Drug Policy

Someone Is Arrested Every 25 Seconds for Drug Possession in the U.S.

A new report by Human Rights Watch and ACLU calls for the full decriminalization of drugs, citing the drug war's "staggering human rights toll."


Randy Pench/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Someone is arrested for drug possession or use every 25 seconds in the U.S., according to a strident joint report on the drug war by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released Wednesday. As a result of the 1.25 million people who come into contact with the criminal justice system every year for drugs—more than all annual arrests for violent crime combined—the two civil rights groups are making an unequivocal call for the full decriminalization of personal drug use.

There are 137,000 men and women on any given day serving time in jail or prison for drug charges other than trafficking, according to data analyzed by the report. Despite the recent wave of decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, more than half of those arrests were for possession of pot. Besides facing jail time, they risk diminished job, housing, and education prospects, often leading to a downward spiral of poverty.

"These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence," says Tess Borden, the author of the 190-page report, who interviewed more than 300 people across the country who have been arrested, prosecuted, or incarcerated for drug possession.

Citing the "staggering human rights toll of drug criminalization and enforcement in the U.S." displayed in the report, the two civil rights groups call for full federal and state-level decriminalization of personal drug possession and use in the report.

"While governments have a legitimate interest in preventing problematic drug use, the criminal law is not the solution," the report says. "Criminalizing drug use simply has not worked as a matter of practice. Rates of drug use fluctuate, but they have not declined significantly since the "war on drugs" was declared more than four decades ago. The criminalization of drug use and possession is also inherently problematic because it represents a restriction on individual rights that is neither necessary nor proportionate to the goals it seeks to accomplish."

Borden says one thing that shocked her in the course of her research was how much of the "huge carceral state and the massive machinery of enforcement" was used to prosecute people for miniscule amounts of drugs. One person Borden interviewed in Texas received 15 years in prison for possession of trace amounts of methamphetamines so insignificant that the drug lab couldn't even assign a fraction of a weight to it.

His case was not an outlier. More than 78 percent of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas in 2015 possessed under a gram—roughly the weight of a paperclip.

Across the country, the report says, the criminalization of drugs subjects people to humiliating police encounters, leaves them with the stigma of an arrest record at best, coerces guilty pleas, adds draconian sentencing enhancements, and keeps those with drug addiction churning through the system over and over until they end up facing years in prison.

"I remember when they said I was guilty in the courtroom, the wind was knocked out of me," Jennifer Edwards, told Borden from jail in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. Edwards faced a minimum of 20 years to life in prison for possessing a small amount of heroin. "I went, 'the rest of my life?' … All I could think about is that I could never do anything enjoyable in my life again. Never like be in love with someone and be alone with them… never be able to use a cell phone… take a shower in private, use the bathroom in private… There's 60 people in my cell, and only one of us has gone to trial. They are afraid to be in my situation."

The report also found, like many other statistical surveys of drug arrests, wide racial disparities in who is targeted by the drug war. In the 39 states where there was sufficient data to analyze, the report found black adults were more than four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white adults, despite roughly equivalent rates of use.

Instead of criminalization, the report argues, resources should be funneled away from the massively expensive war on drugs to public health and drug treatment.

"HRC and and the ACLU are not condoning and encouraging drug use," Borden says." We're saying when someone chooses to put something in their body, that's a personal choice, and the state shouldn't be intervening if they're not hurting other people. The truth is most jails and prisons aren't providing the medically required treatment for drug dependence that people deserve. It flies in the face of liberty to say you should be incarcerated to get treatment."

Here's another case study from the report:

Neal had cycled in and out of prison for drug possession over a number of years. He said he was never offered treatment for his drug dependence; instead, the criminal justice system gave him time behind bars and felony convictions—most recently, five years for possessing a small amount of cocaine and a crack pipe. When Neal was arrested in May 2015, he was homeless and could not walk without pain, struggling with a rare autoimmune disease that required routine hospitalizations. Because he could not afford his $7,500 bond, Neal remained in jail for months, where he did not receive proper medication and his health declined drastically—one day he even passed out in the courtroom. Neal eventually pled guilty because he would face a minimum of 20 years in prison if he took his drug possession case to trial and lost.

There are many, many more such interviews and examples in the report.

Reason has been on the case for ending the drug war since, well, pretty much as long as Reason has existed. Watch this ReasonTV doc on how President Obama's drug war affects immigrant families: