War on Drugs is a Painful Failure

In the early 1900s, liquor flowed freely in restaurants and bars. Americans could walk into any pharmacy and purchase a gram of pure cocaine for 25 cents because it was prescribed as relief from hemorrhoids, toothaches, and indigestion. Companies began to mix cocaine in their soft drink and wine products, and, according to, there were even cocaineladen cigars for sale. Meanwhile, liquid opium was used for everything from coughs to sleeplessness. And by 1906, the AMA approved heroin for general medical use. It was a time when government treated adults like adults, and took a laissez faire approach when it came to social mores.

All that changed in 1920. That’s when Congress passed the 18th Amendment, making the sale and possession of alcohol a federal crime. Bans on drugs soon followed. Prohibition lasted for 13 disastrous years, during which time organized crime controlled the manufacture and distribution of whiskey and narcotics, and America was introduced to automatic weapons, drive-by shootings, car bombings, and assorted murderous mayhem. Bodies were piling up, yet newly banned substances were readily available in back alleys and speakeasies. Prohibition was an abject failure and caused thousands of collateral deaths. Congress ended Prohibition in 1933 with passage of the 21st Amendment, but legislated temperance would continue to rear its ugly head from time to time, including next month.

On October 1st, the Federal government will reclassify oxycodone as a Schedule II narcotic, making it more difficult for people in pain to get relief. This comes on the heels of other boneheaded decisions, like North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper’s war on Sudafed, which treats sinus sufferers like meth dealers.

It seems that since the dawn of the 21st century, we’ve been living in an era of “Prohibition 2.0”. Remember New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on super-sized soft drinks? Or how about the increasing list of foods that are disappearing from schools, including potato chips and brownies in favor of such delights as gluten-free lemon bars. Then there’s the aforementioned war on sinus medicines, and now the reclassification of oxycodone.

All of these initiatives have one thing in common: politics. For example, elected officials know they’re losing the war against drug lords, so they pass laws that punish and imprison innocent people, just so they’ll look like they’re doing something.

Meanwhile, one group is actually offering substantive solutions. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is comprised of 21 former world leaders, and last week they met in New York City to discuss their new report, which calls for a complete overhaul of drug policies around the world. Their recommendations include legalizing and regulating illicit drugs like marijuana. They also call for every nation to ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based meds for pain, such as oxycodone. GCDP wants us to offer treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent offenders, and to stop criminalizing the use and possession of recreational drugs.

The GCDP recognizes that the war on drugs has failed and it’s time for the Obama administration to heed that organization’s proposals. Instead, our current President and his predecessors have made the United States the world’s leading jailer, with today’s prison population totaling over 2 million, 50 percent of which are locked up for non-violent, drug related crimes.

Treatment isn’t just the right moral policy, it’s also the right economic policy. According to the Justice Policy Institute, treatment of a drug user costs taxpayers $20,000 less each year than incarceration. Moreover, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy reports that we save communities $18 for every one dollar spent for treatment.

The FDA claims that reclassifying oxycodone will cut down on deaths caused by overdose, but whom are they kidding? Just as alcoholics were able to obtain spirits during Prohibition, anyone wanting to purchase pain pills will still be able to do so in whatever quantities they can afford. Meanwhile drug related street violence will only escalate. And then there’s the hypocrisy of it all. People die from alcohol and tobacco use every day. They commit vehicular manslaughter every day.

They use guns in commission of violent crimes every day. Yet the federal government won’t ban cigarettes, booze, cars, or guns. Why? Because those items have powerful lobbies behind them. Oxycodone, on the other hand, is an easy target for grandstanding legislators. Besides, Uncle Sam always knows what’s best for his wards, right? Wrong. Whatever happened to laissez faire? Whatever happened to the time when our elected representatives stayed out of our personal lives, and tended instead to matters of state?

Will Rogers once joked that “Communism is like Prohibition. It’s a good idea, but it won’t work.” If Rogers were alive today, I’m sure he would update his joke to say, “The Drug War is like Prohibition. It’s a good idea, but it won’t work.”

Today, government intrusiveness is more ill advised than ever before, and it pains me to say that. Unfortunately I can’t get any meds to make the pain go away. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).