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DecriminalizingDrug Use & Possession

More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. – the overwhelming majority for possession only.

1 Since the 1970s, the drug war has led to unprecedented levels of incarceration and the marginalization of tens of millions of Americans – disproportionately poor people and people of color – while utterly failing to reduce problematic drug use and drug-related harms. The severe consequences of a drug arrest are long-lasting – sometimes life-long. Drug courts, moreover, have not improved matters.

2 One means to reduce the number of people swept into the criminal justice system (or deported) for drug law violations is to decriminalize drug use and possession. Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations (usually possession for personal use).

3 Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens of U.S. cities and states, have taken steps toward decriminalization.

4 By decriminalizing possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services, we can reduce the harms of drug misuse while improving public safety and health.

5 Benefits of Decriminalization Decriminalizing drug possession and investing in treatment and harm reduction services can provide major benefits for public safety and health, including: Reducing the number of people arrested; Reducing the number of people incarcerated; Increasing uptake into drug treatment; Reducing criminal justice costs and redirecting resources from criminal justice to health systems; Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime; Diminishing unjust racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, incarceration and related health characteristics and outcomes; Minimizing the social exclusion of people who use drugs, and creating a climate in which they are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilizing harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services; Improving relations between law enforcement and the community; and Protecting people from the wide-ranging and debilitating consequences of a criminal conviction.

6 Decriminalization Does Not Affect Drug Use Rates Countries that have adopted less punitive policies toward drug possession have not experienced any significant increases in drug use, drug-related harm or crime relative to more punitive countries.

7 A World Health Organization study, for example, found that the U.S. had the highest lifetime drug use rates by a wide margin, despite its punitive policies – concluding that decriminalization has little or no effect on rates of use.

8 The Portuguese Decriminalization Model In 2001, Portuguese legislators enacted a comprehensive form of decriminalization of low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations. Alongside decriminalization, Portugal significantly expanded its treatment and harm reduction services, including access to sterile syringes, methadone maintenance therapy and other medication-assisted treatments. After nearly a decade and a half, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use. Yet it has seen reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced drug induced deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving treatment.

9 According to the United Nations, “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.”

10 Independent research concludes that “there is ample evidence of a successful reform.”


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