The need for drug decriminalization in our country

America has had a rich history of drug use on mainstream and hidden market level. And for a long time, there wasn’t a lot of regulation on drug use. There is a Sears catalog from the 1890s that sold a syringe and a little bit of cocaine for a $1.50! States began to pass their own laws to prohibit drug use, and the first congressional push against drugs was in 1890 where opium and morphine were instilled with higher taxes. The prohibition era took over in the 1920s and ‘30s, but America’s most problematic era with the population’s use of drugs began in the ‘70s with Richard Nixon’s brainchild: The War on Drugs and continues now.. Before you can call for the decriminalization of drugs you must understand the history of America’s drug debates.

The War on Drugs began in 1971 in light of America’s growing issues with drug use. In 1969, a Gallup poll stated that 48 percent of Americans believed that drug use was a major issue. Whereas it was the biggest issue on Nixon’s mind, aka public enemy number one. He passed legislation that became the strictest on recreational drug use, instituting mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught with drugs or drug paraphernalia. And with his laws, he began a building block for a racist and backward approach to drug regulation. A foundation that has overcrowded our prisons and outcasted nonviolent or destructive people from our society, a majority of which are people of color.

In 1994, journalist Dan Baum was writing a book on the politics of drug prohibition and his journey lead him to Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman. The Watergate co-conspirator told Baum: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did,” scary, right? This was detailed in a Harper Magazine article written by Baum in 2016.

This was the beginning of the war on drugs and the dawn of an era of legislation that chose to vilify people suffering from addiction, urban communities, poor rural communities, and specifically people of color.

The war on drugs slowed down in the mid-‘70s due to the eviction of the Nixon administration and the beginning of Jimmy Carter’s run. He ran on a platform that called for the decriminalization of Marijuana, to the tune of eleven states doing just that. Although by the end of his presidency, the country was moving in an anti-drug way. Parents influenced by lack of education on Marijuana and the vilification of it began groups around the country to combat the younger generations affix for the drug. There was a whole new social debate.

This was often just a social issue in which not much legal action was needed, that is until Ronald Reagan took office. Reagan supported Nixon’s original laws and refocused the government’s reticle on drugs, specifically Marijuana and Crack/Powder Cocaine. In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This created mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug possession. The law created a discrepancy in sentences for two types of cocaine. There were stricter regulations on crack cocaine vs powder cocaine, even though they are the same drug on a molecular level. The only difference being that crack was as a street drug used mainly by black people whereas powder cocaine being the predominantly white Wall Street drug of choice. Again, a law around the war on drugs targeting people of color, while letting white people walk away freely.

Should drugs be decriminalized for personal use?


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The result of all this? A prison system that holds more people in jail than any other country by 600,000 (BBC). A country where every 25 seconds someone is arrested for drug possession. A country where black Americans are six times more likely to go to jail for drugs despite using at the same rate as white Americans. A system in which black people are twice as likely to be incarcerated for the same drug crime as a white person.

Today, the war on drugs no longer holds the same level of public support. States like Colorado and Washington have made Marijuana legal for recreational use, and much of the progressive parts of the country are doing the same thing. Denver, Colorado recently decriminalized the use of psychedelic mushrooms. The next moral and progressive step in this country must be the decriminalization of all drugs, up to a certain and reasonable amount.

Knowing about the war on drugs is knowing about a part of our recent history that has targeted people for nonviolent crimes and stigmatized/outcasted them. We have prison systems with quotas that are filled with young people whose professional and social opportunities are severely hindered by racist enforcement of laws. Decriminalizing drugs would lead to a safe way to bring those nonviolent offenders back into our society, as well as allowing people to have the freedom of what they do in their free time.

Of course, drugs can go bad quickly. The opioid crisis is the most pressing public health problem in America. People are dying at alarming rates from overdoses and violent crime tends to be a side effect of addiction. But the origins of the opioid crisis are a stew of wary government and social decisions that belong to another article. The biggest thing decriminalizing would do is destigmatize the idea of addiction. The prison system’s goal should always be rehabilitation of inmates, and throwing those with addictions to deadly drugs like heroin into prison won’t do them any good. In fact, people released from jail, in their first two weeks, have a death rate almost 13 times higher than the rest of the population. The leading cause of death? Overdose.

This means that our prison system isn’t doing enough to provide resources for those dealing with addiction. Addiction is a mental illness, not a sign of a criminal who deserves to be ostracized and left to die. A decriminalized world would incorporate programs that would offer a helping hand to those dealing with addiction. 

A legitimate question is raised with this: What about drug dealers? While the biggest dealer of opioids is Big Pharma, heroin, fentanyl, and other deadly drugs are sold on streets at high rates. Decriminalization for personal use is different from decriminalizing the illegal sale of drugs. Until a drug is legalized for recreational use, sale of drugs on a black market can still be criminally prosecuted. But under the new legislation, it would no longer be life ruining. No longer would felonies be distributed like Oprah giving out cars.

Another social victory that decriminalization would bring is the freedom that thousands of individuals deserve. People incarcerated for small drug possession that more privileged people get away with every day and people who have received lengthy and unfair sentences over non-violent crimes.

There are over forty years of history that indicate that our country has moved in a negative way when it comes to drug commentary. A movement based on criminalizing people of color in areas that were already underprivileged. Misconceptions on drugs and their effects have driven people into an unnecessary fear. Thousands of people are sitting in jail, on probation, on felony charges, who will never be able to get back into society’s well being if we keep pursuing racist and outdated ideologies on drug’s effects in communities. It’s time we did something, as a country, as people, too help those in need. Spotty legalization is not enough, drugs must be decriminalized for personal use in order to reverse decades of racial and social injustice.