Alternatives to criminal punishment for drug use offenders

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

Former President Richard Nixon declared “a war on drugs” in 1971, setting the precedent for stringent policing efforts that have only increased since his presidency. 

In a monitoring program run by the Prison Policy Initiative, Research Directors Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer found that the number of Americans arrested annually for drug possession has tripled since 1980, now reaching over one million arrests per year.

Drug use, instead, points to the larger underlying issue of addiction. Drug addiction is a mental illness, described by the World Health Organization as “a complex, multifactorial, biopsychosocial brain disease often taking the course of a chronic and relapsing disorder.”

To solve the drug crisis, it is not enough to simply whisk drug users off the streets and into prisons. We must fight this problem at its source, recognizing addiction as a serious mental illness and prioritizing mental healthcare. 

As per the Title 21 United States Code Controlled Substances Act, the current punishment for simple possession of controlled substances is up to two years of jail time. The federal government does not mandate a rehabilitation program of any kind.

A common justification of the harsh sentencing for drug possession is the violence that may spawn from drug dealing and use; yet, a survey of United States prisons by the Department of Justice conducted in 2017 found that “14% of those incarcerated for violent crimes reported that they had committed their most serious offense for drug-related reasons.” 

Violence related to drug use is inarguably a threat to public safety. However, non-violent drug users should not be categorized with those violent criminals, for drug use itself is not inherently violent.

A person is not evil because they suffer from a dependency on substances.

Policymakers should replace jail time for non-violent drug offenders with addiction therapy and rehabilitation programs, which would, in turn, reduce future drug offenses.

Imprisoning non-violent drug offenders is but a temporary fix to “get drugs off the streets,” and does nothing more than sweep a grave issue under the rug. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, rehabilitation actually solves the “drug problem,” helping the addict overcome their dependence to achieve a drug-free lifestyle, whereas incarceration only keeps them trapped in a vicious cycle of drug abuse.

Financing rehabilitation programs is a concern often raised in the debate against such a change. Not only would providing rehabilitation be the compassionate choice, it could save taxpayers’ money. Each incarcerated individual requires housing, food, and care paid for by community members.

“If only 10 percent of drug-addicted offenders received drug rehabilitation instead of jail time, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion compared to current costs,” Crime and Delinquency Analyst Gary Zarkin said in a 2015 article on the cost of maintaining state prisons.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration costs an average of $31,000 per inmate, per year, nationwide. Alternatively, a one-year methadone treatment program for one individual costs approximately $4,700, according to the Addiction Center website. 

The responsibility of the American government is to promote the best quality of life for its constituents. Destigmatizing mental illness and allowing opportunities for proper mental healthcare ensures the wellbeing of those suffering from addiction or drug abuse, while also alleviating the burden on American taxpayers to support overflowing prisons.

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