In addiction recovery circles, "insanity" is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By that measure, our nation’s drug laws seem unhinged.
Despite some investment in rehabilitation or diversion programs, lawmakers spent decades ratcheting up the severity of punishments for possession of illegal drugs.
If this approach worked, we would have seen a decrease in drug possession and related arrests. But drug possession remains widespread, and, as of 2016, opioid overdose claims the life of one person every 16 minutes.
That’s why my group, Prison Fellowship, has prepared "The Drug Report: A Review of America’s Disparate Possession Penalties." The report examines penalties across state and federal jurisdictions for possession of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Based on our findings, we are calling for a restorative approach that prevents the misuse of drugs, breaks the cycle of addiction, and invests in consistent accountability that includes treatment and rehabilitation.
Justice by geography
In our research, we discovered that drug possession penalties vary widely by geography. For example, an adult in Colorado can legally possess an ounce of marijuana for personal use, but in neighboring Utah, that would be a misdemeanor offense carrying a six-month jail term and a fine of up to $1,000.
Differing federal penalties complicate the picture even more.
Many candidates running for federal office boast about their position on drug possession laws—but do the people who use drugs even care about federal enforcement? For example, federal punishments remain unchanged for marijuana possession, even as some states have legalized and seen consumer use increase. This suggests that users never really factored federal penalties into their choices in the first place.
A person using illegal drugs may be hard-pressed to know the punishment for their actions in any given place. This confusion undermines the intended deterrent effect of all those increased penalties. Those who can’t understand the law are more likely to disregard it. If the federal government wants Americans to take drug laws more seriously, lawmakers should embrace their creativity in crafting policy responses to drug possession in a way that is mindful of outcomes.
Increase diversionary spending
Harsh drug policies fail to curb drug use because they start with the wrong premise. Drugs are not the primary problem facing an addicted person. Rather, drug abuse is usually a misguided attempt to solve or manage a deeper problem — like depression, PTSD, or low self-worth.
State reforms have already shown that diverting a person from incarceration to a restorative community is very effective. In a program where they can work through their problems and change their behaviors, more people are able to break free from addiction.
We tell people addicted to drugs that their continued abuse of substances is unhealthy and unproductive. Likewise, we should recognize that draconian penalties for possession aren't healthy for society. They just don't work. We need better solutions. Increased spending on restorative diversionary programming is a start.
A restorative approach to drug laws
Prison Fellowship does not endorse or support the use of the drugs for recreational purposes, but our ministry works to ensure that every person who has made the choice to break the law is met with justice that provides an opportunity for restoration. We want incarcerated people to find freedom from their underlying problems so they will never again feel compelled to use drugs or break the law.
That’s why we support treating drug possession through alternative forms of accountability. The default approach should be one that aims to restore people so they can move on with healthy, law-abiding lives while avoiding a criminal record where possible. Lawmakers should reexamine the criminal sentences currently within their statutes and focus on crafting proportional responses that best solve the underlying problems leading to illegal drug use and addiction.
Justice that treats people like people
Freedom from the affliction of drug abuse should be available to anyone who seeks it. The insane cycle of drugs and incarceration must end.
Our country, communities, and the people who misuse drugs deserve a justice system that restores — one that succeeds where a harsh and confusing patchwork of penalties has failed.