In recent years, federal sentencing guidelines have been revised, resulting in less severe prison terms for low-level drug offenders. But tens of thousands of inmates who were convicted in the "war on drugs" of the 1980s and 1990s are still behind bars. Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer? The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation. As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
WASHINGTON — In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration will move on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
Law enforcement strategies have utterly failed to even maintain street prices of the key illicit substances. This figure shows that street drug prices fell by roughly a factor of five between in 1980 and 2008. Meanwhile the number of drug offenders locked up in our jails and prisons went from fewer than 42,000 in 1980 to a peak of 562,000 in 2007. We have remarkably little evidence that the billions of dollars spent on supply-side interdiction have much impact.
For four decades, libertarians, civil rights activists and drug treatment experts have stood outside of the political mainstream in arguing that the war on drugs was sending too many people to prison, wasting too much money, wrenching apart too many families -- and all for little or no public benefit. They were always in the minority. But a sign of a new reality emerged: for the first time in four decades of polling, the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
"Since declaring a war on drugs 40 years ago, the United States has spent more than a trillion dollars, arrested more than 45 million people, and racked up the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet it remains laughably easy to obtain illegal drugs. So why do we continue down this same path? Why do we talk about the drug war as if it's a success? It's a charade." (See: The house I live in)
The first anti-drug law in the US was a local law in San Francisco passed in 1875, outlawing the smoking of opium and directed at the Chinese. Marijuana prohibition also had racist underpinnings. This time it was the Mexicans. Just as cocaine was associated with black violence and opium with Chines white slavery, in the southwest border towns of the US marijuana was viewed -- beginning in the early 1920s -- as a cause of Mexican lawlessness.
One of the more surprising results of last week's election was the decision by voters in Colorado and Washington state to legalize marijuana for adult use. The success of both these ballot initiatives has been welcomed by many as a signal that we are about to enter a more enlightened phase in the "war on drugs", which has criminalized drug addicts and recreational drug users, as well as drug dealers. In reality, however, there is little reason to believe that any fundamental change in government policy is in the works.
On a recent evening, some 50 people turned up for their weekly reckoning at Judge Joel Bennett’s drug court in Austin, Texas. Those who had had a good week—gone to their Narcotics Anonymous meetings and stayed out of trouble—got a round of applause. The ones who had stumbled received small punishments: a few hours of community service, a weekend in jail, a referral to inpatient treatment. Most were sanguine about that. Completing the programme will mean a year of sobriety and the dismissal of their criminal charges.
Harsh laws for selling or possessing of drugs are a public-policy disaster. Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist, uses the tools of his trade to examine the laws and their consequences. He writes that America is suffering “a plague of prisons”, and the Rockefeller laws in New York were the outbreak of that plague. None of Mr Drucker’s statistics is new, but they bear repeating because they are unjust, unintended and easily remedied. Treating drug addiction as a public-health problem (emphasising treatment and harm-reduction) rather than a crime would go a long way towards making America’s poor and minority communities stabler and better. It would also save taxpayers money. All that is lacking is political will.
In an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. They probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations.