Joe Biden believes “forced rehabilitation” is positive drug reform. Here’s why he’s wrong
Federal cannabis legalization has never felt closer, despite the fact that the newly elected President of the United States has repeatedly voiced opposition.
Joe Biden first made his name as a committed drug warrior in the 1980s, but there have been encouraging signs of late that his administration will adopt a far more public health-based approach to drug policy.
There is no point in forcing someone convicted of cannabis possession to choose between rehab or prison.
Biden himself seemed to accept the inevitability of legalizing cannabis in the field when speaking of the cuff and even saying, “I think it’s at the point where it basically needs to be legalized.”
However, its official position remains in favor of decriminalization, not legalization.
This brings him into conflict with a large majority of the American people and an even larger majority of his own party. Last year, the Democratic-controlled House passed the MORE bill despite dying in the Republican-run Senate. That year, when the Democrats were in control of the Senate, the Democratic leadership promised to pass comprehensive cannabis reform law within the next six months.
President Joe Biden has expressed his support for compulsory rehab as an alternative to prison for those arrested for drug possession. That is not a solution to the problem. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)
Biden has ideas about mandatory rehab
Efforts to end the federal cannabis ban date back to 1937, when the Federal Office of Narcotics, Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, pushed the marijuana tax bill through Congress.
It took us more than 80 years to give serious thought to reversing this historic flaw.
That is, if “comprehensive cannabis reform legislation” is passed this year, as promised, we should all be ready to live with the results for a long time. Crucial details will need to be resolved – from racial and social justice to interstate trade and domestic cultivation.
Most worrying about these diabolical details: When President Biden says, “No one convicted of a drug crime should go to jail,” it has a large asterisk on it.
“You should go to compulsory rehabilitation,” he made clear at a campaign rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in September. “Instead of building more prisons … we [should] Build rehabilitation centers. “
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What’s wrong with rehab?
Let’s start with the obvious.
If court-appointed rehab is mandatory, what if you don’t show up or don’t complete the program to the government’s satisfaction?
While inserting rehab as a pre-prison outcome is certainly considered an improvement, it is insincere to say that no one has time for nonviolent petty drug crimes. As a report published by the Doctors for Human Rights group in 2017 makes clear, “drug courts regularly use participants to fail”. In this report they found:
Drug courts in the United States routinely fail to provide adequate, medically sound treatment for substance use disorders. Treatment plans are at times designed and facilitated by people with little to no medical training. Few communities have adequate treatment facilities, often with insurance plans. Financial treatment programs are not funded, and the criminal goals of drug courts often override the patient’s medical needs in ways that compromise the rights and health of participants.
Judges and lawyers at the Drug Court distort the data
Proponents of drug courts point to research showing significantly more positive effects. However, all of these studies measure effectiveness by making a binary comparison with incarceration, rather than comparing drug courts using a number of possible approaches, including legalization.
They are also typically based on data provided by privately owned rehab facilities that have a vested interest in the government continuing to force people to participate in their for-profit treatment programs.
Meanwhile, the Drugs Court justices know that they will be rated based on their rate of recovery, which makes them vulnerable to “cherry picking” enrollments with the best perceived chance of success. This distorts the data and pushes the poor, colored people and other marginalized groups disproportionately towards prison.
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Drug courts only prolong the harm
According to a 2011 report by the Drug Policy Alliance, drug courts not only maintain “criminal goals” in dealing with drug offenders, they repeat many of the system’s racial prejudices and abusive penalties.
According to the DPA report, drug courts have “shown no cost savings, decreased incarceration or improved public safety,” but they “make the criminal justice system more criminal against addiction – no less; while many people get worse when they try. “
The poor record of the pharmaceutical industry
Drug treatment works for many people, and many of the facilities that offer this service are run ethically and professionally. But for decades, critics of the drug war industrial complex have pointed to lousy and abusive practices throughout the rehab industry.
In the 1980s, the infamous Hard Love program known as Straight, Inc. actively encouraged parents to send children and adolescents who had casually experimented with cannabis to what can only be termed juvenile detention centers. When California State investigators found that minors were routinely exposed to “unusual punishment, pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse … and impairment of daily life functions such as eating, sleeping, and using the toilet”, there was one Crowd Legal proceedings ensued and the program was eventually discontinued.
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The rehab industry helped fund the drug war
Straight, Inc. founders Mel and Betty Sembler formed the politically influential Drug Free America Foundation and used their vast fortune to fund campaigns to legalize cannabis and push for an increasingly punitive drug war. To date, they are major Republican fundraisers and serve as vice-chairs of former President Trump’s notoriously corrupt 2017 Inaugural Committee.
Reha’s dirty secret: indentured servitude
More recently, a research published last year by Reveal, the magazine for the Center for Investigative Reporting, revealed the industry’s dirty secret: In more than 300 drug rehabilitation facilities in 44 states, “recovery” means working for no pay. Reporters Shoshana Walter and Amy Julia Harris wrote:
Treatment consisted mainly of sending participants to work full-time at chicken processing plants, where they slaughtered chickens and sorted their parts for Walmart, Popeyes, and KFC. The working conditions were dangerous, injuries were common – and participants weren’t paid.
Income from her work, which reached $ 2 million in 2017, went directly to the rehab centers.
Some worked long unpaid hours in Coca-Cola bottling plants and nursing homes for the elderly. Others “moved boxes to a hot warehouse for Walmart, built an oil rig for Shell, and worked at an Exxon refinery on the Mississippi.”
If President Biden really wants to help people recover, he should first reform these predatory elements in the industry – and stop coercing people into their clutches.
Stop equating possession with addiction
According to a ranking of addictive qualities published by the National Federal Institute for Drug Abuse in 1994, cannabis rates are lower than caffeine in terms of addiction and withdrawal. That said, some people definitely have problems with addiction to cannabis. And some of these people find the treatment helpful.
As a “public health approach”, however, it simply makes no sense to force someone convicted of cannabis possession to choose between rehab and incarceration.
Biden’s “forced rehabilitation” harms those who really need rehab
So far, the Biden government has not made it clear whether the president’s promise / threat of forced rehab includes those arrested for cannabis (as he advocates federal decriminalization). But in states where cannabis has not been legalized, it is already happening.
When unproblematic cannabis users are forced into rehab, those who actually need treatment remain on waiting lists.
According to the latest data from the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2013 more than half of all cannabis users receiving treatment were sent there by the courts or the criminal justice system. Less than 20% checked in voluntarily.
At a time when overwhelming demand for treatment amid the national opioid crisis is putting many people actively seeking help on waiting lists and forcing unproblematic cannabis users to take up space in overcrowded facilities, it harms most of those affected by treatment needs.
But more than that, when you force someone into rehab for imminent incarceration, a racist, oppressive, and abusive system becomes, at best, slightly more humane. What is really needed is to completely uproot the drug ban and start from a set of principles that are in line with our values and that will actually work.
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of How to Smoke Pot (Right): A High-profile Guide to Getting High “(2016 – Penguin / Random House) and co-host and co-creator of the podcast” Great Moments in “Weed Story With Abdullah and Bean. “Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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