May 8, 2019 - Health

Scoop: Philly prosecutor may stop charging drug users as criminals

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one of the most progressive district attorneys in the country, told "Axios on HBO" that he is "very close" to implementing a policy that would relax the penalties for drug possession laws.

Why it matters: This would be one of the first policies of its kind in the U.S. If it leads to more cities adopting similar policies addressing drug possession offenses with treatment instead of incarceration, it could fundamentally change the nation's approach to addiction and the war on drugs.

  • "Possession is different than dealing," Krasner said in an interview for an upcoming episode of "Axios on HBO." "We are talking about people who are using drugs. The vast majority of them suffering from addiction. I do not see value in convicting people like that."

How it would work: The Philadelphia policy has not been finalized, and there is no timeline for rollout yet. The plan is for it to be a diversion system, which means anyone arrested or charged for having small amounts of illicit substances would not face incarceration or having a criminal record.

  • Instead, they may have to attend a treatment program or potentially participate in community service, according to Krasner's office.
  • As district attorney, Krasner has the power to decide when to charge someone with a crime, to determine the severity of the charges and suggest prison terms.
  • His policy would not shield offenders from federal law enforcement agents, such as those from the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Widney Brown, managing director of policy at Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for decriminalization in the U.S. And the policy could be done away with if a new district attorney is elected in a few years.

Between the lines: Krasner said the criminalization of drug possession makes it harder for people to get educational loans, buy homes and get a job. In Pennsylvania, a first time offense of possession of small amounts of heroin or cocaine can result in a year behind bars and/or thousands of dollars worth of fines.

It seems to me to make a lot more sense to treat that as a medical issue and get them into treatment to hold them accountable in ways that do not require a conviction.
— Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner

The big picture: Marijuana legalization is being increasingly debated, and now — amid the opioid crisis — the conversation is starting to turn to new ways to handle all illegal drug possession.

  • States such as Oregon, California and Utah have recently reduced all drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
  • Thirty-six U.S. jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, have adopted a drug crime diversion pilot program called LEAD. It gives law enforcement the option not to book people for low-level crimes who meet certain qualifications, but to put them in treatment programs instead — similar to the approach Krasner is considering, except optional and earlier in the criminal justice process.

What to watch: Brown said that these kinds of diversion programs are an important step toward decriminalization. But she said there are also potential dangers in having people in drug treatment involuntarily, and jurisdictions must be careful about how they run those programs.

The other side: Opponents of decriminalization argue that by lessening the consequences for drug use, more people will do drugs, which they say will fuel addiction, drug dealing networks and other crime.

Around the world:

  • In 2001, Portugal became the first European nation to decriminalize all drug possession. Since then, the nation has seen the rate of overdose deaths and cases of HIV or AIDS among drug users plummet, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance. The incarceration rate for drug crimes also fell significantly.
  • Earlier this year, the UN chief executives board, which represents 31 UN agencies, endorsed the decriminalization of drug possession.

The bottom line: Philadelphia could become the trailblazer for the next steps in decriminalizing drug use — and we'll learn whether it solves problems or leads to new ones.

"Axios on HBO" Season 2 premieres June 2.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that this would be one of the first policies of its kind, not the first.

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