The War on Drugs: Is It Enemy #1?

When President Nixon declared drug abuse as Americas public enemy number one” in 1971, he wasn’t kidding. Could his declaration been an unintentional foreshadowing of the future? Suddenly many federal agencies were created to try to stop the influx of drugs into the United States, and made not only their use, but possession, a serious offense in terms of the law. Mandatory sentences came into effect, even if there was no violence involved with the crime.

From there, the harshness of drug laws were skyrocketing. Perhaps it was the cheaper alternative to cocaine  crack — that hit the streets in the 1980s. President Reagan soon enacted zero-tolerance laws, and within less than two decades, the amount of those incarcerated for drug offenses grew from 50,000 to over 500,000. Nancy Reagan started her Just Say No anti-drug campaign that spread through schools across the nation. Meanwhile, cases of HIV and AIDS were on the rise while those using needles and syringes also grew. Could President Reagan have been trying to bring the selling, possession, and use of drugs to a halt by implementing these laws?

That is where the question still becomes evident today: are these zero-tolerance laws made to punish those who have broken the law, or is it a deterrent to those that are even thinking of becoming involved in drugs by selling or even using? The statistics of imprisonment in the United States are staggering. The population within the United States only accounts for 5% of the total world population, yet we hold the most people in our prison system and nearly a quarter of the total of those incarcerated across the globe.

 fig 1

Figure 1/data obtained from worldprisonstudies.org

Of those incarcerated in the United States, over half are there for drug-related offenses. This includes the possession, use, manufacturing, and sale of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, among others.

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Figure 2/data obtained via bop.gov

While each state is different regarding their laws against drug-related crimes (especially when it comes to marijuana recently), each state does contribute to those in prison – some sentences in states are harsher than others. So then the question becomes this: are all the bad people in the world living in the United States, or are the laws too strict regarding drugs?

In some states, the possession, selling, and use of a drug such as methamphetamine can land a person in prison for life without the possibility of parole. Then, in the same prison sits someone who has murdered someone but is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Which is the worse crime  the drugs or the murder? Furthermore, should a person be sentenced to the rest of their life in prison with no chance of getting out because they sold and used a drug?

The cycle of those convicted of drug-related crimes is a cruel one. Sadly, many of those that end up in prison because the sale and possession of drugs are doing it to support their own habit. If they sell drugs, they can make good money, and if they make good money, can buy drugs for themselves. If that person gets caught and spends time in prison for a drug-related offense, and then is later released, they are carrying that offense on their record for the rest of their lives, thus the obtaining of a real job after their release becomes that much more difficult. So what happens when they have to check that have you ever committed a felony? box on a job application? They result to selling or manufacturing drugs illegally, and chance getting caught once again. So the question remains, if someone breaks the law when it comes to drugs, what is an appropriate sentence for their actions?

If the time spent in prison was reduced, yet still the consequences for breaking the law were in place, and a rehabilitation program was established, then the amount of people in prison would be reduced and perhaps those that have been addicted to drugs or have gotten caught up with manufacturing and selling of drugs can have hope after prison. Consequences should absolutely remain in place, but should these people be completely removed from society for the rest of their lives? The war on drugs is costing the United States trillions of dollars, yet what has been implemented over the last few decades has not solved the problem of rampant drugs in this country. More money is being spent and more resources are being used for a problem that is growing, rather than shrinking.

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