Currently, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2017, there were approximately 2.2 million adults in state and federal prisons. That translates to 1 in 110 adults. U.S. prisons are home to over 20 percent of the world’s prison population. Along with an immense number of current prisoners, the U.S. also has some of the strictest sentencing. The average sentencing for a prisoner with a drug offense is 2-7 years. This raises a question about how long sentencing should be for drug crimes and whether or not they are necessary to begin with.
The incarceration rate began to increase in the 1970s during the Nixon administration. The administration began the “War on Drugs,” an aggressive strategy to reduce drug use in the United States. This sentencing greatly increased the sentencing of those using and selling drugs, specifically Black Americans and other minorities. Anyone that was different from the image of a suburban, middle class family was looked at as polluting America’s gilded streets and white picket fences.
The war on drugs soon began to escalate even further. According to the Drug Policy Alliance Headquarters, between 1980 and 1997, the number of incarcerations from nonviolent drug offenses rose from 50,000 to 400,000. During this era, crack/cocaine began its rise as the popular drug of choice. This substance was mostly found in low income, gentrified neighborhoods that were home to cities’ black populations.
This increased drug use in the United States began to worry many of its citizens and led to the passage of draconian penalties. These policies were still in place throughout the early half of the twenty-first century. To this day, 700,000 Americans are arrested yearly for offenses related to marijuana use. Half a million of them are still in prison for drug violations.
Ordinary marijuana smokers should just be obligated to pay set fines for using the substance, depending on the policy their state of residence has put in place. Sentencing time should not be as long as someone who has committed a heinous offense such as murder, rape or theft.
In addition to a shift in the sentencing policy, more initiatives should be made to educate the public on drug and substance abuse, along with the drastic effects it has on the human body. Compulsory and comprehensive courses on drug usage should be ingrained into all public high school curriculums. There are education standards in place to teach about drugs, but these focus on the harmful effects of drugs with very little information surrounding where to find help or what to do if drugs are introduced into one’s life.
The War on Drugs has obsessed so much over jailing anyone who is found with drug paraphernalia that they are not trying to prevent it from the get go. Drug culture in the United States has grown tremendously within the last few decades. What was once a hushed topic has become normalized in today’s world, as seen in our pop culture. Instead incarceration, the focus should be on health programs that provide a safe space for drug abusers to get clean, mentally and physically, and keep users out of prisons.
Yes, many drugs are bad for you. If you do them, you should deal with the consequences of doing so. There are drugs, such as marijuana, that are not necessarily bad for you. In states where it is legal, they are prescribed by physicians for patients who suffer from chronic ailments and anxiety disorders.
This brings them relief from their agonizing pain and has even been said to have less harmful effects than consuming alcohol. Nine states have legalized recreational marijuana as of January 2018. If those nine states have deemed it legal to casually smoke marijuana, then it should be legally accepted by the other 41.
The United States criminal justice system cannot continue incarcerating the amount of people it currently is. Why throw someone in jail who is using marijuana when you could just slap them with a fine, or unanimously legalize the drug altogether? Locking people up is a waste of taxpayer money. Our money is currently going to their food, lodging, and prison upkeep.
I would much rather have my taxes paying for these services if the felons in the prisons committed a crime that resulted in an assault or murder, compared to a felon who committed a non-violent offense that is currently legal for consumption in nine states.