Overcrowded Prisons and the Drug War

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In June of 2003, The Baltimore Sun reported that the United States has overtaken Russia - significantly poorer, and the former home of the KGB - as the country with the highest percentage of its population in prison. With over two million inmates in jails and prisons across the country, that makes about 702 people locked up for every 100,000. Russia is down to 665. What's worse are the statistics at the bottom of the article that suggest the system still suffers from the problem of racism, which one would have expected minimized in this day and age. Of the approximately 450,000 people locked up for drugs-only offenses, "three fourths of them [are] black or Latino, though drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites."

According to this source (quoting the DoJ), the U.S. spent nearly 150 billion dollars in one year (1999) on Federal, State and Local justice systems. A lot of that money is being spent to prosecute and imprison drug offenders (often completely non-violent) in the "war" on drugs. Since the enactment of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug users, the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget increased by almost 2,000%. All these drug-war convictions have helped lead to severe overcrowding problems (in 2001, the Federal prison system was operating at 31% over capacity).

And apparently almost 40% of those arrested for drug crimes are not violent offenders or major traffickers or even possessors of deadly drugs; rather 646,042 of the 1,579,566 drug arrests in 2000 were for simple possession of marijuana, a drug which studies suggest can't possibly kill a person (whereas eating 10 raw potatos can be toxic), doesn't contribute to significant cognitive decline, tends to inhibit aggressive impulses and is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. People argue that marijuana is a "gateway drug", but the fact is it is simply the most widely used illicit drug, so it shouldn't be a surprise that it is the first one used by those who later ended up using other illicit drugs. And according to the Institute of Medicine, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana, usually before they are of legal age. If we want to attack truly harmful and deadly drugs, perhaps we should stop going after marijuana and seek to curtail drinking or smoking. Or better yet, perhaps we should allow people the choice to make their own decisions on using potentially harmful substances (we certainly let people eat all the fast food they want, leading to what is described today as an epidemic of dangerous obesity).

Even if we don't legalize it, at the very least it only makes sense to lower the penalties for marijuana-related crimes to a more reasonable level. Australian researchers found that regions giving on-the-spot fines to users rather than harsher penalties did not cause marijuana use to increase. The Canadian Center On Substance Abuse reported that "the available evidence indicates that removal of jail as a sentencing option would lead to considerable cost savings without leading to increases in rates of cannabis use." Perhaps if we stopped using unreasonable punishment (often involving mandatory sentences) for such non-dangerous behavior, we could help unclog the overflowing prison system and save lots of money instead - money that might go towards education to prevent use of drugs which are actually harmful, rather than spending the money fighting an unending, unwinnable "war". But then, recent administrations seem to enjoy their unwinnable perpetual wars against elusive concepts (if not drugs, then terrorism, or a while back communist ideology) rather than the normal wars between nations. If we're going to go to war against a concept, why not a war on poverty, or a war on business, government and military corruption? The war on drugs does not appear to have done any good in stopping drug use, and it certainly seems to be doing harm by overcrowding prisons with non-violent offenders (who might be turned violent after doing time). If nothing else, drugs are safer to the users (who are using anyway) when they are regulated. It's time to end the war on drugs, and start taking a more rational approach.

Originally Written: 06-04-03
Last Updated: 11-14-03