The War at Home: Our Jails Overflow with Nonviolent Drug Offenders. Have We Reached the Point Where the Drug War Causes More Harm Than the Drugs Themselves?

By Tree, Sanho | Sojourners Magazine, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

The War at Home: Our Jails Overflow with Nonviolent Drug Offenders. Have We Reached the Point Where the Drug War Causes More Harm Than the Drugs Themselves?


Tree, Sanho, Sojourners Magazine


In 1965, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy tried to promote an enlightened drug policy before our country declared war on its own citizens. He told Congress, "Now, more than at any other time in our history, the addict is a product of a society which has moved faster and further than it has allowed him to go, a society which in its complexity and its increasing material comfort has left him behind. In taking up the use of drugs the addict is merely exhibiting the outermost aspects of a deep-seated alienation from this society, of a combination of personal problems having both psychological and sociological aspects."

Kennedy continued, "The fact that addiction is bound up with the hard core of the worst problems confronting us socially makes it discouraging at the outset to talk about `solving' it. `Solving' it really means solving poverty and broken homes, racial discrimination and inadequate education, slums and unemployment...." Thirty-eight years later, the preconditions contributing to drug addiction have changed little, but our response to the problem has become overwhelmingly punitive.

When confronted with illegal behavior, legislators have traditionally responded by escalating law enforcement. Yet countries such as Iran and China that routinely use the death penalty for drug offenses still have serious drug problems. Clearly there are limits to what can be achieved through coercion. By treating this as a criminal justice problem, our range of solutions has been sharply limited: How much coercion do we need to make this problem go away? No country has yet found that level of repression, and it is unlikely many Americans would want to live in a society that did.

As the drug war escalated in the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentencing and other Draconian penalties boosted our prison population to unprecedented levels. With more than 2 million people behind bars (there are only 8 million prisoners in the entire world), the United States--with one-twenty-second of the world's population--has one-quarter of the planet's prisoners. We operate the largest penal system in the world, and approximately one quarter of all our prisoners (nearly half a million people) are there for nonviolent drug offenses--that's more drug prisoners than the entire European Union incarcerates for all offenses combined, and the EU has over 90 million more citizens than the United States. Put another way, the United States now has more nonviolent drug prisoners alone than we had in our entire prison population in 1980.

If the drug war were evaluated like most other government programs, we would have tried different strategies long ago. But our current policy seems to follow its own unique budgetary logic. A slight decline in drug use is used as evidence that our drug war is finally starting to work and therefore we should ramp up the funding. But a rise in drug use becomes proof that we are not doing enough to fight drugs and must therefore redouble our efforts and really ramp up the funding. Under this unsustainable dynamic, funding and incarceration rates can only ratchet upward. When Nixon won reelection in 1972, the annual federal drug war budget was approximately $100 million. Now it is approaching $20 billion. Our legislators have been paralyzed by the doctrine of "if at first you don't succeed, escalate."

Internationally, our drug war has done little more than push drug cultivation from one region to the next while drugs on our streets have become cheaper, purer, and more plentiful than ever. Meanwhile, the so-called collateral damage from our international drug war has caused incalculable suffering to peasant farmers caught between the crossfire of our eradication policies and the absolute lack of economic alternatives that force them to grow illicit drug crops to feed their families. Unable to control our own domestic demand, our politicians have lashed out at other peoples for daring to feed our seemingly insatiable craving for these substances.

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