ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WTSP) – As public opinion on drug policies slowly shifts from criminalizing users to helping treat their addiction, a new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch shows Pinellas County has one of the highest rates of drug possession arrests in the state, particularly when it comes to people of color.
Blacks are nearly five times as likely as whites to be arrested in Pinellas County for having drugs, although research shows blacks are not more likely than whites to use illegal substances.
ACLU and Human Rights Watch officials point to research that shows nationwide, law enforcement will often target certain neighborhoods where drug sales happen openly because enforcement is easier in those places where illegal activity is happening in the open.
As a result of the growing heroin and prescription drug epidemic, policymakers are more frequently calling for more compassionate approaches to treating drug users. However, while many advocacy groups agree compassion and prevention are better for society than criminalization, there are questions along racial lines about who benefits from decriminalization and who doesn’t.
During the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s that ravaged predominately black, inner-city communities and fueled crime, there was little help for users. People caught with drugs were harshly penalized by the law.
ACLU and Human Rights officials say it is clear the old approach to the “war on drugs” has failed and there needs to be more meaningful criminal justice reform.