From 2010-2019, the state of New Jersey spent more than $11 billion fighting the drug war—and overdose deaths only increased. Meanwhile, drug-related arrests are at an all-time high, while police focus disproportionate effort on targeting and locking up Black and Latinx residents.
A new report from New Jersey Policy Perspective details these findings. NJPP released the report on June 17, to commemorate 50 years to the day since President Richard Nixon first declared the “War on Drugs.”
The power of this war is at the local level.
While Nixon helped lay the groundwork for the drug war by creating the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and proposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, the real war has been fought on America’s streets by its state and local governments. Today, state prisons and county jails together incarcerate about 350,000 people on drug charges—more than triple the number of people held by the federal government for drugs.
The power of this war is at the local level. States make criminal laws about drug use and possession. Cities hire and pay police officers who enforce those laws. And county district attorneys either prosecute drug cases at trial—or far more likely, pressure defendants into accepting plea bargains to avoid prison time.
To really end the War on Drugs, then, we need reform not just from Congress but from more than 39,000 different state houses, county boards, and city or town councils throughout the US.
Enter New Jersey. The state has made notable progress in recent years towards reversing the worst excesses of the drug war. In 2019, it passed a reform creating a process for courts to automatically expunge certain criminal records after enough time passes from the completion of sentence. And in November 2020, the state’s voters approved full marijuana legalization by the highest margin of any such ballot in US history.
But as the NJPP report makes clear, New Jersey is still nowhere near a drug-war “peace agreement”—let alone providing restitution for its victims.
The state ramped up its drug war in 1987, when it passed legislation to give law enforcement expansive powers over the control of illicit drugs. The bill instituted mandatory minimum sentences for drug-law violations, along with excessive fines and fees.
The same year, voters approved nearly $200 million in new spending on prisons. The result was that in just three years, drug arrests skyrocketed by 71 percent. By 1992, New Jersey led the nation for the proportion of people locked up for drug charges—one in every three people in its prisons or jails.
“They tore the house up and the whole time he was bleeding, no ambulance, no type of medical assistance, no checking on him to see if he was okay.”
The situation today has arguably worsened. In 2019, New Jersey made 497 drug arrests per 100,000 residents. That’s an increase of 62 percent from the arrest rate in 1986. More than one in five people arrested by police are apprehended for drugs. The drug-war regime has also helped give New Jersey the highest racial disparity behind bars in the nation. Black residents are over 12 times more likely to be incarcerated (for any offense) compared to whites, while Latinx residents are twice as likely to be incarcerated.
Stephon Whitley, a community organizer and scholar from Newark, described in the report how as a child, the drug-war policies of the 1980s shifted the culture of policing in his neighborhood. He recounted an incident where police broke into his family’s home one night, in search of drugs. They shot his stepfather in the shoulder during the confrontation.
“They tore the house up and the whole time he was bleeding, no ambulance, no type of medical assistance, no checking on him to see if he was okay,” Whitley said. “Just me sitting there watching my mother trying to use rags to stop the bleeding or slow things down.
“That right there is one of the things that really sat with me and made me say, ‘Okay. This thing is serious. Things are changing and my life will never be the same again.’”
The report estimates that New Jersey spent at least $11.6 billion over roughly the last 10 years (2010-2019) to enforce drug policy at the state and local levels. This includes the costs to make drug arrests, prosecute them in the court system, and incarcerate people in jails and prisons.
The amount of money spent annually to arrest and lock people up for drug charges dwarfs what the state spends each year on public health and disease prevention ($62 million), homelessness and affordable housing services ($43 million), or drug safety measures like sterile syringe and naloxone distribution ($4.1 million).
Tragically, the punitive response to drugs did not prevent a public health crisis. In 1995, over half of all new HIV infections in the state were related to unsafe drug use. The state resisted allowing legal access to sterile syringes until 2006—by that time it had the highest HIV rate among women in the nation, and was in the top three states for child HIV rates.
In 2021, the state is continuing to grapple with a historic drug overdose crisis. Between 2010 and 2019, the state lost nearly 18,500 lives to a drug overdose. That added up to eight funerals a day in 2018. The proportions of Black and Latinx residents dying from overdose, relative to whites, are increasing.
New Jersey’s failure to invest robustly in its own residents’ health pushes many people further into a cycle of trauma, violence and poverty
Many people simply do not receive vital services that they want and need. The state’s own health department estimates that over four in 10 residents do not have access to substance use disorder treatment. Less than 2 percent of the state’s cities and towns offer any drug safety programs, like sterile syringes or naloxone. And over 57,000 residents report insufficient access to mental health care.
New Jersey’s failure to invest robustly in its own residents’ health pushes many people further into a cycle of trauma, violence and poverty. One mother, PJ, described in the report how she started injecting heroin and eventually forfeited her children to child protective services. She became homeless shortly after.
“I used to sleep in the hallways,” she said. “There was times I was so hungry, I had nothing to eat. I would actually go to the garbage cans to find food to eat. I got raped a couple of times.
“Now, I no longer use. I no longer have the desire to use. I haven’t used any drugs except methadone since 2007. I went and I got on the methadone program and this time it worked for me.” PJ was finally reunited with her children.
Certainly, the situation in New Jersey is bleak. But the good news is, there are established ways to help end some of the worst drug-war excesses and heal its harms. For a start, the report recommends fully decriminalizing all drugs for personal use and possession.
Reallocating the billions that have been poured into drug enforcement should help.
County and local governments will need to commit to de-prioritizing drug arrests and prosecutions, while the legislature and governor will need to overhaul the state’s criminal code to change penalties for drugs and pardon all people currently in prison or with prior drug convictions.
Lawmakers will need to pass legislation to increase availability of sterile syringes, naloxone and overdose prevention education throughout the state.
Going forward, the state must provide free substance use disorder treatment and harm reduction to anyone who wants it, adds the report. And any treatment program receiving tax funding should follow best practices in not punishing or banning patients who continue to use drugs, and giving full access to medications like buprenorphine and methadone.
The real test for New Jersey will come in replacing the drug war with a powerful public health system that meets the needs of all residents. Reallocating the billions that have been poured into drug enforcement should help.
Photograph of the Roxbury Police Department in New Jersey via Facebook.