Ending “War on Drugs” Language to Promote Policy Reform

Gwen Ifill of the Lehrer News Hour recently commented, almost blandly, that she hardly heard anyone talking about a “War on Drugs” any more. This is true in many policy circles, but this label and its associated linguistic terms still survive in the media and in the culture. Sending this language to the dustbin of history would be a worthy goal for policy reformers.

Some people would respond “I will not stop calling it a war on drugs until war-like policy X is stopped!” (Where X is overcrowded prisons, no knock raids by police in riot gear etc.).

This may be a logical fallacy however, in that it assumes that the language itself doesn’t justify the objected-to policy. As any careful student of politics knows — and as cognitive psychology research teaches — words can cue us consciously and unconsciously to think that certain actions are more or less justifiable. We feel differently about a “death tax” versus an “estate tax”, a “homeless person” versus a “vagrant”. Sometimes it’s not even the literal content of the words that affect us but the images and emotions they evoke: Clinicians have more punitive reactions to “alcohol abuse patients” than “problem drinking patients” simply because the word “abuse” evokes violent images, fear and anger in the listener.

War on Drugs language has similar effects, both in ways that are obvious and in ways that operate below the level of consciousness. If everyone simply stopped using “drug war” language, doors that are closed to us might swing open, including in places we that were literally unthinkable “in a time of war”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Ending “War on Drugs” Language to Promote Policy Reform”

  1. &gt Clinicians have more punitive reactions to “alcohol abuse patients” than “problem drinking patients” simply because the word “abuse” invokes violent images, fear and anger in the listener.

    Which is doubtless the reason why, even today, our political elites and their appointees absolutely refuse to ever, under any circumstances, admit that there is any kind of nonmedical use of any psychoactive substance (other than a few arbitrary exceptions) which is not also "abuse." I submit that there will be no real progress toward rational policy while this remains true… as long as nonmedical drug use (other than the few arbitrary exceptions) is viewed as fundamentally illegitimate, an idiotic preoccupation with coercion will continue to drive policy.

    On a related note, it recently occurred to me that the last time we seemed so close to repealing cannabis prohibition, back in the late '70s, there was a lot of "marijuana's not a drug, it's an herb" going around. People have been trying for a long time to create a distinction between "soft" and "hard" drugs, with cannabis being the prototype of the former. As a way of moving policy, that apparently hasn't worked, and the solution will probably amount to siding with the "not a drug, an herb" group (as much as I despise that kind of thinking).

  2. Although Kerlikowske was mocked for it, publicly calling an "end to the war" I think may have positive effects within federal agencies, however, I think the term holds a lot of power in moving public opinion and I don't blame reform groups for using it.

    Then there's the reality: Besides a few liberal havens, American police departments absolutely use war-like tactics and continually get new toys, new police powers, and yearly federal grants incentivizing these actions.

  3. I think you could potentially make the case for a change in rhetoric for domestic approaches to users, and even possibly localised supply enforcent – but move to the international arena and supply-side drug enforcement is becoming increasingly war-like in many key repects; the conflation with the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan, the miltarisation of crop eradication and anti-drug efforts, the military targetted killings of key traffickers, and the level of armed violence associated with police and military drug enforcement in Mexico for example.

    In this context the phrase war on drugs is more apporpriate now than ever, and whilst it may sit uncomfortably with some user based public health initiatives (harm redcution, treatment diversion and so on) the fact is that even these operate within the same punitive legal framework. the difference is a matter of degree and context – but qualitatively different to the way we deal with alcohol or tobacco users for example.

    That drugs have long been presented as a 'threat' (be it to health, 'our borders' or our children) – indeed often, and still described as 'evil' (for example in the preamble of the 1961 Un single convention) has been a key part of the crusading narrative that has perpetuated the policy. The implicitly righteous fight against evil sits well with the war rhetoric – one of the reasons that the policy has been so effectively immunised against meaningful scrutiny for so long. I dont think this can be blamed on those critics who still call it a war by those who now choose not to – even thoough they are still fighting it.

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