Collateral Damage in the War on Drugs

Tom Houseman Collateral Consequences, Guest Pieces

“Another [Chicago] eviction” via Molly Marshall.

The word “criminalization” feels right and just to us. After all, it has the word “criminal” in it. Even if we feel that the punishments being inflicted are unduly harsh, at least we know who is being punished: criminals, law breakers, those who have shown disregard for the notions of right and wrong.

But what if that weren’t the whole story? What if our culture of criminalization had far-reaching, unintended consequences we rarely even see or acknowledge, including forcing innocent people to suffer the loss of their homes, their families, their dignity, even their lives? This is what our culture of mass criminalization has produced.  Its impact extends far beyond those who actually use or sell drugs.

Consider a single working mother, raising her children in a public housing apartment, a home she received after years on a waitlist. Her oldest son, a high school student, sometimes smokes marijuana in his room. Should she kick him out? If she doesn’t, and he gets caught, she risks losing the home she has built for her family.

Since 1983 public housing authorities have been required to include clauses in the leases of all residents allowing for the eviction of tenants who engaged in drug use “or other behaviors that could threaten the safety of other tenants,” a maddeningly vague phrase. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development v. Rucker that PHA’s have the right to evict an entire household based on the criminal activity of a member or guest, even if the lease-holding tenant is unaware of the activity. Essentially, a mother could lose her home for not kicking her child out of her house.

Innocent children can also be unjust victims of mass criminalization. The mere presence of drugs in the same house in which a child is living can mean a parent in prison and a child forced into the foster care system.  In 20 states it is a felony to possess methamphetamine in the presence of a child, and in half of those states that same punishment applies to any controlled substance.   Obviously, we all want to protect children from the dangers of drugs, but if drug use were treated as a health and safety issue, rather than as a criminal justice issue, our strategies could focus on helping parents protect their children, rather than punishing parents and placing children in the hands of the foster care system. The criminal justice system too often sacrifices nuance and context and results in children left without parents and homes.

Criminalization of drugs undoubtedly makes drug use more dangerous, as users are more likely to engage in unsafe practices such as needle sharing, which accounted for six percent of HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2015. What if someone doesn’t inject drugs, but their partner does? The sexual partner of a heroin user, who may not be aware of their partner’s drug habits, is at greater risk of contracting HIV without even realizing it. If their partner were able to get access to clean needles without fear of arrest, both lives would be safer.

If you found a loved one overdosing on drugs, would you want to call 911 to save their lives? If you lived in one of 10 states in the US without a “Good Samaritan” law, you would risk a police officer arriving on the scene and arresting you for possession.  Often in these states, such calls are not made and people die.

Every war has collateral damage, innocent civilians hit by stray bullets meant for other targets. The War on Drugs is no different. When people who never possess or use drugs are at risk of losing their homes, parents, and lives, the system supposedly designed to keep us safe is clearly broken. The only solution to these and countless other unintended consequences of the War on Drugs is to end the outrageous overreach of criminalization, decriminalize all drugs, and focus on harm-reduction efforts that will help and protect both drug users and those closest to them.

About the Author
Tom Houseman is a 2017 graduate of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.