States Rethinking Drug PolicySeptember 24, 2012

After decades of sending thousands of people to prison for drug use, states are rethinking their drug policies.

Some states in recent years have eliminated harsh mandatory prison terms for drug possession and recognized that drug use and addiction is more appropriately confronted as a health problem rather than a crime problem.

The tremendous increase in incarceration over the past 40 years is largely explained by the incarceration of minor drug users. At the federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980.

Of the 1,638,846 people arrested in 2010 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges, 853,838 (52%) were arrested for a marijuana law violation, and 88% of those charged with marijuana law violations were arrested for possession only, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

This November, voters in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington will consider ballot measures to decriminalize and regulate marijuana, much as alcohol and tobacco are taxed and regulated.

Polls indicate support in Colorado and Washington for decriminalizing marijuana. A July poll by Survey USA of 630 registered voters in Washington state said 55 percent backed the marijuana decriminalization ballot measure.

Last week, a poll found that Colorado's Amendment 64 has the support of 51 percent of likely voters surveyed, compared with 40 percent opposed. Across every income bracket and in every age group except those 65 and older, more voters told pollsters they support the measure than oppose it, though some of the leads fall within the 4-percentage-point margin of error.

California voters also have the opportunity this November to limit California's "Three Strikes" law to people convicted of violent crimes. Passing Proposition 36 would save the cash-strapped state over $100 million per year by reducing the mounting cost of incarcerating aging nonviolent inmates, most of whom were sentenced for drug offenses.

Richard Branson, who works with the Global Commission on Drug Policy and Drug Policy Alliance, organizations that promote alternatives to current drug policy, interviewed EJI's Bryan Stevenson about the impact of drug laws on mass incarceration in the U.S. “The prison population in the United States in 1972 was 300,000 people," Stevenson said. “Today it’s 2.3 million, and a lot of that has been of course a part of the drug policy.”