TRENTON -- The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization working to promote alternatives to the war on drugs, has opened an office in Trenton in response to a crisis in New Jersey's drug policies.
"Our explicit objective is transforming New Jersey from one of the worst states in the country on drug policy into one of the best," said Roseanne Scotti, director of Drug Policy Alliance's New Jersey Drug Policy Project. "This is an economic issue, a public health issue, a racial justice issue."
While pushing for new legislation in New Jersey addressing the problems caused by the state's failed drug policies, the three main issues that Scotti plans to focus her attention on are the following:
Ballooning number of incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses in New Jersey. New Jersey ranks first among the fifty states in terms of the proportion of new prison admissions who are drug offenders. Thirty-six percent of New Jersey's inmates are incarcerated on nonviolent offenses, a figure that is up from 25 percent in 1990 and 11 percent in 1987. Treatment has been shown to be far more effective than incarceration in ameliorating the damage of drug abuse to the individual and society.
Because a disproportionate percentage of those arrested for nonviolent drug offenses are black, New Jersey's current sentencing laws have torn apart communities while its history of racial profiling has tarnished the state's reputation. Although African Americans make up only 15 percent of the state's population, they account for 81 percent of admissions to prisons for drug offenses.
Waste of money the drug war costs New Jersey taxpayers, especially in a year of severe budget constraints. It costs New Jersey about $28,000 a year to incarcerate an individual. With nearly 10,000 people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, the total cost comes to $300 million, about a quarter of the state's total corrections budget. It only costs about $5,000 to provide effective drug treatment to those who seek it.
"Spending huge sums on locking up nonviolent offenders is nonsense. It's a colossal waste of money," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Alliance. "New Jersey taxpayers are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a failed and counterproductive war on drugs at the same time that the state government is confronting one of the largest budget deficits in its history."
Incipient public health crisis in New Jersey precipitated by lack of treatment programs and syringe availability, which reduces the spread of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C. New Jersey is almost alone among the fifty states in not allowing any form of legal access to sterile syringes for injecting drug users, notwithstanding the overwhelming scientific evidence that these programs reduce the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. It has the fifth highest adult HIV rate in the nation, the third highest pediatric HIV rate, and an exploding epidemic of hepatitis C. Fifty percent of HIV cases are related to injecting drug use, which in many cases could have been prevented with effective programs to make sterile syringes available. New Jersey has one of the highest rates of HIV among women in the nation, and more than 22,000 children in the state are orphaned by AIDS.
"When you look at those statistics -- and when you see the public health catastrophe caused by New Jersey's drug laws -- it should be obvious how to start fixing the problem," said Nadelmann. "New Jersey's misguided drug policies have precipitated an unparalleled public health crisis in the state."
With legal access to clean syringes to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, people like Michele, whose father contracted HIV from sharing a dirty needle, won't have to grow up without a father.
"The message that was sent to me was that my father's life didn't matter," said Michele, whose father death from AIDS when she was just 18. She believes his death could have been prevented if New Jersey had spent less on incarcerating nonviolent offenders and more on effective treatment and syringe availability.