Dealing With The Failed War On Drugs
On May 17, 2012, 6:07 PM by Amanda Richards
In the same month last fall, two separate tragedies spoke to this nagging reality. In November 2011, four teens were charged with involuntary manslaughter for standing by and watching as their 18 year-old friend, Griffen Kramer, overdosed on heroin. 19 year-old David Nernberg, who was later found to be in possession of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, drove Kramer around for hours seeking advice from friends before he carried Kramer into his house where he passed away some hours later. According to Sgt. Barry Hall of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department, “Rather than seek medical attention, he took him to his house and let him sleep it off.” These teens, acting out of fear of the harsh legal consequences and social stigma of being “busted” for their own drug use, were too terrified to seek out an authority that could have administered the adrenaline shot that might have saved this young man’s life.
That same month two brothers were arrested in North Charleston, South Carolina. Fearing jail time for possession, 23 year-old Deangelo Mitchell asked his little brother Wayne Joshua Mitchell, 20, to eat the cocaine that he had stashed in his rectum. His brother obliged, and as a tragic result Wayne Mitchell died within the hour.
While these young people made horrible mistakes with excruciating consequences, the system that upholds archaic and misinformed doctrines to reinforce a floundering war on drugs has also failed them. Victims of these misguided policies can be seen across the world, manifesting themselves as civilian casualties, separated families and destroyed lives via death or the revolving door to an overcrowded prison population convicted of non-violent crime or petty drug possession.
Instead of being plagued by fear of incarceration and social stigma, addicts should be given treatment and counsel. Drug addiction is a disease that must not be marginalized as petty criminal activity. Criminalizing addictive behavior assumes that the addict has some level of control over the matter, but addiction affects the wiring of the brain and tricks the body into thinking a certain substance is necessary for its self-sustainment. Much like a starving person will steal food to survive, an addict is driven by primal, overpowering urges to consume whatever substance it is their body desires—often as if their life depends on it. If we are not willing to consider debilitating diseases like emphysema, diabetes, and the attendant abuse of cigarettes and junk food as criminal, we should recognize drug abuse for what it is: a disease that requires treatment.
According to Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Drug offenses account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population since 1985; approximately half a million people are in prison for a drug offense today compared to 40,000 in 1981—an increase of 1,100 percent.” A major reason that prison populations have continued to grow is that the US has longer sentences when examined against other countries: first time offenders in the United States can be locked up 5 to 10 years compared to mere 6 month sentences in other developed countries.
There is also the glaring reality that not all drugs are created equal. The current classification of drugs is loosely based on whether the drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, lacks a currently accepted use as a medical treatment in the United States or if the drug is not considered safe for use under medical supervision.
Somewhat surprisingly, many class A drugs like Ecstasy and LSD are regarded by doctors and scientists to be less physically and socially dangerous than class C drugs like marijuana or unregulated substances like tobacco and alcohol. To determine this, scientists take into account the physically addictive qualities of a substance, the impact on the physical self and the impact on the family and society. As a result, the more physically addictive substances like heroin and cocaine rank highest in the risk assessment. However, the classification and subsequent sentencing requirements for use and possession of these substances are more reflective of the social stigma around their use rather than actual scientific data.