Today NJ will spend $3M to enforce drug laws and arrest 150 people | Opinion

Posted Jun 17, 2021

By Brandon McKoy and Jenna Mellor

A new study by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) determined that New Jersey spent $11.6 billion over the past decade on the drug war, yet overdose death rates have risen 230%. Brandon McKoy, president of NJPP, and Jenna Mellor, executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, say the state can't arrest and punish its way out of this crisis.

Today, New Jersey will spend $3 million to enforce drug laws — arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating people for penalties that overwhelmingly relate to drug use and possession. Approximately 150 New Jerseyans will get arrested today, starting a complicated, expensive and traumatic journey through police stations, courts and prisons.

But these arrests and prosecutions won’t stop people from using drugs and they won’t save lives. New research shows that 1 out of every 13 New Jerseyans used a criminalized drug other than marijuana in the last year and overdose death rates have risen 230% over the last decade.

In the 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” New Jersey lawmakers have used new drug laws to arrest and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of residents in every corner of the state. This year, we took one of the most powerful steps in a generation to begin dismantling New Jersey’s war with the legalization of cannabis. But there is still much more to be done to reverse decades of punitive drug laws designed to selectively target Black and Latino communities with disproportionate arrests, prosecution, incarceration, and militarized policing.

New Jersey makes nearly 60% more arrests for drug-related offenses than it did in the mid-1980s — leading to some of the most alarming racial incarceration disparities in the country. Black New Jerseyans are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated, driven largely by drug war enforcement, even though their white counterparts use and sell drugs at higher rates. And despite the state’s ongoing War on Drugs, New Jersey lost nearly 20,000 lives to preventable overdose deaths over the past decade.

We’re facing an overdose crisis, and our expensive and traumatic approach has not significantly reduced drug use, overdoses or drug supply. Instead, it has succeeded in erecting barriers for people trying to access drug treatment while preventing them from accessing basic necessities like good-paying jobs, affordable housing, and healthcare, and increasing the likelihood that people will die from an overdose.

New research from New Jersey Policy Perspective outlines just how much these failed drug enforcement policies have cost us. New Jersey spent $11.6 billion over the past decade on the drug war, including $5.1 billion on arrests, $2.2 billion on judicial proceedings, and $4.3 billion on incarceration. Drug war spending is eight times greater than the state’s budget for addiction services and 27 times greater than the budget for rental assistance, homeless shelters, homelessness prevention, and lead abatement combined.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

States like Oregon are leading the way, where voters have decriminalized all drugs while supporting investments in harm reduction and treatment services that have been proven to save lives. Oregon is expected to reduce drug possession arrests by 90%, reduce racial disparities in drug possession arrests by 95%, and reduce racial disparities in court convictions by 94% — all while freeing up and directing state resources to treatment services for those in need instead of a prison sentence that can destroy a life and jeopardize recovery. And in Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalized for twenty years, drug overdose deaths have dropped 80%.

We need lawmakers to take action and undo the policies that got us here. We must act now to reverse five decades of harms and discrimination.

First, the New Jersey legislature should decriminalize all drug possession, use, and low-level sales in the state, while working with local leaders to determine how to best decarcerate communities that have been unfairly criminalized.

For drug laws that remain on the books, we need state courts and law enforcement agencies to regularly publish data on drug arrests, court involvement and people being incarcerated for drug offenses. Let’s require all state agencies to map where drug war punishments are being enacted, and conduct a racial-impact analysis for each agency to understand the consequences for communities.

Next, let’s redirect some of the millions of dollars being spent each day on drug enforcement to public health measures that are proven to work. This includes fact-based drug education for young people and evidence-based care for people who use drugs, including a Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT) pilot program that offers alternatives and can be a pathway to recovery for many.

Finally, let’s put money back into the communities of color that have been most devastated by the highest rates of drug war arrests and incarcerations. We should start with community-led economic and housing development, and pair it with harm reduction, drug treatment, and mental healthcare programs that prioritize healing over punishment.

We know that New Jersey is not going to arrest and punish its way out of this crisis. We must acknowledge that our state’s embrace of punitive drug laws has been destructive and costly to all of us — not just those arrested. It’s time for New Jersey to divest from counterproductive punishment and focus on equitable, community-oriented policies that advance reparative justice and actually save lives.

Brandon McKoy is president of New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank that drives policy change to advance economic, social and racial justice.

Jenna Mellor is executive director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition and a drug policy consultant with NJPP.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-06-18 03:46:23 -0700