Testimony Regarding Decriminalization

Monday, September 27, 2021 9:00am

Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Recovery

Submitted by: Shaleen Title, Distinguished Cannabis Policy Practitioner in Residence, The Ohio State University College of Law Drug Enforcement and Policy Center Former Commissioner, Cannabis Control Commission (2017-2020)

Dear Chairman Cyr, Chairman Madaro, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this act relative to harm reduction and racial justice. I want to begin by commending Chairman Cyr as well as Representatives Miranda and Connolly for their leadership on this issue, and by expressing my gratitude to all of you for your consideration. Making thoughtful decisions about drug policy can require confronting and overcoming years of inaccurate conditioning in how we have been led to think about people who use drugs, and that can be an uncomfortable process. Thank you for engaging in it.

Criminalizing people for using and possessing drugs is harmful. Handcuffing people and ruining nearly every aspect of their lives – employment, education, housing, immigration, benefits – isn’t just cruel, it also doesn’t work. What does work is providing support. Sometimes that means directly providing treatment for people who need it, though it can often mean other types of support. The right approach should be determined through an individual needs screening, conducted by practitioners trained in the use of evidence-based, culturally and gender competent, trauma-informed practices like the type that bill provides for as a replacement to arrest and incarceration.

Because no one can argue that our current system works, people sometimes oppose support-based reforms by speculating that if we stop criminalizing people for drugs, things will get worse – substance use disorder rates might increase, for example, or crime might go up. It used to be difficult to argue against this because of a lack of real-world data. However, we now know from Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession 20 years ago, that arrests, incarceration, overdose deaths, and other harms all go down following decriminalization. We also know, from Oregon’s decriminalization measure that went into effect this year, that a workable model exists to replace our cruel and inhumane war on drugs with a system that instead connects people who possess drugs for personal use with crucial health and support services.

The other argument people sometimes make in defense of our current drug laws is that these laws are not enforced anyway and that “no one” is arrested for simple possession. First, this is false: Thousands of people are arrested for drug offenses in Massachusetts every year, the majority for possession. Second, even if their claim were true, I don’t need to explain why it’s fundamentally unjust to have a law on the books that is enforced only sometimes, at police and prosecutors’ discretion. When opponents of reform suggest that “no one” is being arrested for drug possession, that is the model they are supporting. If we all agree that criminal penalties should be removed for drug use and possession, then it follows that those penalties should be removed from our statutes.

The last thing people say when they wish to continue criminalizing and controlling people who use drugs is that we don’t have the necessary funds to offer support services. In Massachusetts, this is false. The Massachusetts marijuana market surpassed $2 billion this month, with the state collecting 17% in total taxes. The public cannot see where that money is going, but out of the appropriations we can follow, the vast majority is already being allocated to the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. In other words, a mechanism to fund substance abuse services through the state’s rapidly growing cannabis tax revenue already exists. What’s required now is to remove the criminal penalties for drug possession and replace them with access to support services.

More than a hundred years ago, Massachusetts was the first state in the country to criminalize cannabis, which it called “Indian hemp.” Whether a substance is criminalized has nothing to do with science, evidence, or how dangerous the substance is. It has to do with whether that drug was associated with Indigenous or Indian or Chinese or Mexican or other cultures in a way that could be used to scapegoat and subjugate Black and Brown people. When we acknowledge that, we can understand why, decades later, every study on the subject consistently shows that drug laws have been and continue to be enforced with massive racial disparities. These disparities have deep lasting consequences for communities for color both nationally and in Massachusetts. Handcuffs and cages should never have been brought into the equation for people who use and possess drugs. They are not tools of rehabilitation. The only reason they were was so they could be used as a tool to control and harm people of color. You now have the opportunity to right that generations-old wrong.