How do you know if you’re against the War on Drugs?

Amy Lieberman
J.D. Candidate 2017, UCI Law

The Students for a Sensible Drug Policy mission statement begins with this sentence:  Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is the only international network of students dedicated to ending the war on drugs.  The concept of the War on Drugs is not a simple one, and it can be confusing to understand exactly what makes a “sensible drug policy,” because there is no set answer to this complex question. Drug policy reform must start with awareness.  One of our goals at SSDP is to help people find the answer to the question:  How do I know if I am against the War on Drugs?

Do you value individual liberties?  Drug use may cause addiction or erratic behavior in some people, but others can use some drugs casually and responsibly.  If you believe in the freedom to choose what you do with your own body and mind, the government ban on certain drugs may infringe upon your belief of personal freedom.

Are you nervous about the growing prison-industrial complex?  An overwhelming number of people incarcerated in the United States are there because of drug-related crimes, many of which are non-violent. As our prisons continue to be managed by for-profit corporations, these corporations are incentivized to lobby for stronger crackdowns on the use and sale of drugs to make sure that they have an abundance of prisoners to populate their cells.

Would you like to find new ways to treat mental health disorders?  Some drugs that are currently used recreationally were developed to help treat mental health disorders like PTSD and depression in conjunction with therapy.  Making those drugs illegal has limited the amount of research scientists can do on the effectiveness of those drugs on psychiatric patients.

Is gang violence disturbing your neighborhood?  Many of the activities that street gangs participate in relate to the sale of illegal drugs such as fighting over territory in which to control the drug trade.  Were these drugs made available in a legal way, gang leaders would lose their profit and their power over drug trafficking in their neighborhoods.  In fact, crime rates have already dropped in states that have legalized marijuana.

Do you want young adults to have equal educational opportunities?  One of the driving forces behind the formation of SSDP was the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Penalty (HEAAEP).  This penalty blocked anyone convicted of a drug crime from receiving financial aid for college.  In most situations, this would entirely prevent someone from getting a college education.  Through the efforts of SSDP, many of the provisions have been repealed; however, there are still students today that lose all federal aid should they be charged with a simple possession crime. Therefore, numerous students are prevented from obtaining a higher education due to petty crimes.

Would you like to help control the spread of infectious disease? America’s War on Drugs forces drug addicts underground.  Many blood borne pathogens like HIV and Hepatitis are spread within the intravenous drug user population through the sharing of needles and through the use of dirty needles because users fear legal repercussions should they attempt to buy clean needles or come forward for help.  Needle exchange programs are a good start, but until criminal penalties for drug use are eliminated or lessened, the spread of disease will continue.  UC Irvine’s medical school, for instance, has started a needle exchange program for Orange County that will be working with the law school’s Community and Economic Development clinic starting this year.

Are you alarmed at the kidnappings and murders happening across our southern border?  The drug cartels in Mexico and overseas love American drug laws.  Controlling the sale and distribution of illegal drugs enables these cartels to become powerful and rich. These cartels have already felt the sting of the few states that have legalized marijuana. Unfortunately, when the price for one drug goes down due to legalization, other illegal drugs will flood the market to allow those in power to remain powerful. Heroin, which is not legal in any state and has a much higher potential for addiction and abuse than marijuana, has become the drug of choice for many cartels simply because legalization in some states has devastated the marijuana business of these cartels.

How important is finding a cure for cancer (and relief from many other illnesses) to you?  Researchers have found that cannabis is helpful for alleviating symptoms like pain, nausea, and a lack of appetite among cancer and HIV patients and those suffering from conditions such as MS and glaucoma. There is even some evidence that cannabis extracts may have cancer-fighting properties that could lead to a cure. It is difficult to explore what medical remedies cannabis and other psychoactive drugs may have in store for us when there are stiff penalties in place criminalizing possession of these substances.

Do you want children to make informed decisions when confronted with the opportunity to use drugs?  Many of you may have been exposed to the D.A.R.E. program during your youth.  This program teaches complete abstinence from drug use. It often contains erroneous information, and uses scare tactics.  Programs like D.A.R.E. and corresponding television ads fail to educate our children about drug use. In fact, studies have shown that this kind of abstinence-only approach increases the likelihood that children will use drugs.  Children “graduate” from these programs with no practical knowledge of dealing with situations involving drugs aside from a “Just say No” approach.

Would you like to help victims of drug addiction? It is, of course, possible that none of the arguments above were compelling to you. Drug addiction can be horrifying and take its toll on not only the addict, but on the addict’s family members, friends, and community.  With that said, perhaps the best reason one might be against the War on Drugs is because they want to HELP those caught up in the throes of addiction.  The War on Drugs is, and has been from its very start, a campaign to criminalize drugs and drug users.  Through its tactics of arrests and incarcerations, it creates a permanent underclass of people who continue to get no actual help to break their addiction, but, instead, are regularly cycled through our prisons.  For instance, youth offenders often lose their right to an education, their right to vote, and their opportunity for employment because of their convictions. These repercussions only increase the separation of these youths from society and their susceptibility to continued addiction. The U.S. spends $51 billion dollars annually on the War on Drugs, and yet people continue to suffer.  The only way to truly help those addicted to drugs is to change the way our government and our society deal with the problems of poverty, mass incarceration, and mental health through drug policy reform Ultimately, the search for a sensible drug policy will take effort on the part of all of us.