Every 25 seconds someone is arrested for simple possession of drugs in the United States, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the Louisiana ACLU, said the human toll is devastating. “It doesn’t stop drug use. It doesn’t help anyone. It simply wastes money and squanders lives.”
The report is called “25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States.” Researchers focused on Louisiana, Texas, Florida and New York, interviewing 149 people convicted of possessing cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs. They also interviewed family members, defense attorneys, and activists.
Esman said the consequences of those convictions cause more harm than good for society and for the people involved. “When you get out (of prison), you’re then a convicted felon,” she says. “And that means that your employment opportunities are limited. You’re never going to be able to get a student loan because federal law prohibits it. You can’t get any kind of federal benefits for yourself or for your family. And it leads to a situation that increases rather than decreases subsequent criminal activity.”
Esman said more people are arrested for simple possession of drugs than anything else, clogging courts and prisons.
“Maybe it shouldn’t be against the law,” she said. “Maybe instead of criminalizing something that doesn’t hurt anyone else we should provide better medical services for people who develop drug dependencies.”
Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, said “I agree that there is a problem.” But he adds, “I don’t agree that the solution is to legalize drugs.”
Martiny is a member of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which is examining the high cost of incarceration.
An animation from the Smart on Crime Coalition of business and community leaders backing the task force points out Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the nation. The announcer on the animation asks, “What has all this prison brought us besides a $700 million a year price tag?" Not much, according to the research. While Louisiana has seen a modest decline in crime over the past five years, many states that significantly reduced their use of prison saw a greater crime declines than the pelican state.”
“The task force is looking at meaningful solutions to our high incarceration rate,” Martiny said. And he adds that treatment may be a better option than prison for some drug users.
“I don’t disagree with that,” said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand. “We were one of the first agencies to support drug treatment courts.”
In fact, he said the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office was one of the first agencies to issue a misdemeanor summons for simple marijuana possession.
But Normand and Martiny both take issue with the ACLU report.
“This report doesn’t seem to be placing any of the blame on the perpetrator,” Martiny said.
And Normand said people in prison for simple drug possession often get there because they’re accused of some other crime as well.
“It’s going to be a simple possession charge with an aggravated burglary or simple burglary, a 95-1 convicted felon in possession of a firearm that’s also smoking weed,” according to Normand. “How we get him off the street is of no moment to us.”
The sheriff points out society did not cause or force the perpetrator to use drugs. But Esman questions how society benefits when the consequence of felony conviction for simple drug possession can slash job opportunities, break up families, increase poverty, boost the burden on public resources and fail to cut illicit drug use.