Guest post by Jovanni Rodriguez
As a criminal justice scholar for several years now, I am well aware of the arguments that anti-drug crusades bring about widespread social costs to certain societies. This is particularly true in comparing and contrasting the drug laws of the United States and the Netherlands; the U.S. has extremely stringent policies when juxtaposed with the Netherlands.
Using distributive justice theory we can analyze the disbursement of burdens and disadvantages in certain communities to determine which country has been truly successful in terms of achieving justice through their drug policies. Broadly speaking, distributive justice scholars look to a society's institutions, asking whether the benefits and burdens of a law or policy are distributed equally among society's groups and members. Dutch methods of leniency have led to more benefits for both the offender and society when compared to the United States.
In the Netherlands, marijuana is listed as a "Schedule II" "soft" drug, as the government views the risks associated with marijuana to be "smaller" than other drugs and less harmful to health and to society. In the U.S, marijuana was categorized as a "Schedule I" drug under The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, amongst LSD and heroin. A "Schedule I" categorization means it has been found to have no medical use and has the highest abuse potential. The difference in the legal categorization of marijuana in both countries represents the different stances each government has and takes on marijuana use.
The extreme anti-drug policies of the United States bring a multitude of problematic justice system outcomes. Some of the various negative social consequences of the U.S.'s "War on Drugs", which began under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, include high incarceration rates, diminished life chances, weak social bonds, and unemployment. These broad societal costs were found to have become particularly problematic for certain minority American populations, specifically young, African American males in inner cities. American anti-drug crusades also bring about substantial negative outcomes for American society as a whole, which, when using the distributive justice theory, shows America's punitive system to be unfair and unjust.
The Netherlands's decriminalization of small cannabis transactions, the continued operation of "coffeeshops," and formal written policies of non-enforcement for minor drug violations have been successful in the Dutch's goal to regulate an unrestricted drug market. The separation of drug markets has also proven to keep Dutch cannabis users away from the orbits of hard drug users and sellers. The Netherlands’ lenient policies has not only lead to lower levels of lifetime use of marijuana when compared to the U.S., but decriminalization has also lead to several other desirable social effects involving rehabilitation of drug abusers, more government funding and attention on the trafficking of "hard" drugs, and special drug programs in schools and education campaigns. The Dutch government's pro-active approach in preventing drug abuse, rather than the U.S.'s extreme reactive approach to punishing users, serves as a superior alternative in approaching drug regulation and disbursing equal and fair justice for both the individual and the community.
Not only has the overall goal of drug prohibition and/or regulation not been reached in America, as Americans report the highest level of cocaine and marijuana use, but America's strict enforcement of drug laws and free distribution of criminal justice outcomes have failed to meet the interests of both the individual and the community. Incarceration rates are the highest in the world, as the majority of those incarcerated are not only drug offenders, but also young, African American men from inner cities. The U.S. system of deterrence and harsh legal penalties has also had broad social costs for general society, involving high tax-payer investment in enforcement activities, continued and increased drug abuse, the marginalization of certain populations, health risks, and a criminal justice system which solely focuses on drug prevention.
As the outcomes of strict drug law enforcement have unequally disabled certain demographic populations in the United States, we see that the U.S. is not guided by the concept of distributive justice. These injustices and disparities discussed are hidden by the administration of drug laws, as the apparent goals of the War on Drugs meet the interests of a society motivated by morals, safety, and basic law and order. However, U.S. drug laws are solely met with a perception of fairness and justice, as historical and current outcomes include the redirection of tax-payer money, unemployment, and poverty. When compared with the societal outcomes of the Dutch's drug policies, the U.S.'s long-term societal consequences are results of an inferior approach to drug regulation. The Netherlands distribution of justice has not only proven to be successful, due to statistics that prove that less Dutch smoke marijuana when compared to Americans, but their methods of leniency have also led to more benefits for both the offender and society, and this is the true goal of equal and fair distributive justice.
Jovanni Rodriguez is graduate student International Criminal Justice Masters Program (ICJ—MA) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Jovanni graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with Magna Cum Laude honors in 2012 after majoring in Criminal Justice. She was the first ever youth representative for the International Sociological Association (ISA) while interning at the United Nations, where she continues to work with NGOs. She is a full-time manager in an Italian restaurant in Staten Island, New York. Jovanni's career goals include combining her criminological research interests with her passion for international human rights and activism.