THE BLOG

Incarceration Is Not the Answer

06/17/2013 10:29 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

Growing up with parents who came out of the Hippie movement and grandparents who owned a bar, drugs were part of my reality. I was exposed to casual users and people who developed more serious problems. But I found it difficult to believe drugs were intrinsically evil when I saw more people negatively affected by legal alcohol abuse than illegal drug use.

That's not to say that I'm advocating drug use -- it's an individual choice with real consequences. I witnessed the problems that resulted from a cavalier attitude towards drug use. The peace and love ethos of early hippie culture slowly transformed into something darker in the 80s.

Various family members, friends and mentors were involved with drugs at one time or another. Some grew up and some ultimately had problems. But the drugs weren't the dictating factor. Their problems were deeper than casual cultural use. People who harmed themselves through drug use needed programs or support for addiction -- or they needed to grow up, evaluate themselves, and reform.

Most of the users I knew eventually matured and began making positive, more conservative choices. My point is that while drug use might have been irresponsible at times and often naïve, it mostly wasn't criminal and incarceration would have been entirely detrimental to ever getting their lives back on track.

I was lucky -- I grew up white and middle class.

In a minority community, the enforcement of drug laws would have ripped my family apart. These communities are systematically targeted and destroyed by drug laws, leaving countless children without their parents. I can only imagine the horror of actually watching a friend, family member, or mentor put behind bars. Is it really more beneficial to society to lock a father in prison, rather than send him to treatment, where he can learn to make better choices as he continues to provide for his family?

Black males growing up today have a one in three chance of going to jail. According to the NAACP, five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites. By dint of growing up in a place where drug dealing takes place on the street instead of behind white picket fences, African Americans run afoul of the justice system far more frequently than their white counterparts.

Race and economic status shouldn't predetermine jail time, but they do.

I recently signed a letter urging President Obama to revamp the misguided policies of the past 30 years that have caused the prison population to skyrocket. Along with other public figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports, politics and religion, we laid out specific policy prescriptions designed to alleviate the current untenable situation. These include extending the Fair Sentencing Act, supporting the Youth PROMISE Act, and allowing judges to set aside mandatory minimums on a case-by-case basis with the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013.

Together we hope to return a sense of rationality and proportion to a justice system that has spun wildly out of control. For too long we've exclusively emphasized punishment for non-violent offenders over treatment and rehabilitation. The current system is unbalanced, unsustainable, and unnecessarily cruel. It's time to legalize or at the very least, decriminalize all drugs.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.