The war on drugs began in 1971 when President Nixon announced it as an official strategy and began strengthening federal drug control agencies, pushing mandatory sentencing, and fighting against the legalization of marijuana (and yes, this was an issue even back then). The idea was to act strongly and decisively against drug use by targeting dealers and users with zero-tolerance policies, and by presenting them with penalties so strong that they would be persuaded to give up drugs.
MANDATORY SENTENCING FOR DRUG CRIMES
Many of the mandatory minimums for drug possession or use were created back in the 1980s, in the heyday of the war on drugs. They were strict and to the point. For instance, being caught in possession of only 5 grams of methamphetamine resulted in a mandatory 5 year sentence—and that was only if nobody got injured or killed. Once bodily harm entered the equation, the minimum sentence went up to 20 years. These penalties have been left in place since they were first created.
Since the launching of the war on drugs, the percentage of people in federal prisons for drug-related crime has risen from 16% to its current rate of over 50%. In real numbers, this means that as of January 2014, over 98,000 people were in federal prison for drug-related crimes. Compare that to the only 5,576 people imprisoned for murder, aggravated assault and kidnapping combined. Federal prisons are severely overcrowded thanks to prisoners serving their minimum sentences.
Despite this, the U.N. estimates that global consumption of cocaine, marijuana and opiates have all increased in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Opiates increased the most, at a 35% growth rate. And according to a study in the British Medical Journal, heroin is cheaper and more potent than ever.
NEW JERSEY AS A CASE STUDY
Vermont is a hotbed of heroin use right now (and by the way, they have abandoned the war on drugs’ penalties in favor of offering more treatment for users), so let’s take a look at their neighbors to the south in New Jersey. New Jersey is on the fringes of the expanding heroin use, but not embroiled in the center of it yet. It’s a good middle ground to use as an example of how heroin use is playing out in the United States currently.
In just a year in New Jersey, the use of heroin and other opioids has killed at least 740 people. In just four years, the number of people dying from heroin-related issues has gone up by a horrifying 160%, while the number of patients in treatment for heroin and opioid abuse has only gone up by 15%. Heroin and opioids accounted for nearly half the drug-abuse treatment occurring in the state in 2013. Tens of thousands of New Jersey citizens have sought treatment for their addiction, to the point where treatment centers have been running at capacity (or on overflow) for years now.
NJ Governor Chris Christie is now examining options such as encouraging the private sector to create more treatment facilities. He is calling on each county to provide information on detox and treatment centers within their own regions. He also wants insurance carriers to provide better coverage for drug abuse treatments, and has proposed that on the legal side, mandatory treatment would be a much better idea than mandatory jail time.
While we don’t have much track record to see whether this approach will work as well as it’s hoped, it makes sense that simply penalizing drug users is not a sustainable “solution.” Examine the problem this way: Would you penalize a hungry child for stealing food? Or would you help him to solve the underlying problem of hunger?