The Boston Globe recently published an opinion piece by former drug czars William J. Bennett and John Walters, calling for our nation to “bring back the war on drugs.” After a trillion dollars spent and millions of lives lost and imprisoned, it is time to call a cease fire and assess the damage caused by these czar’s failed policy.
The author’s entire article is a politicized fantasy meant to influence the next election rather than find solutions. “For 25 years before President Obama,” they say, “US policy confronted drug addiction with effective public health measures … and, crucially, programs to reduce production, interdict the drugs, and lead international partnerships to destroy drug cartels. It worked.” Under what possible standard can we claim the war on drugs ever worked? We remain the largest country in the world for drug consumption, far surpassing countries like Portugal and the Netherlands that have decriminalized drugs. Clearly this war is not stopping the supply or demand for drugs.
The authors claim heroin deaths doubled under Obama between 2010 and 2013. However, the Center for Disease Control reports that overdoses in America increased 286 percent between 2002 and 2013. We also spent $15 billion on the war on drugs in 2010 alone. Friends in my community were dying as early as 2000 and they did not stop because of an election. To reduce the anguish of my community to political talking points is insulting to the departed.
The authors dismiss the problem of mass incarceration to fight addiction as “a deadly falsehood.” The United States has the largest prison population in the world. Over 50 percent of federal prison inmates are in jail for drug offenses, compared to just 16 percent in 1970. Mass incarceration and the threat thereof are clearly not working. It only makes it harder for addicts to seek recovery or employment and thus increases the likelihood of repeat offenses. This dismissive attitude towards the damages of mass incarceration underlies the prevailing feeling in poor communities that these problems didn’t matter until the middle class was affected.
Despite our “czar’s” war mongering, I believe we are finally reaching a turning point in the way we deal with substance abuse. Thousands of Americans attended a rally in Washington D.C. this weekend to advocate for reform and to eliminate the stigma of addiction. “The truth of the matter is, ‘just say no’ didn’t work and the war on drugs failed,” Donald McFarland of Facing Addiction said to the Washington Post. In Massachusetts, Republican Governor Charlie Baker is working with Democrat Attorney General Maura Healy to prioritize treatment over incarceration. Police departments like Somerville and Gloucester are now assisting addicts in seeking recovery. A member of the Governor’s Council went so far as to advocate decriminalization of heroin. Once again Massachusetts is leading the way for progressive change.
Their rhetoric no longer resonates with conservatives, either. In the last Republican debate, four candidates spoke in favor of reform. Sen. Rand Paul challenged Governors Chris Christie and Jeb Bush on their state’s drug policies, and both candidates fought back by saying they would prioritize treatment over incarceration. Candidate Carly Fiorina said she lost a child from substance abuse and also favors treatment. Not one candidate advocated for a “tough on crime” approach. Addiction does not discriminate along race, class or party lines and even the most conservative politicians are realizing this.
It is clear to everyone that we should be looking forward, not backwards, for solutions. Now is the time for real bipartisan change. Substance abuse treatment and criminal justice reform should be a plank in every city, state and federal candidate’s platform. It is the one issue with enough bipartisan support that can improve public health, reduce spending and reinforce civil liberties. It is time to end the war on drugs and recover as one nation.