By Phillip Smith
Nearly a half century after Richard Nixon inaugurated the modern war on drugs, to criticize it as a failure as so common as to be banal. Yet even as marijuana prohibition falls in some states, the drug war rolls on, an assembly line of criminalization and incarceration, dealing devastating blows to the lives of its victims that linger far beyond the jail or prison cell.
And most of its victims are not capos or kingpins, but simple drug users. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), drug possession is the single offense for which the largest number of arrests are made in the US, totaling more than 1.25 million last year, and accounting for more than three-fourths of all drug arrests.
Based on analysis of national and state-level data, as well as more than 360 interviews with drug offenders, family members, past and present government officials, and activists conducted mostly in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and New York, the 196-page report, “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” finds that enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.
The long-term consequences can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime. While more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the US than for any other crime, mainstream discussions of criminal justice reform rarely question whether drug use should be criminalized at all.
“Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use,” said Tess Borden, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the report’s author. “These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence.”
Among those interviewed was for the study was Corey, who is doing 17 years in Louisiana for possessing a half ounce of marijuana. His four-year-old daughter, who has never seen him outside prison, thinks she’s visiting him at work.
Another is “Neal,” whose name was changed to protect his privacy. Also in Louisiana, he’s doing five years for possessing 0.2 grams of crack cocaine. He has a rare autoimmune disorder and said he cried the day he pleaded guilty because he knew he might not survive his sentence.
Then there’s Nicole, held for months in the Harris County Jail in Houston and separated from her three young children until she pleaded guilty to a felony — her first. The conviction meant she would lose her student financial aid, the food stamps she relied on to feed her kids, and the job opportunities she would need to survive. All for an empty baggie containing a tiny bit of heroin residue.
“While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer,” Borden said. “Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment.”
The report also emphasized the now all-too-familiar racial disparities in drug law enforcement, noting that while blacks use drugs at similar or lower rates than whites, they’re more than two-and-a-half times more likely to arrested for drug possession and more than four time more likely to be arrested for pot possession. It’s even worse in some localities, such as Manhattan, where blacks are 11 times as likely to be busted for drug possession as whites. That amounts to “racial discrimination under international human rights law,” the two groups said.
Aside from the vicious cruelty of imprisoning people for years or decades merely for possessing a substance, that drug conviction—and drug possession, even of tiny amounts, is a felony in 42 states — also haunts their futures. Drug convicts face the loss of access to social welfare benefits, the stigma of criminality, the disruption of family life, the financial burden of paying fines and fees, and the burden of trying to find work with a felony record. And that harms society at large as well as the criminalized drug users.
And despite tens of millions of drug arrests over the past few decades, with all their collateral damage, the war on drugs doesn’t achieve its avowed goal: reducing drug use. There has to be a better way, and Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have something to say about that.
“State legislatures and the US Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs. Federal and state governments should invest resources in programs to decrease the risks associated with drug use and provide and support voluntary treatment options for people struggling with drug dependence, along with other approaches,” the two groups recommended.
“Until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices,” they added, providing detailed recommendations to state legislatures, police, prosecutors, and other state and local government entities, as well as the federal government.
“Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources,” Borden said. “If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead.”