New Strategy Required In The ‘War On Drugs’
At a time when Americans are worried about terrorist attacks and rogue nations with nuclear weapons, here’s a danger most Americans don’t even know exists: the nation which imprisons the highest percentage of its citizens on earth is none other than the United States of America.
As of 2010, there were about 2,266,800 people in American jails or prisons. That’s about 730 out of every 100,000 Americans. When those of us who are supervised by the parole system are added, the number climbs to an astounding 7.1 million. Based on the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, that’s about one out of every 32 American adults.
America imprisons more than three times as many citizens as Mexico, and more than twice as many as Iran. America imprisons 18.5% more of its own people than Rwanda, in spite of that country’s history of genocide. And China, with its much publicized incarceration of Christian house church members, only puts one citizen in prison for every six people behind bars in the U.S.A..
It hasn’t always been this way. In 1972, one year after Richard Nixon officially declared “war on drugs” in his state of the union address, instead of 730 out of every 100,000 Americans in jails or prison, the number was only 92. But since 1978 the total U.S. population has grown about 38%, while the total number of people in America’s jails and prisons has increased about 353%.
Yes, you read that correctly, and there’s no mistake in the math. Our prison population has more than tripled in the time it took our total population to grow by little more than one third.
The cost to Americans financially is vast: about $228 billion for police protection, corrections, and judicial and legal services in 2007 alone, which is up about 171% since 1982, even after adjusting for inflation. But bad as that is, the cost in human terms has been absolutely horrific.
According to a report issued by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics: ”As a result of increased prosecutions and longer time served in prison, the number of drug offenders in Federal prisons increased more than 12% annually, on average, from 14,976 during 1986 to 68,360 during 1999. . . .” Those numbers might seem manageable, but then according to another report, “Between 2000 and 2007, drug offenders represented 45% of the growth in the federal prison population.”
The exponential growth in prison populations is not completely attributable to the “war on drugs.” There’s also a trend for lengthier prison sentences, which drives up the incarcerated population. Part of that increase is due to so-called “three strikes” laws enacted in nearly half of the states, such as the one which mandated a life sentence for an air conditioning repairman who refused to refund $120.75 to a dissatisfied customer.
But these more severe sentences seem necessary because of an increase in crime, and to some extent that increase in crime can be traced, not to an increase in drug use, but to an increase in criminalizing drug use.
Consider: there are three categories of prisoners behind bars because of drugs: 1) those who committed “drug-defined offenses” (possession, sale, etc.), 2) those who committed “drug-related” offenses (crimes related to obtaining drugs), and 3) those whose crimes are due to a “drug using lifestyle” (DWI’s and other crimes committed at least in part because the person was under the influence). Those in the first category would simply not be in taxpayer funded prisons if there were no “war on drugs.” Many people in the second and third categories would also be free today, for two reasons. First, the price of drugs would decline, reducing the need to commit crimes to support a habit. Second, tax dollars currently spent on the “war” could be diverted to anti-drug publicity campaigns and to treatment for addiction, both of which could reduce the number of people using drugs.
A common argument against abandoning the “war on drugs” and replacing it with regulated use, such as we currently have for tobacco and alcohol, is that drug use would skyrocket. But the above mentioned strategy of public relations campaigns coupled with an increased focus on treatment has already been extremely successful in reducing both drunk driving and tobacco use. There is no reason to believe we could not achieve similar results with people who have problems with drugs like cocaine or marijuana.
It’s long past time to question the policies that brought us here. On what moral or ethical basis can we say that a drug addict deserves the same punishment we once reserved for thieves, rapists and murderers? And how would that same argument not also apply to alcoholics, and nicotine, gambling, and sex addicts?
Edmund Burke once famously observed, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” To that we add this piece of wisdom from the Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text: ”Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” When it comes to substance abuse, history has provided ample evidence that prohibition does not work. If we don’t try a different solution, if we keep repeating the same mistakes which clearly do not deliver the desired results, the time is coming when history will wonder who was more insane: the poor souls who insisted on polluting their minds with drugs, or the sober minded folks who kept insisting on putting them in jail.