Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Drug Law Criminalization and the Deterioration of Civil Liberties

By Crispinus LeePublished March 14, 2015

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The Prison system within the United States is a horribly demented piece of evidence to overly criminalized drug charges. While laws criminalizing certain drugs are necessary, there should be some clarification to what specific activities should be criminalized.
The United States of America has been predicated on liberal creed, but the rate of incarceration has provided evidence to the contrary. The rapid increase of arrests in recent years may point to the misconception that crime has taken hold of American cities. This misconception is partially true, due to the fact the definition of crime has expanded to include additional details. Drug laws have been described as draconian by some commentators including John Oliver, and in the comparison to the rest of the western world, they are. Drug debate, particularly concerning marijuana, has seen varying degrees of liberalization across the world, but the United States stands out thanks to its laws regarding drug possession. In this piece, there will be an analysis of American Drug Laws and how possession affects skyrocketing incarceration rates.

Drug laws and other legislation that banned substance use have existed for some time in the United States, but penalties became more serious with a series of laws referred to as the Rockefeller Laws. The law was designed to penalize users, and those in possession of drugs, with harsh sentences even on first offences. The initial purpose of the harsh consequences was allegedly to track kingpins, but it resulted in the mass incarceration of low-level offenders. The laws were enacted in the 1970s, and since then there has been a massive shift in the prison demographics across the United States. With nearly one percent of the population currently incarcerated, prison statistics indicate that nearly half of the inmates were convicted of drug related crimes while a relatively low eight percent were for violent crimes. Much of the possession-based crime was also related to a drug that has already seen relative liberalization in certain states: marijuana.

Federal data points at a truly alarming rate of incarceration. The Rockefeller Laws were understandably justified in the past, but much like the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, its purpose has been deliberately twisted into attacking groups that it was not meant to. Drugs laws are definitively the largest contributor to U.S. prisons. Narcotic bans are necessary in society for the sake of social order, but the reality of increasing arrest rates detracts from the merits of the argument for ban on certain drugs. The usage of drugs may be a valid reason for arrest, but mere possession seems to be overly zealous. The most widespread and most persecuted drug, marijuana, has been legalized for recreation usage in three states and the District of Columbia. Yet its possession alone has contributed to over 40% of arrests, a staggeringly high amount.  The State of Washington saw an interesting way to avoid direct confrontation with federal bans by reclassifying marijuana as a lower level drug.

The premise seen in Washington is something to be pursued if the public seeks the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana in the United States. While recognizing personal objections to use of any narcotics, it is advisable that policies supporting the decriminalization of possession of Marijuana, considering possession is the largest of all factors causing arrests.


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