By Danielle Allen for The Washington Post. To argue for legalization of marijuana and decriminalization of other drugs does not, at first blush, appear to put one on the side of the angels, especially given the accelerating heroin epidemic. But legalization and decriminalization are what we need if we want to make headway against mass incarceration, high homicide rates in urban black communities and poor educational outcomes in urban schools. If we view drug use as a public health problem, not a crime, we can fight drugs without producing the other sorts of social damage we see all around us.
Americans from all racial groups pursue narcotic-related leisure activities, spending an estimated $100 billion a year on their illegal drugs, according to a report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In this current period of fairly active military engagement, the nation’s defense budget is roughly $600 billion. In other words, our culture of illegal drug use must be pretty important to amount to a full sixth of our budget for national defense.
Yet despite this evidence of far-reaching social acceptance of illegal drug use, we continue to lock up nonviolent offenders. Ceasing this hypocritical practice by releasing nonviolent offenders is morally urgent. Yet this would be only a small step toward rectification of the problem of mass incarceration. As the Web site FiveThirtyEight recently reported, such a move would reduce our state and federal prison populations by only about 14 percent. We would still be the world’s leading imprisoner.