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The war on drugs in the United States has been successful at doing two things: criminalizing Black communities and wasting taxpayer dollars. What it hasn’t done, however, is combat substance abuse problems across the country. The time to change that is now, and new drug reform legislation in Oregon indicates for the first time, states may be heading away from the ineffective, Nixon-era philosophies regarding drug law enforcement — and it’s a good thing.
Of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in the U.S., approximately 20 percent are there for nonviolent drug offenses, according to The Prison Policy Initiative. This group of nearly half a million people — a figure that by itself is greater than the entire prison population of India — costs taxpayers a fortune.
Last year alone, American taxpayers spent more money funding the war on drugs than they did the Departments of Transportation and Agriculture combined, according to figures from The Drug Policy Alliance and The United States Budget, Fiscal Year 2020. Despite access to funds upwards of $47 billion annually for drug-related crimes, few U.S. prisons obtain the medical resources and know-how necessary to properly treat drug addiction.
Thus, only 11 percent of individuals struggling with addiction in the U.S. prison system receive some sort of treatment behind bars, according to the American Public Health Association. For others, time in lockup is spent without the resources and support system necessary to effectively detox — leading to considerably high rates of overdose and recidivism upon release, according to the Center for American Progress.
A lack of available treatment has rendered incarceration a relatively useless method of handling drug use. In fact, there is little evidence anywhere suggesting a correlation between increased incarceration rates and decreased substance abuse rates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Instead, studies suggest addiction is a treatable disease of the brain that needs proper medical attention to be subdued.
Oregon Measure 110 seeks to do just this. Oregon’s newest drug reform legislation mandates rehabilitative practices in an effort to systematically reduce drug addiction in the state. Rather than criminally charging individuals with minor possession of substances such as LSD, oxycodone, heroin and meth, Oregonians face a fine that can be waived with treatment.
The state is funding treatment facilities with a combination of excess marijuana tax revenue and savings from not arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders. The measure took effect on Feb. 1 and is projected to save the state more than $24 million in the next three years in addition to numerous lives, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
It’s impossible to escape the impact of the war on drugs on the Black community. Despite using drugs at a lower rate than the general public, Black Americans account for nearly 60 percent of drug offenders in state prisons and almost 80 percent of drug offenders in federal prisons, according to data from the Drug Policy Alliance.
In a sense, mass incarceration via the war on drugs symbolizes a modern-era Jim Crow. Not only are Black men 13.4 times more likely to serve time for a drug offense than white men, but they’re also likely to be handed sentences for nonviolent crimes that rival those of violent crimes by white people, according to Human Rights Watch data. Nearly 80 percent of all drug arrests in the Black community are for possession only, according to Human Rights Watch.
As the war on drugs approaches its 50-year anniversary in June, there is no better time to reevaluate how we deal with substance abuse in this country. Drug reform legislation is not about creating a society that promotes drug use, but rather about creating one where people have access to the resources and treatment they need while not wasting taxpayer money in the process.
If someone close to you developed a drug dependency, how would you want it handled?