Does jailing people for drug use do more harm than good?
More than 24,000 people were arrested in South Carolina for drug possession in 2014 — one of the highest rates in the country. Rather than a pat on the back for law enforcement, it’s a black eye for our state that so many citizens are put through the criminal justice ringer for small-time drug offenses.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, South Carolina ranks sixth in the U.S. for the ratio of citizens arrested for drug possession (575 arrests per 100,000 population). By comparison, North Carolina makes far fewer arrests for possession (about 325 per 100,000). This gung ho approach is making a difference in South Carolina … but not in a positive way.
The war on drugs is mostly a war on addicts and their families
Nationwide, more than 1.25 million people are arrested for drug possession each year. About half of those are for marijuana, which is no longer illegal in a few states. In South Carolina alone, an average of 65 people are arrested every day on possession charges.
Despite four decades of the “War on Drugs,” drug use in the U.S. has not declined. All we have to show for the billions of dollars spent is thousands of citizens behind bars and a trail of broken lives. On any given day, there are about 48,000 Americans in state prisons and 89,000 in jails whose most serious offense was drug possession. Rather than going after dealers and kingpins, law enforcement is four times as likely to arrest users. Although white and black people have similar rates of drug use, minority and low-income communities bear the bulk of those arrests.
Many sit in jail for months because they can’t raise bail money, or plead guilty just so they can go home to their families. They are forced to take harsh plea deals because prosecutors threaten even longer sentences if they exercise their rights by filing motions or going to trial.
The human cost of drug possession arrests and convictions is staggering. Being caught with just a few grams of any controlled substance – or sometimes trace amounts of drugs – leads to:
- Jail or prison time, followed by strict probation
- Crushing criminal justice debt from fines, court costs and legal fees
- Barriers to employment, housing and credit
- Loss of eligibility for student loans and welfare benefits
- Loss of gun rights, voting rights and other liberties
- Divorce and estrangement from one’s children
- A cycle of drug use, incarceration and despair
Is it time to decriminalize drug possession?
In South Carolina, 1 of every 8 arrests is for drug possession – more than any other offense. What if those resources were spent fighting drug trafficking and violent crimes? What if those funds were used to provide affordable and accessible drug treatment for those who want to kick the habit? What if marijuana possession was a ticketable offense instead of a trip to jail and a long legal nightmare?
Decriminalizing drugs is certainly controversial. No one disputes that drug addiction harms individuals and families, or that the illegal drug trade is a cancer on society. But when it comes to drug possession, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime and does nothing to solve those problems. It might be time to “just say no” to making those arrests.