Why care about drug policy reform NOW?

05/12/2005 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why care about drug policy reform in times like these? Over-incarceration represents the antithesis of a free and open society. The United States ranks #1 among all nations in per capita incarceration. The number of people behind bars has increased from roughly 500,000 in 1980 to over 2 million today. We have roughly 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. We also rank first, or near first, in per capita rates of probation and parole. The United States is also far more expansive and aggressive than most nations in punishing former felons even after they have completed their terms. Roughly 13 million Americans have been convicted of a felony, thereby rendering them, in a great many respects, second class citizens for life.

The war on drugs has been a -- perhaps THE -- principal force driving this extraordinary growth in the criminal justice system. Roughly 500,000 people are behind bars today for violating a drug law – an almost tenfold increase since 1980. Most are poor as well as black or Latino. Drug law violations account for 25-35% of all felony convictions, and for 25-35% of the roughly 5 million Americans who cannot vote today because of a felony conviction. An additional 10-15% are incarcerated for non-drug violations associated with drug market violence or acquisitive crimes motivated by illicit drug addiction. Drug policy reform used to represent the black sheep of criminal justice reform efforts. It now represents the cutting edge, not least because most drug law offenders are non-violent and did not directly harm other human beings. The growing momentum for drug sentencing reform is paving the way for broader criminal justice reform around the country.

The “war on drugs” has provided the principal justification for diminishing basic rights and freedoms in this country, with Supreme Court and other federal judges identifying all sorts of “drug exceptions to the Constitution” over the past three decades. It provided the principal basis for U.S. violations of foreign sovereignty – until the “war on terrorism” surpassed it after 9-11. The “war on drugs” also accounts for why the United States failed to implement the sorts of public health measures that stemmed the spread of HIV/AIDS among poor people in other countries but not here.

Most of our battles for drug policy reform involve issues and values that lie at the heart of the progressive agenda -- but that also resonate with many Americans who vote Republican and/or consider themselves conservative. I will be talking more about that in future postings. Let me know what's on your mind.

Ethan Nadelmann
Executive Director
Drug Policy Alliance