POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 17, 2011
Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" and identified drug abuse as "Public Enemy No. 1" in order to seize on a "war" that he thought he could win. After costing taxpayers about $1 trillion, this war — characterized by beefed-up law enforcement, prosecution of low-level drug offenses and mandatory minimum prison sentences — has had little to no effect on the supply of, or demand for, drugs in the United States.
Instead, this war has contributed to our country's unfortunate distinction as the world's largest incarcerator. While the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of the world's population, it holds 25 percent of the world's prison population (locking up more people than China, India and Indonesia combined).
A whopping 2.3 million people (one in 100 U.S. adults) is incarcerated — a quarter of whom are behind bars for drug offenses. U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes, "In the grand scheme of things, (the war) has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."
In addition to being an abject failure in deterring drug availability and use at a colossal cost to taxpayers, the war on drugs has, quite shamefully, been a war on communities of color.
In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians bear a disproportionate burden of our state's punitive response to drug offenses. Native Hawaiians make up more than 30 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses, whereas only 10 percent of our state identifies as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Further, they are more likely to be imprisoned and for longer periods of time.
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To add insult to injury, Native Hawaiians, who make up a staggering 41 percent of inmates from Hawaii who are housed in private mainland facilities, are denied the ability to maintain and/or build connections with their families and communities; this denial reduces their likelihood of rehabilitation and reintegration.
With the 40th anniversary of the "war on drugs" now upon us, the time for reflection and reform is long overdue.
Most of Hawaii's drug offenders commit nonviolent crimes, with roughly 60 percent constituting mere drug possession. This fact should drive us to question whether the savings that we get from averting crime through incarceration is worth the costs (an estimated $600,000 per prisoner over a 39 month average length of stay).
We would do better to treat drug abuse as a health problem and invest in proven effective alternatives to incarceration like community drug treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration programs. Indeed, the State Task Force on Ice and Drug Abatement recommended in 2004 that the state divert more of its dollars to substance abuse programs.
Even in conservative Texas, recently implemented prison reforms prioritizing treatment over incarceration resulted in its crime rate dropping to its lowest level since the start of Nixon's war on drugs.
If we were to likewise change tactics and focus our energies on addressing drug addiction as a health issue, and seek to build healthy, safe and stable individuals, families and communities through treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration, we may just win this war.