The Movement to Legalize Drugs Just Got Two Big New Allies

Uncle Sam smoking weed American flag
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Wouldn't it be cool if all drugs were legal? It's not just an idle question the 16-year-old version of yourself asked -- a groundbreaking report from two of the world's leading human rights groups calls for states and the federal government to decriminalize drug use. Like, ALL drugs.

With the opioid epidemic spiraling out of control -- overdoses happen so frequently in public, even librarians are equipped with the overdose antidote Narcan -- Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union argue that resources should be spent on treatment and prevention, rather than incarceration and legal battles.  

It's not just opioids; all illegal drugs, even marijuana in some states, are creating generations of people who will spend the majority of their lives behind bars for even the slightest drug offense. Instead, the ACLU and HRW urge the focus to shift to "prevention and harm reduction."

"Until decriminalization has been achieved," the report states, "we urge officials to take strong measures to minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of existing laws and policies. The costs of the status quo, as this report shows, are too great to bear."

Why is this a big deal?

The ACLU and HRW aren't some rinky-dink activist groups with names like "Druggies United." They're huge human rights groups with international influence, and they've essentially said that the War on Drugs, declared during the Nixon administration, is backwards and wrong. 

So, yeah. Those years in D.A.R.E. were a waste -- the ACLU says so! 

Jails are filled with drug offenders

To get an idea of just how aggressive police are in catching drug offenders, someone is arrested for possession every 25 seconds in the US, according to the report. This amounts to 1.25 million arrests a year, and approximately 137,000 people are in jail for drug possession on any given day.

Since prison overcrowding is already a major problem, especially in states like California and Texas, easing up on drug offenders, who account for nearly 50% of prisoners behind bars, would help reduce taxpayer burdens and the social costs of tearing families apart. 

It costs people their futures

Aside from the heavy financial burden of trudging through the criminal justice system, which certainly takes a toll, people accused of drug-related felonies are essentially screwed for life. After a felony conviction, people are barred from getting many jobs, housing, school, welfare, voting, and more. It's hard to rehabilitate and start a new, clean life if there are no options for a legal job and affordable housing, Human Rights Watch argues. 

It doesn't curb drug sales

Perhaps the most alarming statistic from the report is that four times as many people are arrested for drug possession as they are for selling drugs. For as much as drug laws were supposed to curb drug sales (and therefore drug use), the people actually selling them aren't the ones behind bars.

It's important to make a distinction here: The report calls for decriminalization of drug use, not drug distribution. In many cases, current policies amount to prosecuting people suffering with addiction, and there's much more focus on the criminal side of drug possession than on treatment and recovery.

The kicker is that none of this has helped stop drug use. In fact, global use of marijuana has gone up 9%, cocaine 27%, and opiates a whopping 35% from 1998 to 2008, according to a UN estimate. So it sure doesn't seem like the drug war has deterred most people from using! They seem to find dealers just fine, too. 

The drug war is super lame for EVERYONE, not just people who use drugs

Drug arrests don't just affect the criminal justice system, but also taxpayers and the social fiber of the nation. The accused are predominantly people of color, and many of those who are convicted are found with tiny amounts of a given drug -- in Texas alone, 78% of people sentenced to jail for felony drug possession had less than a gram. The result is that prisons are disproportionately filled with minorities who barely had any drugs on them in the first place. 

Hopefully this strong call to action will have the government rethink how we treat drug offenders, and the toll its taking. And maybe one day in the not-too-distant future, making a run to the drugstore will have an entirely different meaning. 

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaStiehl.