Blog Post

4 Reasons Why The U.S. Needs to Decriminalize Drugs - And Why We're Closer Than You Think

Jag Davies

Half of all adults in the U.S. have used an illegal drug at some point.   If this was your loved one, family member or friend, would they deserve to be arrested, jailed, and face a lifetime of punishment and discrimination?

Ending criminal penalties for drug possession, often referred to as decriminalization, means nobody gets arrested, goes to jail or prison, or faces criminal punishment for possessing a small amount of a drug for personal use. As detailed in a new Drug Policy Alliance report, there’s an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested, let alone locked in cages, simply for using or possessing a drug.

This is a pivotal moment.  Our retrograde federal administration is ramping up the war on drugs – despite widespread public support for ending it and instead focusing our limited resources on health-based approaches to drug addiction and overdose deaths.

Since most drug enforcement is carried out at the local and state levels, not the federal level, jurisdictions across the U.S. are responding to Trump and Sessions by moving drug policy reforms forward with increasing urgency.

Here’s why the U.S. needs to decriminalize drugs – and why we’re actually closer than you might think.

1)  Decriminalization benefits public safety and health.

Decades of empirical evidence from around the world shows that reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not increase rates of drug use or crime – while drastically reducing addiction, overdose and HIV/AIDS.

Today, as overdose deaths skyrocket all over the U.S., people who need drug treatment or medical assistance may avoid it in order to hide their drug use.  If we decriminalize drugs, people can come out of the shadows and get help.

More than a million people are arrested each year in the U.S. for drug possession, but this has done nothing to reduce the availability of drugs or the harms they can cause.  What we’re doing doesn’t work – and actually makes things worse.

Our current policies are diverting law enforcement resources from serious public safety issues.  Hundreds of thousands of rape kits go unprocessed at the same time we're spending billions of dollars arresting and punishing people for drug possession. Our limited public resources would be better spent on expanding access to effective drug treatment and other health services.

2)  Drug possession arrests fuel mass incarceration and mass criminalization – not to mention institutionalized racism and economic inequality.

Criminalizing drug use hurts families and communities, compounds social and economic inequalities, and unfairly denies millions of people the opportunity to support themselves and their families.

U.S. law enforcement arrests about 1.5 million people each year for drug law violations – and more than 80% of those arrests are for simple drug possession. On any given night, there are at least 133,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession – and 63,000 of these people are held pre-trial, which means they’re locked up simply because they’re too poor to post bail.

Discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system. Black people comprise just 13% of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates as other groups – but they comprise 29% of those arrested for drug law violations and 35% of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession.

Drug criminalization also fuels mass detentions and deportations.  For noncitizens, including legal permanent residents – many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades and have jobs and families – possession of any amount of any drug (except first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana) can trigger automatic detention and deportation, often without the possibility of return.  From 2007 to 2012, 266,000 people were deported for drug law violations, of whom 38 percent – more than 100,000 people – were deported simply for drug possession.

3)  Other countries have successfully decriminalized drugs – and the U.S. is moving in the right direction, despite Trump.

Most drug laws exist on a spectrum between criminalization and decriminalization. Some countries have eliminated penalties for possession of all drugs, while some countries and U.S. jurisdictions have eliminated penalties only for marijuana possession. Still other countries and U.S. jurisdictions have taken steps in the right direction by reducing criminal penalties without eliminating them entirely.

Some of these efforts in the U.S. include “defelonizing” drug possession by reducing it to a misdemeanor (which the Oregon legislature just approved last week), decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana possession, establishing pre-arrest diversion programs such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and enacting 911 Good Samaritan laws, which allow for limited decriminalization at the scene of an overdose for people who are witnesses and call for emergency medical assistance. But more ambitious efforts are needed.

Several countries have successful experience with decriminalization, most notably Portugal.  In 2001, Portugal enacted one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illegal drugs.  Today in Portugal, no one is arrested or incarcerated for drug possession, many more people are receiving treatment, and addiction, HIV/AIDS and drug overdose have drastically decreased.

The Portuguese experience demonstrates that ending drug criminalization – alongside a serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health.

4)  The American public – as well as leading governmental, medical, public health, and human rights groups – already support drug decriminalization.

Polls of presidential primary voters last year found that substantial majorities support ending arrests for drug use and possession in Maine (64%), New Hampshire (66%) and even South Carolina (59%).  In 2016, the first state-level decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland and a similar version was reintroduced in 2017. The Hawaii legislature, meanwhile, overwhelmingly approved a bill last year creating a commission to study decriminalization.

Just last month, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a joint statement calling for repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession. They join an impressive group of national and international organizations who have endorsed drug decriminalization that includes the International Red Cross, Organization of American States, Movement for Black Lives, NAACP, and American Public Health Association, among many others.

To learn more, check out DPA’s new report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, which lays out a roadmap for how U.S. jurisdictions can move toward ending the criminalization of people who use drugs.

Jag Davies is director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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