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The topic of drug abuse has gained more attention in the media recently, and for good reason. More people are looking at statistics about drug addiction in the United States, which has allowed them to see that the way we handle drug addiction and offenses has not been beneficial. According to the American Addiction Center, in 2014, around 21 and a half million people in the United States dealt with drug abuse. These numbers do not lie: America’s current drug policy needs to change in order to help those who are affected by addiction.
The War on Drugs
America has considerably high rates of arrests when it comes to non-violent drug offenses. A significant factor in the rates of mass incarceration is due to systematic racism. In 1971, Richard Nixon implemented his new drug policy that he called the “War on Drugs." This new policy increased police presence in neighborhoods, specifically those that were populated with people of color. While Nixon claimed it was meant to decrease rates of drug use and overdose, it was clear that it was an intimidation tactic that intentionally targeted black and brown people. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s associates, openly admitted that the War on Drugs was intended to incarcerate people of color:
"You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: The antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
By implementing this drug policy, in which police could raid a home for drugs without alerting its inhabitants that they had a warrant, Nixon was a leader of institutional racism. Although the War on Drugs failed to decrease overdose and drug use, stereotypes about black and brown people and their drug use has continued to influence the amount of people of color who are arrested for non-violent drug charges.
When I was observing social media to find out what people thought about addiction and decriminalization, I saw a tweet that stated, “…the War on Drugs criminalized being black,” and it was a phrase that stuck with me throughout this project. According to Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, the War on Drugs not only had a significant financial cost, but seemingly targeted primarily black men, which has reinforced ideas of racism.
Overall, the War on Drugs did virtually nothing to decrease the harms associated with drug addiction, but instead enforced racism and classism through the criminal justice system. The costs of institutional racism are significantly high. Because of mass incarceration, more taxpayer money went towards keeping people in prison rather than giving them a chance to live better lives. The War on Drugs had a negative impact on America in the 1970s, and it still continues to affect how drug users live today.
One of the main goals of the War on Drugs was to criminalize certain drugs in order to target different individuals. I believe that one of the best things that we as a country can do is to decriminalize all drugs. Of course, decriminalization is not the same as legalization, although they seem similar. In cases of legalization, drugs like marijuana would have to be regulated as they are in the states it has been legalized in so far. This means that the state would regulate it and sell it, much like when prohibition of alcohol came to an end. Decriminalization is not quite the same.
Decriminalization of drugs, for the sake of my argument, means that use of any drug would no longer be punished—regardless of the type of punishment. This means that incarceration, fining, and any other type of “legal” punishment would no longer be permitted in response to drug use. However, I believe that the United States should reflect Portugal’s drug policy, which does not punish drug users, but still punishes drug dealers, because, generally, drug dealers do not use the drug they sell. Not only would this decrease overcrowding in prisons, it will also help to somewhat dismantle racism within the criminal justice system.
According to an article written by Susana Ferreira, in 2001, Portugal looked at their high rates of drug-related crime, the overdose rate, and taxpayer money that went towards prison, and revised their drug policy. They chose to decriminalize all drugs. Decriminalization does not equal legalization, however. Instead of incarcerating all individuals that were caught with drugs, they sent them to rehabilitation facilities to fix the issue. Of course, they could not ignore the rampant spread of drug use, so they decided that if a person is caught with more than a 10-day supply of drugs, they would be considered a dealer and they would be sentenced to prison. Implementing rehabilitation reduced the prison population, and decreased recidivism, which is the rate of later arrests of the same individuals. The source previously mentioned also addressed how due to decriminalization, sexually transmitted diseases like HIV were down significantly, which shows that rehabilitation has been instrumental in maintaining a healthier Portugal.
The criminalization of drugs during the War on Drugs not only led to the overpopulation of prisons in America, but also the lack of knowledge behind the topic of drug addiction. Many people throughout the United States do not have proper education on drug use and addiction, which allows them to continue to vote for people who are unwilling to take a better look at our current drug policy and prisons. Individuals in favor of marijuana legalization also need to be aware of what that entails for those who have been incarcerated. Along with marijuana legalization, I believe that individuals who are incarcerated due to marijuana charges should have their charges dropped—and be compensated for the time spent in prison, especially due to so many of their sentences being harsher than necessary for non-violent offenses. Without proper compensation, I do not agree that legalization will be beneficial to those who have been incarcerated. While a lot of political candidates have marijuana legalization on their agendas, I believe that more politicians need to look towards decriminalization of all drugs in order to create better policies that will protect drug user to allow them to seek help for their addictions.
Along with decriminalization, I am fighting for rehabilitation being available to those who have been struggling with addiction. Taking away the punishment for drug use should not mean that we continue to ignore the problem that the United States is facing in regards to drug addiction and overdose. By implementing rehabilitation over incarceration, drug users would be able to get help for their addiction, which would address the root of the problem. Arresting individuals and sending them to prison does not help them overcome their addictions, and sometimes, causing them to quit drugs outright can be fatal due to the extreme symptoms of withdrawal. Overall, decriminalization and rehabilitation are both important in addressing the drug crisis that the United States has been ignoring for several decades.
One of the biggest concerns about decriminalization, however, is the idea that because we are taking away the punishment for drug use, the rates of consumption would increase. We cannot be sure if decriminalization will cause higher rates of drug consumption without first implementing it, but we can look at Portugal and see that their reformed drug policy has been beneficial in allowing drug users to get help. They have seen a significant drop in overdose rates since it was first implemented in 2001.
Another concern that I've noticed within social media is whether rehabilitation would cost more in the long run than just incarcerating individuals as we have been doing. However, according to an opinion article written by Nicholas Kristoff, America’s “failed drug policy” costs around $1 trillion each year, but it is not beneficial to those who are suffering from addiction. In comparison to Portugal, “the Health Ministry spends less than $10 per citizen per year on its successful drug policy… the US has spent some $10,000 per household,” meaning that Portugal saves a significant amount of money due to their revised policy. The money that taxpayers are putting into maintaining and increasing the prison population, could go towards rehabilitating drug users and creating better environments for them to stay sober. This article also refers to the lowered STD rates in Portugal as a benefit of their reformed policy. Decriminalization and rehabilitation would be beneficial to drug users in that they are getting help for their addictions, which reduces recidivism in the long run, meaning that they would not end up in trouble for the same offenses. When rehab helps people stop using drugs, it lowers rates of sexually transmitted diseases that would otherwise be spread through dirty needles, meaning that not only would our country save money from not incarcerating them, but we would also save money as whole on things like STD treatments and other effects of sexually transmitted infections. Decriminalization would not be as expensive as people believe, but it would instead use the money going towards keeping drug users in prisons to actually treating them and allowing them a shot at a better and more sustainable life.
Policy reform is the biggest step to changing the way that drug addiction affects American citizens. In order to decrease the number of overdoses, overcrowding in prisons, and financial setbacks due to incarceration, we need to implement rehabilitation in place of imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. Decriminalization of drugs is the best option when it comes to solving the issues stated above. Of course, this is not an entirely new concept, as Portugal was the first country to recognize decriminalization as a part of their drug policy. Portugal’s jump to end criminalization of drugs was a risk as no one else had done it yet, but they ended up with results that showed the importance of decriminalization and rehabilitation and how it has improved the country by lowering rates of recidivism, overdose, and sexually transmitted disease.
Decriminalization and rehabilitation are important, and need to be considered as a solution to the drug addiction crisis that America has been afflicted with for years. Portugal’s drug policy has saved lives, as well as taxpayer money. If we continue to avoid policy reform and ignore our country’s addiction problem, our rates of incarceration and recidivism will remain significantly higher than necessary, individuals will continue to spend years in prisons for non-violent offenses, and families will have to continue to bury their loved ones that overdose.