Being a college student at the time, I clearly remember when Nancy Reagan and the conservative wave in national government helped usher in the nation’s War on Drugs in the 1980s.
Television news images of drug busts, large and small, along with the wholesale arrests and stiffer sentencing for anyone even suspected of drug involvement sent a clear message that government intended to empty the streets and fill the prisons until drugs were no more.
But subversives like me and my Rutgers University cohorts viewed the so-called war as a heavy-handed, law-enforcement driven, prison complex-building effort to harass, arrest, and ultimately mark for life two groups of people: those who did small amounts of recreational drugs and were generally no threat to society and those with serious drug dependencies who needed a good rehab program instead of a jail cell.
It may have taken 30 years to prove, but it seems we were on the right track way back when: on Wednesday, the White House announced a new direction in the War on Drugs, where stopping drug use before it starts and treating drug addition as a health issue will now be priorities.
“Drug policy should be rooted in neuroscience, not political science,” said Gil Kerikowske, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy.
Kerikowske said in a conference call that while law enforcement will still play a role in overall national drug policy, evidence-based public health and safety approaches aimed at reducing drug use will also be employed.
Kerikowske said the drug-fighting plan will be guided by the notions that addiction is a disease that can be treated, that people with substance-abuse disorders can recover, and that criminal justice reforms can stop the revolving door of drug use, crime, incarceration, and rearrest.
“Too many people are cycling through the (criminal justice) system,” Kerikowske said. “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
The War on Drugs has been especially hard on Black Americans who suffer the highest arrest and incarceration rates for drug-related offenses of any demographic group.
Kerikowske said that 45 percent of incarcerated Blacks are locked up for drug offenses while that number shrinks to 29 percent for Whites and 20 percent for Hispanics. At the same time, Black women are more than twice as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than White women.
Early detection of drug use problems by health care professionals along with greater access to treatment programs under the new Obamacare national health plan will provide a road to treatment “for millions of Americans,” Kerikowske added.
The announcement comes at a time when the public seems to be in agreement that the time is right to end the Reagan-styled War on Drugs.
Earlier in the month, a group of 100 entertainers, ranging from Lil Wayne to “Opie” from the “Andy Griffith Show” (movie director Ron Howard), sent an open letter to President Barack Obama calling for a change in drug laws.
Organized by rap mogul Russell Simmons, the group voiced its support for drug incarceration reform and added that “the time is right” to move toward replacing jail sentences with intervention and rehabilitation for non-violent offenders.
Drug offenders comprise nearly half of the federal prison population in the United States.
Meanwhile, a national poll released earlier this month revealed for the first time that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana; 45 percent to 52 percent of adult Americans back legalization, according to Pew Research Center.
Just 10 years ago, only about one-third of American adults backed the legalization of marijuana.
And by an overwhelming 72 percent to 23 percent margin, respondents said the federal government’s efforts against marijuana “cost more than they are worth.”
With pressing issues on his plate, such as getting people back to work, protecting us from terrorist attacks, and fixing our broken immigration system, the President must be given the credit he deserves for ending the so-called War on Drugs that did little more than make billionaires out of prison builders.