By: Sarah Lopez
In October, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 649, which would have given judges and prosecutors the option of making drug possession charges misdemeanors instead of felonies. Instead of prison, those convicted would be sent to treatment centers, placed on probation, or ordered to community service. The vetoed bill, which was designed to help alleviate California’s overcrowded prison system, was a major blow to drug policy reform.
This veto is a micro example of the macro “war on drugs” policy agenda—an agenda that has been propagated by the US in an effort to curb the societal ills associated with drugs.
So what exactly has the war on drugs gotten us?
1. It cost us a lot of money.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the US spends over $51 billion annually on the “war on drugs.” Do the math. Despite the hefty price tag, the US still leads the world in illegal drug consumption according the World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
2. People are dead, at home and abroad.
Hundreds of thousands of people die every year due to preventable drug related disease and violence. Over 26,000 people have been classified as “disappeared” in Mexico, a direct result of Mexico’s drug wars. More on Mexico’s disappeared here. Read more about America’s “war on drugs” victims.
3. Mass incarceration.
Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” campaign set the stage for the zero tolerance policies of the late 80s. Incarceration rates skyrocketed and today the US has the largest prison population in the world. Learn more about the connections between drug policy and the prison industrial complex here.
4. Environmental degradation.
Part of the “war on drugs” strategy includes drug crop eradication. Crop eradication “threatens biodiversity, fuels deforestation, and drives growers to pursue environmentally hazardous methods of drug production. “ Read the whole report from Count the Costs.
Drug prohibition has less to do with the risk of drugs than who is associated with drugs. Prohibitive policies in the US began in the late 1800s with anti-opium laws directed at Chinese immigrants. Anti-cocaine laws targeted black men in the South in the 1900s. Today, people of color are disproportionately affected by drug enforcement and sentencing policies. Find a brief history at the Drug Policy Alliance.
We lost the “war on drugs.” It’s been twisted into a war on people and created more societal ills than it alleviated. The criminalization of drug users has taken a public health problem and distorted it into a criminal justice problem. There are alternatives to the punitive, prohibitive approach America’s been engaged in. Pragmatic, people centered, public health approaches to drug addiction and the associated ills are needed to combat the destruction that’s been tearing up our communities, at home and abroad. Learn more and join the effort to create compassionate, science based drug policy.