Is the drug problem in America a criminal justice issue or a public health crisis? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. But more importantly, the answer to that question has huge implications for how Wisconsin and the federal government should be responding to drug abuse and drug offenses.
The problems with state and federal drug laws and sentencing guidelines are well-documented. In the majority of states, including Wisconsin, African Americans are many times more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes than whites are. Yet statistics show that the rate of drug use among African Americans is comparable to the rate among whites.
While the war on drugs has always been controversial, perhaps the most highly criticized aspect has been the strict enforcement of marijuana laws. Many studies suggest that marijuana is safer in some ways than alcohol and tobacco cigarettes, both of which are legal for adults. And even as this drug has been legalized in many states for medical use, an astonishing number of Americans continue to face arrest and prosecution each year for simple possession.
Last week, we wrote about challenging the lawfulness of a traffic stop, which is one option for defending against DUI charges. An officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime or violation has occurred if he wants to pull over a driver. This is often based on erratic driving that could indicate alcohol impairment or an observed problem with the vehicle that violates Wisconsin safety laws.
No one really wants to discuss race these days, particularly here in the Midwest. America likes to think of itself as a post-racial society, but there is plenty of data to demonstrate that this isn't true. This is one reason why the events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer have resonated so strongly around the country, including here in Wisconsin.
There is little doubt that American attitudes are changing about drug use and drug laws. This is especially true of marijuana, which President Obama has even defended as safer than alcohol. Tired of waiting for the federal government to act, many states have begun legalizing marijuana for medical use with some decriminalizing possession of certain amounts.
What would Wisconsin look like if drugs were decriminalized? What would the United States or the rest of the world look like? For decades, proponents of increasingly strict anti-drug laws have been warning that the decriminalization of drugs would essentially lead to the downfall of society.
America’s war on drugs has last lasted for decades with no clear winner and an unacceptable number of casualties. The consequences can still be seen and felt here in Wisconsin and in every other state. But now, as public attitudes about drug use and abuse continue to evolve, actions are being taken that could reduce prison overcrowding and amend disproportionately harsh sentences given to non-violent drug offenders.
Last month, we wrote that Wisconsin legislators have been working to pass bills that could significantly reduce the number of overdose deaths from street drugs such as heroin. The rate of fatal heroin overdoses has risen sharply nationwide in recent years.
While the criminal justice system was designed to be fair and predictable, it does not always live up to this goal. This is especially true when it comes to the sentencing rules and guidelines for federal drug offenses. Drug laws have become exponentially stricter over the last few decades, fueled largely by zealous politicians who wanted to appear tough on crime.