War on Drugs in Rural America

June 14, 2016

President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one,” calling for a “war on drugs” 45 years ago. These famous phrases were taken from a larger speech made during a press conference on June 18, 1971. What was it about these two phrases that stuck out to the media and caused them to plaster them on newspapers, radio, and TV?

In my work as the Sioux County Sheriff I’ve been interviewed often. I’m always fascinated how a 15 minute interview is condensed into a 30 second, or less, sound byte. What is it that the media picked up on in those 30 seconds? Why did the media pull out those three words from everything President Nixon said in his press conference? Was it because the United States was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War and the word “war” stood out? Or was it because drugs had truly become “public enemy number one?”

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I remember watching the news accounts of the Vietnam War on TV; including the protests and riots here in the United States. Along with the war, protests and riots, there was a rise in a liberal counterculture. Many of us remember images of young hippies creating their own communities where they generated new music, embraced the sexual revolution and explored recreational drug use. Cannabis, LSD, heroin, and mushrooms became the drugs of choice. I remember the intense public fears caused by the use of psychedelic music mixed with drugs that created altered states of consciousness. There were numerous drug overdoses and deaths. Drug abuse truly was on the rise – we were afraid.

I’ve recently been asked if there still is a “war on drugs?” and is that war going on here in rural America? My answer to both of those questions is yes.

I’ve lived all my 57 years of life here in rural America; 37 of those years I’ve worked in the law enforcement profession. I can tell you that drug abuse is one of our leading problems in Sioux County in northwest Iowa. Here are some of the issues (and problems) and why we continue to fight the “war on drugs:”

  • Drug abuse leads to fractured families, domestic abuse, neglected children, lifelong effects on children and a crowded foster care system. There is also a strong correlation between drug abuse in the family and sexual abuse of minors within the home.

  • Our society is becoming more and more tolerant of marijuana use, adopting the attitude that it’s a victimless crime or believing that if it doesn’t affect us personally it doesn’t matter. The truth is marijuana is more dangerous than it was 45 years ago. It’s stronger, possibly causing hallucinations. It’s also a gateway drug, leading to stronger drugs. This attitude has already opened the door to widely accepted recreational drug use.

  • Even though we won many battles against methamphetamine 10 years ago, it’s now making a comeback. Meth is extremely dangerous, causing all kinds of mental and physical health problems.

  • Many people are driving under the influence of illegal or abused drugs, with deadly consequences.

  • Some people within our communities have a tendency to focus on personal image and success. When that happens, problems within the community are ignored, unless it affects someone directly. Consequently many adopt an attitude that says, “I mind my own business; I don’t want to get involved.”

With that attitude people who may have information about illegal drug activity don’t report it to law enforcement officers. They also stay away from helping the drug abuser get the help he/she may need.

  • Prescription drugs have also been a source of drug addiction problems. Prescription drugs that are derivatives of opiates (OxyContin, hydrocodone, Vicodin, etc.) are prescribed for patients to control their pain. Often they’re prescribed freely because it was believed they were non-addictive. Patients were prescribed as much as was needed to be free from pain. Now that the health profession is more aware of possible addiction to opioids and other prescription drugs, they have become more cautious in prescribing them, especially to patients who have been managing pain for extended periods. Unfortunately this creates a market for illegal drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and unlawful prescription drugs as substitutes for the opioids.

The war on drugs cannot be fought solely by law enforcement officers. We continue to need help at the community level, including the healthcare system. The criminal justice system has its parameters and it needs the penalties that have been established in order to create a deterrent. Unfortunately, by the time law enforcement agencies come into contact with drug offenders they’ve been submerged in the addiction for years, making it extremely difficult to help them. We need the use of other resources; such as, well trained, experienced, and passionate counselors who will establish and coordinate treatment for the drug abuser. This will help those affected by drug abuse to experience reinforcement; to understand the larger picture of the effects of drug abuse on themselves, their loved ones and the community.

Resources should also be afforded to community businesses to employ those in a drug treatment program. The employer could in turn help the drug abuser develop a vocation; they could be a mentor to the abuser and encourage them to set life goals. Once they complete the process, the drug abuser themselves may be given opportunities to be mentors or consultants for the program.

While the war on drugs may still be “public enemy number one” 45 years later, we have the power to end the war by coming together as a community to provide the resources and support to make a lasting change in our neighborhoods.

About the Author
  • Sheriff Dan Altena resides in Sioux Center, Iowa, with his wife Sandi. They have seven children. Dan began his career in law enforcement with the Orange City, Iowa Police Department in 1979. He worked there for two years. He then served two years with the Sioux Center, Iowa Police Department. In 1983 Dan took a position on the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy sheriff. He has held the positions of Patrol Deputy, Sergeant, Lieutenant and Chief Deputy before being elected Sheriff of Sioux County in 2004. He took Office on January 3, 2005. Dan attended Sioux Center High School at Sioux Center, Iowa. He attended Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City, Iowa studying Police Science. He graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in 1981. He has attended many schools and seminars pertaining to the field of law enforcement. He is also a graduate of the F.B.I. Law Enforcement Executive Development (L.E.E.D.S) School. Dan believes law enforcement should have a strong sense of public service; he has dedicated his career to serving people. His desire as sheriff is to provide trusted leadership thereby developing a sheriff’s office of professional caring personnel who will serve and protect the citizens of Sioux County.

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