Vienna, Austria – A key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC – which includes Nora Volkow, head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – is releasing the recommendations at the High-Level Segment of the 57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The working group recommendations say “criminal sanctions are not beneficial” in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.
More than 1.5 million drug arrests are made every year in the U.S. – the overwhelming majority for possession only. Roughly two dozen countries, and dozens of U.S. cities and states, have taken steps toward decriminalization.
“There is simply no good basis in science, health or ethics for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Hopefully the UN’s recommendations will help accelerate the global trend toward ending the criminalization of drug use and possession. That certainly would make an enormous difference in the United States.”
Political will for a major overhaul of global drug policy has been gaining unprecedented momentum, both in the U.S. and abroad. Distinguished leaders such as Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson have joined with former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, Poland and Switzerland and other members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in calling for an end to the criminalization of people who use drugs.
The UN recommendations are consistent with the Global Commission and a surprisingly broad and rapidly-emerging coalition of stakeholders who are calling for drug decriminalization, including the American Public Health Association, Organization of American States, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, NAACP, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union, and National Latino Congreso.
Decriminalizing drug possession can provide several major benefits for public safety and health, such as:
- Significantly reducing the number of people arrested and incarcerated;
- Increasing uptake into drug treatment;
- Reducing criminal justice costs and redirecting resources from criminal justice to health systems;
- Redirecting law enforcement resources to prevent serious and violent crime;
- Addressing racial disparities in drug law enforcement and sentencing, incarceration and related health outcomes;
- Minimizing stigma and creating a climate in which people who use drugs are less fearful of seeking and accessing treatment, utilizing harm reduction services and receiving HIV/AIDS services; and
- Protecting people from the wide-ranging and debilitating consequences of a criminal conviction
“Getting arrested for drug possession is no small matter,” said Nadelmann. “It can create a permanent criminal record, easily available to banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing and other government agencies, that can haunt a person for life. That this happens to more than a million Americans every year is absurd.”
U.S. jurisdictions and other countries that have adopted less punitive policies toward drug possession have not experienced any significant increases in drug use, drug-related harm or drug-related crime relative to more punitive countries.
In 2001, Portuguese legislators enacted a comprehensive form of decriminalization of low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations. After more than a decade, Portugal has experienced no major increases in drug use, while seeing reduced rates of problematic and adolescent drug use, fewer people arrested and incarcerated for drugs, reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS, reduced opiate-related deaths, and a significant increase in the number of people receiving drug treatment.
In the U.S., 17 states have reduced or eliminated criminal penalties for personal marijuana possession. Some states, such as California, have recently considered lessening penalties for possession of other drugs as well – a change that nearly three-quarters of Californians support. Thirteen states, as well as Washington, DC, and the federal government, already treat personal drug possession as a misdemeanor – not a felony.
U.S. jurisdictions with reduced penalties do not have higher rates of drug use. In fact, many states that treat possession as a misdemeanor have slightly lower rates of illicit drug use and higher rates of admission to drug treatment than states that consider it a felony.