It has been 45 years, three months, and 25 days since Richard Nixon declared that America is engaged in a war on drugs. In the near half decade since his proclamation, the United States has spent more than $51 billion annually in the war on drugs, by 2010 the cost had surpassed over $1 trillion. So the drug problem in the country must assuredly be solved by now with all that money and resources being poured into it to stop it.
The war on drugs has been a failure. There are still major drug problems across this great nation. Looking at just one drug, heroin, there are more than a half a million people who used the deadly drug in 2013, up nearly 150 percent since 2007 and fatalities from heroin-related overdoses have increased by 286 percent.
But instead of treatment, the first inclination is to lock up perpetrators.
An American is arrested for drug possession or use every 25 seconds in the U.S., according to a new report released on Wednesday by the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
On any given day, 137,000 men and women are placed in jail or prison for drug charges other than trafficking, according to data in the report.
You may think that there has been massive progress in the legalization of marijuana, but there are only four states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use. There are 25 states that have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. There are 17 states that have decriminalized marijuana.
Despite the recent wave of decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, more than half of the drug arrests were for possession of cannabis. Not to mention that criminalization drives users underground and creates a dangerous black market.
Because of the stringent laws, there are 1.25 million people who come into contact with the criminal justice system every year for drugs.
Having a criminal record can be a death sentence for peoples’ careers and livelihood. Besides the jail time, they are branded as a drug user and criminal which may get them fired from their job, have difficulty finding a new job, be kicked out of their housing, and have their educational opportunities taken away.
“These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence,” says Tess Borden, the author of the report.
Borden interviewed more than 300 people across the country who have been arrested, prosecuted, or incarcerated for drug possession. One individual Borden interviewed who lived in Texas received 15 years in prison for possession of trace amounts of methamphetamines so insignificant that the drug lab couldn’t even assign a fraction of a weight to it.
“I remember when they said I was guilty in the courtroom, the wind was knocked out of me,” Jennifer Edwards, told Borden from jail in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. Edwards faced a minimum of 20 years to life in prison for possessing a small amount of heroin. “I went, ‘the rest of my life?’ … All I could think about is that I could never do anything enjoyable in my life again. Never like be in love with someone and be alone with them… never be able to use a cell phone… take a shower in private, use the bathroom in private… There’s 60 people in my cell, and only one of us has gone to trial. They are afraid to be in my situation.”
People caught with small amounts of drugs was the majority, 78% of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas in 2015 possessed under a gram, roughly the weight of a paperclip. Having such small quantities generally means you are using for recreational use and not distributing the drug.
Citing the “staggering human rights toll of drug criminalization and enforcement in the U.S.” shown in the report, the two civil rights groups call for full federal and state-level decriminalization of personal drug possession and use. The study found that users are arrested four times as often as sellers.
“While governments have a legitimate interest in preventing problematic drug use, the criminal law is not the solution,” the report says. “Criminalizing drug use simply has not worked as a matter of practice. Rates of drug use fluctuate, but they have not declined significantly since the “war on drugs” was declared more than four decades ago. The criminalization of drug use and possession is also inherently problematic because it represents a restriction on individual rights that is neither necessary nor proportionate to the goals it seeks to accomplish.”
Borden also found racial disparities in conviction rates. In the 39 states where there was sufficient data to analyze, the report found black adults were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white adults, despite roughly equivalent rates of use. The report states that in 2014 black adults accounted for 14% of all drug users nationwide but a third of those arrested for drug possession. In Manhattan, black people were 11 times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug possession.
The report argues that the first step should be treatment and not criminalization, especially since throwing people in jail has neither curbed substance abuse nor drug sales. Drug use rates remain mostly unchanged from Nixon’s time.
“HRC and the ACLU are not condoning and encouraging drug use. We’re saying when someone chooses to put something in their body, that’s a personal choice, and the state shouldn’t be intervening if they’re not hurting other people. The truth is most jails and prisons aren’t providing the medically required treatment for drug dependence that people deserve. It flies in the face of liberty to say you should be incarcerated to get treatment.”
From the report:
Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime. More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year. And despite officials’ claims that drug laws are meant to curb drug sales, four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as are arrested for selling them.
You shouldn’t have to be put in a prison cell to get help with drug addiction.
Instead of a war, why not wage a campaign of compassion and treatment.
You can see the up-to-the-second updates on America’s war on drugs here.