RELEASE: Cities Are Pursuing Strategies Previously Considered Unthinkable to End the War on Drugs, Says New CAP Issue Brief

Washington, D.C. — A rise in opioid fatalities across the United States has driven cities to pursue strategies that would have been considered unthinkable 20 years ago—such as syringe access programs, safe-injections sites, and marijuana legalization—to address substance misuse outside the criminal justice system. The shift in public sentiment is inextricably linked to the rise of the opioid crisis, which has heavily affected white Americans, while policymakers have historically criminalized drug use among communities of color, who remain the primary target of marijuana-related enforcement actions—despite equal usage rates with their white counterparts. Growing traction for both marijuana legalization at the state and federal levels and efforts to combat substance misuse at a local level indicates a shift in mainstream public opinion toward utilizing public health solutions rather than relying on the arrests and mass incarceration of the war on drugs era. A new issue brief and fact sheet from the Center for American Progress, released today, detail efforts to reduce the harmful effects of substance misuse—a radical departure from traditional responses to drug use.

“The war on drugs must end,” said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at CAP. “Policymakers should follow the lead of communities nationwide that are taking vital steps toward dismantling this failed policy agenda, preventing unnecessary incarceration, and addressing racial disparities in the justice system.”

More and more communities are investing in alternative approaches to address substance misuse and keep people out of the justice system altogether. CAP’s new issue brief lays out three strategies that cities are trying out to improve the well-being of all individuals and reduce the risks associated with substance misuse:

  • Syringe access programs provide people with sterile injection equipment to reduce the incidence of syringe sharing. These programs can significantly reduce new HIV and hepatitis C diagnoses and have proved successful in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio.
  • Safe injection facilities (SIFs) are staffed by medical professionals who are trained to recognize and respond to fatal dosages and mitigate risks associated with substance misuse. Facilities in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sydney, Australia, have reduced overdose deaths by 35 percent and 25 percent, respectively, and are among 100 SIFs currently operating in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Efforts are underway in New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle for pilot SIF programs.
  • Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) empowers law enforcement officers to redirect individuals with substance use disorders to social services, rather than making low-level arrests. People diverted through the LEAD program have been 58 percent less likely to be rearrested, compared with similar individuals processed through the criminal justice system, as well as 89 percent more likely to obtain permanent housing.

The war on drugs has overcriminalized drug use and possession, cost an estimated $1 trillion since 1971, and created massive racial disparities in incarceration. According to the fact sheet, every 25 seconds, someone in America is arrested for drug possession, a rate that has tripled since 1980, reaching 1.3 million arrests per year in 2015. One-fifth of the incarcerated population—or 456,000 individuals—is serving time for a drug charge. Another 1.15 million people are on probation and parole for drug-related offenses. Black Americans make up nearly 30 percent of all drug-related arrests and are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges, despite accounting for only 12.5 percent of all substance users.

Read the full issue brief: Ending the War on Drugs by Betsy Pearl and Maritza Pearl

Read the full fact sheet: Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers by Betsy Pearl

Related resource: Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy by Ed Chung, Maritza Perez, and Lea Hunter

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, please contact Sally Tucker at sstucker@americanprogress.org or 202.481.8103.