EXPLORING ANOTHER COMPONENT OF AMERICA’S FAILED “WAR ON DRUGS”
By Amy Lazenby || Ever since President Richard Nixon called out drug use as “Public Enemy No. 1,” America has been fighting a losing battle with this so-called enemy.
Mandatory minimum federal sentences for drug offenses were first imposed by the 1951 Boggs Act and enhanced in 1956. Fortunately, Congress saw the error if its ways in 1970 and repealed the Boggs Acts. Then came President Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs” in 1971 (he never was a fan of those “hippies” who were dropping acid and criticizing his administration), and the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973.
The “war” was on, and we began losing it from the start. Then came the idea for a new weapon that might help us win it – mandatory minimum federal sentences for drug offenses.
In the wake of the death of basketball player Len Bias in 1986 from a cocaine overdose, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress saw a political opportunity to get even tougher on drugs in an election year, resulting in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This new federal law implemented mandatory minimum sentences for the possession and distribution of multiple drugs, based solely on the quantities of drugs involved. The idea was to encourage the government to prosecute high level drug offenders, but because the amounts that could trigger a substantial sentence were often much lower than those a high level trafficker would be dealing in, it didn’t help us “win the war.” If it had, we wouldn’t still be fighting it – and losing.
What federal drug laws have done instead is to lead to the destruction of our society in a very serious way – we lock our people up, and we pay for it.
Another wrinkle to this problem is the concept of “substantial assistance,” more commonly referred to as “snitching.” One of the ways that the U.S. Justice Department gets testimony in drug cases is to offer accused drug offenders the possibility of a more lenient sentence if they testify against another accused drug offender. An exception for a mandatory minimum sentence exists when the government says that a drug offender has given “substantial assistance” to the government in the prosecution of another drug offender. Do you want jailhouse snitches, who may or may not be telling the truth in return for a reduced sentence, to determine how federal drug sentences are handed down? I don’t.
In response to criticism by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in 1994, Congress began permitting federal judges to exempt certain non-violent, first time drug offenders from these mandatory minimum penalties, but that hasn’t done much to curb the problem. While fighting this war, we have incarcerated record numbers of our own people. In fact the U.S. actually has the highest incarceration rate in the world – while Americans only represent about 5 percent of the world’s population, one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the United States).
As this War on Drugs has continued under every President since Nixon, more and more people are being convicted for nonviolent drug offenses, overburdening our prison system and our budgets. We are also the wasting human capital in the form of those who are shuffled in and out of a broken penal system instead of going to school, getting jobs, and contributing to society in meaningful ways.
As of 2010, approximately half a million people were in prison for a drug offense compared to 40,000 in 1981 – an increase of 1,100 percent. In the years since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the United States penal population rose from around 300,000 to more than two million, and it’s growing larger every day. That level of incarceration and the judicial process it took to get those folks convicted, all taxpayer funded, isn’t cheap. We spend $60 billion a year on maintaining our prisons alone. I’d argue that, in the case of non-violent drug offenders, that’s a waste of money.
So, should we just legalize drugs as many have called for and put an end to this failed “war” and colossal waste of resources? Perhaps we should.
Have we learned nothing from the disastrous effects of Prohibition? Some people use drugs recreationally with no adverse side effects, and others get addicted and suffer serious consequences – as do the people who care about them. Instead of criminalizing drug use, which overburdens our judicial and prison system, why aren’t we treating it solely as a medical issue?
I’d argue that addiction to any drug (illegal or legal) is an illness that needs to be treated, not prosecuted. Any assault on drug addiction should be in the form of medical treatment, not criminalization. It takes about $30,000 per year per person to provide drug rehabilitation treatment to prisoners – all taxpayer funded – and when funds dry up, there is no drug treatment in prisons. By contrast, the average cost of drug rehabilitation treatment outside of a prison costs about $8,000 per year per person. Some of this treatment could be publicly funded, and some privately funded, but it’s still far less than the prison rehab figure, which is all publicly funded.
Regardless of whether we decriminalize all drugs, or just some (I don’t have an opinion on which ones should be legalized), we must acknowledge that our War On Drugs was lost a long time ago. We are throwing money that we certainly don’t have to waste down a bottomless pit when we enforce laws that allow users and low-level dealers (who are often users themselves and only sell to support their habits) to be incarcerated. We must change our approach to drug use in this country and acknowledge that some people can use drugs responsibly, and others will get addicted. When addiction occurs, we must see it not as a criminal issue, but as a health issue, and treat it as such. This is a far more effective way to deal with the problem than criminalization, both from an economic standpoint and from the standpoint of not wasting the most important capital we have in this country – our people.
Amy Lazenby is a commentator for FITSNews. Follow/ contact her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.