Drug Decriminalization

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.

Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia have already 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.

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

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, 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.

Drug Decriminalization