Drug policies don’t work or make sense

Jimmy Carter once said, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” What a simple, wise statement. Unfortunately, while our society is able to recognize the logic of arguments such as this, we are horribly defective when it comes to transferring this logic into action. A look at American drug enforcement policy shows a lack of direction, common sense, and the simple humanity that this country so desperately needs. Before critiquing certain laws, we should establish exactly why drug enforcement exists to begin with. Addiction to drugs can be physically and emotionally harmful, but the key phrase is addiction. According to Barron’s Legal Dictionary, drug addiction is a “disease which cannot be made a crime under the due process clause of the Constitution.” While drug arrests are made for possession or sale, they’re designed to prevent addiction—a disease. This is where the hypocrisy begins: why should anyone be incarcerated for a disease? According to Ed Barnes, director of the Des Moines Wilkie House (an organization dedicated to building character in youth), this view is the root of drug problems themselves. “We cannot look at drug abuse as a moral failing, but as a result of hopelessness and despair,” Barnes said. Ironically, this despair can often come from the policies that are meant to curb drug abuse. Prison provides little rehabilitation, so inmates are often released with a lack of life skills, leading to future offences. Treatment programs cost less money than jailing, and better prepare the individual for future success. However, government policy puts an unreasonable emphasis on incarceration. What makes this so disquieting is that the people jailed are often small offenders who make no dent in international drug trade. “The people we’re incarcerating are not the people who are bringing drugs into the United States. These people are not the decision makers,” Barnes said. In Iowa, people can be fined up to $1,000 and get up to six months in prison for their first possession of marijuana offense (for any amount). Marijuana has an overall addiction rating of 1.6 (on a scale from one to six, according to www.drugwarfacts.org), compared with four for nicotine, which is legal for anyone over 18 years old. If the aim of drug laws is to protect citizens, then why are the punishments stricter for a substance less damaging? The illogic doesn’t stop there. Mandatory minimum sentencing was introduced in the early 1990s to combat crack cocaine use. Under current policy, someone with five grams of crack cocaine must get a mandatory five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams for an equal sentence with powder cocaine. Never mind that powder is needed to create crack cocaine. The incredibly high rate of incarceration is especially troubling when one considers that 21 percent of men in prison have experienced forced sexual conduct, and most prisons do not require any sort of psychiatric help. But none of these arguments would be convincing were it not for one underlying truth: current laws are not even serving their purpose (that is, to reduce the use of harmful substances). A study from the National Academy of Sciences stated, “The lack of decriminalization [of marijuana] might have encouraged greater use of drugs that are even more dangerous than marijuana.” One should also compare Dutch and American murder rates (Holland has more relaxed drug laws). In America, there are 6.3 murders per 100,000 people; in Holland there are only 1.3. Low-tolerance drug policies really serve to encourage abuse. I’m reminded of a scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom reflects that “in order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain.” There are several ways to address this issue. One is by relaxing laws on lower-level drugs (reducing the drain on police efficiency created by enforcing these laws). Another is to promote sending offenders to treatment centers whenever possible, instead of prison. Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do is to not equate the law with what is just. This means not treating the ill as criminals.