problem of drug use. Through the Controlled Substance Act Congress created a whole new class of criminal and a black market industry that makes the bootlegging of the 1930's look amateur in comparison.
Drug abuse is a problem just like alcoholism is a problem. Prohibiting the sale of alcohol did nothing to affect the rate or treatment of alcoholism and, as history has now shown us, prohibiting the sale of certain drugs has not affected the rate or treatment of drug abuse either. Such treatment is best left to the experts educated to provide such treatment and criminalizing the behavior only serves to make a bad situation worse.
Since 1997 the drug policy of the United States and Canada has been remarkably similar. As already noted, the United States commenced its present drug policy through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (U.S. Department of Justice). Canada, for a variety of reason including political pressure from the United States, enacted its own version of the Controlled Substances Act in the form of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1997 (Department of Justice Canada) and, in doing so, essentially followed the United States lead in attempting to criminalize behavior that should be more appropriately addressed by mental health professionals. Statistically neither country's drug policy has proven to be successful and, arguably, created more problems than it has resolved.
The same patterns that exhibited themselves in the United States subsequent to its enactment of the Controlled Substances Act have emerged in Canada following their enacting similar legislation in 1997. Despite continuously increasing its yearly budget in order to enforce the provisions of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act drug abuse in Canada remains a problem and continues to show a steady rise. Groups throughout Canada have been critical of the overall drug policy of the Canadian government and have advocated for a change in direction. The direction that they are advocating involves a shifting in focus from aggressive law enforcement in the area of drugs toward one directed at providing treatment and education (National Framework for Action).
The public policy considerations that served to initiate the move toward federal intervention into the area of drug enforcement should be re-examined. Public surveys indicate that the public's attitude toward the use and sale of certain drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin have changed in the past forty years and it is time that federal legislation be adapted to reflect this change in attitude. The repeal of Prohibition was in reaction to a change in public policy and the repeal of the Controlled Substance Act would reflect a reaction to another change in public policy (Huffington). It would restore the responsibility of drug enforcement to the states where it is more properly placed and free federal funds for other purposes. Our federal prisons will become more manageable and the tax dollars that are being used to maintain the large numbers convicted under drug statutes can be transferred to pay for other government responsibilities. In the end, America will be a better society where so many of its young people are not being characterized as criminals but as individuals with a dependency that requires treatment. Much like the alcoholics of the 1930's who were jailed for being drunks; today's drug abusers are being imprisoned for being dependent on drugs. Legalizing the sale of these drugs will free them from being deemed criminals and allow them to be viewed as they truly are: individuals with a dependent personality. Congress having the good judgment to exercise its discretion in this area would reflect prevailing public policy and not the archaic views of society forty years ago.
Through two failed programs, the United States and Canada have both learned that the criminal law is not the proper method for addressing problems regarding drug abuse (Oscapella). Adopting such a policy does not address the fundamental question which is why do people use drugs? Prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol through criminalizing such behavior did not work in the 1930s and still does not work. In Canada there is at least some considerable movement to abandon law enforcement as a method of addressing the drug abuse problem but in the United States the war on drugs remains a popular rallying call for many politicians and any real change is still in the future. Despite, overwhelming evidence that the use of the criminal law as a method of controlling drug abuse does not work there is no indication that the policy will be abandoned.
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National Cancer Society. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.
National Institute of Justice. Annual Report on Drug Use Among Adult and Juvenile Arrestees. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, 2009.
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