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Opinion: A Compassion War Against Drug Users

A dose of compassion needed to end the War on Drug Users.

With the winding down of the Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's time to wind down America's longest-running war of all: the War on Drugs, and replace it with a compassionate offensive for the drug users we now demonize, at such great cost to all of us.

The drug war is waged primarily against young blacks and Hispanics and the urban centers they inhabit, even though middleclass, suburban whites use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate as their poorer, darker-skinned fellow Americans who bear the major brunt of law enforcement.

This long-running and losing war -- first declared by President Nixon in 1970 when its primary targets were anti-Vietnam War protesters -- has fueled a uniquely American disease: "mass incarceration."

As spelled out by Columbia professor Ernest Drucker in a new book, "A Plague of Prisons: the Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America," since 1970, the number of Americans in federal prisons has swelled by nearly a thousand percent -- from 21,000 to more than 200,000 thousand.

But the biggest increase, by far, is in state prisons, where the inmate population has jumped from 178,000 to 1.4 million, a nearly eightfold increase. In New Jersey "state inmates increased fourfold, from 5,704 to more than 25,000," according to public policy analyst Ronald Fraser in a recent op-ed.

And among the 50 states, New Jersey ranks No. 1 in terms of the proportion of drug offenders in the overall prison population. "African Americans account for 13 percent of the population of New Jersey," but they are 63 percent of prisoners and 81 percent of "admissions for drug offenses," according to data provided by the Drug Policy Alliance. Little wonder the drug war has been rightly labeled the "new Jim Crow."

And still Americans continue to use illegal drugs at about the same rate as when the drug war started more than 40 years ago.

The casualties of this war can be measured in the lives and communities devastated by the criminalization of certain drugs, but also in the cost to taxpayers to pay for this "prison industrial complex." A recent "Atlantic Monthly" article summed it up this way: one year of prison costs more than one year at Princeton."

As author Brian Resnick points out, annual tuition at Princeton University comes to $37,000; one year at a New Jersey state prison costs $44,000. Today there are some 820,000 men and women of color behind bars, three times as many as are enrolled in colleges.

What will it take to call a halt to the drug wars? I believe it will require more than a comparison of dollars spent on incarceration vs. higher education, as much as that helps bring the issue into focus. It will take a renewal of tolerance and, yes, compassion for those among us who are the main victims of criminalization of certain drugs.

Why, we should ask ourselves, are the users of some harmful drugs treated with sympathy and even loving attention, such as many alcoholic relatives or friends? But if you are hooked on an illegal drug, such as heroin -- and may need to steal to support the habit -- you are subject to arrest and imprisonment, and most likely denied drug treatment, and forced to go cold turkey in a crowded cell.

Drug users are people too. Some of them use marijuana to ease the pain and debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, cancer, and AIDS. At last count, 16 states, including at long last New Jersey, have passed "medical marijuana" laws. But the law in the Garden State remains stuck in limbo, which means sufferers must continue to obtain the cannabis they need from illegal sources while the Christie administration delays implementation.

What we need is a compassionate offensive, not a renewed drug war. A compassionate offensive starts with the enactment of the clean needle bill, A-1088, which aligns New Jersey with 48 other states in permitting over-the-counter purchases of syringes from pharmacies without a doctor's prescription. The bill has been approved with bipartisan majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly. It is now on the Governor's desk awaiting his decision whether to sign it.

The case for A-1088 becoming law was summarized in the headline of a recent Star Ledger editorial: "Saving lives with a signature."

As New Jerseyans head into this holiday season of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa -- exchanging gifts and spending time with friends and loved ones -- it's also a time to show compassion for those who are in desperate need of it. Mitt Romney infamously said "Corporations are people, too." I say that drug users are people. Period.

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