September 26, 2022

War on Drugs Turns 40

Posted on 17. Jun, 2011 by Stephan Helgesen in Social/Cultural

Some anniversaries provide an occasion for celebration or reflection, others a time for action.  Today marks forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as “public enemy No. 1”, officially declared a “war on drugs.” A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, the war on drugs remains a miserable failure.

The Land of Enchantment has not been spared.  Local headlines tell us that the war on drugs continues to threaten New Mexicans’ health and safety:

“Friend Abandons Toddler After Mom Overdoses”

“New Mexico Family Loses Relative to Juarez Violence”

“Overdose Deaths Among People Under 21 Increasing”

“Medicaid Axes Inpatient Program for Drug-addicted Mothers”

“Martinez Has High Hopes for Repeal of Medical Marijuana”

On this anniversary, it’s time to reflect on why New Mexico’s overdose death rate has increased 150% in the last 4 years; why the state is spending upwards of 22 million dollars each year to incarcerate nonviolent drug possession offenders; and, why we are incarcerating our mothers because of their addictions who then leave behind hundreds of babies and young children.  It’s time to admit that the war on drugs is a failure and agree to turn instead to dealing with drugs as a public health problem. Wouldn’t it be better to spend the money on clinics that might treat illnesses instead of on locking up nonviolent people?

We know a lot more things than we did 40 years ago, and it’s time to revise our strategies for combating drug misuse based on that knowledge.  We know that 4 out of 5 drug arrests are for possession only, mostly for marijuana. We know that the average cost of putting someone behind bars is about $30,000 a year, whereas the average cost of treating them is about $3,000.  And we know that most communities in New Mexico lack access to quality drug treatment.

So let’s celebrate this anniversary by crafting a new drug strategy for the 21st century.  A strategy designed to get us to a place where politics no longer trumps science, compassion, common sense, and fiscal prudence in dealing with illegal drugs. A place when marijuana legalization is no longer a question of whether but when and how. A place when people are not more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for violating drug laws because of their ethnicity and culture.  And a time where reducing over-incarceration is broadly embraced as a moral necessity.

Let’s work with legislators who dare to raise these important questions. Let’s organize public forums and online communities where New Mexicans can take action, enlist unprecedented numbers of powerful and distinguished individuals to voice their dissent publicly, and advocate for policies that focus less on obtaining convictions and more on preventing addictions.

Let’s transform this anniversary into a year of action.

Emily Kaltenbach is the New Mexico state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. She can be reached at


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