The United States is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of its prisoners. This is due in part to the overly harsh consequences of drug convictions. Over 1.6 million people are arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, placed under criminal justice supervision and/or deported each year on a drug law violation.
But mass incarceration is just one part of the overall system of mass criminalization, enabled in large part by the war on drugs.
The culture of mass criminalization is one in which aggressive policing and incarceration are our default tools for dealing with a wide array of social problems that can and should be solved by other means. These punitive approaches far exceed what is necessary to maintain public safety and primarily target poor people and people of color.
"Mass incarceration is one outcome of the culture of criminalization. Criminalization includes the expansion of law enforcement and the surveillance state to a broad range of activities and settings: zero tolerance policies in schools that steer children into the criminal justice system; welfare policies that punish poor mothers and force them to work outside of the home; employment practices that require workers to compromise their basic civil liberties as a prerequisite for a job; immigration policies that stigmatize and humiliate people while making it difficult for them to access essential services like health care and housing." – Deborah Small, Executive Director of Break the Chains
The criminalization of drugs is frequently how people first encounter the criminal justice system. People are stopped by police on drug-related pretexts as part of “stop and frisk,” or because an officer claims to smell marijuana, or simply because they look poor and are in an area associated with drug use.
Relying on the criminal justice system to address issues with drugs wastes money, creates a toxic relationship between the police and the communities they are supposed to protect, and does nothing to address problematic drug use.
The U.S. is in the throes of a deadly overdose crisis that claimed almost 70,000 lives in 2018. Of those, around 30,000 deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Legislators have dusted off the drug war playbook and proposed a variety of new punitive measures including new mandatory minimum sentences, homicide charges, involuntary commitment, expanded powers for prosecutors and more. The trend toward tougher penalties for fentanyl presents a threat to the criminal justice reform movement, undercutting initiatives to reduce mass criminalization and incarceration.
If we want to keep communities – including people who use drugs – safe, we need to focus less on criminalization and more on finding non-criminalizing ways to address issues in communities.
We need to recognize that discriminatory policies have unjustly criminalized communities of color and then advance policies to repair those harms. Exposing and combating the racism of the drug war is an important part of dismantling it.
Drug decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for drug use, possession, and ideally low-level drug sales. This would reduce prison and especially jail costs and begin the hard work to prioritize harm reduction over punishment.
Police regularly stop, search, and arrest people of color for minor drug-related activities that are not seen as a law enforcement concern when they take place in white communities. For example, black people and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. They are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Experts believe that stigma and racism may play a major role in police-community interactions.
We need to alter the rules of engagement by ending these aggressive law enforcement practices that result in the unjust criminalization of people of color and the erosion of police-community relations. Instead we need to increase harm reduction practices and public health access within communities of color to reduce the harms associated with drug use and ineffective drug policies.
The stigma associated with drug use and addiction has resulted in policies that systematically discriminate against drug users and sellers. We can reduce this stigma by advocating for compassionate, judgment-free approaches to drug use and dependency. The label of “user” or “seller” and resulting policies often prevent a case-by-case approach to the varied and complex realities of drug use and sales.
While fighting for decriminalization of drug use and possession, we must also fight for the decriminalization of those people who have already gotten caught up in the prohibitionist system. This means supporting policies that retroactively reduce drug sentences for those currently in prison, or expunge old criminal records for those who have already been released.
The criminalization of drugs is closely linked to the criminalization of immigrants, especially those without American citizenship. For noncitizens, possession of any amount of any drug can trigger automatic detention and deportation – often without the possibility of return. No one should be deported for drug possession.
The Drug Policy Alliance works to end the drug war by partnering with organizations like The Ordinary People Society (T.O.P.S.). Pastor Kenneth Glasgow is founder and president of T.O.P.S., a faith-based organization in Dothan, Alabama that provides programs and services to people and their families that have been impacted by incarceration, drug addiction, poverty and homelessness.