SINCE the official beginning of the Drug War in 1971, the law enforcement community in the United States (police, prosecutors, prisons) have spent just over a trillion dollars. Tens of thousands of citizens have died, sacrificed on the altar of this modern prohibition. Millions have suffered from a drug arrest which haunts them forever. And the difference on the streets? Per federal research – drugs are cheaper, stronger and “readily available” to America’s youth. As a street cop and detective in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, I had a ring-side seat to this unfolding social disaster.

Like most wars, the Drug War began with a high moral purpose (save people from some harmful drugs) and a modest budget. As drugs remained readily available, government’s response ratcheted up in the 80s; mandatory minimums, hundreds of prisons built, civil asset forfeiture, no-knock drug raids, drug war exceptions to rules of search and seizure. We received any and all laws we asked for to make this prohibition effective. All for naught. Drug prices continued to drop, strength increased and teens were able to buy anything from cannabis to heroin with ease.

As an officer, I witnessed a large number of officers spend much of their patrol time searching car after car for an arrest mostly involving cannabis. Back at the donut shop, they said they found personal amounts of cannabis in every 10th car. From time to time I would mention how drunk drivers actually killed people. These officers responded that command liked pot busts due to good headlines, as well as the money and vehicle seizures related to a drug arrest. The motto “Protect and Serve” became a quaint, meaningless phrase. Informally, we became a profession of “Search and Arrest".

A chat over a beer with a friend in 1987 illustrates well the failure of this strategy/policy. Christine had become a narcotics officer the year before. Excitedly, she recounted some war stories of good busts, lots of dope confiscated, over a hundred drug houses shut down, etc. Into the second beer she became a bit quiet. She said it was so discouraging. Despite all the team’s efforts, the number of drug houses in the city had increased and the street prices of all drugs had dropped (indicating over-supply).

Police officers learned quickly the absolute futility of our efforts. Drug dealers accepted, as a condition of their employment, death and long prison terms. Thus, the massive punishment – mandatory minimums – had zero impact on the drug trade. Every dealer arrested, shot or killed was quickly replaced. In the beginning we cheered when a dealer killed another dealer – a "two-fer", we called it. One dealer dead, the other going to prison. Gradually, our cheering became a shrug of the shoulders. Nothing made a difference.

As we saw the uselessness of our actions, many narcotics officers became ever more aggressive, to compensate for no tangible gains. They approached citizens in large cities, almost demanding they be allowed to buy drugs. Confrontations often led to violence and the death of citizens. In 2015 we watch in horror as officers shoot and kill someone suspected of selling a few grams of cannabis.

To maintain the public’s interest and financial support ($80 billion in 2015), during the first 30 years we put on a dog and pony show for the cameras. Every couple of weeks we laid out a table full of guns, a table covered in drugs and another overflowing with money. This to demonstrate yet another "victory" in our efforts. In the background we would show a dozen people arrested during the drug bust. As the new century started, we stopped doing this, as the public accepted the fact that all drug busts were without meaning.

In the 21st century the ground is fertile in Scotland and elsewhere to begin the debate on how to treat dangerous drugs. The public knows that this drug prohibition is an abject failure. As reported in the 2010 Lancet report, these prohibited drugs are dangerous, even deadly. That is not the issue. The fundamental question is how does the involvement of the police and prisons improve anything?

Luckily the creator of the Drug War (the USA) is experiencing a fundamental shift in the public’s attitude towards drug abuse. Why? Starting in the 2000s with methamphetamine, and more recently with heroin, white people are now the vast majority of citizens using and abusing illegal, hard drugs. When mostly people of colour were being arrested and or dying from illegal drugs, the establishment did not care or passed laws to lock them up. The hypocrisy stinks. Let’s make drug abuse a medical issue, handled by doctors – this is the new cry across the land.

As a lobbyist in the US Congress since 2005, I have challenged each member to state one benefit, one advantage of drug prohibition. Not-one has ever been able to. Their silence is deafening.

Howard Wooldridge is a retired Michigan police detective who has campaigned for an end to the War on Drugs