One need not be socially conservative to feel surprise, and even deep skepticism, over the recent call of the Drug Policy Alliance to decriminalize the possession of all drugs, not just marijuana. I expect that many of my progressive friends and colleagues will lift their eyebrows and flinch just a little when I mention the topic to them.
Why? Because, frankly, they haven’t thought very much about this—it’s only just entering public debate in the United States—and they therefore understand very little about the key issues and concerns. Here is what I want them to know.
As a start, we must all be clear that decriminalization does not mean an end to sanctions against trafficking, which would remain illegal. But decriminalization would end the prosecution of those who possess and use small amounts of any drug. It would keep them out of the criminal justice system.
A summary of the DPA Report, “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession,” lists some of the things that would happen:
“Decriminalization will allow us to more effectively help drug users who want help”: No longer branded as criminals, individuals will be more likely to seek treatment; providers will be able to offer harm reduction as well as abstinence-only forms of treatment.
“Decriminalization will reduce the number of people sucked into the criminal justice system”: A person cannot be arrested for something that is not a crime.
“Decriminalization will help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into society”: Low-level drug use in itself is not an adequate reason for individuals to be returned to jail, forfeit custody of their children, lose their jobs, fail to qualify for business loans, or be ineligible for student aid, subsidized housing, or financial assistance. It is only our pervasive national culture of punishment that has created these barriers to becoming productive members of society. This culture must change.
Two other likely impacts are especially important. First, the evidence is convincing that decriminalization of all drugs will not increase drug use. In June, Pew Charitable Trusts informed the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that its analysis had shown no relationship between criminal sanctions and drug use or harms related to drug use. Specifically, Pew’s research found “no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and … illicit drug use, drug overdose deaths, or drug arrests. “Moreover, marijuana use has not increased in the 29 states that have passed marijuana; it has not increased in the 21 states and Washington DC where marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized; and it has not increased in other nations where similar policies have been adopted.
Finally, the DPA report predicts that “Decriminalization will decrease negative interactions between individuals and the police.” The War on Drugs has destroyed relations between law enforcement and communities. As James Gierach, a long-time advocate of ending the War on Drugs, has written, “Violent crime has taken a back seat to drug enforcement for too long, and has changed the way police relate to marginalized communities, who no longer see police as protectors, but as aggressors.”
When drivers can be arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana if they are pulled over for a broken taillight, when neighbors are afraid to call police over a minor altercation or domestic violence because they have seen the consequences when minor drug possession is discovered, and when 911 calls to report an apparent drug overdose can expose bystanders to criminal charges, police will not be trusted to serve and protect. In communities where police no longer are directed to “throw the book” at minor drug offenders, they have been better able to offer immediate help and direct those who need it to treatment.
These are some of the things we need to know about drug decriminalization. Let’s start making the case together.