Culture of Punishment
Before the 1970s, most American policymakers understood drug abuse as a social disease.
Before the 1970’s, most American policymakers understood drug abuse as a social diseaseThe Narcotics Addict Rehabilitation Act (NARA) of 1966 sought to divert serious drug abusers from the criminal justice system into programs that provided treatment for their underlying addiction. However, in the early 1970s policymakers began to adopt a more punitive paradigm, viewing drug abuse as a law enforcement problem to be addressed not with treatment, but with criminal punishment.
When the War on Drugs first began in the early 1970s, there were only about 350,000 men and women incarcerated in jails and prisons nationwide. Today, the U.S. prison population is over 2.4 million. Our country is living in an era of mass incarceration and the government-sanctioned War on Drugs is a major cause.
Since 1980, the prison population in the United States has more than quadrupled
Police sweeps are common in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods, prison construction has proliferated across the country, police departments have become increasingly militarized—replete with SWAT teams and military equipment—forfeiture of property due to alleged crimes is commonplace, nightly news media is saturated with crime stories, and TV “documentary” segments feature COPS in action. We are, indeed, surrounded by a culture, not of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, but of punishment.
Justice calls for the equal treatment of all persons regardless of race, class, gender, or social status. The War on Drugs has allowed us all to be complicit in the opposite. Architects of the War on Drugs mandated harsh sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders that seem absurd today but remain in use. In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This law included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses (five or ten years), forcing judges to give fixed prison terms based on the weight of the drug or the presence of a firearm. It established highly discriminatory sentencing for cocaine. An individual could possess up to 500 grams of powder before receiving the five-year mandatory minimum, but only 5 grams of crack, even though the amounts are pharmacologically equal. Crack was far more prevalent in African American neighborhoods.
Despite average rates of drug use among the general population, black men were incarcerated at a rate 26 times greater in the year 2000 than they were in 1983, and one out of every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006 as compared to one in every 106 white men. The War on Drugs has been waged primarily on poor people of color.
Hard-heartedness has replaced forgiveness and mercyIndividuals with a criminal record are automatically relegated to a second-class status for life. They face enormous barriers to employment. Those on public assistance are denied access to education grants, public housing, and cash assistance. Those struggling the hardest are the ones most in need of these services. These bans generally last longer than the sentence imposed for drug use. Once released, people with criminal records are often blocked from voting and jury duty. Hard-heartedness has replaced forgiveness and mercy.
In 1970, federal legislation granted local law enforcement the authority to retain most of the cash and assets they seized in instances of proven, or even merely suspected, drug use or sales. The assets are frequently used to fund police department budgets. This law holds true in cases when individuals are just suspected of illegal drug activity. They then must prove their innocence. Because most individuals targeted for drug arrests are poor and do not have the means to afford an attorney or court costs, they do not have the ability to contest the charges. Current forfeiture laws mandate theft. As people of faith, we must condemn them as such.
Over the past 40 years, federal officials have called for impartial reports on marijuana only to turn a deaf ear on the studies they requested. President Richard Nixon in 1971 ignored the recommendations of his own Shafer Commission, which called for marijuana decriminalization if not legalization.
Medical marijuana is a special case. In 1999 the National Institute of Medicine, which had been commissioned by the White House Office of National Drug Control, recommended that research on the medical potential of marijuana be allowed. This finding was rejected.
Today federal officials oppose medical marijuana by arguing that the approval of federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is necessary and point to insufficient research. Even as they cite the need for research, they do not provide the necessary funding.
Even as federal officials cite the need for research, they do not provide the necessary funding
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has for decades classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and LSD, as having the highest potential for abuse and no “current accepted medical use.” As a Schedule 2 drug, cocaine is classified as less dangerous! Potential private funders, therefore, have no assurance that they will be able to realize investment returns. The California legislature supported a Center for Marijuana Research to study cannabis as medicine, but funding has not been sustained.
Our faith traditions call upon us to maintain and use wisely the gifts and resources that God has bestowed. Federal and state governments have allocated over $1 trillion of taxpayer money into the Drug War over the past four decades. Each year, the United States spends over $47 million to fight the Drug War with very little to show in return.
The United States spends over $51 billion dollars to maintain the Drug WarTo help pay for this War, spending on other services—such as drug treatment models, educational programs, and harm reduction practices—has been reduced.
Clergy for a New Drug Policy seeks to support policies that will end the Drug War and shift our current punitive paradigm around drug use to one that is centered on compassion, healing, and public health solutions.