Drug War Prisoners

Given that the War on Drugs with its policy of mass imprisonment and violation of privacy and property rights has "failed," the issue is not how the Drug War can be fixed or made to work better but what will take its place. What policy could replace the bankrupt policy of the War on Drugs?

Abandonment of responsibility for the use and circulation of substances within a community is not a viable alternative. It would be possible to admit the underground economy in illegal drugs into the above-ground economy, that is to legalize their use and abolish the black market, but not without certain standards that can be enforced and relied on. Legalization does not imply surrender of responsibility.

Decriminalization may take the form of downgrading the priority of arresting people for the offense of using an illegal drug to the point of either ignoring the offense or treating it as a misdemeanor. The offense remains, but the punishment provided for by law is mitigated. Typically, decriminalization is a policy relating to the use of marijuana. In relation to the use of a drug such as heroin or cocaine it would be open to the same objection as conditions in today's black market where absent quality control can lead to death from overdose.

The policy of harm reduction is a mix of decriminalizing the use of so-called soft drugs (e.g. marijuana) and affording treatment to the users of so-called hard drugs (e.g. heroin and cocaine). Harm reduction policy reflects a concern for public health, lessening police concern where there is no demonstrable need for it and reducing the harm associated with more dangerous kinds of drugs. Harm reduction has the disadvantage of narrow-mindedness. It dwells on a concern for public health while ignoring other grounds on which the policy of a War on Drugs can be condemned. In particular, it ignores the harm to families and communities from the subjection of millions to long terms of imprisonment for the use illegal drugs. As Drug War prisoners remind us, prison is the greatest harm of all.

If anarchy or no policy, decriminalization, and harm reduction are each inadequate as a replacement for Drug War policy, what policy is adequate? The answer is regulation. Regulation implies a place for government in the distribution and consumption of presently illegal drugs, where a role for government can be rationally supported. Probably, there is no good case to be made for government control in the distribution or consumption of marijuana. Measures pertaining to the use of alcohol furnish the best model for regulation in the hard-drug category. Regulation is legalization of the use of presently illegal drugs with supervision by a branch of government, better state than federal, of matters such as purity and labeling. What works with alcohol could work with other drugs.

Legalization in the form of regulation, by itself, is not an adequate replacement for present Drug War policy. Legalization in the form of regulation is one leg of an adequate replacement, the others being realistic education, treatment for the addicted, and amnesty for Drug War prisoners. What follows should be viewed in the context of an all-round approach.

The NACDL Resolution
The RATE Program
Victims Not Criminals


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