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Time to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession says new report
By Charlene Muhammad Contributing Writer
Published July 13, 2017

A person buys marijuana at the Essence cannabis dispensary, Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. Nevada dispensaries were legally allowed to sell recreational marijuana starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A new report by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) says the time is ripe to change drug laws.

The document, Its Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, indicates that the criminalization of drug possession is a major driver of arrests in the country.  Each year, it indicated that U.S. law enforcement makes nearly 1.5 million drug arrests, which amounts to more arrests than for all violent crimes combined.

The overwhelming majority – more than 80 percent – are for possession only and involve no violent offense, the document further indicated.

“We’re very excited to release this report, especially as the war on drugs is ramping up,” stated Emily Kaltenbach, senior director for DPA’s National Criminal Justice Reform Strategy, during a July 11 teleconference.

Organizations represented on the call also included the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Movement for Black Lives, and LatinoJustice.

In this June 28, 2017 photo, a worker puts a bar code sticker on a jar of marijuana at the Desert Grown Farms cultivation facility in Las Vegas. AP Photo/John Locher)

Kaltenbach said it is important and essential to focus limited resources on healthy approaches to problematic drug use.  The DPA does not want the report to just represent a concept or a problem statement, but also serve as a road map that leads to the decriminalization of all drug use and possession, she noted.

A key strategy highlighted in the report is for states to change drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors.

“I want to stress that decriminalization can’t be an end in itself, but serve as a crucial milestone toward drug decriminalization,” Kaltenbach said.  She emphasized that it’s also important to work at local levels by opening spaces for coordinated created problem solving.

Such spaces are being driven by Assembly Bill 186 (AB 186), which would allow CA cities and counties to authorize supervised drug consumption programs.

Authored by Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), AB 186 passed in the 41-33 in the Assembly with bipartisan support.  At press time, it was scheduled for a hearing in the Senate.

According to Eggman, the counties included in the bill are Alameda, Fresno, Humboldt, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Francisco, San Joaquin and Santa Cruz.  AB 186 requires a report on the efficacy of the services, and expires in 2022, unless re-authorized by the legislature.

“California is blazing a new trail toward a policy on drug addiction and abuse that treats it as the medical issue and public health challenge that it is, and not as a moral failing,” stated Eggman.

“We are in the midst of an epidemic, and this bill will grant us another tool to fight it – to provide better access to services like treatment and counseling, to better protect public health and safety, and to save lives,” she said.

AB 186 was sponsored by a broad coalition of drug treatment providers, HIV and hepatitis prevention groups, including the DPA.

In its decriminalization report, which was endorsed by over 30 organizations, the DPA offered that ending criminal penalties for drug possession, often referred to as decriminalization, means nobody gets arrested, goes to jail or prison, or faces criminal punishment simply for possessing a small amount of a drug for personal use.

In this Thursday, June 22, 2017, photo, a marijuana bud is displayed at Breakwater Treatment and Wellness in Cranbury, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

According to its report, polls of presidential primary voters last year found that substantial majorities support ending arrests for drug use and possession in Maine (64%), New Hampshire (66%), and even South Carolina (59%).

“Drug laws have consistently served as vehicles for criminalizing Black people and communities, as tools of racial profiling, of discriminatory enforcement, of violence, extortion, abuse, and mass incarceration of Black people,” stated Andrea Ritchie, attorney, researcher-in-residence at Barnard Center for Research on Women, and member of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.

Ritchie said such laws have also been consistently used to deny Blacks access to things their communities need to thrive and survive.  Those include housing, employment, education, family, community, and entry of immigration status in the U.S., while simultaneously failing to promote their health and safety or the needs of people who are struggling with addiction or survival, she said.

“In light of these realities, the Movement for Black Lives calls for retroactive decriminalization of drug offenses, immediate release and retroactive record expungement for all individuals convicted of drug offenses, and reparations for the devastating impact of the war on drugs on Black people and Black communities,” Ritchie stated.

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