In October, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union released a comprehensive study regarding drug crimes and punishments in the United States. The report examines “the human costs of criminalizing personal drug use and possession” in all fifty states. It examines arrest rates, the lingering effects of a conviction for a minor drug charge, and the disparities among the ways that drug laws are enforced in different neighborhoods and communities. The study concludes that the criminalization of drug possession destroys families and damages the nation’s economy.


The 196-page report is titled “Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States.” One of every nine arrests in the United States is for drug possession. Tess Borden, the report’s author, says, “Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use. These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence.”


What the study says about drug crimes and punishments in Texas is particularly troubling. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2012 and 2016, more than one hundred defendants in Texas drug possession cases received life sentences for possession alone – not even the sale of drugs – and at least seven of those sentences were for drug possession of four grams or less. In this state, anyone with two prior felony convictions for drug possession faces 25 years to life in prison for a third conviction for possession. Clearly, anyone facing a criminal drug charge in the Dallas-Fort Worth area will need the counsel of an experienced Dallas criminal defense attorney.

The report says that across the United States, every 25 seconds, a suspect is taken into custody for possessing drugs for personal use, accounting for more than 1.25 million arrests every year. At least 137,000 people are serving time behind bars in the United States for drug possession on any particular day, and about 48,000 of those offenders are serving their sentences in state prisons.


The authors of the study declare, “While governments have a legitimate interest in preventing problematic drug use, the criminal law is not the solution. Criminalizing drug use simply has not worked as a matter of practice.” The report “focuses on Texas because of extensive concerns around its pretrial detention and jail system, its statutory classification of felony possession by weight, and its relatively softer treatment of marijuana possession as compared to other drugs.”

An inmate called “Matthew” (whose name was changed to protect his privacy) is serving fifteen years behind bars in Texas for possession of a quantity of methamphetamine so miniscule that the laboratory could not even weigh or test it. Matthew’s earlier convictions were in other states and linked to his drug dependence. “They never offered me no help,” Matthew told Human Rights Watch. “I have been to prison five times, and it’s destroyed me.”


Criminalization makes it less likely that drug users will seek the treatment they need and thus more likely that they will become vulnerable to diseases and overdoses. “While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer,” Ms. Borden says. “Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment.”

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials routinely claim that drug laws and enforcement are focused on the “dealers” and “big traffickers” who profit while turning their customers into addicts. The statistics, however, tell another story. Four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as for selling drugs. Half of those arrested for drug possession in the United States are charged with nothing more than possessing marijuana for personal use. In 2015, according to the Human Rights Watch and ACLU data, police in the U.S. made more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.


Human Rights Watch and the ACLU are now saying that Congress and the state legislatures should decriminalize the personal use and possession of all drugs and invest resources in voluntary treatment options, educational campaigns, and other approaches to help people who are struggling with drug dependence. “Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources,” Ms. Borden said. “If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead.”

The Texas Health and Safety Code – which includes the state’s drug possession laws – categorizes illegal drugs into five penalty groups (marijuana is considered separately). While some of the substances included in the code are legal as prescription drugs, it is illegal to possess those drugs without a doctor’s prescription. Fraudulent possession of prescription drugs carries similar penalties to a criminal charge of possessing illegal narcotics, and the Texas Health and Safety Code establishes the punishments for illegal possession.


In the state of Texas, the criminal charge of drug “possession” has nothing to do with ownership. If police officers discover illegal drugs “in your possession” – even if the drugs do not belong to you – you may be arrested, charged, and prosecuted for possession. Depending on the amount of the cocaine, heroin, or other illegal substance, a conviction for drug possession in Texas is punishable from up to six months in jail to 99 years in prison. The drug possession penalties in Texas are complicated and depend on the classification and quantity of the drug.

Those penalties, as you might expect, are harsher for offenders facing a second or third offense for drug possession. And for immigrants in Texas, any conviction for drug possession could threaten your ability to remain in the United States. It doesn’t matter if you’re undocumented or if you hold a green card – a conviction for illegal drug possession can trigger deportation proceedings.


Until the law changes, anyone facing a drug possession charge in Texas will need to consult an experienced Dallas criminal defense attorney. The United States has been fighting a “war on drugs” – with little success – since the 1970s. Thousands of lives – and some would say society itself – have been damaged. State and federal lawmakers should read the recent Human Rights Watch-ACLU report and thoughtfully consider its recommendations for decriminalizing drug possession.