The war isn’t working, time to decriminalize

<strong>The Way I See It</strong> Jason Hawk, editor

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor

“What do you mean you teach them to use drugs?”

Allison laughed. She knew my American eyes would pop out of my American skull when she described her British job.

Back in 2005, we became friends online thanks to shared interests in bad movies and good podcasts. I told Allison about my job writing local news and she told me about hers teaching drug addicts how to safely inject heroin.

At the time, she worked for a charity contracted to help the National Health Service in England. The prevailing idea was that when anti-drug policies failed — and boy, did they ever — trained experts could at least limit the damage by giving clean hypodermics to users and showing them how to avoid overdosing or spreading disease. Allison exulted in each life she saved and cried over every single one who would not or could not be reached.

The idea didn’t make any sense to me. The son of a preacher, I was raised with a strict abstinence-only drug policy, not just for the hard stuff but pot, whiskey, beer, wine, and cigarettes.

Only later did I learn my frocked father had dabbled in drugs himself as a young man. My mother had battled alcoholism and drug use before I was born. And even my cherubic baby brother and sister had discreetly smoked pot (maybe more) in high school.

That took a long time to square in my mind. And though I’ve still never used any illegal drug, I’ve come to view our War on Drugs as both childishly simple and untenable.

More than $1 trillion has been spent since President Richard Nixon launched the war. Yet all the fighting, all the money, and all the jail time hasn’t curbed anything so pedestrian as marijuana use, nor halted the nation’s heroin epidemic. It’s just punished the casualties while arguably making dealers even richer.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, in a joint report, called for an end to criminal charges nationwide for drug use and possession. They said current policy “causes devastating harm” and “ruins individual and family lives, discriminates against people of color, and undermines public health.”

“More people are arrested for simple drug possession in the U.S. than for any other crime. Harsh drug possession laws need to end,” said Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio. “The long-term consequences of such laws can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime.”

As Brickner says, treating personal possession of drugs as a crime clearly isn’t working and the money we use to fight the “war” could be better spent on health options for those fighting addiction. Look around; in Lorain County, where would you send a loved one battling opioid addiction to get proper, long-term, and effective medical treatment? The options are slim at best.

The human cost of the war is the most important factor to consider.

More than 1.25 million people are arrested each year for drug possession — the leading cause of arrest nationwide — and there are at least 137,000 people behind bars every day because of drug possession convictions. The rate isn’t slowing. The war hasn’t stopped the roughly 90 percent of local property crimes, as police in Lorain County have cited the number many times, that are committed as a way to fund drug habits.

Look, you can still take a hard line against drug use. But let’s start a real discussion of what is more helpful in combating it. Is it attorney’s fees, felony charges, and jail time? Or is it treatment, education, and humanitarianism?

The recidivism rate is probably a good hint: 76.9 percent of drug offenders are rearrested, according to the National Institute of Justice, the research division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor