It doesn’t take a genius, a criminal justice scholar or an activist to realize that something is wrong with the fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. This is true despite not having the highest crime rates in the world and labeling itself as a “leader” in individual rights. This mass incarceration is due, at least in part, to the War on Drugs, a war being fought within our borders and against our fellow citizens. This drug war, like others, takes family members away for long periods of time and ultimately results in some casualties. Additionally, like other wars the United States is currently fighting, this one has questionable intentions.
A Questionable Drug War
In 2009, Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, made a speech at the America’s Future Now conference. Though it’s three years old, this speech hits on nearly everything that needs to be said about the Drug War and this incarceration nation.
The Drug War may have officially started within the last three decades, when we decided to start doling out lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, but this fear of drugs began much longer ago. Like it does today, the original drug war was started by fear—mostly fear of other races. For example, why is marijuana illegal? From anti-marijuana laws that were written in the southwest in the 1910’s and directed at Mexican migrants to the glaringly disparate crack-cocaine laws of recent times—the drug war has always been tied to race.
“In every case, good white people feared what those dark-skinned people would do to our women and our children,” said Nadelmann.
So, now what? Now that we’ve made our mark on the world as being the strictest on drug crimes and the last place on earth you’d want to get caught violating a law (particularly if you aren’t white or wealthy), now that we’ve served to incarcerate almost 25% of the world’s prisoners—where does it end?
The fact is our need to incarcerate is not serving our country well. We aren’t any safer and we spend more than ever. The prison-industrial system costs state governments alone more than $50 billion per year. And for those who think incarcerating people will “teach them a lesson,” that it will make good, upstanding citizens out of common drug users– know that incarceration does nothing of the sort.
In Nadelmann’s speech, he says this is an issue that everyone in the United States needs to be concerned about—from the most ‘liberal Democrat’, to the most ‘conservative Republican’, the ‘progressive’s and the ‘libertarians’—everyone needs to take heed.
Because these drug laws don’t only affect the average American who likes to smoke a joint now and then, they affect anyone who is concerned about civil liberties, the expenses of government, and those who have seen family members suffer through the throes of addiction. Changes in the drug war could ultimately have positive effects on all of these concerns.
Hold people accountable. Punish those who hurt others or put others at risk by driving under the influence of drugs, but don’t subject someone to the criminal law simply because they opt to ingest one substance rather than another.
It’s on this basis that we can build a movement for freedom and justice that ends America’s exceptional reliance on incarceration and the criminal justice system and that embraces a drug-control policy grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.
You can read Nadelmann’s speech in its entirety here on AlterNet.