Decriminalization of Drugs: A Logical Solution

Our judicial system has become too tyrannical with their ability to take a person’s freedom for any minor penetration of the law. Justice is imprisonment for some, but the law should also maintain dignity and meaning where people are to be held accountable for their actions. People should be afforded the civilized justice that our country was based on. Our current inhumane treatment of individuals who are non-violent drug offenders, to keep them locked up for years, even for life, is terrifying. We need to address the real criminal activity that is tearing down the financial stability of the nation, white-collar crime, terrorism, environmental laws, and socially negligent businesses: the crimes that disturb the economy by diminishing our resources and the means by which to obtain them.

Decriminalization is the reduction of the penalty for an act deemed criminal by statute law, but not actually legalizing it. To lessen the harmful effects of drugs on the nation a re-evaluation of our current drug laws is badly needed. Though no one answer can readily be given to the drug problem and there is no over night solution, the need for change cannot continually be ignored, alternatives must be sought. The billions of dollars government wastes yearly on a failing drug war that costs tax payers even more, could be better applied to other alternatives such as job training, education, recreation, drug treatment, health care, crime prevention, and public services. These options and many more would be open to the judicial system and would yield less of a burden on society than the current structure. We need to consider alternate means of dealing with drug issues for example decriminalization, education, prevention,�¯�¿�½and treatment. Decriminalization would benefit the United States as a whole by reducing the economic burdens placed on its citizens and the economical disintegration by providing alternatives.

In 1914 one of the many anti-drug laws was passed, the Harrison Act stipulated that individuals wanting narcotics must get a prescription from a doctor, register with the government and pay taxes on such business, but it was still legal (Duster, 1970). This Act is an example of a good intention gone bad. During the same year the United States Supreme Court ruled that the prescription to obtain such narcotics had to be in the course of legitimate medical practices (Musto, 1987). By mid 1928 the Federal prisons were already experiencing overcrowding by violators of the Harrison Act, approximately one third of the 7,700 prisoners (Musto, 1987). To take the drug war further, in the 1930’s head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger pushed with grave efforts and trickery that resulted in the criminalization of marijuana (Siegel, 2001). In the 1970’s a few states in the United States decriminalized marijuana in small amounts for personal use and there was no sign of increased usage (Association of the Bar of the city of New York, 1994) or criminality related to lesser penalties. Despite such evidence in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which readmitted mandatory sentencing and increased the penalties for drug related crimes in the federal criminal justice system (Anti Drug Abuse Act, 1984). Prohibition, the eighteenth amendment, failed miserably, so people changed the law. Clearly ignoring history and the lessons that it has provided, Americans still choose to continue in the same destructive path. The Drug laws and the “War on Drugs” are nothing more than failures in their original context, yet we continue spending millions on drug violations that within themselves cost less than one hundred dollars (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994). Even under strict prohibition, crack was a pandemic that swept the nation, prohibition did not prevent it from happening, nor has it done so with any other drug. Over Eighty-eight years of various drug prohibitions and the success of such laws has yet to be seen.

Instead such failures have begun to make people see that the time for change is among us. In 1975 a publication titled “the White Paper on Drug Abuse,” from the Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force, officially recognized that elimination of drug abuse or use was unrealistic and that not all drugs are of the same caliber in means of addictiveness or harm, and that not all use of drugs should be deemed destructive (Musto, 1987). Even judges and public officials have expressed their desire for change. To mention a few that have openly expressed the need for change include, Francis L. Young an administrative law judge of the United States Department of Justice decided on a case to move marijuana to a lower schedule drug and recognized the benefits that it has for those in medical need (Docket No.86-22). More recently, Gary E. Johnson, the governor of New Mexico stated “legalization means we educate, regulate, tax and control the estimated four hundred billion dollar a year drug industry” (Johnson, 2001). These politicians recognize the current dangers of criminalization and that decriminalization would help reduce the economic burdens placed on American citizens by reducing the amount of money spent on the court procedures and actual jail or prison times, reducing the recidivism rate and aid in delivering a just system by doing away with drug mandatory minimum sentencing, and the direct correlation that mandatory sentencing and recidivism have on overcrowding in the prison systems. Such actions would also free up money that is gravely needed elsewhere.

The dramatic increases in the prison populations have been spurred by the lack of parole options mandated by mandatory minimum sentences, new laws imposing policies that promote toughness on crimes and “three strikes” laws (Ambrosio, 2002). Our Judges should be allowed to consider circumstances and provide alternatives to mandated prison sentences. Repealing all mandatory minimum sentencing is only one benefit to decriminalization that within itself offers a plethora of opportunities and betterment. Possession of small amounts of most types of drugs for personal use should be overlooked. Separate from government spending the public spends $110,000 for an addict to be placed in the prison system on simple drug possession charges that result in a mandatory minimum sentence for five years in prison (National Criminal Justice Commission {N.C.J.C.}, 2002).

Americans are hardly using prisons for real criminals: the majority of the crimes committed are non-violent, only one of every ten arrests in America are for crimes of that involve violence (Ambrosio, 2002): Yet we have prison populations that grossly out numbers other nations such as Canada and many European nations by five to seven times higher which accounts for about 555 incarcerated citizens of every 100,000 (N.C.J.C., 2002). Of the inmates incarcerated in Federal prisons approximately one fifth have no records of violence or criminal activity, but are serving sentences on simple drug or possession charges (N.C.J.C., 2002). 53% of the inmates in state prisons were convicted on “petty” crimes, such as using marijuana or petty shoplifting charges (N.C.J.C., 2002). In 1994 drug offenders compiled approximately 61% of the Federal correctional facility’s population (Association of the Bar of the City of New York [A.B.N.Y.C.], 1994). In New York City the Corrections Department stated that approximately 70% of the incarcerations were drug related charges and crimes, but the steadily increasing numbers have little to no impact on the drug crimes being committed (A.B.N.Y.C., 1994).

The costs of this horrendous prison industry that has been built, as of 1995, to operate the entire nation’s criminal justice system, expenditures were the approximation of $112 billion yearly (Austin 2001). “The average costs of building a new prison cell, fifty four thousand, average costs of maintaining a prison bed per on year approximately twenty three thousand. Every one million spent on a new prison costs tax payers approximately $1.6 billion over the next three years” (Ambrosio, 2002). The fact that we choose the heavy costs of imprisonment versus the cost of approximately seventeen thousand dollars for a year of in-patient treatment and around three thousand dollars for out-patient treatment (A.B.N.Y., 1994) seems almost imaginary. In 1999 with a budget of approximately seventeen billion, this figure only includes Federal spending not other state expenditures; there was a 600% increase from 1985 when it was $2.7 billion (Young 2002).

These figures do not factor in other costs usually not mentioned when talking about imprisonment costs, the hidden costs to society such as health care for the elderly, health care for those with Aids, the foster care for the children of incarcerated adults, the added family on welfare, lost tax revenues (Ambrosio, 2002) or the underlying costs of debt built up by the government for borrowing money to build these institutions to house the build up of criminals (N.C.J.C., 2002). An example of the magnitude of a hidden cost is the additional health care costs of maintaining the elderly in prisons is approximated to be $47,000 more per year than the younger inmate (Blomberg 2002), a vicious cycle that mandatory sentencing has helped to spin.

Mandatory drug sentencing fuels the problems at hand with in the prison by forcing judges to mandate long sentences for petty drug offences and simple possession charges (A.B.N.Y., 1994). Mandatory sentences result in more elderly inmates and the associated costs, as just mentioned. Mandatory drug sentencing increases prison stays, which prolongs the losses of revenues being poured into the system. In a publication produced by RAND in 1997 it was reported that mandatory minimum drug sentences are not only ineffective in reducing drug abuse or drug related crime, but also they are not cost effective. The report also suggests that they are less cost effective than previous sentencing measures and that the only thing that they have done is contribute to the prison population growth.

Decriminalization would automatically decrease the recidivism rate. If we stop making jail time mandatory for simple drug charges, they do not have to go to prison in the first place, nor are they likely to return for the same offense. Decriminalization would in turn reduce recidivism rates, and eliminating mandatory drug sentencing would provide a more efficient means of reducing prison overcrowding. Overcrowding proposes its own problems such as increased tensions among inmates, it promotes the spread of disease and illnesses, it places more strain on the prison guards, and it overall makes the facility a more dangerous place (A.B.N.Y.C., 1994). The reduction of prison activity, as would be provided by decriminalization would reduce the costs that needed to be put forth to incarceration. With resources available again the government could begin providing better rehabilitation services, helping to better ensure public safety and providing intermediate sanctions as an alternative to imprisonment (Ambrosio, 2002).

The economic deterioration that the “war on drugs” and prohibition has had on America can easily be seen by looking at the economy. Decriminalization would aid in reducing the consumption of our resources into the prison system and redirect these funds where they are badly needed. Current drug laws demand that policies be made which deprive the expenses needed for education and other social services to support the costs of prisons (Ambroso, 2002): Austin & Irwin, 2001). A substantial proportion, approximately twenty-five percent of U.S. police resources have been directed from tracking real crimes to dealing with newly created drug crimes (Mishan, 2001). Thus more of the nation’s resources are lost from public services to fight the drug problems, pay criminal justice salaries and pay court costs (Mishan, 2001). In the proposed National Drug Control budget for the physical year 2003 the government is still proposing to spend less on prevention education ($35 million less than last year) and spend more on the Drug Enforcement Agency (up by $93 million) (United States Department of Defense, 2002). This continued expansion in the prison system has proceeded to hurt society with massive collateral harm by depleting the money sources and ruining lives, but has done nothing in the face of stopping crime (N.C.J.C., 2002).

Our educational systems suffered the biggest losses in the early twentieth century in the state budget battles (Gold, 1995). For example in Florida the state spent more on fifty six thousand prisoners than on it did on its 203,000 students attending universities or those attending community colleges, approximately 300,000 (Reed, 1994). The emphasis that Americans have put on their educational systems by continually allowing the government to cut educational funding is sickening, especially when education is the best outlet to dealing with the nation’s problems. The lack of state funding to colleges and universities had increased the tuition costs for students making it harder for even the average middle class family to send their children to college. This represents yet another growing burden placed on Americans trying to get an education.
The economic deterioration can also be seen in looking at the citizens directly. We continue to persecute the lower social classes in an effort to reduce crime and continue to dig the trench between social equality (Austin 11). Decriminalization would also aid in reducing violence associated with the illegal drug trade (Young 2002). Our prisons have become little more than a revolving door for many Americans battling with poverty, dealing with addiction, struggling with the lack of education, being labeled as an ex-offender, and dealing with their generally dysfunctional lives (N.C.J.C., 2002). At present both legal and illegal drugs are readily available to any persons seeking them, especially those in inner city dwellings. Many Americans, especially those African Americans, male and female, are choosing to sell drug for the huge profits available, instead of obtaining lawful and economically helpful positions in the workforce (Mishan, 2001).

From 1980 to 1997, a span of seventeen years, the drug war has contributed considerably to the number of women in prison, a 573% increase (Mauer, Polter, and Wolf, 1999). Many of the women that are in prison are not dangerous or violent, just caught on simple drug or possession charges or petty shoplifting and are serving mandatory sentences many without chance of parole (N.C.J.C., 2002). 80% of these women are mothers (Blomberg, 2002) and their children are removed from a very important primary care source (N.C.J.C., 2002), but do the children need to be the ones to suffer. No person would say that a mother should be doing drugs, but putting them in prison does not produce any positive effects for the mother, for the separated child, or the society that has to support them, one in prison and one in foster care. Though only sixty percent of the men incarcerated are fathers (Blomberg, 2002), it plays a detrimental role on the now single mothers and fatherless children (Young, 2002). Decriminalization would aid in repairing the economic deterioration by helping society in keeping families together and putting money back into public services.

The deterioration of the economy and of individual rights is also a consequence of prohibition. Mandatory minimum sentencing for simple drug charges is a direct violation of the Bill of Rights, our eighth amendment. Many of the sentences for inmates of drug charges are excessive and harmful to the cause of justice (N.C.J.C., 2002), because they are disproportionate to the crime committed and unreasonable. These tactics do nothing towards reducing the crime rate, stopping the drug flow, prevention, rehabilitation or education. Our very own personal rights and freedoms are hanging on a withered string by the “War on Drugs.” The protector of our rights, the Supreme Court, has faulted us in the name of the “War on Drugs” (A.B.N.Y.C., 1994) by allowing otherwise illegal searches and seizures. Thomas S. Szasz (1998) gives a defined argument that drugs are property and that we should not be denied our property rights by the federal government. This is another violation of our supposed “protected rights.” We are “sacrificing liberties, privacy, medical options, and institutions” (Young, 2002) in the name of criminalization and seeing no benefits.

The possibilities of changes that could take place are endless. For example what society spends on a mandatory drug sentence of five years, “society could give the offender one year of imprisonment ($22,000), one year of residential drug treatment ($15,000), and three years of supervised probation and outpatient drug treatment ($3,500 per year), and still have $62,500 left over for savings or other civic investments (N.C.J.C., 2002).” Two years of vocational training could also be provided with the money sources left over from such a proposal. Not that this is the course that must be taken, nor should any person be forced in to rehabilitation treatment but it provides several fresh ideas to our current system that is much more cost efficient and probably more effective. There are a compilation of options open to the system all we have to do is begin the tide of change. In his book Young (2002) proposes that decriminalization alone could save an estimated $37 billion per year if the war on drugs was abandoned. A possibility presents itself that all crime rates would fall, not just those related to drugs would decrease, since decriminalization would free up much of the police departments resources to allow them to tackle real crimes (Mishan, 2001).

The Federal government should allow changes and begin to move away from the ever failing “War on Drugs” that is consuming the nation. The best effort in dealing with the problem is to allow states to decide the best approach. Changes to the current drug laws will need to be the ideas that rely on wisely thought out and carefully executed advances, not prohibition all together. The repeal of the drug laws does not mean legalizing crack, some drugs have more devastating consequences than others. The actual severity and effects of drugs will need to without biases be reexamined as well. More so by creation of policies that under-mind the illegal markets, undercutting the trade would have dramatic effects on the pricing and violence associated with the drug trade. Immediately, the money made and saved by the government could be redirected into our economic assistance, education, health care, fixing the national debt, etc. Not overlooking the break for tax paying citizens by freeing up such monies and have the government generating revenue, not just its citizens.

Realistically is there has never been, nor will a drug free society ever exist. Drug use is much more common than the average person might think. According to U.S. government statistic more than 75 million Americans have used prohibited drugs. Even more amazing is the National Institute on Drug Abuse gives the figure that 40 million people in America still consume these illegal substances (A.B.N.Y., 1994). Many people that use drugs do not abuse them. Moreover, the majority of Americans do not need prohibition laws or the government to keep them from becoming drug addicts. Not every American is an alcoholic because we allow alcohol, nor are even the majority smokers because we allow nicotine in cigarettes. Free will is in every human. No drug is completely safe or harm free, that is not the idea or purpose behind repealing current drug laws. But if safety is what we are standing behind, look at the drugs that we currently allow, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, where is the safety in these drugs. “Research shows that almost four out of every ten violent crimes involves alcohol, as do four out of ten fatal motor vehicle accidents” (Siegel, 2001). In the case of tobacco approximately six hundred fifty users for every 100,000 will die because of their drug use, whereas the figure for cocaine per one hundred thousand four users might expect to lose their lives because of their use (Young, 2002). How then do we determine this fine line for the substances which we choose to allow and which we term illegal?

America’s prison system has moved away from serving Justice and has grown into creature of politics and special interest groups. Americans need to stop allowing moral crusading groups from dictating the laws to fit their personal interests, when the society as a whole suffers from the results. There is also a need to stop allowing politicians to exploit public fears for personal gain and stop tolerating them to avoid addressing real social issues behind scapegoats such as the “War on Drugs”. Changes will be seen when people begin to promote and respect human rights over all, when respect for personal choices are given, and we begin to replace dignity back into our justice system allowing tolerance and positive encouragement. Supporting drug policy reform by means of decriminalization we are also aiding in fixing numerous other problems such as: poverty, racial inequality, injustices with in the system, continually struggling working and lower classes, holding politicians responsible for social issues, and the economic strain placed on average citizens.

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