The unintended effects that drug prohibition has had on the poor, race
relations, and the deadly nature of drugs in America
Drug use is a hot-button issue in America’s current political landscape. Some opinions
are based on misinformed government scare tactics such as the notoriously comical “This is your brain on drugs” ad campaign, while others are based on personal or anecdotal experience. Still others are based on anecdotal evidence. The history of drug prohibition in the United States is convoluted and rife with greed, racism, and failure. After 100 years of drug prohibition, it has become obvious that these laws have not only failed, but they have had the opposite effect. Prohibition has increased drug use among citizens, made life severely more difficult for the poor, and has been demonstrated to be racially motivated in practice. It would seem that the more the government tries to eradicate something, the more prevalent it becomes. As is so often the case with government programs, drug prohibition has been a bust.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1913 was meant to reduce drug consumption in the
United States by making it illegal to sell narcotics without first paying for and displaying a
license, similar to today’s liquor licenses. The government then refused to issue any of these licenses, thereby making the possession or distribution of narcotics illegal. In reality, all this did was shift the exchanges that were already taking place legitimately in stores to a black market. It had no noticeable effect on the amount of narcotics that were being used. In fact, since 2002, year over year drug use has been increasing among all age groups, genders, and races in the United States despite their currently prohibited status.1
Those unlucky enough to be found with drugs on their persons face a terrible burden of
fines levied upon them. According to one study conducted by the nonprofit organization Prison Policy, 40.9% of adults who were arrested for possession of drugs made less than $10,000 per year.2 These are the people who can least afford to pay the exorbitant fines and fees that are associated with merely possessing a substance that is forbidden without a license – for which there are none.
Oftentimes, these fines are arbitrarily calculated using inconsistent methods that are
prone to discrimination based on race. For example, Harris et al. (2011) found that drug
offenders in the state of Washington received the largest monetary sanctions of all felony
defendants, and Latinos convicted of drug offenses received the largest of those.3
Black and Latino Americans are incarcerated at more than double the rate of white men for the same nonviolent offenses4, instantly dispelling any theory that this is being done for public safety.
In these ways, our government has been doing the people of this great nation a terrible
disservice. By treating what, in the most conservative light, amounts to a medical condition as a criminal offense, they have not only robbed generations of Americans of intact families, they have also failed in their original goal. In the most libertarian of lights ,drug use is just one way people exercise their God-given right to the pursuit of happiness. Treating it as a criminal matter, by first prohibiting the use of drugs without providing any legitimate replacement, then fining those who can least afford to pay, and finally, by demonstrating that their motives are anything but pure, they have failed to keep America safe. It is time to end drug prohibition in America. It doesn’t work, it never has, and it never will.
It’s high time for change.
1. Use of selected substances in the past month among people aged 12 years and over, by age, sex, and race and Hispanic origin: United States, selected years 2002–2019, CDC,
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2020-2021/SubUse.pdf. Accessed 1 March 2023.
2. Human Rights Watch. “Key Findings.” Human Rights Watch, June 2020,
https://www.hrw.org/legacy/campaigns/drugs/war/key-facts.htm. Accessed 1 March
3. Jones, Alexi, and Wendy Sawyer. “Arrest, release, repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems.” Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Policy, August 2019 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/repeatarrests.html. Accessed 1 March 2023.
4. Lynch, Mona. “Theoretical Criminology.” School of Social Ecology, 25 May 2012,
Accessed 1 March 2023.
2 thoughts on “Causal Analysis: Is Prohibition Actually Making the Drug Problem Worse?”
Drug prohibition in America has had the inverse effect on the poor, racerelations, and lives of those caught up in it. It’s time to end this outdated and harmful policy.
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Yes, and smarter people than me have suggested that the government can’t eradicate anything. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, by making drugs illegal, they have definitely increased the potency of opioids. Now, 1 kg of successful shipments of fentanyl is enough to make tens of thousands of dollars.
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