Our Evolving Perspectives on the War on Drugs

Today the NY Times published an interesting look at the science that continues to shed new light on drugs and the effects they have on users:  “The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts”.  This particular article manages to prove with a well-designed study what most social scientists have suspected for a while – that drug use is less the cause of drug users’ low incomes, low education rates, and other negative outcomes than it is the result of it.  Even habitual drug users are willing and able to make choices that sacrifice immediate gain for future gain if such options are available, and the studies suggest that the debilitating addiction that has long been the boogeyman of DARE programs affects less than 20% of the overall population.

In the face of this and other studies that have provided nuanced information about mind- and mood-altering substances, I believe that is becoming increasingly clear (if it wasn’t clear enough already) that we need to take a new look at the “War on Drugs” and the impact that it has had on our society.  The demonization of drugs has led to the demonization of drug users, whose economic status is blamed on their own poor choices so that we as a society don’t have to feel guilty for not helping them.  This is used as a justification for restricting access to social welfare programs, despite the fact that every randomized drug test of welfare participants found that welfare participants are far less likely to be using illegal substances than the rest of the population.  Salon magazine wrote an appropriately scathing article about the results of these testing programs, showing that, among other examples, Florida busted a mere 2.8% of their welfare populations (mostly for marijuana) while Utah found a whopping 12 people through their screening program.  No state to institute a drug test as part of their welfare program have found that the cost of the testing outweighed the money saved by denying those individuals benefits.  The underlying premise behind this idea is that if you give poor drug users money (hard-earned taxpayer money) that it will only go to more drugs.

This is especially ironic considering that studies have shown that in the poorest countries, giving families in the poorest districts direct cash benefits resulted in the money being used to improve their diet, keep their children in school, and even invested.  Researchers investigated whether adding conditions to the cash transfer changed behavior and found that having the unconditional cash benefit actually resulted in more positive outcomes for the families (the entire article, a great read, is here).

So if we put all of these pieces together, we find that denying the poor welfare benefits out of fear of enabling drug users…is far more likely to actually create more drug users.


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