According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report released today, law enforcement agencies in the US made more than 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations in 2016, a 5.63% increase over the previous year. That’s one drug arrest every 20 seconds – and over three times more arrests than for all violent crimes combined.
“Criminalizing drug use has devastated families across the US, particularly in communities of color, and for no good reason,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Far from helping people who are struggling with addiction, the threat of arrest often keeps them from accessing health services and increases the risk of overdose or other harms.”
Unlike previous years, data on arrests for specific drugs such as marijuana, or for specific offenses such as drug possession or drug sales, were not immediately made available by the FBI. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 84% of all drug arrests were for simple low-level drug possession – while 43% of all drug arrests (643,121) were for marijuana law violations, and 39% of all drug arrests (574,641) were simply for marijuana possession.
As detailed in a July 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 away behind bars, simply for using or possessing a drug. On any given night, there are roughly 130,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession – and almost half of these people are held pre-trial, which may mean 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.
Several countries have successful experience with ending criminal penalties for drug use and possession, 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.
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.
Earlier this year, 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.