Criminalization of drug possession punishes the disease of addiction

Two human rights organizations just published a significant report on the impact and ethics of making it a crime to possess or use drugs illegally, often with no intention of selling or distributing the substance or while suffering from addiction. The October 2016 report concludes that the war on drugs waged by aggressive criminal prosecution in cases of personal use and possession has been a failure.

Instead, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union propose significant criminal justice reform at the federal and state levels to focus on safety, treatment and support for people fighting drug addiction, rather than the current emphasis on arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for personal drug possession and use.

The report, available online here, says that every 25 seconds someone in our country is arrested for personal drug possession, more arrests than for any other criminal act. The report presents the amazing statistic that there are more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes nationally.

The impact of arrest, detention, conviction, imprisonment, probation, parole and living with a criminal record for this nonviolent crime can be devastating and life changing.

Some of the negative consequences - which disproportionately fall on defendants with lower incomes and who are of color - can include:

  • Major debt from fees, fines and legal fees
  • Job loss and difficulty finding work because of a criminal record
  • Continuation of drug addiction after receiving inadequate or no treatment
  • Inability to receive student loans, housing, public benefits and more
  • Loss of the right to vote or of jury service, depending on the circumstances
  • Negative impact on family and personal relationships and on parental involvement
  • Severe stress and concern about loved ones while incarcerated
  • Restrictions on driving privileges
  • Social stigma
  • Immigration complications

Florida is one of four states the writers included in their extensive research. Some findings about our area include:

Pinellas County has the fifth-highest arrest rate for drug possession despite drug-use rates varying little among Florida counties.

Pinellas County prosecutors declined to prosecute about one-quarter of drug possession cases as compared to Polk County prosecutors, who declined prosecution 57 percent of the time.

Three-quarters of felony drug possession convictions statewide between 2010 and 2015 were of people with no or minor criminal histories, yet almost 85 percent of them were imprisoned as part of their sentences.

The report recommends that we rethink as a society how we handle drug use, possession and addiction, ultimately decriminalizing this act on the federal and state levels and refocusing on drug-use prevention, education and treatment. The writers believe that the current approach violates the human rights of health and privacy as well as of the right to punishment proportionate to the crime.

A handful of states have decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. In our area, two local communities have also done so: Tampa and Port Richie. In those cities, police now have discretion in most situations to charge an adult possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana with a citation and fine, rather than with a misdemeanor under state law.

Under Florida state law, unlawful possession of drugs is either a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the drug, amount and other factors, and conviction can result in significant prison time and have other negative consequences. Also, marijuana is still a federal Schedule I drug.

Criminal defense attorney Jason Rogozinski of Rogo Law with offices in Plant City and Tampa, Florida, vigorously and aggressively defends his clients against a wide variety of drug charges.