Policy Brief: The End of The War On Drugs, Decriminalization and The New Era

The policy that will be discussed throughout this brief will be Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act. This act prohibits the unauthorized possession, manufacturing, distributing or dispensing of controlled substances. This policy dates back to the 1970’s, when the United States declared a war, against drugs and subsequently drug users. This policy also decides that drugs and drug use, is a criminal act. (Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act – Section 801-971, n.d.)

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States spends approximately $26 billion a year on its war on drugs, whose aim is to apprehend and punish drug dealers and users. However, ten percent of all arrests are for nonviolent drug offenses and forty percent of drug arrests are for possession of marijuana, a now legal substance. Drug offenders account for 25 percent of the U.S. prison population, largely due to the war on drugs. (American Civil Liberties Union, n.d.)

While the scope can be seen through a national lense, it is important to note that regardless of racial patterns in drug use not being markedly different, nonwhites account for almost 75 percent of drug offenders in prison, making the nonwhite population the most affected in the war on drugs and policies created in its shadow.  

While the ideology behind criminalizing drugs was to end drug sales, four times as many people are arrested for merely possessing drugs in comparison to those arrested for selling them, and that is without the statistic of who may be selling drugs to support an addiction of their own. A criminal record may mean the user is less likely to find a job, secure housing, obtain welfare assistance, and in some instances take away rights such as voting. (Mass Incarceration and Criminalization, n.d.)

When it comes to substance abuse, it is hard for most to fathom that the drug user is facing a violation of their human rights due to the stigma that surrounds the disease. However, in criminalizing substance use the United States government is violating three different articles within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” and Article 5 states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Lastly Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

First and foremost, security of a person can be seen as a prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, which brings into play Article 5 as well. Cruel and unusual punishment is explained as punishments that are arbitrary, unnecessary, overly severe compared to the crime, they are seen as unacceptable due to the pain, suffering or humiliation that is subject to punishment. Putting people with a classified disease into a jail cell due to nonviolent drug crimes while in active withdrawal, stop and frisk in low income neighborhoods or based on racial bias, and disregard towards those using drugs as less than, can all be seen as humiliating, painful and overly severe when compared to the crime of using drugs to support a disease that is telling the user they must keep using. 

When the government focuses on jailing and criminalizing a diseased human, it can be seen as cruel and degrading punishment as well as taking away someone’s security. Security of a person can be defined as freedom from danger, fear and anxiety; safety of a person. 

The right to life is more self explanatory, it means that we all have the right to live and shall not be killed by another entity, including the government. Through this Article, the decriminalization of drug use for the drug drug users, is a basic human right. While some may be weary when thinking about how drug use may equate to basic human need, it can be simplified with the thought that A) specific drug withdrawals can be deadly and criminalizing and jailing the user is denying them the right to life, as we would not criminalize insulin for the diabetic and jail them B) the system is racially biased as evidence by the aforementioned statistics, which violates people of colors right to security and liberty, as well as other issues within inequality. (Stauffer, 2016)

We do not get to decide whether or not these people are diseased or struggling morally, it is their right to be treated as other human beings. 

Addiction is classified in the DSM IV and by the CDC as a disease, and the U.S has no other disease that could land someone in jail. Turning drug users into criminals, specifically for nonviolent offenses, is more than just a violation of the right to life and security, it is a blatant disregard for years of scientific research proving that addiction is a disease and not a bad choice. The decriminalization of drugs would remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession. This would reduce prison and especially jail costs and begin the hard work to prioritize harm reduction over punishment. 

In the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, drug use was not an issue that the government had its hands in, in fact cocaine use and opium use were actually popular. This was until the federal government created a regulating body, now known as the DEA. Federal control of drugs began in the early 20th century as a response to growing levels of drug abuse. The government first began to regulate and control drug use through taxation. The Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 (Harrison Act; P.L. 63-223), required importers, manufacturers, and distributors of cocaine and opium to register with the U.S.“The law was subject to interpretation. The Treasury viewed patient drug maintenance using these substances as beyond medical scope, and many physicians were arrested, prosecuted, and jailed.” (Sacco, 2014)

Under authority of the Harrison Act, the Narcotic Division of the Internal Revenue Bureau closed down state and city narcotic clinics and sent drug violators to federal penitentiaries. Enforcement agents were referred to as “narcs.” Ultimately, physicians stopped prescribing drugs covered under the act.” (Sacco, 2014)

Once the government began regulating drug use, the policies became biased towards drug users. The Boggs Act (P.L. 82-255), passed in 1951, which created mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses, then there was the 1956 Narcotic Control Act (P.L. 84- 728) which further increased penalties for drug offenses and established the death penalty as punishment for selling heroin to youth. (Sacco, 2014)

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (1986 Act; P.L. 99-570) was a significant development in pursuing enforcement action against the illicit synthetic drug trade. Among other things, it amended the CSA to allow for controlled substance analogues55 (intended for human consumption) to be treated as Schedule I substances. It also established criminal penalties for simple possession of a controlled substance. (Sacco, 2014)

Current policies do not drastically differ from the policies created over 30 years ago. Drug use is still considered a criminal act, and many people that struggle with addiction find themselves in jail cells and not in treatment centers. These policies have shaped how American’s view addiction. When the law, the government, and Presidents, such as Nixon who began the “War on Drugs”, creates a deep rooted stigma within state and local regulating bodies, such as police or EMTs, as well as people within the state and local community. The stigma that these laws have created have negatively impacted those who suffer with the disease of addiction, it turns their disease into a criminal act and instead of medication and treatment, they end up arrested and judged by society, by friends, by family, and by themselves.

Oregon has taken a brave first step in not only changing archaic policies for modern times, but in creating positive, non criminal, outcomes for those struggling with the disease of addiction. In 2020, Oregon decriminalized all drugs, meaning that those arrested with drugs for personal use will be given a ticket, or they will be given the opportunity to enter drug treatment. This change in policy is my personal recommendation for all state governments. The issue at hand is that Americans have criminalized drugs and in that criminalization, have made being a substance abuser an illegal act that deserves jail time. As time has passed, research has been done to prove that substance abuse is not a “bad choice” but a disease, just like diabetes, lung cancer, or herpes. There is no policy set in place that would make any of these diseases a criminal act, and it is time to change policies surrounding drugs and drug use, to reflect the facts and research that states it is a disease. 

Outside of a policy to decriminalize drugs and drug use, a second policy I would recommend is a policy forgiving non violent drug related charges that have happened since the mid 20th century. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people that have been institutionalized due to crimes such as possession of marijuana, or even selling marijuana, a now legal substance in many states. By institutionalizing, I am speaking particularly about people who have been in and out of the system, people who were in the system and now unable to live productively on their own. 

The government needs to fix some of the damage they have done to men and women, in particular those of color, who have been negatively affected and even continue to be affected by these laws and acts today. Whether it is expunging records, creating scholarship programs, or vocational training, job placement, or a forgiveness fund, something must be done to rectify what has happened.

Changes to policies, especially regarding drugs and drug use, can feel or sound foreign. Americans have grown up in a time where drug use and criminality are practically synonymous. Without a change in the policies surrounding drugs and drug users, there will never be empathy for those addicted, we will continue to debate the fact that addiction is a disease, and the war on drugs will never be over


American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Against Drug Prohibition. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/other/against-drug-prohibition

Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2000 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001 ) R. MacCoun and P. Reuter, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times, and Places (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 ). 

Mass Incarceration and Criminalization. (n.d.). Drug Policy Alliance. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://drugpolicy.org/issues/mass-criminalization

Sacco, L. N. (2014, October). Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends. Congressional Research Service. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43749.pdf

Stauffer, B. (2016, October 6). Every 25 Seconds. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/12/every-25-seconds/human-toll-criminalizing-drug-use-united-states

 Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act – Section 801-971. (n.d.). Https://Www.Deadiversion.Usdoj.Gov/21cfr/21usc/Index.Html. November 22, 2020, from https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/21cfr/21usc/index.html

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