Denver Police put handcuffs on a man being arrested for having marijuana in Civic Center Park in 2009. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

Study finds U.S. marijuana arrests outpace those for violent crime, urges drug decriminalization

New report by prominent human-rights groups notes marijuana arrests outnumber those for violent crimes, highlights the human toll of America's arrest-first drug policy, urges decriminalization of drug use

Drug possession lands someone in handcuffs every 25 seconds in the United States, and despite the scales tipping in favor of marijuana legalization, pot arrests outnumber those for violent crimes, according to a new report by two human rights organizations.

Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday issued a report documenting the “human toll” of making drug possession and use criminal offenses in America. In conjunction with the release of “Every 25 Seconds: The Human toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” the organizations made a heightened call for the decriminalization of the personal use and possession of small amounts of drugs.

“Each day, tens of thousands more are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees,” author Tess Borden wrote in the report. “Their criminal records lock them out of jobs, housing, education, welfare assistance, voting, and much more, and subject them to discrimination and stigma. The cost to them and to their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayer, is devastating. Those impacted are disproportionately communities of color and the poor.”

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU plan to hold a news conference to discuss the report at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The release of the roughly 50,000-word report — a yearlong effort that included state- and federal-level data requests, research and hundreds of interviews — comes amid a time of transformation for U.S. drug policy.

Public opinion has shifted favorably toward cannabis legalization and the majority of U.S. states have seen loosening of their marijuana laws. Michael Botticelli, the U.S. drug czar, recently addressed topics of addiction and opioid and heroin abuse by stating that “we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

“I think that the momentum that states have created around decriminalization or even legalization shows the United States that there’s another way of doing things,” Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, co-director of the Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program, said in an interview.

One out of every nine arrests in the United States is for drug possession, making it the most common arrest offense, according to the report.

California, Maryland, Nebraska and Oregon had the highest rates, with illicit drug possession arrests accounting for one in seven arrests, while it represented one in every 20 arrests in states such as Colorado, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Vermont and Alaska, according to the report.

Drug use rates, however, remained fairly consistent across the United States, the report found, citing U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ substance abuse data.

In 2015, there were 1.25 million drug possession arrests and upward of 574,000 of those were for marijuana possession, according to the report, citing Federal Bureau of Investigation data.

“By comparison, there were 505,681 arrests for violent crimes (which the FBI defines as murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault),” according to the report. “This means that police made more arrests for simple marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.”

Report author Borden, who is an Aryeh Neier Fellow with the Human Rights Watch and ACLU, said she was struck by the magnitude of arrests as well as how a significant number of the offenses were for minuscule amounts of drugs.

“Just the machinery of it was really surprising to me,” Borden told The Cannabist.

Borden’s interviews during the past year included people who had been prosecuted for their drug use, those still serving time and their family members, as well as government officials such as prosecutors and law enforcement officers. Among the common themes that emerged were stories from people who said they believed their arrests were inhumane or that, because of their race, they felt targeted; stories of aggressive prosecution and being bullied or tricked into accepting unfair sentences; the long-lasting consequences of an arrest, even if cleared; the disproportionately negative effect on minorities and lower-income populations; and a disregard for overall health. Among the examples in the report:

  • In Fort Worth, Texas, Hector Ruiz had a long record of drug possession convictions. He told us, “I’ve had an addiction since I was 23, but through all my incarcerations they have never offered help. They have never said they could give me drug rehab, any type of rehab at all…. It’s hard to just get out [of prison] with no job, no stability; you go right back to where you come from [and use again]. This place is a revolving door for people like me. Putting people in jail is not gonna help nobody. If anything, it makes them worse.”
  • In Covington, Louisiana, Allen Searle told us, “They never offered me a drug treatment… they never gave me a chance on anything…. Putting people in jail for drugs is not helping anybody. It’s not helping their families; it’s not helping anything around them.”
  • In Dallas, Nate Myers said he turned to drugs after his son died and that he wished he had been offered help rather than handcuffs: “At the time of my arrest, I wish they had asked more questions, like what’s going on in your life, why do you have these drugs, how can I help you? … I should be offered help but instead am shackled and treated like an animal, rather than [understanding] I’m using it to cope.”
  • Borden and her organizations said that decriminalization and modifications in existing drug policy are not untested ideas. She noted countries such as Portugal, which decriminalized drug use and possession in 2001:

    Importantly, Portugal did not simply decriminalize personal use and possession; it invested substantial resources into treatment and harm reduction services as well. Under the Portuguese model, when police find people in possession of drugs, they give them an administrative violation ticket, akin to a traffic ticket in the US. The person is then required to meet with a commission, made up of a social worker, a medical professional, and a lawyer, that is designed to respond to any health needs. If the person is drug dependent, the commission makes a referral to a treatment program where attendance is voluntary. If the person is not drug dependent, usually nothing more than payment of the fine is required. Criminal sanctions are never imposed for personal use or low-level possession.

    The results of Portugal’s decriminalization so far indicate that public safety is much better served by a public health rather than criminal justice response to problematic drug use. According to a 2010 evaluation, rates of overall use in the population have stayed low—below the European average, and far lower than rates in the United States—while use by adolescents and use by people deemed to be drug dependent or who inject has declined. More than 80 percent of cases before the commissions are deemed non-problematic and dismissed without sanction. The number of people receiving drug treatment jumped by more than 60 percent after decriminalization. Deaths caused by drug overdoses decreased from 80 deaths in 2001 to 16 deaths in 2012. Decriminalization has also not triggered so-called “drug tourism,” a 2009 UN study found. According to Fernando Negrão, a former police chief and then-head of Portugal’s Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction, “There were fears Portugal might become a drug paradise, but that simply didn’t happen.”

    The United States’ strides in drug-policy changes have primarily been in the area of marijuana, said Sam Kamin, the Vicente Sederberg professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.

    “I think we’re a long way from that (decriminalization) place currently,” he said.

    There has not been a huge groundswell of support for modifications in laws pertaining to other drugs, he added. That being said, there have been increased efforts on public health resources to minimize the harms associated with drug use.

    “I think harm reduction really is something that could gain traction,” he said.

    Beyond the primary call for decriminalization, Borden outlined dozens of recommendations for legislators, police, government officials, prosecutors, judges, and federal agencies. Among them:

  • Make drug possession a ticketable offense or, at the very least, a misdemeanor, regardless of the nature of the drug, drug quantity or weight, and number of prior convictions.
  • Support a public health approach to drug use to minimize the adverse consequences of drug use, to reduce drug dependence, and to support safe habits around drug use and increased access to emergency care, including syringe exchange programs, Good Samaritan legislation, standing orders for naloxone (used to reverse the effects of opioid overdose), and other harm reduction measures. Appropriate sufficient funds to provide access to voluntary, affordable drug treatment programs, in the community as well as in correctional facilities, for all who seek it.
  • Provide sufficient funding to courts to eliminate their reliance on user fees, which incentivizes the imposition of crippling fees, court costs, and assessments on poor people sentenced for drug offenses.
  • Do not measure officer or department performance based on stop or arrest numbers, and do not set quotas or provide incentives for numbers of stops, frisks, searches, or arrests.
  • On a regular basis, analyze and publish data on all consensual or non-consensual stops, frisks, searches, observations, and interviews. The published data should be broken down by race, gender, age, and the officer’s basis for the encounter or action.
  • Cease to prosecute trace or residue cases and cases concerning fractions of a gram.
  • Cease the practice of seeking habitual offender enhancements for drug possession charges. Do not allow drug possession priors to serve as predicates for enhancement of other charges. Ensure that defendants are aware of this in plea negotiations.
  • Eliminate the use of bond schedules for all offenses related to drug use, including possession and paraphernalia.
  • Do not revoke probation or parole for drug use or for technical violations related to drug dependence or poverty.
  • Ensure no fees for appointed counsel or other court fees are imposed on people who are adjudged indigent. Ensure no person is incarcerated for inability to pay court fines or fees.
  • Appropriate sufficient funds to support evidence-based voluntary treatment options and harm reduction services in the community. Fund and encourage programs, including pilot programs, emphasizing public health approaches to drug use.