Lost Opportunities from the War on Drugs


By Joe Chivers

When discussing the War on Drugs, we must discuss not only the fatal impact it has had on millions of people, but also the subtler effects. While less lurid, these effects have damaged lives in tragic and tangible ways. For example, having a criminal record for drug possession (even for your own use) can rob you of educational, financial, and employment opportunities. This effectively renders those with a criminal record for drugs as an underclass, unable to change their situation in life. They are left with no education, no credit, and few employers willing to hire them. All for a small mistake that they could have made for any number of understandable or socially acceptable reasons. In this article, we shall explore the societal penalties that can befall those convicted of drug offences.

Education is one of the most significant and worthwhile endeavours you can embark on during your life. Whether it’s high school, a bachelor’s degree, or a PhD, it is extremely important. Learning makes you a more capable and well-rounded individual, and also allows you to appreciate life to a greater degree. When these opportunities are taken from you, it takes away one of life’s richest aspects. This is the fate that awaits many potential students with drug convictions. While applying for Federal Student Aid, there is a question that directly asks the prospective student whether they have ever been convicted of a drug offense. This is singled out from criminal offenses as a whole, and no differentiation is made between possessing weed and selling crystal meth. Even more ridiculously, it does not take into account differing state laws. A student who wants to go to college in Colorado could still be denied aid due to a conviction for possessing pot in Texas. While potentially, you could still fund your own studies, this is a significant barrier to entry.

Suggest that this prospective student decides to fund their own studies. To do this, they need a job. Here, we reach another barb on the many-thorned issue of drug convictions. Employers may well ask whether or not you have any drug convictions. You have two avenues to go down here: one, is to lie. This, for many reasons, is not a good path to go down. Secondly, is to tell the truth. If you lie, they will likely run a background check on you and find out anyway, which adds another layer of shade to your already (to them) problematic past. Particularly badly affected are the fields of law enforcement, legal practice, nursing and commercial driving. While it is certainly not “impossible” to get a job with a drug conviction, it becomes drastically more difficult than it would have been otherwise, particularly if you wish to enter professional fields.

If you wish to get some financial help, for example, a loan to help buy a car, a house, or other large investments, then a drug conviction will not help your chances. For many banks, this will result in an automatic declination, while for others, if you do get one, it will lead to you being given the status of a high-risk client. Renting homes can also become far, far more difficult, with landlords having the right to deny you housing if you’ve been convicted of a felony. Time since the felony was committed is not taken into account. You can apply to have your record expunged or sealed, but this takes time and money. Neither of which are something that, if you’ve just got out of jail, you’ll have in great quantity.

It may seem unbelievable, given the United States’ reputation for being “the land of the free,” where democracy rules, but you can even be stripped of your voting rights. In Kentucky and Iowa, those convicted of a felony can never vote again. Every state but Vermont and Maine prohibit felons from voting while in prison. Once you’re released, your state’s laws may vary quite dramatically. In Alabama, if the offense involves any moral turpitude (a wonderfully loose phrase), then you lose your ability to vote unless you petition to have it restored. In Wyoming, one must petition the state governor to have their rights restored.

All of these situations lead to one thing: the creation of a permanent underclass. Those who have found themselves convicted of a drug offence, no matter how minor, will be forever changed. Their life will no longer depend on their own self-determination. Instead, they will find themselves borne aloft by other people’s wills, like a piece of driftwood on the ocean’s currents. This could be, I remind you, simply due to getting caught with some weed aged 18. That is not just. That does not lead to a cohesive society. The loss of opportunities can render making a clean living almost impossible, forcing people into more serious crime. If the justice system should serve one purpose, surely it should be to render the society it adjudicates a better one, not create more criminals due to their own inaction. There is no justification for these restrictions in cases like these. Were these murderers or sex offenders, you could make a fairly well-thought out argument, but to make it so that experimenting with substances renders your life outside your control is astonishingly unfair. If I had been caught smoking hash when I was in my early-20s, I could have had my life changed forever. I know the same would go for a lot of you reading this. Put yourself in the shoes of someone unlucky enough to get caught, and ask yourself if the punishment fits the crime.

The justice system needs reform and the drug war needs to end. Lofty aims, certainly, but necessary ones. If the judiciary and governments of the United States and its contingent parts treated these crimes as a misdemeanour, that would be a step up. Decriminalizing drug use would be an even better solution. Let us not begrudge someone for their youthful experimentation. Let us not build a society where smoking, snorting, or injecting a substance can ruin your life. Let us build a society where we treat each other fairly.

Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.