We've heard it all of our lives, beginning from the time we were small children: Drugs are bad, so just say no! While this is certainly good advice, and while it's imperative that children be taught to stay away from harmful substances, all we have to do is look at the current drug crime statistics to realize that simply telling kids to "say no" hasn't worked. If this approach has largely failed, what can we do to give ourselves a better chance at succeeding? It's helpful to understand a little more about the history of illegal drugs in the United States, to truly understand the widespread, devastating havoc they've caused.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that 10% of US adults have had (or will have) a drug use disorder at some point in their lives, and in 2018, the United States had 67,367 recorded drug overdose deaths. Clearly drugs have been a scourge on our country, and in addition to causing senseless deaths and ruining otherwise promising lives through addiction, the wide-spread incarceration resulting from drug offenses has ripped whole families apart, especially in minority communities of color. In the US in 2018, 1,654,282 people were arrested for criminal drug violations-a shocking number.
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It's widely understood that communities of color bear an uneven share of the incarceration numbers, (at least partly) due to racist drug laws-meaning that our current laws carry uneven penalties for possession of very similar types of drugs, even though all drugs have the power to devastate lives. To truly understand this disparity, we need to take a deeper look at the history.
The wide-spread crack down on drugs in the United States began in 1971 when then-President Richard Nixon (correctly) declared drug abuse to be "public enemy number one." He subsequently greatly increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and drug-treatment efforts. But the effort truly expanded to more closely resemble what we have now when Reagan announced his 'War on Drugs,' in 1982, declaring drugs to be a national security threat. Since then, the United States has incarcerated more people for drug offenses than any other country in the world, at a cost of 47 billion dollars per year. And yet, our drug addiction numbers keep climbing.
When the War on Drugs was declared, the United States had already had extensive past experience with trying to outright ban certain harmful substances. The total banning of alcohol in the US, known as "prohibition," lasted from January 17, 1920 - December 5, 1933, and was billed as a noble experiment to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems through the reduction of the tax burden created by prisons, and improve health overall in America. However, we have to admit that it definitely did not work as intended, instead giving rise to an explosion in illegal alcohol distillation, lining the pockets of organized crime and giving law enforcement authorities a real run for their money. It turns out that people addicted to alcohol will do just about anything to get it. This is not unlike the current criminalization of drugs.
Alcohol is now legal, and while heavily taxed, still ruins countless lives. Illegal drugs are a similar scourge upon our country that must be guarded against. But, we must admit that the current astronomical cost of keeping drug users in prison, coupled with the ineffectiveness of current anti-drug campaigns means something needs to change. Given the incredible damage illegal drugs can do to an otherwise promising life, perhaps the solution is more drug intervention, more drug treatment, and more resources in general to help people kick the crippling cycle of addiction.
Although all illegal drugs can ruin lives, as far as the US criminal justice system is concerned, all drugs are definitely not created equal. Have you ever wondered why some drugs carry a large criminal penalty and some drugs carry a far lesser one? One might (naturally) assume that it has to do with the harmfulness of the drug, or with how addictive the drug is, but this is not the case. Drug laws in this country have been influenced by politics, money, and special interests, which—as you might imagine—makes for a pretty muddled and wholly unjust mess. For instance, possession of crack cocaine (considered since the "War On Drugs" began to be a "street drug" and used in larger numbers by African Americans) carries a far stiffer penalty than possession of the same amount of powdered cocaine (considered to be more of a "party drug" among white offenders.) Since cocaine in any form can ravage a body beyond recognition, it's hard to come up with a reasonable medical explanation for the disparity.
To understand the inequalities in drug criminalization, we have to look separately at both arrests and sentencing. The arrest disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine is currently 18 to 1, meaning that 18 times more people get arrested for crack than for powdered coke. And, since crack cocaine is more popular among the black community-well, you can do the math. In 2017, 27% of the people arrested for drug law violations were black, despite the fact that African Americans make up only 13.4% of the US population. Crack users are also at a much higher risk than powder cocaine users for reporting a lifetime arrest or multiple recent arrests, and also tend to be of lower socioeconomic status compared to powder cocaine users.
And when it comes to sentencing, the disparity gets even worse. From 1991 to 2001, nine times as many Black people as white people went to federal prison for crack offenses. Black people's sentences for crack were double that for white offenders in federal court during that period: 148 months compared to 84 months.
As we learned above, the possession of powdered cocaine carries a far lesser sentence criminal sentence than does possession of the same amount of crack cocaine. Up until 2010 when President Barak Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, the possession of just five grams of crack cocaine would demand a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act changed the ratio of crack to powder cocaine from 100-to-one to 18-to-one. An improvement to be sure, but still quite shocking. In truth, the United States actually has a far worse powdered cocaine problem than it does a crack problem, with 12% of adults reporting coke use and only 4% reporting crack use. Yet crack users are still at higher risk for an arrest, or multiple arrests, in their lifetime.
Now that we understand at little bit about the history of drug criminalization, we can move on to learning about that categories of drugs. Illegal drugs are classified into seven different categories, based on their overall effects on the human body.
These depressants slow down the operations of the body and especially the brain. They can affect one's ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery. These depressants include alcohol, barbiturates, anti-anxiety tranquilizers like Valium, Librium, Xanax, Prozac, and Thorazine, GHB, Rohypnol, and many other anti-depressants like Zoloft, and Paxil.
Stimulants elevate the blood pressure and accelerate the heart rate, "stimulating" the body as well as the mind. These stimulants include powdered cocaine, "crack" cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine ("crank").
Hallucinogens cause the person who has ingested them to perceive things differently than they actually are. They can see, hear, and feel things that aren't actually there. Examples of these include LSD, peyote, psilocybin and MDMA (Ecstasy).
Dissociative anesthetics include drugs that mask the body's interpretation of pain by cutting off or dissociating the brain's perception of it. PCP and dextromethoraphan are some examples.
Narcotic analgesics induce euphoria, relieve pain, and create mood changes in the user. Examples of these include opium, codeine, heroin, demerol, darvon, morphine, methadone, Vicodin, and oxycontin. These can be extremely addictive and can get people hooked after even just one dose.
Inhalants are breathable substances that produce mind-altering effects. Examples of inhalants include Toluene, plastic cement, paint, gasoline, paint thinners, hair sprays, and various anesthetic gases. While often sourced from things found lying around the house, inhalants are very damaging to the brain and can impede brain function in the short term, and/or cause brain damage in the long term.
Otherwise known as marijuana, the active ingredient in cannabis is called "delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol," or THC. This category includes cannabinoids and synthetics like Dronabinol. Cannabis is known to have relaxing effects, and is now widely used for medical purposes, like relieving nausea for patients going through chemotherapy.
Additionally, drugs in the United States are also categorized by "schedules" based on the abuse rate of the particular drug and these classifications range from Schedule 1- Schedule 5. (Schedule 1 drugs have a high potential for abuse, and the potential for long-term dependence. Schedule 5 drugs represent the very least potential for abuse.) Thus, schedule 1 drugs carry the highest criminal penalties, and schedule 5 drugs carry the least.
These are drugs with no currently accepted medical/medicinal use and with a very high potential for abuse. These include: heroin, LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote.
Schedule II drugs still have a high potential for abuse and use of them can lead to severe physical and/or psychological dependence. Some examples of Schedule II drugs are: Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, Dilaudid, Demerol, Oxycontin, fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin.
These drugs have a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. These include ketamine, Tylenol with codeine in it, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.
These are drugs with a very low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Some examples of Schedule IV drugs are: Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, Talwin, Ambien, Tramadol.
These have the lowest potential for abuse. Examples of these include: cough medicines with less than 200 milligrams of codeine, Lomotil, Motofen, Lyrica, and Parepectolin.
Nationwide there has been a trend of decriminalizing marijuana on a state level, though it still has not yet happened on a federal level. In 1997, California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, and in 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize it for recreational purposes. Marijuana is now currently legal for recreational use in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states.
Does this mean that marijuana isn't harmful? Definitely not. Marijuana is still an incredibly harmful substance known to affect brain development in young users, and also known to sometimes be a gateway drug to using harder and more harmful substances. Despite the current trend of decriminalization, unless you have a valid medical need, it's best to steer clear.
If you or someone you care for has become dependent upon illegal drugs, you are never alone. Help is here, in any form you may need. As a people we are now more connected than ever and all it takes is the click of a button to find the resources you need. The most important thing is making the difficult decision to seek the help—a choice that could mean the difference between life and death for you or for someone that you love. Drug addiction isn't a death sentence if you muster the moxy and gumption to look it straight in the eye. This is a fight that can won. Reach out today.