As criticism of the War on Drugs continues to grow, it is essential to analyze the relationship drug policies have had on imprisonment and the impact of the methods used on social perceptions of drug use and substance abuse. In the 1980s, the U.S. held 150 prisoners for every 100,000 citizens. Today, 760 out of every 100,000 adults find themselves behind bars. The War on Drugs has been cited as the primary cause for this drastic increase. With rates significantly higher than all other developed nations combined, one has to question the tactics attributed to upholding the War on Drugs.
One of the most instrumental factors in implementing the war on drugs without large public outcry has been the stigmatization of drug users. In order to combat drug use, authorities have frequently portrayed drug users in a negative light. Drug use is often depicted as a moral failing that leads to further criminal behaviour, leading to the stigmatization and inferior treatment of drug users by society. This tactic instills fear in the public, which results in a negative perception of drug use and a stigma towards drug users. Additionally, blaming drug users for societal problems allows for simple attribution of accountability and blame. One method of stigmatizing drug users is to associate them with groups already marginalized within society, such as minorities and immigrants. When crack cocaine became a serious issue in the 1980s (one of the reasons the War on Drugs was successfully promoted), the majority of the propaganda focused on African Americans.
Research has shown that in the United States, a Caucasian is just as likely to be a drug user or drug dealer as an African American, yet African Americans are disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Racial profiling causes minorities to be at a greater risk for being caught with drugs, and African Americans face sentences 10 times greater than Caucasians found guilty of the same crime.
The drug myths created throughout the War on Drugs have formed a damaging stigma against drug users, diminishing empathy from the general population and virtually eliminating any desire to assist this marginalized group. Not only is this stigma founded on emotions rather than factual evidence, it violates numerous human rights of drug users and forces them to resort to underground groups where they are accepted. This may ultimately lead to further criminal behavior, perpetuating the stigma founded on false pretenses.
This stigma can even be seen in international law. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs declares that ‘addiction’ serves as ‘a serious evil’ and ‘a social and economic danger to mankind.’ Given that addiction is an individual concept, the use of ‘evil’ negatively stigmatizes those partaking in the act, attributing it to addicts in an individual manner. Because this stigmatization creates a stereotype, which results in a prejudice, it does not comply with international human rights standards. In the Universal declaration of Human Rights, the preamble affirms, “the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith…in the dignity and worth of the human person.” Thus, by categorizing millions of people as “evil” and essentially promoting prejudice, this rhetoric has violated one of the main principles of human rights.
The majority of the population is not inclined to address the problems of stigmatized groups, as long as these issues do not extend to them. The stigma against drug users runs deep throughout society and plays a pivotal role in the criminalization tactics of the War on Drugs. Portugal serves as a positive example for reducing stigmatization of drug users through decriminalization. A top Portuguese drug official affirmed that the stigma encouraged by the criminalization of drug use was a considerable barrier to efficient treatment programs and effective education on drug use. Reducing stigma about drug addiction is one of the key ingredients to a successful holistic drug policy and requires both revision to existing law and social perception.