Are American Drug Laws Relaxing?
by Anne Garner, for The Evans Firm
or so years ago, the Reagan and Nixon regimes decided to seriously crack down on drug
offences in the United States. In 1971, Nixon declared that drug abuse was
“public enemy number one in the United States”, and announced a sustained government campaign against drug use. The ‘War
On Drugs’ introduced harsh punitive measures for those involved
with illegal narcotics, with the aim of not only punishing drug users,
but deterring potential drug users. However, forty years on, little (if
any) impact appears to have been made in the American drug scene. The
impact upon the legal system, however, has been enormous. Furthermore,
the ‘War on drugs’ has attracted criticism from a number of
angles, ranging from accusations of racism and sexism to impracticality
and inefficiency. In the wake of all this, many are calling for a new
drugs policy - one which is potentially less harsh. Is it true that the
US drug laws are relaxing? If so, what could this mean for those facing
The War On Drugs
The USA has 5% of the world’s population. However,
we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. We incarcerate more individuals than any other nation in the world -
and that’s largely due to our drug laws. Our prisons are creaking
beneath the strain of their immense population, and the public purse is
struggling to maintain the situation. The rest of the world is, needless
to say, both bemused and horrified by our excessive incarceration record
- and even more confused by the tendency of US judges to (on the recommendation
of drug laws) imprison anyone with even a minor connection to drug offences.
Mandatory sentencing, and mandatory minimums have seen people go behind
bars for very minor misdemeanors. Nor is there any evidence at all that
such measures serve either to deter future drug users, or to prevent incarcerated
drug users from re-offending on release. With the evidence against the
War On Drugs piling up, many states appear to be moving away from the
old legislation, and looking at newer alternatives.
Beginning Of The End Of The War?
Everyone knows by now that several states have taken the step of legalizing
medicinal and even recreational marijuana. But this is only part of the
apparent relaxation of drug laws taking place all over the United States.
Slowly but surely,
the drug laws are peeling back - even in the more conservative areas of the nation. The 2008 economic
collapse saw many states forced to slash prison budgets - resulting in
the withdrawal (or relaxation) of mandatory sentencing for minor drug
offences in many cases, in order to save money on imprisonments. This
coincided with a groundswell of public opinion against the War On Drugs.
Surveys have consistently shown a growing desire for the government to
concentrate more on harm reduction
and treatment initiatives than on prosecution (particularly in the light of the expensive failure
which the War On Drugs has become). Whether or not such measures will
have a greater effect than the punitive initiatives has yet to be determined,
but one thing is sure: more and more states are introducing lower penalties
and differing measures for dealing with drug offenders.
What Does This Mean In Practical Terms?
This does not, of course, mean that it is now legally acceptable to involve
yourself with illegal drugs. Serious drug offences still carry (and will
undoubtedly continue to carry) heavy penalties. Dealing and trafficking
drugs remain extremely problematic in the eyes of the law, and will require
considerable legal effort to overcome should such charges be brought against
you. The law takes a similarly dim view of violent offences. However,
nonviolent drugs offences which do not cause significant harm to others
are likely to be
treated with increasing clemency by the US law courts. Rather than being sent to jail, nonviolent drug offenders
may be sent to rehabilitation and re-education programs. Other alternatives
are currently being worked out by various states, but the overall message
is that the courts are increasingly reluctant to apply harsh penalties
for relatively minor drugs offences. Quite how this will play out in practical
terms remains to be seen, but it's certainly a changeable time for
American drug laws, which gives a lot of scope for positive case outcomes.