Sam R. Hall

Sam R. Hall is executive editor of the Daily Journal.

Christina Dent and her husband have spent many years as foster parents. The challenges are numerous, but after a while, they started seeing an undeniable pattern.

She started researching what she was seeing, and what she discovered was eye-opening.

“Around 50% of all children in foster care are there because of drug-related removals,” Dent said.

In 2017, Dent — a “conservative Christian who supported criminalizing drugs” — read Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” She started book club discussions with other parents, and eventually her worldview changed.

“As foster parents, we were trying to figure out ways to address some of the drug and substance abuse issues being faced by children in foster care,” she said.

That led to the founding of End It For Good, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to educate people on the harm being done by the war on drugs and the good that could be done if law enforcement and lawmakers changed tactics.

Last week, End It For Good released a report — Misplaced Priorities — that looks at the negative impacts the war on drugs has had on Mississippi.

Some of the most damning data illustrate how drug usage has increased — especially among children — since the war on drugs was first “declared” in 1971 by then-President Richard Nixon.

Likewise, overdose deaths have increased dramatically over the past decade — 40% from 2011 to 2019, with 2020 numbers 12.7% higher than the year before.

For Dent, the most startling discovery was the number of violent crimes committed versus the number of arrests made.

“I’m not sure people realize just how many violent crimes and property crimes go unsolved,” Dent said. “At the same time, we are arresting thousands of people every year for drug possession.”

Dent and others argue — in part — that the overbearing focus on drug possession (not drug trafficking or selling offenses) takes attention away from investigating violent crimes. There is likely some validity to this, but there is also the reality that violent and property crimes are often harder to solve. I definitely don't see the absolute cause-and-effect others do. 

Nevertheless, the continuing increase in arrests for possession charges raises real questions. Dent is not alone in pushing for decriminalization of possession, particularly in moving such crimes from felony to misdemeanor level.

“It is so easy for a drug offense to become a felony offense, and felonies make a thriving life so difficult to build,” she said.

Dent believes that the war on drugs has a) led to growing violence by pushing the drug trade underground, b) caused more harmful drugs to appear on the streets because of a lack of control over the substances people are using and c) forced more people into the criminal justice system instead of the health care system, where they can get assistance to fight substance abuse.

The report details the success of alternative treatment programs, pre-arrest diversion programs and intervention drug courts. Dent wants to see more resources allocated toward these kinds of initiatives and less focus placed on criminal enforcement of minor possession offenses.

Dent believes “some sort of legalization would help” address the violence and overdoses associated with drugs. But she is also realistic about such efforts in Mississippi.

While I'm not onboard with legalization, I do believe Mississippi should heed some of the advice Dent and her group has offered. It echoes what other organizations — and many law enforcement groups — have said.

By further decriminalizing certain current offenses, raising the threshold for felony charges, and putting more time and money toward treatment and diversion programs, the war on drugs could actually start making real headway.

SAM R. HALL is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 662-678-1586 or sam.hall@djournal.com. Follow @samrhall on Twitter.

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