The Senseless War: The Sentencing Drug Offenses Arms Race
Oregon Review of International Law, 2014
44 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2015 Last revised: 23 Oct 2015
Date Written: 2014
There has been a considerable increase in the penalties for drug trafficking following the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs 1961, over fifty years ago. In many parts of the world, the sanctions are as severe as those for homicide and rape. This penalty escalation is at odds with the counter movement to decriminalise illicit drugs. Drug supplying is the only serious crime where there are widespread moves to decriminalize the main outcome of the crime — the use illicit drugs. This paper explores this paradox. It also examines the rationales for the increasingly harsh penalties for drug suppliers. We conclude that while there is no conclusive argument in favour of the decriminalizing drugs, the weight of empirical data does not establish any concrete benefits stemming from severe penalties for serious drug offenses. In particular, there is no correlation between longer prison terms for drug offenders and a reduction in the availability and use of drugs. We propose that the penalties for drug offenses should be reduced considerably. There is no useful objective that can be achieved by a twenty-five-year term of imprisonment that cannot be achieved by a term of five to ten years. A more measured sentencing response to serious drug offense penalties would make sentencing fairer and enable billions of dollars currently directed to imprisonment to be spent on more pressing community needs.
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