Lawmakers Possess the Power to Fix the Broken Drug Legal Guidelines, Says Craig DeRoche

Legislators have spent years increasing the severity of penalties for possessing illegal medicine, despite some funding allocated to rehabilitation or diversion programs.

If the strategy had worked, arrests for drug possession would have decreased. Drug possession is still widespread and opioid overdoses are killing 1 person every 16 minutes.


Jail Fellowship has prepared “The Drug Report”: A Review of America’s Disparate Penalties for Possession of Marijuana, Heroin, Cocaine, and Fentanyl. The report looks at penalties across state and federal jurisdictions. Based on our findings, Jail Fellowship is calling for a restorative approach that prevents misuse of drugs, breaks the habit cycle, and invests constant accountability, including treatment and rehabilitation.

Just geography

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Our analysis revealed that the penalties for drug possession vary widely by location. In Colorado, an adult can possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. However, in Utah, this is a misdemeanor crime that carries a jail sentence of six months and a fine of up to $1,000.

The image is further complicated by the different federal penalties.


Do people who use drugs care about federal enforcement of drug laws? Federal penalties for marijuana possession remain unchanged, even though some states have legalized it and clients are using more of it. Customers may not have even considered federal penalties when making their choices.

A person who uses illegal medicine may also find it difficult to understand the penalties for their actions at any particular location. The confusion that results from these increased penalties undermines their supposed deterrent effect. People who don’t understand the law tend to ignore it. If the federal government wants people to take drug laws more seriously, legislators should embrace their creativity when crafting policy responses to drug possession.

Increase diversionary expenditure

Drug policies that are harsh do not work because they start with the wrong premise. Addiction is not always the primary problem that a person faces. Drug abuse can be a misguided attempt to solve or deal with a deeper problem, such as despair, PTSD or low self-worth.

Reforms in the state have shown that diverting a person from prison to a restorative community can be highly effective. More people can break free from their habits in a program where they work through their problems and change their behavior.

We tell people who are addicted to medicine that their continued use of equipment is unproductive and unhealthy. We should also acknowledge that harsh penalties for possession of drugs are not good for society. They are not effective. We want better options. We want higher options.

Restorative strategies to drug laws

Jail Fellowship does not endorse or support the use of medicine for recreational purposes, but our ministry strives to ensure that everyone who has broken the law is treated with justice and given a chance to restore. We want incarcerated individuals to discover freedom from their underlying problems so that they will by no means again really feel compelled use medicine or break the law.

We support treating drug possession through different types of accountability. It is important that the default approach aims to rehabilitate people so they can move on to a healthy, law-abiding life while avoiding criminal charges where possible. The legislators should reexamine their current felony sentences and focus on proportional responses to address the issues that lead to illegal drug use and addiction.

Just as people are treated, so should justice

Anyone who wants to be free from drug addiction should have the opportunity to do so. The vicious cycle of drug abuse and imprisonment should end.

The nation, the communities and those who abuse medicine deserve a system of justice that is able to restore — a system which can succeed where a complex and harsh patchwork has failed.


Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public affairs at Jail Fellowship is the nation’s leading Christian nonprofit that serves prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. He is a recovering alcoholic and the former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.