Drugs: Our Broken Justice System

A recent New York Times article by Katharine Q. Seelye details the horrors that families of heroin overdose victims and survivors face in coping with the way our country currently handles the heroin epidemic. In the article, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,” many of these parents have stressed altering the language regarding addiction, particularly avoiding words like “junkie” or “addict.” They also stress that the government’s response to handling heroin-related cases needs to shift from the perspective of a crime to that of a disease.

The article presents poignant testimony from Doug Griffin and Amanda Jordan, two New Hampshire parents who recently lost their children to heroin overdoses. Their stories are tragic. Jordan sometimes “thinks [her son] Chris is still alive, and at his funeral she was convinced he was still breathing.” Parents like Griffin and Jordan have spearheaded organizations and events devoted to fighting heroin addiction. Many police departments have even pursued more forgiving approaches to heroin use and addiction, including the treatment, rather than the incarceration, of overdose victims. According to the article, 32 states across the country have passed “good Samaritan” laws that protect people from prosecution if they call 911 to report overdoses for low-level offenses.

While this movement is an honorable step in the right direction, we can’t ignore the disparities faced by drug-related arrests among racial minorities, particularly in black communities plagued by crack cocaine overdoses. Seelye explicitly acknowledges in the article that 90 percent of those that tried heroin for the first time in the last decade are white. According to Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “Because the demographic of the people affected are more white, more middle class, these are the parents who are empowered.” We as readers are now asked the question: Why has a gentler movement not been applied to the punitive War on Drugs?

The United States saw the introduction of crack cocaine in the early 1980s, and by 1986, it was readily available predominantly in inner city communities. Crack cocaine was a cheaper drug and had higher purity than the powdered cocaine already on the market. To many lower-class urban communities, it was an affordable form of entertainment for those without many resources. Between 1984 and 1987, crack cocaine incidents rose by 94,000. By 1987, crack was available in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Between 1984 and 1994, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 nearly doubled.

In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act mandated a minimum five-year sentencing for any person in possession of five grams of crack cocaine. This act also had a 100:1 sentencing disparity, which means that a person in possession of up to 500 grams of crack would receive the same five-year sentence. Compared to the sentencing disparity for powdered cocaine, this is far more severe. It’s important to note that the Congressional Black Caucus was a major proponent of this sentencing disparity.

This act has had major ramifications on U.S. incarceration and the War on Drugs. Over the past 30 years, our federal prison population has increased 500 percent (according to the U.S. Department of Justice). In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report stating that blacks constituted 15 percent of the country’s drug users but comprised 37 percent of those arrested for drug violations, 59 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug offenses. According to the same study, more than 80 percent of the defendants sentenced for crack offenses are black, even though 66 percent of crack users are white or Hispanic.

However, our country has been making strides to reduce these disparities. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the sentencing disparity for crack from 100:1 to 18:1. Former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has called for an elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. Just last month, she proposed a $10 billion plan to treat and fight against drug addiction over the next 10 years.

In the 1990s, the RAND Corporation conducted a study that concluded that treatment, as opposed to law enforcement, is the cheapest method to combat drug use. The study also found that drug treatment is 23 times more effective than our War on Drugs. We’ve seen wide differences over time in how law enforcement has handled the heroin and crack epidemics in the U.S. Regarding mass incarceration, I think our country would benefit greatly by shifting the focus of these small, nonviolent drug offenses from harsh penalties to treatment.