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A Return to the Failed ‘War on Drugs’ in the US?

Revolving Door of Prison Will Not Solve Problematic Drug Use

While all eyes were on the US administration’s latest attempt to block people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, many may have missed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ alarming remarks on the US “war on drugs.”

In a speech before law enforcement leaders Wednesday, Sessions clearly articulated his prohibitionist views on personal drug use, stating that marijuana is only “slightly less awful” than heroin and that “using drugs will destroy your life.” While briefly mentioning the importance of treatment and prevention programs, Sessions made clear that he plans to significantly ramp up federal enforcement of drug laws, and that he opposes the experiments that many states have started with legalization and regulation of marijuana.

We know from experience that this approach and has done little to reduce problematic drug use, which has remained high for decades. Instead, it has done tremendous harm, resulting in massive numbers of people being locked up or deported for low-level offenses in the US.

The US’ decades-long emphasis on criminalization – including of simple drug use and possession – means that today police arrest more people for drug possession every year than for all violent offenses combined. Every 25 seconds, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use and, as a result, nearly 140,000 people are behind bars for their drug use on any given day. Black adults are two-and-a-half times more likely than white adults to be arrested for drug possession (four times for marijuana) despite similar use rates. Far from helping people who use drugs, criminalization tends to drive them underground, making it less likely they will access needed health services.

These arrests lead to injustices at every step of the criminal justice system, from policing tactics shaping community interactions, to prosecutors charging as aggressively as possible, to the inequality of the cash bail system. This leads to exceedingly long sentences, prosecutors coercing pleas, and the weight of probation and debt hanging over people long after their conviction. Racial disparities persist at every stage, and the poorest Americans have the least power to challenge this system.

In recent years, policy makers have finally begun to recognize how disastrous and wasteful the drug war has been – all without having any meaningful impact on drug use in the US.

Following Session’s vision towards deeper entrenchment in the drug war would be a devastating step backwards.

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