Decriminalize every drug? NJ group adds up the reasons
On the 50th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “War on Drugs,” a new report has been issued that finds the effort has been a total failure in New Jersey, perpetuated racial injustice and wasted billions of dollars.
The New Jersey Policy Perspective report, “A War on Us: How Much New Jersey Spends Enforcing the War on Drugs”, concludes the war on drugs has led to institutionalizing discriminatory arrests and cost taxpayers vast sums of money while making the drug problem worse than ever.
During a rally outside the Statehouse, Jenna Mellor, a drug policy analyst for the New Jersey Policy Perspective and co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, said the drug war was never about never about public health but about "systematically targeting" minorities and people who use drugs.
“New Jersey has spent $11.6 billion over the past decade to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for the drug war violations; $5.1 billion to make arrests; $2.2 billion to prosecute people; and $4.3 billion to incarcerate people,” she said.
She said that’s almost 20 times greater than New Jersey’s investment in public health, and more than 40 times greater than the amount the state spends on rental assistance and homeless services.
Mellor said the report recommends dismantling the war on drugs in several different ways.
“First and foremost, a full stop to drug war arrests and drug criminalization, period. Decriminalize drugs," she said. "What the facts show are that most people that use a criminalized substance, including methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine, will not develop a substance use disorder.”
She pointed out for the 16% that do develop a disorder, factors such as lack of housing, experiencing violence, and not having a good paying job only make things worse “and so we are not only punishing people for a chronic health condition, but our punishments actively make the symptoms of that chronic health condition worse.”
The report also calls on lawmakers to publicly acknowledge the harms caused by the drug war, publish pubic data pertaining to drug war enforcement, conduct an audit of all public agencies to identify punishment-based policies, practices and regulations that discriminate or exclude people who use drugs.
It also recommends investing in equitable, evidence-based drug policies that prevent problematic drug use and support the health and well being of people who use drugs, and invest in Black and Latinx communities that have been most harmed by drug arrests.
She said over the past decade almost 20,000 preventable overdose deaths have taken place in New Jersey.
"Black residents are 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for a drug war offense, this report shows, and when you go to drugs other than marijuana the disparity is even greater," she said.
She added one of the main messages of the war on drugs has been that drugs themselves are the problem, but this is simply not true.
The report was applauded by U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. 12th District, who has introduced federal legislation to decriminalize the personal use and possession of all drugs.
She added the Drug Policy Reform Act that’s been introduced “shifts our approach to drugs from a punitive criminal approach to a restorative, health-based and evidence-based approach."
"We need an approach that recognizes that we need not lock people away; that those who are struggling should be handled by doctors and counselors, not judges and jailers," she said.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com