Reform needed to continue America’s ‘War on Drugs’

To the Editor:

The United States has over 2.3 million Americans incarcerated in federal, state and local prisons today; this is more than any other country worldwide.

While the United States only accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population. This excessive number is largely accredited to the "War on Drugs." More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

The War on Drugs is a government campaign to end the import, manufacture, sale and use of illegal drugs. The War on Drugs came to term July 18, 1971, by President Richard Nixon after his message to Congress stating that drug abuse is "public enemy No. 1" However, the government is losing this war and here is why: The War on Drugs has not shown an impact on decreasing drug abuse rates, the war has caused tremendous overcrowding in the country’s prisons, and the war has cost American taxpayers and the government a fortune.

Since the War on Drugs has started, the United States has not seen a decline in drug abuse rates. In fact, there is more abuse today than there was in the 1970s when the War on Drugs was declared. The war is more concentrated on punishing the offenders and stopping the trade of illegal drugs rather than contributing to the reconstruction and bettering of the country’s rehabilitation and treatment centers, as well as educational programs. Without preventative measures like treatment, rehab and educational programs, the drug abuse rate will continue to rise. Just under 96 percent of federal drug offenders in America receive a prison sentence and on average that sentence is six years long; just a few years shy of the average sentence of nine years for all other federal crimes. Due to the fact the War on Drugs has implemented strict punishments for drug offenders, the U.S. has seen a 900 percent increase in incarceration rates since 1980, causing significant overcrowding in our country’s prisons.

Overcrowding in the country’s prisons is shown to be tremendously dangerous not only for the inmates but as well as the guards, staff and the prison system itself. The significant increase in inmates has left the federal prison system no choice but to double and triple bunk cells, turn common space into sleeping quarters, decreasing sentences of all inmates (including dangerous ones), and limit the out-of-cell time the inmates get, such as meal times, time in the recreational yard and the time spent recovering from their addiction.

Overcrowding is leading to an increase in violence in the prisons. The inmates have little to no privacy and are constantly congested with each other that it is causing chaos and tension resulting in more ferocity in the prisons. The prison system now has to focus more on security measures and less on rehabilitation.

Not only have we seen an increase in violence but we have also seen a rise in the spread of infectious disease in prisons, such as the latest Legionnaires outbreak in the San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco. This prison had to operate without running water to stop the spread of this infectious disease. Infectious disease outbreaks such as this are very expensive for the prison system. However, the War on Drugs has cost more of a fortune than any infectious outbreak.

Over the course of four decades, American taxpayers have spent over $1 trillion on the drug war. The more money our nation spends on the drug war, the less money our nation has to spend on more serious crimes and other expenses. On average, it costs almost $29,000 to keep one inmate in prison per year, resulting in the nation spending around $70 billion on inmate incarceration each year. We also spend an additional $51 billion annually on the War on Drugs.

In order for a transformation of the War on Drugs to occur, our country needs to reconsider punishments for low-level, first-time drug offenders. Over half of all convicted federal drug offenders have little or no criminal record and only about 15 percent of them had a weapon involved in the offense, yet 60 percent are subjected to a mandatory minimum sentencing. If we focused more on treatment and prevention of drug abuse instead of punishment and control, we would decrease drug abuse rates, decrease wasteful spending on incarceration and decrease overcrowding in our country’s prisons. We need to reduce the enormous number of people behind bars for low-level drug law violations and start shifting spending from failed policies and toward drug treatment plans and educational programs.

As a resident of Merrimack, I want you to think about what you can do to stop the War on Drugs.

Meghan Pinkham
19-year-old resident of Merrimack
Undergrad at the
University of New Hampshire