PURNELL: Drug Users Shouldn’t Go To Jail


Spence Purnell Contributor
Font Size:

Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that drug offenders shouldn’t be sent to prison. You can find a counterpoint here, where Heritage Foundation legal fellow Zack Smith and Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Charles Stimson argue that drug offenders should be held accountable for other crimes committed in pursuit of drugs.

After decades of America’s failed war on drugs, it was encouraging to hear President Joe Biden recently tell the nation, “No-one should go to jail for a drug offense, no-one should go to jail for the use of a drug.”

Biden’s career certainly isn’t one of a criminal justice reformer. He infamously co-authored the 1994 crime bill, which he called the “Biden crime bill” as he bragged about its harsher prison sentences and the thousands of additional prison cells needed to house Americans who would be jailed due to the law. To this day that legislation contributes to overcriminalization and mass incarceration plaguing the country.

And even now,  Biden is still wrong on the solutions. He says people arrested for drug-related offenses should be forced to go to rehab. “We should be in the position where we change the sentencing system to one that relates to a notion of making sure you focus on making sure there is rehabilitation,” Biden said during a CNN town hall last week.

Nevertheless, it is extremely important for the president of the United States to tell people that using and possessing drugs shouldn’t land anyone in jail. Likewise, Vice President Kamala Harris, who also contributed to the war on drugs in her role as California’s attorney general and as a prosecutor, has undergone somewhat of a transformation on the issue. “We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” Harris said during her 2020 vice presidential debate with Mike Pence.

Hopefully, Harris can convince Biden that’s the way to go. Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, but the Senate refused to take it up. Now, with Democrats in control of the Senate, they may be ready to put legislation on Biden’s desk.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people — particularly people of color,” wrote Senate Majority Leader Chuck  Schumer and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden in a recent statement. “Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country,” they continued.

They’re right.

Fourteen states have now legalized recreational marijuana and 35 states have some kind of legal medical marijuana program. And another 10 states have already started to push for marijuana legalization in 2021. Politicians are increasingly embracing the legalize and tax approach to marijuana. Since legalizing marijuana in 2018, California has generated over $1.8 billion in cannabis-related tax revenues. Colorado and Washington net roughly $300 million to $400 million per year in legal cannabis tax revenues. It is estimated that the national total for all state tax revenues generated from legal marijuana sales is roughly $6.9 billion.

Meanwhile, the alleged downsides of legalization haven’t panned out. Even as more adults use marijuana medicinally and recreationally, there have been no increases in youth marijuana use in states that have legalized it. Likewise, legalization has also not unleashed the supposed crime wave that many claimed it would. Researchers have not been able to find any changes in violent or property crimes in states that have legalized marijuana. The clear conclusion for policymakers is that marijuana legalization has not increased youth use or criminal behavior in any detectable way.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of Americans are still in state and federal prisons for nonviolent marijuana possession charges. And after serving their sentences, many millions more suffer from the stigma of having criminal records. Even a simple misdemeanor can prevent citizens from gaining employment, and access to crucial finance options, housing and public assistance. Some states like California and Illinois have successfully begun automating the expungement process for those convicted of drug possession charges that would no longer be illegal under new state laws. These efforts help restore justice to several hundred thousand people all at once and should be expanded.

Marijuana legalization is good public policy on many fronts: Adults should have the freedom of choice, marijuana provides important medical benefits, it offers the opportunity for large net gains in revenues for state and local governments, and it starts to restore justice to the millions of Americans harmed by the failed drug war. It took him far too long to reach this conclusion, but Biden is right when he says, “No one should go to jail for a drug offense.”

Spence Purnell is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank.