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Wednesday, 27 September 2017 06:41

In 2016, Drug Possession Arrests Went in the Wrong Direction: Up

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prison.jpgsep2017Why are arrests for possession of drugs rising? (Photo: Dave Nakayama)

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A news release from the Drug Policy Alliance, a research and advocacy organization focusing on the failure of the war on drugs, notes that arrests for drug possession have been increasing recently:

According to the FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report released today, law enforcement agencies in the US made more than 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations in 2016, a 5.63% increase over the previous year. That's one drug arrest every 20 seconds -- and over three times more arrests than for all violent crimes combined....

As detailed in a July Drug Policy Alliance report, there's an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested, let alone locked away behind bars, simply for using or possessing a drug. On any given night, there are roughly 130,000 people behind bars in U.S. prisons and jails for drug possession – and almost half of these people are held pre-trial, which may mean they're locked up simply because they're too poor to post bail.

Discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system. Black people comprise just 13% of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates as other groups -- but they comprise 29% of those arrested for drug law violations and 35% of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession.

Drug criminalization also fuels mass detentions and deportations.... From 2007 to 2012, 266,000 people were deported for drug law violations, of whom 38 percent -- more than 100,000 people -- were deported simply for drug possession.

A July report by the Drug Policy Alliance makes clear that the arrest and incarceration of people for the possession of drugs causes serious harm, is a waste of societal resources, and benefits no person or entity except the prison-industrial complex. Harsh punishment for drug possession is as wasteful as it is ineffective. It is also profoundly racist in its application. In the executive summary of the summer Drug Policy Alliance report, the organization concludes,

By any measure and every metric, the U.S. war on drugs -- a constellation of laws and policies that seeks to prevent the use of certain drugs, primarily through punishment and coercion -- has been a catastrophic failure. Indeed, federal and state policies that are designed to be "tough" on people who use and sell illegal drugs have helped over-fill our jails and prisons, permanently branded millions of otherwise law-abiding civilians as "criminals", and exacerbated drug-related death, disease and suffering -- all while failing at their stated aims....

Drug decriminalization [the report] is a critical next step toward achieving a rational drug policy that puts science and public health before punishment and incarceration. Decades of evidence has clearly demonstrated that decriminalization is a sensible path forward that would reap vast human and fiscal benefits, while protecting families and communities.

Decriminalization offers a salutary and rational alternative to making drug use a gateway to prison, in which lives are crushed while many individuals and institutions (including private prison companies, construction companies, phone services, food services and more) make money. However, there is no social benefit to incarcerating people for drug possession. It robs individuals of months and often years of their lives, and makes societal integration more difficult, because once one carries the brand of a felon, it's more difficult to secure jobs, housing, education and other basic components of a good life.

The practice of arresting people for drug possession certainly doesn't make society any safer. Perhaps it pleases the sanctimonious -- and those in the prison-industrial complex who make a living off of incarceration -- but locking up individuals for drug possession degrades society; it doesn't improve it.

In June of this year, a joint World Health Organization and United Nations statement called for "Reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence." Among the laws that the statement makes an appeal for ending are those that criminalize "drug use or possession of drugs for personal use." The statement in its entirety was aimed overall at "ending discrimination in health care settings." It is readily apparent that arresting and incarcerating individuals for personal drug possession or use is discriminatory in general, and particularly because the so-called "war on drugs" is overwhelmingly aimed at people of color.

Advocates should continue to follow the lead of the Drug Policy Alliance and work toward decriminalizing drug possession. It will not only liberate individual people, but it will also free our society of a harsh and shameful practice.