Marijuana Arrests, Excessive Sentences

Growing Jail Population

Weed_JointAt least 137,000 men and women are behind bars on simple drug possession charges including marijuana arrests. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch report indicates that nearly two-thirds of these people are locked up in local jails. Most of these inmates have not even been convicted of a crime. They are sitting in a cell because they simply can’t afford to post bail. Many of these people lose months of their lives, their jobs their homes and their possessions.

“It’s been 45 years since the war on drugs was declared and it hasn’t been a success,” said lead author Tess Borden. “Rates of drug use are not down.” Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tells the story. Drug possession arrests skyrocketed. There were fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979. By the mid-2000s that 200 number had grown to to more than 500. The drug possession rate has since fallen slightly, according to the FBI, hovering now around 400 arrests per 100,000 people.

Drug Use Continues to Grow

Defenders of harsh drug possession penalties say they’re necessary to deter people from using drugs and protect the public health. This “tough-on-crime” approach has led to a surge in arrest rates over the last three decades. It has also been largely ineffective in preventing drug use.

 Illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time. Still, arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work.

American “police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” according to FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession”, according to the report. That equates to more than 1.25 million arrests each year. In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

Treatment Not Jail

The report calls for decriminalizing the personal use and possession of drugs, treating it as a public health matter instead of a criminal one. “Rather than promoting health, criminalization can create new barriers to health for those who use drugs,” the report says. “Criminalization drives drug use underground; it discourages access to emergency medicine, overdose prevention services, and risk-reducing practices such as syringe exchanges.”

The report reinforces its point by noting the lengthy sentences handed down in some states for possession of small amounts of drugs. In Texas, 116 people are currently serving life sentences on charges of simple drug possession. Seven of those people earned their sentences for possessing quantities of drugs weighing between 1 gram and 4 grams, or less than a typical sugar packet. That’s because Texas also has a habitual offender law, allowing prosecutors to seek longer-than-normal sentences for people who have two prior felonies. “In 2015, more than 78 percent of people sentenced to incarceration for felony drug possession in Texas possessed under a gram,” the report found.

Martha McLaughlin
Sr. Associate Attorney
Durflinger Oliver & Associates