This section offers a deep dive into the issue of drug decriminalization. To visit the main page for a quicker overview, click here. Otherwise, keep scrolling to learn more.
Why Decriminalizing Drugs, Investing in Health Matters
Americans want to decriminalize drugs. They know that arresting or jailing someone for drugs does not work. In fact, support for drug decriminalization is at an all-time high. A 2021 poll shows that 66% of Americans now support eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and replacing them with a health approach.
Drug decriminalization means that people are no longer arrested or incarcerated for drugs for personal use. No longer enforcing personal drug possession saves money. These savings can go towards needed services and supports. This includes voluntary treatment, housing, employment, harm reduction, recovery services, and peer support. Drug decriminalization does not legalize drugs.
Problems Caused by The U.S. Government Prioritizing Drug Criminalization
Many elected officials prioritize punitive responses to drugs over public health approaches. Yet, criminalization has not made our communities safer or healthier. Drugs are more potent, available, and cheaper than ever, and overdose deaths are at an all-time high. Nearly 108,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2021 alone. At the same time, people are cycling through jails and prisons with limited to no access to services – and overdose risk increases after they leave.
The criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of arrests and pretrial detention in the United States. Each year, U.S. law enforcement makes over 1.5 million drug arrests – more arrests than for all violent crimes combined. The majority of these arrests are for drug possession only. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are in jail for drug possession, most while waiting to be charged and before they have even had a trial. Hundreds of thousands of people also remain under supervision, like probation and parole, for drug possession crimes.
Ending these arrests is the most important step we can take right now.
People convicted of drug law violations face lifelong barriers, including the loss of federal financial aid, occupational licenses, the right to vote, eviction from public housing, and denial of public assistance. A drug conviction can negatively impact every aspect of one’s life. It is time to remove the drug war from everyday life.
Criminalization stigmatizes drug use. It discourages people from getting the help they want. It prevents the use of proven lifesaving overdose prevention interventions. Currently, access to drug checking services like fentanyl test strips and naloxone (an opioid overdose reversal drug) vary by state and are subject to local laws. Access without a prescription can be illegal and subject to arrest.
The criminalization of drugs inequitably harms Indigenous, Black, and other racialized, marginalized, and low-income communities who are more likely to be stopped, searched, convicted, and harshly sentenced for drug possession.
Our country has spent billions of dollars arresting people for drugs. It costs nearly 20 thousand dollars more to arrest, prosecute, and jail someone for simple drug possession than to provide drug treatment to those people who want it. Instead of arresting and jailing people for drugs, we must shift those dollars to provide voluntary addiction services and other social supports.
Decriminalize Drugs, Invest in Health Services Across the U.S.
The time has come for states to pass more thoughtful approaches to address the harms of the drug war. Decriminalizing drugs while building health-centered alternatives is a top priority for the Drug Policy Alliance.
As efforts to decriminalize drug possession continue to gather steam, it is important to keep values in mind. Reforms must reduce incarceration, repair past harms, and refocus funding on improving community health and safety.
Comprehensive approaches to drug decriminalization must:
Drug Policy Alliance is also working on other aspects of decriminalization. This work focuses on removing criminal penalties for drug paraphernalia like drug checking supplies and ensuring people who use drugs have access to overdose prevention centers. Overdose prevention centers offer a place where people can be connected to support services and safely consume drugs under the supervision of a trained professional that can react in the case of an overdose or other health emergency.
Treatment must be voluntary.
As we shift from criminalization to a health approach, it’s important to note that not everyone who uses drugs needs or wants treatment. The Drug Policy Alliance believes that when treatment is sought, it must be voluntary, accessible, affordable, and appropriate. You can learn more about substance use disorder treatment here.
Benefits of Decriminalizing Drugs, Investing in Health Services
Comprehensive approaches to drug decriminalization can help to:
Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001. More than two decades later, drug use has remained about the same. However, arrests, incarceration, disease, overdose, and other harms are all down.
In 2020, voters made Oregon the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. This happened via Measure 110 which ended criminal penalties for the personal possession of all drugs. Measure 110 is expanding access to addiction services and social supports such as health, harm reduction, housing, and treatment services. They are all funded with marijuana tax revenue and reinvestments from criminal legal savings for not arresting people for possessing small amounts of drugs.
Measure 110’s early outcomes have been powerful: