Author: Alex Pearce
Since the earliest days of my life, it has been drilled into my head that drugs are dangerous, deadly, and a poor decision to make. While in the right context this is largely true, the way in which the United States treats, handles, and “fixes” the drug problem needs to be addressed.
Under the Obama administration, a shift was seen in which the “get tough on crime” policies were altered when it came to drug sentences. In one of his final acts as president, he granted more than 330 commutations for nonviolent drug offenders. According to the deputy Attorney General this was done to restore “proportionality to unnecessarily long drug sentences…making a lasting impact on our criminal justice system.”
The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population but is home to more than 25% of the incarcerated population. Over one million drug arrests were made in 2014. In both the federal and state prison systems, a majority of those serving drug sentences are black or latino. Finally, between 1993 and 2009, each year more individuals were incarcerated for drug law violations than violent crimes. Moreover, typical rehab options such as AA only work for 5-8% of those who participate in it. America is lacking in drug treatment and rehabilitation. Incarceration is not the answer.
When recently interviewed about this topic, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claimed that he is looking to institute maximum sentencing and zero-tolerance policies in order to combat the drug problem and the subsequent crime that follows. I think Mr. Sessions is forgetting that crime is at an all-time low in the United States. Moreover, “get-tough” policies do not work. In 2006, when Mexico started their war on drugs, homicide rates doubled, over 150,000 people were killed, and 28,000 civilians went missing. Compare that to Portugal where drugs have been decriminalized. Though use of marijuana has increased, heroin addiction is down by 70% and overdose deaths have decreased significantly.
Drug use is a health issue, not a criminal issue. Are we to expect that drug use will decline with continued incarcerations and use of failing rehabilitation methods? If we are so concerned with the health and well-being of our citizens, why do we continue to impose social and economical barriers to those facing issues with drugs? I am not suggesting that we turn a blind-eye to those who are in need or that we ignore the dangers of drugs. Rather, we need to recognize the health and societal issues associated with drugs.
Incarcerations, employment barriers, and lackluster rehabilitation methods are all that face an individual involved in the drug world. Imagine if everyone with a drinking problem or a gambling problem was prevented from getting treatment, thrown into a cell, and then expected to become a productive member of society. Sure, there are cases where incarceration is the answer. However, we need to realize that rehabilitation, decriminalization, and education are better answers than putting somebody in jail for 10 years.
If the drug war policies were successful, we would not still be seeing growing incarceration rates, a heroin epidemic, or cartel wars. If stigmas of race and income weren’t placed on the drug scene, we wouldn’t be seeing blacks incarcerated at a rate 3x that of whites while whites are overdosing at a rate 3x that of blacks. If policing methods were successful and rehabilitation resources sound, we wouldn’t be spending a record-breaking $31 billion annually on the drug war. Clearly, something is wrong.
The Nixon-Era drug policies are outdated and costly. Moreover, they were only created to stop Nixon’s “two enemies: the anti-war left and black people.” I am not suggesting that we let drug users run wild and ignore the implications of drug use. Instead of using that $31 billion knocking down doors and making arrests, we should educate our youth, provide treatment and rehabilitation to those struggling with drug addiction and work to create employment and educational opportunities that will take the places of needles and pipes.
Fear tactics are not working. Building a wall will not work because no matter how tough immigration, customs enforcement, and other border laws have gotten, drugs still find their way into the country through any means possible. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Drugs are brought into and out of the United States illegally through means such as air travel, legal border crossings, etc. To put it simply, extreme drug laws, while making one drug illegal, create a demand for a new drug which in turn facilitates a supply that cannot be stopped by creating a wall around our country or by deeming the drug as illegal. The legality of the drug is not what determines its use, rather it is the mental and physical state of the user. That is what needs to be corrected.
We need to work to decriminalize low-level drugs such as marijuana. We need to stop acting as if drug use is only prevalent in low-income, minority communities. Politicians need to stop comparing marijuana to heroin, pretending addiction can be solved with handcuffs, and acting as if our judicial system is top-notch. As a country, we need to come to terms that the way we handle drug-use is barbaric and ineffective. In order to create an environment that rejects drug use, we need to work to help one another, not create a war where nobody wins.