For most of the past century the United States has adopted increasingly punitive policies toward the possession, use and distribution of drugs; and, particularly in the last 50 years, has built a massive regime to enforce those policies. Congress and states have adopted harsher sentencing, including mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws, established far-reaching and oppressive asset forfeiture schemes, opened the door to broad exceptions to the Fourth Amendment for drug searches, and fostered incentives for aggressive and militarized policing in the alleged pursuit of drugs. The time has come to try a new approach: drug decriminalization.
While refocusing the federal strategy requires significant and comprehensive changes, the first step must be to pivot from the central premise of the existing federal approach to drugs: the idea that controlling unauthorized drug possession and use is something that should be enforced and punished. Instead, the federal approach should be health focused, evidence-based, and respectful of self-determination.