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Has the War on Drugs reduced addiction?


Mitchell S. Rosenthal, M.D.

The correct answer to this question is "Yes," but the question misstates the issue. Society is not embroiled in a "war against drugs." It is engaged in controlling the spread and remedying the effects of drug abuse, and these efforts are inseparable. We cannot do either effectively without doing the other.

Making a "war" of this, puts it into "win or lose" context. So that, if we cannot claim victory, there are those who would insist we admit defeat and argue that we should then abandon the effort and let drugs have their way with us.

The answer to this question is also: Yes, there has been a dramatic decline in overall rates of drug abuse (or, more precisely, in the number of Americans who use illicit drugs). Nevertheless, the ranks of heavy-using, high-risk drug abusers has barely thinned out at all.

Cutting the number of illicit drug users by nearly 50 percent is no small accomplishment. And it was achieved, in large measure, by our efforts in the Eighties to change attitudes about drugs.

But we did not change the mind set of the hard core, who lead reckless and disordered lives, marked by violence and often by crime, and are enormous consumers of public benefits and services: health care, welfare, and foster care. They boost the price and lower the quality of education, destroy families, destabilize communities, and sap the economy.

So, it is troubling to see a resurgence in youthful drug abuse, and -- behind that resurgence -- devastating changes in adolescent attitudes about drugs. Fewer kids now disapprove of drug use, fewer fear it, and more believe that smoking marijuana is perfectly acceptable behavior.

What this shift reflects is the ambivalence of many parents today, the mixed messages the news and entertainment media now send, and aggressive promotion of drug legalization.

When it comes to drugs, the line between what should and should not be done is once again being blurred, and society needs reminding of what the past 30 years have taught us about drug abuse -- that it is not inevitable, it is not incurable, and we need not accommodate it.

We have to kill the myths that drugs are unbeatable, that public policy has failed, and that we must make room for drugs in our lives and our society.

We've got to reinforce America's natural distaste for drug use.

And while we're telling kids not to do drugs, we've also got to let those already doing drugs know there's a way out, a road back, that drug abuse -- even the most profound kind -- can be treated with excellent expectations of success.


Mitchell S. Rosenthal, M.D., is the president of Phoenix House, a drug treatment center.

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Harry G. Levine, Ph.D., and Craig Reinarman, Ph.D.

The War on Drugs has not reduced drug addiction and drug abuse. Drug addiction and drug abuse are health and medical problems. The War on Drugs has never tried to mobilize doctors and public health workers to reduce addiction to illegal drugs. It has also not done anything at all about addiction to, and abuse of, cigarettes and alcohol -- by far the largest drug problems in the U.S. Contrary to what many people may think, the Drug War has never focused on reducing addiction.

Instead, the Drug War has centered on a few substances -- especially heroin, cocaine, amphetamine, and marijuana. As its name suggests, the War on Drugs has attempted to eliminate all use of these drugs. It has given tens of billions of dollars to police, prisons, and the military in the effort to suppress all such drug use. The 1986 legislation that funded and escalated the Drug War was named "The Drug Free America Act." Its explicit aim was to make America "drug free in 10 years."

Those who benefit from Drug War spending like to claim that the Drug War reduced drug use. That is not true. Drug use hit an all time high in 1979, and then decreased before the Drug War heated up in the mid 1980s. For reasons that have little connection to the War on Drugs, both legal and illegal drug use decreased over the 1980s. But drug abuse and addiction did not decline.

In fact, the Drug War actually increased some of the most deadly and dangerous drug-related problems, although we can only discuss two of them here.

1. The War on Drugs strongly disapproved of methadone maintenance -- by far the most effective treatment for heroin addiction. Instead, the Drug War supported either a limited amount of drug-free treatment, or, usually, no medical services at all. The Reagan and Bush administrations' main solution for drug addicts was to tell them to either a) "Just Say No to Drugs" or b) risk going to jail for very long sentences. This ultimatum did not have the effect of reducing drug addiction. In refusing to provide addicts and users with the medical and social services they need, the Drug War increased addiction, especially to heroin, crack, and alcohol. 

2. The Drug War has already sent over a million men and women who are drug users or addicts to prison, often for five years or more without parole. No one believes that America's prisons make most inmates more sane, sensible or responsible. Most of the young men and women who emerge after five or more years in prison are worse in every way. As a result of their imprisonment, they and their families live more impoverished and stressful lives -- precisely the conditions that increase the chances of all forms of drug abuse. By imprisoning drug addicts and users, the War on Drugs makes their lives substantially harder and increases the likelihood that they will heavily use, abuse, or be addicted to alcohol and cigarettes, as well as to illegal drugs.

We agree with Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who says that drug policy should focus on drug addiction and abuse, that drug problems should be the responsibility of doctors and public health workers, and that the Surgeon General, not the Attorney General, should be in charge. In Europe that policy is called "harm reduction." Another name for it is just "common sense."


Harry G. Levine, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology, Queens College, City University of New York. Craig Reinarman, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz. They are the authors of CRACK IN AMERICA: DEMON DRUGS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, published by the University of California Press in the fall of 1997. Other writings of theirs can be found at The authors can be sent email at

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