No Surprise: Strict Drug Laws Do More Harm than Good

The focus should be on rehabilitation, not incarceration

by Hannah Whitney

Staff Rachael Leigh Cook

Drug policy has been a problem since Nixon’s “War on Drugs” era, and there seems to be no solution in sight. What started as a message to “just say no” turned into one of America’s biggest and most contentious problems to date. Now, more than ever, it is important to examine US drug policy, which has led to the world’s highest incarceration rates and stimulated racial discrimination.

By instituting strict, “no-tolerance” policies on illegal substances, the negative effects vastly outweigh the positive effects. The law against illegal drugs should be more lenient, shifting the topic from a legal issue to a health issue. This solution is drastic, but it makes sense in light of the effects of drugs on American prisons.  

Drug enforcement brings in thousands of prisoners into the American prison system. Since those incarcerated for drug offenses are nearly half of the entire prison population, strict drug laws can be expensive to enforce. In federal prisons, it is the government’s job to provide resources as well as rehabilitation. However, it is difficult to overlook the carelessness and disorganization. According to the Bureau of Justice, “an estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison.” Although this statistic is not specific to drug offenses alone, it implies that there is a strong likelihood that many of these nonviolent offenders were arrested again after being in prison. By lessening strict drug enforcement policies, a high percentage of the prison population will shrink – decreasing the number of bodies to feed and house. This opens up opportunity for the government to invest in rehabilitation centers for drug abusers, improving actual recovery and readjustment rates.

Strict drug laws target minority groups; this is an irrefutable fact. This holds especially true for the African American population. Although rates of drug abuse are fairly level across racial lines, “people of color are far more likely to be searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned for drug law violations than are whites” ( Drug policy leads to this virtual slavery, and the minority becomes the majority in prisons. It seems that when Nixon stimulated the Drug War, he and his administration were using these laws as a way to control urban minority populations – disguised as a method to promote drug-free health. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is corrupt, but it does take someone who cares enough to look.

Unfortunately, in our present society, prisoners are immediately disregarded, as they “get what they deserve.” The non-violent offenders are thrown directly into a broken system of violent offenders with no mercy whatsoever.

Another unfortunate reality of the American penitentiary system is the prison-industrial complex. Big business enterprises profit off of the “captive market.” For instance, Eric Markowitz of The New Yorker writes that basic items like cereal and canned goods can cost as much as “five times the retail price” – forcing the incarcerated population to pay exorbitant prices for essential needs. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that commissary companies earn $1.6 billion per year. Prisoners who commit non-violent offenses, such as drug related crimes, are subject to this type of exploitation; there is no justice nor means of rehabilitation for these types of prisoners, only the means to profit.

There are many areas in need of massive improvement in both drug policy and the criminal justice system in general. It is difficult not to wonder how drastically policy would have to change in order to establish a more just law. Luckily, Portugal can give us some sense of the possible improvements our government could make. The Iberian nation completely decriminalized drugs altogether in 2001. The country was heavily criticized because this could lead to the inevitable rise in drug use. However, quite the opposite occurred; drug use has been decreasing since inception with only a slight rise in adolescent use. This slight rise in adolescent use might imply that there is no correlation between decriminalizing drugs and decreased drug use. Rather, there does seem to be a positive correlation, but not nearly enough countries have adopted this policy to give an accurate observation.

It is clear that, no matter how dramatic the move, the government must begin taking necessary steps to decriminalize drugs. In other words, there must be more leniency to drug use. By simply relaxing the laws, many of the above issues would be improved or even fixed.


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