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Social Consequences of the War on Drugs: The Legacy of Failed Policy

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Policy Review Volume: 15 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2004 Pages: 100-121
Eric L. Jensen; Jurg Gerber; Clayton Mosher
Date Published
March 2004
22 pages
This article identifies and discusses some of the societal consequences of the "war on drugs" and its emphasis on punitive approaches at the expense of resources for treatment and prevention.
Incarceration has become the sentence of choice for drug offenses at the Federal level and in most States. During the mid-1990's, an average of three 500-bed prison facilities have opened each week in the United States, and they are filled with inmates convicted of drug offenses. The war on drugs has also produced an unprecedented racial disproportion of inmates in the prison system. Funds spent on prison-building have diverted resources from education and social programs, such that citizens are less able to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace, as skills are less and employment opportunities become limited. Such conditions only breed more criminals. A growing proportion of prison inmates have been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses; e.g., in 1979, 6 percent of State prison inmates were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, and by 1998 the proportion had increased to nearly 21 percent. The causal chain that links incarceration, joblessness, and weak social bonds has made social and economic conditions particularly difficult for Black families, since so many young Black males have been incarcerated for drug offenses. In addition, 2 to 3 percent of State and Federal inmates are HIV-positive or have AIDS, a rate five times higher than in the general population. Unfortunately, Federal and State prison authorities have been slow to develop policies to deal with this crisis, such that the increase in the prison population poses not only the threat of AIDS for the inmates but also for the general population as prisoners return to the community with HIV/AIDS. The war on drugs has also involved a steadfast refusal by Federal authorities to approve the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, even though there is strong evidence for its effectiveness in relieving some painful symptoms. In analyzing the impact of the war on drugs, it is necessary to expand the inquiry to examine the societal consequences of public policies that disenfranchise so many people from a positive future, particularly racial minorities who face disadvantages apart from the impact of the war on drugs. 81 references