War on drugs comes with unintended side effects

The war on drugs in this country is sold as an initiative to keep our citizens safe from illegal drugs and drug-related violence, but has perpetuated a lower societal stratum over time – one that has been victimized by its misguided and, at times, downright oppressive policies.

One of the drug war’s most abject failures is the zero tolerance policy in public schools. Zero tolerance policies target even the most minor offenses for drugs and weapons. Under the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, schools must expel students found with weapons in school for one year in order to receive federal aid. Consequently, the schools that enforce these policies most stringently are the ones most dependent on federal aid, many of which are located in poor areas.

Many schools have applied the same punishments introduced by this law to drugs and alcohol, and by 1998, 88 percent of public schools implemented zero tolerance policies towards students found with drugs in school.

Rather than keeping drug offenders in school, zero tolerance specifically tries to root out drug offenders from within and limit their access to public education. Removing them from the classroom only exacerbates the likelihood that they would engage in illegal activity.

In-school offenses are commonly referred to local law enforcement, sometimes establishing criminal records for offenders at a very young age and even leading to imprisonment. This system creates an influx of poor youth to the justice system, permanently harming their chances for future higher education and employment.

Prison sentences for drug offenses must be seriously reevaluated as well. Up until 2010, possession of five grams of crack cocaine warranted a minimum sentence of five years in prison, whereas the same sentence was given to offenders found in possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, a ratio of 100-to-1.

Under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the ratio is now 18:1, a still unnecessarily high ratio. Crack cocaine has also been proven to be significantly more common in poor, minority communities than powder cocaine.

A huge component of the war on drugs has been the disproportionate focus on minorities, specifically African-Americans. African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet 44 percent of persons convicted of drug-related felonies in state courts are African-American.

Controversial “stop-and-frisk” procedures designed to proactively prevent crime disproportionately target minorities as well. In 2011, of the 685,724 times New Yorkers were stopped and frisked by the police 53 percent of the targets were black. African-Americans consist of 25.5 percent of the New York City population as of the 2010 Census.

The country has no system in place to reform drug offenders. A 1994 study showed that 66.7 percent of persons released from prison for drug offenses ended up arrested on drug charges within three years. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and 25 percent of those incarcerated are non-violent drug offenders.

The high rate of incarceration comes at a heavy cost to taxpayers as well. In 2008, $75 billion was spent between local, state and federal governments on corrections, the majority of which was spent on incarceration.

Despite the vast amount of legislation in place, the war on drugs has done absolutely nothing to curb the use and distribution of illegal drugs. As recently as 2009, drug abuse violations made up 12 percent of all arrests made in the U.S.

The answer to the drug problem is not legalization. Rather, there must be sweeping reforms made in order to correct the outdated and ineffective laws still in place today.