The American war on drugs has cost taxpayers at least a trillion dollars. For decades, it has put away mothers and fathers, husbands and daughters, giving the United States one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Then-President Richard Nixon first identified drugs as a top target in 1969 and more formally declared war in 1971. What has this four-decade battle really gotten us?

Stronger and cheaper drugs.


So says a study this week by researchers at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy that was published in the British Medical Journal Open.

The academics from the University of British Columbia looked at drug use in the United States over roughly two decades (1990 to 2009) and discovered a correlation between the war and the availability of more affordable, more potent street narcotics.

For example, the researchers say, the purity of cocaine was found to have increased by 11 percent. The purity of heroin: 60 percent.

Credit: Better, faster, stronger. Photo by Nanette Gonzalez for LA Weekly.

Credit: Better, faster, stronger. Photo by Nanette Gonzalez for LA Weekly.

The price of cocaine decreased by 80 percent. The price of heroin? Down 81 percent.

Marijuana potency increased by 161 percent (but you already know this, because you live in the medical cannabis center of America). Its price decreased 86 percent, the academics say.

Good for you, maybe. Not so good for the long arm of the law.

The study's main author, Evan Wood of the University of British Columbia:

These findings add to the growing body of evidence that the war on drugs has failed. We should look to implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. With the recognition that efforts to reduce drug supply are unlikely to be successful, there is a clear need to scale up addiction treatment and other strategies that can effectively reduce drug-related harm.

But while the war has been a failure, the researchers write, it has been good for the buyer — provided you never get caught.

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