In recent weeks, documented cases of police brutality amid the pandemic have sparked a national conversation about criminal justice reform. Regardless of our diverse opinions regarding law enforcement and the Black Lives Matter movement, this is an opportunity to thoughtfully consider if there is room for systemic reform.
The fact of the matter is, there are flaws in our criminal justice system. One policy that has contributed to the glaring division for decades now, with little discernible benefit, is the war on drugs.
Data indicate that the war on drugs has been a policy failure. Drug laws were originally designed to keep individuals healthier and substance-free, but decades of research indicates that these laws are more a hindrance than help.
Self-reported drug use has increased since the 1970s. Today, 26.5 percent of high-school seniors say it is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain cocaine. Since former President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1,” signed the Controlled Substances Act and rejected the findings of the Shafer Commission in 1971, enforcing drug laws has cost U.S. taxpayers over $1 trillion.
This opioid epidemic is primarily a public health issue, not one of criminality. The cost to society to arrest and incarcerate the drug-addicted instead of using substance abuse and mental health treatment options greatly outweighs the potential deterrent effects of criminalization.
Drug charges frequently have catastrophic effects on Mainers after they are released from jail or prison. Those with a criminal history involving drug charges have a harder time finding employment, thereby eroding their ability to function in a self-sufficient manner while also taking a toll on that individual’s mental health.
Further complicating the issue, individuals who are incarcerated for drug possession are housed with others who have been charged for drug trafficking, which forces us to consider the possibility that incarceration actually assists users and dealers in building working relationships.
Incarceration for drug use also breaks up family units, which increases the likelihood of financial hardship and repeat offending. Society can do more to break this cycle.
Excessively stringent drug laws don’t just harm individuals––they also negatively affect communities. The war on drugs has been linked to increases in violence because it has led to the development of drug cartels and gangs. We’re seeing concrete examples of drug trafficking and violent activity in Maine, such as in Downeast Maine, where fishermen in particular are struggling with opioid abuse.
In an article published by CBS News, Charles Rudelitch, an economist from Maine, noted, “We know that millions of dollars of income that otherwise should have been spent in our coastal communities is being lost to heroin and diverted to prescription drugs.”
The loss of community cohesion should be significant enough to make us reconsider our drug enforcement laws. But the loss goes even further—our drug policies have resulted in millions of Maine taxpayer dollars going to waste.
It’s difficult to calculate the full cost, since various government entities are responsible for enforcing drug policies. But between 2017 and 2018 alone—the most recent data available—Maine’s Drug Enforcement Agency spent over $6.5 million to police non-violent drug crimes. Maine jails and prisons spend an average of $43,773 to house each inmate, 22 percent of whom are there for nonviolent drug crimes.
Keep in mind that the majority of Maine’s drug-related arrests are for possession, not manufacturing or sale.
Even those obligated to enforce drug laws are concerned that drug charges do more harm than good. Earlier this year, two police officers in Maine co-authored and published an article in the Portland Press Herald highlighting their ambivalence about the effectiveness of charging individuals for drug offenses.
These officers observed that “we don’t turn to the criminal justice system to address hunger or flu outbreaks. Yet for some reason, it is the approach we have chosen for addressing drug use,” later adding, “The fact is, a lot of people who are in jail for using or selling small amounts of drugs don’t need to be there.”
If the people responsible for enforcing drug regulation laws doubt these rules are useful, shouldn’t we be skeptical too?
In some regards, the war on drugs can be viewed as a more wasteful and hazardous version of the prohibition. The government tries to enforce laws that will carefully guide the behavior of individuals, but the unintended consequences prove to be worse than the original issue.
As drug use becomes increasingly problematic in Maine, we must think critically about our response and admit that charging individuals for drug crimes is a misguided response.
We could re-classify small amounts of drug possession as a civil infraction (rather than labeling mere possession of certain drugs as a felony crime), reducing the majority of drug trafficking charges to misdemeanors, and mandate drug court (rather than incarceration) more broadly.
The status quo of our criminal justice system is not working. If we fail to address our flawed drug regulations, we will continue to see our communities suffer as a result of these policies.