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Reaction Time: The War On Drugs Is Literally Insane

Ariana Aboulafia |
October 21, 2014 | 6:40 p.m. PDT


The war on drugs hurts more than it helps. (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Facebook)
The war on drugs hurts more than it helps. (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Facebook)
Imagine you are riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle. You’re busy, tired and hungry, so you have brought some food in the car with you and a utensil to eat it with. You eat, throw out the container the food came in and throw the spoon in your purse to bring it home.

Then, your car is pulled over by the police, who, in the course of what you thought was a traditional traffic stop, notice the spoon in your purse and begin asking you questions about it. You answer truthfully, perhaps a bit perplexed as to why the officer is questioning you so harshly; after all, it’s just a spoon. You tell the officer that the “residue” he has noticed on the spoon is simply leftover food, but he does not believe you. And, because he does not believe you, suddenly you find yourself arrested, charged with possession of methamphetamines and behind bars. 

Well, that escalated quickly. 

Although this situation seems like something I just made up for illustrative purposes (and oh, how I wish it was), it's not. This actually happened to a 23-year old resident of Georgia named Ashley Huff. On July 2, Huff was the passenger in a car that was pulled over, presumably for a routine traffic stop or violation. Police noticed that she had a spoon in her purse with “residue” on it, which she explained to them was simply sauce that was left on the spoon from earlier when she had eaten a can of SpaghettiOs, thrown the empty can away and then put the spoon in her bag to bring home. Despite her explanation, the officer ran a “field test” (a test that can be administered by officers on-site to confirm the presence of illicit substances) on the spoon and charged Huff with possession of methamphetamines. Apparently the officer in question watches “Breaking Bad” a bit too often for his own good.

When the field test returned a false positive, Huff was jailed for two weeks, then released on her own recognizance on the condition that she would make a series of appearances in court. After missing one of these appearances, she was jailed again from August 2 - September 18 because she could not afford to post bail. On September 18, after the lab analysis on the spoon came back clear (tested negative for all illicit substances), she was released and the charges against her were dropped. 

On September 18. After being jailed for more than a month. For eating SpaghettiOs in the car and keeping the spoon. 

Had Huff been suspected of committing a violent crime, like assault or murder, (and had that expectation been backed up by field evidence, as her expected drug possession was in this case) I would be completely in favor of jailing her until police were able to make absolutely sure that she was not guilty. Although they may purport to be, rights in America are not inalienable. We give up aspects of our so-called “rights” each and every day as a sacrifice to the “greater good” (which, we tell ourselves, is our safety as a whole). If you think this is not true, think about how many unwarranted searches (and, perhaps, seizures) you go through so that you can get on an airplane. So, this is not a question of rights. Nor, even, is this a question of “innocent until proven guilty” – in the mind of the officer, I’m sure, when the field test came back positive for methamphetamines, Huff was proven guilty, and that was enough for him to place her in jail until more conclusive evidence came back.

Rather, this is an issue of America’s failed "War on Drugs," and how it overwhelmingly targets and victimizes the poor. Legally, the officer didn’t do anything wrong – methamphetamines are a schedule II drug, associated with a high potential for misuse and addiction and regulated under the Controlled Substances Act. If you are convicted of possession of methamphetamines (or any other schedule II drug) in the state of Georgia and it is your first offense, you are subject to penalties, including 2-15 years in prison, and fines (plus a permanent mark on your criminal record, which can prevent you from getting certain jobs among other things). If it’s your second or third offense, expect to get 5-30 years in prison, plus fines. Clearly, the state of Georgia takes possession of methamphetamines pretty seriously, so the officer’s arrest makes sense legally and procedurally. But, since this column discusses common sense reactions, let’s take that approach for a second. Common sense-wise, the arrest (and particularly Huff’s subsequent six-week stint in prison) makes no sense at all. 

A field test has the potential to be the only piece of evidence that stands between someone being set free and someone being sent to jail for a drug charge. However, it is known that field tests have been inaccurate in the past – for example, in December 2013 when an officer pulled a couple over for driving five miles per hour over the speed limit and ended up arresting them on drug trafficking charges after a field test supposedly confirmed that two “suspicious” blocks of homemade soap contained cocaine. After the couple was jailed for a month, a lab analysis of the soap came back completely negative for cocaine, and they were released.

Sound familiar? If a field test is going to take away someone’s freedom, there needs to be little to no potential for error from them. The fact that a clearly fallible field test is being taken as near-indisputable evidence is a huge flaw in our legal justice system: officers need to be trained on how to give these tests and the tests themselves need to be more accurate if they’re going to be used in this manner. Even more than the issue of the field test, though, is the issue of why our country thinks that drugs are such a big deal as to compromise common sense in the first place.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. In 2012, one out of every 108 adults was incarcerated in federal, state or local jails. A large number of those incarcerations were likely drug charges – in the same year, 1.55 million people were arrested in the US on nonviolent drug charges, although the number that were actually incarcerated is unclear. In Georgia alone, over 43,700 people are arrested for a drug offense each year. Clearly the American War on Drugs negatively affects thousands of people annually, many of whom (like Huff) may have been innocent all along. Not only does the War on Drugs harm Americans generally, it does particular harm to poor people and people of color. 

A professor for Syracuse University, Dr. Boyce Watkins, wrote an article for the Huffington Post in 2011 where he cited several statistics relating to the huge effect that the War on Drugs has had on communities of color. For example, although African-Americans represented only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represented 62 percent of drug offenders that are sent to state prisons. In Georgia specifically, African-Americans represented 29 percent of the total population, but 54 percent of the prison population. Furthermore, he mentioned that of the 25.4 million Americans that had been arrested on drug charges since 1980, about one-third of them were black.

In another 2011 article for Forbes, author Erik Kain wrote that the war on drugs not only targets black people, it also disproportionately targets the poor. For example, in Huff’s case had she been able to afford bail, she would’ve been able to get out of jail and remain comfortably at home while waiting for the lab results that would ultimately clear her name. However, since she did not have the money, she remained unfairly in jail for more than one month. The same situation occurred in the case of the couple that was incarcerated for having homemade soap in their car – the bail for the man and woman was set at $500,000 and $250,000 respectively and, since neither could pay it, nor meet the minimum for a bail bond, they both remained in jail until lab results came back and cleared them. In the case of the War on Drugs, Kain correctly observes that its “the poor pay the highest price.”

And the price that they – and we all – are paying is not only a figurative one. Economically, the War on Drugs is also incredibly wasteful. Annually, the United States spends about $51 billion on the War on Drugs. According to the “Drug War Clock” (an online tool that updates, in real time, how much money is being spent on the War on Drugs on both federal and state levels), state and federal governments in the United States have spent $31 billion this year thus far on the War on Drugs - $11 billion federally and $21 billion on the state level. Imprisonment is not only extremely damaging to those imprisoned, it is also incredibly costly in its own right. Watkins wrote that the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the US is about $67.55. He further calculates that in 2007, state prisons held approximately 253,300 inmates for drug offenses, thus spending almost $17 million per day and over $6.2 billion per year to imprison drug offenders. As a country that is still in a state of recovery from a Great Recession, do we really have this amount of money to be spending incarcerating people for doing drugs?   

Isn’t it ridiculous that in this day and age America (a so-called “free country”) will go to insane economic lengths to perpetuate antiquated drug policies that disproportionately prey upon people of color and the poor? Isn’t it better socially, morally and economically to take a step back on this issue and let the people do what they will? If the War on Drugs were to end, I do not believe that suddenly people would start doing things like heroin or cocaine just because they were decriminalized or even legal. As long as drug education was still firmly in place (and by that I mean real drug education, not the further proliferation of “Above the Influence” commercials), I doubt that drug use levels would markedly increase.

At this point, decriminalization (and maybe even legalization) are starting to look like the only morally and economically viable options to solve America’s drug problem. The War on Drugs is not a practical endeavor; rather, it is a crusade run by ideologues who believe that Americans need to be protected from themselves, or else we will all do drugs and become a dysfunctional society. But both socially and economically, the opposite has been proven true over and over again.

The War on Drugs is not saving us – if anything, it’s damning us, and it needs to end before its damage becomes irreversible.   

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