For years, one of the primary criticisms of America’s expensive and self-destructive drug war has been that it leads to the incarceration of large numbers of nonviolent youths, harming their reputations and future job prospects for the rest of their lives. In his State of the State address this past week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie unveiled a new drug policy that addresses these concerns. The Wall Street Journal reports that Christie’s new plan aims to replace jail terms for nonviolent drug offenders with a stint in drug rehabilitation centers, while increasing jail penalties for violent drug dealers.
This a step in the right direction. Critics of the drug war are right to challenge it for ruining lives, perversely making it more difficult to integrate recovering addicts into society, and imposing huge costs on struggling government budgets, but a regime of complete legalization is both politically unfeasible and, from a social welfare point of view, more problematic than many legalization proponents understand.
Drugs are so powerful and their consequences can be so devastating that society cannot turn a blind eye to their production and distribution. The drug trade will have to be regulated and powerful new drugs cannot be allowed onto the market without testing. The question is how to reconcile the many interests and concern that drugs pose (including due regard for personal liberty) while minimizing the harm to society and vulnerable individuals.
In previous posts on the future of the drug war, Via Meadia has argued that the future of the drug war will rely less on criminal sanctions for offenders and more on social sanctions against drug use. This policy looks like a step in that direction; hopefully it will inspire other states to follow a saner drug policy as well. We also hope that if the New Jersey legislature goes along with the governor’s proposals, changes in the law will be applied to individuals currently serving jail time for past drug violations.