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Dispatches from the Inside: A prisoner's take on the War on Drugs

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. 

May 25, 2012

I would like to applaud California State Sen. Mark Leno for introducing Senate Bill 1506, a bill that would lessen the penalties for possession of small amounts of controlled substances. As it now stands, anyone found guilty of possessing less than 28.5 grams of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other drugs without a prescription, are convicted of a felony. Sen. Leno’s bill would make simple possession of these substances a misdemeanor. The bill has cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee, and is scheduled for a vote before the full Senate later this month. Introduction of this bill is a refreshing flash of enlightenment by an elected official, but it remains to be seen whether rationality will prevail, or whether ideological fallacy will triumph over pragmatism once again.

SB 1506 is a small step in the right direction, but from a Utilitarian point of view, it doesn’t come close to addressing and correcting the numerous problems we as a society bear due to drug use and public policy surrounding the issue. Our prisons are filled with men and women convicted of using and possessing drugs, costing us billions of dollars per year to keep them behind bars. These pitiable individuals are stigmatized for the rest of their lives because of this condemnation, which ultimately encumbers whole families and even our communities themselves; through higher unemployment rates, loss of income and psychological after-effects, which accompany this stigmatization.

Our entire society’s civil liberties have been eroded during the almost 50 years of our government’s War on Drugs. Law enforcement has gained increasing authority to introduce into everyone’s lives, all in the name of the War on Drugs and Terror. And this all out warfare has been a failure by any measure. Drug use still persists in every city and shows no signs of disappearing anytime in the foreseeable future. The huge profits accrued through drug-trafficking has corrupted people from all walks of life, from incorrigible children to doctors and pharmacists, to prison guards and police officers. And let’s not forget the effects our misguided drug policies have on others. It is estimated that 50,000 people have died during the last six years alone, due to drug violence in Mexico, related to our national policies.

There is a much more humane way to deal with this problem. When it became apparent that the prohibition against alcohol was a failure, our government did the sensible thing and de-criminalized it. But, they didn’t stop there. They decided that they were going to control its manufacturing and distribution and by regulating how, where,  and by whom it could be consumed. The violence and corruption that accompanied illicit alcohol production and distribution disappeared almost overnight. Organized crime, which had profited immensely from alcohol had to seek other avenues for its illegitimate profits. The same will occur if presently illegal substances were decriminalized and regulated.

The societal benefits to this shift would be enormous. Billions of dollars now spent on interdiction and imprisonment could be shifted to public health and education. Taxes accrued from sales, like those from the sale of alcohol, could be used for the public’s benefit, rather than being squandered needlessly.

It’s time for common sense to prevail over superstitious hyperbole. I applaud Sen. Leno for taking a step in that direction, but to truly ameliorate the problem of drug use in this country, we must overcome our personal biases and do the more sensible thing.

Richard Gilliam

Crosscurrents prisonRichard Gilliam