The War on Drugs 40 Years Later
Punitive Drug Policies Don't Work
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
After struggling side-by-side for nine agonizing years with my son, Ian, as he dealt with depression, self-mutilation, drug use, and repeated incarceration for simply self-medicating, I saw him begin to find inner strength, confidence, and stability despite the feeling that he was being hounded by probation. Three months into this period of growing self-esteem, however, he had one “dirty test” and decided that all was lost, that this time he would be sent to state prison—a threat that is held over the heads of the thousands who go through our court system for using drugs. He ended his life that day, at the tender age of 23.
After a period of intense grief, and the deaths of a dozen other young adults under similar circumstances that winter in Santa Barbara, several of us moms came together. Certain questions were preying on our minds.
How do people who are essentially only harming themselves come to be treated as criminals? If our correction system was one time designed to rehabilitate, how have we drifted so far afield from this ideal? Where are the treatment centers, the rehabs, the hospitals? Where is the help for someone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, or more serious thought disorders, and is self-medicating?
Forty years ago this week, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs." Apparently, we’ve lost this war, despite the fact that it is costing us $51 billion dollars a year.
Apparently the drug war hasn’t been able to stem the flow of drugs into our communities. On the contrary.
In 1980—a year before my son was born—there were 50,000 people incarcerated in the U.S. for drug law violations. Today there are 500,000. This number does not include the thousands and thousands being held on probation or parole violations such as dirty urine tests, or offenses committed under the influence of drugs. Thirty thousand people are in prison in California for a drug offense; two-thirds of them merely for a possession offense.
Apparently, incarcerating people who use drugs does not get them to stop using. The latest recidivism rate cited for the Santa Barbara County Jail—where almost of our inmates have a drug or alcohol problem—is 85%
The “War on Drugs” doesn’t seem to have reduced the number of overdose deaths either. Twenty-six thousand people died of a drug overdose in the U.S. in 2006. Between 2008 and 2009, Santa Barbara County saw a three-fold increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths. The shame connected with an overdose death—be it that of a 35-year-old Latino father or a white, upper-middle-class “bipolar” youth—tends to hide it from view, especially in a town like Santa Barbara that likes to look good to tourists.
“Public safety” is the mantra, the refrain, the chorus that you hear over and over and over ad nauseum in the halls of government. I heard it used at least 25 times this week at the county budget hearings.
If we send a helicopter to hover over the home of an anxiety-ridden Santa Barbara man who is self-medicating, along with a SWAT team on the ground to break down his 80-year-old mother’s door—do you feel safer? I don’t. I feel worried. I wonder who is paying for this and who will be next?
As far as I’m concerned, public safety requires treatment. We need to provide treatment options that are compassionate and effective for people who are experiencing enough distress to become addicted to drugs.
If the “war on drugs” hasn’t curbed the use of “illicit” drugs (on the contrary), and hasn’t reduced the number of overdose deaths (on the contrary), and has only succeeded in providing an excuse for search and seizure of hundreds of thousands of people (in particular those on probation or parole); and if this state of affairs is supporting vast industries and tempting communities to abdicate their responsibilities to private prison corporations, why are we tolerating it?
Why don’t we redirect these resources to helping to prevent and heal the most fragile members of our society?
Families ACT! and Moms United to End the War on Drugs are co- sponsoring a Teach-In and Vigil this Friday, June 17 from 5:30 to 7:45 p.m. at The Adobe, at 15 E. Carrillo Street, on the 40th Anniversary of the “War on Drugs." The public is welcome, and hors d’oeuvres will be provided free of charge.
Suzanne Riordan is the Executive Director of Families ACT!, a local nonprofit organization advocating for alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health and substance use disorders.