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PORTLAND, ME – JULY 4: Portland Fire Deputy Chief Terry Walsh responds to a possible heroin overdose by an 18-year-old male in Portland, ME on July 4, 2015. Over the years, calls of overdose and related “cardiac arrest” calls have increased and become routine in the city. EMS paramedics have saved countless lives by administering Narcan (aka Naloxone) a medication that counteracts opiod especially in overdose situations. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post/ Getty Images)

health | 01.01.2022

Arrests do not decrease drug use, report finds

States that arrest a lot of people have the same rate of drug use as states that don’t.

A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts reiterates important findings that drug arrests are not associated with lower levels of drug misuse. These findings were originally sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis last June, and have now been re-introduced following President Trump’s recently stated support for punishing drug dealers with the death penalty.

“The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time,” said Trump in a speech last week at a Pennsylvania rally.

Trump previously suggested the death penalty as a way to punish traffickers for the United States’ unprecedented rates of opioid use disorders and overdose deaths, which has resulted in the most deadly drug crisis in the country’s history. Many experts believe that these types of harsh penalties actually bolster these illicit businesses by eliminating competition for more competent traffickers, who are also able to increase their prices to account for the heightened risk.

Pew’s report compares states with high rates of drug arrests, like Tennessee, to states with comparably low rates of drug arrests, finding that rates of reported drug use are virtually identical. Pew’s report also looked at instances where drug offenders had their prison terms retroactively shortened, finding no increase in recidivism rates. Overall, the report finds “no relationship” between drug arrests and states’ drug problems. 

The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Rates of imprisonment have risen quickly over the past few decades. Currently, about 300,000 inmates in the United States are serving time for drug-related crimes. In 1980, this number was less than 25,000. In 2016, the number of drug arrests for marijuana possession alone was 574,641, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. That’s 89 percent of the total number of drug arrests for violation of marijuana laws.

Pew’s report also finds that the amount of time inmates are serving in prison for drug-related crimes has increased in the last few decades. Between 1990 and 2009, the average time that drug-offenders spent in state prisons rose by 36 percent, according to the report. In federal prisons, between the years of 1988 and 2012, the length of inmates’ sentences rose by 153 percent.

Experts believe that drug arrests have always been less of an effort to reduce drug use than a method for police agencies and banks to make profits, and politicians to gain support. Louisiana, for example, one of the states analyzed by Pew, was found to imprison significantly more drug-offenders than any other U.S. state. Law-enforcement officers in Louisiana were previously found to have used civil forfeiture laws to confiscate money from potential criminals, like drug users, which was then put towards local police departments’ vacation funds.

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HAGERSTOWN, MD – JAN 29: We follow Troy Garver, a Westminster, MD man who was hooked on OxyCodone and jailed for selling morphine pills. He has now has a chance to avoid going back to jail by staying clean and participating in a program where he gets monthly treatments of the drug vivitrol. Vivitrol is a drug that can potentially revolutionize the way opiate addiction is treated in this country. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/ Getty Images)

Police departments also receive federal funding depending on the number of arrests they make. Law enforcement officers have taken advantage of drug prohibition to organize schemes like “Operation Pipeline” that allow the police to randomly search civilians, and make drug arrests based on low-level crimes like marijuana possession. Racial profiling and targeting was also a major component of this drug-enforcement operation.

Pew’s report is based on their assessment of 2014 data, as collected by federal and state law enforcement and correctional agencies like the Federal Bureau of Prisons and governmental healthcare agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pew’s analysis compared the rates of imprisonment for drug-crimes to those of drug arrests, overdose fatalities, and self-reported use.

These findings suggest that the most effective ways to address drug misuse include community-oriented law enforcement efforts and overdose prevention training, alternative sentencing (such as community service time that doesn’t involve incarceration), providing treatment options, and proactively identifying people who are at higher risk for developing substance use disorders.

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