There is nothing new about a war on drugs, or a national effort to curtail drug use in the United States. As early as 1784, ‘chronic drunkenness,’ what we call ‘alcoholism’ today, was labeled a disease. One of the first people to diagnose the disease was Dr. Benjamin Rush, an abnormally-intuitive scientist living in newly-free America. By this time, a handful of members of indigenous nations had established ‘sobriety circles,’ safe spaces in which to escape the rampant alcoholism that continues to plague indigenous people to this day. These individuals had observed the way that alcohol was used against their nations, and began a new resistance through sobriety.
Support for the battle against addiction has been available since the 18th century, but addiction, needless to say, is still a problem. In the 20th century, The War on Drugs has certainly taken a toll, but it is unclear what, if any, benefits have been felt by the people affected most closely by it.
First started in the 1970s, the contemporary War on Drugs has focused almost exclusively on removing drugs from the streets, and harshly punishing anyone who dares manufacturing, selling, or using. The upside, of course, is the lessening incentive for curious people who want to understand what all the hype is around drugs. The downside is the overall execution, and the disproportionately high number of poor people and working class people of color who remain behind bars for non-violent offenses. The huge number of tax dollars spent housing non-violent offenders in prison has been a point of contention for activists, prosecutors, and even people who work inside of prisons.
War on Drugs: Prohibition
The first of the great failures to protect the public from the ill effects of drugs was prohibition. While the contemporary War on Drugs deals harsh penalties for people found to be manufacturing, selling, possessing, or using drugs, prohibition prohibited the sale of alcohol, and only the sale of alcohol. No one could be jailed for simply having a bottle of fine wine in their home, or even necessarily for drinking alcohol, so long as it wasn’t done in public.
One of the responses from gangsters, bar owners, and others whose livelihood revolved around supplying the public with alcohol was to open speakeasies: secret bars, hidden behind small doors in rarely-discussed locations where bootleg liquor was shared among a handful of people. Speakeasies could be located in basements, storage rooms, attics, and extra-hollow walls – in the last case, everyone would have to mindful of neighbors, or risk prison time. Jazz, the fun, soulful music, shared the blame for creating a generation of carefree and liberated women.
Despite the fun of jazz, secret bars, and the occasional joint (marijuana also began to grow in popularity during this time), prohibition had a number of negative effects: the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning rose sharply, theater ticket and soda sales declined, and people died from drinking tainted alcohol. The federal government had failed to halt the consumption of alcohol, but another group was poised to take a step in the right direction.
War on Addition: Alcoholics Anonymous
Before, during, and after prohibition, alcohol had been a staple in middle-class homes as a relaxant, a little something to alleviate anxiety after a long, stressful day of working. For many people, though, this habit extended well beyond sipping a tumbler at home – this often manifested in an extended stay at a local bar, or several tumblers, after which, the drinker could become violent. In 1935, when the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, was in a deep economic depression, two men in Ohio started an organization to combat the draw of drinking, and support those who wanted alcohol to stop interfering with their daily lives. They named their organization ‘Alcoholics Anonymous.’
War on Drugs: Drug Enforcement Administration
From the 1930s through the 1970s, the drug scene in the United States changed dramatically. First, the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous brought a long-standing issue from a cultural back-burner to a strong warning to those who might be vulnerable to alcoholism. Meth arrived in the United States, and people quickly became hooked on the then-legal substance which was contained in diet pills.
The tobacco industry continued its steady rise, though in the 1960s, it suffered a blow when the FDA mandated that every pack of cigarettes come with a warning label that covered smoking’s negative effects. And by the late 1970s, crack was becoming a problem, MDMA had been banned at the federal level, and Nixon’s DEA was established, and had begun a new era dubbed, ‘The War on Drugs.’ None of this, though, stopped the ever-increasing problem of new drug trafficking, nor did new drugs stop entering the market.
While the DEA has been a good resource in its meticulous collection of data and keeping the public informed of new and dangerous drugs on the streets, the organization has failed to create and maintain a totally-sober public. Part of this is because the government-based organization has not invested enough in rehabilitation programs. Part of it is also because the DEA of the 1970s could not have possibly predicted the strength and pervasiveness of the drugs of the 2010s.
War on Addiction: The Cultural Shift to Rehab
The first clinics to specifically treat alcoholism opened in the last twenty years of the 19th century. More sprung up in New England over the course of the 20th century. As other drugs took alcohol’s place as the most feared drugs in the United States, more scientists began to work toward more and better treatments for people living with drug and alcohol addiction.
Today, there are close to 15,000 treatment facilities to treat people living with drug addiction. These places are spread out over all 50 states with the majority of the discharged patients coming from facilities in the state of New York in 2015. Over a million people receive substance abuse treatment every year, but many people are in need of more. The stigma surrounding drug rehabilitation has changed over time. With a new generation of people in the United States that understand that addiction is a disease, not simply a lack of courage or strength, going to drug rehabilitation represents a sense of responsibility, and a willingness to look inwardly for the first solution to an out-of-control life.
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