Criminal drug possession – Felony versus misdemeanor

In all but 13 States in the U.S., drug possession for personal use is still considered a felony punishable by years in prison and hefty fines. This despite the fact that a significant portion of those arrested meet criteria for dependence (addiction) on the drugs they are caught with, and the fact that our own federal drug abuse agencies (The National Institute on Drug Abuse – NIDA) considers addiction to be a medical condition that involves reduced control over the drug use itself. I guess that’s why the federal government also considers possession for personal use as a misdemeanor.

Drug users don't belong in prisonIn essence these state laws are putting drug users, and especially drug addicts, at risk of being locked up for years, placed on parole, and subject to the endless other barriers to employment and housing, which make it more difficult for these convicted felons to reintegrate into the community. As if fighting drug addiction wasn’t hard enough.

The question is, would reducing the penalty for drug possession for personal use to a misdemeanor in more states result in increased drug use and crime or would it actually help free up resources being used for incarceration towards more effective strategies for combating the problem?

California State senator Mark Leno is bringing up a bill for consideration in the state senate (SB1506) that is seeking to do just that – reducing the penalty for possession for personal use of any drug to a misdemeanor. Mind you, this law is not to affect any other drug-related offenses such as drug possession for sale, drug manufacturing, or transportation. What it would do is cap the maximum incarceration length of possession at one year in jail (not more years in prison) as well as cap the maximum community supervision length at 5 years (3 years are commonly assigned for such offenses).

I know what some of you are saying – drug users know they’re breaking the law and they should be punished for it. Indeed, punishing them for it will make them less likely to use, which will leave them facing no jail time instead of continuously facing single years in jail for reduced drug possession offenses. Besides, if we cut the penalties for drug possession aren’t we being soft on crime? Aren’t we saying that using drugs is okay?

The problem with that argument is that it assumes that states that have higher penalties for drug possession for personal use have lower rates of crime, drug use, or drug possession arrests. The don’t. Indeed, the 13 states (and D.C.) that already consider drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor have incarceration rates that are no higher, illicit drug use rates that are slightly lower, and addiction treatment admission rates that are on par and even a bit higher than the rates of felony states. Again, that means the states that reduced the penalty for drug possession see less arrests, more people in addiction treatment, and a smaller percentage of their population using such drugs. Interestingly, those results are somewhat similar to the effect complete decriminalization had on drug use, crime, and addiction treatment in Portugal.

In previous articles we’ve spoken about the stigma of addiction and the barriers people report to entering addiction treatment in the U.S. Aside from cost and lack of information, people usually report that they either don’t want help, think they can handle the problem on their own or are too ashamed to ask for help. We’ve also reported on the ridiculous prison overcrowding problem in California due to the high incarceration rates of drug users. The question of decriminalization has come up many times (see here, here, and here) and the evidence I’ve seen keeps pointing towards the conclusion that reduced penalties get more people into addiction treatment while reducing incarceration rates with no real collateral increased in illicit drug use or crime. When you think about it, since the Harrison Narcotics act of 1914 essentially created the black drug market in the U.S. when it restricted, for the first time, the sale of narcotics, it makes sense that loosening up those restriction would reduce the size of that same black market and with it drug-associated crime.

I have spent the last 10 years researching the best ways to fight addiction problems and almost everything I’ve seen suggests that treatment and prevention efforts, not long jail or prison sentences, are the best ways to combat the problem. I have seen evidence that very shirt-term incarceration can help certain resistant offenders, but those efforts can easily be applied for misdemeanor and require nothing close to multiple-year sentences. For that reason, I support not only Senator Leno’s SB1506 bill in California, but other efforts around the country to reduce the criminal penalties associated with simple drug possession to get more of the people who need help into addiction treatment and away from jails. It saves us money, it is more humane, and it just makes sense.

If you want to help Senator Leno pass this bill, contact his office through this link: http://sd03.senate.ca.gov/

 

Citations/Reading:

U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 Statistical Abstract, Table 308. Crime Rates by State, 2008 and 2009, and by Type, 2009 (2012).

Collins et al., (2010). The Cost of Substance Abuse: The Use of Administrative Data to Investigate Treatment Benefits in a Rural Mountain State. Western Criminology Review 11(3), 13-28.

Gardiner, Urada, and Anglin (2011). Band-Aids and Bullhorns: Why California’s Drug Policy Is Failing and What We Can Do to Fix It. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 23, 108-135.

Drug use isn’t the problem – Addiction and the question of legalization or decriminalization

I don’t keep it a secret that I used to have a very serious drug problem. If you haven’t read it by now, my drug use started early on along with a whole bunch of high-school friends. They smoked weed, I wanted to fit in, and the rest is history.

But guess what? Most of them turned out fine.

Drug use versus addiction

Only about 3 of us ended up screwing up a major part of our lives because of our drug use. One friend died 8 years later from AIDS after finding out way too late about an HIV infection he got from shooting up heroin. Another dropped out of college and never made it back. I developed a massive habit that only grew bigger when I shifted from simply using drugs to selling them. Then I got arrested, served a year in jail and went to rehab. That sucked.

The thing is that I don’t think drugs were the source of our problem.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to get my own genetic code sequenced some time in the near future in order to certify this, but I think we all had way too much of the impulsive, rush-seeking in us to allow the rules of society to keep us down. If it wasn’t for the drugs, something else would have probably gotten us sooner or later. I know that, to date, my own love for speed (as in miles per hour) and motorcycles already got me in 3 pretty serious accidents.

What I know now is that once you start using drugs on a regular basis the issue of how you got there no longer matters. Your brain controls your behavior and when drugs control your brain, you’re out of luck without help.

Is the answer legalization or decriminalization?

I think legalization is a mistake. Making a drug legal gives the impression that the state sanctions its use. Heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, and yes, even marijuana cause problems for people. I think that sending any other message is dangerous.

It’s not a coincidence that most people with substance abuse problems in this country (about 15 million) are pure alcoholics. Want a guess at the second biggest group? The marijuana dependent group is about 5 million strong. The rest of the drugs pick up only a few millions in total. Any move towards the legalization of any new drugs will most likely increase their use and therefore the number of addicts.

Still, decriminalization could be the answer. I’ve been meaning to write a post about Portugal’s decriminalized system for a while and haven’t gotten around to it. The bottom line? People found with illegal drugs are given a ticket and sent before a committee. The more visits one has in front of the committee the more forceful the push towards treatment. Still, unless a drug user commits another crime aside from the  possession of drugs they aren’t sent to jail.

As it stand right now, 30%-40% of our prisoners are in for simple drug offenses. That means not only billions in wasted incarceration costs every year, but also billions and billions more useless dollars thrown away at future sentences, court costs, and more (health care, probation and on and on). As it stands now recidivism rates, especially within the addict population are at 70% or higher! Unless these people get treatment, they will go back to jail! It’s that simple. Really.

So what should we do?

Many people aren’t going to like my view point. Those of us in the addiction field are supposed to scream as loudly as possible that drug are bad and that their eradication should be a major goal of our system. I disagree. Sue me.

I think we need to put the money we’re putting into jailing drug addicts into treatment. Even if it saves no money in the present (it will) we’ll be seeing huge savings over time as less of these people go to jail, more of them earn wages and pay taxes, and less of them make wasteful use of other resources like emergency rooms and social services.

And guess what? It will make our society better. We’ll start taking care of our citizens instead of locking them up. We’ll be showing Americans that we believe they can overcome rather than telling them we’d rather see them rot in jail than help them. We’ll be cutting down the number of single parent households and along with them god only knows how many more seemingly endless problems.

That’s my story, an I’m sticking to it.

Proposition 36 – California’s Addiction Treatment Under Attack!!!

If you’re not from CA, you may not know about proposition 36.

It’s a law, passed by voters in 2000, that mandates treatment, not incarceration, for people arrested on drug charges. Defendants can chose whether to accept it or not if they’re eligible, and before I get angry responses from my “red-state” readers, only non-violent, possession only arrests are eligible for Prop 36 participation (I, for instance, was NOT eligible).

Well, like so much else, Prop 36 is on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proverbial chopping block. California is in a state of fiscal emergency, and addiction treatment is one of the first things to seem like an unnecessary public welfare program.

But, if funding for Prop 36 disappears, many California counties are going to be left in trouble.

This is why:

  • Over 40,000 people are referred for assessment under proposition 36 every year. If funding disappears, they will all, by law, still have the right to request treatment, there will just be no funding for it.
  • Of the total people referred, more than 80% get assessed for treatment, and more than 80% of those actually get into treatment. That’s 31,772 people that got treatment for their addiction instead of sitting in a jail cell in 2007.
  • With the average cost of incarceration exceeding $30,000 removing funding for the program will either break CA law or break the banks of the counties and the state.

I understand the need to be fiscally responsible in a crisis like the one we’re facing, but as it stands, Prop 36 is the law, and treatment helps more people stay out of jail than incarceration.

If funding stops, the state is going to shoot itself in the foot, having to pay for these people through another program, taking the money away from services  that were deemed important enough to stay on the books.