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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Every 25 Seconds?!

12 October 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

“Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use.” us0916 graphic1 01

Last week, the ACLU of Utah issued a statement on Operation Diversion, a recent joint effort of multiple Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County agencies, as well as private substance abuse treatment providers, to deal with drug sales and use in the Rio Grande/Pioneer Park area of Salt Lake.  

The ACLU of Utah observed no specific due process violations associated with Operation Diversion. The law enforcement operation did not appear to be overly militarized. Individuals who were arrested for buying drugs were offered immediate treatment beds, paid for through County funds.

But none of these observations should be interpreted as approval for how our society – nationwide, statewide and in our capitol city – treats substance abuse disorder and drug addiction as a criminal justice problem…instead of the public health problem it actually is.

This morning, the national ACLU and Human Rights Watch jointly issued “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States,” a devastating report on how enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.

The report’s conclusion? “State legislatures and Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs,” and “until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices.”

Utah’s state leaders made some progress two years ago, when the legislature reduced the penalty for simple drug possession from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor. We should continue moving forward with the decriminalization of marijuana for personal medical use, as has been proposed in recent years by both state legislators and patient advocates. But these efforts don’t go nearly far enough to address what we now know to be the disastrous consequences of criminalizing drug use. Neither do arrest/prosecution-oriented efforts like “Operation Diversion.”  

Offering immediately available treatment beds to individuals struggling with addiction, paid for with public dollars, is a good first step. However, as long as an arrest continues to be the point of entry for treatment, with criminal prosecution as the ultimate threat, we are still responding – inappropriately- to drug use and abuse as a criminal issue rather than as a public health issue.

Processing addicted and suffering people through the criminal justice system has done nothing to curb drug use in the United States. Rather, this approach has created countless human tragedies above and beyond those related to drug addiction.

The next time we attempt something like “Operation Diversion” in Utah, let’s make it a true diversion, without punishing people who aren’t ready for treatment, or who fail at treatment, with criminal charges for personal drug possession and use. Let’s not force our over-worked police officers to be the “point of the spear” for such an operation, either. Treatment of drug addiction and substance use disorder should be the responsibility of our social workers, case managers and health department employees.

“Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States” is available at: https://www.hrw.org/node/294820/

Video: http://media.hrw.org/index.asp?ID=EBMUE&lang=ENG&showEmbargoed=true