The momentum to legalize marijuana has snowballed over the last few years and has quickly moved from the fringes of U.S. politics to the mainstream. In just three years, the number of Americans who support it has jumped from 41 percent to 52 percent. Colorado and Washington State made history last year when they became the first two states — and the first two political jurisdictions anywhere in the world — to legally regulate the production and distribution of marijuana, and many states are looking to follow them in the next few years.
On the cover of practically every magazine, and woven into films and tv shows in an increasingly sophisticated light, the marijuana reform movement has broken through as a legitimate political and cultural force. We're at a tipping point where it's starting to feel like marijuana legalization is no longer a question of if — but when.
But what about the other drugs? My colleagues and I at the Drug Policy Alliance are committed to ensuring the decriminalization of all drug use becomes a political priority.
Criminalization is not only failing to effectively control drug use, it's a barrier to protecting individual and public health. As long as drug use is a crime, people are going to be afraid to get help.
Decriminalization means nobody goes to jail and nobody gets punished simply for possessing a small amount of a drug. This is a model that has proven successful, resulting in decreases in diseases and addiction, without increasing drug use. It also preserves scarce law enforcement resources that could be used to stop violent and predatory crime. And perhaps most significantly, it would reduce the arrest and incarceration of millions of people, most of whom are poor or people of color.
This is basically what Portugal has been doing since 2001, with overwhelming success. Drug use has not increased, while addiction, overdose, HIV transmission, and incarceration have declined dramatically. (For more information about Portugal and other approaches to decriminalization, see DPA's fact sheet, "Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use and Possession")
Many of the reasons why marijuana legalization makes sense can be applied to drugs more generally. It has now been 42 years since President Nixon launched the "war on drugs" yet illegal drugs are as available as ever. There is growing awareness that our drug law enforcement is essentially a war on minorities, with Latinos and especially blacks getting arrested at several times the rate of whites despite similar rates of drug use. We have current and former Latin American heads of state calling for alternatives to prohibition in order to quell the violence that the war on drugs is inflicting on their countries. And at a time when state and local governments are strapped for cash, folks don't like the idea of billions of dollars being wasted on arresting more than a million people every year for nothing more than mere possession of a drug.
Momentum is growing and strong voices are aligning. The Global Commission on Drug Policy's calls for decriminalization and fundamental reforms of the drug prohibition regime have generated unprecedented media coverage over the past two years. The Global Commission is composed of the former Presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, Poland and Switzerland; George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; and several other distinguished world leaders.
Human Rights Watch made national news a couple of weeks ago when they came out for drug decriminalization. They said that jailing people for personal drug use constitutes a human rights violation and called for abolishing criminal penalties. "Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs, or for possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy." They join a surprisingly broad coalition that includes groupssuch as the Red Cross, who said that drug use should not be a crime in a statement to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year.
Last week, religious leaders brought together by the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, the American Baptist College, and the Drug Policy Alliance made national news when they met in Tennessee to strategize and mobilize against the racist drug war. They are outraged about mass incarceration and are calling for decriminalization of drug use to reduce the astronomical number of people behind bars.
A drug arrest is no small matter. It's not just the threat of imprisonment. It creates a permanent criminal record easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords and licensing agencies that can haunt your future at every turn. And this happens to more than a million Americans every year.
Almost every family has been touched by drug use in one way or another. There is simply no basis in principle or evidence-based policy for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession. Most Americans know it doesn't make sense from either a human or fiscal perspective to lock someone up in a cage because they possess a drug — and the time is now ripe to translate this into a fundamental shift in how we address drugs in our society.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance