Drug Decriminalization

Drug possession is the most arrested offense in the U.S. with an arrest every 23 seconds.

In arguably the biggest blow to the drug war to date, Oregon has become the first state in the nation to decriminalize drug possession, significantly expanding access to much-needed evidence-informed, culturally-responsive treatment, harm reduction and other health services through excess marijuana tax revenue. Our advocacy and political arm, Drug Policy Action, spearheaded this historic campaign from funding and drafting the measure to qualifying it for the ballot and getting it over the finish line. 

Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Other jurisdictions are experimenting with de facto decriminalization through Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs. LEAD directs people to drug treatment or other supportive services instead of arresting and booking them for certain drug law violations, including possession and low-level sales. These are important victories, but they are not enough. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) supports decriminalizing all drugs, not just marijuana. 

Explore our Decriminalization Exchange to learn about why we should decriminalize drugs, compare state-by-state laws, and take action to end the criminalization of people who use drugs.

What is Decriminalization?

Drug decriminalization would eliminate criminal penalties for:

  • Drug use and possession
  • Possession of equipment used to introduce drugs into the human body, such as syringes
  • Low-level drug sales

How is Criminalization Harmful?

There are serious consequences for drug use in nearly every sector of civil life — education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. Punishment is not limited to the criminal legal system. Instead, it is the default reaction to drug use wherever it shows up, impacting our lives in profound but largely unrecognized ways. We must shine a spotlight on the insidious ways the drug war has spread into all our systems.

Learn more about how the drug war harms everyone at UprootingTheDrugWar.org.

What are the Benefits of Decriminalization?

Removing criminal penalties for drug possession and low-level sales would:

  • Save money by reducing prison and especially jail costs and population size
  • Free up law enforcement resources to be used in more appropriate ways
  • Prioritize health and safety over punishment for people who use drugs
  • Reduce the stigma associated with drug use so that problematic drug users are encouraged to come out of the shadows and seek treatment and other support
  • Remove barriers to evidence-based harm reduction practices such as drug checking, heroin-assisted treatment, and medical marijuana

Defelonization can be a stepping-stone to decriminalization and provides a snapshot into the potential benefits of full decriminalization. Defelonization means that drug law violations are reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. The 2014 defelonization victory in CA substantially reduced the number of people in prison and especially local jails. Those savings are now being reallocated to provide needed services. 

However, defelonization does not go far enough. Misdemeanors still have criminalizing consequences, and full removal of criminal penalties – decriminalization – is needed for people experiencing problematic drug use to seek help without any fear of arrest.

Will Decriminalizing Drugs Increase Drug Dependency or Crime?

A common fear is that decriminalizing drugs would lead to more drug dependency and crime. There is no indication this is true. Data from the U.S. and around the world suggest that treating problematic drug use as a health issue, instead of a criminal one, is a more successful model for keeping communities healthy and safe.

Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001. More than a decade later, drug use has remained about the same – but arrests, incarceration, disease, overdose and other harms are all down:

  • Portugal’s drug use rates remain below the European average and far lower than rates of drug use in the U.S.
  • Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment increased by more than 60%.
  • The number of new HIV diagnoses dropped dramatically – from 1,575 cases in 2000 to 78 cases in 2013 – and the number of new AIDS cases decreased from 626 in 2000 to 74 cases in 2013.
  • Drug overdose fatalities also dropped from about 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012.
  • The number of people arrested and sent to criminal courts for drug offenses annually declined by more than 60% following decriminalization.
  • The percentage of people behind bars in Portugal for drug law violations also decreased dramatically, from 44% in 1999 to 24% in 2013.

To learn more about decriminalization, visit our Decriminalization Exchange.

Drug Decriminalization