by Jamison Maeda
The United States has become an “incarceration nation.” Over 7 million people are under correctional supervision. No other nation holds this many people behind bars. Violent crime in the US has significantly decreased since 1980, but the prison population has quadrupled.
“Ever since (President) Richard Nixon and the War on Crime, which was really just, I think, a way to capture the Southern vote because he really meant a war on black people.” said Martin Horn, former New York City Commissioner of Correction and Probation. Horn, like many others, blames the increase in prison population on the “War on Drugs.”
The American War on Drugs originated in the early 1900s with states creating racist prohibitions directed at cannabis smokers assumed to be black, or immigrants from the Middle East and Mexico. “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents” wrote the city editor of the Alamosa, Colorado Daily Courier.
In the 1970s, President Nixon, in an effort to create a scapegoat of ethnic minorities and immigrants, dramatically increased the size of drug control agencies and established mandatory sentencing, which radically diminished the authority of judges.
The Reagan administration brought unprecedented expansion to the War on Drugs and saw an increase in incarcerations for non-violent drug offenses from 50,000 people to over 400,000.
Americans have spend over $1 trillion dollars on the War on Drugs and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. A drug conviction can result in the loss of employment, access to social services, financial aid for college, and the right to vote. This creates a permanent underclass of people with limited resources, limited opportunities, and limited options.
The 40 year war on drugs is now accepted by most people as a failure of policy. David Simon police reporter and writer of the highly acclaimed TV drama The Wire said ‘drug prohibition failed in its aims and became a war on America’s underclass, policing was allowed to become a war and therefore will never succeed’.
The time for change is now. After 40 years of failed policy, even conservative groups and politicians are calling for change. Colorado and Washington State have legalized marijuana as a first step toward regulation and taxation.
Portugal is experiencing tremendous success with their program of mandatory rehabilitation instead of incarceration. They decriminalized all drugs in 2001, the main reason for this was that the economic cost of incarceration was far more expensive than treatment. Within the first 5 years to 2006 rates of lifetime drug use had fallen in all age groups in Portugal. The number of Heroin related deaths fell by 50%. HIV infection fell by 17%. Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in the EU. Uruguay is expecting to see the same results when their new legalization policy comes into effect.
Around the world people are demanding a change in policy and effective rehabilitation services. The world has had enough of black market drug networks and the unfathomable loss of human life. As a global community we have grown very tired of watching our prison populations grow each year and billions of our tax dollars going up in smoke.