What is Drug Decriminalization?
Decriminalization is the full removal of criminal penalties for drug possession, personal use, and paraphernalia law violations. When implemented, people are no longer arrested or incarcerated for possessing or using a drug.
Why Decriminalize Drugs Now in DC?
Drug possession is the most arrested offense in the United States, with one arrest every 23 seconds. According to CDC data, in 2020, the District saw the highest overdose rates on record. We are in a state of emergency that requires an urgent, systemic change to how the District addresses drug use.
Criminalization of drugs fuels the overdose crisis and leads to more potent, dangerous forms of drugs. It also enables law enforcement to harass, prosecute, deport, incarcerate and even justify killing– disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
In order to save lives, the District must end the arresting and incarcerating people simply for possessing or using drugs, while simultaneously investing in health and harm reduction services. DC Council should urgently consider removing criminal penalties for personal use drug possession, establish a 24/7 harm reduction center, address life-long consequences of convictions, and invest in life-saving and stabilizing support and resources instead of punishment.
Drug decriminalization – if enacted in the District and across the United States – would keep millions from entering the criminal legal system and allow people who use drugs, who need it, to get health-services over criminalization.
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Take a Deeper Dive: What Decriminalization of Drugs Will Accomplish:
Reduces Drug-Related Harms
Evidence from around the world shows that eliminating criminal penalties for possession of drugs decreases drug-related harms, while not significantly increasing rates of drug use.
Increases Access to Treatment
Instead of arresting and incarcerating people, decriminalization can include provisions for people who use drugs to voluntarily connect with healthcare services. Additionally, all drug decriminalization efforts include infusing resources into treatment and services for people who use drugs.
Reduces Racial Disparities in the Criminal Legal System
Targeted enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal legal system. When enacted, decriminalization has the potential to dramatically reduce – and nearly eliminate – racial disparities in drug arrests.
Reduces Deportation Risk
Drug enforcement is a primary driver of the U.S. deportation machine: after entry, drug offenses were the most common offense among people who were deported in 2019. Instead of cruelly tearing families apart and sending people back to countries where they may not have connections or support, decriminalization would help to limit immigration consequences for drug law violations and provide non-citizens with adequate healthcare and support.
Reduces Far-Reaching Harms of the Drug War
Drug law violations are one of the leading nonviolent causes for reincarceration and excessive jailing in DC. In addition to hefty fines and lengthy jail sentences, decriminalization would help to reduce the number of people with criminal records. Criminal records can be a barrier to people getting jobs, housing, student loans, public assistance, professional licenses, and more.
Better Spends Taxpayer Money
Criminalizing drug possession and placing people in prison, jail, or on probation or parole is an enormous waste of resources that comes with a staggering price tag for U.S. taxpayers. If penalties were removed for drug possession, money spent on arrests and incarceration could be allocated to funding areas like community-driven crisis intervention, healthcare, affordable housing, harm reduction and treatment services, nutritious food, and infrastructure.
Why the District of Columbia?
High incarceration and overdose rates make the District a critical place to decriminalize drugs and connect people with healthcare, treatment, harm reduction services, and other social and economic supports. According to CDC data, in 2020, the District saw the highest overdose rates on record. It is estimated that 511 people died from accidental overdose deaths in the District. We are in a state of emergency that requires an urgent, systemic change to how the District addresses drug use, starting with the end of arresting and incarcerating people simply for possessing or using drugs while simultaneously investing in health and harm reduction services. In order to save lives, use funds more efficiently, and re-imagine public safety and health, DC Council should urgently consider removing criminal penalties for personal use drug possession, establish a 24/7 harm reduction center, address life-long consequences of convictions, and invest in life-saving and stabilizing support and resources instead of punishment.