The War on Drugs is Lost (Again)

November 3rd, 2015 by Attorney Dan Carman

Lexington Drug Defense Lawyer

Edwin Starr may not be a household name, but many are familiar with his 1970 chart-topping hit, “War,” which queried, “What is it good for? . . . ” While that song was written in protest of the Vietnam War, the sentiment can be extended to other kinds of conflict, including the War on Drugs. Since President Nixon named drug abuse as “public enemy number one in the United States,” it’s been an uphill battle inexorably linked to mass incarceration. And it’s not working.

Conservative publication The National Review deemed the war on drugs lost as far back as 1996. At that time, founder William F. Buckley, Jr., declared it to be “outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana.” Last year, the magazine’s staff formally opined that “it is our judgment that the war on drugs has failed, that it is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states. We all agree on movement toward legalization, even though we may differ on just how far.”

More than 1.5 million people were arrested in 2013 for drug abuse violations, with the majority of arrests for possession rather than for sale or distribution. Nearly 489,000 people are incarcerated today for nonviolent drug law violations, up from 41,000 in 1980. Changes in sentencing laws and policies are the reasons behind much of this increase. Mandatory minimums have been keeping people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time.

For example, in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, people convicted on federal drug offenses were expected to serve almost three times that long — 62 months.

The war on drugs has resulted in prison overcrowding, which in turn has led to a financial strain on states as they struggle with the burden. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, $51.9 billion was spent by the states in 2013 on corrections. Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance are working to shift funding away from the old policies and toward drug treatment and education programs. Reflecting the views of many Americans, they believe mandatory minimum sentences are unjust and low level drug offenses would be much more effectively managed with alternatives to incarceration, along with the availability of drug treatment.

Others point to what has happened in Portugal since that country eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs. Independent research of the Portuguese decriminalization shows no major increases in drug use, fewer people arrested for drugs, fewer people incarcerated for drugs, more people receiving drug treatment and reduced social costs of drug misuse. Ending mass incarceration is especially important for people of color, whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by drug laws.

Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. One in nine Black children and one in 28 Latino children have a parent who is incarcerated, as compared to one in 57 white children. More than half of these incarcerated parents are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug law violations.

Some states have begun instituting a sentencing alternative known as drug court for those interested in rehabilitation and willing to enter into a plea agreement. Drug court involves attending treatment sessions and undergoing random drug tests while appearing before a judge on a regular basis. While ending the war on drugs won’t end mass incarceration, a truce is long overdue. It is time to ease the burden on our prisons and our society by reforming drug laws. Drug charges can seem minor at first, but can quickly transform into significant legal problems with long-lasting consequences. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime involving drugs, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can guide your case through the criminal process.