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If certain drugs are made legal, shouldn't those imprisoned for possession of that drug be freed?

It’s estimated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons that almost half of incarcerated Americans are in prison due to a drug-related offense. The next highest offense is due to weapon violations, and even that percentage is less than half of drug-related crimes at 19%. America has a clear drug problem, and the exact opposite of a solution to this issue is locking up drug abusers in droves.

According to the addiction center, drug overdoses have tripled since 1990, and over 20 million Americans have at least one kind of drug addiction. This number is profound, especially when compared to other parts of the world like Europe, where American opioid addiction and drug-related deaths surpass theirs two to three times over. America’s problem lies in its ineffective plans of recourse to these horrific facts. Years ago, when European leaders realized they had a drug problem, they immediately implemented rehab programs and began treating abusers as people with disorders instead of criminals — and their success is in their numbers. It’s asinine to believe that throwing drug abusers in a cell will help end their addictions.

America responded to a similar drug problem much differently, beginning heavily with the war on drugs in the 1980s, where former presidents Nixon and Reagan vowed to crack down on drug crime, which they did — something America is still paying dearly for to this day. This is because the war on drugs only exacerbated the problem, and every year, the number of those addicted to drugs increased by the millions. The war on drugs is a notorious failure and has been thought by many to be a scapegoat for excuses to imprison people of color, whom most of the people incarcerated for drug offenses are. History has shown that criminalizing nonviolent drug offenders is another way Americans can be easily racially targeted.

Other reasons why imprisonment for nonviolent drug offenses should end are logistical factors, and one lies in the sheer amount of time those convicted can spend in prison. According to the Washington Post, over 2,000 Americans are serving life sentences in prison for nonviolent drug offenses, making up 30% of those serving life in prison. What’s worse, when policy is changed about drug offenses, it often doesn’t affect those in prison. For example, drug offenses are often calculated by what kind of drug and how much of it the possessor had on their person, and this alters the amount of time served. Yet, the issue is, if someone was found to be in possession of two ounces of cocaine in 2017, they have to serve three years in prison. If the policy were to change in 2019, instead declaring the offense of two ounces of cocaine servable by only two years, the inmate serving three years for that same offense wouldn’t be released early despite this new policy.

The main criticism in outlawing criminalization of nonviolent drug offenses is that many incarcerated for them have previously committed a violent crime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The argument is that such offenders are better off not on the streets. Yet, the reality is almost certain. Throw these nonviolent offenders in a cell, and their addiction or lack of education about the harm of drugs will be just as real when they leave, and the cycle will continue. America needs to start treating these people as though they have a disorder and need help. We need to start further educating Americans about drugs. 

Josie Haneklau is a sophomore political science and psychology double major. Contact Josie at hanekljr@dukes.jmu.edu.