Endorse the Drug Policy Alliance’s report It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use!
Use the icons below to share this report with your congregations, communities, and local networks!
What is drug decriminalization?
Drug decriminalization refers to the elimination of all criminal penalties for drug use, drug possession and the possession of equipment for consuming drugs. Under this legal framework, drug production, trafficking, distribution, driving under the influence, or other conduct that goes beyond simple possession or use – particularly conduct that might harm others – remain criminal offenses.
How does decriminalization differ from legalization?
Legalization includes the regulation and control of legal drug production and sales to adults without a prescription (as is the case with alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana in some parts of the country). We are not advocating for legal production and sales here. We are proposing a system in which drug use and possession are addressed wholly outside of the criminal justice system.
What does decriminalization look like in practice?
Many jurisdictions in the United States have already been moving toward greater decriminalization in their approach to drug use and possession; full decriminalization is merely an extension of this successful trend. For example, a number of municipalities throughout the country have been experimenting with Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs. These programs are models of successful de facto drug decriminalization at the local level.
Instead of arresting and booking people for low-level drug law violations, police in LEAD jurisdictions immediately direct them to drug treatment or other supportive services. Evaluation of Seattle’s five-year-old LEAD program suggests that it has successfully reduced the number of people arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system; significantly reduced recidivism; reduced criminal justice costs; and improved police-community relations.
Full decriminalization models vary significantly. Before implementing full decriminalization, policymakers will have to decide things like:
- The threshold drug quantities chosen to distinguish between personal use and sales or trafficking offenses;
- The type and severity of administrative sanctions that can be imposed (if any);
- The institutions or actors (health professionals, judges, prosecutors, police, etc.) that decide what separates mere possession from sales or trafficking, if no formal threshold limits are established.
Our report does not take a position on the answers to these questions, leaving room for future conversations about what particular model of decriminalization is right for American jurisdictions.
Why should you support decriminalization?
- Decriminalization will allow us to more effectively help drug users who want help by creating a climate where users feel welcomed into treatment without risk of stigmatization or arrest, and where treatment providers can pursue proven non-abstinence treatment approaches unhindered by criminal laws.
- Decriminalization will reduce the number of people sucked into the criminal justice system, who are disproportionately poor people and people of color.
- Decriminalization will reduce deportations by preventing noncitizens from being deported for drug possession. Currently noncitizens – including legal permanent residents – can be deported for possession of any drug (except for first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana).
- Decriminalization will decrease negative interactions between individuals and the police, improving police-community relations and freeing up police resources to investigate serious crimes.
- Decriminalization will help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into society by ensuring that no one is re-incarcerated for a minor drug offense or for failing a drug test. It will also eliminate the collateral consequences of drug use or possession, which can currently impact child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, licensing, student aid, and public housing and other forms of public assistance.
- Decriminalization will save the government money by eliminating the costs of arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating those who commit low-level drug law violations, freeing up resources for addressing problematic drug use through evidence-based public health approaches.
What won’t decriminalization do?
- Decriminalization is NOT likely to significantly affect rates of drug use: Available empirical evidence from the US and around the world strongly suggests that eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession would not significantly increase rates of drug use. The National Research Council affirmed in 2015 that “existing research seems to indicate that there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use.”
- Decriminalization is NOT likely to significantly affect crime rates: Countries that have decriminalized some or all drugs have not experienced significant increases in non-drug crimes. Some jurisdictions have even seen reductions in their crime rates, perhaps because decriminalization frees up police and court resources to deal with other crimes.
- Decriminalization is NOT likely to decrease the number of people entering treatment: There is no evidence that coercing people into treatment through the criminal justice system is any more effective than voluntary treatment. Many health professionals consider any form of coerced treatment to be medically unethical. And many individuals currently being forced into treatment through the criminal justice system are non-problematic users who don’t need treatment at all, and who divert scarce resources away from problematic users who truly need them.
Who else supports decriminalization?
Many prominent groups have already endorsed exploring how drug decriminalization could be implemented in the United States, including Human Rights Watch, Global Commission on Drug Policy, Movement for Black Lives, American Public Health Association, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Organization of American States, World Health Organization, the NAACP, the National Latino Congreso, and the American Civil Liberties Union, and the list is continually growing.
Human Rights Watch (2013): “National drug control policies that impose criminal penalties for personal drug use undermine basic human rights…Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs, or for possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy… The criminalization of drug use has undermined the right to health. Fear of criminal penalties deters people who use drugs from using health services and treatment, and increases their risk of violence, discrimination, and serious illness. Criminal prohibitions have also impeded the use of drugs for legitimate medical research, and have prevented patients from accessing drugs for palliative care and pain treatment….[G]overnments should rely instead on non-penal regulatory and public health policies.”
Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011 & 2014): The Commission called on national governments to “End the criminalization, marginalization, and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others… and replace the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with the offer of health and treatment services to those who need them.” The Commission reiterated its call in 2014: “Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession – and stop imposing ‘compulsory treatment’ on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.”
Movement for Black Lives (2016): The Movement for Black lives calls for “the retroactive decriminalization, immediate release and record expungement of all drug related offenses and prostitution, and reparations for the devastating impact of the ‘war on drugs’ and criminalization of prostitution, including a reinvestment of the resulting savings and revenue into restorative services, mental health services, job programs and other programs supporting those impacted by the sex and drug trade.”
American Public Health Association (2013): “APHA believes that national and state governments and health agencies must reorient drug policies to embrace health-centered, evidence-based approaches … Therefore, APHA…[u]rges Congress and state governments to eliminate federal and state criminal penalties and collateral sanctions for personal drug use and possession offenses and to avoid unduly harsh administrative penalties, such as civil asset forfeiture, …such penalties should not be imposed solely for personal drug possession and use.”
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (2012): “Treating drug addicts as criminals is destined to fuel the rise of HIV and other infections not only among those unfortunate enough to have a serious drug addiction, but also for children born into addicted families and ordinary members of the public who are not normally exposed to HIV risks. Injecting drug use is a health issue. It is an issue of human rights. It cannot be condoned, but neither should it be criminalized…. Criminalization, discrimination and stigmatization are not [appropriate] responses. Laws and prosecutions do not stop people from taking drugs. Neither does the cold turkey methods of detoxification that can be potentially life-threatening. On the contrary, governments should recognize once and for that a humanitarian drug policy works!”
Organization of American States (2013): “The decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy.”
World Health Organization (2014): “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration. Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes…. Countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs.”
NAACP (2012): The NAACP Board of Directors adopted a resolution in 2012 calling for the establishment of a Portuguese-style decriminalization policy, at least as a pilot program and later (if results are favorable) to be scaled up across the country. Its resolution stated, “The United States government [should] pilot the Portugal Decriminalization program in three U.S. cities and apply the lessons learned… throughout the United States.”
National Latino Congreso (2010): “[T]he delegates of the 2010 National Latino Congreso…urge state and federal governments to follow the successful example of countries like Portugal that have decriminalized personal adult possession and use of all drugs, which has improved the health of drug users, reduced incarceration and death, and saved taxpayer money with no negative consequences to society.”
American Civil Liberties Union (2014): In 2014, it signed a public letter, along with more than 50 human rights and drug policy organizations throughout the hemisphere, which read, “The undersigned organizations urge the… [d]ecriminalization of consumption, drug possession and cultivation for personal use. Criminalization of drug users intensifies their exclusion and stigmatization. Minority groups and impoverished people are especially affected by this, since they are usually the main target of law enforcement interventions. Governments should consider the possibility of adopting decriminalization as an alternative response to criminalization of drug users, by offering health policies for problematic consumers within the framework of the public health system, so that they are not stigmatized…. Prison overcrowding is one of the main causes of human rights violations in the region, strongly impacting the families of detainees and their living conditions.”
 Human Rights Watch, “Americas: Decriminalize Personal Use of Drugs; Reform Policies to Curb Violence, Abuse,” (2013). Global Commission on Drug Policy, “Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,” (2011).
 American Public Health Association, “A.P.H.A. Policy Statement 201312: Defining and Implementing a Public Health Response to Drug Use and Misuse.”
 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Statement to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 55th Session), http://www.ifrc.org/en/news-and-media/opinions-and-positions/speeches/2012/to-the-commission-on-narcotic-drugs-55th-session/
 Organization of American States, “The Drug Problem in the Americas: Analytical Report.”
 World Health Organization, “Policy Brief: H.I.V. Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations: Consolidated Guidelines July 2014,” (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2014), 91.
 NAACP National Board of Directors, “Exit Strategy to End the War on Drugs,” (Houston. Texas: NAACP, 2012).
 National Latino Congreso, “Resolution 11.03 – Resolution to Explore Alternatives to Drug Prohibition in Order to Reduce Drug-Related Harm and Eliminate Violence Along the United States-Mexico Border,” (2010).
 Sign-on letter signed by over 50 drug policy and human rights organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union- ACLU, United States; Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín- Prodh, Mexico; Comisión de Justicia y Paz, Colombia; Comisión Ecuménica de Derechos Humanos- CEDHU, Ecuador; Instituto Latinoamericano de Seguridad y Democracia- ILSED; México Unido Contra la Delincuencia- MUCD , México; Plataforma Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo- PIDHDD; Transnational Institute- TNI; and Washington Office on Latin America – WOLA, United States.