Blog Post

Punitive Reactions to Drug Use are the Problem

Jeremy Lesser

Deterrent punishment undermines a sense of connection, leaving young people feeling isolated and believing that the system is uneven, unfair, and cruel.” - Rodney Skager, author of DPA’s publication Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education and School Discipline.

As a victim of the war on drugs, I could not agree more with this statement. Reading the wisdom found in Beyond Zero Tolerance catapulted me back in time, to September 2009.

I was standing outside my college dorm room, coming back from a night out with friends.  I was headed toward my building, when suddenly I was pulled aside by my roommate, who was laughing: “There’s cops in our room.”

I began to panic.

“What are they doing?”I asked.

“They’re looking through your stuff. I’m sure it’s fine. Even if they find something, you won’t get in that much trouble,” he said.

I crawled around to the side of the building, and looked into my first-floor window. I saw four campus police looking through my belongings, and realized I was in serious trouble.

Up until that night, my drug use had been purely positive. My friends and I were interested in altering consciousness and seeing how different chemicals produced different effects.

Almost scientific in approach, we would actively discuss, document, and distribute ideas about what these psychoactives did, positively and negatively. We saw ourselves as truth-seekers.

To the law, we were criminals, not explorers.

The drugs weren’t legal, yet we never wanted to address the fears surrounding getting caught. That is, until one of us got caught.

Suddenly, we couldn’t pretend that the war on drugs was something outside of us. In one night, I was transformed from someone who used drugs, into someone who supposedly had a drug problem because I was caught with drugs.

I was quickly expelled from college, with no second chance, even though I had no previous marks on my record. I was told that if I ever returned to campus I would be immediately arrested.

Sent home, despondent and hopeless, I saw myself with only one option: use more drugs. Suddenly, I was consuming them more than ever before to numb out the pain of being kicked out of school.

The irony wasn’t lost on me, until it was, in a cloud filled haze of narcotic fury.

Luckily, I was accepted into another college just a few months later. I managed to fix myself and my situation, but not without permanent emotional scarring and a completely broken faith in the war on drugs.

Ultimately, punitive reactions to drug use lead nowhere positive. As Skager says: “Quality educators respect and care about the individual, even when disapproving of the behavior.”

It’s time to move beyond zero tolerance, once and for all, to create a system not run by fear and punishment, but instead collaboration and trust.

It’s time to let go of punishment, and embrace the need to educate.

Jeremy Lesser is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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