Former President Jimmy Carter wants the U.S. to rethink its decades-long war on drugs by shifting the focus from incarcerating drug users to treating them and refocusing international efforts on combating violent criminal organizations, he writes in an op-ed in The New York Times.
Carter’s recommendations stem from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group that brings together former presidents and prime ministers of five countries, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and other human rights, business, and government leaders.
“The commission’s facts and arguments are persuasive. It recommends that governments be encouraged to experiment ‘with models of legal regulation of drugs... that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens,’” Carter writes. He notes that such policies have been effectively implemented in some European countries and Australia, among other places.
He has harsh criticism for the U.S. policies toward drug users, which he says have focused on futile attempts to control foreign drug imports and imprisonment of nonviolent offenders, causing the U.S. prison population to balloon. Carter writes that when he left office in 1980, only 500,000 people were in jail, a number that rose to nearly 2.3 million by the end of 2009, or roughly 743 people in prison per every 100,000 Americans. Three-quarters of new incarcerations are for nonviolent crimes, including nonviolent drug offenses, a number that has increased 12 times over since 1980.
“Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets,” Carter writes, pointing to California as an example. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has noted that 11 percent of his state’s budget goes to prisons, as compared to 7.5 percent for higher education; in 1980 those figures were 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively.