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Have We Lost the War?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
March 7, 2021

Now that we are a year into the quarantine lifestyle, it is time to sit down and really consider how to rebuild our communities. Particularly, we must rebuild around the sentencing measures for individuals arrested for possession of controlled substances. There has been some nationwide movement toward restructuring sentencing laws. Here in the Seattle area our police officers have been directed to no longer make arrests for possession of controlled substances and to make changes to current laws (For instance, Seattle police, Bellevue and other law enforcement immediately stopped arresting people for drug possession). As public administrators, we are tasked with organizing these efforts and ensuring they are inclusive, equitable and responsive to the needs of our communities.

Outdated drug laws, reliance on excessive brutality, targeting in policing (for reference, see this NAACP | Criminal Justice Fact Sheet) and mass incarceration in communities of color are some of the most significant issues that need to be resolved before we can move forward. It is of utmost importance to redefine our policy priorities, especially now, because we must learn from our past mistakes in order to be more successful in building a stronger society. The most recent political disintegration across our nation has created an impressive cavernous divide that will require incredible perseverance to forge ahead and reunite our constituents successfully. Within our practice of public administration we have the training and knowledge to learn from past events to make improvements that are in line with the needs and wants of our communities, while acknowledging disparities and importance of the voices of the people these policies impact.

Criminalization of controlled substances has increased systematic oppression and impacted the well-being of those diagnosed with chronic conditions by limiting availability of medical treatments. It has also increased the number of people incarcerated for possession of small amounts of substances (see Wrenn GS: Brown’s war on drugs from browndailyherald.com). Disparity among those incarcerated for drug related offenses is phenomenal, in that while African Americans and Caucasian individuals use drugs at similar rates, African Americans are imprisoned almost 6 times more often, according to the NAACP | Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Decriminalization of controlled substances and redirection of funding toward public agencies and programs that address substance addiction, mental illness and stigmatizing policing patterns in communities of color (see New Jersey has more to do to end the War on Drugs | Opinion – nj.com) are what will make the greatest impression for our future recovery. Public administrators are the key to ensuring this happens in the most vulnerable settings through policies and ongoing community education; we must push forward despite the barriers we might face to create a more equitable society for current and future generations.

Harm reduction efforts have been instrumental in combatting the proverbial war on drugs through building up programs that are evidence based and focused on public health (see New Jersey has more to do to end the War on Drugs from Opinion – nj.com). As local leaders we are tasked with identifying these opportunities and building up our service providers, as well as locating the funds to maintain public access to support services that will meet their needs moving forward through sobriety and recovery. A significant risk of decriminalizing controlled substances may lead to a stronger hold by local drug dealers and suppliers, especially in vulnerable communities, and potentially increase the prevalence drug addiction (see Massachusetts lawmakers raise white flag in war on drugs from msn.com). There would be no consequence for possession. However, we must get creative in our response and public leaders.

So it will be up to us to research the needs of our communities to ensure that we are recognizing the gaps and disparities that require swift recovery to save ourselves from our own history. We are at risk of furthering the divide unless we act now and provide the necessary resources and services that will make impressions upon our future. We know that sentencing and arrests in our nation are racially motivated. Working to identify those patterns and calling them out to get them to desist and rebuild is the only way we will be able to move forward. In public administration, it is our duty to design and implement policies and procedures to propel our communities forward. So have we lost the war? Will restructuring sentencing laws and decriminalizing possession of controlled substances create a new path forward in rebuilding society? We will only know the answer if we take the opportunity try it out and take the risks necessary to support the most vulnerable in our communities.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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