I find it tragic that the US is known around the world as the incarceration nation. We incarcerate a larger percentage of our citizens than any other country largely because of our ineffective “war on drugs.” We're chosen to spend our limited resources criminalizing the mentally ill and addicted, even though science understands that addiction is an illness created by chemical changes in the brain. Punishment cannot change the body chemistry of a manic depressive, a psychotic, the clinically depressed or an addict.
Our justice system is more insane than those we incarcerate, as insanity is repeating the same behaviors over and over while expecting different results. Why haven't we learned from Prohibition? Outlawing alcohol consumption didn't stop people from drinking then and it doesn't now. What it did was drive the production and sale of alcohol underground, creating the Al Capones, Mafia, and other violent criminal enterprises, just as our war on drugs has created drug cartels, street gangs, and addiction driven crimes.
It's a basic human tendency to self medicate when in pain, physical or emotional. When we abandoned prohibition we regulated and taxed the production and sale of alcohol, creating a source of public revenue. When we realized that tobacco caused cancer we regulated, taxed, and educated the public about the correlation between cancer and tobacco. Let's take the same approach to “street” drugs. Legalize their possession and use, but regulate their availability, tax their sale, educate the public about their effects, and use the funds generated to treat those suffering from life altering addictions. Several other countries are already doing this. Instead of outlawing drugs, they make them accessible through doctors and clinics who control the purity of the drug and the amount. By taking the power and profit away from criminal enterprises, drug related violence, street gangs, and violent crime in those countries has decreased by more than 70%! Most of their addicts are working and paying taxes!
Let's put our resources into treating addicts not building more prisons! Let's address the social ills that create so much of the poverty and pain that drives addictions. Let's stop making our police the enforcers of bad policy.
Addiction and mental illness is a natural human response to stress, poverty, meaninglessness, family dysfunction, and despair. Addicts are not lazy and morally weak. Addicts are sick. Instead of blaming them for having inherited a genetic propensity for addiction when confronted with stress or painful situations, let's treat them, slowly wean them off of their drugs and counsel them until they no s jailing blacks and Hispanics has not solved our race problem, criminalizing drug use has not stopped people from using. Instead it has increased crime! Let's learn from Prohibition. Let's decriminalize, regulate, and tax drugs. Then we will have the resources we need to establish more treatment facilities, mental health and drug courts as an alternative to expensive incarceration.
Joyce Shutt is the pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.