Criminalizing drug users can only do so much.Retno Wulandari 06 March 2017 16:30
The government is exploring the possibility to revise the Law on Narcotics. Current law criminalizes most drug users. Users arrested with small amount of drugs and users who decided to go to rehab are theoretically exempted from the punishment, though in fact most of them are still going to be imprisoned. Harsher punishments apply to drug dealers, ranging from years of imprisonment to death penalty.
But is criminalization the best way to win the war against drugs? A talkshow held by the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) last week explained why it might be not.
In 1971, US President Richard Nixon officially declared a war on drugs and said that illegal drug use is the ‘public enemy number one’.
The US government started to treat drugs as a criminal issue rather than a health issue. The same approach was (and still) used towards users struggling with addiction.
By 2016, US authorities have arrested 1.5 million Americans every year for drug-related crimes and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of them.
“Drug use hasn’t been reduced and deaths caused by overdose have continuously increased. People were arrested and imprisoned, and only a few of them were treated for drug abuse,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, the policy coordination for Washington-based Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), last week.
Criminalization of drug users and addicts has led to mass incarceration that brings even more problems to the American society.
“Mass incarceration also caused racial disparities, while it didn’t reduced crime, drug use or drug sales,” said Boecker. “And it also wastes money. The US spent at least $50 billion per year on prisons or around $31,000 per prisoner.”
Criminalization also hinders users and addicts to seek medical and psychological treatment.
“Criminalization, the widespread stigma about drug addicts and the shame make it hard for people to seek out treatment,” said Boecker. “It’s made worst with the expensive treatment cost and the long waiting list at rehab facility. The government spent most of the resources on law enforcement instead of treatment.”
According to DPA’s research, drug users in the US face social rejection, labeling, stereotyping, and discrimination —all lead to worse addiction. People are afraid to ask for help and information about drugs, making inaccurate information continues to spread. As a result, it becomes more difficult for people and policymakers to understand and make decisions about the problem.
“Harsh drug law enforcement practices are also strongly associated with higher HIV/AIDS rate,” said Boecker.
International outreach coordinator for the Students for Sensible Drugs Policy (SSDP) Jake Agliata raised the same issue —that criminalization for drug use harms young people in the US.
Young drug users have to stop their education and face other problems in prison like sexual assault and physical abuse. There’s also an issue of child neglect due to parents’ imprisonment as around 2.7 million US children have to grow up without one or both parents who were jailed for drug-related crime.