Category: Drug Possession/Drug Distribution

For decades, drugs and drug use have been heavily criminalized and prosecuted across the nation. Beginning in 1971, the so-called “war on drugs,” as coined by President Nixon, represented the effort by the federal government to stop the spread of drug use. More truthfully, and far more insidiously, however, the war on drugs was the Nixon administration’s attempt to demonize his political enemies, subject them to intense police scrutiny, and prosecute and incarcerate them for low-level offenses. John Ehrlichman, a top Nixon aide, admitted in 1994 that the true intention of the war on drugs was to vilify the anti-war left and to justify intensified policing in minority communities.

War on Drugs

The War’s Tumultuous History

This underlying intention is, to some degree, present in every administration’s iteration of the “war.” Nixon’s war was waged by increasing the size and powers of federal drug control agencies, while establishing mandatory minimum sentences and no-knock warrants. These efforts effectively began the war on drugs, setting the stage for a massive expansion of drug-controlling efforts under the Reagan administration. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act established harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses while creating a sentencing disparity of 100-1 for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. This represents the racism inherent in the war on drugs and the sentencing of offenders. One gram of crack cocaine, which was predominately used in African American communities, would carry the same sentence as one hundred grams of powder cocaine, which was predominately used in white communities.

Reagan’s demonization of drug users also helped him justify the increased aggressiveness of policing tactics used in the fight against drugs. Reagan’s war on drugs saw a massive increase in the amount of militarized police gear being allocated. This trend coincided with a rise in no-knock warrants, like the kind that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor, as well as fueled an incredible aggressive policing style done in the name of stopping drug use. The increased scrutiny by police of predominately minority communities, coupled with harsh mandatory minimums, significantly increased incarceration rates and have led us to an era of mass incarceration where America incarcerates more citizens than any other country in the world. From 1980 to 1997, the incarceration rate for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to 400,000. The war on drugs has undeniably contributed to a decades-long era of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets minority communities and harshly prosecutes offenders, charging them with long mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses.

The War Today: Changing Tides

Forty years after Reagan was elected, voters in the 2020 election, in states across the country, sent a clear message: they want the war on drugs to end. For example, residents in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota voted to legalize recreational marijuana, joining eleven other states who have also done so. Oregon voters went a step further, voting on perhaps the most radical anti-drug-war piece of legislation yet approved. Measure 110, which passed with nearly 59% support, effectively decriminalizes the possession of all illicit drugs. People caught with small amounts of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines, for example, will be fined $100 but not incarcerated. Oregon also passed measure 109, which legalizes the use of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, for therapeutic purposes. Similarly, the District of Columbia voted by a huge margin to approve Initiative 81, which decriminalizes the possession of certain entheogenic plants like magic mushrooms.

Voters in this election have sent an unprecedented message. The number of states with legalized recreational marijuana has increased, access to psilocybin therapy is improved in Oregon and the possession of psychedelic plants in D.C. was voted to be decriminalized. That, in and of itself, would be a historic rejection of the continuation of the war on drugs. However, Measure 110 in Oregon represents the most undeniable repudiation of the war on drugs. Voters have signaled that drug use and abuse are matters of public health and should not be dealt with by police. The people clearly believe that the demonization of drugs and drug users does not stop the spread of drugs. It only serves to subject marginalized communities to over-policing and mass incarceration. The war on drugs is far from over, but voters have signaled that the American people do not support its continuation.

While the rate of incarceration has decreased slightly in recent years, the United States still incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Because of this, special attention must be given to the causes of such a high incarceration rate in order to enact criminal justice reforms that effectively address the problem. A root cause of our staggering incarceration rate is the war on drugs and the predatory policing strategies it encourages.

Beginning in the Nixon administration, the war on drugs allocated more resources to federal, state, and local police, as well as established harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses. The Reagan administration took the war on drugs even further via the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which further established discriminatory mandatory minimums. The act also increased police presence in communities believed to have more drug use, which were predominately minority communities. Thus, the policing done in the name of the war on drugs targeted marginalized communities and incarcerated offenders for outrageously long times.

The expansion of mass incarceration did not end when Reagan left office, however. In fact, President Clinton expanded the era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the 1994 Crime Bill. This Act created tough criminal sentences, but its built-in incentives aimed at states proved to be the main cause of a steadily increasing incarceration rate for the following fourteen years.

The Crime Bill encouraged states to create truth-in-sentencing laws, which require offenders to serve a substantial portion of their sentence, and directly tied federal funding to tough-on-crime state laws. The war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration are characterized by increasingly aggressive policing of minority communities, coupled with harsh sentencing guidelines and the incentivization of state policies that increase incarceration.

As the prison population has finally begun to decrease, albeit slightly, the calls have grown for criminal justice reform to put the era of mass incarceration behind us. The events of the summer of 2020 have likewise increased the support for such reforms. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr. and George Floyd, to name a few, have forced people to come to terms with the flaws and racism inherent in the ways in which this country polices its citizens. Election Day 2020 has shown that these events have not fallen on deaf ears, and American citizens want a fundamental change in our criminal justice system.

One such victory for criminal justice reform was the passage of Proposition 17 in California. This proposition restored the voting rights for about 50,000 state parolees who completed their prison sentences. Similarly, measures in New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana legalized marijuana and Oregon voters approved a measure to decriminalize all Schedule I-IV drugs. These drug-related reforms can be seen as voters exercising their disapproval of current drug policy that has led to mass incarceration and racial disparities in our prisons.

In response to numerous incidents of police brutality, voters in San Francisco and San Diego, California, as well as cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Oregon approved measures to increase law enforcement oversight. Additionally, voters in Michigan approved a constitutional amendment to require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant prior to searching electronic data from suspects. Lastly, voters in Utah, Nebraska, and Alabama have approved steps to remove racialized language from their state constitutions to end systemic, institutionalized racism.

This year’s election has seen historic examples of criminal justice reform. Voters have made their voices heard. The tragic police-involved killings of 2020 have put America’s criminal justice system, and the actions of our law enforcement, under well-deserved scrutiny. These measures by no means solve the problems inherent in our system. They do, however, serve as concrete steps towards addressing systemic faults, and are hopefully representative of a swing in the trend of mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and over policing.

In 2016 alone, 59,000 United States citizens died from an opioid-related drug overdose. Today, statistics indicate that around 90 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. These alarmingly high rates recently sparked the national dialogue on solving the “deadliest drug crisis in American History.”

Recommending a Nation Public Health Emergency

This past Thursday, President Trump recommended the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declare a national public health emergency in response to the opioid epidemic. This statement is just one facet of Trump’s response to the national drug crisis. Prioritizing drug enforcement and treatment as one of his key campaign promises, Trump’s recent declaration on the crisis reallocates existing government funding to expand access to treatment programs for mental health and substance abuse in rural areas and makes it easier for the Department of Health and Human services to make temporary appointments of skilled workers for responding to the epidemic. The declaration was met with much criticism–declaring a “national emergency” instead would have allocated additional funds to address the crisis. Trump’s declaration will last for 90 days after which it can be extended.

What Happens Next

Although Mr. Trump’s recent action indicates a rehabilitative and treatment focus on addiction moving forward, his ideas about drug enforcement are not so clear-cut. Even in declaring the epidemic a national public health emergency, Trump maintains that fighting addiction contains a moral dimension. In his speech last Thursday, Mr. Trump described “families ripped apart” by addiction and the need to “liberate our communities from this scourge [opiate addiction].” For Mr. Trump, opioid addiction is not just a threat to public health, but also to the moral integrity of American families and communities.

In the same speech, Trump took on Reagan’s “Just Say No” stance to solving addiction claiming, “The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place. If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem.”

Tough on Drugs or Not?

From the statements in speeches, it is unclear whether or not Mr. Trump’s policy recommendations will take a tough-on-drugs stance when it comes to enforcement. Local communities and rural areas impacted by the epidemic have already set precedent on a treatment-first approach to addressing addiction. Gloucester Police Department in Massachusetts was the first in the country to establish a “help not handcuffs” policy that offers treatment, not arrest for individuals who come to the police department seeking treatment for opiate addiction. Despite offering more access to treatment, Gloucester has yet to see the reduction in drug use they desire.

For now, the national public health emergency declaration will provide national attention to an issue that’s shaped rural American life for the past decade. Ultimately, a solution to the crisis will require sensitive policy making that caters to the individual economic and social needs of the neighborhoods where the crisis is most prominent.

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