January 24, 2010, 5:33AMBy Loretta Nall
According to a recent Pride Survey, Alabama teens are more likely than teens in the rest of the country to have recently used drugs, especially marijuana. These survey results expose a truth that's becoming harder to hide: Alabama's war on drugs is failing our youths and our communities.
Our current approach to drug policy is a distortion of our priorities: We invest more to incarcerate people for nonviolent drug offenses than we invest to educate our children. Every year, our elected officials spend $132 million just to warehouse drug users in our prison system. That's $15,223 in tax money spent for every drug prisoner. However, we spend only about $9,000 per pupil for education. The disastrous consequences of this policy are evident as Alabama continually ranks near the bottom nationally in education.
But we rank at the top of the class in prison overcrowding and a broken criminal justice system. Alabama has the harshest punishments in the country for minor marijuana offenses, paralyzing our courts with a flood of marijuana offenders. Our prison system is notoriously overcrowded, in large part because of incarcerating people for nonviolent drug offenses. According to the Alabama Sentencing Commission, nearly 30 percent of our prison population is behind bars because of low-level drug offenses.
And yet, none of these disastrous drug policies are keeping drugs out of the hands of young people. In fact, Alabama teens are using more marijuana than teens who live in states where medical marijuana is legal and in states where the penalties for marijuana are much less severe. That's because prohibition makes it easier for any child who wants to experiment with drugs to acquire them.
Some argue that if we legalize marijuana, then kids everywhere will be able to get it. But that is the current reality in the illegal, unregulated market. On the black market, any kid who wants to experiment with drugs can obtain them. There are no well-lit storefronts with clerks to check ID, and drug dealers don't ask for ID. The very policies we enforce are putting our children in greater peril. As a parent, that deeply concerns me.
Even when Alabama's drug policies improve, we, as parents, will always want effective strategies to keep our kids safe. Unfortunately, the "Just say no" approach is not enough -- we've used that approach for nearly 30 years, and even today drug use by teens is on the rise.
One alternative approach, employed by parent-teacher organizations in other parts of the United States, is Safety 1st, a comprehensive, reality-based approach to teen drug use that encourages abstinence while acknowledging the fact that not all kids will listen to or follow the abstinence-based approach.
No parent wants her child to use drugs. We, as parents, want our kids to grow up safe, but they often experiment and do dumb things. When they do, we need them to be honest with us so we can keep them safe. It's OK to tell children to not do drugs, but we should also tell them: If you do, please don't drive home; call me so I can get you, or, if you use drugs, let's talk about it first so you can be as safe as possible.
That may sound crazy until one considers what happens to teens who use drugs in an unsafe manner. They die. That's why Safety 1st and other models that emphasize honesty are so important. (For more information on the Safety 1st model, please visit www.safety1st.org.)
It doesn't matter whether you love drugs, hate drugs or don't care about drugs at all, the drug war is a failure. It's time to take a new approach to drug policy in Alabama. Through educational campaigns, alcohol and tobacco consumption rates have declined among teens in Alabama without resorting to locking up everyone who uses alcohol or tobacco. We need an approach that focuses on health and safety and not on incarceration.
Marijuana needs to be legalized to better keep it out of the hands of children. The $132 million we spend annually to lock up nonviolent drug offenders, even though it does not prevent others from using drugs, could be redirected to education, where it is desperately needed. Some of the tax revenues generated from the sale of marijuana to adults could also be earmarked for education.
Marijuana will never be eradicated, no matter how many people we lock up or how many millions of dollars we waste year after year in pursuit of that unobtainable goal. Staying the course on this clearly failed policy can no longer be justified at the very high cost of our children's education and, sometimes, their lives.
Loretta Nall is an Alabama parent and director of Alabamians for Compassionate Care. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org