Poor economy forces Georgia to rethink drug criminalization
The high price of enforcing criminal penalties on non-violent offenders has Georgia’s new Republican governor rethinking a major linchpin in US domestic policy: the drug war.
“Presently, one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control,” Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, told state lawmakers during his inaugural address. “It cost about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections. And yet, every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of perpetrators are juveniles.”
His preferred course of action, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, was to reemphasize focus on violent crimes and “provide the opportunity” for treatment and therapy to citizens suffering from drug addiction.
“As a State, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions,” he said. “It is draining our State Treasury and depleting our workforce.”
He made the comments on Monday afternoon, after being sworn in as the state’s governor. Deal did not offer any specific policy proposals in the speech, opting to use his time to help frame the legislature’s agenda for the coming session.
“Let us refocus state government on its core responsibilities and relieve our taxpayers of the burden of unnecessary programs,” he said. “Let us be frugal and wise. Let us restore the confidence of our citizens in a government that is limited and efficient. Together let us make Georgia the brightest star in the constellation of these United States.”
Gov. Deal also advocated for a strengthening of mass transportation initiatives and a reinvestment in the state’s college scholarship program.
Roughly 19 percent of Georgia’s prison population was incarcerated on drug offenses in 2009, according to a report (PDF) by the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Nationally, nearly half of all arrests are due to laws criminalizing the cultivation, sales and use of cannabis, which has been shown to be less damaging to human health than alcohol or tobacco. Over 872,000 Americans were arrested for the drug in 2007, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Nearly three fourths of those arrested were under the age of 30.
President Barack Obama, who at one time said he was in favor of decriminalizing cannabis, has come out against outright legalization. While his drug czar has called for an overhaul of the government’s war against American drug users to focus more on addiction mitigation and treatment, the administration’s 2010 budget outlay instead placed a greater emphasis on law enforcement and incarceration.
The budget places America’s drug war spending at $15.5 billion for fiscal year 2011; an increase of 3.5 percent over 2010. That figure reflects a 5.2 percent increase in overall enforcement funding, growing from $9.7 billion in 2010 to $9.9 billion in 2011. Addiction treatment and preventative measures, however, were budgeted at $5.6 billion for 2011, an increase from $5.2 billion in 2010.
An ONDCP press release described the figures as “balanced.”
The nation’s drug war budget was criticized by reform groups, including an association of former law enforcement officials, which said the administration was merely “talking about” changing the drug war, rather than taking tangible action.
The ONDCP said that prescription drugs were the fastest growing category of abused intoxicants in 2009.
The state government of Georgia faced a $16.1 billion budget deficit in April 2010, with local municipalities staring down the barrel of an additional $40.7 billion.