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Debunking the Just Say No 1980s Drug War

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Debunking the Just Say No 1980s Drug War

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I’ve been trolling one of my anti-pot prohibitionists lately. The account is called @POPPotGroup, and it is the social media for Parents Opposed to Pot. (Yes, I know, that makes “POPPot” mean “Parents Opposed to Pot Pot; nobody said they’re clever.)

The subject of the Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” 1980s came up and POPPot, like Jeff “Slingblade Hobbit” Sessions, yearns for that magical time when we came so close to stopping everyone from using drugs until that nasty pothead Bill Clinton ruined everything.

My point was that we saw far more marijuana use among teens in 1979, yet the sky didn’t fall. Somehow, those teens grew up to become the adults of the 1980s and 1990s with no appreciable deficit in their abilities.

But for POPPot, it was the opening to bray about the “success” of the 1980s drug war. To be sure, reported* use of marijuana by teens did decline precipitously through the 1980s.

Monitoring the Future: 1976-2016 Teen Marijuana Use
Monitoring the Future: 1976-2016 Teen Marijuana Use

Teens also reported* using drugs at a lower rate through that time as well:

Monitoring the Future: 1976-2016 Teen Non-Marijuana Use
Monitoring the Future: 1976-2016 Teen Non-Marijuana Use

But at what cost? By lionizing the 1980s Drug War, prohibitionists like Jeff Sessions and POPPot focus on the declining teen use of drugs without considering any of the costs America suffered in the 1980s to achieve those results.

The most glaring cost comes in the form of the United States becoming the all-time global leader in imprisoning its own citizens.

Prison Policy Institute: Total US Arrests for Drug Crimes per Year, 1980-2015
Prison Policy Institute: Total US Arrests for Drug Crimes per Year, 1980-2015

During Reagan’s two terms as president, the United States more than doubled the people arrested for drug crimes, corresponding to that decline in reported* teen drug use we saw in the previous charts.

National Survey on Drug Use & Health: 1992-2008 Non-Marijuana Drug Use
National Survey on Drug Use & Health: 1992-2008 Non-Marijuana Drug Use

However, starting in 1992, Bill Clinton was as staunch a lock’em-up drug warrior as Reagan. Clinton’s terms saw drug arrests increase by half. But this time, there was no appreciable decline in reported* drug use.

National Survey on Drug Use & Health: 1988-2008 Marijuana Use
National Survey on Drug Use & Health: 1988-2008 Marijuana Use

In fact, overall reported* drug use and marijuana use increased in Clinton’s first term, leveling off to rates that have held steady since George W. Bush, until the recent increase in opioid abuse.

 

Prison Policy Institute: US Prison Population by Type of Crime, 2015
Prison Policy Institute: US Prison Population by Type of Crime, 2015

The policies enacted in the 1980s, like mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes” laws, did seem to have the effect of driving down reported drug use in the 1980s. But that effect faded in the 1990s, despite the policies continuing to generate more and more prisoners.

So, now we’re saddled with the largest prison population in the world. Not just on a per-capita basis, but overall. We have roughly 320 million citizens and 2.3 million of them are locked up. China has 1.4 billion people and they imprison 1.5 million of them. That means for every 100,000 citizens, China is locking up about 118 of them while we’re locking up about 718 of them. Only Russia approaches out per-capita rate by locking up around 615 of its citizens per 100,000.

Monitoring the Future: 1976-2015 Teen Alcohol Use
Monitoring the Future: 1976-2015 Teen Alcohol Use

Nobody wants to see teenagers abusing drugs. However, no matter what policies we enact, there will always be a non-zero number of teens who do find access to and abuse drugs. We should aim our public policy to reduce teen use, certainly. We’ve seen that punitive carceral policies that ban drug use can have some success in reducing that number, but we’ve also seen that such policies come with a cost in becoming a the world’s greatest jailer.

I believe the goal should be to tightly regulate – not ban – adult use of drugs, and to set those policies in search of the “sweet spot” where the fewest teens using drugs meets the least unintended cost to society.

I think the proof of this concept can be found in two drugs that are the most addictive and cost the most harm to user and society – alcohol and tobacco.

Monitoring the Future: 1976-2015 Teen Cigarette Use
Monitoring the Future: 1976-2015 Teen Cigarette Use

Since the end of Reagan’s second term, we saw an incredible decline in the reported use of alcohol by teens. When I was in high school, at least two-thirds of seniors had tried booze. For today’s seniors, that number is down to one-third.

Since the beginning of Clinton’s second term, we saw an incredible decline in the reported use of cigarettes by teens. When my little brother was in high school, over one-third of seniors had tried smoking. For today’s seniors, that number is down to one-eighth.

But with neither of those drugs did we declare an absolute prohibition and begin ticketing, fining, arresting, and jailing adults who used them.

Instead, we shaped public policy to address the problem of teen use, not adult use.

With booze, Reagan blackmailed the states into raising their drinking ages to 21. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began factual public service education campaigns. Laws were written to hold servers of alcohol more responsible for checking IDs.

With tobacco, attorneys general from most of the states sued the tobacco companies. New laws were written to put smokes behind locked counters and require better carding of kids. Tobacco advertising that targeted kids through cartoon mascots, sports sponsorships, and candy versions of their products was banned.

Another hidden cost of drug prohibition comes from the crime created when adults wish to purchase their drug. That leads to violent criminals, corrupted police who terrorize neighborhoods, and cowed populations too afraid to “snitch” when they see real crime happening. Those elements lead to poorer educational and occupational opportunities for those affected communities, which bogs down our entire society.

Groups like POPPot want to reduce the harm from drug use by eliminating drug use through punitive sanctions, which always results in continuing drug use with more potent drugs and the unintended consequences of the punitive sanctions. People like me want to reduce the harm from drug use by addressing the harm, not the use, which has been proven by alcohol and tobacco to be the correct strategy.


* Keep in mind, these are statistics that don’t represent “drug use,” but “reported drug use.” In other words, this is the percentage of the American public who will answer a telephone call from a stranger who is representing the federal government and provide truthful answers to questions concerning their current violation of federal laws that could lead to their arrest and imprisonment.

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