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War on Drugs is 40 Years Old: Results Debated

June 17, 2011

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – America's "War on Drugs" turns 40 today (Friday) and, while it has its defenders, even some in law enforcement believe the approach needs a major overhaul.

President Richard Nixon originally touted the War on Drugs as an effort to prevent young people from becoming addicted, but critics of the approach say it had the additional impact of devastating black and Latino communities. Barbara Fair is the founder of My Brother's Keeper, a criminal justice reform group in New Haven.

"The research has shown that whites use and sell drugs at the same rate as African Americans and Latinos, but when you look at who's in prison behind the War on Drugs, it's disproportionately African Americans and Latinos. So, you have to start questioning, 'Well, what is this war really about?'"

Among Connecticut's 17,500 prisoners, 70 percent are black and Latino. Together, those ethnic groups make up just over 20 percent of the state's total population.

A bill just passed by the General Assembly points in a new direction. It decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, setting punishment as a fine and no criminal record or jail time.

Mike Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's criminal justice adviser, notes that about the same percentage of Americans use drugs today as did 40 years ago.

"The types of drugs that have been selected have changed, you know – there was a time when crack was very popular, and there was a time when heroin was very popular; and today, a lot of the prescription drugs are very popular."

Lawlor adds about 40 percent of Connecticut prison inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. He sees the legislation as a positive step.

Police Lt. Jeff Hoffman, who heads the New Haven Police Department's narcotics unit, agrees the War on Drugs has changed over the years.

"Much more now I think, drug use is recognized as more of a health problem than a criminal problem, and units like mine are concerned with going after dealers, and people who deal in drugs and violence."

Critics of the current system say there has not been nearly enough focus on drug treatment for those who are addicted, and that providing treatment instead of incarceration for some could save the state a lot of money.

Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service - CT