Critics say South Dakota policies doom any hope of change in meth crisis

For all the ridicule South Dakota is receiving for its new antidrug slogan — “Meth. We’re On It.” — experts in substance abuse say the most important story is being missed.

South Dakota is the only state that classifies ingestion of illegal substances as a felony, a hard-line approach that has widely been shown to make it harder to break the cycle of addiction.

Even if a user manages to go clean, a felony conviction makes it more difficult to find a job, especially one with health insurance, increasing the chances of a relapse.

The law in effect “criminalizes addiction,” said Libby Skarin, policy director for the state’s American Civil Liberties Union.

Its impact is apparent in the state’s prisons, where 9% of inmates are serving time for ingesting a controlled substance, 18% for possession of drugs and 5% for distribution and “other drug offenses.”

That’s a total of 32% of prisoners incarcerated for drug convictions — more than double the national average for state prisons, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for fairness in the criminal justice system.

Like much of the United States, South Dakota embraced a get-tough policy on drugs starting in the 1980s and saw its prison population skyrocket.

Between 1980 and 2010, the number of inmates grew from about 500 to about 3,500. As of last month, there were 3,828 — in a state with a total population of about 890,000.

Policymakers and politicians across the country and across the political spectrum have recognized the failure of that strategy and over the last decade turned to a less punitive approach. Last year, President Trump signed into law a bipartisan prison reform bill that undid many harsh federal policies created in the 1990s.

In a nod to the shifting winds, South Dakota lawmakers in 2013 passed reforms aimed at decreasing the prison population by promoting probation and other alternatives for those incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

In the same year, however, they also made it a felony to possess and ingest methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin as well as prescription drugs obtained illegally. Smoking or eating marijuana remained a misdemeanor.

A positive drug test can be the basis for a conviction.

The ACLU found that this new law played a significant role in increasing felony convictions — by 26% between 2013 and 2015.

There have been recent attempts to get on track with the rest of the nation.

In 2018, state Sen. Craig Kennedy proposed a measure to reclassify drug ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor — a move that the state Senate’s fiscal analysis estimated would reduce prison costs by $51 million and jail costs by $10 million over a 10-year period. The bill failed.

Read the full story on the LA Times.