In the last half-century, the United States prison population has grown immensely. Much of this growth can be attributed to tough drug laws that were passed in the 1970s and 1980s. These laws, championed by Republicans and Democrats alike, were in response to the rise in recreational drug use as well as drug addictions. Politicians identified this problem but imposed drug laws that were enforced discriminatorily, treating the issue of drugs as a criminal problem for African-Americans and a medical one for white people. The “War on Drugs” resulted in drug policies that included mandatory minimum sentencing and harsh penalties for “schedule 1” and “schedule 2” drugs. In recent years, many of these drug laws have been repealed, creating a dilemma for inmates arrested under previous laws.
President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, citing the rampant use of drugs in urban areas. While drug use was, in fact, growing, Nixon’s motivations were less pure. John Ehrlichman, a Nixon aide said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities” (qtd. In Coyne, Hall). Nixon and the Republicans were not alone in their mission to combat drug use, though. In 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Democrat, implemented his own reforms, known as the “Rockefeller drug laws,” which implemented mandatory minimum sentencing and served as a model for future drug policies across the country.
These policies are counterproductive to drug abuse, having “contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels” (Coyne, Hall). Instead of lowering the usage of harmful drugs, the drug prohibition movement led to the use of more potent drugs, creating more serious addiction and medical problems. The government also loses the ability to regulate the industry, or collect taxes on the potential revenue. People with drug problems are less willing to report their health concerns out of fear of incarceration. According to Coyne and Hall, “it is time to consider the broader decriminalization or legalization of drugs, from marijuana to harder substances, and to focus on a more treatment-based approach” (Coyne, Hall). It is clear that state governments are moving this direction, as most states have legalized marijuana in some form, and Oregon recently decriminalized small amounts of heroin and cocaine.