While the world is currently facing the global pandemic of COVID-19, the United States has been plagued by a disease of its own for decades: mass incarceration. One in four prisoners around the world belongs to the self-proclaimed Land of the Free, the United States, even though only 4.25 percent of the world’s population are Americans. However, this has not always been an issue in our nation. In 1972, the total United States prison population was only around 300,000. In 2016, the population reached 2.3 million, almost seven times the amount it was in 1972. While the reality of mass incarceration is a difficult one for Americans of all races, it is particularly harmful to Black Americans. Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination on the basis of race by federal and state governments, Black Americans are still five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. In 2015, 72 percent of the federal prison population were Black or Latino. Furthermore, one in ten Black men in their 30s is behind bars. Our country was founded on the Enlightenment ideas of freedom, liberty, and democracy, yet we have failed those original ideals that were wished upon us by our nation’s forefathers.
One factor of mass imprisonment is the overcriminalization of drug possession. The treatment of drug use as a criminal issue rather than a public health issue began in the Nixon administration in the late 60s and early 70s, but it increased significantly under Ronald Reagan. To fight what was deemed the “war on drugs,” Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. While this may seem like an innocuous and even helpful health initiative, it was a prime example of de facto racism since it disproportionately punished Black communities for similar crimes as whites. This act set penalties that were “100 times harsher” for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine possessions (crack was far more common in Black communities while powder was the typical choice for White Americans). Unfortunately, these racial disproportions when it comes to drug enforcement still exist in the United States’ prison population today. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people only use marijuana at a rate of 1.3 times higher than White people but are 3.7 percent times more likely to be arrested for possession. There is an undeniable, inherent problem in the system, both about how society treats people of different races and the system’s desire to lock up those they consider problems instead of helping them. Frankly, the hard part is not identifying the issue; it’s how we fix it.
If the government passes legislation that decriminalizes drug use, the number of Americans in jail will significantly decrease, as well as create fiscal and health benefits for the public. Marijuana legalization on a federal level should be the United States’ first step to the larger goal of decriminalizing all drugs. Weed is so popular that, according to a poll conducted in July 2017, 45 percent of Americans have experimented with weed at one point in their life. Furthermore, for a drug that is so widespread, it would be simply illogical to imprison anyone who has ever possessed the drug. Not to mention, most Americans (68 percent) support the legalization of weed on a national scale. While the number of prisoners who are in jail because of marijuana-related crimes is low compared to other crimes, legalizing weed would still have tremendous impacts that cannot be ignored. While this may seem like an impractical measure, it is actually very realistic and already being implemented by multiple state governments. In the United States, fifteen states with the addition of the District of Columbia and Guam legalized recreational marijuana while thirty-six states, as well as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, permit medical marijuana. However, the movement to decriminalize drugs does not end with cannabis.
While it may seem extreme at first, we must decriminalize all drugs to cultivate the United States into a truly just and generative country. Just last year, the Oregon state government passed a landmark policy that decriminalized small possession and personal use of all drugs, including hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, called Measure 110. Instead of simply arresting and throwing drug users in jail and effectively ruining many lives and communities, this initiative will also expand “addiction assistance” as well as other health services. Although, the law states that if a user is caught in possession of a larger amount of drugs, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. Unfortunately, because this initiative was passed so recently, data analysts are yet to be able to determine if this measure was indeed a success or not.
However, Portugal has had this policy since 2001, and the country has experienced almost all the positive impacts that those in favor of drug decriminalization have hoped for and have yet to experience many of the complications that the opposers feared. This unconventional action led to a decrease in HIV infections and drug overdoses. Additionally, the levels of drug use in Portugal have reached below the European average, showing its inventive drug policies have made the country stand out in a positive light. Moreover, drug use has declined for those in the 15-24 age group, who are at the most risk of suffering life-long drug addictions if they start experimenting with it at that age. Furthermore, around 25 countries have removed criminal penalties for the personal possession of some, or even all, drugs. The United States can join this list of innovative countries to cultivate a better future in American society.
Furthermore, decriminalizing drugs simply means that drug possession is no longer a criminal offense, just an administrative violation: often resulting in fines or community service. Like Portugal did in 2001, state governments can set up a panel of legal and medical professionals tasked with assigning penalties to drug abusers and encouraging or even requiring them to seek treatment in rare and critical cases. Moreover, it’s important to note that for drug decriminalization to truly work, the finances originally outlaid to drug enforcement must be reallocated to drug prevention, treatment, and other welfare programs. Drug rehabilitation programs make an important difference in an individual’s ability to recover from addiction with a 46 percent recovery rate versus the low recovery rate of 17 percent of successful individuals who attempt to detox alone. Without pairing drug decriminalization with these changes in the welfare state, the United States cannot experience the full positive effects of drug decriminalization. If these drug treatment and protection programs are not funded, then there is the potential danger of a drug crisis. If the United States wants to emulate the success that Portugal found, we must treat the health needs of the people as well.
Not only does the legalization of drugs, marijuana in particular, have positive social effects, its fiscal benefits cannot be overlooked. Legalizing marijuana will not only save the government a substantial amount of money, but it will generate revenue. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, law enforcement related to marijuana is estimated to cost around 3.6 billion dollars yearly. However, the cost-effectiveness of legalizing marijuana is not just proven through estimation; the positive influence of this singular policy is clearly visible in the states that have either completely legalized the drug or have stopped prosecuting small amounts. For example, in California, they saved almost 30 million dollars in a year by choosing not to prosecute minor marijuana offenders. Funds formerly outlaid to drug enforcement can be reallocated to government-run social welfare programs like rehabilitation, which will have more effective long-term impacts on drug addiction. Between 85 and 95 percent of all people who successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program practice complete drug abstinence even nine months after being released, showing that drug treatment programs, rather than criminalizing drug use, really are valuable to the health and safety of our society.
Furthermore, legal weed significantly strengthens a state’s economy. In Colorado, the state received around 150 million dollars from sales taxes, fees, and licenses from legal marijuana sales. Furthermore, in 2020, according to Forbes, legal marijuana sales made a record 17.5 billion dollars nationally, which substantially aided the economy in such turbulent times. Additionally, the cannabis industry offers thousands of jobs to American workers, which is particularly helpful considering the record low unemployment rates due to the pandemic. Since 2017, the industry has seen a shocking 100 percent employment growth because of increasing legalization, making it “the fastest-growing job sector in the country.” Not only has legalizing marijuana saved the state money, but it has also gained them even more. However, it is important to note, with other more lethal types of drugs, such as cocaine or meth, this logic is not applicable.
Even with the growing movement against harsh drug punishments, Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska has continued to stress his strong opposition towards marijuana legalization, or drug decriminalization of any kind. As a part of his aggressive campaign against the legalization of medical marijuana, he said in a press conference that “if you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids.” However, his argument is entirely false. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, no deaths of minors or adults from marijuana overdose have been reported. While marijuana will not be as criticized, because it is not the deadly force Ricketts portrays them to be, particularly deadly drugs like cocaine and heroin will still be heavily discouraged by the government and healthcare workers alike. Finally, the opposition argues that if marijuana was legalized, we would witness a dangerous surge in the amount of users. However, the drug is already extremely widespread. In 2020, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that at least 36 million Americans used marijuana in the last month. The fact is that Americans will continue to consume marijuana, whether it is legal or not. However, by legalizing marijuana, we can limit the disastrous effects of mass incarceration.
American lives and futures are on the line. The death toll from the war on drugs and mass incarceration is already far too high, and we cannot let it increase anymore. Locking people in jail is not an appropriate measure to deal with drug addiction. It wasn’t one in 1986, and it certainly is not one now. If David Stojcevski was still here with us today, I’m sure he would agree. Stojcevski, only 32 years old, was sentenced to a 30-day jail sentence in the county jail after being unable to pay for a driving ticket. However, he was undergoing drug addiction treatment at the time. After jail officials failed to supply him with the medicine he required to manage his withdrawals, he was found naked and dead on the floor of his jail cell within just 17 days. This cannot happen again.
People with drug addictions do not belong in jail; they belong in treatment. While drug decriminalization alone will not end mass incarceration, it certainly will benefit the lives of many and will do more than just chip away at the United States’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system. One in ten Black men do not deserve to be locked away for trivial crimes and have their futures snuffed out. To save lives, we all must reach out to our legislators. Call or write to Congress members, state legislatures, or even the President and demand drug decriminalization.