History has shown us that punitive policies do not impact the drug industry. Notwithstanding, the United States has traditionally taken a tough stance against drug crime. America has even gone so far as to declare war on drugs and has filled prisons with millions of its own citizens in an attempt to quash the drug industry. However, that historical policy position has not produced any meaningful success; and instead, the “tough on crime” movements have had a demonstrably harmful effect on many communities.
An American Tradition of Prohibition
Drugs began to surface as a social concern in the early 1800s. Opium was increasingly popular following the Civil War, and cocaine gained prominence in the mid-1880s. At that time, cocaine was used in Coca-Cola, and morphine was readily purchased over the counter. The abuse of cocaine and opium reached epidemic proportions, and at the turn of the century, America finally began growing increasingly aware of the great potential these substances have for causing addiction.
America’s earliest drug policies targeted physicians and pharmacists. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required physicians to accurately label medicines for the first time; and in 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act (HNA) restricted the manufacture and sale of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and morphine. The new legal regime was aggressively enforced, and many physicians who were prescribing addicts on “maintenance programs” were convicted. Between 1915 and 1938, more than 5,000 doctors were either fined or jailed in accordance with the HNA.
In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created and headed by Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger directed the department until 1962 and drastically shaped America’s drug policy. He pushed to establish an increasingly punitive drug policy that emphasized strict law enforcement measures. He was overtly critical of the justice system for its leniency towards drug manufacturers and dealers and called for longer minimum sentences. Congress responded to Anslinger’s efforts by passing the Boggs Act of 1951, which drastically increased penalties for marijuana, and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, which created the most punitive and repressive anti-narcotics legislation ever adopted by Congress. At that time, probation was only permitted for first-time possession offenders, and the death penalty could be imposed for selling drugs to a minor.
The 1960s saw a resurgence of drug use in America. The hippie counterculture made marijuana fashionable on college campuses, and many young people experimented with the mind-expanding properties of LSD. Additionally, many Vietnam veterans were returning home with a penchant for marijuana and an addiction to heroin. In sum, the American drug market exploded in the 1960s.
The War on Drugs
In 1971, America declared war on drugs. Richard Nixon proclaimed that “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” and initiated the first significant federal funding for drug treatment. In 1971, the administration established the methadone maintenance program; and in 1973, the presidency established the Drug Enforcement Agency. Nixon then launched massive interdiction efforts in Mexico that ultimately had a negligible impact on the American drug industry. While the United States did manage to curtail Mexican producers, the business merely shifted to Columbia.
Frustrated by the resilience of the drug trade, the Reagan administration sought to approach the program from a new direction. In 1981, President Reagan proposed a new “tough on drugs” position that targeted users instead of producers. The efforts ultimately resulted in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a “zero tolerance” policy that severely punished offenders for possessing even small quantities of a controlled substance. Consequently, the number of people incarcerated for n nonviolent drug crimes increased from fifty thousand in 1980 to over four-hundred thousand by 1997.
The Outcome of Getting Tough on Crime
More than thirty years after America declared war on drugs, and more than twenty years after the Clinton administration declared war on crime, the criminal justice system is obviously broken: aggressive policing, overcrowded prisons, and gross inequity abound! President Obama described the criminal justice system as an “aspect of American life that remains particularly skewed by race and wealth, a source of inequity that has a ripple effect on families and communities.”
Since the early 1980s, sentencing reform has been increasingly concerned with mandatory penalties, and guideline-based sentences. These reforms were based primarily on three beliefs:
- punishments for serious drug-crimes were too lenient and need to be increased,
- criminals targeted by the reforms would not be curtailed by lesser sentences, and
- incarceration would at least incapacitate that offender from committing offenses while imprisoned.
The broad implementation of sentencing reform saw unprecedented growth in the size of the prison population in the United States. From 1980 to 1995 the prison population grew from 300,000 to more than 1.5million (including those incarcerated in jails).
Over the past decades, the beliefs that motivated public support for tough on crime measures have been proven false. Misconceptions surrounding leniency was mostly attributable to erroneous or badly used research. And there is no evidence to suggest that sentencing reforms have actually impacted the drug-crime rate in any significant way. Moreover, the massive increase in the prison population has not been distributed evenly throughout the American demographic. Research has shown that the majority of persons sent to prison for drug-crimes were clustered within the urban areas of the states with the largest minority populations. Specifically, black individuals are incarnated at seven to ten times the rate of their white counterparts.
Getting tough on crime has not made America writ large any safer, and the punitive policies have impacted many communities in an objectively negative way. By focusing on harsh sentences and aggressive policing, the policy has avoided addressing the underlying issues of addiction and despair that fuel the drug industry. We have decades of research and experimentation to show that long sentences and vigilant law enforcement will not ameliorate the situation. While the solution may still as of yet be unformulated, there is one thing we can be sure of: what we have been doing is not working!
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