Sanders on drug policy

This piece was first published on 9/19/15 by Brother Francisco as Galtisalie for the I ♥ Democratic Socialism group at Daily Kos.

Individuals and families have internalized calendars of dates that aren’t always written down even if they are known. In my family, the dates, for good or for bad, often have something to do with drug addiction. For us, national drug policy is a matter of great interest, and even survival.

Today would have been Aunt Gloria’s (my mother’s half-sister) birthday, had she not lost her battle with drug addiction (OxyContin/heroin in the final years, before that cocaine). She’d be on Social Security by now if she’d lived. Instead she died alone, date uncertain. Her body was found days later in her apartment.

A couple of years before Gloria died, eight years ago next month, on a day I’ll always be thankful for, my brother and I were able to put the money together to pay for our little sister’s expensive treatment for drug addiction (OxyContin/heroin as the drug “of choice,” with cocaine and other hard drugs also in the mix) and to support her some financially during the first year post-treatment as she gradually rebuilt her life. We learned that getting detoxed and counseled for 28 days at an expensive high quality facility was just the start.

Because we were able to find some additional cash to do so, we could help her not only with initial treatment but also with the costs of room and board for a year at a special place for recovering women addicts. That way she was able to get a fresh start away from people and places with bad associations. Over time, she also came to realize the depth to which she was a victim of PTSD, which is not limited to victims of foreign wars.

So, in our family, we were able to pay the financial costs of another human being having a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it is still her life and her struggle, and to me, an ongoing miracle, and I take nothing for granted. When tough times come, as they always do, and she deals with them without using, I feel that another increment of a miracle has occurred.

We are so proud of her and thankful to have her. The little girl we grew up playing basketball with every day always had a big and loving heart. As a teenager she turned to hard drugs to cope with the stress of being a lesbian growing up hiding who she was in a dysfunctional fundamentalist household with a schizophrenic mother, of having dyslexia, and of being an untreated victim of sexual violence occurring both when she was in elementary school and again when she was in high school.

Our little sister is a wonderful human being who now is able to pass on much love and support to others, including our still living parents. My dad, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, now accepting of my sister’s sexuality and that of her loving partner, gets a smile on his old wrinkled face, and mist comes to his puffy old eyes, when he thinks about how thankful he is to have my little sister back. So, in my immediate family, one who was so lost has now been found. 🙂

But not every family has the resources to go down this privately-financed path to recovery, and indeed, other members of our extended family have not been so lucky and are now dead. Drug recovery should not be for the chosen few.

***

Now that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are among the artists and cultural leaders for Bernie is a good time to consider the toll not only some drugs but also the reckless and wasteful drug war takes on our world. If we thoughtfully redeploy the money we spend from criminalizing addiction to helping addicts, who often are filled with despair and have no where to turn short of dehumanizing coping strategies, committing drug-seeking crimes, and getting arrested, we would have a better society filled with more productive people.

Bernie Sanders has a sensible and detailed drug policy (please go to the link for those details and additional links, omitted in the quotes below).

Current State of the War on Drugs

Bernie believes that the war on drugs is ineffective and harmful, and has claimed from the country more than just money and manpower: it has destroyed people’s lives through mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders. As of June 2015, 48 percent of all federal inmates are in jail for drug-related offenses. Compare this figure to the fact that homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenders comprise only 2.9 percent of the federal prison population.

Bernie says, “What I can tell you is this: We have far, far, far too many people in jail for nonviolent crimes, and I think in many ways, the war against drugs has not been successful.”

He recognizes the enormous cost of the drug war not only on the federal and state budgets but also on human beings.

How much has the war on drugs cost us?

The U.S. spends $51 billion annually and over $1 trillion dollars since 1980, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

Of this amount, over half is allocated to reducing the supply of drugs. Less than 45 percent of the budget is devoted to demand reduction, such as treatment and education. According to the same DPA report, “Much [of the] federal funding for treatment is, in fact, funneled into the criminal justice system which is far less effective than health-based approaches.” Instead of receiving treatment, people are being funneled into a drug court.

But this amount doesn’t include the loss of productivity of millions of people?

Bernie links the war on drugs to a high rate of imprisonment as well as a high rate of unemployment:

“If you do not believe that there is a correlation between high youth unemployment and the fact that this country has more people in jail than any other country on Earth, you would be wrong. Now, how does it happen that in this great nation, we have more people in jail than the communist authoritarian country of China, which has over three times our population? And in my view — and I feel this very, very strongly — instead of locking up our young people, maybe it’s time we found jobs for them and education for them.”

Incarcerated nonviolent offenders can’t contribute to the economy. They also have trouble finding work once they are released from prison, adding to their chances of recidivism.

How has the war on drugs increased the prison population?

According to Pew research, since 1970, there’s been a 700 percent increase in the U.S. prison population. In 1980, there were 50,000 people in prison for drug-related charges.

Compare that to today — 1.5 million people are arrested each year for drug-related offenses and over 500,000 are behind bars. According to The Economist, “Tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars.”

Minorities are disproportionately represented in the prison system, and this is a direct result of the War on Drugs.

Approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, while 40 percent of the male prison population is black. Bernie often cites the fact that a black male baby born today has a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated during his lifetime.

According to the Sentencing Project, Blacks make up 12 percent of the nation’s drug users, yet represent 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45 percent of those in state prison for such offense as of 2005.

He is a careful policymaker who, while not yet ready to endorse the Colorado marijuana approach as national policy, wants to make drastic changes with sensible priorities.

Treatment for Drug Offenders: Nonviolent offenders should not be incarcerated. Instead, they should be allowed to access affordable treatment to address their drug dependencies.

Medical Use of Marijuana: Marijuana has medicinal properties and ought to be legalized for medicinal use.

Recreational Use of Marijuana: Evaluate how states like Colorado, which has completely legalized the use and sale of marijuana, fare on this topic before issuing a committed stance on the federal decriminalization of marijuana.

Addressing the Heroin Epidemic: Heroin abuse is at epidemic levels, and the United States doesn’t have the infrastructure nor the resources for proper treatment.

As one whose family for three generations has lost members to drug addiction and the drug war, but who also celebrates the hope and joy that can come to and through addicts like my sister, who has now been sober one day at a time for eight years, I say that it is time to give away the drug war and to give all addicts and their families the treatment and support they need.

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