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How the War on Drugs is Turning the US into a Prison

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In 1973, Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs", pitting a militarized force of government agents against recreational drug users and their suppliers. For 41 years, this "war" has raged to no benefit and many terrible consequences. The worst of these effects might be the exploding prison population, as the new laws redefined otherwise peaceful people into criminals.

Just look.


As people were harshly prosecuted under the new "war", there was nowhere near enough room in prisons to accept the flood of new-found felons. Prisons had been sized to accommodate violent criminals, whose population had remained basically constant throughout the 20th century.

In 1983, Corrections Corporation of America was founded in Tennessee to meet rising demand for incarceration. Ever since, an iron triangle of prison corporations, their lobbyists, and politicians eager to appear tough on crime have ensured the continued growth of the prison industry and the redefinition of misdemeanors as imprisonable crimes.

Lobbyists' push for harsher sentences to boost their bottom line is a naked act of aggression against their own countrymen, and ignoring the sleazy veneer of government officialdom, the prison industry is gunning for citizens to hold ransom on the taxpayer dime. In search of profits, the industry is ultimately incentivized to redefine everyone as a felon in need of hard time. US citizens would be wise to push for the end of private prisons altogether. Millions already found out the hard way just how easy it is to become profit for the prison industry.

The United States' first experiment with prohibition, the prohibition of alcohol, lasted only 14 years. It ended after the widespread appearance of what would be called "drug cartels" today, and a steady rise in the prison population. Ultra-rich criminals with squads of well-armed henchmen appeared overnight to meet the demand for liquor. Rather than reducing undesirable elements, the prohibition of alcohol only created new opportunities for would-be criminals to profit and thrive, and criminalized a large sector of the peaceful population.

This same lesson that prohibition empowers criminals should have been learned years ago with the near-immediate appearance of Pablo Escobar and other billionaire drug lords. Instead, the response has been to redouble the incarceration and criminalization of what is ultimately a non-violent act. Hand in hand with government, the prison industry has tried its best to expand beyond existing criminals and drug offenders to include everyone, creating an incarceration rate nearly six times as high as it was a century before with little to show for it.

It is time to end the "war" on drugs and the prison industry, lest we all end up behind bars for chewing gum in public or speaking out of turn.

Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.