decriminalization is the answer to war on drugs

Incarcerating people for drug misuse doesn’t deter use or prevent overdoses or deaths. What it does is keep families apart and people with substance use disorder from getting treatment.

When Amber Rule returned to prison for the second time in 2017, she was sentenced to 4.5 years for one box of pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine commonly used to manufacture methamphetamines. Rule’s children were removed from her care and placed with a family member where she says there wasn’t enough supervision.

“My oldest daughter was using drugs, and my 12-year-old daughter got pregnant. So, they were removed after a year from that home and were sent to another relative,” she said. That relative was abusing her son. Finally, the state placed her children with her cousin, where they’ve now been for the past two years. Unfortunately, Rule’s cousin could not handle all four kids, so her children were separated. She’s not hopeful she’ll ever get them back.

“Even when I was out of prison and in the work release center for 15 months, I was doing a lot of good things, but I was still locked up, so we couldn’t justify doing a return home goal,” she said.

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Since being released from prison, Rule has had difficulty finding work due to her criminal record. She used to work as a waitress, but since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it’s been hard to find a job. 

More than 1.6 million people are prosecuted, incarcerated, or deported for a drug law violation each year in the United States. On November 4, voters in Oregon passed Measure 110, decriminalizing the possession and personal use of all drugs—a move that, if adopted federally, could end the devastating impact of the war on drugs on families.

Also, voters in five states – Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana, and Mississippi – changed cannabis laws in their states. Recently, the Democratic-controlled House approved a bill to decriminalize and tax cannabis at the federal level.  

This groundbreaking legislation is the first of its kind in the country. It will drop the penalty for possession of small amounts of drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine to be equivalent to a traffic ticket. It will also lower the charge for possession of larger amounts of narcotics from a felony to a misdemeanor and reinforce that drug use and addiction are public health concerns, not criminal justice offenses.

The measure also directed the state to apply cannabis tax revenue to drug screening and treatment services funds, although Gov. Kate Brown has proposed waiting an additional year to pay for these programs. Both of Rule’s prison terms were for non-violent offenses, but she was never offered any other options besides prison, such as family-centered treatment. In family-centered treatment, the mother brings her children to treatment with her. This type of therapy has been shown to have better outcomes for parents and children of parents who have substance use disorder. 

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In a press statement released by Drug Policy Alliance, Executive Director Kassandra Frederique said, “Today’s victory is a landmark declaration, and the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use. Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date. It shifts the focus where it belongs – on people and public health – and removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people. As we saw with the domino effect of marijuana legalization, we express this victory to inspire other states to enact their own drug decriminalization policies that prioritizes health over punishment.” 

The change in legislation in Oregon will move drug addiction from being treated as a criminal issue to being treated as a public health issue. 

Organizations, such as the United Nations, recognize drug addiction as a “complex multifactorial health disorder,” not a “moral failure.” Instead of criminalizing drug use, the organization recommends an approach that offers people treatment and recovery options such as behavioral therapies. Essentially, substance use disorder should be treated as “other chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes,” requiring ongoing care, according to researchers.

The mass incarceration of people with drug addiction in the U.S. has also disproportionately hit families of color. Black people make up about 13% of the US population but account for 45% of people incarcerated for drug law violations. Even though they sell and use drugs at the same rate as white people, Black people are almost three times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.

Matt Sutton, a spokesperson for Drug Policy Alliance, said the tax money obtained through Measure 110 would fund more family-centered treatment “with the caveat that these programs apply for the grants and meet the requirements of being evidence-informed (mainly providing things like methadone and buprenorphine versus only strict abstinence) and culturally competent.”

Ryan Leone, prison reform activist and author, served time in prison on a federal drug law violation. “I missed the birth of my son on this last term,” he said. “He was born six months into my sentence. I started noticing various ways that there were obstacles that were barriers to communication with my family with my family.” Leone remembers the barriers he faced in prison trying to keep in touch with his family. “There are people in prison that are fathers that are not able to communicate with their children,” he said. “It’s $3 to $5 for a 15-minute phone call.”  

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Michael Mushlin, a law professor at Pace University School of Law and the author of Rights of Prisoners, agrees that communication is a barrier for incarcerated people and their families and that the location of prisons makes it even more difficult. 

“Prisons tend to be located in rural, isolated areas and prisoners tend to come from urban areas,” Mushlin said. “That’s painful to people; it’s painful to the person who is incarcerated. It’s painful to the family of the person who is incarcerated. It’s counterproductive, and it adds to the trauma of imprisonment itself.” He added that the two biggest predictors of success post-release for incarcerated people are communication and education. 

Leone believes that Measure 110 will have a positive impact in Oregon. He told Courier, “Once you take out the criminal consequence, then people aren’t stuck in a cyclical trap. You have the felony, and it’s hard to get employment. You need money to support yourself. People that don’t have education or any real opportunity for employment based on their part, they typically resort back to criminal activities. Many people I saw in prison, this was the only option that they had.” 

Rule is still in recovery from her substance use disorder. Still, she struggles with the problems her incarceration has compounded. “When you get out, you’re gung-ho about everything,” she said. “About your recovery. About doing the right thing. Then, you get out there, and you don’t have a specific skill set to get into a specific line of work, and you’re just out there trying to figure something out with your background.”

Criminalizing drug use has not lowered it. It has not decreased drug misuse or overdoses. It has cost the U.S. an estimated $1 trillion since 1971. Treatment, not jail time, helps people on the road to recovery and helps keep families together. “Putting people who have drug problems in prison is the worst possible thing it seems to me,” Mushlin said.