America’s prison population is out of control. America has the highest imprisonment rate in the world. 714 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, and the next closest competitor is Russia with 532 per 100,000. I hope we can all agree those numbers are simply not acceptable and something must change. Since the “War on Drugs” is widely blamed for multiplying our prison population, I propose ending the “War on Drugs” via decriminalization of all drugs.
Our government is crafted in a way that individual states have a much easier time passing new/controversial legislation. And when such legislation is proven to be effective, the policy can be adopted nationwide, creating a more efficient, responsive system.
Portugal isn’t a U.S. state, but we need to be looking at their plunging incarceration rates, spending on law enforcement, drug usage, HIV infections, homicide and overdose deaths after their move to decriminalize weed, cocaine and even heroin possession. To decriminalize means that if a person only has a personal amount of drugs on them (not enough to distribute), that person will be written a small ticket rather than thrown in prison and slapped with a record that will prevent them from future jobs and job advancement.
Portugal’s success was not only due to the decriminalization of drugs but also their shift from seeing drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal problem. Portugal realized the people getting high are sick—they need help. The people selling drugs are doing it out of economic necessity. And with that in mind, authorities decided to direct funds being used for prisons, police drug investigations and raids into programs that assisted the poor including food kitchens, shelters and drug rehabilitation facilities.
Portugal enacted this measure in 2001, a time of desperation, when it consistently ranked among the worst countries in terms of drug related issues. Now, Portugal is one of the developed world’s leaders in drug related statistics. Portugal is by no means a perfect country; but, in terms of learning from an experimental policy, the drug statistics are hard to argue with. Portuguese overdoses continue to decrease year after year, while American overdoses continue to increase. And year after year, our presidents, democrat or republican, do little to nothing about the failed “War on Drugs.”
Worse than doing nothing, the CIA under the Reagan/Bush administrations was caught working with some of the biggest drug dealers in North America such as Freeway Ricky Ross, Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses and Manuel Noriega. The CIA has admitted to this; they knew they were working with the same people flooding the streets with drugs, but in order to fund the anti-communist, pro Somoza dictatorship Nicaraguan rebels, “the ends justified the means.”
Bill Clinton signed rather than vetoed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that Joe Biden wrote, which included three strike mandatory life sentences, expanded the death penalty but perhaps the worst stipulation: taking away inmate’s ability to earn a college degree while incarcerated. So much for a correctional facility. The bill aged so poorly with criminology scholars and the public that Clinton actually had to apologize in 2015. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said. “And I want to admit it.” Clinton was a Rhodes scholar and can’t plead ignorance, he knew what he was doing.
Later in 2004, Barack Obama said the “War on Drugs” is an utter failure. However, when asked about legalizing marijuana (the most requested question on the internet) shortly after the 2008 election, he simply laughed it off. During Obama’s tenure there were many pro-weed protests outside the White House to legalize CBD, a purely medical component of marijuana, or at least get marijuana down from a Schedule 1 so it can be federally studied for its medicinal benefits. Obama ignored all of these protests and marijuana is still Schedule 1’d, and so is CBD. This is a shame because CBD can be a life saver for kids with seizures, veterans with PTSD, people with chronic pain and many other ailments.
In 1990 Donald Trump said, “We’re losing badly the War on Drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” Trump promised to legalize medical marijuana on the campaign trail, specifically at the request of veterans. He has yet to do that.
On top of all this Richard Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman came out and said in a 1994 conversation with Harper’s Magazine reporter Dan Baum, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
So despite Portugal’s success with decriminalization, the CIA looked the other way as drugs poured into the country. Furthermore, the entire policy has been founded on lies. Why hasn’t America made the move to end the “War on Drugs”?
Chris Cunningham is a third-year student majoring in communication studies. They can be reached at CC900349@wcupa.edu.