Saturday evening, the audience members of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect witnessed significant discussion concerning the policy of incarcerating non-violent illegal drug offenders.
So what’s wrong with our current national drug policy? As the Justice Policy Institute, a D.C. think-tank reported this summer, the United States currently incarcerates more non-violent illegal drug offenders than Western Europe imprisons for all offenses, and there are 100 million more people in Western Europe than in the U.S.
The problem lies in the allocation of tax dollars for the National Drug Control Strategy; a yearly plan devised by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), an agency within the Executive Office of the President. Many Americans are surprised to know that only one-third of the federal drug war budget, which stands at $18 billion and is growing, pays for treatment and education. Even more surprising is that President Richard Nixon came closest to sensible drug policy when he allocated a full two-thirds of the drug war budget to drug treatment and education. Treating drug users is seven times more cost-effective than imprisoning them. Nixon came to the same conclusion as exiting ONDCP Director Gen. Barry McCaffrey who said, we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.
So what happens when we criminalize some drugs and not others? First, less emphasis is put on the dangers of legal drugs such as alcohol use and abuse and its high correlation to campus date rape, violence and suicide.
Second, the laws are enforced in a repugnantly racist manner. As the Department of Justice found in 1998, African Americans make up 13 percent of the population – 13 percent of estimated illegal drug users – but represent 55 percent of illegal drug convictions and more than 70 percent of incarcerations for illegal drug-related offenses.
The drug war has become as much a social problem for the current college generation as civil rights was for baby boomers. With more than one million African Americans behind bars, clearly the war on drugs is simply the third wave of social control, following slavery and segregation.
Prominent conservatives and leftists alike both agree: America’s War on Drugs is an absolute failure. Founder of the National Review William F. Buckley, former Republican secretary of state George Schultz and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader all oppose our national drug policy. All argue drug use should be treated as a public health issue not as an issue for the criminal justice system.
My policy is not decriminalization, but rather the medicalization of the use and abuse of drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy and even heroin. Law enforcement officials realize heroin addicts will do anything, including committing petty crimes, in order to obtain money to purchase drugs. Other countries deal with this problem by simply allowing doctors to prescribe heroin to heroin addicts. That way, the addict can seek a doctor, not crime.
It’s unfortunate how many college students have and will continue to visit the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Now imagine how many less would obtain medical help after over-consumption if alcohol were illegal. Too many illegal drug abusers are afraid to admit their problem for fear of the involvement of the criminal justice system.
The students of the 1960’s and 1970’s, some of them your parents and professors, protested and demanded an end to a war thousands of miles away. I am asking you, the D.A.R.E. generation, to protest and demand an end to a war in America, on Americans.
Prison should be our scarcest resource used for people society is afraid of, not people the government is mad at. Drug abuse is a problem, but the time has come for a new solution. It’s time to treat all drug use and abuse medically with doctors and not criminally with police.
-The writer is international co-director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.