A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch details many of the harms associated with the criminalization of drug possession. The most striking finding from the report is that police in the United States arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined. The title of the report, “Every 25 Seconds,” refers to how often police arrest someone for drug possession in this country.
The full report can be found here, but other key findings include:
- More than one out of every nine state-level arrests are for drug possession, amounting to 1.25 million arrests per year.
- Nearly half of those arrests for marijuana possession.
- While drug usage rates are roughly the same across racial lines, black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for possession.
- More than 99% of drug possession convictions were the result of guilty pleas, rather than trial verdicts. The authors of the report describe this as “rendering the right to a jury trial effectively meaningless.”
- The average bail amount for drug possession defendants was $24,000, meaning that poor defendants typically remained incarcerated while awaiting trial and had a strong incentive to plead guilty even if they believed they were innocent.
- Defendants often did not understand the multitude of collateral consequences of a drug conviction.
When it comes to actual policy recommendations, the report urges legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police officers to de-emphasize the policing and prosecution of drug possession crimes, effectively calling for decriminalization of drug possession across the board.
While the authors stop short of recommending full legalization, even the decriminalization recommendation would be a positive step. We know this because in 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Despite predictions from critics that decriminalizing drug use would lead to massive spikes in addiction and prove a disaster, a 2009 Cato study by Glenn Greenwald put that speculation to rest. Decriminalization in Portugal has been a success, and there is no substantial movement today to return the country to prohibition.
Similarly, state experiments with legalized recreational marijuana in the U.S. are proceeding well. And the tide in favor of ending marijuana prohibition continues to grow. Next month, five more states (Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts) will vote on whether to legalize marijuana. Those states would join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington D.C. as jurisdictions that have renounced prohibition for marijuana.
Last month, a U.S. federal judge declared that the “principle casualty” of the war on drugs has been the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU/HRW report sheds new light on the truth of that declaration. It’s well past time to admit the failure of the drug war, allow the police to focus on actual crimes, ease the mounting tensions in over-policed communities, and restore our individual liberty.