What No One Tells You About Having Drug Charges on Your Record
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, a reaction to the widespread nature of drug use and abuse throughout the previous decade. Young people across the nation were experimenting with drugs as a means of rebelling against strict parents and societal pressures, resulting in a massive upsurge in use of marijuana, heroin, LSD, MDMA and other lethal illicit drugs. Nixon’s response was to impose heavy drug laws and serious consequences for those caught using illegal substances as a means of discouragement.
In the four and a half decades since the ‘war’ began, the drug policies enacted by Nixon’s administration and since have come under scrutiny repeatedly. Much of the stigmas we carry today regarding drug use and addiction stem from the overwhelming amount of anti-drug propaganda broadcasted as part of the war on drugs.
With many lobbyists and special interest groups calling the War on Drugs an outright failure, there has been a recent push in politics and government to rethink the way we handle drugs as a legal matter. President Obama’s pardon of 46 drug offenders in July made national news with outrage from some and an uproar of support from others.
Each day more Americans are learning to recognize addiction as a legitimate disorder, one that requires treatment, not punishment. 14 of the aforementioned inmates were serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes, a reality thousands of others continue to face.
So what actually happens when you have a drug charge on your record? Well:
It Affects Your Employability
Pretty much anyone who has filled out an application anywhere has been questioned regarding their legal record (excluding states which prohibit the question). What those without a record of prior charges don’t realize is answering yes to that single question can disqualify an otherwise qualified prospective employee. In most states there is no law which prohibits employers from denying employment based on a criminal record.
Many employers cite a desire to ‘protect the business or clientele’ as their reason for denying employment to people with certain charges in their past. While there are businesses which do employe ex-offenders, this is a conscientious choice, not a legal requirement.
For those with a drug offense record, employment can be difficult to obtain and maintain, especially if one has not actually received any sort of addiction recovery treatment. The stigmas associated with drug use are compounded with stigmas against people with criminal records. Even if one finds employment, the potentially overbearing micro-managing and constant looming threat of termination over small infractions makes it discouraging at best
It Makes it Harder to Rent a Home
Just like with employment, having to reveal your record to potential landlords can also be disastrous. Property owners fear that renting to those with drug charges will lower the value of their investment and invite crime into the area. While this is not necessarily true, if one’s record includes charges of drug trafficking or intent to sell, it is easy to see how one can come to such a conclusion.
This type of prejudice against former drug offenders fuels the idea that one cannot improve themselves. Most people who turn to drug trafficking do so because of their inability to make ends meet otherwise; people with substance abuse disorders rely on drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for life. The cycle is a catch-22 on both sides, eternally self-fulfilling and seemingly inescapable.
Yet, if this is the case, can we ask employers and property owners to put their faith and business on the line? If it’s a true catch-22, is offering employment or housing enabling the vicious cycle that is drug abuse?
No. While it may seem inescapable and never ending, in most cases, all it takes to break the cycle is someone to reach out a helping hand. If one is making conscious efforts to break free from the drug world, the last thing they need is someone telling them they will never be anything more than a drug pusher or addict.
If You Spend Time in Jail, Readjusting After Your Release Feels Nearly Impossible
As I stated earlier, drug charges can come with some hard time. Yes, it is crucial to the successful rehabilitation of the United States to restrict the drug flow into and around the country, but is a 30 year prison sentence entirely necessary in non-violent cases? Certainly that’s debatable, but here’s a hard fact: drugs ruin lives on all sides. Developing an addiction derails the promising futures of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year, but enacting harsh punishments on people arrested for trafficking, possession, or other drug related charges ruins lives just as surely.
There is a profound lack of rehabilitation and retraining in prison systems across the country. This means men and women are being locked away for years, secluded away from their families, friends, and society, then released without anything to show for it but drug charges and wasted time. While some are able to complete GED programs and online college courses, a vast majority are not afforded these programs due to budget cuts and prison politics.
How can we ask former inmates to leave jail and become valuable, upstanding members of society if we are not giving them the tools or the chance to do so? If a man who knows nothing but street codes and drug selling as a trade spends 20 years in prison, without any job skills training, education, or therapy, what are the honest chances he will be able to walk out of jail a reformed man? Yet we so often do not look at those factors when we point to him and label him a ‘thug’, ‘career criminal’ or ‘heartless.’
Is there any wonder people involved in this type of lifestyle come to resent society?
Expunging Your Record Costs A Lot of Time and Money
Some people with a bit of knowledge regarding the legal system will point out that there are options regarding removing certain types of charges from one’s record. Depending on the severity of one’s crime, the time elapsed, and the state laws, it is possible to wipe the slate clean.
If you have a few thousand dollars on hand, not including the lawyer and court fees.
The process of expunging your record costs money, and no small amount if you are not financially stable (hint: a majority of Americans don’t have $10,000 laying in wait). In addition to the costly nature of expungement, working with a lawyer on the matter is not free. The process can be drawn out over months and years, slowly draining one’s finances and ultimately making the situation worse before it gets better.
Banks are not exactly clamoring to give people with drug charges loans, either. Every cent that goes to clearing the slate comes out of pocket, sometimes leaving people with thousands of dollars of debt and no way to pay it off. Though expungement of one’s record is usually done to improve one’s chances of employment, having to commit a portion of one’s pay to relieving that debt can make supporting one’s self nearly impossible, let alone a family.
In Some States, Drug Charges Can Get You a Life Sentence
So far all we’ve discussed are the societal ramifications of drug charges following a release from custody- but what about those who never get back out? America is the only developed country which imposes life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Congress’ mandatory sentencing guidelines- passed in 1987- result in thousands of people facing serious time each year for drug trafficking.
The running assumption is that somehow these extreme sentences are deserved- they must be right? Drug dealers are violent, sociopathic criminals waiting to prey on any and everyone, right? Tell that to Clarence Aaron, one of the individuals pardoned under Obama. He received initially received three life sentences for his part in a drug deal– all he did was introduce the supplier to the buyer and refuse to play the part of informant during the trial.
Since his release, Clarence has made it a point to visit schools and organizations to speak about drug abuse prevention and the serious, life-altering consequences of our actions. This is not what so many who were outraged by the release of non-violent drug offenders under Obama’s pardon expected at all. They operated under the assumption that the act would free dozens of criminals back into the streets to do harm on our communities.
While that was certainly a risk, it’s time we stop looking at people with a spotted past as these urchins of society, intent on doing wrong, and open our eyes to what we as a community can do to help better the lives of everyone touched by the drug epidemic.
Do you think we should change the way we treat people with drug charges on their records? Give us your opinion!
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About the Author
Alexandrea Holder is a South Florida native working toward double Master’s degrees in Psychology and English. She finds the psychological aspects of addiction and mental illness fascinating, as both are prevalent in her family’s history. When not researching and spreading addiction awareness, Alexandrea enjoys sparring, artistic pursuits, and admiring puppies online.