Drug criminalization in the United States has inflicted devastating consequences on users while offering few, if any, benefits to public safety, a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday found.
The rights group issued a joint call with the American Civil Liberties Union for nationwide decriminalization of all illicit drugs, arguing that criminalization imposes crippling costs upon users, their families, and taxpayers, and drives racial discrimination and human-rights abuses.
“Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use,” the report said.
Nowhere was this concept more powerfully demonstrated than in Texas, where more than 16,000 people were incarcerated in 2015 alone for possessing less than one gram of drugs, according to the report.
Texas defines the possession of such an amount as a “state jail felony,” even though the amount weighs less than a quarter of the contents of a sugar packet.
One of the dozens of inmates interviewed for the report, who was given the pseudonym Matthew Russell, was sentenced to 15 years in state prison for possessing an amount of methamphetamine so small that the laboratory technician couldn’t even measure it.
It was instead designated a “trace” amount, and the charge was compounded with Russell’s prior felony convictions to result in his lengthy prison term.
“I’m not guilty of what they charged me with. I didn’t have any drugs in my possession,” Russell told the report’s author Tess Borden. “Am I guilty of being a drug user? Yes, I am. Did I use drugs the day before? Yes, I did. I admitted that. But I didn’t have any drugs on me. I shouldn’t be here.”
In some cases, defendants found with drug paraphernalia — like needles, pipes, or empty baggies — were arrested and charged with drug possession simply because the paraphernalia contained trace amounts of drug residue.
The problem in these cases are the prosecutors responsible for handling them, the report argued. Prosecutors have the authority to reduce charges, dismiss cases, refuse to seek sentence enhancements, or offer lenient plea deals.
Police, similarly, have the discretion to not make possession arrests for paraphernalia or residue cases, and judges can also dismiss possession charges in those cases. Yet many states, including but not limited to Texas, take a “lock everyone up” approach, the report found.
“The consequences of that philosophy play out in terms of human lives,” the report argued.