“It’s time to uproot the drug war from our lives.”
So says a new Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) project exposing how the decadeslong “war on drugs” in the United States “has contaminated six critical systems“—child welfare, education, employment, housing, immigration, and public benefits.
The nonprofit launched the online initiative, entitled “Uprooting the Drug War,” with reports on each of those systems. The effort comes after DPA joined with over 200 drug policy, healthcare, and other groups in demanding an end to the drug war and a shift to evidence-based solutions just before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
A wide range of experts welcomed the project as a “comprehensive,” “crucial,” and “useful” look at how the U.S. drug war “goes far beyond the criminal legal system in its heinous impacts” and “is insidiously waged inside public policies across the board.”
“Only through creating awareness of the drug war’s insidious impacts across sectors can we begin to disentangle it and the culture of criminalization it promulgates from our lives.”
—Kassandra Frederique, DPA
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, called it an “important tool …showing us how the drug war has impacted essentially every aspect and institution of American life.” He applauded the “compelling combination of storytelling, data, policy, and a powerful visual approach.”
As DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique explained, “Even as there is growing momentum for treating drug use as a matter of personal and public health, the systems on which we would normally rely to advance an alternative approach are infested with the same culture of punishment as the criminal legal system and have operated with relative impunity.”
“Today, we expose those systems and their role in fueling drug war policies and logic that compound the harms suffered by people who use drugs and people who are targeted by drug war enforcement,” Frederique said. “Ending the drug war in all its vestiges is critical to improving the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities.”
“But, this is not DPA’s fight alone, nor even that of the broader criminal legal reform movement—it is a collective and intersectional fight that must happen in partnership with allies both within these systems and outside of them. It will take all of us, because the drug war impacts us all,” she added. “Only through creating awareness of the drug war’s insidious impacts across sectors can we begin to disentangle it and the culture of criminalization it promulgates from our lives.”
If we want drug war reparations – we need to identify ALL the ways the drug war intentionally harms our communities. If we want to #UprootTheDrugWar we need to build across movements to build power, get back our autonomy, and design systems around support not surveillance. https://t.co/Xo6AcrbVpX
— Kassandra Frederique (@Kassandra_Fred) February 16, 2021
“Starting in 1973 with the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), and continuing with the escalation of the drug war in the 1980s, real and perceived drug use has been used as an excuse to remove children, primarily children of color, from their homes and communities,” says the child welfare section.
The initiative’s website details a system featuring “relentless attacks on parents” by lawmakers and pundits; “constant surveillance” and increased child maltreatment investigations; and forced participation in abstinence-based drug treatment programs, even for parents who don’t have substance use disorders.
The education report blasts drug tests for extracurricular activities as well as bag and locker searches for turning schools into “vehicles of policing and stigmatization” rather than “safe and caring environments.” It also asserts that “drug education is failing in the U.S., as abstinence-only prevention approaches have left generations of young people unprepared to reduce their risk of harm if they do choose to use drugs.”
DPA highlights how “harsh school discipline or contact with the criminal legal system can have lifelong consequences,” pointing to dropout rates tied to drug use and limits on assistance for higher education. This section further notes that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students “receive the highest percentages of federal financial aid and are also targeted by drug war enforcement at higher rates.”
“For decades, the drug war has infiltrated workplace policies with drug testing and drug record discrimination,” explains the employment report. “These exclusionary policies have robbed people from one of the primary and critical factors associated with a reduction in drug use and potential negative consequences of drug use—access to stable employment.”
This section lays out a rise in “invasive” and “humiliating” drug tests required for various jobs, despite both the negative effects on workers and lack of evidence that such testing improves performance. It also details the impacts of discrimination against people with drug histories and substance use disorders.
Taking aim at the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988—specifically the section on “Preventing Drug Abuse in Public Housing”—the housing report declares that “everyone should have access to stable, affordable housing, but many people are denied places to live based on misguided ideals of deterring people from using or being around drugs.”
This sections dives into the deadly impacts of housing insecurity as well as how exclusionary policies put people “in the impossible position of choosing between giving up housing or turning their backs on family members who would make the entire family ineligible for assistance by using (or even being suspected of using) drugs.”
Noting that “as early as 1875, drug laws stoked anti-Chinese hysteria by depicting Chinese men as ‘opium addicts,'” the immigration report recognizes that the intertwined policies of drugs and migration have led to a present day in which “drug use is often the reason for removing immigrants or denying them access to services, particularly Latinx and Black undocumented immigrants and green card holders.”
“Drug war thinking has led us to surveilling immigrants, turning anything related to drugs into a severe crime, deporting people in record numbers, and enacting harsher punishments on noncitizens,” the section says, while adding that the federal government’s international drug policy “contributes to the violence and instability in Latin American countries that drives many people to immigrate to the U.S.”
“The drug war inappropriately brands all people who use drugs and people suspected of using drugs as lazy, irresponsible, and not deserving of any public assistance,” says the section on public benefits, decrying the disproportionate targeting of people of color—including through the “the racist (and false) idea of ‘drug-addicted welfare queens.'”
This report notes that “over 25% of states require welfare applicants to submit to the invasive and humiliating procedure of peeing in a cup to be drug tested” and “over half of states have instituted modified bans to limit welfare and food stamp eligibility for people with felony drug convictions.”
Each section also features policy recommendations as well as personal stories—from Jasmin Reggler, who was fired from her job as a legislative aide to a Rochester City Council member in New York state over a single drug test that came back positive for marijuana, to Lauren Johnson, a policy advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.
After Johnson’s husband lost his job in 2008, their family—which includes three children—received less federal food aid because of a law banning people with felony drug convictions from accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps). Both Johnson and her husband have felony drug convictions.
“Because of the war on drugs, we have laws and rules that double down on punishment and attempt to control people,” says DPA’s project. “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Ending the drug war means uprooting its impacts from all aspects of our lives and engaging with all of the systems where people meet the drug war on a day-to-day basis,” the initiative adds. “Most importantly, uprooting the drug war requires addressing things wholesale, not alone or in segments.”