The Long-Term Damage of the War on Drugs

By Josiah M. Hesse 03/23/15

You can’t talk about ending the drug war without talking about restoring communities. But nobody is.

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Forty-four years after Richard Nixon declared that “public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” there is now a nearly universal agreement that the War on Drugs has been a dismal failure. Data showing that the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, yet contains only 5% of the world’s population, and that we’ve quadrupled our prison population since Nancy Reagan’s "Just Say No" campaign, has lead to legislators on both sides of the aisle coming together in recognition of the fact that we cannot jail our way out of this problem. 

It’s taken us around 35 years to get into this mess, and even if we change course immediately, it will likely take as long (or longer) to clean up the mess. 

“Substance abuse is a problem, but locking someone up for 20 years is probably not the best strategy,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with Vice News earlier this week. “It’s something we need to rethink as a society.” 

While some are advocating for small but impactful reforms like removing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, or eliminating the criminal disparity between crack and powder cocaine, there is a growing movement of liberals and libertarians alike who either want to follow Portugal’s lead and decriminalize drugs, or take the Colorado model of legalizing marijuana and apply it to all drugs. Though, simply eliminating the drug laws of the last 40 years won’t come close to eradicating the damage of the War on Drugs, which extends far beyond having too many people in prison. 

“Everybody should have an interest in ending the drug war,” says asha bandele, director of the Advocacy Grants program at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Some people see the legalization of drugs as purely a libertarian issue—don’t criminalize me for what I put in my body. But then there are those who are wondering: ‘How did we disappear 2.2 million people?’ For them it’s also an issue of freedom. And then there are those who [think] it’s just an efficiency argument—that’s not how I want my tax dollars spent. The landscape is ripe for a lot of common ground.”

Later this month, bandele hopes to find that common ground at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington D.C. The list of speakers at this events features the unlikely pairing of Newt Gingrich alongside Senator Cory Booker, and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile next to Mark Holden of Koch Industries. Gingrich has partnered with Civil Rights activist Van Jones on the ambitious #Cut50 campaign, an attempt to slice the U.S. prison population in half over the next 10 years—which will be a featured initiative of the summit. 

The #Cut50 website provides a lot of strong and familiar arguments against mass incarceration on a fiscal and moral level, but doesn’t offer any specific legislative or policy changes to achieve that end. Reforming drug policy will almost certainly have to play a large role in any effort to curb the prison population, but the specifics of what that means is a bit vague at the moment. Ending the War on Drugs makes for a popular tagline, but what does that look like? Increase funding for addiction treatment and needle exchanges? Decriminalize drugs? Legalize?

“The Drug Policy Alliance is advocating for drugs to be removed from the criminal justice system to the maximum extent possible, in a way that’s consistent with public safety and health,” says bandele. “The experiment in Portugal has decriminalized drugs, so they’re not completely out of the criminal justice system—but they’re more regulated by the health ministry. We haven’t seen an uptick in overdoses or drug usage there; but we have seen a downward spiral in HIV and AIDS infections, because you don’t have the same risk of disease-spreading you have when needles are shared in underground markets.” 

Portugal surely had a problem of death and disease on their hands before decriminalizing drugs in 2000, though they didn’t have a mass incarceration problem anywhere near the scale of the U.S. when they stopped arresting people for possession of drugs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 48% of those incarcerated in federal prisons are there for drug related charges. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes increased ten-fold, a spike that severely outranks all other crimes.  

When looking at staggering numbers like those, it begs the question: What would our nation look like if we decriminalized drugs and slowly saw a half million ex-cons flooding into economically depressed communities? 

“If you let them all out tomorrow, there would be chaos for a short period of time,” says Todd Clear, Professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice and author of Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. “There would be this influx of new people coming onto the streets, and many of them would get involved in trouble again.”

Clear says that while he's not completely in favor of legalizing drugs, he believes that ceasing to imprison people for drug possession would go a long way in fixing our mass incarceration problem.

Clear has seen this play out on a smaller scale when prisoners are moved through the revolving door of street dealing, incarceration, and then back to the streets again a few months or years later. He says that often when you take one gun-packing dealer off the corner, another is brought on to replace him (often someone who otherwise wouldn’t be involved in guns or drugs). Also, it’s not uncommon for a person to find their shoes filled by someone new when returning home from prison.

“What happens is that they try to return to these networks that they’d previously been a part of, find that they’ve been replaced, try and reinsert themselves back in, become a problem for the people in those networks, and that conflict often leads to violence. . . Studies we’ve done in Newark show that the demographic with the highest likelihood of being murdered are those who have just been released from prison in the last six months. The second most likely scenario is the murder being perpetrated by someone who has been released from prison in the last six months.”

“You can’t talk about ending the drug war without talking about restoring communities,” says bandele. “What happens—and often causes recidivism—is that these people come home and they’re not fully restored as citizens. They can’t vote. They can’t apply for a whole manner of licenses. They can’t get school loans. They can’t live in publicly funded housing. There are a whole range of things that exclude these people from participating in their democracy. We spend $51 billion destroying communities—what are we willing to spend to restore them? That’s where the discussion is at. Not on the drug war, but: What do we do now?”

Beyond the violence, Clear says that high incarceration rates—which are often made up of individuals from the same neighborhoods—has an economic impact on communities that extends far beyond just the one person. 

“We have studies that show going to prison reduces lifetime earnings by 40%,” he says. “So if you come from a neighborhood where most of the men have been to prison, you live in a neighborhood where the men as a group produce 40% less economic activity in that neighborhood. So in those neighborhoods there isn’t the economic infrastructure to be able to support stores, restaurants, and so on. In these neighborhoods almost one-fourth of the men are locked up on any given day, and 80% of the men have been to prison; so prison is a ubiquitous experience of everyday life, and has a suppressing impact on economic activity in the neighborhoods.” 

Theoretically, ending the cycle of people being plucked off the street, slapped in prison for a few months or years, and then returned to a community that have learned to get along without them, would inject some economic fuel into neighborhoods damaged by the drug war. Though, like the prison population, the wealth of neighborhoods currently falls along racial lines, where it has become very difficult for minorities to rise out of poverty. And this situation is unlikely to improve by dumping thousands of unemployable ex-cons into the mix. 

“Almost 70% of black adolescents raised in concentrated poverty areas remain there as young adults,” writes Robert J Sampson, a social sciences professor at Harvard University. “55% of the small group raised in low poverty nonetheless ended up in high poverty. Again the contrasts are striking: almost no adolescent whites experience concentrated poverty in the first place, and for the majority who were raised in low poverty, only 9% were downwardly mobile 17 years later.”

Those who criticize the notion of a “white privilege” dynamic in America, and support the traditional law and order approach toward drug laws, often say that personal responsibility is the only relevant factor in whether or not an individual pursues a life of crime. This worldview presents a stark picture of two diverting roads, one of education and prosperity, and the other a life of crime and drugs, and an individual has only to choose between them. 

Though when the doors to education and employment have already been closed to you due to a felony conviction, and you’re living in a poverty stricken neighborhood where the only life skill you have is working the same (illegal) job that your friends and role models have always done, your options for survival begin to look pretty limited.  

“To go down to a drug corner in the inner city is the rational act of somebody going to work for the only company that exists in a company town,” David Simon, creator of the HBO crime series, The Wire, says in the 2012 documentary The House I Live In. “When that is the only economy that is functioning in certain places in this country, what do we expect?” 

In The Wire, Simon was able to accurately portray the intricate narratives of the Baltimore drug war—from the legislators and detectives, to the kingpins and street dealers—because of his 12 years covering the subject for The Baltimore Sun during the eighties and early nineties. One of the series most memorable plot points comes in the third season, where a rogue police commander, frustrated with the Sisyphean task of trying to abolish the violent drug trade, secretly reaches out to dealers and offers them a “free-zone” where they will be allowed to deal drugs without arrest. The ultimate goal was to segregate the dangerous and distasteful elements of the drug trade away from mainstream society, who often endure collateral damage from the War on Drugs.

Throughout a series of episodes, the city experiences a 14% drop in felonies due to this policy, with areas outside the zone becoming cleaner and safer. Harm reduction workers move into the free-zone, distributing condoms, clean needles, perform blood tests and convince some addicts to go into treatment. “We’re interacting with an at-risk community that is typically elusive,” says one academic when arguing to the mayor that the policy should continue. A once dangerous neighborhood had been turned peaceful before anyone knew what the police commander had done—and, for a time, the mayor was looking to find a way to keep the experiment alive without facing prosecution from the Department of Justice. 

The story is most likely based on real-life Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who advocated for the legalization of marijuana and the regulated decriminalization of heroin and cocaine in 1988. ''Providing legal access to currently illicit substances carries with it the chance, although by no means the certainty, that the number of people using and abusing drugs will increase,'' Mayor Schmoke argued at the time. ''But addiction, for all of its attendant medical, social and moral problems, is but one evil associated with drugs. Moreover, the criminalization of narcotics, cocaine and marijuana has not solved the problem of their use.''

With all the advantages that the free-zone offered in The Wire, there were still gang territory conflicts over the sale of drugs in the areas, which brought on a predictable amount of violence. Similarly, this disruption of the drug-trade left a number of children—typically employed as look-outs for police raids—without a job and the income that comes with it. Granted, these children became involved in a community boxing program, which was surely preferable to assisting in drug deals. But this program was financed by a drug kingpin, which underscored the troubling reality of decriminalizing drugs without a comprehensive economic plan for the neighborhood: Without legit jobs that uplift the community and improve self-esteem for individuals, poverty will always fuel addiction. And addiction will continue to fuel crime. 

“For people with drug addiction, staying clean of drugs appears to be a condition of staying out of trouble,” says Clear. “People who are not addicted—and that includes alcohol—can more quickly get out of crime-related business. For the most part, it’s the low-level person habituated to drugs that is a threat to public safety. So it’s the exact opposite of the person we generally talk about. We often say drug addicts shouldn’t be in prison—though they are the ones who are a threat. And it’s very difficult to keep them clean, and when they aren’t clean they’re engaged in criminal activity.”

Theories on how to treat drug addiction are currently evolving beyond both the law and order approach of conservatives, and the “disease” model of addiction championed by progressives. In his recent book, Chasing The Scream, Johann Hari challenged the relevance of traditional addiction experiments, which placed a rat in a cage with the option of both water and morphine, leading to the rat denying himself water in favor of drugs, and soon overdoses. Hari cites a study by Bruce Alexander in Vancouver, which illustrates that the behavior of these rats is not solely influenced by a physical craving for the drug, but also by the quality of their environment. 

“Bruce built Rat Park, which is like heaven for rats,” Hari said in a recent interview for The Fix, explaining the study. “Anything a rat could conceivably want is in Rat Park: nice little colored balls, nice food, and loads of friends, sex, whatever a rat wants. On top of that, there are the water bottles: one laced with drugs and the other is just regular water. In Rat Park, the rats don’t like the drugged water. They hardly used any of it. None of them used it compulsively and none of them overdosed. You go from virtually everyone in isolation using loads of it and almost always dying, to virtually no one doing that in Rat Park. Bruce began to realize that the right and left-wing theory of addiction are both wrong. The right-wing theory is that it is a moral failing, that you’re a hedonist, you party too hard and kind of fall into it. The left-wing theory is, you know, a brain disease, it takes you over, ‘hijacked,’ you can’t help yourself. What Bruce says is that it is neither your morality nor your brain—it’s your cage, your environment. Addiction is an adaptation to your environment. Bruce is not saying that this is the sole explanation for addiction, but that it is a very significant one that has been massively neglected.”

Even Richard Nixon understood this fundamental reality of addiction. “You don’t turn to drugs unless you can’t find satisfaction in another way in your own life,” Nixon once said in an interview. It’s often overlooked how strong a proponent Nixon was for drug treatment. During his infamous “public enemy number one” speech, Nixon requested an extra $155 million to combat drug use in America —$105 million of which was set aside for drug treatment programs. These treatment programs were later cut by the Reagan administration, which coincides with the massive swelling of the prison population. 

People also tend to forget the relative newness of the policies that created our mass incarceration problem. The Nixon administration actually repealed federal mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana; and Jimmy Carter called for the decriminalization of marijuana in a 1977 speech before Congress. The conservative approach to marijuana only a couple of generations ago would appear progressive by today’s standards. 

“For most of the first half of the 20th century—into the 1970s—people who were caught in possession of drugs were generally not incarcerated,” Clear says. “The War on Drugs in the eighties saw a whole series of laws being passed changing sentencing for drug-related crimes, and immediately prison populations started going up, just because of people convicted for drug crimes.”

Just as drug laws became more damaging to individuals than the drugs themselves ever could, the War on Drugs has left a path of destruction that extends far beyond just the drug users. The systemic poverty, distrust of law enforcers, and multi-generational cycle of absent fathers and uneducated children cannot be undone by simply returning to the pre-Reagan laws of drug decriminalization. It’s taken us around 35 years to get into this mess, and even if we change course immediately, it will likely take as long (or longer) to clean up the mess.  

The issue of mass incarceration and the failing drug war are certainly in the public eye. Between John Legend’s recent Oscar speech—where the musician stated that “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world; there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850”— and the new ABC series, American Crime, the subject is now in the public ears in a way we’ve never seen before. Though the piece that is still currently missing from this dizzyingly complex policy puzzle is the same one that’s been missing all along: What do we do about it? 

Josiah M Hesse is a Denver based journalist covering politics, crime, marijuana, comedy, music, economics and pop culture. His work has appeared in VICE, Noisey, The Cannabist, Splitsider, LaughSpin, and Westword. Follow him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse or email him at [email protected]

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Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist covering politics, crime, marijuana, comedy, music, economics and pop culture. His work has appeared in VICE, Noisey, The Cannabist, Splitsider, LaughSpin, and Westword. Follow him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.