The United States boasts itself as the land of opportunity, yet it continues to perpetuate a culture of dehumanizing criminalization over rehabilitation in the form of drug policing.
Shielded by the symbolic violence of legislative rhetoric, Ronald Regan and his highly racialized war on drugs used faulty statistics to craft a new racial truth: a drug market divided by race and class.
Oregon voters are now doing their best to right the wrongs of a failed war on drugs. They successfully passed ballot initiatives that decriminalize all drugs and make carrying small amounts of substances no longer punishable by jail or prison time. Oregon legislation also now acknowledges drugs can hold recreational or medical purposes, and that new regulations must be tailored to the risks and uses of individual drugs.
A drug conviction in the United States can and will strip a person of their rights and liberties. Those convicted for drug-related charges can lose their right to vote, be unable to find affordable government housing or be denied welfare benefits or food assistance.
Historically, the criminalization of drugs hasn’t worked to eradicate drugs or drug epidemics. Every 25 seconds, someone is arrested for possession of drugs, making drug arrests the highest frequency arrest in the United States. Law enforcement claims these arrests will reduce drug distribution, but the numbers do not add up — 1.25 million drug possession arrests are made per year, but arrests for possession are four times higher than they are for distribution.
The odds are stacked against vulnerable folks, particularly Black and Brown minorities. While race can no longer be explicitly considered as a factor in legal decisions — as it was during the Jim Crow era — drug laws in place today make it easy for the justice system to legally discriminate against Black communities and people of color.
It is no coincidence that 56% of incarcerated people are African American or Hispanic. One in three Black men spend time in prison and Black Americans represent 29% of those arrested and 33% of people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Minority groups are faced with numerous structural disadvantages that contribute to these alarming numbers. Sixty-two percent of African Americans live in highly segregated, high violence, inner-city neighborhoods. Drug usage is cyclical and cannot be simplified as merely being a result of bad choices, as external stressors are great contributors. Challenges to finding stable employment, paying rent or securing stable housing, as well as a lack of governmental support, all prevent individuals from escaping these destructive cycles.
Criminalizing drugs does not curb drug use but instead perpetuates it. By emphasizing incarceration, drug laws disregard the potential of rehabilitation and focus instead on individual criminalization.
Opponents of Oregon’s ballot measure claim that the decriminalization of drugs in a state with high drug use will increase addiction and prevent intervention. But those advocating for stringent drug laws fail to view drug addiction as a treatable disability and a consequence of many factors outside an individual’s control.
When drug policies focus on policing individuals, individual humanity is disregarded, relegating drug users to a lower class of personhood.
In order to shift the focus of drug regulations from criminalization to rehabilitation, we must first target the external forces and barriers that are driving drug addiction. We must also look at how other countries have more successfully addressed drug addiction. In 2001, Portugal passed drug law reforms that decriminalized low-level possession and the use of all illegal drugs. Afterward, there was a tangible reduction in the social cost of drug misuse. The percentage of people in Portugal’s prisons for drug law violations decreased by twenty percent from 44% to 24% in fourteen years.
Future leaders must reevaluate the need for serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services. Oregon has invested more than $100 million per year — partially stemming from legalized marijuana taxations — toward creating a drug addiction treatment and recovery program. By passing Good Samaritan laws, or legal protection for those who assist incapacitated persons such as those experiencing a drug overdose, as well as increasing access to treatment and enforcing rehab stay instead of prison sentences, incarceration and substance abuse rates will plummet.
Many structural institutions are at work to ensure a lack of freedom and equity for minority communities. Nothing can erase the past; the damage of aggressive policing and mass incarceration on American communities has been done. How states choose to proceed will dictate who the government labels as deserving of rights and humanity.
There is no need for a distinction between hard and soft drugs. We must instead focus on whether the relationship between an individual and their drug use is safe. All 49 other states must follow in Oregon’s path and decriminalize all drugs through progressive ballot measures. Couple drug decriminalization with tangible care management plans and empathy, and incarceration and addiction rates will fall.
Mehr Sahota is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying public health.