America’s Failing War on Drugs and the Culture of Incarceration
For over a century, America has waged a failing war on drugs even as it feeds a cultural apathetic and underground acceptance of drug and alcohol use. The views of the dominate group have placed blame on society’s ills on the evils of rampant drug use throughout the past few hundred years, which have given way to a practice of outlawing , persecution, and imprisonment.
Such a view has led to the overflow of our state’s prisons, the race to build even more, and need to fund a culture of imprisonment that has a difficult time in trying to figure out if it wants to help the addicted person, or continue to try and fund a gluttonous prison machine.
We will look at some of the causes for the failed war on drugs, and some of the consequences if our society continues to ignore the need to help the addict, or simply lock them away.
America’s failing War on Drugs and the Culture of Incarceration America has always had an underlying culture of drug use with even many of the harder drugs, like cocaine and heroin, being legal up into the early 1900’s, and drugs like methamphetamine and MDMA, or ecstasy, being legal well into the 20th century. Even one of the most invasive drugs of our culture, alcohol, is widely advertised and taken to be a norm of American culture, and prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin are used by millions legally every day (Brecher, E. M. , n. d. ).
However, while alcohol as been able to enjoy its place as an accepted part of the American lifestyle, drug use of the illicit kind has been steadily demonized, criminalized, and used as a means to incarcerate an ever growing number of people, most often minorities and the poor who are unable to afford outside representation. (Steiker, C. S. 2011) It has created an industry and culture of incarceration dependant on keeping certain drugs illegal, and drug use a felonious criminal act, as those in the industry of building prisons and providing prison services, along with many in law enforcement, continue to lobby state and federal government to keep up overzealous laws on drug use, even laws on drugs proven to be less dangerous than alcohol, such as marijuana, which have come to be quite profitable to all involved.
The extent of the problem with this unsuccessful war on drugs includes millions of non violent offenders losing parts of their lives, many sentenced to terms in the tens of years under mandatory sentencing, some simply for no more a heinous crime as first time possession of a small amount of marijuana or crack cocaine. The ability to get federal help for school as well as other federal help programs, to engage in certain basic liberties and rights afforded to all Americans by the Bill of Rights, such as the right to vote, or the right to bear arms, are taken away and either incredibly hard to get back, or all but impossible.
Furthermore, even when they have finished paying society for their crime, they are still haunted by the deed whenever they look for work, unable to get jobs because of felony convictions, relegating them to jobs of much lower pay and status, even though they themselves may have the education and experience to fulfill jobs of a much higher caliber. (McVay, D. , Schiraldi, V. , & Zeidenburg, J. 2004) This process of ‘tough on drugs’ prevention and incarceration keeps the chemically dependent in a vicious cycle where, unable to get help for their addictions and help for success after paying their ‘dues’, their only outcome lies in a repetitive sequence of drug use, bigger crimes to support themselves, and longer imprisonment, in a culture of poverty and incarceration.
The outcome is broken hopes, broken dreams, broken families – broken individuals with broken lives. (McVay, D. Schiraldi, V. , & Zeidenburg, J. , 2004) If you are not one of these individuals, the problem extends to you – in that it is your tax dollars going to pay for the unsuccessful but profitable war on drugs. Prisoners do not pay for their incarceration – the state and federal government does. The American tax payers pay for housing, food, clothing in both state and federal as well as private prisons, and supervision of these mostly non-violent drug offenders, both inside and outside prison.
The tax payer provides the funds for local, state, and federal law enforcement to run their stings, and train their drug dogs and sting operatives, except in the off chance that they intercept a large amount of drug money, or take possession of larger drug dealers properties and vehicles bought with drug money, but rarely are these items sold at value. The burden to pay falls on the state and you, the tax payer, and the state is running out of money to spend on incarcerating an ever growing number of non-violent, drug related prisoners. McVay, D. , Schiraldi, V. , & Zeidenburg, J. , 2004) THE CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES Causes While many drugs enjoyed a period of legalization, eventually most drugs have come to find a place as a scapegoat for many of society’s ills, from poverty, unemployment and homelessness, to rape, murder, and reasons to discriminate certain races based on a stereotypical link to a certain drug. (Steiker, C. S. 2011)
At one time even alcohol was a major scapegoat for societal problems, but its strong history and presence in Euro-ethnic culture made it difficult to abstain from for many, and when it was shown that prohibition did nothing to stop many of the problems attributed to it and had actually caused an increase in criminal activity and dangerous binge drinking, it was repealed after 13 years, with much celebration. (Brecher, E. M. , n. d. Accordingly in this day and age, some people are coming to the realization that simply outlawing drugs, making harsh laws to imprison or remove people who are caught in possession of illicit drugs, is doing nothing to contribute to lessening any of the problems attributed to them. In fact, even while we see a decrease in overall crime, we can still see an increase in certain criminal drug activities meant to supply a non-declining need for narcotics, and an ever increasing bill that makes many law makers choose between other programs to help society, or to pay for the rising cost to lock up more and more drug offenders.
However, it is still much easier to demonize a drug and the user for problems in society, and we can see that today for instance, as we deal with the problem of unemployment, and the desire of some to legalize marijuana, even for medical purposes. Legalization happens to be a position many of the 99% Occupier groups stand for, but many opponents counter that it’s the drug use of many of those protesters that contribute to their unemployment, and that making medical marijuana legal is just a way for them to continue to get high, but legally. (Bickman, J. , n. d. ) Consequently, many opponents also see drug use as proof f the moral decline of America, and that along with moral ills like gay marriage and abortion, contribute to the fall of our society from its once lofty heights back in the early and mid 1900’s, where homosexuality and drug use were more hidden, but no less prevalent. To this we add the common practice of giving drug possession and distribution large mandatory sentences, some of which show the disparity in the dominant class’s belief in certain drug use being characteristic of certain class or racial groups, or that some drugs are much more dangerous than others, even though science and common sense has told us otherwise.
One can only need to take a look at the number of people in jail and prison for marijuana, which is almost benign in its danger when compared to a legal drug such as alcohol, or the disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine that was once 100 to 1, or the same penalty for 1 gram of crack cocaine as for 100 grams of powdered cocaine, now down to a mere 18 to 1, with the relation that crack is mostly use by the inner city African American minority, and powdered cocaine used more by the affluent, white dominant suburban group. Amar, V. D. , n. d. ) One area that is sorely underfunded, and has become a pathway to a ‘college of criminality’, is the juvenile justice system. In a 2005, five year study by the National Center on Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the report found that 1. 9 million of the 2. 4 million juveniles arrested over a 5 year period had substance abuse and addiction problems, but that only 68,600 of them received any substance abuse help.
Many of those arrested were for violent crimes, however drug use played a huge part in their behavior, and it isn’t hard to take these results into the adult arena, with the finding among adults arrested who were 18 years or older, 64 percent had used drugs or alcohol when they were 17 or younger. One may correctly assume that juveniles who initiate drug and alcohol use and become arrested, and are given incarceration instead of treatment, have a greater chance of growing up to become adults who engage in criminal and drug using behavior. Brown University, 2005) Consequences The consequences of continuing the past policies of the war on drug can be seen today, there is no need to wait on verification or speculation. We can see the ever increasing number of adult and juvenile offenders incarcerated for minor drug offences, as well as those receiving large sentences for other crimes where drugs were involved.
We can see the cost and the burden this increasing prison population has to the state and its tax payers, and the struggle lawmakers have to either increase taxes, lower penalties for possession for drug use, or release large numbers of un-treated, chemically dependent, prison taught and economically disadvantaged prisoners because they simply cannot afford to hold them any longer. Without changing the laws, addicts and other chemically dependent users are first convicted and then given treatment.
As we already discussed in the beginning, the conviction staying on their arrest record for years, or even permanently, meaning that even after possible successful treatment, the recovering addict is still treated like a pariah when looking for work and an in-depth background check becomes part of the job seeking process. (McVay, D. , Schiraldi, V. , & Zeidenburg, J. , 2004)Without any help or hope, the convicted and untreated addict’s only outlook is a continuing life of drug use, and criminal activity to support them.
In states like Kentucky, that have seen an increase in its prison population quadruple over the past two decades, looking into new programs that would have offenders volunteer to enter a six to nine month treatment program in jail, rather than a one to two year program in prison that usually carries a five to ten year sentence along with it, would save the state tax payers millions of dollars a year. In Kentucky alone, it costs $500 million dollars a year to house some 22,000 prisoners, 80 percent of them being non-violent drug offenders.
The state, like most others, has seen a steady rise in incarcerations with one in 31 Americans behind bars, when Twenty-five years ago, the number was 1 in 77. (Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, 2009) Still, even with such approaches meant to curb the costs of incarcerating convicted addicts, the fact remains that little is being done to reduce the number of people being convicted in the first place, although the offering of more resources to people who are in their first phases of being caught up by law enforcement due to their addictions is a more effective way to start. Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, 2010) Every year it becomes more and more evident, that our countries failing war on drugs and its policy to want to simply incarcerate those to mandatory sentences for even non-lethal drug such as marijuana, the rising cost to investigate, arrest, persecute and house a population of people who show no signs of serious drug use decline, can only mean that newer policies to treat the addicted, rather than lock them away, are the right way to go if our country wants to fix the problem of our ever increasing culture of incarceration. (McVay, D. , Schiraldi, V. , & Zeidenburg, J. , 2004)