The U.S. government spends more than $51 billion per year on the war against drugs. If throwing billions of dollars at a problem and hoping it goes away were a panacea for drug abuse, clearly the U.S. would have achieved victory by now. Instead, we’re witnessing a historic rise in the numbers of people who engage in using and abusing illegal drugs. An estimated 20 million people are now using drugs during any given month of the year.
Because of ineffective social policies relating to substance abuse, lives and communities are being devastated, families torn apart and futures being abandoned of all hope. Let’s face the cold, hard truth: drug prohibition does not work. Instead, these draconian laws misappropriate billions of dollars, waste the talent of our law enforcement and overpopulate our prisons with large quantities of non-violent offenders.
The Prohibition Effect
One of the primary effects of prohibition law is the creation of black-markets and underground economies. This has an incredibly negative impact upon legitimate economies as untold fortunes are funneled into organized crime operations. While criminal enterprises thrive in prohibition-based economies, local and national economies are damaged by the loss of taxation revenue. Marginalizing a multi-billion dollar industry like the drug trade results in the loss of potential millions in taxation revenue. Communities are left to shoulder the burden of black-market criminal activities because of ineffective prohibition laws. Were the sale of drugs to be legalized and taxed accordingly, the resulting income could be used to develop treatment and prevention programs that don’t create an additional financial burden.
Another negative consequence of prohibition is the degradation of respect for law enforcement. In fact, one of our most respected forefathers is famous for a remarkably astute quote regarding this issue. Abraham Lincoln said:
“Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes… A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
It’s eerie how applicable this sentiment is in today’s world. People lose respect for law enforcement when they see their local police arresting friends and family that have no business going to jail. Drug laws often target impoverished and minority populations disproportionately, resulting in the further alienation of classically marginalized groups.
How many people could support jailing a person afflicted with a chronic health condition, such as cancer, just because the symptoms they manifest have been recognized as illegal under the purvey of the law ? That sounds like a ridiculous scenario, one that few people could stomach were it to become a reality. Yet U.S. jails and prisons, between 2001 and 2013, incarcerated half the inmate population for committing drug-related offenses.
It’s true that the use, possession and distribution of drugs is illegal, but is this legal status morally unconscionable? Criminalizing pathology is indeed a reprehensible practice, one that should not be taking place in any civilized society. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 4th edition, referred to as the DSM-IV, lists medically recognized diagnostic standards for substance abuse and addiction. This is the same medical volume from which other valid diagnoses are given, such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. We don’t arrest clinically depressed individuals for manifesting their symptoms, so why do we treat those who suffer from addiction so barbarically?
Further supporting the fact that drug users are indeed ill, there is a high rate of co-morbidity seen between addiction and other mental disorders. In fact, patients with mood or anxiety disorders are about twice as likely to also suffer from a drug disorder. Patients with drug disorders are roughly twice as likely to be diagnosed with mood or anxiety disorders. Taking these facts into account, are we punishing crime or are we inhumanely obstructing the infirm from obtaining proper treatment? By jailing people with a recognized and valid diagnosis, we are ruining untold lives while still failing to protect the public from the consequences of drug use.
The High Cost of Imprisoning the Unwell
The land of the free and the home of brave is actually home to the world’s largest prison population. As noted before, over half of these people are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. On average, it costs between $21,000 to $31,000 annually to incarcerate a single person. With a prison population of roughly 2.5 million inmates, the budget to imprison so many people is equal to the cost allotted for fighting the war on drugs.
Imagine if we were to strike down these useless, punishing and inhumane laws against drug use. We would have roughly $10 billion available to develop prevention, education and treatment programs. Instead of treating people who are suffering from the scourge of addiction like so much trash, we could invest in their rehabilitation and treatment. It just doesn’t make sense to incarcerate so many non-violent offenders for an issue that should be addressed with medical treatment. Do we no longer value the founding principals of our country that grant the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Is Decriminalizing Drugs the Answer?
Portugal has taken drastic measures to address the social issue of drug abuse. With the passage of Law 30/2000 in 2001, the country decriminalized all drugs, penalizing possession and/or use with the equivalent of a misdemeanor charge. This means that drug users do not face jail time Portugal.
Although there are a multitude of critics who have opposed this move, the legislation has produced an incredibly positive change over the past 13 years. Drug abuse in Portugal is down by half, and currently 40,000 people are receiving treatment for their illness.
The results speak for themselves. When you stop treating drug users like criminals and instead treat them as patients in need of medical attention, they respond positively. Drug use is a symptom of many social problems, such as violence, poverty, sexual abuse and childhood neglect. While the U.S. government is busy waging a losing war, Portugal has decided to focus on social rehabilitation, saving addicts and innocent citizens from many ill effects associated with drug use. We too must seek a pragmatic and effective change in policy, or the future of our country may be in jeopardy.
The rest of the world could benefit from examining Portugal’s progressive and compassionate drug policy. No legislation will ever effectively prevent all people from engaging in drug use. Instead of investing billions in the enforcement of flawed and misguided anti-drug laws, governments need to be taking a proactive approach geared toward prevention. Drug clinics and social workers must be mobilized at a street level to offer treatment options to drug users. By decriminalizing drugs and addressing the societal needs of treatment and support, millions of lives could be saved.