In 1989, the first President Bush declared “war” on drugs. It didn’t require Congressional approval but everyone seemed to agree that declaring a state of war on a drug was the right thing to do. We were facing a very ugly cocaine epidemic (not that any drug epidemic is pleasant) and the popular opinion of the day was that we needed to take decisive action against this enemy that was attacking our very way of life and taking hostage many that we know and love. Good reason for a war.
Unfortunately, when we are feeling threatened and upset, a declaration of “war” actually feels kind of empowering and that it will solve the issues at hand. In fact, if you listen to people talk about our society’s ever constant problem with drugs you hear language that is spoken like a combat leader who wants to rally the troops to the cause. We talk about “beating”drugs or the drug problem. We talk about “deploying” agents and delivering a “significant blow” to “the bad guys.” We talk about drugs as a “scourge”that needs to be eliminated.
It’s not that this language is totally off the mark but it’s the “war room”mentality behind it that is at issue here. Here are my reasons for not wanting to call our effort to address drugs and addiction a “war.”
1. This isn’t a real war. Last time I checked, a war has a beginning, a number of battles, and an outcome that usually has a winner and a loser. Other than the 100 Years War several centuries ago, most declared wars don’t last more than 4 or 5 years because nobody can last that long. This one has been going on for 20 years and with no end in sight.
2. Using the term “war” makes people who use drugs the enemy. We already have enough trouble trying to figure out who’s who in this mess. The addicted people in our country may do crime and sometimes they deserve to be punished by society but the majority of those who are addicted need to be treated for their condition so they can get the help they need and not re-offend. Those addicted people who are locked up, only, have a very high rate of re-offending while those that get help have a more positive outcome.
3. Prevention and treatment work. Study after study have shown that for every dollar spent on prevention and every dollar spent on treatment saves many times that amount in savings to society. We can’t arrest or fight our way out of this “war” but we can make significant progress through prevention and treatment, in concert with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
4. Finally, science has shown us in the last 10 or so years that chemical addiction (including alcoholism) is a brain disease. Simply stated, this means that those who are addicted have a disease that requires treatment and that leaving that condition to run its course is about as effective as telling a diabetic that needs medical care to try harder next time.
Instead of waging war on drugs and, ultimately, on the drug user, let’s develop a full approach that includes treatment, education, prevention, and law enforcement. The time for emotional responses that follows our intuition and our need to “attack” the problem is over. We need to combine all efforts to address strategically and intelligently the ever present problem of drug abuse and addiction in our country and in our society.