The United States is coming to terms with the realization that criminalizing illicit drugs
and treating offenders in a purely judicial way has little if any effectiveness in dealing with the drug problem. The U.S. drug problem causes our government to spend millions of dollars, with the result being the largest prison population in the world instead of reducing the illicit drug problem.
Little to Show for Criminalizing Drugs
Considering the time, effort, and money, the U.S. has spent in an effort to get rid of drug use, the trafficking of drugs, and other associated activities and undesirable consequences, our country still finds itself involved in the effort with little to show after almost 50 years. As a symbol of the federal government’s official attitude about drugs is Nixon’s “War on Drugs
Nixon’s “War on Drugs”
June 17, 2015, marked the 44th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs
” declaration. It began when Nixon appointed Stephen Hess on December 5th, 1969, as the National Chairman on his White House Conference for Children and Youth. He was tasked to “listen well to the voices of young Americans — in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners,” in an effort to discover their opinions about America’s international and domestic affairs. In 1971, after intensive planning for two years, Hess and his 1,486 delegates met in a resort in Colorado for four days to discuss ten areas that America’s youth were most concerned about, one of which was drugs.
Treatment Approach vs Judicial Approach for Drugs
A small drug task force of four adults and eight youths argued that the root cause of drug abuse should be addressed, and encouraged therapy for addicts instead of incarceration. In other words, they felt a treatment approach was more appropriate than a judicial approach for drug addiction.
Although this was an enlightened approach for dealing with drug addiction, it didn’t prevail. Since there was only so much federal funding to use, the judicial law enforcement approach appeared at the time to be less costly. Three months after the Youth Conference met, Nixon launched his “War on Drugs” and cast drug users as criminals attacking the very moral fiber of the country requiring punishment and incarceration instead of alienated youths with a drug addiction caused by a fundamental societal inequality.
Today the drug war is still going on. Drug enforcement agencies on the federal as well as state level have become similar to paramilitary organizations, similar to military units that have been deployed in the Middle East. Watching them on TV, on such shows as “COPS,” you would think they were actually effective and their efforts can actually make a difference. However, looking deeper you must remember that they’ve been on the air for years, and the episodes of today look pretty much the same as those seven or more years ago.
Nothing much has changed where drugs are concerned. The recent news about the latest escape of El Chapo Guzman, the Mexican drug lord, is similar to news or his previous escapes. If people and governments don’t learn from their mistakes, they’re doomed to keep repeating them.
Nixon’s war on drugs has been America’s longest war. This “war” has destroyed millions of lives. The U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of drug abusers. With less than 5% of the world’s population, it has almost 25% of the world’s prisoners.
Many Americans would agree that like the death penalty, the current war on drugs doesn’t seem to have any deterrent factor on drug use. On one end, some conservatives feel we should double down on our current efforts in the drug war because we’re too soft on drug offenders. On the opposite end, the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has been gaining ground, especially among those who think the medical treatment approach is a much more effective approach to drug addiction. However, many Americans still feel these ideas are too much of a radical approach.
Is Decriminalizing Drugs Uncharted Territory?
Decriminalization of drugs for most U.S. citizens is like venturing into uncharted territory. Some even feel like it’s turning a blind eye to the widespread criminal activity associated with drugs. In Europe there’s been a 15 plus year length of time where drugs have been decriminalized. In the Netherlands they merely turn a blind eye. In Portugal decriminalization has been mostly a successful experience.
In 2001 Portugal became the first European country to officially get rid of all related criminal penalties about the personal possession of drugs
. These included cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin.
A European country with one of the worst drug problems was Portugal, where 1% of it’s population were heroin addicts. Then the Portuguese prime minister and the opposition party leader got together and voiced some fundamental and obvious observations, “Look, we’ve been trying the American way. Every year, we crackdown, we put more people in prison, and every year the problem gets worse. Let’s do this differently.”
The national commission that was charged with addressing the drug problem in Portugal recommended that jail time be replaced by offering drug therapy instead. Their argument included the thought that the fear of prison actually drives addicts underground, as well as the fact that incarceration in prison was more expensive than paying for a drug treatment program. They chose the better solution of giving health services to drug addicts instead.
Under the new regime in Portugal, people previously found guilty for possessing small amounts of drugs were sent to a panel made up of a social worker, psychologist, and legal adviser who decided on the appropriate treatment plan. Of course, they always had the right to refuse treatment, without criminal punishment, instead of jail.
The overall results after about 15 years has been very encouraging. Although there are many critics pointing fingers at some less than ideal situations, but in reality Portugal’s drug situation has significantly improved in several areas.
In Portugal the levels of drug use are below the average in the rest of Europe.
- The occurrence of infectious diseases related to drugs is declining
- Clinical assessments of deaths due to drug use made by physicians have decreased significantly
- Decriminalization of drug offenses has reduced the number of people who have been arrested and sent to criminal court
One important note to mention is that these measures were introduced at the same time as the expansion of the welfare state in Portugal, which included the guarantee of a minimum income. Even though the decriminalization of drugs played an important role, the other positive outcomes were likely achieved because of these wider social and health reforms.
It’s important to realize the even though Portugal had success with the decriminalization of drugs, it’s a very different country from the U.S. The population of Portugal is much smaller compared to the U.S., therefore the people being treated is smaller than here. Unlike the U.S. who has a major drug supplier on it’s Southern border, Portugal doesn’t. But the most important difference is the fact that politically the country was willing to implement the decriminalization of drugs. Unfortunately in the U.S., the country just isn’t politically willing to do anything about this at the moment.
When looked at objectively, its easy to realize the health issues about drug use. It has many of the same elements as those of alcohol and tobacco addiction. Even though there are certain criminal aspects associated with drug use, trying to deal with them has done little if anything to eliminate or slow down the use of drugs. Drug use and addiction is the only health issue that is criminalized. As support increases to end the war on drugs and the imprisonment associated with it and move toward a more health centered approach, the time has come to decriminalize
Decriminalizing drugs means getting rid of the criminal penalties associated with drug possession for personal use. People would no longer be arrested, prosecuted, jailed, or have a criminal record just for using or possessing drugs for personal use. The result is that there would be a substantial reduction in the number of people in the criminal justice system.
The motivation behind Proposition 47 in California was to reduce or eliminate the harsh criminal penalties that resulted in prison and jail overpopulation that began in the 1980s. The effect after it passed resulted in decriminalization where the possession of small amounts of drugs were concerned. It’s passing immediately helped to reduce populations in prison and highlighted the needs of drug users due to the fact that the drug court system wasn’t being used much by those who are eligible for relief under Prop 47. Because of jail overpopulation, this means many who are incarcerated are released early, so people arrested for drug possession would rather spend time in jail and be released early rather than go to rehab and have to deal with all the therapy and monitoring associated with it.
It’s time for the U.S. to critically look into the decriminalization of drugs. In spite of the criminal aspect of drugs, it’s time to realize that our current way of dealing with it simply doesn’t work, and the cost of criminalizing it is increasing both monetarily and in prison overcrowding. It’s time to treat it as the health issue that it is.
Criminal Defense Attorneys
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San Diego, CA 92103
Phone: (619) 297-2800