I can’t think of a more scathing indictment of America’s failed war on drugs than Human Rights Watch’s latest report on the human toll of drug criminalisation. As its title tells us, a person is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds in the United States – leading to a staggering total of 1.25 million arrests every year.
Richard Branson Ending The War on Drugs
To make things worse, more than 574,000 of those arrests were made for simple marijuana possession – that’s more than the number of people arrested for violent crime. Add the huge geographic disparities in the rate of arrests, as well as the fact that African-Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for drug possession, and you quickly get the idea that US drug laws and their enforcement are broken beyond repair. The report is full of shocking and hard-to-believe stories of people who got caught up in this system; some even for the possession of trace amounts barely visible to the human eye.
The consequences of what some have quite rightly called a war on people are as dramatic as they are devastating. Nearly 140,000 people in the US are currently in custody for drug possession, many burdened with felony convictions that wreck their lives forever – barring them from employment, voting, student loans, and most forms of government assistance, not to mention the social stigma that is associated with a criminal record. And yet, the continued criminalisation of people who use drugs is a reckless rush to punishment that does nothing to curb actual drug demand or supply, but almost certainly ensures that tens of thousands, lacking any other option, will be trapped forever in a vicious cycle of reoffending and incarceration.
It’s also an enormous waste of taxpayer money, costing the criminal justice system billions that could be spent so much more effectively on education, prevention and harm reduction measures. In sum, the wasteful war on drugs has failed to ensure public safety, contributes to the decline of both rural and urban communities, and perpetuates human suffering at enormous scale. When is it going to end?
As a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I am glad to see that Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union are joining the growing chorus of those that say enough is enough. The call to end the criminalisation of the personal use of drugs and the possession of drugs for personal use echoes what my fellow Commissioners and I have said for several years now: the US (and other countries) needs drug policies that are based on evidence and put people at the centre.