In 2018, there were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in the United States. More than 86% of these arrests are for possession only, and many more are for minor selling and distribution violations.
Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Other jurisdictions are experimenting with de facto decriminalization through Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs. LEAD directs people to drug treatment or other supportive services instead of arresting and booking them for certain drug law violations, including possession and low-level sales.
These are important victories, but they are not enough. The Drug Policy Alliance supports decriminalizing all drugs, not just marijuana.
Drug decriminalization would eliminate criminal penalties for:
Removing criminal penalties for drug possession and low-level sales would:
Defelonization can be a stepping-stone to decriminalization and provides a snapshot into the potential benefits of full decriminalization. Defelonization means that drug law violations are reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. The 2014 defelonization victory in CA substantially reduced the number of people in prison and especially local jails. Those savings are now being reallocated to provide needed services.
However, defelonization does not go far enough. Misdemeanors still have criminalizing consequences, and full removal of criminal penalties – decriminalization – is needed for people experiencing problematic drug use to seek help without any fear of arrest.
A common fear is that decriminalizing drugs would lead to more drug dependency and crime. There is no indication this is true. Data from the U.S. and around the world suggest that treating problematic drug use as a health issue, instead of a criminal one, is a more successful model for keeping communities healthy and safe.
Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001. More than a decade later, drug use has remained about the same – but arrests, incarceration, disease, overdose and other harms are all down:
To learn more about decriminalization, read our report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession.