As one of the worst health crises in a century intersects with sustained uprisings for racial justice, the United States is at a perilous crossroads—and it’s easy to be distracted by superficial solutions rather than digging deeper to address the underlying issues that created these conditions. And yet, for those of us working in drug policy, criminal justice, and the broader social justice movements, these recent crises have simply exposed something long known that our culture often sweeps under the rug: Drug-war-fueled over-policing and systemic divestment in community resources—such as low-income health clinics and after-school programs—have targeted and plundered our most marginalized communities, which has left them even more vulnerable to the challenges this year brought.
Nearly 40% of arrests in America are still for marijuana possession, according to FBI data. And a disproportionate number of those arrested are people of color.
But when we say that drug-policy reform is more important than ever, social justice groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization I have the honor of leading, are repeatedly told by policymakers to wait. We’re told to wait, as we were told with the long-awaited MORE (Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement) Act vote that was set to take place in September. If passed, this bill would expunge marijuana convictions that currently prevent millions of people from getting jobs. It would begin repairing the extensive damage the drug war has done to communities of color.
Nearly 40% of arrests in America are still for marijuana possession, according to FBI data. And a disproportionate number of those arrested are people of color. So the MORE Act is a beacon of hope for the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities that marijuana prohibition has devastated for decades. The bill not only completely de-schedules marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, but also aims to begin addressing this harm by expunging past records and provides guarantees that people of color will be able to benefit from the new legal marijuana economy.
But the vote was delayed because legislators were more concerned about the election (and, supposedly, providing more COVID-19 relief) than taking a principled stand against one of the most egregious harms that continues to haunt this country. Now that the election is over, we still don't have COVID-19 relief. And House leadership says a vote on the MORE Act will be held in December—but we need to hold them to it.
The truth of the matter is that we’ve already been waiting for decades. And you can’t solve today’s crises without addressing the foundation they were built on.
The drug war sits at the nexus of the most critical issues facing society today: health care inequities, racial injustice, police brutality, economic disparities, and government waste. Without serious drug-policy reform, we will continue to see avoidable loss of life, unwarranted and punitive criminalization, and disproportionate targeting of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and low-income communities. The war on drugs has woven a fundamentally flawed, punitive, dehumanizing system into the fabric of our society in ways that are both obvious and covert. And after over $1 trillion of government spending during the last 50 years, we are no closer to the drug war’s stated goal of reducing supply, yet we continue to throw away money and ruin lives to keep it going. It is clear we need to unravel this system—and all of its tentacles—if we hope to achieve any of the lasting changes we need.
At the most immediate level, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the obstacles that people who use drugs face on a daily basis. We were already in the midst of the overdose crisis, one of the worst public health crises in U.S. history, causing approximately 70,000 deaths a year. Early estimates suggest that number has only increased since the pandemic began.
Surveys conducted since shelter-in-place orders began have shown increases in drug use associated with feelings of isolation and depression. At the same time, evidence-based treatment services remain closed or are limiting new intakes. Access to methadone and buprenorphine—the most effective forms of treatment for people who struggle with opioid use—has been severely limited as a result. And on top of all that, people are using alone, increasing their risk of fatal overdose, because there is no one present to reverse an overdose with naloxone or seek additional medical services if necessary.
Yet at the national level, people who use drugs have been repeatedly left out of the COVID-19 aid thus far, with the packages that could provide them relief (such as the HEROES Act) indefinitely put on hold. They are told by policymakers to wait for the next go around, while harm-reduction programs they have come to rely on to stay safe risk losing funding. And in the meantime, additional lives are lost that could have—and should have—been protected.
Those behind bars are also told by policymakers to wait. And, unfortunately, we’ve already seen the fatal consequences of that delay as jails and prisons have become the number one hot spots for COVID-19 infections. While the CDC, signs on every corner, and constant TV ads all remind us to wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and wash our hands frequently, people in jails and prisons often don’t have those options. They’re packed in cages, with sometimes hundreds of people sharing one sink (often without soap) and limited access to medical services. Social justice groups, including DPA, have been advocating for the release of the most vulnerable individuals, but because of inaction by officials, this wait continues to cost lives. Even in the cases where they are released, they face significant barriers, such as being denied federal nutritional benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) at a time when economic insecurity and job loss are at all-time highs.
These challenges, significant and mutually reinforcing, expose the cracks in the system we’ve long warned about—and have finally lit a fire in the hearts and minds of people across the country demanding reform. That gives us an unprecedented opportunity to demand significant change. And no, it cannot wait any longer.
Since the pandemic began, we have already been able to secure temporary wins on things we have been fighting in favor of for decades, such as take-home methadone and buprenorphine, federal harm-reduction funding, and advancing policies around supervised consumption sites, just to name a few.
For the longer term, to address the systemic issues that have brought us to this point, DPA is working on implementing policies that completely remove criminal penalties for drug use and instead replace them with a health-centered approach. For instance, in Oregon, our political arm (Drug Policy Action)—in partnership with local groups—led the efforts around Measure 110, which successfully decriminalized drug possession and will significantly expand evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, other health resources, and even housing. Voters overwhelmingly approved this groundbreaking initiative on Election Day, making Oregon the first state in the nation to lead with this approach. DPA also recently released our federal framework for all-drug decriminalization to push this approach forward on a national level, and expect a stand-alone bill to be introduced at the top of 2021—or possibly even sooner.
We will not—and cannot—wait any longer. The drug war is an infestation that continues to grow, and every day we wait is another day tragedy unfolds. It’s another day a mother loses a son to police violence. It’s another day a brother loses a sister to an overdose. It’s another day that a wife loses a husband to COVID-19 behind bars.
When I wake up every day, I remind myself that is who I am fighting for. And no, I refuse to tell them to wait.