‘Too broken to fix’: Civil rights groups seek to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use

© Mark Blinch
Civil rights groups call on the US government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs as arrests skyrocketed to 1.25 million last year. Convictions have long-lasting consequences and disproportionately targets minorities.

“Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use,” stated the report titled “Every 25 Seconds: The Human toll of criminalizing drug use in the United States” authored by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Around the country police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime. More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.”

The report focused on four states, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and New York, drawing on 365 interviews with people arrested, their attorneys, officials, activists and family members. Researcher found on any given day at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars for drug possession, some 48,000 in state prisons and 89,000 in jails, and each day tens of thousands or more are convicted.

“When it comes to drug use, the US criminal justice system is too broken to fix,” said Human Rights Watch.

The report found that injustice and harm occurred at every stage of the criminal process from interactions with law enforcement, prosecutors charging people with felonies for holding tiny, sometimes even “trace” amounts of drugs, and pretrial detention and long sentences “combine to coerce the overwhelming majority of drug possession defendants to plead guilty.”

“I met people who were prosecuted for 0.02 or even 0.007 grams of drugs,” said Amy Braunschweiger, an HRW researcher. “We found 80 percent of people sentenced to time behind bars for felony drug possession were convicted of possession of drugs other an marijuana that weighed less than 1 gram. That’s just a handful of doses of many drugs – and for the people I met, it was sometime even less than a dose because they were convicted – of a felony – for possessing a hundredth or even thousandth of a gram.”

It has been 40 years since the Nixon administration launched the “War on Drugs,” which the report argues has failed, with rates of drug abuse still high.

The majority of Americans report using illicit drugs at least once in their lives, and white and black people use drugs at roughly the same rate, but drug laws are enforced in a way that disproportionately affect black communities, according to the report.

“Around the country, black adults are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession as white adults. A black adult is nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white adult,” stated the report.

The report found drug possession laws are a major part of the way police interact with black communities.

“Part of it may be that drug possession arrests are relatively easier to make than arrest for violence crimes. It can’t be that all police really think people who use drugs are the number one public safety concern, and yet drug possession is the number 1 arrested crime,” said HRW.

The report found that convictions for drug possession can have harmful long-term consequences for families, welfare assistance, public housing, voting and employment opportunities.

The report also argued that most people who do drugs don’t become dependent on them but when they do, locking them up isn’t helping.

Most prisons and jails don’t provide the medical treatment required to overcome drug dependence.

“Instead of arresting people for possession, the US should make voluntary treatment programs affordable and available in the community,” stated HRW.

With a rise in heroin use in suburban areas across the US, after state and federal laws made access to prescribed pain killers highly restrictive, some counties and cities have been devising ways to keep their residents alive.

On one day in August in Huntington, West Virginia, over a period of four hours, 26 people overdosed. The area has seen drug usage, especially heroin, snowball. It has led the town to adopt new strategies for dealing with the crisis.

“A lot of the people that do drugs are not getting high, they’re just getting well, it is a real messed up drug, it’s a real demon,” recovering heroin addict James Mollet told RT. “That’s why I am doing Suboxone. I am buying it off the street, I can’t afford the clinic. If you are trying to really sober up you might as well go to the streets.”

A number of states have picked up the Good Samaritan Law where a person can call for help in the case of an overdose to avoid a death. EMS units are now equipped with reserves of Naloxone, an opiate antidote.

The cost of the antidote, Naloxone, have risen 1,700 percent in under a decade as the number of overdoses piles up.

“The price has gone up. Not to the degree of the Epi-pen but it has gone from down in $20 to $70,” Gordon Merry, director of Cabell County EMS told RT. When asked what he attributed the change in price to, Merry said “Supply and demand.”

In July 2005, the price was 92 cents, to $15.83 in 2015.

Seattle has introduced stations where people can go in to inject heroin under supervision, other states have syringe exchange programs. The outreach programs, while controversial, give members of faith organizations and medical professionals a way to reach addicts when they are ready to seek help.

The report calls for the decriminalization of all personal drug use. While that gets debated it recommends that police, prosecutors and judges can exercise their discretion not to arrest and prosecute for certain drug possession cases, offer lesser charges and shorter sentences and try compassion recognizing that jail offers no solution for drug problem.