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War on Drugs
If you've read about the film "Traffic," you know it tells the story of American and Mexican police working to combat the vast, underground network of drug production and distribution.
The movie has an up close view of the dangers of addiction, and how deeply entrenched the drug networks are. By the end of the film, audiences are not only left wondering whether governments will win this so-called "war" but also whether winning is even possible.
In 2002, around 14 million Americans were using illegal drugs on a regular basis, a number that has not risen since 1999. Americans spent roughly $64 billion on illegal drugs in 2000. That's over three times as much as the government spends fighting drugs.
The National Office of Drug Control Policy spends around $19 billion a year trying to stop the drug trade. Drug use in the U.S. costs billions more indirectly, through crime, hospital stays, and lost work days.
When President Bush met with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, controlling the drug trade was high on the agenda. President Bush will also discuss anti-drug efforts in a meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana on Feb. 27. Both countries export large amounts of drugs -- mostly cocaine and marijuana --into the U.S.
The "war on drugs" is being waged on many fronts; both to slow the supply of drugs flowing into the U.S. and to reduce the demand for drugs. This includes tougher punishments for drug users and dealers, increased enforcement of anti-drug laws, and international efforts to help other nations with their own anti-drug programs.
But what exactly is the war on drugs and how do we fight it?
Fighting the War
The fight against drug use in the U.S. dates back to the late 1800s. Before then, the dangers of some drugs were not fully known and the government did little to regulate them.
The original Coca-Cola beverage, first created in 1886, got its name from one of its main ingredients: cocaine. It was marketed as "a nerve and brain tonic" and a cure for headaches. But it wasn't long before people realized that cocaine was dangerously addictive, and the creators of what would one day become the world's most popular soft drink eliminated the drug from the recipe around 1900.
Since then a lot has changed. New drugs have been discovered and invented, and public opinion has swung back and forth. In 1971, President Richard Nixon called drug use "public enemy number one," and enacted laws to fight the importation of narcotics.
Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan declared a more militant "war on drugs." But it was his wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan, who coined: "Just Say No."
Many think the best way to limit drug use is to help people understand how harmful it is. Drugs can destroy health, careers, marriages, families and whole neighborhoods. Almost every American teenager gets some drug education in school as early as elementary school. The federal government itself is currently in the middle of a five-year, $2 billion anti-drug ad campaign.
But some people, including a minority of police officers, say these programs aren't working very well. DARE - the well-known "Drug Abuse Resistance Education" program taught in 75 percent of schools districts nationwide, recently decided to revise its program, The New York Times reported in Feb. 2001.
Critics said the program, which had focused on anti-drug messages for elementary-aged students, didn't help students stay away from drugs once they reach high school. The new DARE program will try to help older students deal with peer pressure to try drugs.
Drugs have also become a problem in the work world. Addicted employees don't tend to be the most productive on the job. So many private businesses have adopted mandatory employee drug testing. Some people say the practice is an unfair invasion of privacy, and that whatever workers do in their spare time is none of their bosses' business. But still, many national companies like Home Depot test all job applicants and current employees each time they are promoted.
Small groups of people advocate a more radical solution to the drug problem: legalize it. They point to Prohibition -- the 1930's-era law that outlawed alcohol. The law was implemented to try to curb the widespread problem of alcoholism, but it turned out to be a dismal failure.
When alcohol was made illegal, underground breweries and distilleries flourished, the price of alcohol skyrocketed, and mobs of gangsters killed each other in an effort to control this huge illegal market. In general, the use of alcohol did not go down. Eventually, in 1933, Congress repealed the Prohibition law.
Some people say the lessons of Prohibition should be applied to drugs. If drugs were legal, they argue, the government could control it and earn tax revenue from it. More importantly, prices would go down, and so would the huge profit margins for dealers. Drug gangs would have less incentive and drug-related violence would decrease. Most of all, say proponents of legalization, drug use would be treated as a medical problem, not a legal problem. Non-violent drug users should be put in treatment, they say, not in prison.
There are efforts in several states to legalize marijuana but so far no other specific drugs are targeted for legalization. California passed a proposition in 1996 making it legal for people to sell and purchase marijuana for medical use. (Some doctors believe that marijuana can help relieve pain for people with serious incurable diseases). Five other states have also made marijuana legal. But, in May, 2001, the Supreme Court struck down California's "medical marijuana" law.
In some countries, like the Netherlands, drugs like marijuana and its more potent cousin, hashish, are legal in small amounts. However, research suggests that this policy has not brought down drug use. In fact, the Amsterdam Municipal Health Service showed a rise in hard-core addicts in 1992, attributable to a significant rise in the local heroin supply which led to a price drop of as much as 75 percent.
The American public has not bought into the idea of legalization on a large scale. Most people still think that the government has an obligation to try to keep drugs off the street and to punish people who manufacture, sell and use them.
Illegal drugs are produced on farms, in laboratories, and in backyards all across the world. Although millions of dollars worth of drugs are produced within our borders, millions more also come from other countries on boats, planes and in drug smugglers' suitcases.
Colombia is the source of most of the cocaine and heroin used in the U.S. Drugs like marijuana, esctasy, and methamphetamine come from many sources, including Mexico, the Netherlands, Asia and Europe. According to the United Nations, cannabis (marijuana), opiates (opium), and cocaine are the most widely trafficked drugs worldwide.
Before Colombia became our leading supplier, farms in other South American countries grew acres and acres of coca plants, the raw material from which cocaine is made.
The U.S. worked
with the governments of Peru and Bolivia to reduce the drug supply,
spraying plant-killing chemicals on acres of drug plantations and paying
farmers to grow other crops instead. Coca production was cut in half.
However, Colombian farmers -- most of whom are very poor and have few other opportunities for employment -- say coca brings in the most money and they are unsure the Colombian government will keep its promises to help make other crops just as profitable.
Drug use in the U.S. peaked in the late 1970's. Since then, drug use has declined or leveled-off among most age groups. But many anti-drug experts are worried the trend could start to rise again unless young people are taught how dangerous drugs can be.
Overall, drug use has stayed about the same since 1988. According to a 2000 government survey, 27 percent of teens (12 to 17-year-olds) have experimented with drugs at least once in their lifetime.
But while drug use appears to be declining slightly among 12 to 17-year-olds (it's now down to about 10 percent), more older teens and young adults (about 16 percent) appear to be using drugs regularly.
At least 26 percent of high school seniors reported having used an illicit drug in the past month, according to a 2002 government study. Teen marijuana-use is up almost 300 percent since 1992. The use of ecstasy continues to rise among middle and high school students, while use of a 1970's "party drug," LSD, has declined.
Cocaine remains less common among high school students, but the government estimates almost 9 percent of seniors have tried cocaine at least once in their lives.
Researchers are not completely sure why some drugs gain or lose popularity among different age groups. But more disturbing to many is that today's teenagers seem less concerned about the health risks of drug use and the social and psychological damage addiction usually causes.
According to a Partnership for a Drug-Free America survey, the number of teenagers who think marijuana and cocaine are harmful has gone down dramatically. In fact, teenagers overwhelmingly think marijuana is less harmful than any other drug. The fact that marijuana use is going up shows current anti-drug messages are not getting through to all teenagers.
Are we winning the war?
According to the White House's National Drug Control Strategy, there are around five million drug abusers (about 6.7 percent of the population) who need immediate treatment and who are responsible for the majority of drug demand. Over 5,000 anti-drug programs and organizations in the U.S. are trying to help them overcome their addiction and prevent the rest of us from starting.
Drug use affects more people than those who use it. Many consider drugs as one of the top threats facing our nation. Drug use makes health care more expensive, neighborhoods more dangerous and jails more crowded. Addiction contributes to child abuse, poverty and unemployment.
Many believe the only way to win the war against drugs is to go beyond teaching that drug use is wrong, and make drugs more difficult to get and more expensive to buy. Many people are trapped in urban environments where selling drugs is the best or sometimes the only way to make money. Others turn to drugs as an easy way to "feel good" fast and escape from worries or problems that they don't know how to handle.
It is a growing belief that the booming drug trade and high addiction rates are rooted in these deeper social problems and it is going to take a lot more than police crackdowns to solve them.
--By Samara Aberman, NewsHour Extra
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