America's War on Drugs: Battling an Intangible Foe, Unspeakable Woe

The United States of America has been at war for over forty years now. The enemy in this case is not one that our soldiers can be sent out to engage, fight, or kill. This war is essentially against the part of the brains of humans that is the center for addiction, this war is against drugs. In 1970, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed into federal law books. Allowing the federal government of the U.S. to take a more proactive role the enforcement of drug laws and abuse deterrence. President Nixon actually went so far as to proclaim drug abuse “public enemy number one” in one of the speeches he gave the year of 1971 (Head, 2009). Many presidents subsequent to him have taken the same stance on drugs, believing that we should be fighting drugs with criminal policies, versus treating addiction as a social disease. Where should the line be drawn? Are street drugs really as bad as everyone makes them out to be? Should we be punishing those who are addicted, or should we be helping them?

In America’s war against an enemy that can’t be touched, seen (unless in the faces of addicts), or heard, one can only wonder what is the driving force. In the past forty years, America has expended at least $2.5 trillion dollars fighting this so called “war”. How effective has this war been? In spite of campaigns through the media, harsher criminal penalties for the possession and distribution of these drugs, the number of people who continue to use these drugs has continued to climb over the years. In 2009, this number sat at more than 19.9 million Americans. When even the thoughts of time in state and federal penitentiaries, or even overdoses, don’t deter addicts… What will? (Suddath, 2009)

One of the most prevalent drugs in the United States is cannabis, better known simply as marijuana. Marijuana has many pseudonyms, some less notably being Atshitshi, Cheeba, or Cripple (Staff, 2010). According to USA Today, due to recent softening laws regarding Mary Jane, more and more Americans are participating in recreational use of the substance (Leger, 2013). Marijuana, after many years of getting lots of flack, is starting to gain renown for what are considered medicinal purposes. Of course, there are both proponents and opponents on this matter. Proponents believe that marijuana can be used to help alleviate symptoms from disorders such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, AIDS wasting syndrome, and chronic pain to name a few. Proponents also believe that marijuana treats the symptoms of these disorders in a much less toxic way than the traditional methods of treatment (Grinspoon, 2003). Opponents of medical marijuana maintain that an alternative form to this drug, in the form of legally prescribed Marinol, a derivative of the substance would be better suited to the treatment and management of the symptoms from those conditions (Barthwell, 2003). With so many issues surrounding the differences between state and federal legislature regarding marijuana, and whether or not doctors will participate in the prescribing of medicinal marijuana, it all becomes rather confusing.

Cocaine is another illicit drug that has gained popularity and social awareness through the media and America’s continued War on Drugs. Cocaine is derived from the coca plant native to South America. Like many stimulants, cocaine was first introduced to soldiers to help them battle fatigue whilst out on the battlefield. Even Sigmund Freud, renowned psychologist, participated in use of the drug; even writing a hymn called Uber Coca, which praised it. Cocaine was endorsed by Dr. William Alexander Hammond, Surgeon-General of the United States Army, for medicinal purposes in 1886. It is reported that by 1902, there were estimates of over 200,000 cocaine addicts in the U.S. Cocaine was outlawed by the United States via the Harrison Narcotic Act in 1914, and usage declined in the 1940s-1960s. However, it was glamorized by the media and regained popularity throughout the 1970s, with many being led to believe that it was harmless and non-addictive (Buyers-Frontline). The side effects of cocaine are numerous, especially while an individual is high. Some of the side effects of are increased energy and awareness, euphoria, and a feeling of being indestructible; these effects are just the short term. Long term effects of the drug include heart problems that stem from increased heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes cocaine even induces a heart attack during use. Cocaine can squeeze vessels of blood in the brain, leading to strokes and/or seizures. Snorting cocaine can lead to a hole in the nose, or nasal perforation, and smoking it can cause irreversible lung damage. Cocaine can even cause stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal perforations. As if a high and changed behaviors weren’t enough (WebMD).

One of the most worrying drugs currently on the streets however, is crystal meth. Crystal meth is synthetic, and as the term “methamphetamine” implies, it is a very powerful stimulant. The National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies methamphetamine (meth) as a stimulant that targets the nervous system. One of the factors that attracts users, females in particular, is that one of the side effects is a diminished appetite which results in swift weight loss for however long the individual continues to use the drug, with a plateau in weight loss as a tolerance builds. Another reason that many are drawn to it is that the sense of euphoria it provides, or the high, tends to last much longer than what can be received from other drugs. Others prefer to take it to battle depression, or to increase their libido and/or sexual gratification. Since meth is a stimulant, users who are on the drug could wind up being awake and not tired for days, in a sort of perpetual drug haze. One of the effects that meth has gained notoriety for, is an epidemic known as “meth mouth.” This condition stems from toxic, acidic ingredients that are often present in street-grade meth. Meth can cause teeth grinding and clenching in users, cotton mouth, and the high that users experience cause them to commonly forget about the many facets of oral hygiene. (Nordqvist, 2012)

Furthermore, as with many other drugs, there are multiple ways that crystal meth can be consumed. Highs can be obtained from many drugs by being smoked, snorted, injected, or even swallowed. In extreme cases, these drugs have been documented having been consumed by being inserted into an individual’s anus or urethra. Many stimulant drugs have the effect of stimulating the release and halting reuptake of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. A buildup of the neurotransmitter plays a key role in providing an increased, or altered, perception of pleasure and reward. This results in a sense of euphoria that individuals feel after consuming drugs, the high. The long term effects of these drugs are not to be underestimated, and can have long term effects on the brain. Hence, why so many chronic abusers can experience emotional and cognitive deficiencies until years after the use of their given drug of choice has stopped (Nordqvist, 2012).

A drug that garners much media attention and infamy is heroin. Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that, like many others, is derived from the opium poppy. It was first marketed as an alternative to the drug morphine, but soon presented itself to be just as addictive as its construed counterpart. Heroin’s pure form is a white powder, but street dealers often mix the drug with various other substances in order to take full advantage of capital being earned. This mixing changes the color scheme from anywhere to white, dark brown, or even black. Heroin is one of the most commonly used and abused narcotics/opioids in the United States to this date. It is very easy to overdose on this drug, especially once a tolerance to it is built. It is most common to die from heroin complications such as pneumonia, infection, or noncardiogenic pulmonary edema (fluid in/on the lungs) (Habal, 2013).

Most alarmingly, however, is the emergence of an entirely new drug gaining notoriety and fear from straight out of Russia. The drug desomorphine, better known as krokodil (pronounced ‘crocodile) is a remarkably addictive opioid taken via intravenous injection. It garners its name from a side effect near injection sites that causes users’ skin to appear black or green, and scaly. This side effect is a precursor to detrimental vein and soft tissue damage. This damage leads to gangrene and tissue necrosis, or death. The drug is gaining a following because it’s cheaper and more potent than heroin, and can be cooked up rather simply like meth (Christensen, 2013). This drug is made from combining OTC (over-the-counter) codeine-based painkillers with iodine, gasoline, paint thinner, or even alcohol. Users commonly turn to krokodil because, as mentioned before, it is a cheaper alternative to heroin, and the high is much the same, although lasts a much shorter duration. This causes rapid dependency, and can shorten an addict’s life span to only two to three years after the addiction begins (Mosemak & Winter, 2013).

As with anything illegal, there is plenty of money for those who wish to make a living in the moving/selling of illegal contraband. As evidenced by the mafia during the Prohibition Era: If there is a will, there is a way. With how lucrative the drug trafficking business is, it’s no wonder that the individuals who partake in this type of activity are getting more and more creative by the minute. A lot of the drug smuggling comes from the United States/Mexican border, where organizations realize that business here in the U.S., especially with the war on drugs, has the potential to be quite prosperous. Border patrol agents have discovered drugs in toys, furniture, shoes, inside paneling of cars, etc. The organizations that participate are highly organized and efficient, and use the latest breakthroughs in technology to their advantage. Drugs are also smuggled into the U.S. via underground tunnels, and over water. Drug traffickers in Mexico are known for smuggling heroin, methamphetamines, marijuana, and cocaine (which originates in South America) into the United States. The process of investigating, stopping, imprisoning, trying, and destroying these people and their works are quite costly. The cartels also have a lot to lose, with upwards of billions of dollars hanging in the balance (Feyerick, Cary & Steffen, 2009).

How is America supposed to overcome these odds? The War on Drugs increases the demands for these illegal substances, and it’s relatively safe to assume that there are people who will rise up to meet the supply. It’s a matter of economics; the more supply, the less demand, and vice versa. Richard Branson once wrote an article for CNN about America’s War on Drugs, and in it he outlines the fact that if the global drug trade were a country of its own, it would hold a spot as having one of the top twenty economies in the world. Richard Branson has brought to attention many issues surrounding the War on Drugs. If the government was to treat drug addiction as a legitimate health issue, instead of as a criminal one, the potential of billions of dollars being saved would be present. Public health would stand a chance for improvement, and perhaps even a better control of violence and crime in communities would be achievable (Branson, 2012).

There is no easy answer to be found here. Forty years of policies and thinking are very hard things to change. It is apparent, however, that the War on Drugs has cost American tax-payers more money than most could fathom even managing to spend. Cartels and smugglers instigate violence and fear in the southern countries, and addiction drives people to do many things that a sober individual would not do. People who are caught with drugs on their person can be arrested and/or incarcerated, and many look upon addicts with such disdainful gazes that help, when it is so direly needed, is not offered. Is addiction and drug abuse truly a crime? Or is it a sickness? There are so many unknowns when it comes to drugs that people often just focus on the effects of these things not the why. Why do people turn to drugs and choose to spend the rest of their lives chasing a high? Is it stupidity, or are there underlying issues that no one cares to deal with? Bottom line, help is not always made available to those who need it. Not everyone has someone to care about them and make sure that they are doing okay, and staying away from things that could harm them. Until care becomes more readily available, there won’t be a stop to drugs and addiction. Until addiction is treated as a health issue, not a crime, there won’t be a lull in cartel violence or smuggling. Until major changes happen, there will always be this unbeatable War on Drugs that costs Americans millions upon millions of dollars every year.


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