Rationality Reemerges with Attorney General Peter Neronha’s Drug Policy

It would seem we have an Attorney General who embraces rationality and realism over politics and rhetoric and I, for one, am pleased.

The drug problem in the United States, and worldwide, is complicated. On the most visible side, you have addicts, deaths from overdoses, hospitalizations, and lost opportunity by convictions for possession.

On the other side, you have the intricate relationship of governments of producing countries with the enormous money generated by the cartels. Drug money funds politics, political candidates, and corruption.

Over the last several decades, the trend in the US was to increase punishment and eliminate rehabilitative services for inmates. There was an apparent shift to warehousing more inmates with no consideration for what happens when released.

Recidivism among drug offenders reached 60-70%. Most offenders released from prison are rearrested within a year. Something is not working. There is another troubling trend buried within the change toward punishment that should concern us all. The shift to private prisons. Logic would dictate that businesses with a vested interest in a steady, or growing, supply of “customers” would have little incentive to reduce crime or incarceration rates.

In 2008, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a memo ordering a reduction in using private prisons by Federal authorities. Just days after Jeff Sessions became US Attorney General, he rescinded the order. Private prison stocks soared as the prison industry resumed its growth. Once again, money and politics trumped rationality. (https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/18/politics/private-prison-department-of-justice/index.html)

AG Neronha’s proposal brings rationality to our drug policy. Recognizing the accepted medical definition of drug addiction as a treatable mental health condition, shifting the focus from punishment to treatment and prevention is sound policy.

While the policy is welcome, it must go further. Reducing the number of minor offenders sent to prison is a good start and removing the stigma of a felony conviction will help reintegrate those with drug issues back into society but treating those with mental illnesses, both inside prisons and in society, is also a pressing problem. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/criminals-need-mental-health-care/)

With the trend toward punishment, they incarcerated those with mental illnesses at an even faster rate than the general population. Until we recognize the revolving door of the mentally ill sent to prisons lacking any mental health services, released after they complete their sentence, and rearrested because of lack of mental health services nothing will change.

AG Neronha wisely recognized the Criminal Justice system in Rhode Island needed a change. He is in good company with other states who have reduced recidivism through “Second chance” type programs, increased treatment opportunities, and punishment tempered by a goal of reintegration into society. (https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Reducing-Recidivism_State-Deliver-Results_2017.pdf)

Some would argue that such policies will encourage drug use, will increase the number of addicts because it reduces the preventive effect of punishment, will be only a progressive “feel good” effort with little to no benefit.

In the 1980s, Congress passed some of the most Draconian criminal sanctions to deal with the then rising scourge of crack cocaine. Possession of relatively small amounts resulted in life sentences. Yet the effect on the street was minimal, and the adverse impact on the minority population was devastating.

The numbers do not lie. We lead the world in prison population, and the numbers are growing. Whatever we have done to this point, it is not working. (http://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison-population-total?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All)

We can do better than that, and Mr. Neronha’s proposal is a tremendous step in the right direction.

Measuring our (Failure at) Success


Wars, if we are to accept their necessity, need a goal by which we can measure success. The war on drugs is the poster child for a lack of goals.

This is not our first dance with wars lacking measurable goals. We have a recent history of sending troops into war without clear goals.

Korea. Technically we and our allies the South Koreans are still at war with the North, albeit paused by a truce that is 64 years old. So that’s a stalemate, with continuing implications today.

Vietnam. In 1973, we ended combat operations, declared victory, and went home. By 1975, the last vestiges of our efforts there were fleeing the country by helicopter from the roof of our Embassy.

One could say our foray into Afghanistan was based on sound argument, which we then squandered by moving into Iraq. This all started in 2001 and we still have troops on the ground.

No end in sight. No end defined to measure success.

In the continuing saga that is the war on drugs, the lack of a measurable goal or, depending on your perspective, our measure of failure continues.

For if this is indeed a war, we sorely lack measurable success. Unless our success is measured in the number of prisoners captured, then one might argue we’ve done very well.

I won’t bore you with numbers. I invite you to search for the information on your own. You might be surprised at what you find. You’d be shocked at the number of arrests, and associated costs, for possession of marijuana.

In light of the debate on legalizing personal use of marijuana, I will offer some perspective. The price of marijuana, compared to 1970’s and the beginning of the war, has fallen and availability has increased. (This is somewhat related to several states legalizing it yet need be included in our discussion. The camel’s nose is in the tent on that one.)

The price of cocaine has fallen and availability is up. In 1980 cocaine cost $100-150/gram. Today, it is $60-90. This doesn’t even consider the comparison of 1980 vs 2017 dollar.

In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs. This doesn’t even take into consideration cost of housing prisoners.

If we want to measure success by the reduction of the number of people dying from illegal drugs, we failed there as well. Deaths have increased. Opioid overdoses are increasing.

I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with numbers, but here’s just one chart about deaths from drugs in 2015. (Marijuana didn’t make the top ten. There were no documented cases of death by marijuana toxicity.)

1 Tobacco 480,000 + deaths
2 Alcohol 26,654 deaths
3 Prescription Painkillers 16,235 deaths
4 Heroin 8,257 deaths

 

When a strategy is failing by all measures, doesn’t it make sense to change tactics? That’s what one does in a war. If something is causing more harm than good, you stop.

Focusing the bulk of our resources on criminalizing the personal use of substances such as marijuana is not achieving its expressed purpose. If adults can be trusted to make rational decisions when it comes to the risks of using substances such as tobacco and alcohol, with well documented, sometimes fatal, effects, then it may be time to reconsider the rationale behind making those same adults criminals if they choose to use marijuana.

This is not an argument for legalizing all drugs. I’m not certain legalizing marijuana is a sound policy. But I do know that continuing down the same path will fail. We will continue to turn otherwise law-abiding individuals into criminals, ignore the opportunity to focus our resources on addiction treatment and education, and stumble down the road to another measurable failure.

We’re not losing this war. We lost the war before we started because our policy consisted of Ready, Fire, Aim.