Casualties of the War on Drugs

war on drugs

Most people seem to understand that the United States’ contemporary War on Drugs hasn’t been nearly as successful as what was expected, and needed. In some ways, the drug war has made the problems with drug and alcohol addiction worse: taking people away from their families without ensuring effective treatments affects communities that don’t have the economic resources that other communities have.  This means less people working and spending money to keep a local economy going. Weakened local economies, though a concern, are the least-frightening casualty of the War on Drugs.

The Long-Term Effects of Addiction for One Person

casualties in the war on drugs

At least half of the problems in the United States’ War on Drugs result from the focus on simply jailing drug offenders. For most people, this begins a cycle of drug use, arrest, prison, and freedom to return to drugs that can last for years, if an addicted person survives.

Not everyone makes it through rehab – of the million-plus people who enter rehab every year, less than half finish their program successfully, and go on to long-term sobriety. Because of the large and strained criminal justice system, not every prison offers a comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment program, and this can cause more trauma and detriment to a community. This, of course, means that a person arrested for a drug offense, even after an arrest and prison time, is most likely going right back to the substance abuse that landed them in jail in the first place, even if it means negatively affecting their family and friends.

Drug addiction is an extremely powerful calling to which no one is immune, but good treatment and aftercare, coupled with job opportunities and plenty of encouragement, are the tools that any addicted person needs to leave rehab, and move effectively through their life.

That being said, public perception plays a role in all of this: if the public perceives that an addicted person isn’t worth the trouble, they will vote against rehabilitation, even in times of crisis, which directly and negatively affects drug treatment programs’ resources. Despite a long-held belief that people living with addiction essentially weren’t salvageable, the public view of drug addiction has changed radically: now, about half of the nation publicly acknowledged that they feel drug addiction is a health problem that requires proper treatment.

This is the message on which most millennials were raised, and the generations after them will almost certainly continue to understand that addiction results from a series of choices, though addiction itself is a disease. It’s also more understood by the public overall that genetics can play a strong role in the likelihood of a person, at some point, living with addiction. Winning the War on Drugs means understanding deeply all of the factors that play a part in a person’s story of living with addiction, and to ensure that laws made to battle the ongoing crisis are productive and well-informed.


An unexpected result from the fresh wave of addiction to crack cocaine in the 80s was the emergence of a stereotype: the Black cocaine fiend. Studies found that White and Black people consumed crack cocaine at roughly the same rate, but at the time, the likelihood of a White person being associated with crack was very low. This is due, in part, to the highest concentration of users were Black people living in the inner-city, but White people of rural America took in just as much in the same amount of time, and covered more ground.

What’s interesting about this time period of the War on Drugs is that, though the stereotype of the Black cocaine fiend emerged, powder cocaine was most often consumed by White people in the United States than anyone else. Within a few years of the end of the New York Crack Epidemic, powder cocaine came to be associated with well-to-do White people, who are still the primary consumers of this type of this stimulant.

Alcoholism is another drug-related disease whose victims have long been assumed to be blue-collar White men. For better or worse, Indigenous people are the group in the United States most likely to be deeply affected by alcoholism, and the history behind that epidemic is long and heartbreaking.

Long-Term Effects for Families

A child living with addiction is a difficult time for any family. There’s confusion, fear, and a tumble of different emotions whose stress may drive a wedge into a family. While drug prevention programs certainly exist in schools as part of the larger War on Drugs, education alone has not been as completely effective as anyone hoped.  

Perhaps more difficult is dealing with a spouse that has fallen prey to drug and alcohol addiction. If your spouse is dealing with addiction, your entire life could change. The changes to the intimate side of your marriage may push you toward divorce. Your spouse won’t be reliable when it comes to picking up your children away from home, or making sure they’re fed.

Then there’s the loss of income, which effects families most quickly and harshly. Without the income that an addicted spouse once offered, most families fall into an economically-vulnerable position, one where changing residences becomes necessary.

All of this is in addition to the emotional toll of supporting a spouse through their journey to lifelong sobriety. The pressure can be too great: about half of marriages with an addicted spouse ends in divorce. This astronomical number was actually the overall statistic for marriages, but with the normalization of therapy and fewer people marrying, this number has since dropped.

Wasted Tax Dollars

Perhaps the worst part of the contemporary War on Drugs, second to the lack of effectiveness, is the enormous sum of money that has been spent on this battle against the presence of drugs in communities. At least ten billion has been spent waging this war, and there is a drug crisis that continues today.

That ten billion dollars was spent on law enforcement salaries and equipment, manpower, jails, some treatment, and storage for evidence, among other things. On top of that, writing and passing laws costs a substantial amount of time and tax dollars in a country where the average income is around $50,000. Continuing public and private education is essential to winning the War on Drugs, but directing more of the focus on the importance of long-term, supportive solutions will make everything, and everyone, much safer.