07/07/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

The Drug War Is Crazy... But There Is Hope

We've all heard the statistics. The U.S. has spent billions to combat drug use over the past five decades, yet drugs are purer, cheaper, and more available than ever before. We hold 5 percent of the world's population yet house 20 percent of the world's prisoners, mostly nonviolent drug offenders. It costs more to lock up a nonviolent drug offender for a year than to put that person through college. But we don't always hear positive stories of how the drug war paradigm has shifted over the past few years. Many draconian laws have since been repealed. Politicians and constituents alike are starting to wake up, ask questions, and create change. Maybe there is some hope after all.

For Amir Amma, who spent nearly 20 years in state prison on a trumped-up drug charge, finding hope has been a long, difficult struggle. In January 1991 he was accosted by 12 undercover police officers in Albany, New York, who had received a tipoff from an informant. Though Amir had no weapons or drugs on him at the time of the arrest, he was charged with direct sale and possession of two and a half ounces of crack cocaine. Amir refused to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence and insisted that the case go to court, where surely a jury would release him since he had no drugs at the time of the arrest. It was an unusual choice and a risky one. Currently 97 percent of drug defendants waive their right to a trial by jury and settle for a reduced sentence in order to avoid the risk of a much longer sentence if a court finds them guilty. Amir lost his case and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Fifteen years later, New York State reformed its drug laws to reduce sentencing for drug offenses and Amir became eligible for early release. Assured that he had an airtight case since his offense was nonviolent, he applied for the release. After a long hearing process, he received a letter stating that his application was denied because 10 years earlier, while in prison, he had smoked a joint. Amir spent five more years in prison, costing New York taxpayers $250,000 in additional expenses. He was finally released just shy of serving 20 years for a nonviolent drug offense.

With an experience like that, one might expect to find Amir a bitter, angry man. Not so. Now free for several years, he spends his time working on nonprofit education and treatment for the disenfranchised in New York City. He even jokes about his incarceration.

"Tax payers spend $1 million dollars keeping me in prison," he says. "I could have been getting educated, bought a house, worked and paid taxes during that time. I guess it's easier for people to say, 'he's a degenerate. We don't need him around.'"

The good news is that had Amir been arrested today, he wouldn't receive such a harsh sentence. The laws are changing, albeit slowly. Many states have reduced or eliminated their mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Attorney General Eric Holder recently advised prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimums, and many states are exploring alternatives such as extended parole and drug courts. Fiscal minded politicians taking note of the staggering cost of prisons and the war on drugs has spurred some of the change, as has the realization of the human cost of this war as drugs creep ever farther into communities.

Adam of Greenboro, North Carolina, knows too much about human cost. Back in 2010 when Adam overdosed on heroin, his girlfriend called 911. No sooner had paramedics revived Adam then the police handcuffed him and brought him to jail. The news of Adam's arrest and charge spread quickly. A few months later, his friend overdosed and no one called for help specifically because of what had happened to Adam. The friend died.

"Drug laws are detrimental to a lot of people's lives," says Adam. "People are so afraid to tell the truth [in an overdose situation] because there are negative consequences. If police see drugs, someone might be arrested or have their kids taken away. So many bad things can happen that people are scared to get help."

Adam's situation is all too common. More than half of drug overdoses occur in the presence of someone who could call for help, but most of the time, fear of unknown consequences keeps witnesses from dialing 911. Luckily, people are starting to realize that saving lives is more important than making arrests for low level offenses. Fifteen states have now passed 911 Good Samaritan laws, which grant limited immunity from some drug offenses to people who seek help for an overdose. Other laws have expanded access to naloxone, a medication that reverses opiate overdose and is safe enough for lay people to administer. A naloxone distribution program through the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition has saved over 100 lives in less than a year. Many of Adam's friends have now been saved with naloxone. And others are no longer afraid to call for help.

Stories like Amir's and Adam's are enough to make anyone despair over the state of drug policy in the United States. But one of the glimmers of hope in this crazy world is that people across the political spectrum, across the country, and across the world seem to be realizing that the War on Drugs has failed. Massively. It is time for a new approach, one that treats addiction as a health problem, not a criminal one, and invests in education instead of incarceration. We have a long, long way to go. But at least that journey has started.