Craig M. Klugman, Ph.D.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs. Specifically he said that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States.” This past week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declared changes in how his department prosecutes drug crimes. He will seek alternatives to incarceration and avoid mandatory minimum sentences that come with specific drug-related charges for those who commit low-level, nonviolent crimes unrelated to gangs or larger organizations. Some pundits have declared that this is the end of the war.
Why, after more than 40 years has there been a sudden change? According to Holder, the war is unsustainable, ineffective, and causes more social problems than it cures. However, the real reason may be money. In 2010, the federal government spent $15 billion dollars toward the war on drugs, including enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. The states spent an additional $25 billion that same year. In 2013 alone, over one million people so far have been arrested on drug related charges with nearly half of those for cannabis related offenses. Federal prisons house over 218,000 inmates, a ten-fold increase since 1980. Nearly 55% of those prisoners are there on drug-related offenses.
Another challenge is the increasing number of states that are legalizing medical and even recreational marijuana. Twenty states have medical marijuana programs and Colorado and Washington (state) have legalized recreational use as well.
From a bioethics perspective, the war on drugs is of great concern because it demonstrates continuing social injustice. Two-thirds of all prisoners serving on a drug-related charge are “persons of color.”Drug-related prisoners are more likely to be uneducated, to have mental health problems, and may be of lower socioeconomic status. There are factors beyond the drug-related crime that influence whether one is incarcerated, the charge, and the sentencing.
A political comic in my local newspaper made fun of Holder, indicating that these “criminals” will get a “Free pass,” be given a “time out,” and a “stern talking to” instead of imprisonment. Perhaps the problem rests with the notion that these actions are “crimes.” After a 40 year publicity campaign, Holder’s approach will only be effective if we stop thinking of drug-related issues as criminal activity. Although the war may only be in its fifth decade, efforts to curb the use of illicit substances has a longer history. In modernity, one merely needs to look at the 1906 Food and Drug Act which was the first time that any substance was controlled. Marketing campaigns from the 1930s made wide use of visual imagery (remember “Reefer Madness”?) to portray the use of illicit drugs as a “bad” thing. In the first part of the 20th Century, the “bad things” were being involved with communities of minority populations, jazz musicians, and the poor. In the mid-20th Century, anti-drug campaigns portrayed a youthful generation as rebellious and standing up against its elders and tradition. And of course the 1980s brought in an era of intolerance with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign and images of eggs in frying pans with the tagline “This is your brain on drugs.”
When Richard Nixon declared his war, he appropriated the majority of funding for drug control to treatment. Today the majority goes toward enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. The factors that lead to drug use such as mental illness, poverty, addiction, lack of education, lack of opportunity in society are ignored because acknowledging these entrenched social injustices requires that we do something about them.
Over one hundred years of creating a cultural value that drugs are bad (at least all drugs not prescribed by a physician and not profiting a pharmaceutical company) cannot be overcome with a new policy by one U.S. attorney general. The problem is a historical one with why this war was created in the first place, with the social injustice that is perpetuated and enforced by these battles, and with the lives ruined by a zero tolerance approach. The sad reality is that it took a budget crisis to make a human choice. The next step will be for Congress to roll back mandatory sentencing laws and to look at the models created by some states for a more humane and realistic approach to drug control.