Illicit drug use has historically been seen as a global threat towards society and a primary contributing factor for the prevalence other crimes, such as smuggling, home invasions, property crimes, assault, and murder. In 1969 President Nixon stated publicly that illicit drug use is a serious national problem and in 1971 declared the "War on Drugs" (National Public Radio, 2007). Over the two decades since, other governments around the world, including the United Nations, followed suit, but differed substantially from the United States in how much emphasis was placed on deterrence through incarceration (Bewley-Taylor, Hallam, and Allen, 2009, p. 1).
Prevalence of Illicit Drug Use
An estimated 21.8 million Americans were using illicit drugs in 2009, which represents about 8.7% of the population (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2010, p. 1). Of these, 16.7 million used marijuana, 1.6 million cocaine, 1.3 million hallucinogens, 7.0 million prescription psychotherapeutic drugs, and 0.5 million methamphetamine. As a group, illicit drug use among juveniles aged 12 and 17 was more prevalent (10.0%) than among the general population.
Consequences of the War on Drugs
Since the War on Drugs began around 30 years ago millions of Americans have been arrested, imprisoned, and had their lives forever changed for the worse, sometimes for nothing more than possessing a small amount of marijuana (Mauer and King, 2007). The number of drug offenders in prison has increased 1100% since 1980 (Mauer and King, 2007, p. 2), while the general population increased by less than 40% during the same period (Negative Population Growth, 1999; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011).
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics (
) The dramatic increase in the prison population was fueled by a 3-fold increase in the number of drug arrests made (Mauer and King, 2007, p. 3; see figure to the right). Drug penalties in the U.S. are not applied equally to all racial groups, with minorities shouldering most of the burden. For example, 14% of African-Americans use drugs, but 37% of arrests and 56% of incarcerated drug users in the U.S. are African-American (Mauer and King, 2007, p. 2).
The Iron Fist of Congress
The threat of incarceration became the primary deterrent in the War on Drugs and harsher penalties were made into law to back this threat up. The passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 and again in 1988, removed judicial discretion from the judicial process by imposing mandatory sentences for drug offenses (Mauer and King, 2007, p. 7). The overall effect was to increase the percentage of drug offenders being sent to prison (17%) and the amount of time served (3-fold; Mauer and King, 2007, pp. 7-8). By 2004, close to 93% of all drug offenders were being sent to prison.
Taking a Step Back Towards Sanity
More recently, the move towards harsher penalties has been moderated somewhat by the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity in sentencing for those convicted of crack cocaine and cocaine, relaxed judicial guidelines regarding mitigating circumstances, and eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession (U.S. Congress, 2010). A recent decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission will retroactively apply these changes to those already convicted and serving time. With 81.7% of all drug arrests being for possession and 6 out of 10 low-level drug offenders having no record of criminal violence, those facing possible early release could number in the 100s of thousands (Mauer and King, 2007, pp. 2-3).
Research has shown significant geographic differences in the prevalence illicit drug use (Lo, 2003). This suggests social context plays an important determining role, even though the justification and prosecution for the War on Drugs has emphasized individual factors. The social-context factors that may be driving illicit drug use include the following (Lo, 2003, p. 240):
Deviance Interpreted by Social Theories 8
All of these criteria typically fit inner-city neighborhoods having economically-disadvantaged minority populations (Lo, 2003, pp. 240-241). Due to a lack political influence, such neighborhoods suffer from official neglect and out of control crime. As a result, many residents resort to illicit drug use to temporarily escape their fates or engage in dealing drugs to compensate for persistent unemployment.
The degree of suffering from social disadvantage would determine both the frequency and type of drug used (marijuana vs. hard drugs like cocaine and heroin), as well as the prevalence of drug-related crime (Lo, 2003, p. 241). At one end of this spectrum would be recreational users that tend to prefer marijuana and who avoid hard drugs. The primary motivation for recreational users could be the thrill of taking a risk. At the other end of the spectrum would be persons scratching out a living in an inner-city neighborhood, who lack a reason to feel optimistic about their futures, are addicted to hard drugs, engage in criminal activity to support their habit, and are thereby more likely to be arrested.
The above analysis suggests that the frequency and nature of illicit drug use would be determined by social, economic, and political stratification. Under conflict theory, people within the dominant (controlling) power centers would tend to be recreational drug users, while those being controlled by these power centers would tend to be addicted to hard drugs and prone to engage in criminal activity. Since conflict theory assumes the controlling power centers act to preserve the status quo, and in this example those controlled tend to be disadvantaged minorities, the prevalent illicit drug use and drug-related crime in these neighborhoods probably has more to do with the racist tendencies of those in power.
Individual motivations matter little under structural-functionalism. Instead it is assumed that the system plays a dominant role in determining human behavior. A number of structural disadvantages probably help determine the social inequalities that plague inner-city neighborhoods. These may include a lack of police commitment to 'cleaning up' crime in inner-city neighborhoods, political neglect by the mayor's office, and persistent racism in human resource departments citywide.
Both illicit drug use and related criminal activity would represent a functional innovation (Lo, 2003, p. 241) attempting to address the social inequities commonly experienced by inner-city residents. Crime would minimize the impact of economic and employment disadvantages, and illicit drug use would provide an escape from feelings of hopelessness and alienation.
Engaging in illicit drug use, according to society, represents out of control behavior that is symptomatic of the disease called drug addiction (Giugliano, 2004, pp. 50-51). Different reference groups in society label such individuals criminals, degenerates, or mentally ill. The degree of interaction the drug user has with these reference groups influences how they come to view themselves. Symbolic interactionists would view such labels as social constructs designed to designate specific behaviors deviant and any attempt by the drug user to deny or accept these labels as engaging in the process of symbolization (Giugliano, 2004, p. 51).
Inner-city drug users come from a culture filled with symbols that often have nothing to do with these external reference groups. This 'drug culture', with all the related jargon, paraphernalia, dress codes, rules, and gestures, would be a reasonable representation of the framework within which inner-city drug users can communicate with others, take on an adaptive role, adopt relevant values, and eke out a meaningful existence. In this world, external reference groups like the police and medical community would have little influence. An intervention designed to end illicit drug use would probably require relocating residents out of these inner-city neighborhoods to minimize interactions with the drug culture. Access to drug rehabilitation facilities and gainful employment would also probably be required. Such a program would allow external reference groups to have a greater influence on these…