Illegal drug use and trafficking have led to a multitude of ills in the United States, sometimes because of racially infected law enforcement, particularly in black neighborhoods.
But is decriminalizing small amounts of narcotics at least part of the answer to the scourge?
Two major human and civil rights organizations make a good case for it and advance the decriminalization discussion in a report released Wednesday. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are engaged in a major push to change the way federal, state and local governments deal with drug enforcement and abuse.
Consider this from the report:
- Every 25 seconds someone is arrested in the United States for possessing drugs for personal use.
- At least 137,000 individuals are locked up on any given day for drug possession.
- Black adults are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.
The 196-page report says “criminalizing drug possession has caused dramatic and unnecessary harms,” particularly in the African American community, where severe enforcement racial differences cannot be justified by disparities in use.
Police often search out drug crimes aggressively “and they do so selectively,” the study found, “targeting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color” with “devastating consequences.”
The call for decriminalization goes well beyond efforts involving marijuana that are spreading around the country. ACLU and HRW want all drugs, even the hard stuff like heroin, decriminalized.
“To be clear, we are not encouraging people to go out and use drugs,” said Tess Borden, primary author of the report. “What we are saying is that people shouldn’t be arrested, prosecuted, and potentially incarcerated — and saddled with all the consequences of a criminal record — for personal drug use, i.e. decisions about what they put in their own bodies.”
If some drug use leads to criminal activities, then those actions can be prosecuted just as is done with alcohol, she added.
Jerry Bennett, an alias used in the report, became one of the statistics in New Orleans last year when police found a half-gram of marijuana in the backseat of a truck where Bennett was a passenger. Facing 20 years incarceration had he gone to trial for that small amount of reefer, he thought about his 3-year-old daughter and all her birthdays he would miss.
So he copped a plea and took a 36-month sentence, getting out in 14.
“Imagine me in here for 20 years,” the report quoted Bennett. “They got people that kill people. And they put you up here for half a gram of weed.”
In fact, in many cases, people who kill people get out in less than 20 years. But Bennett’s case is another in a long list illustrating the often biased, counterproductive way federal, state and local governments deal with drug crimes.
Fourteen months doesn’t sound like much given what Bennett was facing. But should he have been locked up at all? Would he have received the same sentence if he were white? Information in the report points to the same answer for each question — no.
The report’s overarching recommendation for Congress: “decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.”
But until then, the report calls on the federal government to:
- “Appropriate sufficient funds to support evidence-based voluntary treatment options and harm reduction services in the community.”
- “Amend federal statutes so that no adverse consequences attach by law to convictions for drug possession.”
- “Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple drug possession, and amend the drug offense bars to entering the US and gaining lawful permanent resident status so that individuals are not barred for simple possession of drugs.”
The White House promoted its approach toward reducing the use of illicit drugs when asked about the report, but it did not address decriminalization directly.
“The Administration has been committed to implementing a balanced approach to drug policy from the beginning because we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” Mario Moreno, press secretary for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote in an email. “Public health and public safety collaboration is imperative to achieving this goal, which is why we’ve prioritized reforming our sentencing policies so that scarce resources are applied in the most effective ways, supporting evidence-based alternatives to incarceration that mitigate risks to the general public and reduce recidivism, and ensuring access to evidence-based treatment.”
Obama administration officials have worked to expand drug courts and other programs that divert nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison, Moreno added.
The tough lock-’em-up approach “has yielded few, if any, benefits,” according to the report. “Criminalizing drugs is not an effective public safety policy. We are aware of no empirical evidence that low-level drug possession defendants would otherwise go on to commit violent crimes.”
If other arguments fail, there’s always the financial angle.
“The enormous resources spent to identify, arrest, prosecute, sentence, incarcerate, and supervise people whose only offense has been possession of drugs is hardly money well spent,” the report says, “and it has caused far more harm than good.”