The disparity between criminal sentencing for crack and powder cocaine was quite heinous; young black men carrying a rock or two got prison while young white men with a gram or two got probation. And that went on for years in this country.
President Obama recently signed the Fair Sentencing Act, aligning crack and powder cocaine punishment. That solves a severe inequity, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem: The desperate need for adequate treatment for people addicted to either crack or powder. Until we provide universal treatment until recovery for all who need it, the failed War on Drugs continues.
The necessity for drug treatment is obvious from the serious public health and safety threats caused by drug abuse that are completely separate from criminal sentencing issues. For example, frequent use of illegal drugs increases the likelihood of domestic violence. Another problem is drugged driving, and the fact that drug-using teens are at nearly three times greater risk for suicide. And we all know about the transmission of HIV and hep B and C. Overall quality of life is much worse for substance abusers. No matter the criminal penalties, these and many other health and safety threats are caused by drug abuse and dependence. But adequate treatment until recovery could have a profound effect; it’s shown to reduce many types of criminal behavior other than drug possession and to improve quality of life.
What we need is a health system where everyone who comes to primary, emergency or other medical settings and presents symptoms of substance dependence or abuse is assessed and referred for proper treatment. Then, proper treatment continues until the patient achieves recovery. Anything less continues the War on Drugs mentality. Until we truly begin treating all substance abuse and addiction as health issues, we will always be treating them like a crime.
Unfortunately, our country is decimating drug and alcohol treatment right now. Google “budget cuts drug treatment” and the results will truly depress you. Substance abuse treatment cuts are particularly hitting state prisons. We’ll never break the cycle this way. We’re going backward from where we were a decade ago.
Aligning crack and powder cocaine penalties was important, but it was a fairness issue. It corrected an injustice. It did not correct the basic problem underlying the failed War on Drugs that we still don’t treat substance addiction and abuse as health problems.