Since 1914 when the Harrison Narcotic Tax Act was implemented, the federal government has been making mistakes when dealing with drug use and regulation in America. Since then, a growing number of Americans have been vocal in expressing their view that the government has made an even more egregious mistake by waging its all-out “war on drugs.” The war has already cost billions of dollars and has negatively impacted the lives of millions of people.
Consider these facts from DrugWarFacts.org:
In 2009 there were 1.7 million people in US prisons, jails, or on probation or parole for drug offenses
Since 1990, the number of people in those four categories grew by 78.9 percent -- federal prisons by 212.5 percent
Of the estimated 242,200 prisoners under state jurisdiction sentenced for drug offenses in 2009, 73,700 were white (30.4%), 122,300 were black (50.5%), and 41,300 were Hispanic (17.1%) Of the inmates residing in federal prisons as of September 2011, and for whom offense data are known, more than half (101,929 or 50.4%) were serving sentences for federal drug offenses—including simple possession. And of the 24,366 federal drug offenders known to have been sentenced for drug related offenses, 6,336 were sentenced for marijuana-related offenses and 4,309 were sentenced for methamphetamine-related offenses in 2010. Source: Sacco, Lisa N. and Finklea, Kristin M., "Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, October 28, 2011), p. 11. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42066.pdf
The number of inmates held in BOP [Bureau of Prisons] facilities grew from 125,560 in FY200051 to 180,725 as of September 2011. From FY2000–FY2010, prison crowding grew from 32% over rated capacity to 37% over rated capacity, despite the fact that the number of facilities operated by BOP increased from 97 to 116. The growing federal prison population has not only resulted in more crowded prisons, but it has also strained BOP’s ability to properly manage and care for federal inmates." Source: Sacco, Lisa N. and Finklea, Kristin M., "Synthetic Drugs: Overview and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, October 28, 2011), p. 12.
Substance-involved people have come to compose a large portion of the prison population. Substance use may play a role in the commission of certain crimes: approximately 16 percent of people in state prison and 18 percent of people in federal prison reported committing their crimes to obtain money for drugs.Treatment delivered in the community is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent such crimes and costs approximately $20,000 less than incarceration per person per year. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community yields over $18 in cost savings related to crime.23 In comparison, prisons only yield $.37 in public safety benefit per dollar spent. Releasing people to supervision and making treatment accessible is an effective way of reducing problematic drug use, reducing crime associated with drug use and reducing the number of people in prison."Source: Justice Policy Institute, "How to safely reduce prison populations and support people returning to their communities," (Washington, DC: June 2010), p. 8.
Federal prisons were estimated to hold 179,204 sentenced inmates in 2007. Of these, 15,647 were incarcerated for violent offenses, including 2,915 for homicide, 8,966 for robbery, and 3,939 for other violent crimes. In addition, 10,345 inmates were serving time for property crimes, including 504 for burglary, 7,834 for fraud, and 2,006 for other property offenses. A total of 95,446 were incarcerated for drug offenses. Also, 56,237 were incarcerated for public-order offenses, including 19,528 for immigration offenses and 24,435 for weapons offenses. Source: Sabol, William J., PhD, and West, Heather C., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2007 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, December 2008), NCJ224280, p. 22, Appendix Table 12.
Almost a century ago it was under the Harrison Act that cocaine was incorrectly classified as a narcotic, instead of the stimulant that it is. A small mistake, some might think, but a sloppy one made by the government in a rush to enact laws that penalize usage, rather than prevent or treat drug abuse. The “crack cocaine laws” were another ill conceived reaction to a problem, rather than a viable solution. Today, many state governments are making inroads in correcting the problems that the war on drugs brought down upon the heads of Americans. Seventeen (and counting) state governors signed laws that made possession of a small amount of marijuana a fineable offense, rather than one that called for incarceration. The federal government made sweeping changes to the “crack cocaine laws.” That move was too little, too late for the multitude of people of color who were most affected by the laws, and who spent years, if not decades, behind bars because the government made the penalties for crack cocaine much harsher than for the powdered cocaine favored by whites.
In recent months there has been bi-partisan support to fix the damage that the war on drugs has created. Some states have enacted bits of progressive legislature that brought about major drug reform measures. Some states are moving incrementally, dragging their feet as they mull over, and argue about, changes to state statutes. There are a small amount of states that still shoot down every attempt to bring about new, and more intelligently framed, drug laws. Still, the voters will have the last word on Election Day. Polls show that Americans favor decriminalization for possession of small amounts of marijuana, just as they support alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. The war on drugs has been a dismal and costly failure by all accounts. Politicians who don’t call for a cease-fire, if not surrender, might find that they are out of out of a job come November.