It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession
By any measure and every metric, the U.S. war on drugs — a constellation of laws and policies that seeks to prevent the use of certain drugs, primarily through punishment and coercion — has been a catastrophic failure. Indeed, federal and state policies that are designed to be “tough” on people who use and sell illegal drugs have helped over-fill our jails and prisons, permanently branded millions of otherwise law-abiding civilians as “criminals”, and exacerbated drug-related death, disease and suffering — all while failing at their stated aims.
This report offers a roadmap for how to begin to unwind our failed drug war. It focuses on one practical step that can and should be taken to avoid many of the harms that flow from punitive prohibitionist drug laws and to promote proven, effective health-based interventions.
Drug decriminalization is a critical next step toward achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration. Decades of evidence has clearly demonstrated that decriminalization is a sensible path forward that would reap vast human and fiscal benefits, while protecting families and communities.
This report is the product of a comprehensive review of the public health and criminology literature, an analysis of drug policies in the U.S. and abroad, and input from experts in the fields of drug policy and criminal justice. By highlighting the benefits of eliminating criminal penalties for drug use and possession, we seek to provide policymakers, community leaders and advocates with evidence-based options for a new approach.
What is Decriminalization?
Drug decriminalization is the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possession, as well as the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of equipment used for the purpose of introducing drugs into the human body, such as syringes.
Ideally, drug decriminalization entails the elimination of all punitive, abstinence-based, coercive approaches to drug use; however, for purposes of this report, the term encompasses a spectrum of efforts to eliminate criminal penalties, even if such efforts do not eliminate all forms of coercion entirely. Drug decriminalization also ideally entails the removal of criminal penalties for low-level sales, given that the line between seller and user is often blurred (this subject and the broader issue of people who sell drugs will be addressed in a subsequent DPA report).
Why is Criminalization a Problem?
The criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of mass incarceration and mass criminalization in the United States. Each year, U.S. law enforcement makes more than 1.5 million drug arrests — more arrests than for all violent crimes combined. The overwhelming majority — more than 80 percent — are for possession only and involve no violent offense.
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 them are held pre-trial. Hundreds of thousands of people also remain under some form of correctional supervision (probation, parole, or other post-prison supervision) for drug possession. People convicted of drug possession face a host of additional consequences, including the loss of federal financial aid, eviction from public housing, disqualification from a wide range of occupational licenses, loss of the right to vote, and denial of public assistance.
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 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at a similar rate as other racial and ethnic groups – but they comprise 29 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and roughly 35 percent of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession only.
Read this entire article at Drugpolicy.org
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