What’s Going On With U.S. Drug Policy?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from AP Government this year, it’s that the state of America’s political system could not be in more disarray than it is in the status quo. From divisive politicians to discord between federal, state, and local legislators, it is a tumultuous time to be alive in America, and this turbulence is best reflected in U.S. drug policy. Should drugs be legalized? Decriminalized? What do these words even mean? Are some drugs acceptable and others not? Why are changes in drug policy happening now? More and more Americans and politicians alike are starting to question the role of drugs in America in regards to industry, structural violence, racism, safety, and more, and I’m here to break down and answer some of these most frequently asked questions about the past, present, and future of U.S. drug policy.
Where to Begin?
Let’s start with some definitions, beginning with the classifications of drug tolerance.
Legalization is defined by Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) as “remov[ing] all penalties for possession and personal use of a drug. Regulations are typically established to manage where and how the legal drug can be produced, sold, and consumed. Criminal or civil penalties may apply if production, sale or consumption occur outside of regulations. An example of a legalised drug is alcohol.” Not only does this definition explain what drug legalization is, but it also foreshadows what drug policy might look like in a post-legalized world.
Decriminalization, in the context of drug policy, is defined by the ADF as “not legalization. If drug possession and personal use are decriminalised, it is still illegal to possess and use drugs. Selling and manufacturing drugs still carry criminal penalties.” Under a decriminalized drug policy, manufacturers and users of drugs are still engaging in illegal activities, but their punishments when caught are not as severe as it would be today. In a decriminalized drug world, individuals caught with the possession of drugs could have to pay a fine, but they aren’t at any risk of receiving jail time. Oregon is an example of a state that has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs.
What’s the Difference?
The main difference between the legalization and decriminalization of drugs is the state of legality under which drugs are classified. That is, in a world where drugs are legalized, their status shifts from illegal, the classification of most drugs in the modern day, to legal. Conversely, in a world where drugs are decriminalized, they are still classified as illegal, but the severity of punishment is not as high as it is today.
What is the Current Drug Policy in the U.S.?
This is where the division among federal, state, and local governments begins to shine through. Simply put, U.S. drug policy is not uniform across the country, even though the federal government intends it to be. According to federal law, the “possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs is prohibited” and “strict penalties are provided for drug convictions, including mandatory prison terms for many offenses.” Since the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, all hard drugs, drugs that are deemed dangerous based on their potential for abuse or user liability, were classified into a five schedule tier of illegality.
Source: The Recovery Research Institute
This classification still holds true today, enforced by the federal government on all government property.
What about Marijuana?
As of January 2022, 18 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have enacted recreational marijuana legalization measures, which means over 145 million Americans live in a state with legalized marijuana. Even more so, a majority of states have legalized medical marijuana, which means that individuals can grow, harvest, and use marijuana for its medicinal purposes as long as it is prescribed by a doctor. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2021, a staggering 91% of American adults believe marijuana should be federally legalized in one form or another, with 60% believing it should be legal for both medical and recreational use, and 31% believing it should be legal for medical use only.
Source: Britannica ProCon
How can this be the case? The complex, convoluted system of irregularities among state marijuana tolerance can be boiled down to the political topic of federalism. That is, states have their own autonomy to create legislation without approval or adherence to the federal government’s laws. We see aspects of federalism in all parts of daily life. It’s why tax rates, voter qualifications, and public education vary from state to state. The role of federalism has changed throughout the course of American history, as sometimes the federal government is more powerful than state governments, and at other times the opposite is true.
Why is Change Happening Now?
For decades, the United States federal government has enforced an initiative to combat and eliminate illegal drug use. This initiative and the era of its enforcement is widely known as the War on Drugs. While the War on Drugs officially began during the Nixon Administration with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, hard drugs were strictly banned and/or regulated in the U.S. decades before that, with the passage legislation such as the Harrison Act, 18th Amendment, and Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, to name a few. Following a massive upheaval of illicit drug use in the late 1960s, President Nixon found it necessary to target and eliminate substance abuse. With the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973, the War on Drugs was in full swing. The History Channel notes that “at the start, the DEA was given 1,470 special agents and a budget of less than $75 million. Today, the agency has nearly 5,000 agents and a budget of $2.03 billion.”
The War on Drugs has only fueled Americans' fears about drugs and their addicts, and was further prolonged by Congress’s passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established incarceration as a minimum punishment for certain drug offenses. The War on Drugs is structurally intertwined with America; this government-led initiative has perpetuated harmful violence and injustice in American society.
What are the Main Consequences of the War on Drugs?
In short, mass incarceration and racially-motivated inequalities within the system are the two biggest consequences of the War on Drugs. Throughout the late 20th century and through the modern era, drug-related offenses remain to be responsible for millions of prison sentences. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, drug-related offenses account for the incarceration of half a million people and one million drug possession arrests per year. Approximately one in five incarcerated people are locked up for drug offenses. This high rate of incarceration has led to over-policing and the profiting of private and public businesses through prison contracting and the privatization of the system. Furthermore, and even more troubling, the War on Drugs is racially motivated to lock up Blacks and minorities at a higher rate compared to Whites. The American Civil Liberties Union found in 2021 that “a Black person is almost four times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide” and according to the Crime and Justice Research Alliance, “by age 22, African-Americans had 83% greater odds of a drug arrest than whites[,] and at age 27 this disparity was 235%.” Even in this day and age, it is clear that the system is designed to incarcerate blacks and minorities. This notion is further corroborated by a 1994 interview of President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, where he is quoted saying ““We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” The War on Drugs and the government’s continued enforcement of this prejudiced system is clear evidence of systemic racism in the United States. America is not a country of equal opportunity and equal enforcement of the law and punishment. Action must be taken to end the War on Drugs.
Where Do We Go From Here?
How can America end the War on Drugs and transition to a better, more equal drug policy? Should drugs be legalized? Decriminalized? In drug systems such as these, we see initiatives where government money is allocated towards rehabilitation and addiction recovery centers, education programs, and quality control of drugs to ensure that the public is properly educated and users have opportunities to recover, or safely wean off of their addictions. Moreover, in drug systems such as these, the harms of mass incarceration are solved, as police cannot make arrests for drug manufacturing, distribution, possession, or use under a legalized system, or at least individuals cannot face prison sentences under a decriminalized system.
On the contrary, these systems have major consequences as well. How will legalization or decriminalization affect usage among adults and teenagers? How will an influx in drugs affect drug trafficking, tourism, and cartels? How might the United States regulate the growth of an industry as large as the drug industry? These are questions that both Americans and politicians alike face when it comes to the future of drug policy. Can we recover from our tumultuous history with drugs, and how might a change in policy affect all sectors and societies of the United States? Let me know what you think, and how the U.S. should approach the future of drug policy.