As Americans debate the expanding campaign to legalize marijuana, two of the nation's most prominent human rights organizations are urging a far bolder step — the decriminalization of possession and personal use of all illicit drugs.
Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly issued the call Wednesday in a detailed report contending that enforcement of drug laws has unjustifiably ruined lives, torn families apart and fueled racial discrimination while failing to curtail rampant drug abuse in the U.S.
"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, the report's author. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."
Borden acknowledged that broad decriminalization of drug use, whether by Congress or state-by-state, is unlikely in the near future. She hopes the report will spur action at the state and federal level to invest more funds in treatment programs and to reclassify drug use and possession as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
Though four states have legalized recreational marijuana use, and five more will vote on that step next month, no state has decriminalized personal use of other common illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Possession of them is often classified as a felony.
According to the new report, state law enforcement agencies make more than 1.25 million drug possession arrests per year — one of every nine arrests nationwide. Regarding racial disparities, the report said black adults use drugs at similar or even lower rates than white adults, yet are more than twice as likely to be arrested for possession.
The report argues that the decades-long "war on drugs" has failed, with rates of drug abuse still high. It says criminalization of drugs tends to drive people who use them underground, making it less likely they will get treatment and more likely they will be at risk of disease and overdoses.
However, Michael Ramos, district attorney of San Bernardino County in California, said decriminalization would pose "huge dangers."
He predicted that property crime would increase as drug users carried out thefts to maintain their habits. He also said rehabilitation programs would wither if drug abusers no longer had the threat of incarceration as an incentive to participate.
"Once you legalize all drugs, there's no motive for those people to get help," he said.
However, Ramos acknowledged that most state prisons and jails should be doing a far better job of providing effective rehabilitation programs for convicted drug users.
"Right now, what we're doing is putting them in and turning the key," he said. "There's not much help there."
In compiling their report, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said they interviewed 149 people prosecuted for using drugs in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and New York, 64 of them in custody.
Among them was Corey Ladd, who — because he had two prior drug arrests — is serving a 17-year sentence in Louisiana for possessing a half-ounce of marijuana. He has a 4-year-old daughter who has never seen him outside prison; she's being raised by her grandmother.
"The sheer harshness of the sentence shocks the conscience," Louisiana's appeals court wrote in April, when it asked that Ladd be resentenced to a lesser term. But prosecutors held firm and appealed that ruling; Ladd's case is now headed to the state Supreme Court.
Ladd's public defender, Kenneth Hardin, said Louisiana's highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate stems directly from its hardline approach to drug abusers.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," he said. "We've been throwing these drug users in jail. Has that made the streets feel safer? Has that changed the crime rate?"
Mario Moreno, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the Obama administration favors a balanced approach that would divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment programs rather than prisons.
"We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem," he said in an email.
One such diversion program is being launched in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by Rob Reardon, a former director of corrections in nearby Lafayette Parish.
"If we're able to engage with these people before entanglement with the criminal justice system, everybody's a winner," he said. "Some people have to go to jail because they are dangerous — but the vast majority are there because they're poor decision-makers."
In Western Europe, many countries have adopted approaches to drug abuse that are less punitive than in America. Portugal has gone the furthest, deciding in 2001 to decriminalize the acquisition, use and possession of illicit drugs in quantities up to a 10-day supply. Rather than facing prosecution, drug abusers are likely to be referred to treatment programs.
According to various evaluations, including a United Nations study, the policy has been a success, lowering the number of overdose fatalities, encouraging more people to seek treatment, and reducing the financial toll of drug abuse.
However, Steven Belenko a professor of criminal justice at Temple University, noted that the U.S. differs dramatically from Portugal, where there was a consensus in favor of decriminalization that spanned much of the political spectrum and extended to law enforcement agencies.
"We don't have a consensus," said Belenko, though he suggested that an increasing number of Americans were questioning the efficacy of a punitive approach to drug abuse.
"We've got to see it more as public health problem, not as a crime problem," he said.