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ACLU Policy: Decriminalization of Drugs

adopted April 1994

The ACLU advocates full and complete decriminalization of the use, possession, manufacture and distribution of drugs.

Any attempt to address the public health problem of drug abuse through the criminal law is inappropriate, ineffective, and leads to widespread violations of privacy and other civil liberties.

Criminalizing the use, possession, manufacturing and distribution of drugs violates the principle that the criminal law may not be used to protect individuals from the consequences of their own autonomous choices or to impose upon those individuals a majoritarian conception of morality and responsibility. If a drug user performs an action that does harm in any way legitimately cognizable by the state, that conduct may be criminalized directly.

Prohibition of sale, manufacture and distribution of drugs constitutes an indirect means of prohibiting the use which is its main purpose and therefore violates autonomy interests.

Enforcement of laws criminalizing possession, use, manufacture or distribution of drugs engender violations of civil liberties. Because drug enforcement is aimed at behavior which is inherently difficult to detect and does not involve a compaining "victim," it necessarily relies on law enforcement techniques -- such as use of undercover operations, arbitrary or invasive testing procedures, random or dragnet seizures, and similar measures -- that raise serious civil liberties concerns. These enforcement techniques lead in practice to widespread violations of civil liberties guarantees, including those secured by the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The regime of drug prohibition causes other harms as well. The drug laws imprison a multitude of otherwise law-abiding people, a disproportionate number of whom are poor or of color, for nonviolent acts directed at no one but themselves. Instead of achieving its goal of eliminating drugs, drug prohibition subsidizes the illegal drug industry by inflating prices. Because drugs are sold on the black market, lack of quality control and the need for secrecy cause the deaths of those who consume adulterated drugs, who contract diseases from sharing drug paraphernalia, and who suffer from the violence spawned by drug prohibition.

While the government may not criminalize the manufacture and sale of drugs per se, the government may regulate the manufacture and sale for medical, public health, and consumer information and protection.

[Board Minutes, April 8-9, 1994]


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