The Laws Behind the War on Drugs


The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world (Mann). The prison system costs the United States over 80 billion dollars in operation costs, and the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes, many of which are first-time, non-violent offenders that are incarcerated for decades (ibid). Since 1971, the United States has engaged in a costly and unproductive war against drugs, fought with laws and programs that inherently have an disproportionate effect on lower income families. Furthermore, according to Juan Williams, an award-winning journalist and political analyst, many laws and policies, such as the Rockefeller Laws in New York and the Reagan administration’s Just Say No program, have been in place for decades, yet there has been little progress or advancement in creating a drug free nation (The War on Drugs, 3).

In addition, our domestic law enforcement can often have a disparate impact lower income individuals and minorities, which increases the likelihood that rising generations fall into the vortex of drug use, distribution, poverty, and criminal activity (Harris and Kearney, 2). Thus, in order to improve the outcome of the nation’s ongoing war against drugs, the United States drug laws and policies must be amended to increase their effectiveness while reducing both the financial cost of the war on drugs and the disparate impact on underprivileged communities. While there are no perfectly successful drug policies, domestically or internationally, more successful approaches in other countries maybe list countries if you have word spacemay provide templates for the improvement of our national drug policies. The Rockefeller Laws and Reagan’s Policy The drug policies in the United States contribute little to reducing drug abuse and trafficking domestically, instead overcriminalization offenders and lacking opportunities for rehabilitation.

After 1971, when President Richard Nixon proclaimed drugs as public enemy number one the Rockefeller Laws have played a key role in advancing the war on drugs, as the Laws transformed the way New York punished convicted drug users and possessors, and had a significant influence on the way the federal government revised its drug-related laws and policies (The War on Drugs, 3). Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York from 1974-1977, based his policies on the idea that by increasing the rigor of the punishments, the prominence of drug users would diminish (Mann). Rather than decreasing the prominence of drugs, the laws merely forced New York to open more prisons for offenders (ibid). According to Eric Sterling, the President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, there is no baseline for recording how much impact policies have on the number of drug users there are in the nation, however, from the exports of drugs from foreign nations coming into the United States, it is clear that the nation continued to consume a significant amount of drugs regardless of the rigor of the policies (The War on Drugs, 8).

To summarize, the benefits of the Rockefeller Laws and similar laws appears to be negligible, but the costs associated with enforcement of such laws remains high. Ronald Reagan declared drug use as a repudiation of everything America is and turned Americans to believe that the core problems of the American people (i.e. crime) were rooted in drug abuse (Westhoff, 5). Initially, Reagan’s drug policy was focused on educating the public on the immoral implications drugs posed and establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug users in the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988. However, Regan’s perspective merely reinforced assumptions regarding drug abuse already held by those who did not use drugs and ignored the fact that what  drug users needed was expert rehabilitation and not extended prison time. (Westhoff, 45) The increased focus on rehabilitation was set forth after Reagan’s second term, initiated by the efforts of Nancy Reagan and her Just Say No program, which was successful in decreasing the percentage of high school students who used marijuana daily by 7% in nine years (Westhoff, 26).

Although Mrs. Reagan’s program experienced moderate success at the end of President Reagan’s term, the legacy they left on the war against drugs remained a tough-on-crime approach (Westhoff, 47). The Disparate Impact of Laws on Low Income Families While the Rockefeller Laws and Reagan’s drug program were harsh on all Americans, the primary victims of the laws were those from low income families. The laws tend to punish citizens from low income households more than those from other economic backgrounds. Furthermore, according to Matt Mather, the majority of low income families identify in a racial or ethnic minority (Mather, 4).

Additionally, there are a higher proportion of minority groups incarcerated than their general representation in the nation (Neighborhoods and Violent Crime). Therefore, the low-income families are more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than higher income families with less diversity. The Drug Party Alliance claims that Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use, but rather of law enforcement’s focus on  lower income communities  . (Race and the Drug War). Consequently, if there is more regulation in the lower income communities, there is a greater impact on the individuals in these communities, resulting in the higher rates of incarceration. When a child lives in a low-income household, there is a 50% chance of a member of their family being incarcerated (Harris and Kearney, 2).

As a result, there is greater amount of America’s children growing up without parents or role models, again, increasing the probability of involvement in crime (ibid). The severe impact of the drug laws on low income individuals, as outlined above, is not only hurting the individuals, but also the families and the future generations. While America’s system of drug laws disproportionately affects low income families, there are drug laws internationally that may provide the nation with alternative approaches as to how the drug war should be fought. International Drug Policies For years the United States has opted to utilize incarceration to fight the war on drugs, however, many other countries take a more relaxed and strategic approach, of which are more effective in many areas. For example, the Netherlands has opted to separate hard drugs from soft drugs in making some drugs legal (The War on Drugs, 13).

While heroin and cocaine are illegal in the Netherlands, the soft drugs, such as cannabis and marijuana, are more loosely regulated than alcohol is, and are even allowed to be smoked in coffee shops (ibid). Despite the relatively relaxed policies, the rate of high school students using hard drugs in the Netherlands is ?…” that of the United States, while their average age of heroin users goes up each year, illustrating that the younger generations are less engaged in hard drug usage (ibid).

In addition, according to Katie Addleman, a journalist for one of Canada’s most influential magazines, the per capita usage of marijuana and hash is half what it is the U.S even though soft drugs are readily available to the public(Addleman 20). In summary, in the Netherlands, enforcing a relaxed drug policy with less threats of incarceration, has produced more effective results than the United States. Portugal, like America, is a country which has struggled with the prevalence of drug users in their country in recent years. Portugal’s drug policy differs from America’s in that rather than assuming drug dealing or possession of small amounts of drugs as a major offense, they are considered to be more minor offenses with significantly less jail time at threat (The War on Drugs, 14).

In addition, the government has widespread treatment facilities where, although not always successful in rehabilitating drug addicts, has aided in decreasing the prominence of drug related deaths by 85%, achieving the lowest rates of drug deaths in Western Europe (Kristoff). Hence, an effective strategy to combating drug prevalence is decreasing the criminalization of drugs and providing addicts with treatment. Conclusion The United States drug policy must be reformed in order to effectively sustain a decline in drug related deaths and crime. To do so, the policies must shift from the tough-on-crime approach, to a focus based on rehabilitation, including the decreased criminalization of drug use (Westhoff, 47).

As seen through Mrs. Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No program and the Netherland’s and Portugal’s drug policies, there is positive impact on incarceration rates, drug related deaths, and crime when programs for rehabilitation are offered. This will prove to have limitation, however, because providing guaranteed rehabilitation services will place additional government expenditures for the government. however the public and the government should support the seemingly counterproductive approach of shifting away from over-incarcerating drug offenders to provide offenders with a chance for improvement, thus improving the economy and reducing the effects of the criminalization of drugs on low income families. In addition, while current methods of rehabilitation may not be effective for a portion of drug users, more research should be done to derive effective and safe forms of recovery.

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