Photo courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Currently on trial in New York City is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord also known as “El Chapo.” According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel supplied more than 80 percent of the drugs that flooded U.S. streets. Despite Guzman being captured, drug abuse consistently continues in America and the Sinaloa Cartel continues to earn billions.

Countless other suppliers like Guzmán have been caught over the years and yet America’s “War on Drugs,” which was declared in 1971, is a failure. It’s failed because according to the DEA, over the past four decades, American taxpayers have spent $1 trillion on the “War on Drugs” while only capturing less than 10 percent of all illicit drugs. These results have brought us a steady disappointment. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug addiction rates since 1971 have all been constant while at the same time 2.2 million Americans have gone to prison. All that’s come from this conflict is mass incarceration and a massive overdose crisis. The U.S. government treated it like a supply issue and failed. That’s because drug cartels like Guzmán’s aren’t the problem; we are. The common saying, “There is no supply without demand,” applies to this situation.

Our wild abuse of substances has run rampant. A report from the U.S. Surgeon General suggests that 21 million Americans struggle with drug abuse and that every 19 minutes an American dies from substance abuse. Instead of focusing our attention on Mexico and the suppliers, we need to devote more to providing resources.

Investments in education could go a long way in preventing drug abuse for at risk adolescents. A report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggested that young people in general who have trouble at home or have friends and family who abuse drugs are more likely to abuse substances. Research based programs that are designed for youth who have already started using drugs and selective programs for groups of children who have specific circumstances are a key to stopping the next generation from abusing drugs. The National Institute of Health has proven that further specializing education to adolescents who are at risk can lower the percentage that go on to abuse substances.

Mass incarceration by the American government has produced no results. Instead we should focus on implementing programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). LEAD is a pre-arrest program which was implemented in Ithaca, New York. It focuses on prevention, treatment and harm reduction in communities. An evaluation of the program found “reductions in heroin use and overdose deaths, more stable housing outcomes and a reduction in arrests and time spent in jail for those actively engaged in intensive case management programs.” Because of programs like LEAD, fewer families cycle in and out of prison. Instead of just getting arrested for possession of drugs, programs like this one address the root problems that cause the substance abuse.

Supporters of the “War on Drugs” have a valid concern by thinking that ceasing all operations against Mexican drug cartels will result in them running wild. The problem is that they’re already moving as they please. Despite America’s best attempts at stopping them, their ability to traffic in the billions and create violence has been unstoppable. A report on the death toll from the Mexican government suggests that 200,000 related deaths have occurred in the past twelve years.

I believe the way to cripple these suppliers is to stop fighting the “War on Drugs” against external enemies and to start fighting our internal ones. Investing the same resources that we’ve invested in the past four decades on fighting drug cartels should be invested in finding reasons why people turn to drugs as well as finding solutions to these problems.

It is undoubtedly a good thing Guzmán is standing trial for the wrongs he’s committed. A ruthless criminal is off the streets. However, we can’t assume that capturing someone like him is going to completely hurt the drug trade. If we truly want justice to the “War on Drugs,” we need to take a look at ourselves and focus on smarter solutions that treat the roots of the problem.

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