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The Human Costs of Drug Possession Crimes

A newly released report casts a harsh light on the realities of our nation's drug laws. According to the study, someone is arrested for simple drug possession in the United States every 25 seconds. The study, conducted through a joint initiative between the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, concludes that drug possession crimes are subject to discriminatory enforcement and calls for decriminalizing simple drug possession crimes.

The exhaustive report made other startling findings, including:

  • There are over 137,000 people in jail or prison for drug possession on any given day
  • Police arrest more people for drug possession than for any other crime - over 1.25 million arrests are made every year
  • One out of every nine arrests is for drug possession
  • Four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs than for selling drugs
  • Black adults are almost six times more likely to be in prison for drug possession than white adults

With injustices allegedly occurring at "every stage of the criminal process," the report relied on an extensive analysis of national and state data in deconstructing each step in a typical drug possession arrest, prosecution and sentencing.

Overzealous Policing and Racial Discrimination

According to the report, there were more arrests made for marijuana possession in 2015 (approximately 574,000) than for all other violent crimes combined (505,681). And even though white people are statistically more likely than black people to use illicit drugs during their lives, black adults are two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for drug possession - and over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Aggressive Prosecutions for "Trace" Amounts

Prosecutors are also routinely charging people with felonies for small, "trace" amounts of drugs and aggressively prosecuting them to the fullest extent possible, according to the study. In Texas, for example, the researchers found that over 78 percent of people sent to jail for felony drug possession in 2015 possessed less than one gram of an illicit substance - the equivalent of less than one-fourth of a sugar packet. The results were even higher in Dallas County and do not include potentially thousands of others who were prosecuted and put on probation with felony convictions.

Coerced Guilty Pleas

According to the study, the majority of people charged with a drug possession crime plead guilty - over 99 percent pled guilty in 2009, the most recent year for which national data is available. The study argues that the reason the rates are so high is two-pronged. First, high bail amounts leave defendants, especially those with low-incomes, a choice between fighting their case from jail (over a period of months or sometimes years) or pleading guilty to get out of custody. And second, the threat of long jail or prison sentences scare people into pleading guilty to get a lighter sentence or credit for time served.

Decriminalize Drug Possession?

While acknowledging that the government has a legitimate interest in preventing drug abuse, the report concludes that "criminalizing drug use simply has not worked as a matter of practice." In support of this proposition, the authors argue that drug use has not declined significantly in the last 40 years despite the so-called "war on drugs," and that making drug possession a criminal offense unnecessarily restricts an individual's rights and punishes an activity that doesn't directly harm others.

Rather than criminalize personal drug use and possession, the authors urge governments to expand public education programs on the risks and potential harms of drug usage and increase access to affordable drug dependence treatment programs that are outside the court and prison systems.

What do you think about decriminalizing the personal possession and use of currently illicit drugs? Should the war on drugs be put to bed and replaced by a more compassionate, enlightened approach to drug possession and usage? Let us know in the comments section below.

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