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October 23, 2014
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Hard line on soft drugs doesn’t work

United for Drug Policy Reform (UDPR) and Californians United for A Responsible Budget (CURB) lead an activist march through the streets of San Francisco in 2011.
By Gabriela Esquivada, from the US
For The Herald in the US

For decades the strategies employed by United States governments to combat the country’s narcotics problem have consistently led to failure

NEW YORK — You can begin with the figures, as stated by The Drug Policy Alliance:

“Each year the US spends US$ 51 billion in the prosecution of drug-related crimes, including possession for simple use of controlled substances.

“In 2012, 1.55 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges.

“Of those arrested for marijuana in that year, 749,825 people, or 88 percent, were detained for possession.

“Federal, state and local prisons hold 2,228,400 US citizens: one in every 108 adults, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and up to 10 times higher than those in Western Europe and other major democracies. This is partly because of the harsh legislation that frames the so-called War on Drugs.

Or you can begin with the news: As of now, potentially thousands of inmates may seek clemency if they meet six criteria: they are serving a sentence longer than the current mandatory sentences reformed in 2010; they are nonviolent, low-level offenders; they have no significant criminal record; they lack connections to the organized crime; they have served 10 years of their sentence; they have shown good conduct.

In any case, the fact remains the same: the strategy of the US policies in the War on Drugs has led to failure.

And not only here: Afghanistan is wrecked by opium poppy fields and corruption due to heroin, while in Mexico the cartel violence has produced more than 70,000 deaths since 2006, and expanded their business — among other crimes — to human trafficking.

Towards the end of April the National Research Council published The Growth of Incarceration in the United States, which shows that today the US accounts for less than five percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. But it has not always been like that. The report highlights that the incarceration rate went through the roof during the last 40 years — since Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, in 1971 — as a consequence of the legislation created in the 1980s. It also suggests that current criminal justice policies are not useful to the nation, since focusing on punishment has not prevented the growing and cheaper availability of drugs in the streets, but only turned the US into the world’s most heavy-handed system.

A person can be an accessory, even an unknowing one (like the woman with no criminal record sentenced to life without parole because her boyfriend kept a box with a pound of cocaine in her attic), and rot in prison because there are minimum sentence requirements: even if the judge believes the punishment is excessive, the law does not allow a lesser serving time for the crime.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, found it “significant” that the report has been funded by the Department of Justice’s research division. “This is yet another indication that the Obama Administration, after having done little during its first term to reduce incarceration, is now firmly committed to doing all it can to reduce incarceration,” he said.

However, that might give President Barack Obama excessive credit.

According to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, the prison system consumes 30 percent of the Justice Department’s budget. Also, states and local governments face financial strain because they have to allocate resources to the trailing of mere addicts and to the food-and-lodging expenses of the large prison population created by their present criminal justice policies.

Just like he did about the still pending migratory reform, the president has shown concern for the criminalization of nonviolent crimes, in particular those related to drugs: today marijuana can be smoked in Washington state and Colorado, and Uruguay is the first country that permitted it) or matters that would be better served by educational and health policies (such as addiction or related diseases). But he has done nothing: intoxication is an issue no less controversial than undocumented immigrants.

What’s more, he has not been open-handed with the presidential prerogative of pardon. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton granted one of every 100 applications they received; forgiveness became scarcer during the administration of George W. Bush (one in 1,000) and even scarcer under Obama: one in 5,000.

Even if the number of clemency requests has grown, so has the number of people imprisoned since Reagan expanded policy and championed legislation to curtail the crack epidemic of the 1980s, tough laws that were approved by Congress and state legislatures. At the beginning of that decade, those in prison for nonviolent drug crimes were around 50,000; by 1997, more than 400,000.

People still remember “Just Say No,” the main slogan of Nancy Reagan’s campaign against illegal drugs (that was later expanded to premarital sex). By the mid-1980s, only two to six percent of US citizens saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem,” The Drug Policy Alliance states. “The figure grew through the remainder of the 1980s until, in September 1989, it reached a remarkable 64 percent,” the organization observed. “Within less than a year, however, the figure plummeted to less than 10 percent, as the media lost interest. The draconian policies enacted during the hysteria remained, however, and continued to result in escalating levels of arrests and incarceration.”

Not only that: the higher the risks, the larger the profits. The demand has not decreased: a survey of the US Department of Health and Human Services showed that 23,9 million US nationals aged 12 or older used illicit drugs in 2012, that is 9.2 percent of the population. The advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition says that the number of drug users has increased 2,800 percent since 1970.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who announced the new policy and encouraged those eligible to request pardons, said: “These older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”

While Congress is considering a bill that would allow retroactive application of the new sentencing guidelines (which could reduce an estimated 12,000 sentences), many federal and state laws collide with the Justice Department’s new perspective.

They also contradict the common sense of the average US citizen, who seems to grasp the intensity of the problem that perpetuates violence, hurts civil liberties, and deepens racial discrimination (61 percent of those in prison for drug crimes are black and Hispanic): a Pew Research Center poll found that 63 per cent of US nationals believe that it would be a good thing if state governments moved away from mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes.

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