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DPA_Fact Sheet_Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use and Possession

DPA_Fact Sheet_Approaches to Decriminalizing Drug Use and Possession

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Published by: webmaster@drugpolicy.org on Feb 12, 2013
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Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 fax
Approaches toDecriminalizingDrug Use & Possession
February 2013
More than 1.5 million people are arrested every yearfor a drug law violation. Since the 1970s, drug warpractices have led to unprecedented levels ofincarceration and the marginalization of tens of millionsof Americans – disproportionately poor people andpeople of color – while utterly failing to reduceproblematic drug use and drug-related harms. Thesevere consequences of a drug arrest are life-long.One solution to reducing the number of people sweptinto the criminal justice system (or deported) for druglaw violations is to enact various forms ofdecriminalization of drug use and possession.Decriminalization is the removal of criminal penaltiesfor drug law violations (usually possession for personaluse).
Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens ofU.S. cities and states, have taken steps towarddecriminalization.
By decriminalizing possession andinvesting in treatment and harm reduction services, wecan reduce the harms of drug misuse while improvingpublic safety and health.
Benefits of Decriminalization
Decriminalizing drug possession can provide severalmajor benefits, including:
reducing the number of people behind bars;
helping more people receive drug treatment;
reducing criminal justice costs;
redirecting law enforcement resources to preventserious and violent crime;
addressing racial disparities in drug lawenforcement; and
protecting people from the devastatingconsequences of a criminal conviction.
Effects of Decriminalization on Drug Use Rates
Countries that have adopted less punitive policiestoward drug possession have not experienced anysignificant increases in drug use, drug-related harm ordrug-related crime relative to more punitive countries.
 A World Health Organization (WHO) study of lifetimedrug use rates among 17 countries found that the U.S.had the highest drug use rates by a wide margin,despite its punitive drug policies.
The WHOresearchers concluded that decriminalization has littleor no effect on rates of consumption.
“The US, which has been driving much of theworld’s drug research and drug policy agenda,stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol,cocaine, and cannabis, despite [more] punitiveillegal drug policies…than many comparabledeveloped countries.
Clearly, by itself, a punitivepolicy towards possession and use accounts forlimited variation in nation-level rates of drug use.” — “
Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys." PLOS Medicine, 2008.
 The Portuguese Decriminalization Model
In 2001, Portugal enacted the most extensive reformsin the world when it comprehensively decriminalizedlow-level possession and use of illicit drugs,reclassifying these activities as administrativeviolations.
A person caught with personal-use amounts of anydrug in Portugal is no longer arrested, but ratherordered to appear before a local “dissuasioncommission” comprised of three officials – one fromthe legal arena and two from the health arena – whodetermine whether and to what extent the person isaddicted to drugs. Based on these findings, thecommission can order someone to attend a treatmentprogram, complete other monitoring activities, pay afine or submit to other administrative sanctions.
2Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 faxPage
trafficking remains illegal and is still processed throughthe criminal justice system.Independent research of the Portuguese policy hasshown remarkably promising outcomes:
No significant increases in drug use 
There havebeen no significant increases in overall illicit drug useamong adults, and any slight increases in lifetime useof some drugs appear to be part of a regional trend.Portugal’s drug use rates remain below the Europeanaverage – and far lower than the U.S.
Reduced problematic and adolescent drug use.
More importantly, adolescent drug use, as well asproblematic drug use – or use by people deemed to bedependent or addicted, and by people who inject drugs – has decreased overall since 2003.
Fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs 
The number of people arrested and sent to criminalcourts for drug law violations declined by more thanhalf after decriminalization. The percentage of peoplein Portugal’s prison system for drugs also decreasedby about half, from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in2008.
The overall quantity of illicit drugs seized byPortuguese law enforcement increased as well.
More people receiving drug treatment 
Between1998 and 2008, the number of people in drugtreatment increased by more than 60 percent (from23,654 to 38,532 people).
Reduced opiate-related deaths 
The proportion ofdrug-related deaths in which opiates were the primarysubstance involved declined from 95 percent in 1999to 59 percent in 2008.
Reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS.
The number of newHIV and AIDS diagnoses fell considerably. Between2000 and 2008, new HIV cases among people whouse drugs declined from 907 to 267 and the number ofnew AIDS cases declined from 506 to 108.
“[C]ontrary to predictions, the Portuguesedecriminalization did not lead to major increases indrug use. Indeed, evidence indicates reductions inproblematic use, drug-related harms and criminaljustice overcrowding.” —
British Journal of Criminology, 2010 
These positive outcomes cannot be attributed todecriminalization alone. Alongside its decriminalizationlaw, Portugal significantly expanded its treatment andharm reduction services, including access to sterilesyringes as well as methadone maintenance therapyand other medication-assisted treatments.Overall, evidence after 10 years shows that none ofthe fears of drug war proponents has come to pass.According to the United Nations Office on Drugs andCrime, “Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to anincrease in drug tourism. It also appears that a numberof drug-related problems have decreased.”
Expertsagree that, on balance, there “is ample evidence of asuccessful reform.”
Other Countries’ Experiences
 In recent years, several other countries have takensteps toward drug decriminalization, either throughlegislation or the courts. The effectiveness of theseapproaches varies considerably depending on manyfactors – especially the quantities used to define“personal possession,” and the degree to whichdecriminalization is part of a larger health-centeredagenda.
Many observers, for instance, considerMexico’s 2009 decriminalization law to be mainlysymbolic. The threshold limits defining “possession”versus “trafficking” were set very low and penalties for“trafficking” were increased. Thus, there is evidencethat Mexico’s law has actually increased the number ofpeople arrested and sanctioned for drug lawviolations,
a phenomenon known as “net-widening.”Mexico has also not made the same investments intreatment and harm reduction as Portugal.
Czech Republic 
: The Czech Republic, by contrast, haslong integrated some elements of harm reduction intoits drug policies and in 2010 adopted adecriminalization law with more realistic thresholdlimits. While data is not yet available, the Czech modelseems more likely to produce net societal benefits.
: The Netherlands has a long-standingpolicy to instruct prosecutors not to prosecutepossession of roughly a single dose of any drug forpersonal use. Neither civil nor criminal penalties applyto possession of amounts equal to or lesser than thisthreshold. The Netherlands has lower rates ofaddiction than most of western Europe and the U.S.From 1979 to 1994, Dutch drug use rates decreased
3Drug Policy Alliance | 131 West 33rd Street, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10001nyc@drugpolicy.org | 212.613.8020 voice | 212.613.8021 faxPage
from approximately 15 percent to less than 3 percent.The Dutch also have much lower heroin overdoserates and prevalence of injection drug use comparedto the U.S. The number of young people who usedrugs problematically has also decreased.
. A series of court decisions in Colombia hasessentially decriminalized small amounts of marijuanaand cocaine for personal use. In the summer of 2012,the Colombian Constitutional Court reconfirmed itsdecriminalization ruling – followed by the passage of anew law that makes drug addiction a matter of publichealth and obliges the state to guaranteecomprehensive treatment for those who seek itvoluntarily. The law recognizes “that the consumption,abuse, and addiction to psychoactive substances – licitor illicit – are an issue of public health and family,community, and individual well-being”. Importantly,Colombia did not stop at decriminalization but is alsoexpanding its voluntary treatment capacity.
In 2009, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruledthat legislation criminalizing possession of drugs forpersonal use is an unconstitutional violation of the rightto privacy and personal autonomy. As a consequence,substantial reforms have been drafted and introducedin Congress to formalize the Court’s ruling.
: In 1988, Paraguay formally decriminalizedpossession of less than 2 grams of cocaine or heroin.However, a judge may mandate a person to residentialtreatment if he or she is assessed to be drugdependent.
After more than two decades ofdecriminalization, Paraguay has the lowest prevalenceof heroin use, and nearly the lowest prevalence ofcocaine use, in all of South America.
 These laws – and similar efforts around the world – reflect an increasing awareness that prohibitionistpolicies are counterproductive, at least with respect todrug possession.
Efforts to Reduce Drug Penalties in the U.S.
State Efforts to Reduce Penalties.
Fifteen states havereduced or eliminated criminal penalties for personalmarijuana possession. Some states, such asCalifornia, have recently considered lesseningpenalties for possession of other drugs as well – achange that nearly three-quarters of Californianssupport.
Thirteen states, as well as Washington, DC,and the federal government, already treat personaldrug possession as a misdemeanor.
U.S. jurisdictions with reduced penalties do not havehigher rates of drug use. In fact, many states that treatpossession as a misdemeanor have slightly lowerrates of illicit drug use and higher rates of admission todrug treatment than states that consider it a felony.
Seattle’s LEAD Program.
Seattle recently instituted apilot program known as “Law Enforcement AssistedDiversion,” or LEAD, that aims to bypass the criminal justice system entirely. Instead of arresting andbooking people for certain drug law violations,including drug possession and low-level sales, policein two Seattle neighborhoods will immediately directthem to drug treatment or other supportive services.
 LEAD is a promising step in the direction ofdecriminalization – though to be most successful,programs like LEAD must empower healthprofessionals to assess and deliver services to eachindividual. Ultimately, full decriminalization ofpossession offers more promise in achieving a health-centered approach to drug misuse.
More than 80 percent of all drug arrests in theUnited States every year are for possession alone.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Report, Crime in the United States, 2011
 The Drug Policy Alliance supports policies thateliminate criminal penalties for personal drugpossession.In the absence of decriminalization or regulation,states should treat possession of illicit drugs as amisdemeanor or an infraction to lessen the lifelongstigma and substantial consequences that accompanya felony conviction.Countries or states that pursue decriminalization usingthreshold limits should set maximum-quantity
U.S. Drug Arrests, 2011
Possession Sales/Manufacturing

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