The US needs to stop criminalizing drug users

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During my uncle’s hospital stay following his stroke, my family was bombarded with well wishes and visitors praying for his recovery. They all knew why it had happened; the man had been drowning his liver in just about as much alcohol as it could handle for the preceding few decades. His doctors encouraged he quit, and he tried. He lasted a good day before the bottle was back on his bedside. It wasn’t until a heart attack and two hospitalizations later that he checked himself into rehab and got clean.

Despite the obvious harm it causes, we see alcohol consumption as commonplace in our society. Even underage drinking is practically accepted as a social norm, while the use of “hard” drugs like cocaine is associated with violence and deteriorating health. In reality, cocaine actually poses less harm to society than does alcohol. In fact, a study found that more deaths and injuries are caused by alcohol than any other drug, while cocaine indicated only slightly more harm to users than tobacco. However, alcohol can be purchased at your local grocery store while cocaine possession could land you up to five years of incarceration in Washington state.

Today’s drug sentencing laws simply do not reflect the potential harm of a drug. Many were created to drive out or demonize certain ethnic groups by targeting drugs associated with that community. Powder cocaine and crack cocaine are nearly chemically identical. However, possession of just one gram of crack warrants the same sentencing minimums as eighteen grams of powder cocaine. These differences only exist because crack cocaine use was historically tied to Black Americans. Combined with other factors such as police biases, these sentencing disparities lead Black Americans in Seattle to be 10.7 times more prone to drug arrests, even though rates of drug use have been found time and time again to be roughly equal among Blacks and Whites.

Once these individuals are incarcerated, they face a host of other issues besides just lost time. First, the individual being unable to work puts a financial burden on their family. Often times, this leaves mothers to raise children on their own, acting as the primary breadwinner for the family. In fact, one in nine Black children grow up with an incarcerated parent and are therefore at a financial and emotional disadvantage their classmates, making them more likely to perform poorly in school. As poverty increases risk factors for drug use, incarceration perpetuates the cycle of drug use by deepening the socioeconomic disparities that often lead to drug use in the first place.

Upon release, the incarcerated individual must attempt to reintegrate into society with the permanent label of “criminal” on their record. Every year, around 55,000 students are denied financial aid due to a prior drug conviction, making it all the more difficult to obtain an education and break generational cycles of poverty. These individuals also miss out on public assistance, lose their right to vote, and are denied from innumerable employment opportunities.

Proponents of such harsh sentencing for drug use argue that the fear of imprisonment keeps people from using drugs. However, a study actually found that after an astronomical increase in mandatory minimums for crack cocaine possession in the US, the drug continued to be used at the same rate. This demonstrates that the legality of a drug doesn’t actually affect how many people use it.

While drugs are undoubtedly a danger to society, harsh sentencing for drug use does nothing but deepen systematic socioeconomic barriers. As citizens, we must advocate for the reduction of mandatory minimums that do nothing to actually reduce drug use and reallocate state funding to offer treatment to individuals who need it.  Because had such sentencing laws existed for alcohol possession, my uncle would have traded his hospital gown for an orange jumpsuit.

Yasmin Byott

UW Student, Public Health 2020

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