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Although there have been several major periods of antidrug sentiments, crusades, and drug scares, the nonmedical use of drugs like opium and heroin became illegal only about a century ago (Goode, 2015). Before 1914, there had been only sporadic attempts to regulate the use of drugs. Although some states attempted to control drug use by passing laws to provide for civil commitment to institutions for drug addicts and outlawing the use of particular narcotic substances, it was not until the passage by Congress of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914 that any systematic attempt was made to regulate drug use in the United States and other substances that people may put in their bodies for which they were not legally intended (Smith and Deazley, 2010; Szasz, 2003).

This legislation was the first attempt to deal comprehensively with the narcotics and dangerous drugs known at that time. It was essentially a tax measure or, more aptly, a series of prohibitive taxes. Drug use was restricted to medical purposes and research by licensed individuals and facilities. But in the act’s interpretation, in court rulings in specific cases, and in supplementary laws, criminal sanctions were provided for the unauthorized possession, sale, or transfer of narcotics. Marijuana became illegal throughout the nation beginning in the 1930s, and the legal war against drugs intensified during the 1980s and 1990s when cocaine and crack became popular. This legal war involved increased and mandatory prison sentences for the sale and possession of many controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, and crack (Inciardi and McElrath, 2015). With increasing frequency, drug testing has become the norm in many workplaces, and potential employees are required to undergo drug testing (Tunnell, 2004). The nation’s prisons, which in 1980 housed fewer than 30,000 drug offenders, now harbor about 300,000 drug offenders

(Carson, 2015); in 2015, more than 1.2 million people were arrested for drug offenses, including more than 570,000 for possessing marijuana (Smith, 2016).

Despite these numbers, almost half (49%) of Americans 12 and older (equal to 130 million persons) have ever used an illicit drug, and Americans spend more than $100 billion every year on illegal drugs (Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2014; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015). More than 116 million Americans have ever used marijuana, and an estimated 24 million Americans are regular users of marijuana. Some 40 million Americans say they have used cocaine or crack, and almost 3 million report being current users.

The illegal drug industry is extremely profitable, and this profitability makes it hard to stop this industry. At every level, the industry’s pricing reflects by the level of risk of enforcement: the risk of seizure and jail, and the uncertainty that arises because traffickers cannot rely on the law to enforce drug transaction agreements. The vast gap between the cost of production and the price paid in the end by drug users plays a key role in the failure of drug policies. The producers (usually farmers in low-income nations) see a very modest return; the real profit is embedded mainly in the distribution chain, which is very hard to control effectively (Marez, 2004).

At all levels of government, the United States spends more than $50 billion annually on criminal justice expenses arising from the legal war against drugs (Drug Policy Alliance, 2015); it spends much less on drug treatment, rehabilitation, education, and prevention programs. With more than 2 million Americans now behind bars and many of them occasional or habitual users of powerful drugs like cocaine and heroin, rehabilitation programs offer a potent weapon for decreasing addiction, crime, and the spiraling cost of incarceration. Yet only a fraction of inmates—about 2%—undergo serious drug rehabilitation. It has been shown that every $1 invested in drug treatment saves $7 in future costs of crime and incarceration (Treaster, 1995). In this regard, Michael Massing (1998) notes that that the hard-core users of heroin and cocaine are disproportionately poor, unemployed, and members of minority groups. Although hard-core users are only one- fifth of total users, they consume three-fourths of the cocaine and heroin used in America. If local authorities could provide appropriate treatment to anyone in this population who wanted it, Massing maintains, the drug problem would diminish, as would the crime and illness associated with it.

Marijuana In the United States as well as in other countries, marijuana has reached a kind of a low-profile status, and it is no longer a symbol of rebellion or creativity (Sandberg and Pedersen, 2009). Unlike most other illegal drugs, 60% of the marijuana consumed in the United States is produced domestically. Marijuana is the largest cash crop in the United States, more valuable than corn and wheat combined. With marijuana now legal in several states, legal marijuana has been called the “fastest-growing industry” in the nation that may grow to almost $11 billion annually by 2019 (Ferner, 2015).

As noted earlier, more than 570,000 persons were arrested in 2015 on marijuana charges. This number far exceeds the total number of arrestees, almost 506,000, for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Convicted marijuana offenders are denied federal financial student aid, welfare, and food stamps and may be removed from public housing. In some cases, those convicted are automatically stripped of their driving privileges, even if the offense is not driving related. The cost to the taxpayer of enforcing marijuana prohibition amounts to billions of dollars annually.

The harsh nature of punishments for marijuana offenses is even more disturbing if one considers the racial bias of the War on Drugs. Although African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, African Americans are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges (American Civil Liberties Union, 2013). Questions of racial and ethnic bias affect the integrity of investigations, arrests, and prosecutorial discretion in the legal war against marijuana (Rice and White, 2010).

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