The Failure of the War on Drugs

The Failure of War on Drugs

I sought out to find How Effective the war on Drugs really is

The image that probably come to your mind when you think of ‘the war’ on drugs are heavily armored police forces storming a suspected house where violent cartels conduct their despicable acts. But is this really the best way to solve the problem of drugs? To answer this question, we need to be willing to adopt a certain degree of seeming counter-intuitive thinking.

Prohibition in the US

We only need to look at the US prohibition of alcohol in the 20s to see that simply banning something won’t solve the problem, in fact in many cases it can make things worse. You see, while it might have been a good-willed move to try to prohibit alcohol, the ones who enacted the prohibition clearly had no idea what economics were. One of the most basic ideas of economics is supply and demand. By simply restricting the supply of a good the is inelastic as  alcohol, the demand will not change. As a result, the lack of supply creates incentives for violent crime to emerge, as well as drives up the demand even further due to limited supply. This is why in 1921, when prohibition was initiated, violent crime increased by 78% after prohibition (Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157) because the cartels were given massive profits as a result off the tightening of the supply noose. And despite this, the consumption of alcohol went down very little, but then rose back to stable levels (Clark Warburton, The Economic Results of Prohibition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1932, pp. 23-26, 72.) after because if people want it bad enough, they will get it. Think of it this way; if you banned people from doing something, that creates incentives for illegal entities to offer their wares at highly profitable prices.

PerCapita Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages (Gallons of Pure Alcohol) 1910-1929

The Problem

In the present day, we have simply failed to learn from this, and as a result the same mistakes keep repeating themselves over and over again. We are waging a supply sided war, a war which cannot be won. This is because by cracking down on supply, for a relatively inelastic product, as I‘ve mentioned before, only increases the price and hence serves to only benefit the illegal entities producing the product, something known as ‘the balloon effect’ which in simple words is an economic term used to describe a situation when “given a fairly elastic supply function, temporary supply reductions lead to higher prices which in term stimulates greater supply production.” (Charles Laffiteau). This basically means that reducing the supply leads to greater price meaning that the tighter the noose is tied in regards to punishment and crackdowns, the richer the ones we should be after are getting, as a result of price increases because of the lack of supply. And who serves to suffer from this policy of a ‘supply war’? According to Dr. Ernest Drucker, “The current model of drug control relies primarily on law enforcement to seize drugs and imprison drug offenders. While these efforts have produced large numbers of arrests, incarcerations and seizures,drug overdose deaths have increased 540% since 1980 and drug-related problems have worsened.” 540%? Clearly something is going wrong here and we already know exactly what it is. You see, the problem with cracking down on illegal use and distribution of drugs is that is creating crime and addiction where there should not other wise be any. This is taxing on both the US prison system and those incarcerated. This is no minor problem, around 46.3% of all incarcerated inmates are in for drug-related offences. However, when one looks at the crime of drug use, it is described as “A life orientation with an emphasis on short term goals supported by illegal activities” which suggests “Drug use and crime are common aspects of a deviant lifestyle are common aspects of a deviant lifestyle.”

Views on addiction

Now, there are different views of Addiction that people have. The Colonial or Moralist view considers the drug user to be sinful and morally defective; the drug itself is not the problem.  The moralist’s drug policy entails punitive measures for users; drug use is a crime.  Reagan’s “zero tolerance” policy on drug use is an excellent example of a moralist drug policy. The Temperance view considers the drug itself, as an addictive substance and the cause of addiction.  The supply of drugs is a public hazard.  According to the temperance view, drug policy should focus on drug smugglers and drug dealers as the root of drug addiction. US drug policy has largely been influenced by the temperance view of addiction. However, these views have failed to work (remember “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand (Sharp, 1994, p.27).”) in the past and ignore one major problem; the users themselves. The disease view of addiction views neither the drug user or the drugs as the root of the problem, more falling into the idea that addiction is a disease that can be treated. Nixon started off his war on drugs, on this stance, but failed to deliver. His predecessor President Reagan gave a speech mirroring Nixon’s admission that fighting the supply side of the drug war was a losing proposition, proclaiming “It’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.” Neither Reagan or Nixon listened to their own advice.

This view of addiction works, because it remembers that if you take away the demand, you are killing the cartels, without weapons or violence; if there’s no one to buy the drugs, and the price is low, the cartels will go bankrupt because there is no one to sell to. But what the disease view of addiction also realizes, is that by treating people affected by addiction, rather than shunning them into prisons and out of society, we can treat them and make them functioning members of society. This isn’t just theory either, it really works. In Switzerland, this policy was tried, to an astounding degree of success.

Case Study: Switzerland

In the late 80s to 90s, Switzerland was experiencing a major spike in heroin related HIV cases, along with overdose deaths and violent crimes due to addicts needing to fuel their heroin addictions. In 1994, Switzerland pioneered ‘heroin clinics’ where addicts were given free access to pure, safe heroin, a place to sleep, along with access to doctors. Simply looking at this graph is all that is really needed to digest that this kind of solution is enormously more effective than police crackdown 

Crime before and after admission into clinics

The argument against this can be made that simply giving free access to heroin encourages it’s use. However, the statistics clearly show otherwise, since addicts often resort to violent crime to fuel their addictions. (As the US department of Justice stated previously) If the heroin is free, there is no need to resort to violent crime. On top of this, HIV infection rates plummeted, since shared and contaminated needles ceased to be a problem. As such, this argument trips over it’s feet because while it is right that people have easier access to drugs, they also have access to treatment, and the alternative is seeking out illegal and unmonitored heroin from illegal sources.


So, the war on drugs: a dangerous and completely unnecessary source of human suffering. Sounds about right to me. While the government might tell you that fighting drugs with force is the answer, simple facts just don’t add up. Big guns and armored vehicles storming drug cartels might look impressive, but it’s simply another example of ‘show security’ which instills in people the idea of safety without actually keeping them safe. It’s time to stop this and use something that actually works. Drug use has not affected me in Vancouver, where marijuana is as easily accessible as Alcohol. This has not lead to any undesirable consequences more severe than tobacco or alcohol (Which despite them being more harmful are perfectly legal. Hmmm…) Treatment and rehabilitation coupled with a war waged on the demand front, helping those affected and transforming them into functioning members of society, rather than shunning or letting them rot in prison, only to be addicted again. We need to stop looking at drug users as people who put the addictions upon themselves, and hence they are sinners (The world is much, much less black and white than that). Rather, we need to look at them as people who can be helped and treated. All that is needed is a shift in thinking and perception of the problem. Please don’t fall prey to the superficial reports and government nonsense and go conduct your own research to find the facts. My final note is that this has to stop, logic and pathos compel us to act in a way that is both humane and proven to work.


[1]. Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure (n.d.): n. pag. Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Cato Institute, 17 July 1991. Web. 26 May 2017. <>.

Dr. Ernest Drucker “Drug Prohibition and Public Health.” Public Health Reports U.S. Public HealthService. Vol. 114 (Jan./Feb.1998):24

Stevens, Alex. “Weighing up Crime: The Overestimation of Drug-Related Crime.” Contemporary Drug Problems 35.2-3 (2008): 265-90. US Department of Justice. Web. Sept. 1994. <>.

“Federal Bureau of Prisons.” BOP Statistics: Inmate Offenses. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <>.

“The Economics Behind the U.S. Government’s Unwinnable War on Drugs.” Benjamin Powell, The Economics Behind the U.S. Government’s Unwinnable War on Drugs | Library of Economics and Liberty. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <>.

Vancouver, City Of. “Four Pillars Drug Strategy.” City of Vancouver. RedDot CMS, 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <>.

“Progress Report.” Economic and Political Weekly 40.18 (2005): 1796. Global Supply of Drugs Progress Report. Transnational Institute. Web. <>.

Share this project
  1. April 27, 2017 by jason.cummings

    This is a super interesting topic, Ross. There has been a lot of good writing on this in the New Yorker over the years (here, for example: A couple of questions for you: 1. I wonder if you have had a chance to look into the relationship between the sale & traffic of arms from the US southward. Is there a correlation are there people studying this? 2. I am also wondering about how the current opioid crisis in the US and how you see the relationship between “War on Drugs” policies and the current crisis. Thanks so much for the work you’re doing on this important topic.

  2. April 27, 2017 by Daniel Cho

    [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “_market” in “comment_content” *]
    I really like how you brought economics into this at the beginning, Ross. However, I might have to disagree a bit on the fact that “the demand does not change.” According to basic economic theory, making it harder to supply drugs through a “war on drugs” would have the effect of increasing costs for suppliers. This would consequently cause a leftward shift ( in the supply curve ( as suppliers charge more for the same amounts of drugs, causing a reduction in demand among consumers (because some of them will no longer be able to pay the new equilibrium price/the new higher price isn’t “worth it” anymore).

    However, I do agree that making drugs harder to access can have the effect of creating violent crime–because among those consumers that are able to pay increased prices, part of the higher “price” can include committing crimes (which, to such consumers, are “worth it” for the drugs they’re receiving) in order to access the (now more difficult-to-access) drugs.

    In general, though, I really love how you brought interesting new insights into the discussion concerning the war on drugs and how you put emphasis on constructing a very detailed, content-rich, intricate, and logically sound argument. Congratulations!

  3. April 27, 2017 by Ibrahim A

    How do you think this problem can be solved? How can governments make unhealthy and dangerous substances undesirable and prohibited? Can this idea be placed on Gun Rights in the U.S.?

  4. April 28, 2017 by Ramon Alejandro L

    I really enjoyed your presentation. Being a native from Mexico, I can relate deeply to this problem and know that this is a really hard and ongoing problem in both of the US and Mexico. But, do you think that the government can intervene to change the war on drugs? or is this war a lost one since the beginning?

  5. April 28, 2017 by jkboland

    Hi Ross, I think you did a great job illustrating the social issue of addiction and the impact criminalization has had (or not had) on this issue. Great job!

  6. April 28, 2017 by Nick WPGA

    Hey Ross, this is a super important and pressing issue, especially in todays society where the idea that the War on Drugs is having an affect is so prevalent. You integrated economics really well into your ideas and brought forward an issue that really requires a great deal of thought to correct.
    Amazing Job!

  7. April 28, 2017 by Emily H

    This is so interesting! I really enjoyed reading about the economic reasons why the war on drugs can’t be won. I think it is a very valid point that there will never be any progress unless there is no demand and I liked the connection to the prohibition. Well done!!

  8. April 28, 2017 by charliewpga

    I have never thought about drug fighting in a way like this. Very interesting to see it in a new perspective!

  9. April 28, 2017 by joadams

    Good job Ross. This is really well written and it really shed a new light on the War on Drugs. I enjoyed reading this. It opened my eyes on how this strategy is not working.

  10. April 28, 2017 by Jack Erlandson

    Hey, Ross I really enjoyed this. The economics of it really help illustrate the problem

  11. April 30, 2017 by Julia W

    This project is amazing! This topic is never really discussed (or at least not currently in my school) so it’s very interesting you’re talking about this. Well done!

  12. May 01, 2017 by Natalie F

    Good job!

  13. May 01, 2017 by Toyin Edison

    This is really interesting! I always hear about how the War on Drugs failed but it’s always from an economic/law enforcement pov. I didn’t even think about the addiction aspect and that addiction is a disease.

  14. May 02, 2017 by Ana S

    Fantastic job! Such a complex issue with issues of class, race, politics, economics, public health and moral reasoning involved.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.