The impact and subsequent effect of the current policy on the war on drugs has been a dismal failure by all accounts. Drug abuse and drug-related violence has continued to rise dramatically since 1970, despite harsh and severe punishments for offenders, implemented and carried out by the criminal justice system. This paper will give several different strategies in order to combat the ever-growing and mounting drug problem in the United States. It will include examples of what has been tried in the past and currently to restrict drug use, with virtually no positive results, followed by what has not been used, with references to several approaches, as well as judicial insight to strengthen and support these claims.
Impact of the War on Drugs
The war on drugs that first began almost four decades ago in the United States under President Richard Nixon's administration, and later continued by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980's to the present, has lead to a staggering increase in the number of mass incarceration rates in the country. For example, "More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982," according to Michelle Alexander (2010), for non-violent drug offenses. Last year alone, nearly two million people were arrested by law enforcement as a result of drug crimes, and even more astonishing is the fact that although "The number of people jailed for violent crimes has risen 300 percent,â€¦ the prison population of nonviolent drug offenders has soared 2,558 percent" (Harrop, 2007).
The effects of this war have caused disproportionate arrests and sentencing of racial minorities as well. A study released by Ryan King and The Sentencing Project, a judicial equality advocacy group (2008), states that "rates of detention for black Americans have increased by 225 percent on average, as compared to 70 percent for white Americans" (p. 4). In addition, "Studies show that while 72% of American drug users are white and 13.5% are black, 37% of those arrested for drug violations are black, 42% of federal prison inmates serving time for drug violations are black, and 60% of drug offenders in state prisons are black. The discrepancy between the percentage of drug users that are black and the percentage of drug offense arrestees and prisoners that are black is staggering" (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, 2008).
The economic cost of the war on drugs in 2010 alone was over $15 billion dollars, with a total of over $1 trillion being spent since the 1970's. Moreover, "$121 billion has been spent to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana" (Mendoza, 2010). It is clear this war has been a disastrous failure, with drug use as rampant as ever, and violence ever-increasing throughout the nation.
To begin to address these significant problems, there are several strategies that can be put into place. First, there should be a calling for an end to the official "war on drugs" started over 40 years ago in the U.S. This can be achieved by decriminalizing those who use drugs and focusing on treatment rather than punishment. Another strategy would be the repealing or reforming of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws and guidelines. These laws have contributed to millions of non-violent drug offenders being placed in prison for disproportionate lengths of time, while drug kingpins continue to work and walk freely in society. Drug scheduling should also be reevaluated, especially the current policy on marijuana use. Furthermore, efforts should be made so that "Drug sentences target high-level dealers while allowing judicial discretion in all cases. Accordingly, federal law enforcement should focus on high-level and international traffickers while leaving most low-level cases to the states to prosecute" (Prison Fellowship, 2011). These and other reforms would help to significantly reduce the prison population of low-level drug offenders and addicts, while giving them the help and treatment they really need.
Supporters of the war on drugs insist that this policy is a necessity to control crime and illegal drug use in our society. Drugs are seen as immoral and dangerous, and one of the main causes of violence. Drug war supporters feel the only logical answer is to send more people to prison in an attempt to discourage illegal drug use through punishment and in expressing society's disapproval. Most consider that any reforms to current drug policy would inevitably send a negative message to the public that condone drug use and abuse.
Furthermore, proponents of mandatory minimum sentencing insist that without these guidelines, sentences would vary greatly depending on the location and sentencing judge. "Creating a system under which the appropriate sentence was predetermined would ensure the certainty and just punishment" sought by lawmakers and end disparity. (Mascharka, 2000, p. 9). In addition, these sentencing laws are seen as being tough-on-crime, and a deterrent to future drug use and activity.
Opponents of drug rescheduling and the current marijuana policy continue to insist that any type of legalization would increase drug use and addiction, as well as stating that no medical purpose or benefits have been shown in relation to marijuana usage (Schaffer, 2011). Prohibition, stricter sentencing laws, and more prisons are the only acceptable solution for curtailing drug use and drug-related violence according to unrelenting supporters of the drug war. They argue imprisonment removes major traffickers and dangerous criminals from society, deters prospective offenders, and enhances community safety and well-being" (Human Rights Watch, 2000, p. 8).
Nonetheless, defenders of this war fail to recognize that "A vast proportion of drug-related crimes within the drugs market come from the fact drug sales are illegal," giving dealers an enormous black market to supply these drugs at any cost. This in itself has lead to the increase in drug-related violence, where sellers continually inflate prices and profit exorbitantly, while reducing the quality and safety of these drugs. These dealers compete with others using whatever means necessary, including extreme violence to fuel their greed and protect their interests, at the expense of the addicted and predominately poor communities. Rather than government focusing on supply-reduction as a way to reduce drug activity, there should be an emphasis instead on demand-reduction of these drugs. By reducing the demand, there would be no profits for this illegal drug market.
Moreover, according to Chicago Federal Judge Richard Neville (1996), "The markup on illegal drugs and their enormous profits to sellers create ten replacements for every offender thrown in prison. No matter how many we put in jail, that isn't going to change" (qtd in The November Coalition).
In regard to mandatory minimum sentencing, many judges also oppose these laws, with nearly 86% of Federal Judges calling for an "outright abolition of mandatory sentencing," since they are prevented from considering any other factors of the case that would most likely reduce and affect sentencing decisions (The November Coalition, 2011). Furthermore, the economic costs are astounding, according to a recent report, stating that "Since mandatory minimum sentencing first began for drug offenders, the Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget has increased by more than 2,100%, from $220 million in 1986 to about $4.4 billion in 2004" (Mandatory Madness Coalition, 2009).
Additionally, on the issue of decriminalization, many judges also agree with this strategy. According to Federal Judge Richard Posner, "It is nonsense that we should be devoting so many law-enforcement resources to marijuana. I am skeptical of a society that is so tolerant of alcohol and cigarettes should come down so hard on marijuana use and send people to prison for life without parole... Prison terms in America have become appallingly long, especially for conduct that, arguably, should not be criminal at all . . . Only decriminalization is a sure route to a lower crime rate . . ." (qtd. in ACCA-Consortium Organization, 2010). Yet another US District Judge Vaughn Walker, of San Francisco contends "that decriminalization is the key to solving our nation's current drug problem" (The November Coalition, 2011).
One last thought on drug use in our country, as stated by former police chief Joseph McNamera, "Prior to 1914, the United States had a drug problem in the sense that many people were using drugs without being aware of the dangers. But there were no international black market, no organized crime involving drugs, none of the terrible violence and worldwide corruption that we see today. Since drugs were criminalized we have all those things. Estimates are that the per capita use of drugs is twice what it was before drugs were criminalized" (qtd in Painter, 2002, p. 7)
In spite of claims by advocates, it is clearly obvious that after a trillion dollars in total spending, and billions more spent each year by state, federal, and local governments, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure over the last forty years since it officially began.
Criminalizing drug offenders has not reduced drug use or violence in the least, and has in fact led to a significant increase nationwide. To continue to implement drug policies and laws that have failed over and over again just does not make sense. It is time to listen and take heed to the advice of our federal and state judges throughout the country. Instead of incarcerating non-violent drug users with no history of criminal behavior, there should be a complete re-focus of priorities by the criminal justice system. This can first be achieved by not viewing drug addicts as simply criminals who need to be punished, but as those who are in serious need of treatment and rehabilitation. In order to treat a sickness, underlying problems must be addressed before progress and positive changes can be realized. Imprisonment only gets rid of society's problem temporarily, while failing to address the real issues of drug addiction and recovery efforts for the long-term.