War on Drugs taking too much collateral damage

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Two more states voted to legalize marijuana in the recent mid-term elections. Ten states now allow recreational marijuana. Thirty states allow medical marijuana. The latest polls show 66 percent of American adults now favor legalization. Canada has legalized recreational marijuana nationwide. Efforts are well underway to legalize marijuana on a federal level.

I always assumed it would be decades before Mississippi legalized marijuana, but a recent gathering of 60 community leaders at Scrooge’s last Friday night made me second guess this assumption.

My wife Ginny was going and she asked me along. It was an informal gathering to discuss a popular book on the drug wars titled, “Chasing the Scream.”

The gathering was organized by Christina Dent, a charismatic young woman who neither smokes, drinks or uses drugs. Raised in Jackson, she was home schooled and then received a degree at Belhaven.

I recalled that Dent had written a column in the Sun and the Clarion-Ledger calling for an end to the jailing of drug addicts. She is on a one-woman crusade to decriminalize drugs. She is not affiliated with any organization or group. She is mounting a grassroots campaign based on her personal convictions.

“Drug addiction is a disease and imprisonment is the wrong prescription,” she says. It’s as simple as that.

Her crusade springs from being a foster parent. As a Christian conservative, she wanted to help babies who were victims of their parents’ drug abuse. At the time, she was a strong advocate for harsh penalties for drugs.

As a foster parent, she came to know many of the mothers of the foster children. She watched these mothers drug tested after giving birth and then hauled off to jail for years, separated from their babies. She came to realize this was causing far more harm than good. It was horrible for both the mother and the baby. It destroyed entire families causing huge grief. There had to be a better way.

Christina Dent is not alone. In fact, dozens of Mississippi judges and prosecutors operating on the front lines have seen the fallout from our war on drugs. These judges have taken the initiative to set up special drug courts where drug abusers can get treatment rather than prison time. It seems those most intimately familiar with our drug system are often the ones most in favor of reform.

The current system is broken, causing a permanent underclass of broken, dysfunctional human beings. This is no way for a Christian state to act. Christ said what you do to a prisoner, you do to him.

It would be one thing if we had a functional, modern prison system which truly lived up to the “corrections” part of its name. But in Mississippi, our prisons are run by the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords. A prison sentence is a sentence to be beaten and raped.

The book “Chasing the Scream” makes a fundamental conclusion: Drug abusers are broken souls turning to drugs to escape pain in their lives. They need non-judgmental rehabilitation and nurturing to bring them back as functional members of society. By sending them to prison for their disease, we are taking fragile human beings and breaking them to pieces. After that, they will forever be a liability to society, costing us a huge amount of money and causing more crime.

 

This is why the United States has 15 times more prisoners per capita than the rest of the world. This is why we have a permanent underclass. This is why we have persistently high crime rates. With so much money spent on incarceration, there is none left for rehabilitation. About half of all prisoners in the U.S. are jailed over drugs.

In contrast, other developed countries spend far more on rehabilitation, which dramatically lowers the amount of money spent on incarceration. Rehabilitation is far less expensive and far more humane.

The book, which is very well written, exhaustively documents the history of the war on drugs and how this war has reverberated throughout all levels of our society. The book also illustrates the dramatic success of countries that have turned from punishment to rehabilitation.

Portugal is a good example. In 2001, the Portuguese government did something that the United States would find entirely alien. After many years of waging a fierce war on drugs, it decided to flip its strategy entirely: It decriminalized them all.

If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from marijuana to heroin, he or she is sent to a three-person Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, typically made up of a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker. The commission recommends treatment or a minor fine; otherwise, the person is sent off without any penalty. A vast majority of the time, there is no penalty.

The government gives big tax incentives to employers who hire workers in drug treatment programs. Huge numbers of addicts are rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

The Portuguese experiment has been successful, yet few countries have followed its lead. Other countries such as the Netherlands have long decriminalized drugs yet have comparatively lower than average drug use.

With marijuana legalization, we are now seeing data within our borders. Opioid overdose deaths are down 25 percent in Colorado and other legal states, saving thousands of lives. Alcohol sales are down and teenage pot smoking has declined slightly.

This resembles Prohibition and its repeal. The War on Drugs has threatened the very fabric of our society giving rise to vicious gangs and corruption. Easily bought street drugs are mixed with who-knows-what chemicals causing thousands of deaths.

Can Christina Dent make a difference? Dent is optimistic. If we can change people’s attitudes, the legislature will follow. In this age of better communication, public policy should experience the same exponential rate of progress as technology. Every one of us knows an addict who suffers from the horrible disease of addiction. Prison isn’t the right prescription for these tortured souls.