Should Illicit Drugs Be Legalized? – Part 2

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In this second post on America’s war on drugs, I will provide more evidence of the failure of that policy and then describes an essential element of a better plan, including how to pay for it.

(Note: you can read the first post on this issue by scrolling down to the post immediately below this one.)

Boyce JPEGIn spite of our nation’s fierce war on drugs, deaths from heroin in the US are growing rapidly. According to data from the US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, in general, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the number of deaths from heroin use is up by 39%.

And what about deaths from overdoses of other drugs? According to the National Institute On Drug Abuse there were a little more than 9,000 deaths from overdoses of addictive drugs in 2001 and around 23,000 such deaths in 2013. In particular, the deaths from overdoses of prescription pain killers went from about 6,000 to almost 18,000 deaths in that same period. These facts cry out for a better plan than our current war on drugs..

By contrast both Portugal and Switzerland tried policies that differ radically from the punitive approach used in our country. They de-criminalized the use of addictive drugs. Under their new approaches, both of them had major reductions in the number of injection drug users and of deaths from drug use. (Note: to read more about these nation’s approaches illicit drug use, scroll down to the previous post entitled Should Illicit drugs Be Legalized?)

In the US, the face of heroin addiction has been changing. For years it had seemed that most heroin addicts were poor Blacks living in low income inner city districts. But, according to a report published in the journal JAM Psychiatry, there’s been a dramatic shift in the demographics of heroin use. New heroin users in America are more likely to be White suburban men and women in their 20s who get hooked on prescription opiates and then turn to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.

Under the war on drugs, many drug laws impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Judges do not have the option of lighter sentences when that seems appropriate. So the time drug offenders stay in prison has increased dramatically. In 1986, the average time was 22 months. By 2004, drug offenders were sentenced to serve nearly triple that time — 62 months, on average, according to The Sentencing Project.

As a result, the number of convicted drug offenders in our state and federal prisons have risen dramatically. That, in turn has driven up what federal and state government must spend on housing their prisoners.

According to the US Department of Justice, in 2013, the US spent $10.3 BILLION housing drug offenders in federal prisons per year or $103 billion every 10 years. And the National Association of State Budget Officers estimates that total spending by states on inmates in their prisons is $52.4 billion per year or $524 billion every 10 years.

It appears that the federal government is beginning to take steps in the right direction. According to the Washington Post it began the release of 6,000 federal inmates, sentenced for drug ofenses, early this month. About two-thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one-third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported, officials said.

So, what do we do? Do we just release all prison inmates who are in prison only because of drug offenses? Do we simply ignore all misuse of addictive drugs? Do we ignore the problem of drugs in our neighborhoods? Doing that, and nothing more, would be a disaster.

Many of these prison inmates have very limited income and few job skills. The mere fact that they have a criminal record will add to the difficulty in finding a job. That will force many of them to return to selling drugs to pay for food and housing.

Many of the released prisoners have mental illnesses which would result in committing a variety of crimes. Crazy people do crazy things. According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, American prisons and jails housed an estimated 356,268 inmates with several mental illness in 2012. That figure is more than 10 times the number of mentally ill patients in state psychiatric hospitals in the same year—about 35,000 people.

The offenders released from prison would need help to improve their education, to build salable job skills and to actually obtain work, not to mention help in finding an affordable place to live. And finally many would need mental health care. Many drug abusers on the street also need all of the same services. It would be expensive, but the cost savings in the budgets of state and federal prisons would be a very good start in paying the costs of these programs.

So it all boils down to this. Are you happy with the current situation? If not, we should support a better way.

Boyce Hinman


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