Hu­man rights groups call for de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing use of all il­licit drugs

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LOCAL NEWS - By David Crary AP Na­tional Writer

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-yearold 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.

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