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More States Soften Approach to Low-Level Drug Use

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A growing number of states are changing their approach to low-level drug users, emphasizing treatment instead of incarceration, according to The Washington Post. The change is a result of both reduced budgets and shifting views on drug use.

One-third of states have Good Samaritan laws, designed to prevent drug overdose deaths. The laws grant limited immunity to people who seek help for someone who has overdosed. In addition, 17 states have expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone. The treatment, sold under the brand name Narcan, has been used for many years by paramedics and doctors in emergency rooms. It is administered by nasal spray. The medication blocks the ability of heroin or opioid painkillers to attach to brain cells. The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy says it is encouraging police departments to carry Narcan.

At least 30 states have modified penalties for drug crimes since 2009. Many of these states have repealed or reduced mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level drug offenses, the article notes.

“States in particular are starting to make much bigger distinctions between personal use and commercial activity,’’ said Adam Gelb, Director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project. He noted some states have recently increased penalties for large-scale drug sales, while reducing them for drug possession.

The federal government is also changing its approach to low-level drug crimes. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified in favor of changing federal guidelines to reduce the average sentence for drug dealers. He told the United States Sentencing Commission the Obama Administration supports changing guidelines to reduce the average drug sentence by about one year, from 62 months to 51 months.

The proposed changes would reduce the federal prison population by about 6,550 inmates over the next five years, the article notes. Currently, half of the 215,000 inmates in the federal prison system are serving time for drug crimes.

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