You may have heard that President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are “re-starting” the drug war. Well, it never actually ended.
According to the FBI’s new Uniform Crime Report, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made more than 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations in 2016, a 5.63% increase over the previous year – and over three times more arrests than for all violent crimes combined.
More than four out of five of those arrests – 84.6%, or 1,330,401 arrests – were simply for drug possession. Marijuana arrests also increased – about 41% of all drug arrests were for marijuana, with the vast majority being for simple possession.
These massive numbers are way out of sync with national public opinion, as a majority of Americans now support not just legalizing marijuana, but also ending criminal punishment for drug use. As detailed in a recent Drug Policy Alliance report, there’s an emerging 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.
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. For noncitizens, including legal permanent residents – many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades and have jobs and families – possession of any amount of any drug (except first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana) can trigger automatic detention and deportation, often without the possibility of return.
Several countries have successful experience with ending criminal penalties for drug use and possession, most notably Portugal. In 2001, Portugal enacted one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illegal drugs.
Today in Portugal, no one is arrested or incarcerated for drug possession, many more people are receiving treatment, and addiction, HIV/AIDS and drug overdose have drastically decreased.
Polls of U.S. presidential primary voters last year found that substantial majorities support ending arrests for drug use and possession in Maine (64%), New Hampshire (66%) and even South Carolina (59%). In 2016, the first state-level decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland and a similar version was reintroduced in 2017. The Hawaii legislature, meanwhile, overwhelmingly approved a bill last year creating a commission to study decriminalization.
Earlier this year, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a joint statement calling for repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession. They join an impressive group of national and international organizations who have endorsed drug decriminalization that includes the International Red Cross, Organization of American States, Movement for Black Lives, NAACP, and American Public Health Association, among many others.
The FBI’s new data lays bare how the drug war continues to be a major driver of not just mass incarceration, but mass criminalization more broadly. Criminalizing drug use hurts families and communities, compounds social and economic inequalities, and unfairly denies millions of people the opportunity to support themselves and their families.
What we’re doing doesn’t work – and actually makes things worse. Our limited public resources would be better spent on expanding access to effective drug treatment and other health services. As overdose deaths skyrocket all over the U.S., people who need drug treatment or medical assistance may avoid it in order to hide their drug use. If we decriminalize drugs, people can come out of the shadows and get help.
We now have a federal administration determined to ramp up the drug war – but most drug enforcement is carried out at the local and state levels, so jurisdictions across the U.S. are responding to Trump and Sessions by moving drug policy reforms forward with increasing urgency. This week’s latest FBI report gives us more than a million reasons why these reforms are so crucial.
Jag Davies is director of communications strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance.