In 2018, there were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in the United States. More than 86% of these arrests are for possession only, and many more are for minor selling and distribution violations.
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. Our proposal for decriminalization, the Drug Policy Reform Act, takes the first steps in dismantling the federal drug war built up over the past 50 years. Read more about this model legislation.
Drug decriminalization would eliminate criminal penalties for:
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.
Removing criminal penalties for drug possession and low-level sales would:
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.
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:
To learn more about decriminalization, read our report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession and our drug decriminalization framework, the Drug Policy Reform Act.