Last month marked the 40th anniversary since President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs.” Since then, the U.S. government has spent well over $1 trillion fighting this so-called war, and has made the U.S. the world’s largest incarcerator. These failed policies of the war on drugs have imprisoned millions, destroyed American families, and has done nothing to stem drug addiction. Moreover, the war on drugs disproportionally affects minorities and the poor.
With many states enacting sweeping changes to their budgets through austerity measures, it is surprising that many states are not aggressively trying to reduce spending by scaling back their prison populations. Currently, there are 2.3 million people in America’s prison system with a cost of around $70 billion a year to taxpayers to keep them there. America spends more money each year on incarceration related expenses than it does on higher education.
So is prosecution and imprisonment actually making people safer or reducing drug use? The answer is resoundingly, no. Drug possession is the only crime for which we lock people up because they might hurt themselves, even when they have harmed no one else. In fact, nearly half of America’s prison population is locked up for non-violent offenses; primarily for drug-related convictions. Summing it up perfectly, Neill Franklin, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told CNN:
“Despite arresting over 40 million people on drug charges since the start of the war on drugs – resulting in huge costs both in terms of dollars and in human lives – drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.”
Drug prohibition is a failed policy that is a political choice, not a scientific one. We should treat drug addiction as a health problem, not as a crime. Prohibition and law enforcement interdiction generates an underground culture that breeds continuing and escalating violence. The drug exceptions to the Constitution have stripped citizens of fundamental liberties and protections. This war on drugs has become a war on the nation’s citizens, families and communities imprisoning millions and destroying families leaving addicts with few options for rehabilitation and treatment.
The war on drugs has effectively swollen America’s prison system to an unsustainable capacity. From 1970 to 2005, the U.S. prison population rose 700%, a rate far outpacing that of general population growth and crime rates. The United States now has over one-quarter of the world's prison population, despite only having 5% of the world's total population. Overcrowding in California’s prisons has become so egregious that the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling ordering the state of California to substantially reduce its prison population. Learn more about the ACLU's effort to combat mass incarceration.
Drug reform policies must be developed that address the needless criminalization of non-violent drug users, provide effective, readily available treatment and education programs, and stop ineffective knee-jerk laws that are unproductive and waste taxpayer’s money to the tune of billions of dollars each year.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, that, “Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. The single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for non-violent offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.”
It’s time to find new solutions to the war on drugs by: addressing drug addiction through providing better treatment programs, improving public safety, reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and dramatically reducing our prison population.
Ready to end the war on drugs? Join the ACLU and over a thousand others from around the world on November 2-5 at the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles.
For a hilarious spin on this important topic, watch comedian Elon James White team up with the ACLU to "Just Say NO" to the war on drugs.