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The War on Drugs is the title of the policy of aggressively pursuing the production, distribution and use of illegal drugs that are abused for pleasurable effects. Since 1971, when President Richard M. Nixon launched the War on Drugs, thousands of people who were in some way involved with illegal drugs have been killed, and millions more have been arrested and imprisoned.
Natural drugs from herbs and plants number in the thousands. Most of these are taken as tonics, stimulants, or medicinally; while others are used for religious purposes. With the advances of chemistry in the 20th century many new drugs were developed. At first medicinal drugs were controlled by governments in order to protect people from unscrupulous purveyors of quack remedies. Then, as new synthetic drugs were sold for their pleasurable effects, many governments began to control the manufacture and distribution of synthetic drugs as well as natural drugs in order to protect the public from drug abuse.
All drugs have some “dramatic” impact on the body after being ingested, inhaled, or injected and reaching the target receptors in the body. Drugs may be classified as depressants, stimulants, steroids, hallucinogens, or opiates. Some forms of these, such as alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, are legal, and others have legitimate medical uses.
Enormous social problems have arisen from the abuse of drugs. People who are addicted often squander their resources, lose moral restraint, and soon engage in a variety of criminal activities. If the drug use reaches a serious level it impedes occupational performances so that productivity is lost, or, in the transportation industry, lives and cargo may be endangered. Drug users involved in work that requires a security clearance may become vulnerable to blackmail.
The value of the illegally sold drugs around the world is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Criminal groups such as the Mafia in Italy have smuggled heroin from Afghanistan or Burma; while drug cartels have smuggled cocaine from South America. The War on Drugs has hindered the traffic in illegal drugs but it has not eradicated it.
The War on Drugs has used a number of environmentally damaging tactics to stop drug trafficking. These have included burning poppy fields, coca tree plantations, and marijuana patches. More damaging has been the use of herbicides to destroy crop areas held by armed local farmers, gangs, and, in some areas, ideologically-driven guerilla bands. In Columbia the aerial fumigation program of the U.S. government has delivered enough herbicides to growing areas to damage fragile ecosystems in some areas of the Amazon Basin and to negatively affect the health of people in the area.
In some areas of Columbia, Mexico, the United States, and other countries, deforestation and destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of crops have resulted. In many cases the deforestation is in delicate rainforests and cloud forests. Some critics believe that the negative environmental impact of the War on Drugs may soon exceed the costs of drug addiction.
- Antonio Escohotado, Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned Age (Inner Traditions, 1999);
- Mike Gray, Drug Crazy: How We Got into This Mess and How We Can Get Out (Taylor and Francis, 2000);
- Michael Kerrigan, War Against Drugs (Mason Crest Publishers, 2002);
- Tamara Roleff, ed., War on Drugs (Thompson Gale, 2004).