To win the war on drugs, we must redefine ‘tough on crime’

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Over the past four decades, countless well-intentioned people have done hopeless battle with America’s shape-shifting drug epidemic. Nancy Reagan famously encouraged schoolchildren to “Just Say No” lawmakers got tough on crime by passing mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking; and more than a few prosecutors made their reputations with lock-‘em-up crusades.  

No matter one’s philosophical persuasion or political stripes, surely all would now agree that the war on drugs, as it has been waged so far, has been a costly failure. Its impact on both public safety and the size and scope of government leave little to be proud of. The price of this war can be counted in body bags, decimated families, lost generations of children and staggering costs to taxpayers.

{mosads}Drug abuse is a formidable enemy, and it’s understandable that our elected officials have long been determined to meet it with guns a-blazing. Many a politician has gained ground with voters by promising to be tough on crime. But the policies that defined tough on crime in the war on drugs have failed to advance our position on the battlefield. It’s past time to redefine what “tough on crime” means when it comes to the war on drugs.


In the time our nation has waged this “war,” we have dealt with rampant epidemics of cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, heroin, and most recently opioids. Policymakers responded with new mandatory minimum prison sentences, designed to ensure that even individuals in possession of small amounts of the targeted drug faced steep criminal sanctions. And still the scourge spread.

President Trump said that he would declare opioid abuse a national emergency, and he’s certainly right. The opportunity before us as a nation is to embrace a new battlefield strategy and finally gain some valuable ground. Past experience documents that tougher enforcement and widespread incarceration will not get us there.

The problem is this: Our nation has essentially criminalized addiction. Regular Americans with predictable human weaknesses develop entrenched addictions. When they get busted, possession of even a small number of pills can trigger statutory thresholds that cause these users to be charged as if they were drug kingpins.

While the lock-‘em-up mindset may be viscerally satisfying to some and make for good campaign trail rhetoric, it also creates terrible consequences for society — consequences far worse than anything caused by the individual users themselves.

Research has shown that the child of a prison inmate is seven times more likely to be incarcerated in the future than is the child of someone who does not spend time behind bars. By incarcerating small-time users, we have broken up families, greatly increased the likelihood that spouses and children will fall into the social services safety net, and set up a generation of children for failure. Addicts rarely receive effective drug treatment behind bars, and when they are released they have a diminished opportunity to build lives as productive members of society.

Founded on conservative free-market principles, The James Madison Institute embraces and promotes practical policies that produce limited government and economic freedom. While individuals who abuse drugs should and do suffer the consequences of their actions, medical science has proven that addiction is a disease that demands treatment. Driving up the cost of drugs or stiffening the penalties – market forces that work well in other applications – don’t serve to decrease demand for drugs by addicts.

Criminalizing addiction has the effect of dramatically expanding government by building a vast law enforcement, criminal justice and prison infrastructure to implement a “tough on crime” solution to what is effectively a medical problem. It’s time to acknowledge the absurdity of pursuing drug policies that don’t work but impose extraordinary financial and societal burdens.

We must change the rules of engagement. That means redefining what it means to be tough on crime in a way that helps the victims of opioids and other drugs. Public safety must always be at the forefront. And at the same time, public safety is better advanced when we successfully target those who flout the law to trap those victims in a lifetime of addiction.

Now that the president has taken the positive step of declaring opioid abuse a national emergency, we urge his administration to implement policies that will make a real difference. Public safety is not served when we ignore policies desperately in need of reform.

We must get rid of intractable mandatory minimum sentences for drug users, the kind that treat non-violent addicts the same as kingpins. By untying the hands of judges and allowing them discretion to issue sentences that fit the individual circumstances of each case, including expansion of drug courts and specialized treatment, we will save tax dollars and preserve families.

We also can take significant steps to reduce the harm associated with opioid abuse. Naloxone, a drug that is used by first responders to reverse opioid overdoses, should be made available directly to vulnerable populations. Users should also have access to drug testing kits to detect whether heroin has been cut with the dangerous, highly potent opioid fentanyl. And states should pass meaningful good samaritan laws to protect users who choose to call 911 during an overdose.

America’s opioid epidemic is the latest tragic battle in our long war on drugs. Like any effective field general, we must learn from experience and embrace new battle strategies that have a greater chance of success.

Our leaders need to know that they will not suffer political damage if they advocate measures in the war on drugs that are “smart on crime” — saving lives, promoting public safety, preserving families and shrinking government in the process.

J. Robert McClure, Ph.D., is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a statewide think tank based in Tallahassee, Florida, devoted to research and education on public policy issues.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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