How to Solve America’s Drug Epidemic

In the United States, the War on Drugs has been a demonstrable failure. Started by the Nixon administration and dramatically expanded by Reagan, the War on Drugs has produced police militarization, inhumane mandatory minimum sentences, and an out-of-control prison population in the United States. The War on Drugs acted as the perfect backdrop for politicians to grow tougher on crime, and yet things have never been worse for average citizens. We need a new strategy, a new way of thinking, if we are to put an end to the public health crisis of drug abuse, and it starts with the complete decriminalization of all recreational drugs.

As of 2016, the Pew Research Center found that the United States’ prison population exceeded 2.2 million, the largest number of incarcerated individuals in any country (a rate of 860 inmates for every 100,000 adults). While the United States only has 4% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s prison population. So, we have the world’s largest prison population, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and a fourth of the world’s prisoners. Perhaps the United States has an incredibly efficient judicial system, or perhaps Americans are predisposed to illicit activities more than their metric brethren, yet that cannot explain why the United States has more people behind bars than India and China – the world’s two most populous nations and host to 36% of the world’s population – combined. 

What can explain the situation is the War on Drugs. Twenty percent of inmates are imprisoned on drug-related offenses in state prisons. The percentage in federal prisons is even higher. Furthermore, mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws – if you are convicted of violent crimes three times, you are in jail for life – lead those convicted to remain in jail for significantly longer times.  Both of these policies are a result of tough-on-crime policies that target addicts. 

These policies have also led to the targeting of African-Americans, who are more likely to be arrested for drug-possession, more likely to be convicted, and significantly more likely to serve time, usually with longer sentences. Overall, African-Americans are sent to jail approximately 13 times more frequently than the rest of the population, although they account for only about one tenth of “hard” drug users. This is the main reason why African-Americans make up over a third of the male prison population, more than any other race.  In addition, anti-convict policies that punish those who have served time behind bars (such as denying them the right to vote or requiring them to disclose past crimes to future employers), recidivism rates are extremely high. 

So far, this article has largely been tackling the issue of criminalization of drug use from a social justice perspective. However, many people see drug use and legalization as a public health issue. After all, as we are seeing with the opioid epidemic, deaths caused by overdoses are just as much a part of the conversation as criminal justice reform. Contrary to what many might believe, the decriminalization of drugs will improve, not harm, public health. 

Recreational marijuana is the poster child of the legalization movement. After all, it is a relatively safe drug – certainly much more so than heroin or cocaine – and support for its legalization is picking up steam, with recreational marijuana now legal in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and the entirety of Canada. Admittedly, 1 in 10 adult users become addicted to marijuana, but it is because of these addictive properties that legalization makes so much sense. People who are addicted to marijuana will seek it out no matter the restrictions and barriers put in place; that’s the nature of addiction. By criminalizing its usage, the United States government ends up punishing those who are victims. Also, criminalization has not prevented people from using it.  Yahoo News and Marist College report that over half of adults in the United States have smoked marijuana at some point in their lives. By legalizing the usage of marijuana, clinical studies can be conducted much more freely to research its health effects, and those who are negatively impacted can seek proper treatment without fear of criminal prosecution. 

Heroin, cocaine, and other illicit substances find fewer supporters for legalization, largely due to their deleterious effects on health. Decriminalizing them has already been done, however, in Portugal. Instead of arresting and prosecuting drug users, they focus on rehabilitation with a humane, health-first approach. The majority of money spent fighting drug use in Portugal has gone toward healthcare rather than law enforcement, which has led to fewer people using hard drugs, more people utilizing rehab programs, and the fewest deaths due to drugs out of any nation in the Western world. 

Free needle-exchanges and safe injection sites are controversial policies, but, when used, they have proven to be incredibly effective at improving public health. Free needle-exchange programs give users and addicts clean needles in exchange for used ones. Many people see this as encouraging the habit, yet it all but eradicates heroin-related HIV deaths. Safe injection sites provide supervised spaces where people can feel safe using drugs. This provides a perfect place to identify addicts and offer them treatment, and with trained medical professionals supervising injections, users are far less likely to overdose or practice unsafe injection techniques. While these policies may make more people comfortable using drugs, they are extremely effective at preventing deaths due to drugs, something we should all champion.

And lastly, there is the economic argument for legalizing drugs: taxation and regulation. As previously discussed, people who are addicted will often use any means to satisfy their affliction. Drug dealers fill that void. Unregulated, off-the-books, black market distributors cultivate violent crime. If the distribution of softer drugs such as marijuana was legalized, the market in which they are sold could be regulated. This would push black market distributors out of the market and open the door for regulations that could ensure safer potency levels. Moreover, taxes gathered from drug purchases could be directed towards funding and staffing drug rehabilitation centers and expanding public safety campaigns.

Drug use in the United States is a serious issue and our response has been woefully inadequate. Current policies exacerbate racial disparities in our justice system, fuel poverty, and harm public health. If we instead turn our attention to humane policies that focus on treating addicts as victims and fellow human beings, we can effectively address the epidemic of drug use in this country.