Since its launch in the early 1970s, the War on Drugs has proven to be a misguided endeavor focusing on incarceration over rehabilitation, and according to a group of local officials who spoke during a panel discussion Tuesday, it’s time for a change.

Tuesday’s discussion, held at David Thibodeaux STEM Magnet Academy, featured a wide range of panelists — including a prosecutor, a public defender, a state legislator, a district court judge, a counselor and the warden of the parish jail — who all argued for a “philosophical” change.

One major problem with the War on Drugs is that it has unevenly targeted black communities nationwide, and as seen in Louisiana, has resulted in thousands being locked up in our jails for crimes as simple as possession of marijuana. And the problem with that is the black community is by no means using more drugs than whites, they’re just more prone to being locked up when caught.

“White folks use drugs just as much as black folks,” says 15th Judicial District Attorney Pat Magee, who started his career prosecuting drug offenders. “They always say lock 'em up until it’s their kid ... and that’s when they come in saying ‘Oh they’re a good kid ... they’re just an addict. When it’s someone’s else’s kid, it’s ‘Nah, they’re the enemy.’”

According to Kevin Valdez, an assistant public defender with the 15th Judicial District, about 90 percent of all drug offenders are represented by his office. Valdez says the public defender’s office has about 2,962 open cases, and gains on average about 32 new cases each day, half of those being for drug-related arrests. The sad reality, says Valdez, is that with such an overwhelming case load, justice is rarely served, as the majority of the public defender’s clients will end up entering plea deals regardless of the circumstances surrounding their cases.

According to State Rep. Terry Landry, a retired Louisiana State Police colonel, the root of the problem is the justice system’s outdated position on drug offenders.

“We need treatment, not mass incarceration,” says Landry. “There’s very minimal treatment; it’s about keeping our jails full.”

Landry says he foresees a change though, especially with the recent rise of heroin. Drug offenders have traditionally come from the lower classes, heroin, on the other hand, is a favorite among middle class whites.

Though he’s against incarceration as an answer to the drug problem, Landry says he recently voted in favor of legislation to enhance the penalties for heroin crimes.

“I only voted to enhance the penalty because we’ll hear an outcry for treatment,” says Landry.

Another positive first step, at least for Louisiana, would be the decriminalization of marijuana.

“There’s people doing life for this,” Landry points out.

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