Part 197- Drug Addiction: Why mandatory minimums don’t work

Part 197- Drug Addiction: Why mandatory minimums don’t work


In society, the idea of drugs and alcohol has become a stigma. More in some cultures than others, but the degree to which one ends up or consumes either of the substances determines the level of society viewing negatively upon them. Even without any or even little prior knowledge of a person, we automatically assume the wrong from them if we find out they were involved with drugs in any way. Alcohol is a different story, especially in American culture, where it’s typical to drink- at a legal age, at least. But with drugs, we look down- more with criticism than what should be an attempt to help them.

To truly understand the controversial aspects of the current solutions, we need to properly understand the reasons these offenders find themselves in the unrelenting chains of drug addiction, as well as the number of social and racial implications that fall upon them. 

Part 1: The Issue at Hand 

Drug addiction, like many other things, is often not willingly a choice of personal being; it emerges from several different factors such as genetic predisposition, environmental influences, mental health struggles, and socioeconomic challenges. The beginning of this addiction lies with one plunged into vulnerability, desperation, failure, profound isolation, and helplessness in one’s life. It is also the inability to take themselves out of the vicious cycle that puts them here that further aggravates the situation. These situations include poverty, trauma, lack of education or work opportunities, and even mental health disorders that all contribute to their vulnerability. 

Faced with little ability to do anything about the situation, they turn to something to comfort them. A way to help them cope with the situation, even help convince themselves that everything will be fine. They turn to alcohol or drugs, which soon turns into an addiction and abuse that slowly takes over their life to a point where they grow attached and can’t function without these substances. It consumes them and their life. Furthermore, the stigma placed upon these substances in society adds to this addiction.1 Social stigma has created a shroud of shame and secrecy around drug use, bringing out fear of judgment and discrimination from others, deterring individuals from reaching out to gain needed assistance to surmount the challenges of overcoming the addiction. Guilt and shame felt in turning to drugs at the moment of helplessness is worse, causing an exacerbated addiction, essentially worsening the situation. 2

Part 2: Attempted Solutions (Mandatory Minimums) 

At the moment, our definition of helping is time in jail, and the way we determine the amount of time is based predominantly on something called mandatory minimums: stringent, Congress and state legislature-made laws made to curb drug-related crimes but instead overlooking many of the complex roots of drug addictions that often lead an offender to their situation. Taking an analogy from an article I read, mandatory minimums very much encompass the entire ‘one-size-fits-all’ category3. However, like most who’ve owned one-size-fits-all items, they know that the name is false. Not everyone is the same, like not every medium is the same, just as not every drug addict is the same. Everyone has their own different life situations, environments, histories, and events at play that’s led them to the path they’re on, and to give a person the same punishment someone else with different circumstances has is extremely unjust. Unfair, even.

What’s also overlooked is the racial and social aspects at play in this area. While it is those surrounded by poverty who experience severe drug addiction, there are also the wealthy who end up along the same route. However, the conditions are different. While one is on the brink of failure and vulnerability and succumbs to the relieving getaway of drugs, the other indulges in it out of boredom and excitement due to excessive wealth. Those with more money can receive the minimum end more often due to adequate legal representation and possibly influence if caught in comparison to the others. Along with this are racial factors; statistics and studies have shown numerous times that those of minority communities are more likely to receive harsher sentences for similar offenses compared to their white counterparts.4 

Alongside these two, there is also the principal fact that mandatory minimums are rather lengthy sentences that often may not align with the severity of the offense committed but instead the type. These conditions stated before- environmental, mental health, socioeconomic, etc. play a little factor in the kind of punishment received, often leading to those only partially or innocently involved receiving the penalty. 

Such punishments include only a few months or weeks in jail to over 30 years.4 (Of course, depending on the type of offense, such as trafficking and location, drug kingpin, distribution, etc.) Simple possession of a controlled substance with one prior conviction is between 15 days and two years, while with two or more prior convictions, it’s 90 days to 3 years. It also further adds on based on the amount of substance and type. To name a few:5

5-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment: 

  • 100 grams or more of heroin
  • 500 grams or more of cocaine
  • 10 grams or more of PCP
  • 1 gram or more of LSD
  • 100 kilograms or more of marijuana 

10-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment:

  • 1 kilogram or more of heroin
  • 5 kilograms or more of cocaine
  • 100 grams or more of PCP
  • 10 grams or more of LSD
  • 1000 kilograms or more of a mixture or substance containing marijuana

20-year minimum mandatory term of imprisonment:

  • One prior felony drug conviction

mandatory life term of improvement:

  • Two or more prior felony drug convictions
(n.d.). FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

These minimums also change again based on states, as certain drugs like marijuana are now legal. Among these is Oregon, the pioneer state to decriminalize small amounts of certain hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Other states include Alaska, Washington, Maine, Virginia, Montana, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, California, New York, etc. 

Unintended spillover effects of cannabis legalization for youth who use e-cigarettes. (2022, June 27). Recovery Research Institute.

At the very least, an alternative to mandatory minimums is specific guidelines that give judges a little more flexibility about sentencing punishments based on the circumstances of both the offense and offender. However, lawyers handling these cases face a legal landscape that doesn’t always allow for tailored, specific approaches to an offender’s case, as these aren’t mandatory. 

Most lawyers can only advocate for a sentence that best suits their client’s circumstances within the punishments. And, as previously mentioned, most of these sentences include a high degree of years spent in jail rather than something more beneficial. 

What’s more, there are several laws designed to help drug addicts by seeking treatments, protecting individuals from arrest for substance abuse in emergencies, and even reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances in the United States. A few specific examples include:

  • Marijuana Tax Act of 1937
  • Controlled Substances Act in 1970 (Nixon)
  • Creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)

However, since then, this war on drugs has been put to a halt due to eleven states decriminalizing marijuana possession, as well as President Jimmy Carter running a political campaign to do so. Over time, there’s been a gradual decline in drug laws. There are lower penalties and shorter mandatory minimums- which would be effective for those who need it- but this has mainly increased the number of drug addicts and users. 

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which substantially reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1. 

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is a program that’s shifted officers from making low-level drug arrests to diverting individuals to social services and treatments, which has proven far more successful, with participants in this program 58% less likely to be rearrested. 

Part 3: Reforming Society

After all this, it’s clear where the root of the problem lies: society. Society’s perception of certain things becomes ingrained in the minds of its members, isolating those who fall out of the norm due to others looking down on them. 

Here, drug addiction is a problem. It always has been and always will be. President Nixon said so himself with his nationwide initiative plan to reduce the number of drug abuse cases in the United States. He called it the ‘war on drugs’; it was a “government-wide, nationwide ” all-out offensive. However, it was mainly only that last bit that stuck with most others. His plan of providing more federal resources to the ‘prevention of new addicts and rehabilitation of those who are addicted’ was not as heavily paid attention to by the widespread public. As a result, we’ve focused so much on criminalizing drug abuse and involvement and throwing people into jail we’ve forgotten about rehab being another better option.

Furthermore, we need to start paying more attention to the programs designed for treatments rather than immediate arrest or incarceration. Federal response to addressing these problems has gone down significantly over the years, bringing an increase in addicts and offenses. President Trump addressed this issue, the opioid war, quite recently and launched an initiative that analyzed the federal response to this crisis before deciding on the response. Following this, the Prescription Awareness Campaign was put in place, sharing real-life stories of those who have lost loved ones to opioid overdose, the FDA implementing new requirements on the manufacturers of prescription opioids, and the Department of Justice’s Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit targeting individuals that are contributing to the prescription opioid epidemic, to name a few. It’s a similar approach to Nixon’s war on drugs, establishing itself to be successful, with the number of heroin users between 12 and older falling more than 50% and a 20% increase in young adults receiving outpatient treatment. It’s a more significant amount of change in this crisis than seen before, showing that we need to take more initiatives such as this if we want to fight this problem. 

Now, rehab is also controversial. Rehab works for some and not for others. And even with rehab, who says those who went through it won’t continue on their previous path again? So many have lost faith in rehab due to the growing stigma around drug addiction in general that it’s become more difficult for rehab to work and be beneficial to those who need it. We truly need to address this social stigma more than anything and quit isolating those who face these problems. We must show that people are willing to help bring them out of the pit. Shift away from immediate punishment, start focusing on advancing mental health programs, rehab treatments, and comprehensive addiction treatment programs, and take down the systemic inequalities so many face when they go through these processes. It’ll be far more impactful and bring about meaningful change rather than sending them to jail, further crushing their spirit. We need to start changing the societal mindset these problems have brought about, start evoking more empathy for those who are suffering inside- suffering so much they couldn’t turn to anyone else but drugs or any other harmful substance- and show that we are there to help them. We are willing to pull them out of their predicament to who they were. We need to start advocating for better, more equal socially and racially just legal systems that will take in every case and assess it the same, regardless, and help allow those who need the help to feel empowered to speak up about it and seek it without feeling the fear of discriminatory consequences. 

Furthermore, even if rehab remains controversial and ineffective, we can focus more on being stricter on drugs. Targeting the problem head-on has proven itself to be the most successful in the past, so why not keep doing that? If we’re worried about the health and addiction these drugs can cause, why not just get rid of teh source altogether? With the amount of leniency in recent policies regarding drug consumption, it’s no wonder there’s a higher number of drug addicts, especially at younger ages. Lawyers can only do so much in attempts to gain a minimum for their defendant, and if we want to see results that can show that they won’t go through this again, why not cut down and limit drug access? 

With this, both legally and socially, it would be far more beneficial and lead to a significant decline in offenses. Drug addicts who face their first offense get directed to programs designed to treat their conditions and guarantee they won’t turn back to drugs rather than immediate arrest, which could more likely lead them to commit the offense again. For lawyers, it would allow them to make a more compelling case for those who need it- to let them go through the required programs and treatment to get them off this route- and prevent their client from gaining the mandatory minimum or even any other lengthy sentence. 

Because at the end of the day, they’re human, just like us, and they also deserve second chances.


St. Joseph Institute. (2023, October 19). Understanding the relationship between poverty and addiction. St. Joseph Institute for Addiction.,of%20a%20substance%20use%20disorder.&text=There%20are%20several%20ways%20in,abuse%20and%20relapse%20after%20treatment

  1. Poverty, homelessness, and social stigma make addiction more deadly. (2021, September 28). Harvard Health. ↩︎
  2. Addressing the stigma of addiction | Advocacy. (n.d.). Hazelden Betty Ford | Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers.,ve%20established%20long%2Dterm%20recovery ↩︎
  3. (n.d.). FAMM. ↩︎
  4. (n.d.). FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  ↩︎
  5. ↩︎

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