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The war on drugs is a human rights disaster, and it must end

Earlier this week, I had the peculiar experience of watching my colleagues try to convince the state’s highest court that when the government wrongfully convicts tens of thousands of people, it’s up to the government to right those wrongs. The prosecutors representing the Commonwealth took a different approach. Instead of admitting the state messed up and bears responsibility, the District Attorneys seek to “protect” the tainted convictions—and are spending taxpayer dollars fighting an ACLU lawsuit instead of using their considerable powers to simply dismiss them.

The logic on display here is the same logic that guides the broader War on Drugs: Punishment is an end in itself. It doesn’t matter whether or not punishment serves the needs of individuals, communities, or the world at large. 

No matter that the $100 billion we spend collectively on planet earth each year fighting drug abuse with policing, courts, and prisons hasn’t had any positive impact on the availability or potency of drugs. No matter that in cities and towns throughout the United States there’s not enough money for long term drug treatment, but there’s always a bed for an addict in jail. No matter that drug prohibition in the US has led to the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, and contributed to the world’s most grotesque incarceration crisis right here at home. No matter that policing the drug war has eroded constitutional rights for everyone. The logic of the War on Drugs doesn’t care about any of that. The accumulation of state power and the warehousing of the poor and people of color are acceptable or even desirable outcomes for its adherents. It’s a moralistic crusade that cares neither for facts nor human beings. 

Unfortunately, it appears as if the Trump administration may very well continue using weapons of war to treat the public health problem of drug abuse. But doctors are starting to realize they have a responsibility to push back against the corrupted logic of drug prohibition. A new British Medical Journal editorial reflects that growing realization, and calls for doctors to engage in drug policy debates with an eye toward expanding the role of public health and shrinking the role of the carceral state. As the editors of the prestigious medical journal write, “Doctors and their leaders have ethical responsibilities to champion individual and public health, human rights, and dignity and to speak out where health and humanity are being systemically degraded. Change is coming, and doctors should use their authority to lead calls for pragmatic reform informed by science and ethics.”

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.