The war on drugs is a horrible metaphor for a nation’s response to addiction
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A one-time hawk in the war on drugs of 20 years ago, I am now a conscientious objector and believe it’s time to drop the old trappings of war language and metaphor for federal policy and response that strategically embraces new information; the disease model of addiction; and the smart data that tells us incarceration doesn’t save money; solve health problems; not stem loss of life, potential and community.

In my one claim to celebrity fame, I was listed among the hawks in a 1997 Rolling Stone article of “Who’s Who in the War on Drugs.” At the time, I was the founding president of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) and a principal architect of then new legislation known as the Drug-Free Communities Act (DFCA), introduced by Rep. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators call for passage of bill to cement alcohol excise tax relief The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases MORE and Rep. Sander Levin.


In 1997, I opposed legalization of marijuana and cautioned suspicion for efforts to legalize medical marijuana. I called advocates for medical marijuana “wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing,” but I also supported decriminalization of drug use.


We had a public-health problem, and many prevention- and law-enforcement advocates were seeking criminal justice solutions. That made no sense to me, and there was a clear need to fully fund research on marijuana to get the facts.

I was a strong advocate for prevention and treatment and lobbied hard to protect the Safe and Drug-Free Schools education initiatives to keep kids off drugs, a Nancy Reagan funding legacy. In the 1990s, public and private funds were spent to build community anti-drug coalitions and public-service advertising, conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and Drug Free Schools.

This three-legged stool was the main strategy promoted by the Clinton administration under the leadership of Drug Czars Lee Brown and Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Brown led the campaign to increase funding for treatment of the hard-core drug-user. This focus on treatment, often through Drug Courts, resulted in a dramatic decrease in crime. The Clinton Administration’s crime bill created the Office of Community-Oriented Policing and put 100,000 officers on the streets.

By 1999, gun crime was down by 40 percent; overall crime dropped eight years in a row; and the murder rate had dropped 38 percent. Since 1993 the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimizations per 1,000 people.

We look back on that time with some nostalgia. Things appeared to be working, but lost in those favorable crime-rate headlines was the incarceration trend that would cost this country billions of dollars and millions of ruined lives.

In 1992, we incarcerated nearly 900,000 people in state and federal prisons. In 2016, that number had risen to 2.2 million imprisoned, with a total of 6.7 million under court supervision. The United States incarcerates 716 out of every 100,000 people. This year, we will spend $80 billion on incarceration, but those numbers still fail to account for the lost potential and far-reaching social, economic and personal consequences on individuals, families and communities.

While our intentions may have been noble, the outcome was anything but noble. During the George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama chief economist responds to McConnell quoting him on Senate floor: He missed 'a critical part' Amazon reports .8B in weekend sales from independent businesses on its platform Ossoff features Obama in TV ad ahead of in Georgia run-off MORE administrations, the country focused more on treatment and treatment-alternatives to incarceration.

Our thinking about best approaches to substance use and addiction has evolved from an increased awareness about the disease component of addiction and from communities looking for more redemptive approaches to drug use.

It would appear we are about to declare another war on drugs. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTime to bring federal employees home for every holiday Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 MORE wants to enforce federal marijuana laws and increase enforcement efforts on drug-trafficking. I get the trafficking strategy, but incarceration for marijuana possession and use ignores decades of informed data.

The war on drugs is a horrible metaphor for a nation’s response to addiction. It has been a war on our own people and our neighborhoods. We have warehoused those afflicted with the disease of addiction in a false detente pivoting on out-of-sight-out-of-mind.

In 1997, we were all trapped by the war on drugs metaphor. Drug use and dependence is a health issue and requires a health response. Health providers are non-combatants, and the impulse to lock people up is a reversal that will continue to cost this country in lives, dollars and compassion.

James E. Copple facilitated President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and is the Founding President of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. He is currently the Principal of Strategic Applications International an international consulting firm working in substance abuse, HIV/AIDS prevention and police reform.  

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