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A Growing Number of Americans: Drug Abuse Is a Health Issue, Not a Crime

Other countries, like Canada and Switzerland, have shown how the shifting opinion can result in action.
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(Photo: florin oprea/Shutterstock)

(Photo: florin oprea/Shutterstock)

While no one thinks drug addiction is a good thing, more and more people are starting to think that the war on drugs—a war that costs U.S. taxpayers $51 billion per year—needs a fresh approach.

Ever since President Nixon deemed drug abuse "public enemy number one" back in 1971, the U.S. prison population has grown by 700 percent. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2011 nearly half of all inmates in federal prison were serving time for drug offenses, while the Washington Postnotes that 20 percent of all inmates in state prison are currently there for similar reasons, making drug-related activity the most prevalent crime at the state level. Indeed, Timereports that from 1980 to 1996 drug convictions increased from 15 to 148 inmates per 100,000 adults. In 2009 alone, authorities arrested 1.66 million Americans on drug charges—four out of five of those being merely for possession.

By reframing the issue as a health problem, Americans appear to finally be moving in the direction many other countries have been for quite some time.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, today just over two-thirds of the public believe the government should focus less on prosecution and more on providing treatment for people who abuse substances such as cocaine and heroin. Furthermore, 76 percent of the study's participants think that those convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should receive no jail time, and 63 percent stated that they were glad some states had scrapped the idea of mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders altogether.

“The public is definitely pretty far ahead of politicians,” Jag Davies, publications manager at the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, toldAl Jazeera upon the study's release. “Elected officials have been so scared for so long, but they’re starting to realize it’s to their benefit to reevaluate (their policies).”

Case in point: U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is presently championing both a proposal that would reduce federal prison sentences for drug dealers and another that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Part of this push comes from budgetary woes, naturally, but also concerns over civil rights. According to the NAACP, while five times as many white Americans report using illicit drugs compared to black Americans, members of the latter group are sent to prison for drug-related crimes at 10 times the rate of the former.

Individual states are also adjusting to this shift in attitude toward drug abuse. Burdened with prisons that house the vast majority of U.S. convicts, Pew reports that between 2009 and 2013 40 states acted to ease their drug laws. This includes moves to shorten mandatory minimums, lower penalties for possession and the use of illegal drugs, and either establish or extend the presence of drug courts or other alternatives to the conventional criminal justice system.

But back to this idea of preferring treatment for those who struggle with drug abuse as opposed to punishment. By reframing the issue as a health problem, Americans appear to finally be moving in the direction many other countries have been for quite some time. Canada, for example, has the continent's only legal supervised injection site, where addicts can consume their drug of choice in the presence of nurses, guidance counselors, and social workers. Switzerland has seen a reduction in crime and disease after implementing a state-sponsored heroin-assisted treatment program. In recent years, even the United Nations has begun leaning toward harm-reduction policies that emphasize medical treatment over incarceration. And considering that a large portion of mentally ill Americans are caught up in the justice system when what they really need is a bed in a health care facility, it makes sense to re-evaluate why so many people are finding themselves behind bars and for what purposes.

According to the Pew survey, 87 percent of people think drug abuse in the United States is either a "crisis" or "serious problem." Just because members of the public now favor treatment doesn't mean they've gone soft on the war on drugs or think it's an unimportant issue. When the use of painkillers leads to what some are calling a "heroin epidemic" in New England, it's not that they don't care. Rather, it's a change in tactics after decades of the old method have proven ineffective.