It’s been called the nation’s longest war, and more than five decades in, many Americans wonder what they have gotten out of the time and money spent on the so-called war on drugs.
A variety of measures suggest that the policies that have shaped it have had limited success and that they have produced uneven impacts across the country. Some groups have been hurt more than others, particularly African Americans, but few seem to have enjoyed real benefits.
Starting with basics: The war on drugs has not only been long; it has been expensive.
This summer, the war turned 52 years old. It was June 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy No. 1” that required a “new all-out offensive” and additional government funding.
Since then, the country has spent more than a trillion dollars fighting drug use, according to some estimates. That includes more than $39 billion the federal government spent last year alone, according to the Government Accountability Office.
And, of course, illegal drugs and drug abuse are still very much with us. In 2021, a Gallup Poll found 64% of Americans said the nation’s drug problem was “extremely serious” or “very serious,” though the primary scourge changes. In the 1980s, cocaine and crack cocaine were the dominant stories. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine during his first White House address and announced the war on drugs would be a primary focus of his time in office.
But in the last few years, opioids have become a key focus of anti-drug efforts, and with good reason: Overdose deaths from them have skyrocketed, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have become the chief culprit.
Since 1999, opioid overdoses have gone from killing 2.9 people per 100,000 to more than 21 per 100,000. And synthetics have gone from causing 0.3 overdose deaths per 100,000 people to more than 17 per 100,000.
Those deaths have become a big part of the discussion of “deaths of despair” in America — deaths from overdose, alcoholism and suicide. Much of the conversation has focused on older white Americans, particularly in rural areas. But the story has been changing in recent years.
Since 2018, African Americans’ opioid overdose death numbers have surged past those of other racial and ethnic groups.
In 2018, white Americans had a higher opioid overdose death rate than the nation overall, 18.8 per 100,000 people, compared to 14.6 for Americans overall and 14.1 for African Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But just three years later, the rate for African Americans had more than doubled, to 33.5 per 100,000 population, according to the CDC. The figure for white Americans had climbed, as well, to 28.4 per 100,000, and the overall figure had climbed to 24.7. But increases for Black Americans truly stood apart.
In the same time, the number of arrests for fentanyl trafficking went through the ceiling.
In 2018, 422 people were convicted of fentanyl trafficking, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. By last year, the number had climbed to more than 2,300, an increase of 461%.
The Southern District of California led the way with 207 traffickers sentenced, but the convictions came from everywhere, and 98% of traffickers across the country got prison time, with an average sentence of 64 months. The offenders were overwhelmingly U.S. citizens (88%).
And the numbers show that African Americans are taking the biggest hits from drug enforcement, as well. Black offenders account for the largest share of fentanyl convictions, according to the Sentencing Commission.
About 41% of offenders were Black, while about 39% were Hispanic. White people accounted for a much smaller proportion of fentanyl convictions, about 19%.
In other words, overdose deaths and convictions have surged, with African Americans bearing the brunt of the epidemic on both points. And at the same time, the larger problem only seems to grow.
In some ways, that’s the story in the data: The numbers suggest the 50-plus-year war on drugs has become a symbol of the government’s inability to solve chronic problems — and how its efforts to fix those problems sometimes create others.
The pattern has become hard to ignore. Administrations of both parties consistently pledge resolve. Spending on the war on drugs increases and convictions rise, but so does usage. And in the end, the broader story doesn’t really change.
CORRECTION (July 2, 2023, 8:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the agency that tracked federal spending on the war on drugs last year. It is the Government Accountability Office, not the General Accounting Office. It also misstated the name of the agency that tracked opioid overdose death rates among racial groups. It is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not the Centers for Disease Control.