The War on Drugs: an American misunderstanding
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that the U.S. was to fight, what he referred to as, public enemy No. 1. This enemy was thought to cause the destruction of families, tears in the fabric of society and the total annihilation of American values.
But in reality this War on Drugs —as it later became known as— became a $1 trillion mistake, and caused far worse problems than the drugs it intended to fight.
The War on Drugs has been a complete and utter failure, giving the American people the shame of having the largest prison population in the world.
Four decades later, the U.S., despite only containing a little less than five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates a quarter of the world’s prison population making the it home to the largest prison population on Earth.
Among the 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S., half a million were charged with drug-related crimes. One hundred thousands of those have been incarcerated for simple possession of drugs.
The problem here isn’t necessarily the crime itself.
Regardless of whether one believes in drug legalization, this is a founding principle of the legal system. The problem is the mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat crimes.
Take the example of Clarence Aaron, whom in 2014 beat the 1-in-213 chance of being granted clemency by President Barack Obama. Aaron was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in a federal prison after his involvement in a cocaine deal. He was neither the buyer nor seller in the deal.
Jesse Matthew, however, was tried for his involvement in the murder of two college-aged women, attempted capital murder, and abduction with attempt to defile and object sexual penetration of a third victim.
His punishment was three consecutive life sentences. This was the maximum punishment that could be levied upon him.
There are thousands of cases where non-violent drug offenders have their lives destroyed by extremely harsh penalties imposes by laws resulting from the War on Drugs.
These harsh penalties for drug offenses have even larger repercussions than just those who reside behind bars. In order to fund the growing prison population, in which each inmate costs on average $29,000 to keep locked up, states have had to re-prioritize their funding allocation.
In Arizona, the state budget for prison spending has grown to 12 percent from 8 percent while the funding for state universities residing in Arizona has fallen to 8 percent from 12 percent.
From 1980 to 2010, California’s state budget expenditure on prisons went to 11 percent from 3 percent whereas funding for higher education decreased 2.5 percent over the same period of time.
All of these problems are exacerbated by harsher drug laws and harsher sentences for low-level drug offenders.
We have not lost this war, but merely misunderstood its intentions.
Instead of learning from our mistakes during the era of Prohibition, we’ve led ourselves down the same dark path by creating strict laws with even harsher penalties.
Perhaps it’s time that we reexamine the issue and realize that one’s future shouldn’t be decided between a joint and a jail cell.
Opinion columnist Austin Turman is a political science junior and may be reached at [email protected]