America should say no to outdated drug policy

“Nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino.”

That’s a fact from a recent Drug Policy Alliance article written about the war on drugs, incarceration and race.

Nancy Reagan fought hard against drug use and abuse with her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Her husband, Ronald Reagan, took the presidential office in 1981, and in 1982 when he made a radio address on Federal Drug Policy, her campaign took significant strides to prevent children and students from doing drugs. She made 110 appearances and 14 anti-drug speeches in 1984 alone to help spread her message to children in schools across the country. Twelve thousand “Just Say No” clubs were formed, and cocaine use by high school seniors dropped by one-third, according to the Reagan Foundation.

Because of her husband’s signing of the National Crusade for a Drug Free America, a bill that proposed a zero-tolerance approach to drug use and distribution, incarceration rates increased rapidly, from 50,000 people in 1980 to over 400,000 people by 1997, including people apprehended for nonviolent drug offenses. Even as more and more drug offenders are arrested and incarcerated, the war on drugs rages on.

But whether it should be fought at all is the question lawmakers and citizens are now considering, in light of new information.

Even the DARE Program, with its “Just Say No” message, was found to be generally ineffective. According to an article published in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “20-year-olds who had had DARE classes were no less likely to have smoked marijuana or cigarettes, drunk alcohol, used ‘illicit’ drugs like cocaine or heroin or caved in to peer pressure than kids who had never been exposed to DARE.”

It seems ridiculous that someone involved in a nonviolent crime is sent to jail. It seems even more ridiculous that people of color or a different ethnic background are incarcerated more often than white people, especially if white Americans have used most kinds of illegal drugs, according to Huffington Post.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, anti-opium laws were directed at Chinese immigrants in the 1870s. In the early 1900s, anti-cocaine laws were directed at black men. In the 1910s-1920s, anti-marijuana laws were targeted at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans.

13 percent of the US  population is black, but 31 percent of black people are arrested for drug law violations and almost 40 percent are incarcerated for violations. Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but 37 percent are incarcerated at a federal level. White people make up about 60 percent of the U.S. population and only 20 percent have gone to federal prison, even as white Americans use drugs at similar or higher rates than black and Latino Americans.

Here’s the problem: we’re locking up too many people for possession and non-violent crimes involving drug offenses. We need to take a step back and incarcerate people for the violent crimes they are responsible for, not just possession. The U.S. incarcerated about 80 percent of people on possession charges alone. There is too much money going to jails for people who have simply possessed certain drugs. In fact, the U.S. is spending $50 billion per year to make the country drug free. We can see how well that is going.

Although the society is slowly changing from criminalizing those on drugs to rehabilitating them, we need to focus on the objectivity of these persecutions; it was just over 50 years ago that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equality and under 40 years ago that Nancy Reagan tried to get people to say no to drugs. Enforcers need to stop acting on racial biases and focus on the law at hand, not the color of someone’s skin when it comes to arresting someone. I think our leaders and enforcement officials need to take some educational courses on not just Constitutional rights, but also update themselves on drug-related offenses.

How are we living in a modern society when we still have not adopted the historical wishes of some of our best leaders? It might be time to say no to most of our conventional thinking on drug enforcement.