$1 Trillion, 45 Million Arrests: The War on Drugs

prison

Canberra politicians have been pleading with Indonesian president Joko Widodo over the fate of Bali Nine leaders Andrew Chan and Muyran Sukumaran, currently on death row on “execution island”. But the “The War on Drugs” in the US is also in a very dark chapter.

In Oklahoma, the law allows judges to hand out life sentences for those convicted of cannabis cultivation or for the sale of a single dime-bag. Mother of four, Patricia Marilyn Spottedcow (25) learned the truth about Oklahoma’s excessive pot penalties the hard way in 2011, when sentenced to 12 years in prison for her role in the sale of $39 worth of cannabis. Paraplegic Jimmy Montgomery was allegedly sentenced to life in prison – later reduced to 10 years – after being caught with two ounces of medical pot in his wheelchair.

I saw a well produced film on SBS last night entitled “The War on Drugs – The House I Live In” (film’s website) – about how drugs and those that used them became “public enemy #1”. The war on drugs has had resounding repercussions on criminal justice policy and on vast numbers of Americans. Presidents, drug czars, and local politicians have been fueling an unprecedented boom in the country’s prison population and waging an ever-escalating campaign against what many consider to be nothing more than a public health problem.

The result of this law enforcement approach are stark: In 2009 nearly 1.7 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges – more than half of those arrests were for marijuana possession alone.

Even though White and Black people use drugs at approximately equal rates, Black people are 10.1 times more likely to be sent to prison for drug offenses. Today, Black Americans represent 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes, even though they comprise only 13% of the US Population.

Today, there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970s. Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than 1 in 100 adults behind bars today.

The US incarcerates more people than any country in the world – both per capita and in terms of total people behind bars. And the US, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. 1 in every 8 state employee works for a corrections agency.

But this lost war means an ever profitable prison business. Fortunately, there is also a growing recognition that the course of the past 40 years must change.

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