Drug War-Should we Incarcerate or Rehabilitate?

by Eric Dunbar

War on Drugs

America’s drug war focuses on illegal drugs, like marijuana, opium, coca, and psychedelics. People of color have used these drugs for thousands of years for medical and spiritual purposes. Declaring a drug legal or illegal has little to do with the scientific assessment of these drugs. It has everything to do with the people who uses these drugs.

Anti-opium laws of the 1870s aimed at Chinese immigrants suppressed the Chinese. Anti-cocaine laws, in the South in the early 1900s, suppressed black men. Anti-marijuana laws, in the Midwest and the Southwest in the 1910s and 20s, only suppressed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Latino and black communities are subject to disproportionate drug enforcement and sentencing practices.

Brief History Behind the Drug War

America’s drug war has deep roots in racism against people of color and the incarceration of these ethnicities. The drug war in America began in the 1870s. The first anti-drug laws passed in San Francisco in 1875. Although rooted in anti-immigrant sentiment, the city enacted the first legislation against smoking opium. The U.S. west coast was flooded with Chinese immigrants. Smoking opium was associated with Chinese culture. The Anti-Opium Act of 1909 did not outlaw other forms of opium use because white Americans used those methods.

In the 1800s public concern in the drug shifted once more. Cocaine, the preferred drug in white neighborhoods, went almost unnoticed. Media attention shifted full blast on Crack.Crack cocaine, a smokable form of cocaine was popular in black neighborhoods.

Cannabis was renamed marijuana, a term created to make cannabis sound Mexican. In the 1930s, narcotics agents supposedly chose the word marijuana to replace the scientific name cannabis in order to craft drug laws. The word marijuana is of Mexican-Spanish origin. Agents believed it sounded more exotic and sinister, thus the new term for cannabis was born.

Drug War Campaigns

In June 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a nationwide drug war on illicit drugs. The Nixon Administration pushed for mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. Nixon placed marijuana in the most restrictive category of drugs—Schedule I.

Between 1973 and 1977, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Parents concerned about high rates of teen marijuana use abandoned proposals to decriminalize marijuana.

Ronald Reagan presidency expanded the war on drugs and was the start of increasing incarceration rates. Incarceration for non-violent drug offenders rose sharply from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Reagan’s wife, Nancy Reagan, began a highly publicized anti-drug campaign. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign set the stage for zero tolerance policies.

“Just Say No”

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was a total disaster. Reagan was oblivious to the reality of drug use. “Just Say No” falsely implied that illegal drugs were dangerous and legal drugs were not. The campaign made no mention of the inherent dangers of prescribed drugs. “Just Say No” demonized drug users and gave way to escalating incarceration rates and cruel sentencing requirements.

“Just Say No”, fundamentally misguided from the start, shaped many of today’s drug policies. It led to millions of unjustified arrests and prison sentences. The imposition of prison sentences on people of color was grotesquely disproportionate. But near the end of Reagan’s presidency, Americans could see that the widely publicized “Just Say No” campaign just did not work.


Zero tolerance policies of “Just Say No” gave birth to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). Intended to prevent the use of controlled drugs, gang membership, and violent behavior, the program had opposite effects.

DARE was founded by Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates. Gates confused threats with education. “Casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” said Gates. Can you imagine that? Gates’ idea of drug abuse resistance education was shooting non-violent casual drug users. It is no wonder why DARE was a flop. It is impossible to educate people by threatening them.

Effects of America’s Drug War

There are 6 million more people under correctional supervision in America today than in the Gulag Archipelago, a Soviet forced labor camp under Stalin’s dictatorship. More than half of incarcerated Americans are in prison for drug-related offenses. In 2009, 166 million Americans were arrested on drug charges. Minorities make up a disproportionately large part of those incarcerated for drug offenses, despite the fact that minorities don’t use drugs any more than white Americans.

Before Ronald Reagan’s drug war 150 of every 100,000 Americans were incarcerated. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, today, 707 of every 100,000 people are incarcerated the United States. In Germany, that number is 76 per 100,000. 140 per 100,000 in Spain. In China 124 per 100,000 people. America ranks number one, meaning, we’re better at putting people in cages than any other country.

With all of the supposedly “dangerous drug offenders” locked up, you would think that drug use and drug addiction would have decreased. But after spending over $1.5 trillion on America’s drug war, drug use and drug addiction have remained about the same.

Excessive Punishment for Non-violent Drug Offenders

There are 28 states that enforce a “three-strikes law” for repeat offenders.This law mandates a 25 years-to-life prison sentence for anyone who received three felonies in their lifetime. The states that carry three-strikes laws are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The main reason for a spike in prison population is that politicians wanting to be tough on crime extend sentences for crimes undeserving of such long sentences. For example, a person convicted of stealing DVDs could receive 25 years-to-life in prison.Is it really worth $45,000 per year of taxpayer money to incarcerate a non-violent offender?

Arrest Rates

The rates of arrest for non-violent drug offenses like marijuana possession are indeed racially biased. In Louisiana, African Americans are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites. The numbers tell the story: 61 percent of marijuana arrests are African American while only 32 percent of Louisiana’s population is African American.

Many Americans agree that a person arrested for possessing a joint should not be sentenced to prison time. But despite this, Louisiana has done the unthinkable. 48-year-old Bernard Noble was sentenced to 13-years and 4 months of hard labor in prison without parole for possessing the equivalent of 2 marijuana cigarettes.

Noble was initially sentenced to five years in prison. But the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office, headed by Leon Cannizzaro, appealed that ruling and took the case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately decided to give Noble the maximum possible sentence of 13-years and 4-months.

Possessing marijuana is a non-violent offense. A 13-year sentence for possessing a single bud of marijuana is ridiculously obscene and is certainly unproportionate to the crime.

The Cost of Incarceration Outweighs the Cost of Education

Louisiana has 40000 people on lockdown. It costs about $20,000 per year to house a prisoner in the state of Louisiana. But Louisiana has a lot of elderly prisoners incarcerated which costs the state roughly $80,000 per year, per prisoner.

The cost of education at a state university in Louisiana is on average $11,000 per year. It will cost the state of Louisiana $265,000 to incarcerate Bernard Noble for a non-violent crime. The only person Mr. Noble could do harm to was himself.

Hypothetically, the state could fine Mr. Noble for his crime and offer to educate and help him overcome his need for marijuana him instead of incarcerating him. The state and the citizens of Louisiana would benefit greatly. It would cost the state of Louisiana an estimated $80,000 to rehabilitate and educate Mr. Noble. He would then be eligible to pay taxes on the money he earns and goods and services he uses. Such a move would potentially save Louisiana about $185,000.

Reasoning Behind Incarcerating Non-violent Drug Offenders

How can we justify the 13-year sentencing of Bernard Noble, an employed father with no history of any serious or violent crime? A 13-year sentence with hard labor for low-level marijuana possession is ridiculous, that is unless your business is incarcerating people.

Prisons are big business in America. Private prisons are responsible for America’s over-incarceration problem.Although less than 10 percent of people incarcerated are in private institutions, states like New Mexico and Idaho incarcerate more than a third of their prisoners in private institutions. These private institutions are becoming increasingly common, and unless we do something now, they will be a widespread problem in the near future.

Private prisons are for-profit businesses. Their profit is based on taking in convicted criminals. To add to the problem powerful prison guard unions lobby to put more people in prison to support their livelihoods.

In my opinion, the only people to profit from the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders are the owners of private prisons. It does nothing to help crime, and it destroys families. People who use drugs are struggling to overcome a problem that very little is known about. We must get to a place of helping non-violent drug offenders instead of punishing them by locking them up in a cage.

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