Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Three violent issues — one potential solution

The major reasons for the high incident of drug-related incarceration are the rules established from “war on drugs” laws, long mandatory-sentence requirements, and the “three strikes” laws.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

What do the drug wars in Mexico, the high incarceration rate in America and the continuing gun deaths in our country have in common? They are all fueled by one activity: the high rate of drug use by American consumers. Without that appetite, all three would be mitigated, or even eliminated to a large degree.

The recent and absurd comment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, regarding illegal immigrants that, “For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there … hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” was quickly condemned by his own colleagues. But it does synthesize why all three of the above issues are connected.

In Mexico, the brutality of the drug wars revolves almost exclusively around the business of providing American drug users with supplies of addictive drugs (although rarely by King’s exaggerated human mules across the desert). Eliminate or reduce the market for these drugs, and the dealers and producers would have to find another business. It is estimated that over 70,000 Mexicans have been killed and maimed in these drug wars.

Similarly, a huge percentage of the gunshot deaths in our inner cities are a result of turf wars related to drugs, too often black-on-black deaths; should the drug trade dry up, there would have to be other reasons to kill each other. That might happen, but at least one big reason would disappear.

Article continues after advertisement

Finally, when it comes to incarceration, it is stunning to know that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. Fully 47 percent of all prisoners in federal penitentiaries are for drug-related crimes; and 21 percent in state prisons. Almost 1 percent of all American adults are incarcerated (about 2.2 million). It costs us $24,000 per prisoner per year to maintain these mostly nonviolent criminals – or about $60 billion per year.

Three main reasons

The major reasons for the high incident of drug-related incarceration are the rules established from “war on drugs” laws, long mandatory-sentence requirements, and the “three strikes” laws.

Few, if any industrialized countries have the lengthy sentencing for drug use (or even sale) as we do. Most European countries have sentences of less than 6 months if at all. The United Nations has prepared an excellent guide we mostly ignore, which many nations use to promote treatment and rehabilitation (instead of merely locking up users) for what is often a treatable disease.

So, what to do – especially if we could find a reasonable solution that would cure all three ills?

The solution ultimately lies in eliminating (or reducing) American’s demand for illicit drugs. First, if most common drugs were legalized, there could be no illicit trade, no turf wars, less violence, and drug users could come out of the closet (a start to treatment). Possession would no longer be an offense punished by prison time. Just as important, it would also diminish a variety of other crimes caused by the need to buy overly expensive and subversive illicit drugs.

Prohibition’s lesson

We learned that lesson (or did we?) with Prohibition, which we quickly repealed. Liquor is now sold openly, with laws protecting against its abuse (similarly, such crimes perpetrated by drug users would of course be prosecuted). And taxes on distilled beverages provide substantial revenue – similar revenue could be applied to treatment of drug users. For the $24,000 we pay to lock up people (plus the added cost of building new jails and prisons) we can do a lot of drug treatment, and hopefully return addicts to productive citizens.

Additionally, incarceration more often than not ends up with recidivism. Without treatment, and hopefully rehabilitation, the addiction remains and the former prisoner too easily falls back into bad old habits.

For all three of these abominable issues, society is attacking the wrong problem. In Mexico the government has employed a strategy to fight a military war on the drug cartels, and capture or kill the leaders. The problem with this strategy is, there are always more recruits for the cartels in a poor country, and the leaders will be replaced. It also has invited collusion between the police, military and the cartels, which have plenty of money to spread around. So, on it goes.

For the youth on our own streets, the current strategy to increase patrols, add enforcement, and send more of the murderers to prison has not reduced those deaths by much if at all in our inner cities. We currently still have about 36 gunshot murders daily (and nightly).

Article continues after advertisement

Use prisons for the really bad guys

And, as longer sentences are rendered, our prisons will not even be able to handle them. Already, several states have started releasing nonviolent prisoners early; and in other states, lawsuits resulting from overcrowding and inadequate conditions have tied up the courts dealing with an issue that cannot be readily solved. The prisons in our society would be better utilized to keep the really bad guys off the street.

It’s time for a new plan, a better idea, and likely a more humane and sensible approach to the drug addiction and abuse in our society. Legalization is not a new idea, but the time has come for us to re-open a discussion on solutions. We need to figure out Plan “B,” because Plan “A” has proven to be a failure. It has not worked in the past, and will not in the future.

Myles Spicer, formerly of Minnetonka, lives in Palm Desert, Calif. He has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at