Drug Abuse as a Global Social Issue

Mar 23, 2008

Drug Abuse as a Global Social Issue

The last two centuries have brought about sweeping changes that improved life for countless people and societies. Advancements in science and technology as well as changes in the way people think have made life for many longer, easier, and more fulfilling. But the 21 st century is far from the utopia many in the past envisioned it would be. Right now, the world is gripped by the raging COVID-19 pandemic , which has not only claimed millions of lives and infected more but also ravaged the global economy. But COVID is not the only problem the world faces today. Even before the pandemic emerged, there were already other problems of similar magnitude facing the world, one of which is the issue of drug abuse. As this term paper will show, this is a problem that exists in virtually every country. Despite massive efforts to stamp out the trade of illegal drugs, drug abuse remains a global social issue that eats away at millions of people’s individual health and the welfare of nations, a fact that necessitates new and often counterintuitive approaches.

What is drug abuse?

To understand why drug abuse is such a tremendous problem, it is necessary to first understand what drug abuse is. Drug abuse is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like substance abuse, drug addiction, drug use, and more recently psychoactive substance misuse. While there are differences in their respective definition, these conditions are often related and have significant overlaps. According to the World Health Organization [WHO], this condition is defined as the “Use of a substance for a purpose not consistent with legal or medical guidelines, as in the non-medical use of prescription medications” (WHO, 2021a). Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] defines drug addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain” (NIDA, 2018). Differences between the definitions notwithstanding, it can be said that drug abuse is the use of drugs for purposes contrary to prescription and this includes the use of illegal and regulated substances.

What qualifies as drug abuse, however, changes over time. Marijuana and drug abuse , for instance, were inseparable for many decades. Possession, trade, and use of marijuana were all criminalized, which resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of millions. However, research into the medical purposes of marijuana led not only to the reconsideration of the tightness of access to the substance but also to a deep foray into its reputation. Findings of numerous studies not only confirmed that marijuana has medicinal properties but also debunked many of the myths surrounding the plant, thus resulting in legalizing medical marijuana as well as marijuana for recreation . Today, drug abuse comes in various forms. For one, it involves the abuse of illegal substances considered as having no therapeutic value and are highly detrimental to well-being such as heroin and cocaine. For another, it also refers to the abuse of prescription drugs. Drug abuse in this case refers to use that exceeds prescription or use for purposes inconsistent with medical advice (Casarella, 2020).

The Drug War

For many decades, the prevalence of drug abuse was considered primarily a criminal issue. As such, acts that constitute possession, use, and trade of illicit drugs were treated as criminal offenses. Governments around the world responded to the crisis by launching drug wars of varying degrees of intensity. In the United States, the war on drugs began in the early 20 th century, when the government started to pass laws classifying drugs and regulating access to those considered dangerous or harmful. For instance, a number of laws were passed in the 1930s to regulate marijuana, such as the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act of 1932 and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970, which classified substances according to use (US Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]). In 1971, then President Richard Nixon officially declared the war on drugs, calling it the country’s biggest enemy. More laws and policies were passed in the subsequent decades, thus giving local, state, and federal governments the instruments for prosecuting drug-related acts. Nixon’s official policy and narrative were adopted by many other countries, thus resulting in a global war on drugs.

Drug Abuse Today

The emphasis on curbing drug addiction resulted in staggering numbers of arrests. But despite all these, the war on drugs has not succeeded in ending the crisis. In fact, numerous studies show that it has only contributed to deepening the problem. For one, the drug war has resulted in the unnecessary arrest, prosecution, or imprisonment of millions. According to recent statistical data, one person in the United States is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds. More than 1.3 million people are arrested every year now for drug possession, which is a three-fold increase in the number of arrests since 1980. The number of people arrested for possession is six times higher than the number of arrests for trading drugs. Moreover, drug-related cases represent 20% of the prison population (Pearl, 2018). The numbers point to the fact that the drug trade is alive and well and that there is a growing market for these substances.

Despite the widespread crackdown on drugs, the drug war has not been successful. In fact, many experts have already admitted that the war on drugs has been a failure (Coyne and Hall, 2017). Statistical data show that more people suffer from drug addiction than before. According to the American Addiction Centers (2021), as high as 38% of the American adult population has struggled with substance abuse. Across the globe, 269 million people used drugs in the past year, while 35 million are currently battling drug addiction (WHO, 2021b). And these are just the reported cases. The war on drugs also exposed institutional discrimination as shown by racial disparities in apprehension and imprisonment. For example, 30% of drug-related arrests are among blacks, despite the fact that blacks represent only 12.5% of drug users. Blacks and Latinos represent 80% of prisoners doing time for drug offenses (Pearl, 2018). Finally, the war on drugs has tremendous financial costs. Over $1 trillion dollars have been spent on the drug war since 1971, but the problem persists to this day (Pearl, 2018).

The failure of the drug war cannot be more apparent today, given how the pandemic has intersected with the problem of drug addiction. While the countless deaths due to the virus are the most salient issue today, the pandemic has also brought new challenges to curbing the rate of drug abuse. Stress, anxiety, and depression are just some of the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic . Unfortunately, these effects have also contributed to an increase in drug dependence. Recent statistical data shows that the number of overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2020 increased by 12% (Morhaim, 2021). As the pandemic takes its toll, people are finding it more difficult to cope, prompting many into taking up drugs or increasing their drug intake.

New Approaches

With millions of people around the globe still battling drug addiction, it is more than evident that the drug war is not the solution to this issue. Criminalizing drugs has resulted in millions of arrests and countless years of incarceration, not to mention exposed institutional racism in the judicial system and related social institutions. With the drug war a failure, different approaches are needed. One such approach is to consider drug addiction as a public health issue. This approach is neither new nor radical. In fact, substance abuse has been considered a mental health disorder for decades now, with the medical community calling upon the government to decriminalize drug use and have those affected treated. Studies have shown that treating this as a public health issue rather than a criminal one is more effective (Volkow et al., 2017). More novel approaches also offer promising results. For instance, researchers have determined that the results from studies that examine the brain development of adolescents can be used for the formulation of educational material (NIDA, 2020). As researchers gain a better understanding of how young people’s minds work, they can design more effective educational material that will encourage the youth to avoid drugs.


The drug war has been raging for over five decades now, but it is yet to produce any significant results. Millions of people around the world still suffer from drug addiction. The punishment-centered approach, with its high number of arrests and imprisonment, has neither stopped the drug trade nor discouraged people from turning to illegal substances. On the contrary, the issue has only grown, exacerbated as it is by the current pandemic. It is therefore time to change the way drug addiction is addressed. Through a combination of effective approaches both old and new, along with others that are in development or yet to emerge, society may finally achieve results that the drug war failed to deliver.


American Addiction Centers. (2021, April 7). Alcohol and drug abuse statistics. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/addiction-statistics

Casarella, J. (2020, September 29). What is substance abuse? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/substance-abuse#1

Coyne, C. J. and Hall, A. R. (2017, April 12). Four decades and counting: The continued failure of the war on drugs. CATO Institute. https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/four-decades-counting-continued-failure-war-drugs

Morhaim, D. (2021, March 8). The war on drugs has not only failed, it’s worsened drug use in America. Baltimore Sun . https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0309-crw-morhaim-drug-war-20210308-3o7ulj6d3jelfmkxv5ftz6r3uu-story.html

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, July). The science of drug use and addiction: The basics. NIH. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-use-addiction-basics

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Preventing drug misuse and addiction: The best strategy. NIH. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/preventing-drug-misuse-addiction-best-strategy

Pearl, B. (2018, June 27). Ending the war on drugs: By the numbers . Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2018/06/27/452819/ending-war-drugs-numbers/

US Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Drug Scheduling. DEA. https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling

Volkow, N. D., Poznyak, V., Saxena, S., and Gerra, G. (2017). Drug use disorders: Impact of a public health rather than a criminal justice approach. World Psychiatry, 16(2), 213-214. doi: 10.1002/wps.20428

World Health Organization. (2021a). Abuse (drug, alcohol, chemical, substance or psychoactive substance). WHO. https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/terminology/abuse/en/

World Health Organization. (2021b). Drugs (psychoactige). WHO. https://www.who.int/health-topics/drugs-psychoactive#tab=tab_1

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