Although the War on Drugs is presented as a war on producers and dealers, in practice the focus has always been on the much easier target – the users. (Many of these are small-scale dealers themselves, selling to a handful of people in order to fund their own habits.) Addicts have a disease and are not in control of their actions, so putting them in prison is not only inhumane and extremely expensive, but it’s completely useless in helping them manage their addiction. (Only a fifth of the 50,000 problem drug users who end up in jail in the UK every year are given treatment.)
Getting a criminal record or going to jail reduces the addicts’ chance of being able to rebuild their lives even if they do stop using the drugs. Moreover the stress, boredom, and culture of prison creates more addicts, rather than incentivising them to give up. About 20% of prisoners are addicted to opiates, and 7% try heroin for the first time in jail. Overall, targeting and imprisoning drug users does not reduce demand. In general, criminal sanctions have very little influence on the prevalence of drug use in a population, which seems to be affected more by cultural trends, fashion and norms than the legal framework.
A comparative study of Australian states found that there was no relationship between how punitively the criminal justice system treated cannabis and levels of cannabis use, and this lack of correlation is replicated world-wide. Government-led education programmes, such as the USA’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programme (which also operates in the UK) has been found in some instances to increase drug use among participants in the short-term, probably because the children involved have developed an interest in the substances they’ve been told to “Just Say No” to.
Over the long-term, research has found no difference between participants and non-participants, and in 2001 the US Surgeon General placed the DARE programme in the category “Does Not Work”.