A New High: A Future Oriented Study of American Drug Policy

Jessica Bress


The United States’ war on drugs has become a war of innovation, as criminals adapt new technologies faster than the government can regulate them.[1] Evaluative analysis of research and literature regarding the U.S. war on drugs indicates that the war is a systemic public policy failure.[2] The problem with losing the war on drugs is twofold. First, the United States has an ineffective drug policy that is not evidence-based, thus producing harmful consequences rather than real benefit to Americans.[3] The second problem is that it makes U.S. drug policy reactive and unprepared for emerging trends shaping the landscape of illicit drugs.

Disruptive technologies ignore conventional societal rules.[4] The history of illicit drug use in the United States is one of resilient adaptation and deviant innovation. A burgeoning technological revolution may change the landscape of the current policy environment with the introduction of such emerging technologies as embodied intelligence augmentation, synthetic biology, unmanned aerial vehicles, and the ability to use 3D printers to create new drugs. The literature on emergent trends and forces is rife with anticipation about how accelerating technological innovation could affect illicit criminal enterprises. It is critical that the United States identify long-term, cyclical forces, and analyze how these forces might influence the environment of illicit drug use in the country.

This thesis answers the question how might emerging technologies and global megatrends converge to affect the future of United States drug policy? Society often portrays drug policy reform through a false dichotomy: prohibition or full legalization. Between these two policy extremes, it is possible to envision alternative and preferred futures. New technologies warrant changing behavioral norms and cultural values. If U.S. drug policy is not adaptable, emerging technologies could ultimately make the ability to regulate illicit drugs obsolete due to digital convergence.

To capture the most relevant uncertainties and driving forces related to the landscape of illicit drug use, this thesis uses a future studies methodology. This methodology facilitates the exploration of present trends and potential systemic interconnections to identify forces that may influence the future. Occurring at the intersection of many trends, megatrends are large, transformative global forces in societal development expected to affect the probable future.[5] The megatrends driving this thesis include globalization, urbanization, internet of things/hyper-connected society, and exponential technological growth.

This research uses a three-point Likert scale to classify emergent variables into three categories: likely (marijuana legalization, synthetic drugs), possible (nootropics, digital currency), and radical (artificial intelligence and brain-computer interfaces/neural stimulation). Combining megatrends with these emergent variables categories, two fictional scenarios underscore the challenges in defining a drug, governing its use, and incorporating ethical considerations into regulatory frameworks. The utility of scenarios is in their ability to highlight irreducible uncertainty and draw attention to the notion that the future is not predetermined.

The future may not emerge as a linear extrapolation of the present. Findings from each scenario underscore a challenge for how society decides to define a “drug.” Furthermore, each scenario highlights the difficulty in regulating emergent forms of drug use, as well as potential ethical issues resulting from these nascent technologies. The United States needs a new social framework to incorporate rapidly growing technological innovations to change and modernize its drug policy.

The fictional thesis scenarios highlight countless interdiction challenges as the internet has revolutionized an already lucrative transnational drug trade in a landscape of increasing global connectedness. Analysis of the fictional scenarios concludes that 1) people use drugs, 2) innovation is outpacing drug policy, and 3) the United States must rethink its approach to drug policy. The country is living through an era of exponential technological growth. The speed at which neoteric technologies emerge is unprecedented and beyond the ability of regulators to govern under current policy frameworks.

This research concludes that a national drug policy should reflect a deliberate system of doctrines leading to the intended outcome of reducing morbidity and mortality caused by drug use. To create a resilient, adaptable drug policy prepared for the future, the United States should decriminalize all drug use and move drug policy from the realm of law enforcement to public health. The federal government should also create an office of the future, as well as a national biotech ethics committee and strategy. Finally, a drug policy framework for the twenty-first century should actively promote expanded access to public and behavioral healthcare.



[1] Marc Goodman, Future Crimes (New York: Anchor Books, 2016), 429.

[2] Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1996), vii.

[3] Fiona Godlee and Richard Hurley, “The War on Drugs Has Failed: Doctors Should Lead Calls for Drug Policy Reform,” BMJ 355 (November 2016): 1, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6067.

[4] Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), 98.

[5] Sue L. T. McGregor, “A Look Inside Creating Home Economics Futures: The Next 100 Years,” International Journal of Home Economics 7, no. 1 (2014): 2.

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