Substance abuse is a serious societal problem and an important public health issue. Drug and alcohol addiction disrupts the social fabric, damages the economy, overtaxes the health care system and compromises the harmony and integrity of communities. In short, substance abuse is not exclusively a personal concern, and public institutions at the local, state and federal levels have been forced to deal with its consequences.
In reaction, laws have been passed designed to control and limit the availability and distribution of intoxicating and mind-altering chemicals, and a number of drugs have been banned outright. Safety rules have also been enacted that protect consumers of alcohol, tobacco products and pharmaceutical medications by requiring these substances to be precisely and accurately labeled. A variety of government agencies have funded studies that have helped quantify the risks associated with excessive and irresponsible drug and alcohol consumption, backed by public relations campaigns designed to disseminate facts about substance abuse. Over the past decade in particular, federal, state and local governments have begun to take a greater interest in promoting treatment and rehabilitation as the best remedy for alcoholism and drug addiction, and much of the funding currently available for treatment services is obtained through public sources.
The federal government has taken the leading role in the collective fight against drug and alcohol abuse. Federal agencies that have been assigned the task of monitoring the manufacture, marketing and distribution of drug and alcohol products include: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which monitors the safety and quality of pharmaceutical medications; the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which classifies drugs based on their addictive capacities; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which investigates illegal transactions involving alcohol and tobacco; and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which enforces the laws against illicit substances such as heroin, cocaine and LSD.
Since the 1970s, the government’s efforts to suppress the illicit drug trade have fallen under the broad umbrella of the “War on Drugs”. Drug war rhetoric has sought to define illegal drugs as an intractable enemy that can only be defeated through the use of military-style tactics, including the arrest and prosecution of drug dealers and users, the interdiction of supplies, the disruption of supply lines, border patrols and the formation of international alliances with other countries that also view the drug problem as a matter of national defense.
Over the past four decades hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in the United States to support this ongoing “war,” and while millions of illegal drugs are seized annually and hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently serving prison sentences for drug crimes, rates of illegal drug usage and addiction do not appear to have been appreciably altered as a result of this aggressive and punitive strategy.
The overall orientation of the government’s law enforcement-heavy campaign to control the illegal drug trade has generated great controversy and criticism. A growing recognition that addiction is a disease in need of treatment and not a sign of moral failure, the recent proliferation of drug courts (which defer prison sentences for those convicted of drug crimes if they agree to enter treatment) and the landmark decisions by voters in Colorado and Washington state to legalize the sale and possession of marijuana would seem to signal an impending, if early stage, evolution in public policy on this issue.