Drug decriminalization in Maryland and across the US has great promise for easing both the huge public cost of mass incarceration and the social and individual impacts that drugs and their consequences have. Veronica Wright outlines her introduction to the issue and how decriminalization -- with other social provision -- has worked well abroad and in other states, and can work in Maryland. She has initiated a forum on the topic Sept. 15 at Montgomery College/Germantown.
/By Veronica Wright/ My interest in drug decriminalization is new. Five years ago, I did not know anything about mass incarceration, the federal industrial prison complex, opioids, or the disparate inequities of our federal and state drug laws. However, when my cousin passed away two years ago I became more aware of the cycle of drug addiction.
My cousin, Duane, recovered from drug addiction and spent a short time in jail. His incarceration was the result of many years battling substance abuse. It was at his funeral where I met his son, Desmond and realized that incarceration and drug addiction had such a generational impact. Duane’s past and Desmond’s future inspired me to create a community where other young black men do not fall victim to the social ills of mass incarceration and an inequitable criminal justice system. This is why I am organizing a public forum on the topic of drug decriminalization on 15 September 2018 from 10 a.m. to noon on the Germantown campus of Montgomery College.
The tides are turning and more people are becoming receptive to the idea of drug decriminalization. They are beginning to understand the harsh realities of the opioid crisis and I believe there is more of an interest on how drug decriminalization can be a window of opportunity for those families struggling with addiction. In 2017, Maryland passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which restructures sentences for low-level property and drug offenders. For example, the law eliminates mandatory minimums and allows for those in possession of drugs at the time of arrest to receive drug treatment instead of incarceration. This is a step in the right direction because people need to know that addiction is not a crime, it is a disease.
Maryland is not alone in the lessening of criminal penalties in relation to drug possession. Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. According to a 2015 report from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal has the lowest rate of drug-induced death in Western Europe with 6 deaths per million in comparison to the US rate of 312 deaths per million people between the ages of 15 to 64. One might ask, how did Portugal achieve this kind of success? Drug dealers still go to jail but those in possession of small quantities (10 day supply) at the time of arrest are sent to a “Dissuasion Commission” where they meet with a lawyer, a doctor and a social worker.
In addition, Portugal did not solely rely on the passage of their drug decriminalization laws to reduce overdose rates; they also had free public healthcare where medicated assisted treatment is standard. An increase in crime did not accompany their decriminalization efforts. Much of this can be attributed to the country’s strict gun control laws. Opioid painkillers are not prescribed for routine use and a strong economy provided well paying jobs and reduced issues related to poverty. From this perspective Portugal is a model of success and while Maryland has begun to follow the footsteps of Portugal in small ways, the US has yet to follow suit.
If Portugal’s success is not enough to support drug decriminalization then perhaps the effects of mass incarceration will have some bearing. The number of people being incarcerated is steadily increasing. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of those incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million. To complicate matters, there are racial disparities as to who goes to prison. In 2015, African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population and comprised 56% of all incarcerated people. In comparison to other countries, the US has the highest such disparities in the world.
Additionally, the US drug laws are a complicated mess and the effects create collateral consequences. Michelle Alexander said it best in her book, The New Jim Crow, when she wrote: “once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal.” A felony prohibits one from being able to qualify for food stamps, public housing and better paying jobs. All of these effects contribute to recidivism due to the inability of one to build a productive life, to be a part of mainstream society and the economy. If we are to reverse the effects of mass incarceration, we must raise awareness about drug decriminalization and other criminal justice reforms.
Please join me on 15 September 2018 to spread the word about drug decriminalization. The theme of my forum will be: Discussing Drug Decriminalization: Cannabis to Opioids. I believe this is an issue that demands attention and respect and needs to be placed into the hands of everyday people. We cannot rely on Congress to initiate change on this matter; instead, we must have the political will and foresight to do it ourselves.
Veronica Wright, M.S., MBA, is a Change Advocate for Criminal Justice Reform