Major Rights Groups Push for Decriminalization of Illegal Drugs

In October 2016, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a report pushing for the decriminalization of all illicit drugs for personal use in the United States.

The report revealed that law officials arrest more people for drug possession than for any other crime. It also contended that these drug possession arrests have a damaging impact on individuals and their communities. Long-term consequences for drug possession arrests include separation of families, societal exclusion and exposure to a lifetime of discrimination and stigma.

“Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use. These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence,” Tess Borden, author of the report, said in a Human Rights Watch article published in October 2016.

The joint report argued that the current law enforcement strategies were failing. Drug criminalization has not decreased the rates of substance use across the United States. Instead, it has pushed substance users to hide and engage in unhealthy and unsafe practices that increase their vulnerability to disease and overdoses.

Borden hopes the report will encourage state and federal officials to contribute more funds to treatment programs and reclassify drug use and possession as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Borden added, “If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests and focus on effective health strategies instead.”

Existing Policies and Drug Courts

In response to the report, the White House emphasized its current plan for mitigating the use of illicit drugs through the expansion of drug courts and substance abuse treatment for nonviolent drug offenders.

Mario Moreno, press secretary for the While House Office of National Drug Control Policy, recognized that incarceration is not a solution to the drug problem. According to Moreno, the White House is focused on reforming sentencing policies to better allocate scarce resources, and supports evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and expanding access to evidence-based treatment.

Drug courts divert nonviolent offenders suffering from substance use disorders into supervised treatment programs where they will be closely monitored by law officials and medical personnel. Through a coalition of organizations, drug court participants can turn their lives around and reintegrate into society.

As of December 2014, more than 3,000 drug courts operated across the Unites States. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, every dollar spent on drug courts saves the criminal justice twice that amount in related costs. Nearly 120,000 people receive substance abuse treatment from drug courts every year.

Drug courts have proven effective. A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that 84 percent of drug court graduates have not been re-arrested for a serious crime within a year after leaving the program and 72.5 percent of drug court graduates have had no arrests after two years.

Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Although drugs are still illegal in Portugal, the country treats personal use or possession as a public health issue as opposed to a criminal one.

A 2015 Washington Post article reported a decrease in the prevalence of past-month and past-year drug use among young adults. It added that drug use among adults is lower and new HIV cases among drug users have plummeted. Drug overdose deaths among adults in Portugal are very low — three deaths in every 1 million citizens.

However, Dr. Joao Goulao, the man behind Portugal’s drug decriminalization, expressed that it was very difficult to find a link between the decriminalization and the positive trends the country has seen. The country’s decrease in drug use may have been caused by factors other than decriminalization.

But Ricardo Fuertes, project coordinator at GAT, an outreach organization in Portugal founded by people living with HIV, said the program was only a success because of the combination of legal and medical services.

In an interview with VICE News, Fuertes said, “Usually the focus is on the decriminalization itself, but it worked because there were other services, and the coverage increased for needle replacement, detox, therapeutic communities and employment options for people who use drugs.”



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