Why We Need Drug Reform

03/06/2014 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

At this point, it's well established that the War on Drugs has failed: it has disproportionately targeted minorities, it has contributed to mass incarceration, and it has done little actually reduce drug use. It's time to change this country's attitude towards drug users. It's time to try something new.

Now, the apparent intentions of the War on Drugs are good. Substances such as cocaine lead to violent crime, tear communities apart and kill thousands annually -- of course we should fight to reduce its use and to quell its negative effects. But it's more lenient laws, not stricter ones, that accomplish this.

It's hard to justify our current drug policy when, despite 1.6 million Americans being arrested for overwhelmingly non-violent drug crime in 2009, drug use rose significantly between 1998 and 2008 -- 34.5 percent for opiates, 27.0 percent for cocaine and 8.5 percent for cannabis. Punishing drug users doesn't reduce drug use.

And the racial disparity that lies behind these arrests is outright disturbing: approximately 8.8 percent of white Americans consume illegal drugs compared with 9.6 percent of black Americans, but blacks are arrested for drug-related crime at 13 times the rate of whites.

Because such a large percentage of Americans are drug users, the arrests that are made become somewhat arbitrary. Obama admitted to using cocaine in his autobiography, and there is strong evidence that Bush did the same. These two figures prove that drug users are not doomed to failure -- it's possible for a person to recover from past mistakes. Drug users are not inherently corrupt or without potential.

While our past two presidents obviously got away with their escapades, so many others have their lives ruined over the same crime. What differentiates ones user from the other? Keep in mind that the majority of drug-related arrests are made for non-violent crimes. Based on the horrendous racial disparity in the way punishment is administered, it seems that the War on Drugs is a way to keep the disadvantaged that way rather than protect American citizens.

In fact, according to a report published by Inter-American Dialogue, drug consumption is not significantly influenced by government policies.

It's critical to understand that no one wants to be addicted to drugs; the reality of the situation is that many are pushed into drug use and drug crime because of socioeconomic circumstances, and addiction is incredibly hard to overcome. The majority of Americans won't ever consume substances such as cocaine, meth and heroin -- not because of their illegality but because of their horrendous negative effects. And those who do want to use them are almost never going to be deterred by the law.

So, it's time to change the American government's attitude towards drug use -- we need to look at it as a public health issue, not a moral one. Instead of punishing drug addicts, we should be treating them. A survey conducted by the RAND Corporation found that treatment of heavy cocaine users as a means of ending addiction is 23 times more effective than drug crop eradication, 11 times more effective than interdiction and 3 times more effective than mandatory minimum sentencing. The case for rehab is strong.

America is along the way to legalizing marijuana, but other countries, such as Portugal, have decriminalized all previously illicit drugs. Portugal did not turn into a drug-infested hellhole: just five years after decriminalizing, drug use among youth fell significantly -- 3.5 percent for 7 to 9th graders and 5.0 percent for 10 to 12th graders; the number of cases of drug related HIV dropped instantly, and drug related deaths fell nearly 40 percent.

Portugal is not alone in its success. When Switzerland implemented a public health focused drug policy in the 1980s, the number of registered heroin users in Zurich fell from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2005. A study of Switzerland's 3000 heaviest heroin users saw that after decriminalization, crime among that group fell steeply, with property crime reduced by 90 percent.

On the contrary, in 2006 Italy changed its drug policy to implement punitive sentences and harsher sanctions for drug possession while making therapy less available. Though between 2006-2010, punishments administered for personal drug use more than doubled while drug offenders receiving treatment fell 60 percent, illicit drug use was not reduced in the slightest.

Harsh drug policies simply do not work.

So, in short, lenient drug policies coupled with treatment of addicts reduces the numbers of problematic drug users as well as drug-related HIV, crime and death. Unfortunately, reducing the number of drug users is unlikely, but more lenient laws can at least reduce the negative effects drugs have on society.

Strict drug policies are not just unsuccessful but also incredibly expensive: the US government spends $20-25 billion on counter-narcotics efforts alone. If the United States legalized all currently illicit drugs, it could save an estimated $65 billion annually. Throwing that much money at policies that are proven to be ineffective is inane.

But it's the social costs of the War on Drugs that more strongly beg for reform. The U.S. government needs to get rid of the harsh penalties for drug possession and actually help the victims of the drug trade. America's moving in the right direction with marijuana becoming less and less criminalized and Eric Holder's critique of mandatory minimum sentences, but progress is slow. The War on Drugs needs to formally end and the damage its done be reversed; it's unethical to enforce such an oppressive and futile policy.