Our drug policies should be aimed at reducing drug misuse, preventing exposure to children and making communities safer. Advocates of drug prohibition typically cite these goals when defending “tough on crime” drug laws, but the empirical data simply doesn’t support their argument.
The most massive attempt in history to eradicate drugs with military and police forces – the global “war on drugs” – has indisputably failed to decrease drug use and addiction rates, despite 50 million arrests for drug charges in America and $1 trillion added to the national deficit. Today, the United States incarcerates more human beings than any other country, and yet we are the world’s number one consumer of illegal drugs.
Opponents of decriminalization insist that drug use would skyrocket if we took a different approach. Again, the facts simply don’t support their claim: Multiple longitudinal studies have debunked this myth, finding that criminalization has no deterrent effect on drug use among adults or young people. Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs more than a decade ago, and every indicator confirms that the policy has been an enormous success.
Under the current prohibition regime, availability and drug use in middle schools and high schools has only gone up in the United States. Students across the country consistently report that they can easily find drugs on the black market. The doomsday scenarios that drug warriors prophesy are nothing but fear-mongering distractions from the reality of a massively unjust, failed policy.
Prohibitionists often assert that decriminalization would “send the wrong message.” In fact, however, decriminalization sends the message that we care about our communities and public safety and that we need a more health-based approach to drugs.
On the other hand, continuing to incarcerate millions of American citizens, stripping them of their dignity and respect, denying them proper treatment and branding them with a scarlet letter that makes them unemployable sends the message that we’re not the beacon of democracy we’d like to be. It sends the message that institutionalized prejudice and hatred is alive and well in the United States.
Drug misuse and addiction is a serious problem, but we should resist the knee-jerk impulse to demonize drug users, lock them away and throw away the key. Regulation, treatment, prevention and education are much more humane and effective strategies for solving this problem.
Jared Moffat ’13 is president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He can be reached at email@example.com.