By Ryan Reaves, MPP Candidate 2018
Interacting with police can, at times, mean the difference between life and death. For cannabis users, whose lives have often necessitated regular involvement in illicit activities, police interactions likely occur more frequently. The risk may be greater still for drug users of color who live in communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. A fundamental principle of safe access for cannabis and other drugs is not simply to ensure that people have access to medicine that has been tested safe in a laboratory but to protect people from criminal enterprise and law enforcement, both of which fundamentally victimize drug users.
There is a long-standing history of over-policing in communities of color, who have been the disproportionate target of anti-drug policies and police activities. In a report produced by the ACLU research found that in 2010, “despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and Blacks. . . a Black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person – a disparity that increased 32.7% between 2001 and 2010. . . in the worst offending counties across the country, they were over 10, 15, even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county.”
When we consider drug arrests in their entirety, the data is alarming. The Drug Policy Alliance provides statistics on the War on Drugs which for 2016 found that in the United States there were more than 1.5 million drug-related arrests, of which 84% of arrests were for possession only and that people of color made up 57% of individuals incarcerated for drug-related offenses. The criminalization of drug use is a burden carried predominately by communities of color. A burden that comes with tragic, often deadly consequences.
Ristroph on Decriminalization
In “The Constitution of Police Violence” Alice Ristroph succinctly describes this process:
“Suspicion of any legal violation, even a civil offense, is sufficient to justify at least an investigative stop, and greater levels of suspicion justify longer or more intrusive seizures. Once police have made an initial seizure, even if just a brief investigative stop, nonsubmission by the suspect gives the police authority to use force. Indeed, actual nonsubmission is not even a prerequisite to the use of force. An officer who suspects nonsubmission—which may mean that the officer believes that the person seized may resist with violence, or otherwise may pose a danger to the officer or others, or simply isn’t cooperating—becomes empowered to use force against that person, even if the officer is mistaken. . . [when] the suspect is insufficiently cooperative, or perhaps only apparently noncooperative. . .the officer asserts greater authority, the seizure quickly escalates, and the officer concludes that he is in danger. He kills the suspect.”
As we better understand the policies which define police use of force procedures, the real danger of the racially disproportionate criminalization of drug use becomes clearer. Without safe access, an opiate addict must rely on street dealers for a consistent supply of drugs. A white opiate addict, in a predominately white neighborhood, buying from a white dealer, is far less likely to ever encounter a police confrontation specific to their illicit drug use. A person of color, with the same opiate addiction, living in a community of color, buying from another person of color, is far more likely to encounter a police confrontation specific to their illicit drug use. Once an officer’s suspicion is fulfilled, an investigative stop has occurred, and an interaction escalates into a seizure, an officers suspicion of nonsubmission can quickly and easily lead to the deadly use of force. White drug users do not experience the same consistent threat of state violence that drug users of color experience regularly.
Ristroph finds that the “straightforward decriminalization of many offenses” would “constrain police force ex-ante by reducing the overall frequency of seizures (and near-seizures)”. In restricting “near-seizures” and traffic stops by only making a seizure “when the particular offense warrants immediate detention and investigation”, denies police the option of making “sweeps and pretextual stops that are key tactical maneuvers in the war on drugs” (2017, 1240). The decriminalization of drug use could save lives simply by reducing the frequency at which drug users engage with police.
Early Success in States Decriminalizing Cannabis
A report by the Drug Policy Alliance provides some of the most current analysis on cannabis legalization available now. The findings show that decriminalization has thus far been successful at significantly reducing arrest rates without attributing to higher rates of use by young people. The findings also suggest that 1) the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis has been linked to lower rates of opioid-related harm 2) there is no correlation between legalization and vehicle crash rates, with DUI arrests even falling in Colorado and Washington, and 3) cannabis tax revenues are exceeding initial estimates and being predominantly allocated for social benefit.
In jurisdictions, that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis, arrests have plummeted. Per the report, Colorado experienced a 49% decrease in the number of cannabis-related arrests for possession and sales/manufacturing in 2012 to 2013. In Oregon, from 2013 to 2016, arrests decreased by 96%. This has, in turn, reduced the number of cannabis-related court-filings, saving these states a significant amount of money. “The total number of low-level marijuana court filings in Washington fell by 98% between 2011 and 2015” and 81% in Colorado from 2012 to 2015. Meanwhile, early data shows no correlation between expanding safe access and increased use by young people. Expanding safe access to cannabis reduces the public demand for black market access, limiting the potential point-of-sales contact of cannabis and minors.
Decriminalization with safe access is a harm reduction strategy. One of the more surprising findings in the study shows a link between cannabis legalization and opiate mortality rates. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that “in states with medical marijuana access, overdose mortality rates are almost 25% lower than in states with no legal access to marijuana and the reductions in mortality rates [have] strengthened over time. . . legal access to medical marijuana has been associated with a 23% reduction in opioid dependence or abuse-related hospitalizations and 15% fewer opioid treatment admissions”. Expanding safe access to cannabis seems to have a positive substitution effect for opiate users who can use cannabis as a lower-risk alternative to opiates and for patients managing chronic pain who can “transition away from opioids. . . or supplement marijuana so they can use fewer opioids”.
We can have a more open and honest dialogue around drug use in our society. But we cannot engage in this culture until we embrace harm reduction in our criminal justice policies. We cannot engage in a more compassionate culture while we continue to disproportionately criminalize drug users and terrorize communities of color with aggressive and dangerous police activities. Drug users are only criminals by design. Decriminalizing drug use while expanding safe access and psychological support services are harm reduction strategies for abating both state and criminal violence against communities harmed by The War on Drugs.
Ryan is a 2018 MPP Candidate at the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy. His areas of interest include drug policy reform, safe access advocacy, and harm reduction methodology.