At any given time or place in the United States, at least 137,000 people both men and women are placed behind bars on simple drug possession charges, according to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

“Rates of drug use are not down. Drug dependency has not stopped. Every 25 seconds we’re arresting someone for drug use.” Federal numbers on drug arrests and drug use over the past 30 years tell the story.

Drug possession arrests had a major increase, from less than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979 to more than 500 in the mid-2000s. The drug possession rate has since fallen slightly, according to the FBI, hovering now around 400 arrests per 100,000 people. Defenders of harsh penalties for drug possession say they’re necessary to deter people from using drugs and protect the public health. Even though the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s.

Federal figures show no correlation between drug possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time. The ACLU/Human Rights Watch report shows that arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work.

“Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data.

“More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, law enforcement makes more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined. Black adults were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.

“Criminalization drives drug use underground; it discourages access to emergency medicine, overdose prevention services, and risk-reducing practices such as syringe exchanges.” The report reinforces its point by noting the lengthy sentences handed down in some states for possession of small amounts of drugs.

“Corey’s story is about the real waste of human lives, let alone taxpayer money, of arrest and incarceration for personal drug use,” lead author Tess Borden stated.

“He could be making money and providing for his family.” However, Ladd’s treatment is far from the cruelest drug possession sentence revealed by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch researchers, who conducted studies of arrest and incarceration data from Florida, New York, and Texas.

“In 2015, more than 78 percent of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas possessed under a gram,” the report found.


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