Congressmen Help Launch Drug War Exit Strategy Guide

On Thursday, the Drug Policy Alliance will release An Exit Strategy for the Failed War on Drugs. This comprehensive report contains 75 broad and incremental recommendations for legislative reforms related to civil rights, deficit reduction, law enforcement, foreign policy, sentencing and re-entry, effective drug treatment, public health, and drug prevention education. The guide will be released at a forum on the Hill cosponsored by Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), both of whom fought for major drug policy reform at the local level before running for Congress and winning. This new generation of legislators has demonstrated that support for drug policy reform is no detriment to electoral success – and in fact that it can be a key asset.

As a New York Assemblyman, Jeffries was a leader in opposing New York City's racially discriminatory marijuana arrest practices. He was the sponsor of legislation that would have ended arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.  As an El Paso councilmember O'Rourke sponsored a resolution calling on the federal government to rethink the war on drugs. The resolution was unanimously supported by his colleagues on the council but vetoed by the mayor. Then-U.S.-Representative Silvestre Reyes threatened to withhold federal funding if the city adopted the resolution. O'Rourke subsequently ran against Reyes, an eight-term incumbent, and won his Congressional seat. 

The Drug Policy Alliance’s federal legislative guide does what the Obama Administration has failed to do – it lays out a roadmap for treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.  Upon taking office, President Obama announced that he would shift the federal government’s drug control resources from a criminalization-centered approach to one based on public health. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske even announced that he would end the war on drugs: "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country."

This rhetoric, however, does not match the “lock ‘em up” reality experienced in communities across the country, where the criminal justice system remains the primary means of addressing drugs. The Obama administration’s budget continues to emphasize enforcement, prosecution and incarceration at home – and interdiction, eradication and military escalation abroad. Even what the government does spend on treatment and prevention is overstated, as many of its programs are wasteful and counterproductive.

In 2011, the last year for which data are available, the U.S. arrested more than 1.5 million people for a drug law violation – and more than 80% of those arrests were for minor possession, not sales or manufacturing. On any given night, 500,000 people go to sleep behind bars in the U.S. for nothing more than a drug law violation.

Among the recommendations included in the Exit Strategy:

  • Allow states to reform their drug policies without federal interference.
  • Shift the focus of the federal drug budget from failed supply-side programs to cost-effective demand and harm reduction strategies.
  • Repeal federal mandatory minimum sentencing.
  • Repeal the federal syringe funding ban.
  • Eliminate federal possession and paraphernalia laws.
  • Declare a moratorium on creating new drug crimes, increasing existing drug sentences, or criminalizing more drugs.
  • Eliminate or cut drug war subsidies to the states to reduce incarceration and civil rights abuses.
  • Ensure the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s essential health benefit rule guarantees access to evidence-based drug treatment options, such as methadone and buprenorphine, in the plans offered in the individual and small group markets, both inside and outside the ACA Exchanges.
  • Establish federal funding for state, county, tribal and non-profit recipients who provide overdose prevention training and resources to communities.
  • Encourage and allow for the establishment of supervised injection facilities, which are proven internationally to save lives, save money and increase participation in drug treatment without increasing drug use.

It’s time we developed a comprehensive strategy for dealing with substance misuse in the 21stcentury by focusing on what works and what doesn’t. There are no perfect solutions to drug misuse and addiction, but it’s time we put all options on the table.


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