The war on drugs — and the criminalization of possessing even a small amount of drugs — has been a failure, according to a new report that calls for prosecutors, parole boards, judges and legislatures to radically change practices to reverse “the collateral consequences” of the policies.
“There are injustices and corresponding harms at every stage of the criminal process, harms that are all the more apparent when, as often happens, police, prosecutors, or judges respond to drug use as aggressively as the law allows,” according to “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” issued by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Current drug policies have shattered families, destroyed communities and mired people — disproportionately people of color — in an endless cycle of poverty, the report says.
The report cited Portugal’s decriminalization of personal use and possession of drugs, which it said resulted in lower costs, fewer overdose deaths and lower rates of drug use. It called on U.S. legislatures to make possession of any illegal drug a ticket-able offense or, at most, a misdemeanor
Non-incarceration sentences, timely access to HIV prevention services and evidence-based drug treatment programs were also promoted in the paper.
In recommendations directed to law enforcement, the report urged police to charge individuals with the lowest-level offense supported by facts — such as paraphernalia instead of possession — and to abandon any performance measures based on quotas or for the numbers of arrests or stops an officer makes.
The report asked state prosecutors to refrain from prosecuting possession cases whenever possible and “seek only those charges that would yield a fair and proportionate sentence.”
The changes will be a hard sell to communities plagued by drug-dealing and to the politicians they elect, predicted Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer and prosecutor.
While he personally supports a “public-health approach” to drug addiction, most of America “does not support drugs on demand,” he said, referring to Portugal’s practice of providing some addicts with heroin in maintenance doses.
Prosecutors, he added, “are not wired to go easy on people. If the legislature wants to change [the laws], they should change them,” so prosecutors can conform their behavior to the new mandates.
But Theshia Naidoo, the legal director of criminal justice for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said the report could give progressive legislators evidence to pass reforms she believes are needed.
The 112-page report, with specific policy recommendations, “could pave the way forward” to changes that would benefit not just drug users but the communities they live in, Naidoo said.
“A lot of localities are looking at alternatives” to incarceration already, Naidoo said, in part because mass incarceration “is financially unsustainable.”