Legalize It–Like, All of It

“In this regard, I thought, the people of Beeville had come to believe about crime in the 1990s what Americans had believed about communism in the 1950s: that its threat lurked everywhere at all times, and could be stemmed only by the creation of a vast military-industrial complex—except that now it was a prison-industrial complex… [Sentencing reform] laws have been almost single-handedly responsible for the soaring federal prison population. In 1987…there were only 44,000 federal prisoners. By 2000, there were nearly 140,000. Most—59 percent—are serving time for drug offenses.” – Joseph Hallinan, Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation

I recently read excerpts of Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph Hallinan, among many other pieces on prisons in the United States, for some of my classes. Almost every reading mentions the War on Drugs and the subsequent massive increase in prison population (see figure). If you take more than five seconds to think about what happened between the beginning of the War on Drugs and today, you’ll realize that society today is no more dangerous than it was in the 1980s (let’s be honest–it’s probably a whole lot safer). Crime has not become a sudden issue. Drugs have not become a sudden issue. We just started cracking down on drug possession, use, and distribution to the point that it would appear that we have an uncontrollable drug pandemic on our hands.

Arrests cost money. Public defenders, judges, courtrooms cost money. Holding cells, jails, prisons cost money. Food, health care, heat, education, rehabilitation cost money. What if we’re not just spending money on these things but wasting money?

That’s when it occurred to me. All drugs in the United States should be legalized. Here’s why. Since the 1980s—the onset of the “war on drugs”—the proportion of drug offenders in prisons has risen so dramatically that today, about half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses. (Joseph Hallinan’s figures are dated; his book was published over a decade ago.) If about 90,000 federal prisoners are drug offenders and each costs approximately $30,000 per annum, these offenders alone cost the government about $2.7 billion a year—to say nothing of state- and local-level inmates who cost money to their respective states, counties, and municipalities.

Aside from holding costs such as food and facilities, drug offenders who enter the justice system also cost the government an unknowable amount in public defenders’ time, jail and other temporary facility costs, and police officers’ time. Most significantly, health care costs for imprisoned drug offenders almost certainly surpass those for other prisoners because many (if not most) drug offenders are also addicts who require additional medical attention.

People who enter the prison system inevitably leave prison with a recidivism likelihood greater than 0, a greater chance of struggling to assimilate into normal society, and a higher chance of remaining unemployed once released. Legalizing all drugs would virtually rid our federal prisons of drug offenders, saving the government billions that could be put to much better use. For example, if the government saves about $2.7 billion a year, state governments could apply the funding to strengthening inner city public schools, launching after-school programs for urban youth, issuing anti-violence/poverty/drug campaigns, and opening drug rehabilitation and education centers in cities with high rates of users.

Harmful drug use should still be grounds for child/family services to revoke parenting rights, and drug use and abuse should still be discouraged and actively fought by the federal and state governments. Individuals should still be arrested and prosecuted for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs, and selling drugs to minors should still be illegal. But arresting and incarcerating individuals for drug distribution, sales, possession, and use is useless, costly, and statistically doesn’t stop people from using, abusing, or possessing the same drugs in the future.

But since we’re not realistically going to legalize hard drugs in this country, I’d argue that the decriminalization of drugs would be a reasonable option and a step in the right direction.

Regardless, however, the decision to legalize or decriminalize would likely be decided at the state level. To circumvent the likely case that state legislatures would balk at the idea of legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, if we’re ever trying to cut the budget, the federal government should withhold funding for state and federal prisons/jails/courts in any state that does not change its drug laws (much like the federal government’s withholding of Federal Highway Act funding if states did not agree to raise their drinking age to 21 in the 1950s). Under the threat of losing necessary funding for their penal systems, states would ideally comply with the federal government strong recommendation that states reconsider and reform their drug laws.

Every resident of this country has a vested interest in our drug laws. Keeping drug offenders out of jails, prisons, and courtrooms would save the justice system billions of dollars a year—and the per capita cost of all other prisoners would in fact decrease due to the extra cost of health care for drug offenders compared with the health care costs for all other offenders. Holding drug offenders in the criminal justice system costs more than it’s worth—and the possibility of rehabilitation is effectively zero. We should never take drug use lightly, however, and we should certainly not ignore it as a society. Drug offenders in inner cities often lead bleak lives in poverty, among violence, and with little hope of recovery. Many are born addicted to mothers who cannot raise them, and many more become addicted at a shockingly young age. Still, locking them away is not only the wrong answer–it is counterproductive to our goal of grooming a functioning, contributing citizenry.

It seems, Joseph Hallinan suggests, that we have come to correlate the prevalence of crime with the vast numbers of drug offenders behind bars, thereby equating drugs with imminent danger. Imprisoning drug offenders has not decreased the number of drug offenders who roam our city streets (slash Wall Street). Imprisoning drug offenders has not sparked massive rehabilitation efforts by states to halt this epidemic. So then, why do we continue to believe that imprisoning drug offenders makes us safer? Why, in Hallinan’s account, do the residents of Beeville believe that they are surrounded by crime when they only experienced three robberies in a year and no violent crime?

By their nature, drug users already suffer every day, and serving jail time is often more preferable to them than living in poverty looking for a fix. If prison doesn’t punish or rehabilitate these offenders, and if they almost always return to drugs when they return to the street, why should we waste resources imprisoning them in the first place when their imprisonment makes us no safer–and when their freedom presents no greater danger to us?