The principal responsibility for the level of incarceration afflicting our society belongs to the drug laws and their enforcement. The statistics establish that responsibility. The Bureau of Prisons estimates that 46.6% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses – more than the numbers incarcerated for violent crimes, extortion and fraud, weapons and explosives offenses, sex crimes, immigration violations, and participation in organized crime combined. The available data indicates that this percentage results from the harsher sentences imposed on drug offenders relative to those convicted of other crimes. While drug offenders make up nearly half of the prison population, they make up only 32% of those convicted in federal court (down from 35% in 2004 and 41% in 1996). The problem is also significant in the states, with 21.2% of the prison population in Illinois, 16% in Texas, and 12% in New York consisting of those convicted primarily of drug offenses.
For some, including myself, the criminalizing of some mind-altering substances was a national policy blunder. The lessons of alcohol Prohibition and its enforcement have been forgotten, and what is an addiction and a health problem has become criminalized. The drug war has not significantly altered drug use, has created a billion dollar untaxed industry, and has sapped public resources dramatically. As of Fiscal Year 2016, the White House’s National Drug Control Budget estimates that the federal government spends $27.6 billion on anti-drug efforts, but the full cost of the drug war is a multiple of that amount, once state expenditures and related costs such as law enforcement and correctional personnel are included. In total, the Drug Policy Alliance puts the annual cost of the drug war at over $51 billion.
The legalization of marijuana in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska, and the recognition of its therapeutic value in the 23 states that permit some form of medical marijuana are signs that the laboratory of states is beginning to revise what has been the all-too-accepted wisdom of criminalization of mind-altering substances.