The War on Drugs: Prohibition vs. Regulation


The War on Drugs began on June 18, 1971.  Then President Richard M Nixon used the term briefly in a speech and thus radically transformed America’s policy toward drugs and drug addiction.  Since then, thousands have been incarcerated for non-violent drug related offences.  The rate of addiction in America has not decreased and remains near 15%.  And the drugs in America have only become cheaper, more potent, and increasingly readily available.  Many argue that this only proves that the global War on Drugs has failed, and is wholly un-winnable. That the money spent fighting this war would be better served treating addiction, rather than fighting it.

On December 11, 2012 the Riverside County Sheriffs Department concluded a “21 Jump Street” style undercover operation at three Riverside high schools by arresting Jesse Snodgrass, a learning disable autistic teenage student, along with 21 others for felony drug charges.  Nine of these students were learning disabled and the majority was of minority descent.  All of this occurring in a quiet community, made up of a majority upper middle class Caucasian population.

The arrest of Jesse Snodgrass has raised the attention of national media outlets across the country including Rolling Stone and Vice.  Jesse was charged with felony distribution after Sheriffs Deputy Daniel Zipperstein, posing as a high school student, befriended the unpopular Jesse Snodgrass.  Over the course of the operation, Officer Zipperstein relentlessly pushed Jesse to purchase and deliver $20 of marijuana.  Jesse had no previous experience with such a task, had never been in trouble with the authorities and had no criminal record.  The task force had access to Jesse’s school records and knew he was learning disabled and would be easily coerced.  This seems to be the modus operandi of all the arrests in this operation.

As a result, none of the twenty-two students will ever be eligible for student loans.  Their families will be denied access to public housing.  And any chance of going to university will be greatly dampened.

Steve M. Downing, retired Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department weighed in on the subject:  “[the War on Drugs is a] useless policy and it’s a damaging policy”  “We’ve ruined thousands of lives by branding them as drug users”  “We’ve denied thousands of young people the opportunity to go to school” and “With the prohibition of drugs, we’ve diverted our law enforcement and criminal justice resources away from public safety matters”.

So, clearly the War on Drugs has not been the most effective path to treating the drug issues in America, and the world.  What other choices do we have?

The experiments of marijuana legalization in Colorado, Washington state and in the country of Uruguay are the primary examples we have thus far.  They are the Petri dishes of regulation across the globe.  Let’s take a look at some of the numbers so far.

In the first 12 months of marijuana sales in Colorado, the state is expecting over 100 million dollars in tax revenue.  Spending 45 million on youth marijuana prevention; 42 million on substance abuse treatment; 40 million on new schools, 9 million on public health; 12 million on oversight and 3 million on law enforcement & public safety.

The Huffington Post reports that the “three of the four main categories of violent crime that are tracked in the data — homicide, sexual assault and robbery — are all down from the same six-month stretch last year. Aggravated assault, the fourth category, is up 2.2 percent.”

While Colorado’s marijuana regulation is a capitalist concept, Uruguay’s legalization concept takes a different approach, focusing on prevention and treatment through regulation.  According to Uruguay Presidential Aide Diego Canepa, Uruguay will “refocus government efforts on prevention and taking the market from the hands of ruthless drug traffickers that only care about money”  “What we know is that we had a sustained increase in consumption during prohibition.  This new reality, as we understand it, is going to change that, and it will be possible to implement better public policy to take care of those who abuse drugs”

Uruguay’s marijuana policy, according to the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis, is:

  • Value will be set by the government at $1 per gram.
  • 6 plants may be grown in the home with a maximum crop of 480 grams / year.
  • Registered users may purchase 40 grams per month at state licensed pharmacies.
  • Any registered patient desiring more than the allotted amount will be referred to drug and alcohol treatment.

Uruguay seems to be limiting sales in hopes of identifying addiction as opposed to selling maximum amounts to boost tax revenue and promote business growth.  They are taking the approach of regulated controlled use of narcotics.  This is a drastically different approach even from the most liberal of governments.

So, these are the facts.  The experiment is being run and only time will tell what the results will be.  Would we be better served to take the billions of dollars spent waging a War on Drugs and spend that money on drug and alcohol treatment?  Spend the money educating the youngest victims of addiction?  Or do we continue to incarcerate thousands of mostly young men and women of minority decent?  When do we admit that our system is flawed?

One thing is certain. The current model of fighting a War on Drugs has the potential to cause more harm than good.  And the forward thinking model of regulation, rather than prohibition, may be our brightest hope in curbing the drug issues facing the nation today.


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