This article was published in partnership with The News Station as part of its special series, “50 at 50: The Faces of America's War on Drugs,” marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Drugs. Sign up for The News Station's newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.
For me and my family, the “War on Drugs” has been more like a war on freedom and success and opportunity. I’ve been in and out of jail and prison for 25 years simply because I have an addiction that has been criminalized by the misguided policies of my own government and stigmatized by a puritan-minded society.
Yet, if I’d been offered treatment like for any other disease, I probably wouldn’t be in prison today.
The crusade against drugs was actually first launched in 1930, when a man named Harry Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. According to author Leslie Jamison in her seminal addiction memoir, “The Recovering,” Anslinger “effectively channeled the punitive impulse that had fueled prohibition — to see addiction in terms of weakness, selfishness, failure and danger — and redirected it toward narcotics.”
This ethos of retaliation versus rehabilitation carried on for decades through the lock-’em-up propaganda of “drug mania,” and it eventually reached the Nixon and Reagan administrations. This was the beginning of a new era of punishment — one that I fell headlong into after getting hooked on drugs as a young adult — and the mass incarceration of drug addicts within a failed criminal justice system.
I’m a 44-year-old repeat offender currently serving a 10-year sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections for grand theft — a nonviolent crime I committed to support my addiction to prescription pain pills. Every offense I’ve ever committed was related to my addiction, yet I’ve never been offered drug treatment or alternative care. I was bullied into plea bargains that threw me behind bars and into a machine of mass incarceration, forgotten in the fray and alienated from the social order.
I am not a victim. I accept full responsibility for my bad choices, and I’m guilty of all charges. However, I was never afforded an opportunity for reconciliation between me and the actual victims of my crimes. Nor did I receive any opportunity for self-improvement instead of prison. The “War on Drugs” doesn’t advocate rehab — just a penalty.
People often asked me why I couldn’t straighten my life out, even after having lost so much. Everything I’ve ever owned is gone. I’ve missed countless family events: weddings, births, graduations, funerals and vacations. My relationships have withered on the vine while I raised my sons as a phantom father. I’ve aged behind bars. The list of strikes is endless. I don’t know how to answer my family and friends. What do I say?
I’m an addict and will always need to be in recovery. When I got out, it was too difficult to get my life back together, so I took the easy route and numbed my pain with drugs. I never got the help I needed. Drugs led me to eventual debt and crime. Crime led me back to prison.
I promised my family over and over that this would be the last arrest, the last time in jail, the last prison stint, the last mistake.
On every level, law enforcement agencies are fighting addicts by putting people like me behind bars. This effort is led at the executive level by a presidentially appointed “drug czar,” the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The outdated policy of locking up addicts for long periods of time is cruel and counterproductive. Addiction is a disease that is curable through treatment, but the focus remains largely on punishment. Correctional institutions throughout the country have depleted their budgets by incarcerating men and women en masse, all while law enforcement officers continually fight the old “War on Drugs” which hasn’t garnered any meaningful results in 50 years.
The racist policies and mandatory sentences rooted in the misguided 80s and 90s war on crack cocaine — which mostly affected poor young Black men — are now netting a broader spectrum of addicts hooked on prescription pain pills and heroin, creating a new manifestation of the same injustices.
Our country’s jails and prisons now hold an estimated 2.3 million men and women — many of whom are first-time, nonviolent offenders who’ve committed minor crimes such as drug possession, theft and prostitution in order to support their addiction. In certain states like California, Texas and Florida, over 50% of the inmate population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses that involve lengthy or minimum-mandatory sentences, oftentimes followed by nearly unattainable probation conditions upon release.
The outcry in the United States over mass incarceration of drug offenders and marginalized people is real and apropos, but until the echoing screams of reform reach the halls of state capital buildings and the Biden White House, these cries during the zeitgeist of 2021 may go unheard by the lawmakers who affect real change.
We as citizens can and should protest the 50-year-old failure of the “War on Drugs,” but until elected politicians begin to change the laws to reflect a more modern and progressive way of thinking, more families like mine will be devastated, and this nation will not reach its true potential as the “land of the free.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.