And, I think it needs to be a true needle exchange where you bring one in, you get one, okay?
Skip to main content. Give Watch Listen View Schedules. Public Affairs. Barbara Brosher. Related News. Portage Mayor John Cannon said his police and fire departments want to close a city-managed lakefront pavilion that many people use to enter Indiana Dunes National Park. Human rights principles require it. For four decades, federal and state measures to battle the use and sale of drugs in the US have emphasized arrest and incarceration rather than prevention and treatment.
Yet drug possession was not always criminalized. For much of the 19th century, opiates and cocaine were largely unregulated in the US. Regulations began to be passed towards the end of the 19th and at the start of the 20th century—a time when the US also banned alcohol. Early advocates for prohibitionist regimes relied on moralistic arguments against drug and alcohol use, along with concerns over health and crime. But many experts also point to the racist roots of early prohibitionist efforts, as certain drugs were associated in public discourse with particular marginalized races for example, opium with Chinese immigrants.
The US has also been a major proponent of international prohibition, and helped to push for the passage of the three major international drug control conventions beginning in the s. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. New laws increased the likelihood of a prison sentence even for low-level offenses, increased the length of prison sentences, and required prisoners to serve a greater proportion of their sentences before any possibility of review.
These trends impacted drug offenses as well as other crimes. The new drug laws contributed to a dramatic rise in the prison population. In , nearly 23 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses were incarcerated simply for drug possession. More than half of the US adult population report having used illicit drugs at some point in their lifetime, and one in three adults reports having used a drug other than marijuana.
Lifetime rates of drug use are highest among white adults for all drugs in total, and for specific drugs such as marijuana, cocaine including crack , methamphetamine, and non-medical use of prescription drugs. Latino and Asian adults use most drugs at substantially lower rates. For more recent drug use, for example use in the past year, Black, white, and Latino adults use drugs other than marijuana at very similar rates. For marijuana, 16 percent of Black adults reported using in the past year compared to 14 percent of white adults and about 11 percent of Latino adults:.
All US states currently criminalize the possession of illicit drugs. Of the states we visited, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas classify possession of most drugs other than marijuana as a felony, no matter the quantity, and provide for the following sentencing ranges. In Florida, simple possession of most drugs carries up to five years in prison. One to four grams carries two to ten years.
On top of these baseline ranges, some states allow prosecutors to enhance the sentence range for drug possession by applying habitual offender laws that treat defendants as more culpable—and therefore deserving of greater punishment—because they have prior convictions. For example, in Louisiana a person charged with drug possession who has one or two prior felony convictions faces up to 10 years in prison.
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With three prior felony convictions, a person charged with drug possession faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years to life in prison. In the most recent year for which such data is available , 50 percent of people arrested for felony possession offenses in the 75 largest US counties had at least one prior felony conviction, mostly for non-violent offenses.
Across the United States, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime. Drug possession accounts for more than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement agencies around the country. Although all states arrest a significant number of people for drug possession each year, police focus on it more or less heavily in different states. For example, in California, one of every six arrests in was for drug possession, while in Alaska the rate was one of every In , state law enforcement agencies made more than 1.
While the bulk of drug possession arrests are in large states such as California, Texas, and New York, the list of hardest-hitting states looks different when mapped onto population size. Maryland, Nebraska, and Mississippi have the highest per capita drug possession arrest rates. For comparison, the rate of arrest for drug possession ranged from per , people in Maryland to 77 per , in Vermont:. The differences in drug arrest rates at the state level are all the more striking because drug use rates are fairly consistent across the country.
For marijuana, there is slightly greater variation.
Arguments for and against drug prohibition
About 8 percent of US adults used marijuana in the past month, but this ranged from about 5 percent in South Dakota to 15 percent in Colorado. While many public officials told us drug law enforcement is meant to get dealers off the streets, the vast majority of people arrested for drug offenses are charged with nothing more than possessing a drug for their personal use.
Despite shifting public opinion on marijuana, about half of all drug possession arrests are for marijuana. This means that police made almost 14 percent more arrests for simple marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined. Some police told us that they have to make an arrest if they see unlawful conduct, but this glosses over the key question of where and upon whom the police are focusing their attention to begin with.
Differences in arrest rates for drug possession within a state reveal that individual police departments have substantial discretion in how they enforce the law, resulting in stark contrasts. For example, data provided to us by Texas shows that 53 percent of drug possession arrests in Harris County in and around Houston were for marijuana, compared with 39 percent in nearby Dallas County.
Additionally, certain jurisdictions within a state place a stronger focus on policing drug possession. In Texas, the counties with the highest drug possession arrest rates are all small rural counties.
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Rather than stumbling upon unlawful conduct, when it comes to drug use and possession, police often aggressively search it out—and they do so selectively, targeting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. As criminal justice practitioners, social science experts, and the US public now recognize all too well, racially disparate policing has had devastating consequences. Research has consistently shown that police target certain neighborhoods for drug law enforcement because drug use and drug sales occur on streets and in public view.
Making arrests in these neighborhoods is therefore easier and less resource-intensive. Comparably few of the people arrested in these areas are white. Black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for drug possession in the US. The disparities in absolute numbers or rates of arrests cannot be blamed on a few states or jurisdictions. While numerous studies have found racial disparities in marijuana arrests,  analyses of state- and local-level data provided to Human Rights Watch show consistent disparities across the country for all drugs, not just marijuana.
In every state for which we have sufficient police data, Black adults were arrested for drug possession at higher rates than white adults, and in many states the disparities were substantially higher than the national rate—over 6 to 1 in Montana, Iowa, and Vermont.
These figures likely underestimate the racial disparity nationally, because in three states with large Black populations—Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama—an insufficient proportion of law enforcement agencies reported data and thus we could not include them in our analysis.
Our in-depth analysis of Florida and New York data show that disparities are not isolated to a few municipalities or urban centers, though they are considerably starker in some localities than in others. In Florida, 60 of 67 counties arrested Black people for drug possession at higher rates than white people. Down the coast in comparably sized Collier County, the ratio, while still showing a disparity, was less than 3 to 1.
In New York, 60 of 62 counties arrested Black people for drug possession at higher rates than white people. In other words, Black people in Manhattan were nearly 11 times more likely than white people to be arrested for drug possession. Under international human rights law, prohibited racial discrimination occurs where there is an unjustifiable disparate impact on a racial or ethnic group, regardless of whether there is any intent to discriminate against that group. Department cultures and performance metrics that incentivize high numbers of arrests may drive up the numbers of unnecessary drug arrests and unjustifiable searches in some jurisdictions.
In some cases, department culture may suggest to individual officers that the way to be successful and productive, and earn promotions, is to have high arrest numbers.
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In turn, a focus on arrest numbers may translate into an emphasis on drug arrests, because drug arrests are often easier to obtain than arrests for any other type of offense, especially if certain neighborhoods are targeted. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, told us,. Although the practice is outlawed in several states, some police departments operate a system of explicit or implicit arrest quotas. Such departmental pressure to meet arrest quotas can easily lead to more arbitrary stops and searches. He said when officers understand that they are expected to make high arrest numbers, they often focus on drug possession:.
Out of 10 cars, you might get one out of those 10 that you get some dope or marijuana or a joint in the ash tray, or a Xanax in your purse…. That shit has got to stop…. If you put quotas—which is a bad word—[officers] are going to start bum rapping people. I stopped them. I harassed them. I asked them if they had guns in their car. I asked them if they had any illegal contraband. What am I doing to the general citizen?
So BJA has moved away from arrests as a metric, instead focusing on evidence-based practices, such as community collaboration, prevention, and problem-solving activities. This move is commendable. In the extensive training and technical assistance BJA provides to state law enforcement agencies, through JAG and other funding streams, BJA should reiterate that arrest numbers are not a sound measure of police performance.
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