Although anti-drug policies have existed since the early 1900s, the so-called war on drugs began in earnest in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon declared drug addiction as “public enemy number one.” Much of the drug policy since then has focused on prohibition and criminal prosecution. More recently, people in impacted communities have been asking drug policy makers to look at the economic factors that lead to the criminal activities of drug trafficking and sales.

A Brief History

President Nixon made his statement on drug abuse in the midst of a growing heroin epidemic and an increase in marijuana use. In 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration was founded to carry out anti-drug policy, according to the DEA Museum. During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the war on drugs expanded with increased funding going to FBI anti-drug units. This period saw a marked increase in the arrest and incarceration of low-level drug offenders. Although many people, especially people of color, were imprisoned, the drug trade continued to expand.

Criminal Activity Comes From a Void

Social scientists suggest that both drug abuse and participation in the illegal drug trade stem from a sense of hopelessness. Young people in low-income neighborhoods see the drug trade as one of the few ways to get out of poverty. According to Stewart J. Guss, no one can truly survive off minimum wage. Stifled economic opportunity cannot coexist with the expectation that there will be no type of illegal activity to result. The arrest of a drug dealer rarely stops the drug trade. It just opens an opportunity for another seller.

A Vicious Cycle

According to the Stand Together Foundation, high rates of incarceration leads to a vicious cycle of poverty. When young people are imprisoned, they lose the ability to make money legally during some of their most productive years. They also lose the time to build job skills in the legal economy. When they are released from prison, they struggle to make economic progress, drifting from one minimum wage job to another. It is not long before the high profits of drug sales look appealing once again, leading to another arrest and more lost time.

Most drug addicts will say that they do not want to be addicted. Many drug dealers would rather provide for themselves and their families by legal means. Until drug policy makers address the economic and social sources of the drug trade, the war on drugs will continue to be an expensive effort with minimal results.