NJ's 'War on Drugs' has been a 'failure,' advocates say
Governor Murphy announces the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey NorthJersey.com
New Jersey spent nearly $12 billion in the past decade enforcing drug policies that have had a disproportionate effect on Black people despite greater usage rates among white residents, according to a new report from advocates seeking to decriminalize all drugs.
An average of eight in 10 drug arrests in the past decade were for possession or use, according to the report's analysis of state police data, a statistic contradicting the myth that most people arrested on drug charges are responsible for its manufacturing and distribution.
And despite rhetoric from political leaders that the "War on Drugs" was a failure and New Jersey has led a progressive shift toward public health policies, the state invested nearly nine times more money on the drug war in 2019 and per capita arrests that year were 63% higher than in 1986, when the state and federal governments strengthened their drug laws, the report said.
The War on Drugs "has been a massive success in filling prisons and filling the pockets of people who want to profit off Black bodies," said the Rev. Charles Boyer, part of the Abolish The Drug War Coalition, which released the report in conjunction with the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
"We've made these huge, gigantic investments in punitive ways" to enforce the drug war, Boyer added. "It has shown it’s a massive failure by anybody's standards, and therefore we need to shift our resources toward compassion and care."
The report was released Thursday morning to mark the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs" declaration.
It also comes the same week Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-Mercer, introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, expunge records and invest in alternative health-centered approaches, among other things.
A look at New Jersey's drug policies
The report's release is part of a broader push, in New Jersey and beyond, to put an end to the War on Drugs and funnel money away from arresting and jailing low-level offenders and toward public and mental health programs.
As part of that, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance plan to launch a media campaign next week urging President Joe Biden to begin dismantling the drug war by commuting the sentences of people in federal prison for drug crimes.
Calling the drug war "a stain on our national conscience since its very inception,” Watson Coleman, a former state lawmaker, said it's now "essential" for the country to change its tactics addressing drug use "away from the failed punitive approach and towards a health-based and evidence-based approach.”
New Jersey's political leaders have not embraced such a foundational shift.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who has called the War on Drugs "misguided," said in March that he's open to hearing arguments for decriminalizing all drugs but, having just decriminalized and legalized marijuana, would rather focus on getting that "right" first.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have not expressed support for decriminalizing drugs, and there hasn't been a policy push in Trenton to do so before the legislative session ends this month.
Advocates hope the findings in the report will initiate a new way of thinking among policymakers that aligns with a majority of Americans, who support removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-based approaches, such as treatment services and mental health support.
"There’s not only no return on investment in New Jersey's drug war, we’re actively doing harm," said Jenna Mellor, author of the report and co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.
"Instead of the drug war, we can be focusing on strengthening the social safety net and reinvesting in Black and Latinx communities," she said. "We have things that work, that can make our communities healthier and safer, and we’re not investing in them. We’re investing in a deadly drug war."
Such a shift would be financially feasible and much more effective, advocates argue.
Spending on the drug fight
From 2010 to 2019, New Jersey spent $11.6 billion arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for drug crimes such as use and possession, according to the report.
In 2019, New Jersey spent 8.5 times more on the drug war than state budget allocated for addiction services and 27.9 times more than spending on rental assistance, homeless shelters, homelessness prevention and lead abatement combined, the report contended.
Despite all the money spent on arrests and prosecution of drug crimes, overdose deaths exceeded 3,000 in 2019, more than double what they were in 2012. Between 2010 and 2019, the report said, nearly 20,000 New Jerseyans died of drug-related overdoses.
Drug-related overdose rates were growing fastest for Black and Hispanic residents, the report said. In 2019, the rate of white residents fatally overdosing was 2.1 greater than it was in 2010; 3.6 times greater for Black residents; and 3.8 times greater for Hispanic residents, the report said.
Caitlin O'Neill, co-director of the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, has seen friends and her partner die from overdoses in her past years as an injection drug user.
It wasn't until after going through traditional recovery programs that she learned of "harm reduction," or a range of public health services to reduce the consequences of drug use.
"I think about sometimes what it would look like if the punishments were turned around and instead of punishment it’s, 'Let me connect you with trauma care, let me see if I can connect you with counseling services,' " O'Neill said.
At the same time that overdose deaths have climbed, advocates said, the state has underinvested in critical areas of public health, which came into focus in the COVID-19 pandemic when the Department of Health needed outside assistance and the state was in many ways unprepared.
As examples of the underinvestment in public health over time, the report said, the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services estimated that drug treatment options were lacking for 40% of residents who might want treatment in 2019 — and just seven of the state's 21 counties had evidence-based harm reduction services available.
Unprepared and overwhelmed: NJ's Health Department has no easy answers for long-term care crisis
Drug policies draw spotlight
The drug use and possession policies have also had a disproportionate effect on people of color.
According to the report, Black residents were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for drug war violations than their white peers, despite white people both using and selling criminalized drugs at higher rates.
The main reason Murphy and lawmakers said they wanted to legalize marijuana was to address the social inequities caused by enforcement of drug laws.
Yet enforcement has only gotten stronger in recent years.
In 1986, when the state passed the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act, which was lauded as one of the nation's strongest enforcement laws, New Jersey made 305 drug war arrests per 100,000 residents; in 2019, that increased 63% to 497 drug war arrests per 100,000 residents, the report said.
Also in 1986, 8.4% of all drug arrests were for possession alone, according to the report. By 2019, drug possession accounted for 17% of all arrests, an increase of 105%
The report leads with quotes from the offices of state attorneys general.
In 1990, the office said a rational drug policy requires the criminal justice system to "be used constructively to influence far more people" than could ever be arrested.
In 2020, current Attorney General Gurbir Grewal made a similar statement, saying, "We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem."
Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, said seeing the same sentiment shared by top law enforcement officials decades apart is telling.
"The picture that you get from the fact that those two quotes are 30 years apart is that we haven’t made nearly enough progress on that front," he said.
The report's recommendations include:
- Decriminalize all drug use, personal possession and low-level drug sales.
- Make data about drug war enforcement publicly available and easily accessible, and regularly publish racial and gender impact analyses.
- Audit all public agencies to identify and reform punishment-based policies, practices and regulations that discriminate against or exclude people who use drugs.
- Invest in equitable, evidence-based drug policies that prevent problematic drug use and promote the health and well-being of people who use drugs.
- Substantially invest in Black and Hispanic communities most harmed by drug war arrests.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.