Intoxicants have always beguiled humans – there was the Opium trade from China, the temperance movement in reaction to the widespread abuse of alcohol in the early 20th century, and now, problems with prescription opioids and heroine in middle America.
In the 1970s, President Nixon declared a war on drugs, calling it public enemy number one. He created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in order to coordinate all other agencies in their fight against drugs. Thus began the crack down on the large amounts of cocaine flowing into America from South America – namely Colombia. At this point, Colombia’s cocaine industry exploded with violence as drug lords like Pablo Escobar grappled with the police and heads of state.
The Reagan administration ushered in a modernized take on the drug war, with Nancy Reagan launching her ‘Just Say No’ campaign. Meanwhile, Mexico becomes the new conduit for much drug trafficking, and new forms of the drug appear in the United States. Crack, a cheap and highly addicted derivative of cocaine, becomes heavily popular in the early 80’s, particularly in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This drug becomes targeted heavily, particularly after Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, creating mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses with differences in sentencing for crack versus power cocaine. The minority population in prisons explode at this time. This slows nothing down in Colombia – in 1989, Pablo Escobar becomes the seventh-richest man in the world. NAFTA, signed into law by the Clinton Administration, makes Mexico even more important in the drug trade – free trade and traffic between the U.S. and Mexican borders overwhelm U.S. Customs in detecting narcotics. In the 2000’s, the U.S and Mexican authorities begin cracking down on the massive drug trade between the countries, resulting in many kingpins going underground – literally. Several tunnels have been found between Tijuana and San Diego, even in the midst of violence exploding in Mexico and hits against Mexican police by drug lords.
Currently, the ‘War on Drugs’ appears to be ineffective. As of 2013, 9.4% of the American population over the age of twelve had used an illicit drug in the last month – up from 8.3% as of 2002. The increase primarily reflects a rise in the use of marijuana, the most commonly used drug and one that is becoming more legalized each year in the country. While cocaine has declined in the past few years, methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse has increased. In the past decade, doctors became increasingly liberal about prescribing opioids for pain management, leading to a dependent population finding it difficult to find enough pills to maintain their addiction. As the medical and law enforcement community have cracked down on prescription drug abuse, including sting operations on so called pill-mills (where doctors prescribe opioids for any amount of pain, no matter how minor), heroine has become increasingly commonly abused. Some statistics indicate that heroin abuse has tripled between 2007 and 2014.
Currently, opioid abuse is likely the biggest threat facing the country as it involves drug abuse. Doctors should be less quick to prescribe opioid-based medications, and prescriptions should be nationally monitored to prevent addicts from easily shopping around for new pharmacies and new doctors. As the country evolves, it seems a different drug becomes the primary threat and enemy for each new generation. Any guesses on what we will be battling in 20 years?