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Drug Policy Alliance: Time to Decriminalize, NYC Racial Disparities Remain

The Drug Policy Alliance, a leading advocacy group, released a report Tuesday calling for an end to criminal penalties for drug use and possession. Once considered a radical approach, the position in the DPA report has already won the endorsement of more than 30 organizations and key stakeholders. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Latino Justice PRLDEF, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and various others have backed the report’s call for decriminalization, a policy that essentially removes the threat of arrest or criminal penalties in cases of simple possession.

The widespread support for decriminalization comes at a crucial time, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions call for ramping up the war on drugs in the face of the nation’s growing opioid epidemic.

But despite the Trump administration’s shift toward more punative policies, Jag Davies, DPA’s communications director, said most Americans don’t realize how close to decriminalization many state policies already are.

“The US is closer to decriminalizing drugs than most people think, even in a red state like South Carolina,” he said on a conference call with reporters, noting that, in terms of public opinion, polls of presidential primary voters last year found that most support ending arrests for drug consumption and possession.

States included in the study were Maine (with 64% percent in favor of ending arrests), New Hampshire (66%), and South Carolina (59%).

“Removing criminal penalties for drug use and possession will increase opportunities for people to get help,” said Emily Kaltenbach, the DPA’s senior director of national criminal justice strategy. “Today, people who need drug treatment or medical assistance may avoid it in order to hide their drug use.  If we decriminalize drugs, people can come out of the shadows and get the help they need.”

Extreme Racial Disparities Persist in New York Possession Arrests

The need to remove criminal penalties for cannabis consumption and possession persists in New York City, according to a second DPA report released today. It shows that arrests for marijuana possession under Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to be marked by high racial disparities.

The report found that during the first three years of the De Blasio administration, the NYPD made more than 60,000 criminal arrests for cannabis possession. Nearly 86% of those arrests were of black or Latino individuals.

“We believe it’s time for a new approach, and that approach shouldn’t involve criminalizing New York’s most vulnerable populations.”

New York residents living in public housing constituted the single largest group of people arrested. Last year, in 2016, the NYPD housing police made 21% of the city’s 18,121 arrests for cannabis possession. Of those, 92% of arrests were of black or Latino residents.

The two groups make up about half the city’s population but account for 66% of the cannabis possession arrests. Of the city’s 76 neighborhood police precincts, black or Latino residents make up a majority in 37.

“Prohibition has played a significant role in devastating low-income communities of color through racially biased enforcement and has often come with steep collateral consequences,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of the community activist group Vocal NY. “We believe it’s time for a new approach, and that approach shouldn’t involve criminalizing New York’s most vulnerable populations.”

The following groups and individuals have endorsed the Drug Policy Alliance’s report, “It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession”:

  • A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • American Friends Service Committee Colorado
  • Broken No More
  • Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice
  • Center for Living and Learning
  • Centro Cáritas de Formación
  • Clergy for a New Drug Policy
  • Community Oriented Correctional Health Services
  • CURB Prison Spending
  • DanceSafe
  • Denver Justice Project
  • Drug Policy Australia
  • Drug Policy Forum of Hawai’i
  • Drug Truth Network
  • Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP)
  • Harm Reduction Action Center
  • Harm Reduction Australia
  • Iglesia Evangélica Protestante de El Salvador
  • Intercambios Asociación Civil
  • International Centre for Science in Drug Policy
  • International Drug Policy Coalition
  • Junot Díaz
  • Latino Justice PRLDEF
  • Law Enforcement Action Partnership
  • Moms United to End the War on Drugs
  • National Advocates for Pregnant Women
  • New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
  • Progress Now NM
  • Protect Families First
  • Release
  • Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
  • StopTheDrugWar.org
  • Students for Sensible Drug Policy
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation
  • Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago
  • Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
  • Women With a Vision

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Gage Peake

Gage Peake is a former staff writer for Leafly, where he specialized in data journalism, sports, and breaking news coverage. He's a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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