Background Information about the War on Drugs
Religious & Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice

Since 1914, the United States has done little to change its drug policies. The current drug prohibition experiment has lasted more than 85 years. With over three million untreated drug addicts in the U.S. alone, it is obvious this is a "war" we are not winning, or are ever likely to win. The costs of funding this punitive war are much higher than prevention, yet we continue to spend millions to wage an unfair war. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly has passed several statements on criminal justice calling for the end of the drug war and looking at alternative working solutions. Current drug policies are costly, globally irresponsible, and disproportionately harm racial minorities, the underprivileged and women, while breeding corruption and violence. To counter the drug war's failure, the UUA encourages its member congregations to engage and study the issue through discussion, public witness, service, education, advocacy and community organization.


The war on drugs costs taxpayers more than $40 billion dollars a year. More than two-thirds of this money is spent on enforcement, court and prison, while only one-third is spent on drug education. An additional $20 billion is spent by state and local funders on anti-drug measures for things such as imprisonment, policing and prosecution. Drug treatment, the most widely recognized solution to drug abuse and addiction is inadequately funded and unavailable to the majority of those most in need. Untreated drug addicts cost an estimated $110 billion yearly in health care, lost productivity, extra law enforcement and crime. In 1996, 3.3 million drug addicts (63% of those in need) went without treatment. Prison expenditures have increased yearly since 1995 to keep up with rising numbers of incarceration. The annual cost of imprisoned drug offenders exceeds $8 billion. Mandatory prison sentencing has added to this prison crowding, as first-time nonviolent drug offenders can be convicted for 10 to 20 years. Without adequate education and treatment we can not begin to decrease the cost of this war.

Global Impacts

U.S. drug war interventions in Central and South America have had increasingly negative impacts on democratic institutions, poverty and the environment. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formally the SOA) uses the guise of "narco-trafficking" to train and command soldiers in Latin America to oppress and physically harm the poor. A letter to the UN signed by more than 500 leaders from around the world states "the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself". Increased US aid to Colombia is certain to increase human rights abuses and benefit multinational corporations. Of the $1.6 billion dollar package, 80% is going to military hardware and training, with little allocated as humanitarian aid or for alternative sustainable crops.


Human Rights Watch reports that African Americans have been disproportionately incarcerated due largely to drug prosecutions. While blacks make up 12% of the population at large, they make up over 60% of the prison population incarcerated for drugs. African Americans are more than 13 times more likely than whites to be admitted into prison on drug charges, yet there are five times the number of white drug users than there are black. One third of convicted whites are sentenced to prison, while one half of arrested blacks go to prison. Of those who do serve time, the average black serves an 18% longer sentence than a comparable white criminal, while black drug traffickers serve 26% longer than their white counterparts. Racial profiling by the police has continued to support the myth that drug abusers are predominately poor, uneducated minorities. In fact, the majority of users are white, educated and employed.


The number of women in federal prison on drug charges has quadrupled since 1987, accounting for two-thirds of all female federal inmates. More than 70% are first time offenders. Many are incarcerated on "conspiracy" charges, playing minor roles in drug rings for things such as taking messages or driving their boyfriends. Women are often too afraid, loyal or do not have enough information to provide "substantial assistance" to prosecutors in exchange for shorter sentences, and therefore may be imprisoned for 10-20 years, often substantially longer than their more involved male counterparts.


Prohibition of drugs has created a costly black-market. The price of a gram of heroine and cocaine are each much higher than the price of a gram of gold. Our "War on Drugs" and prohibition of them have actually increased the value of drugs. Inadequate treatment and drug laws have fostered drug related murders and crime. Drug dealers are killed in fights over turf with innocent victims caught in the crossfire. Addicts rob, kill and prostitute themselves for a fix. Yet, this violence is only so pervasive because drugs are made illegal. Our prohibition of them has made them far more valuable than we could imagine.


The war on drugs has not reduced the quantity of drugs or the level of drug consumption in the US. Addicts and casual consumers spend between $40 and $50 billion a year on illegal drugs. Drug trafficking and drug enforcement have become extraordinarily lucrative industries for criminal syndicates, corporations, politicians and law enforcement in the US and abroad. Drug linked corruption of law officers is epidemic from coast to coast, while governments like Colombia make a huge profit from our own drug war. Of the 1.5 million people arrested every year for drug-law violations, 75% of them are for possession, not sale or manufacture. This does nothing to decrease the national supply of drugs. Many high school kids claim it is easier to get marijuana than it is to get beer. Heroine and cocaine prices have fallen dramatically while purity has risen sharply. These changes pose great risks of overdose deaths, and indeed there are more drug related deaths from drug abuse than ever before. Our thirty-year experiment with prohibition has not worked. Drugs are more available now than ever before. We must look to other ways to control this problem. Our current system simply outlaws drugs, providing no regulatory measure for handling them or the people addicted to them. This is a war we simply can not win.

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