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ADHD and the War on Drugs

Over four decades ago, President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” which escalated efforts to fight drug abuse through law enforcement, incarceration, and supply-side interventions in source countries. The initiative was a major success: it put drug traffickers out of business and ended illegal drug use in the United States.

Just kidding. It’s unclear whether the law-and-order approach to drugs has accomplished much at all besides putting a lot of people in prison. Skeptics might suggest that if something hasn’t worked after forty years, perhaps it’s time to try a new angle.

MarijuanaIn the 1990s, when the Clinton administration bankrolled a major study on cocaine policy, the report came back with the finding that treatment was twenty-three times more effective than supply-side law enforcement and consequently recommended reallocating money from the “War on Drugs” to treatment for drug users. Unsurprisingly, politicians declined to explain this finding to the public, deciding that it was safer to not rock the boat and keep on with business as usual.

Like any war, the “War on Drugs” is expensive. A 2010 report from economists affiliated with the Cato Institute estimated that the government spends over $40 billion a year enforcing drug prohibition. The report calculated that if drugs were legalized, not only would the government have an additional cool forty billion to play around with, they would also have that much additional tax revenue, assuming drugs were taxed similarly to alcohol and tobacco.

You can probably tell that I’m not the War on Drugs’s number one cheerleader. But my beef with the War on Drugs isn’t just that it’s stupid and ineffective. It’s that people with ADHD are among the many different groups of people that have gotten caught in the War on Drugs’s forty plus years of crossfire.

Most people who have ever been prescribed ADHD medication can tell you that there’s a general paranoia around the way such prescriptions are handled. Ask to be evaluated for ADHD, and you’re going to be evaluated not just for what medical condition you have but also for the possibility that you’re drug seeking. The less you fit the profile of what someone with ADHD is “supposed” to look like, the more you’ll come under scrutiny.

Because of the layers of suspicion you may have to work through before being written a script for a Schedule II substance, something as simple as switching doctors can be a major hurdle if you have ADHD. At some colleges, there are blanket restrictions on prescribing ADHD meds, so if you want to get treated for ADHD through your school’s health services, you’re SOL.

All of this because criminalizing drugs has had the ironic effect of turning medical professionals into a go-to source for things to get high off of. The sooner we get past the obsession with criminalizing drugs the better, because then doctors can go back to focusing their energies on diagnosing and treating medical conditions rather than being gatekeepers for controlled substances.

Today is 420, and here in California, and it’s the first 420 where pot has been legal. I couldn’t be happier. Not because I’m going to light up today (I’ve got too much work to do!), but because moving from a hysterical drug policy based on law enforcement to a rational one based on treatment is good news for anyone with ADHD.

Image: Flickr/Barry Richmond

ADHD and the War on Drugs

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). ADHD and the War on Drugs. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Apr 2017
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