Drug Policy and Problems: The Internal and External War


Drugs are commonly swept into the shadows of society based on legal ramifications, but they are a stark reality  to many.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

Everything in the mind comes to a complete halt. Suddenly, time is of no concern. The muscles in the body relax, the heart slows and a feeling of euphoria takes over as all stress floats away.

The consciousness enters an alternate universe, one in which pain is irrelevant and questions turn into answers. For as long as that moment lasts, the mind is free. It no longer thinks — it knows.

Since the beginning of human history, mankind has continuously found ways to alter the brain’s state of consciousness. There is no escaping the physical world so people create ways to take them elsewhere.

Mankind finds escape spiritually with religious prayer or physically with substances like energy drinks and caffeine to maximize productivity, says Michael Shafer, professor in the School of Social Work. However, people most often consume manmade and natural drugs to achieve conscientious flight.

“There’s some real comparability around this human ability and interest in seeking to modulate our physiological or psychic state,” Shafer says. “For others they seek that change of psychic state through ingestion of some form of foreign substance.


Throughout the past 50 years, pharmaceutical drug manufacturing has developed into a successful industry by providing doctor-prescribed medicine to patients with communicable and non-communicable diseases, Shafer says. During this time, however, the recreational abuse of such drugs rose among teenagers and non-prescribed people.

Shafer is also the project manager for the Criminal Justice Drug Abuse Treatment Studies Program, which is funded by both ASU and the National Institute of Health.

“The marketing of pharmaceutical drugs to patients is a curse,” Shafer says. “The pharmaceutical industry wants to maximize their profits, therefore they want to be able to market their drugs directly to potential users.”

According to findings from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana and psychotherapeutics were the most prevalent substances used by people aged 12 and older. The use of psychotherapeutics has declined since 2009 while marijuana usage has risen since 2007.

College students often face a war within themselves during those years of experimentation, growth and discovery.

They ask themselves: “Do I smoke this drug? Do I walk away? Should I just have one drink?” Some students simply say no to avoid the potential struggles of addiction. But for most, it’s a time of now or never.

Shafer says any substance and activity can eventually turn into an unhealthy addiction. Many senior citizens who face substance abuse problems typically began to use drugs during their college days.

“It is going to be the developmental, college period where we all think we’re invincible and we’re going to try any and every new experience as we go through college that we see the onset of substance abuse,” Shafer says.


Shafer says a new type of criminal was created in 1973 when President Richard Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration and coined the term “War on Drugs.” Rather than receiving treatment for the condition of their minds, these so-called criminals in the war faced punishment for their basic human desires.

Marijuana is the most common drug, and based on Obama’s views on fighting the problem, is going to remain so unless the approach on fixing it is changed.
Photo by Shawn Raymundo

“We’ve overpopulated our prisons, we’ve overpopulated our jails and our court systems with individuals, many of whom would have never come in contact with the criminal justice system if it had not been because of this war on drugs,” Shafer says.

Rafael Lemaitre, spokesperson for National Drug Control Policy, says that since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the federal government has spent $30 billion on drug treatment and prevention of drug abusers — more than the administration’s funding for federal and local law enforcement.

Lemaitre says the Obama administration is trying to refocus its efforts in the war on drugs by removing the metaphor all together.

“The slogan is one that we don’t use as far as this administration because we don’t wage war on our own people in this country,” he says. “The Obama administration’s drug policy is pretty clear … reducing the toll that drugs cause on our society should be a public issue, not just a criminal justice issue.”

Obama’s reformed drug policy program is attempting to limit its arrests and prevent drug abuse through science and research rather than moral ideology, Lemaitre says. From a criminal justice standpoint, he says, the reformed program refers non-violent drug offenders to social programs for substance abusers.

“The bottom line is that we can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem,” Lemaitre says.

Education, awareness and rehabilitation are, Lemaitre says, the smartest approach to solving the U.S.’s drug problems.

“You have to be smart on crime, not just being tough on crime,” Lemaitre says.


After fighting a faceless enemy with no end in sight, the government’s war on drugs seems to be losing steam as an ideological struggle, says Reed Wood, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

A larger group of people no longer fear drugs or consider them a threat to the nation, he says. Therefore, more activist groups are petitioning to legalize or decriminalize drugs, especially marijuana.

Law enforcement on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border creates a system of violence because it impedes the drug cartels’ territorial and monetary resources, Wood says.

So in response, the cartels fight back.

“When they’re challenged, when they lose that control, when they lose those resources, they tend to use violence as a way to regain that control,” Wood says.

Tempe Police Sgt. Mike Polley says his five years in the narcotics division have taught him that drug abusers commit a considerable amount of crime, such as robbery and thievery, in an attempt to provide for their addiction.

“You really saw how people were affected by drugs where their whole life revolved around their addiction,” Polley says. “Their whole life was centered around that and getting the money to get them high.”

Between 1995 and 2007 an average of 1.64 million individuals were arrested each year for selling or possessing drugs, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report on drug and crime facts.

According to the same report, the number of marijuana users arrested and the number of those arrested for selling it gradually increased between 1996 and 2007. It remains one of the highest causes of arrest.

Polley says both sides of the dealer-buyer exchange pose threats not only to the users, but to their families and non-drug users in the community.

“Every time someone decides to sell these drugs, it puts innocent lives in jeopardy,” Polley says.


Wood says the years of placing non-violent drug users in prison have only created more violence on American soil.

“The effort to go after individual drug users and addicts and small time dealers, put them into prison, which is a violent environment, actually created more violence downstream,” Wood says.

Throughout the course of the war on drugs, Wood says much of the violence has shifted from U.S. urban cities to Mexico and Central America.

He says during the 1970s through 1990s U.S. immigration laws permitted the exile of non-American drug dealers to countries like El Salvador, which only suppressed the problem.

“You create these groups of youths that have been ejected from the U.S., they’re in El Salvador, they don’t know the culture, they only have each other,” Wood says. “So they continue essentially what they were doing in the U.S., but with less enforcement.”

Wood points out that drug syndicates function strictly for financial gain by supplying a huge American demand. The last thing cartels would want is the legalization of drugs because demand would shrink.

The creation of the war on drugs nearly 60 years ago ultimately influenced enforcement and drug syndication in ways that allowed for criminal activity, violence and abuse.

“Treating it as a war is probably in a lot of ways what lead us into the position that we’re in now. If you want to look at it in strictly economic terms,” Wood argues, “we’ve been fighting the supply and not doing very much to affect the demand.”

In addition, the legalization of drugs would affect a sizeable portion of U.S. law enforcement locally and federally, Wood says. All bureaucracies, such as the DEA, need money to continue fighting the war; but if there were no war, funding would diminish.


As long as drugs remain an instinctive use to society, law enforcement cannot win the war on drugs, Polley says. They must rely upon small steps and day-to-day victories.

“There’s not going to be an end,” he says. “However, there definitely is an impact that law enforcement has on everyday citizens, there’s a huge impact that we do that affect our communities, and that’s how we look at it.”

Lemaitre argues that ridding drugs from America is not the solution — education and reduction is the key to success, he says. The goal of the Obama administration is to reduce drug use in the nation 10 to 15 percent in the next five years through education, awareness and rehabilitation programs.

“The fewer people use drugs, the more healthier and safer society is,” Lemaitre says.


Reach the writer at sraymund@asu.edu or via Twitter @ShawnFVRaymundo


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