We Cannot Arrest Our Way Out of Substance Use

Tamika Spellman
February 1, 2022


An opinion piece by Decrim Poverty

Clearly, America has not learned its lessons from Prohibition. Criminalizing adult behaviors, acts, and substances has been a failure throughout our history, and rather than heeding the warnings from our collective past, institutionalized stigma and discrimination have once again led us down the path of senselessly harmful policy-making. Looking back at the history of alcohol prohibition, there was clearly a shift in the American society’s view of alcohol; yet, we continue the legacy of prohibition through “War on Drugs” policies that have created this current mess. How could we so quickly forget how crime, deaths, and the mob-controlled black market flourished under Prohibition? Why would we continue to perpetuate this model instead of promoting the kind of sensible legislation we have now for alcohol use/consumption?

The era of Prohibition was a horrible time in American history, all because our government attempted to control people’s behavior instead of putting regulations in place to provide levels of protection to improve everyone’s health and safety. Through decriminalization, alcohol became safer. For example, access to alcohol is restricted for minors, and systems are in place for addressing chaotic use. America shifted to a position of harm reduction instead of moralistic and punitive laws that infringed on people’s freedom over their bodies and their lives.

Relaxing alcohol prohibition significantly reduced crime, criminal activity, mob activity, and the black market. Marijuana legislation has had similar effects, whether it is decriminalized/legalized for medical use, recreational use, or both. We have years of data documenting the failure of both alcohol and drug prohibition. Even if law enforcement believes differently, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. So why do we continue to prohibit consenting adults from making choices about their own bodies?

If we never try other methods, how can we know what alternative solutions could look like, or how we all might benefit from them?

“Don’t tread on me” is my mantra…. The American way is, and has always been, to live and let live. Imagine letting people free from criminality regardless of their substance use? Do we know what that means — to accept a person who uses substances as a whole person? So many basic — and even necessary — things are restricted from people who use substances, like housing and employment.

One thing I know is people who want to work should be able to work, no matter whether they use or what substance they use. Why is it acceptable to prohibit qualified candidates from employment because they fail a drug screening? Everyone does not suffer from addiction or behavioral problems because of using, so exactly what purpose does it serve? Data proves most people do not use substances on the job. The perception that everyone who uses will do something catastrophic — like set the building on fire or steal from their employer — is a false narrative that is instilled by propaganda to frighten people into compliance. Why can’t substance use be treated like alcohol (which, by the way, is highly addictive and likely to elicit violent behavior more so than many drugs that are far more heavily policed and criminalized)? Why not pass laws that address humane standards at work instead of blanket policies that essentially say people who use drugs have no value or worth to the job/employment markets?

Many successful people use cocaine, including wall street brokers, traders, and bankers. Why the different approach to the same behavior? Is it a rich or poor thing? A Black, Brown, or White thing? Why do we place greater trust in bankers, lawyers, and politicians who use drugs to do their jobs than we do a janitor? A retail worker? A factory worker?

Marginalized community members suffer the most from systemic oppression, policing, the judicial system, employment discrimination, and housing insecurity. Black and Brown folks and the poor have been the most impacted by the “War on Drugs.” Often arrested for small amounts of substances, they have also served some of the longest sentences in history. Black and Brown people also represent a larger presence in prison in proportion to their population size by race/ethnicity. So many people, families, and communities have been harmed by these policies — to no measurable avail. As stated before and documented, drug use remains constant, neither rising nor falling in spite of the aggressive, destructive, and enormously expensive ‘War on Drugs’.

Trillions of dollars have been spent fighting distributors and users with no end in sight. These are often people on the fringes, struggling to survive in a capitalist system where money is king. Just imagine what we could have if we abandon current policy for one that is evidence-based and centered around health and harm reduction? The possibilities are endless when we start to imagine what it would look like for our nation to start investing in care, rather than incarceration. We could have comprehensive mental and physical healthcare. We could have the stellar education system we deserve. We could have conflict resolution and crisis intervention instead of police using force when we should be focusing on behavioral change.

Replacing systems of punishment with systems of support for drug users looks like ensuring a safer drug supply, safer consumption sites, and 24-hour harm reduction centers. While these concepts may seem radical, I ask you to look, once again, and revisit the policies that led us out of Prohibition. Liquor, too, used to be so stigmatized that people could not imagine what it would look like for it to be legal and safe. But here we are. Bars are literally safer consumption sites where people use alcohol socially. Liquor stores are safe supply distributors where people can go to purchase alcohol to consume wherever they choose. It makes perfect sense for us to move in that direction in regards to other drugs and substance use more broadly.

The time is now; it has been fifty years of nothing gained, and we lost more than we should have. Real human lives have been lost that we cannot get back. But we can stop unnecessary losses tomorrow and in the future by simply shifting away from what we know doesn’t work and move onto what we know does.