How Drugs Won the War on Drugs

Here's to 50 years of failure.

On a shelf in the VICE News Washington DC bureau, there’s a glass bong signed by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after he proposed federally decriminalizing marijuana in 2018. 

At the time, Schumer declined to rip the bong himself, saying, “maybe I’m a little old.” But he pledged to support lifting the criminal penalty for others who might want to give it a go. 


Three years later, Schumer’s still struggling to get the Senate to follow his lead.

Instead, he’s yet another politician to publicly admit the war on drugs has been a misguided debacle — and to show just how hard it will be to stop. 

“The war on drugs has really been a war on people, particularly people of color,” Schumer said this summer. “I will use my clout as majority leader to make this a priority in the Senate.” 

Recent indications suggest he hasn’t yet been able to get all Democratic Senators on board with legalizing weed, let alone the 10 Republicans he’d need to smash through a filibuster. 

Never mind that the drug war has cost over $1 trillion and filled America’s courts and prisons with petty offenders, without achieving its ends. 

Drug production and use are both up. Colombian cocaine production has soared to record highs in recent years. So have deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S., which rose above 93,000 in 2020.

In some terrifyingly important ways, the war on drugs is raging as strong as ever. Police still make over a million arrests per year for drug possession. The drug war still has wartime funding: The national drug control budget is set to hit a historic $41 billion in 2022, an increase of over 1,000 percent in four decades. That doesn’t include $182 billion the U.S. spends every year on mass incarceration, when one in five prisoners is locked up on a drug offense. 


In 2019, more than half a million people were arrested for possession of marijuana, more than the number of people arrested for violent crime. 

Statistics like these run at odds with the recent trend of loosening cannabis laws at the state level. So far, 36 states allow medicinal marijuana, and 18 states plus DC allow for full-on recreational use. 

A few places are going beyond weed. In February, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, LSD, oxycodone, and other drugs — handing out $100 fines or a health assessment that could lead to addiction counseling. And since March, Washington, D.C. has decriminalized plant-and-fungus based psychedelics like magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. 

In Vancouver, vigilantes are handing out tested supplies of heroin, cocaine and meth, defying the law in an attempt to stop overdoses. 

Yet consider how the U.S. has reacted to the rise of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times stronger than morphine that’s led to a deadly wave of accidental overdoses.

According to the CDC, opioids were involved in more than 70 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2019. And 73 percent of those opioid-involved deaths were from synthetic opioids. 

Since 2011, 45 states have proposed legislation to increase penalties for fentanyl. Thirty-nine of those states, plus DC, have actually passed it.


In May, President Joe Biden signed an order extending a ban on chemical substances that look and act like fentanyl, called “analogues” — even though Democratic Senators and a wide range of activist groups urged him not to, saying he’d just be prolonging the failed war. 

And even in California, a state leading the way on loosening cannabis restrictions, weed remains illegal for a special class of people: prisoners. 

Five men convicted of having marijuana in prison in California went to court to point out that the state voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis in 2016.

In August, California’s supreme court ruled against them.

Meanwhile, politicians seem to sense they won’t be punished by voters for failure to act to end the war on drugs. 

The majority of states that now allow recreational use of marijuana got there through public referendums, rather than through leadership at the top. The public, oddly, has signalled that it will vote both to decriminalize cannabis — and to support politicians who aren’t ready to go there yet themselves. 

Or, as former President Barack Obama put it: “Nobody ever lost an election because they were too tough on crime.” 

The upshot is that 50 years after former President Richard Nixon declared the official start to the War on Drugs during a speech in the summer of 1971, there seems to be little hope of the war ending anytime soon.