Are American Drug Laws Relaxing?

Posted By Anne Garner || 15-Apr-2016

Are American Drug Laws Relaxing?

by Anne Garner, for The Evans Firm

Forty 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 drugs charges?

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.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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