In her blog “America’s Opioid Epidemic: A Rights-Based Approach”, Juliet Sorensen argues that the United States must commit “resources to proven interventions and the highest attainable standard of care” to turnaround an overdose crisis that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. While we agree with Sorensen’s call for more funds, we would argue that a measure that does not require resources—indeed, that would free them up—should be a core element of a rights-based approach to this crisis: decriminalizing drug possession for personal use.
Although the public discourse increasingly treats drug use as a public health issue, legally it continues to constitute a criminal offense in all of the United States. Indeed, law enforcement agencies enforce these criminal statutes with vigor: a joint American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch report published in 2016 found that every 25 seconds someone is arrested in the United States simply for possessing a drug for their personal use. Additionally, more than one in nine arrests made by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to a total of 1.25 million arrests each year.
From a human rights perspective, criminalization of drug use per se is inherently problematic as it infringes on people’s right to autonomy and privacy for private behavior. While the government has good reason to discourage drug use given the health and other harms it can cause, the imposition of criminal sanctions is a disproportionate measure when that private behavior causes no harm to others. It is thus inconsistent with human rights norms.