As Americans debate the expanding campaign to legalize marijuana, two of the nation’s most prominent human rights organizations are urging a far bolder step — the decriminalization of possession and personal use of all illicit drugs.
Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly issued the call Wednesday in a detailed report contending that enforcement of drug laws has unjustifiably ruined lives, torn families apart and fueled racial discrimination while failing to curtail rampant drug abuse in the U.S.
“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.”
Borden acknowledged that broad decriminalization of drug use, whether by Congress or state-by-state, is unlikely in the near future. She hopes the report will spur action at the state and federal level to invest more funds in treatment programs and to reclassify drug use and possession as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
Though four states have legalized recreational marijuana use, and five more will vote on that step next month, no state has decriminalized personal use of other common illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Possession of them is often classified as a felony.
According to the new report, state law enforcement agencies make more than 1.25 million drug possession arrests per year — one of every nine arrests nationwide. Regarding racial disparities, the report said black adults use drugs at similar or even lower rates than white adults, yet are more than twice as likely to be arrested for possession.
The report argues that the decades-long “war on drugs” has failed, with rates of drug abuse still high. It says criminalization of drugs tends to drive people who use them underground, making it less likely they will get treatment and more likely they will be at risk of disease and overdoses.
However, Michael Ramos, district attorney of San Bernardino County in California, said decriminalization would pose “huge dangers.”
He predicted that property crime would increase as drug users carried out thefts to maintain their habits. He also said rehabilitation programs would wither if drug abusers no longer had the threat of incarceration as an incentive to participate.
“Once you legalize all drugs, there’s no motive for those people to get help,” he said.
However, Ramos acknowledged that most state prisons and jails should be doing a far better job of providing effective rehabilitation programs for convicted drug users.
“Right now, what we’re doing is putting them in and turning the key,” he said. “There’s not much help there.”
In compiling their report, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said they interviewed 149 people prosecuted for using drugs in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and New York, 64 of them in custody.
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