George Jung, played by Johnny Depp in the movie “Blow,” made me and millions of Americans question the logic of our nation’s drug laws. In the movie, Jung is sentenced to prison for possession of marijuana. After Jung is released, he said, “Danbury wasn’t a prison, it was a crime school. I went in with a bachelor of marijuana, came out with a doctorate of cocaine.”
Our country has one of the largest per-capita prison populations in the world, and taxpayers spend over $450 billion per year to enforce laws against consensual crimes, which is more than five times what we spend on education each year. We found out pretty quickly during prohibition how well those laws work. At least that time Congress passed a constitutional amendment.
The idea that we should lock up drug addicts began in the U.S. and quickly spread to the rest of the developed world. Recently, some countries are beginning to question why we are spending so much money punishing rather than rehabilitating drug addicts. Mexico, Switzerland and Portugal are among the countries that have decided to funnel often-scarce police and correctional funding into combating violent criminals and those who endanger others with their drug use, instead of locking up nonviolent offenders found with only small amounts of illegal drugs.
In 2001, Portugal’s drug czar Vitalino Canas told England’s The Guardian, “America has spent billions on enforcement but it has got nowhere. We view drug users as people who need help and care.” Canas says the change is not meant to completely legalize drug use, but instead of jail time, drug users are still subject to fines and community service in addition to probation and court-ordered detox treatment, to the discretion of the judge.
In 2006, Mexican President Vicente Fox signed a bill into law that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances, a controversial decision that has given Mexico more resources to fight drug cartels and violence.
The “war on drugs” began in the early 1970’s, when President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration. Can we even call the war on drugs an actual war? After all, wars end. Since then, our prison population has more than quadrupled, and more than one out of every 100 adults is in jail or prison. In the 1980s, several laws were put into place that were supposed to help us deal with the drug problem. One of these was a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine possession. Only recently has the logic of this law been questioned by Congress. As research shows, it tended to unfairly target minorities, and it was disproportional to the penalty for possessing powder cocaine.
Perhaps we should begin to think about the drug problem as a public health problem, not as a crime problem. If we spent as much money rehabilitating our nation’s drug users as we do locking them up, we would be able to provide addiction treatment, vocational training, and extended probation programs to keep people off drugs without throwing them into our prison system, where non-violent offenders are subjected to violent crime, infectious disease, and overcrowding. Nearly 60 percent of prisoners are drug felons and over 65 percent of those released from prison commit a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years of their release. This pattern turns nonviolent offenders into violent and repeat criminals instead of treating the underlying drug addiction and providing a path back into society.
Matthew Rosson is a sophomore prebusiness major from Lincoln, Neb.