Is America Ready to Decriminalize Drugs?

For four decades, the United States has been waging a war on drugs. Drugs won.

Drug dealers won.  The criminal justice system won.  Millions upon millions of dollars have been directed toward the construction of prisons in the United States.  Hundreds of thousands of young people and adults have found themselves behind bars for non-violent actions involving drugs.  In these prisons, serving time along side murderers, thieves and rapists, these non-violent offenders learned the real meaning of crime.

Is America ready for the change that’s needed?

There are a few recent developments we need to consider.

First, there is a wave of decriminalization sweeping through Latin America.

From The Guardian:

Bruno Avangera, a 40-year-old web designer from Tucumán inArgentina, pauses to relight a half-smoked joint of cannabis. Then he speaks approvingly of “progress and the right decision” by the country’s seven supreme court judges, who decided last week that prosecuting people for the private consumption of small amounts of narcotics was unconstitutional.

“Last year three of my friends were caught smoking a spliff in a park and were treated like traffickers,” he said. “They went to court, which took six months. One went to jail alongside murderers. The others were sent to rehab, where they were treated for an addiction they didn’t have, alongside serious heroin and crack users. It was pointless and destroyed their lives.”

The court’s ruling was based on a case involving several men caught with joints in their pockets. As a result, judges struck down an existing law stipulating a sentence of up to two years in jail for those caught with any amount of narcotics. “Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference,” the ruling said. “Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others.”

Is the “war on drugs” ending? The Argentinian ruling does not stand alone. Across Latin America and Mexico, there is a wave of drug law reform which constitutes a stark rebuff to the United States as it prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of a conflict officially declared by President Richard Nixon and fronted by his wife, Pat, in 1969.

That “war” has incarcerated an average of a million US citizens a year, as every stratum of American society demonstrates its insatiable need to get high. And it has also engulfed not only America, but the Americas.

The incarceration of a million US citizens every year is something we’ve long neglected to face.  After all, the law can’t be wrong.  Drugs are illegal!

I had a circuitous discussion with my brother just a few weeks ago that went along those lines exactly.  When I suggested that we decriminalize drugs and treat drug addiction as a medical condition, he responded (several times), “You can’t! Drugs are illegal!”

Again, from The Observer, this time from the editorial section:

In June 1971, US President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”. Drugs won.

The policy of deploying the full might of the state against the production, supply and consumption of illegal drugs has not worked. Pretty much anyone in the developed world who wants to take illicit substances can buy them. Those purchases fund a multibillion dollar global industry that has enriched mighty criminal cartels, for whom law enforcement agencies are mostly just a nuisance, rarely a threat. Meanwhile, the terrible harm that drug dependency does to individuals and societies has not been reduced. Demand and supply flourish.

“It is time to admit the obvious,” writes Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, in the Observer today. “The ‘war on drugs’ has failed.”

The ‘war on drugs’ has failed.

Another cogent observation we forget about this ‘war’:

One point of general agreement is that heroin is the big problem. It is highly addictive and those who are dependent – up to 300,000 in Britain – tend to commit a lot of crime to fund their habit. But then it is hard to tell how much of the problem is contained by prohibition and how much caused by it.

Leaving gangsters in charge of supply ensures that addicts get a more toxic product and get ever more ensnared in criminality.

In the Chicagoland area, hardly a day goes by without a drive-by shooting, gang members fighting gang members over drug turf.

We have lost the ‘war on drugs’ because drug prohibition is bad policy.  It’s black and white thinking over an issue that demands critical thought and consideration.  Drug addiction is a medical issue, and the use of recreational drugs does not necessarily mean one is addicted to anything.

At any rate, I’m only getting warmed up on this one.