Would Decriminalization of Drug Possession Help?

It’s impossible to prove that throwing people in prison for using drugs has helped reduce crime or drug use. In fact, it’s pretty easy to prove the opposite. Many people go in with a drug use issue and come out criminals with a drug use issue.

Statistics like these have led the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch to call for drug decriminalization. Here’s what an article published October 14, 2016 says:

“Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use,” said Tess Borden, the report’s author. “These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence.”[1]

Some of you may argue that there are drug treatment programs within the prison system. What most people don’t realize is that the waiting lists for those programs are long—51,000 long for federal prison inmates according to USA Today.[2]

Those programs are important, and there’s a place for drug treatment in the prison system. Sometimes the crime is too serious to allow a drug user to return to the street. When this isn’t the case, does locking someone up for simple possession truly benefit society?

This is the question the ACLU and Human Right Watch is asking after interviewing 149 people. All 149 were prosecuted for using drugs, and 64 remained incarcerated at the time they were interviewed. At least 1 was serving a 10-year sentence.

None of those interviewed had committed an additional crime. They were just found to have used and possessed drugs. This is just one study. However, it reflects a consensus that has been growing since 2001.

Would Decriminalization Increase Drug Use?

In the 15 years since Portugal decriminalized low-level possession of illicit drugs, drug use has remained relatively flat. There have been some upward fluctuations, yet reported use has generally declined. And use in Portugal is lower than other European countries, and significantly lower than in the US.[3]

In Portugal if you don’t have more than a 10-day supply in your possession, you are ordered to appear before a local ‘dissuasion commission.’ This commission evaluates whether voluntary treatment, a fine and/or another sanction would be most effective. The premise is that the country should focus on treatment for users rather than punishment, while the punitive approach should still apply to those who are trafficking drugs.

Has this approach worked? It’s cut the number of people in prison for drug law violations by almost 50%. It’s increased the number of people who enter voluntary drug treatment by 60%. It’s also knocked the number of drug overdose deaths in the country from 80/year in 2001 to around 16 since 2012.

Could decriminalization happen in this country?

It’s more likely than you might think. In April 2015, Hawaii’s House Committee on Judiciary passed a proposal to decriminalize all drugs, not just marijuana.[4] While it’s the first state to propose decriminalization of the ‘harder’ drugs, it’s likely to not be the last.

Other states have already gone past decriminalization when it comes to marijuana. California, Massachusetts and Nevada joined Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon in approving marijuana for recreational use.

There are already hints there’s a growing consensus in Washington state that it’s far better to treat than incarcerate. Consider the number of Adult Drug Courts in the state—24. There are also 13 Juvenile Drug Courts.

The intense judicially-supervised treatment plan starts with an alcohol and drug assessment. It helps courts identify people who aren’t dangerous to society—just in need help.

Should decriminalization happen in Washington?

Perhaps. Not only is housing someone in prison expensive; in prison, the underlying causes that lead people to use drugs and alcohol are ignored.

Those working in the Washington prison system see this every day. Smoking inside the prison was banned in 2004. Has withholding cigarettes from inmates turned them into non-smokers? Sometimes. But for many, it’s the first thing he or she intends to purchase when they get out.

Drugs are no different. While in prison, life is on hold. When access returns, most fall back on making the same decisions and following old habits because their thinking remains the same.

Consider the financial benefits of focusing on treatment over punishment. Those who enter drug treatment are far more likely to benefit our economy. Even when incarcerated within a mandatory ‘work camp,’ prisoners can only work minimum wage jobs available within the prison system. In addition, those who enter treatment on the outside conquer their addiction in the real world rather than one where life is supervised and regimented.

Whether drug possession should be decriminalized is a question for continued discussion. However, we firmly believe that offering people help when it becomes apparent they may have a substance abuse issue seems a far wiser approach than locking them up.

[1] https://www.thefix.com/aclu-human-rights-watch-call-drug-decriminalization-new-report

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/04/prisoner-drug-treatment-delays/1739371/

[3]               https://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/DPA_Fact_Sheet_Portugal_Decriminalization_Feb2015.pdf

[4] http://extract.suntimes.com/news/10/153/18176/hawaii-approves-study-proposal-decriminalize-drugs