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Joint Letter to House Leadership on Drug Decriminalization

Support for Federal Legislation that Decriminalizes The Possession of Personal-Use Amounts of Drugs

November 8, 2022


The Honorable Nancy Pelosi                         
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

The Honorable Steny Hoyer
Majority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

The Honorable Kevin McCarthy 
Minority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives 
Washington, D.C. 20515


Re: Support Federal Legislation that Decriminalizes The Possession of Personal-Use Amounts of Drugs    


Dear Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer, and Minority Leader McCarthy,

We, the undersigned national, state, and local drug policy, criminal legal reform, public health, and advocacy organizations, write to communicate our ardent support of ending criminal penalties for the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs. In 2020, U.S. law enforcement agencies made 1,155,610 arrests for drug law violations–more arrests than for all violent crimes combined.[1] Around 86% of these arrests were for the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs alone and often led to time spent in prison.[2] Yet, we have an abundance of evidence that demonstrates that drug arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration have had no substantial effect on ending problematic drug use or curbing the illegal drug supply in the United States.[3] Rather, these policies have only exacerbated the dangers of drug use and led to poorer health outcomes for people who use drugs,[4] including increasing the likelihood that someone will fatally overdose or die by suicide upon release from prison.[5] Given the emotional and economic costs associated with drug-related convictions, the criminal legal system has also burdened the lives and health of families and communities whose loved ones have drug convictions.[6]

Drug convictions also create daunting obstacles to a person successfully re-entering their communities after having been incarcerated, including significant barriers to housing, education, employment, treatment, and other public benefits. Given the fact that these resources are key social determinants of health[7], drug convictions often disrupt and eliminate people’s access to the necessary resources they need to live healthy lives. Despite similar rates of reported drug use among people of different races and ethnicities, this burden is felt most acutely by the country’s Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and lower-income communities due to massive disparities in drug arrest rates, sentencing, and access to community-based treatment.[8] Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and lower-income communities are also the same communities disproportionately dying from overdoses and lacking access to needed health-interventions[9]–both of which have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Punishing people who use drugs rather than providing them with needed resources defies widely accepted understandings of drug use as a health issue and has made a public health approach more challenging to implement, given the fact that involving people in the criminal legal system only puts people already at risk of fatally overdosing at even higher risk.[10] As such, a growing number of lawmakers and others have taken a different approach to drug use, instead calling for health-based alternatives to arresting people who use drugs.

This stance is what ultimately informed the first-ever drug possession decriminalization bill introduced in Congress last year, The Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) of 2021 (H.R. 4020), and the passage of Measure 110 in Oregon in 2020. The DPRA would end criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvest funds in public health and support programs, taking a bold new approach to drug policy. Similarly, the passage of Measure 110 in 2020 made Oregon the first U.S. state to decriminalize the possession of drugs statewide, invest in drug treatment options, and expand the state’s health services. Between 2021-2022, over 16,000 Oregon residents accessed needed services and there has already been a nearly 60% decrease in the number of arrests for all drug offenses.[11] In Baltimore, crime rates and threats to public safety have been unaffected by the city’s State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ending prosecutions for drug possession and other low-level crimes.[12]

To begin meaningfully addressing our country’s mass incarceration and overdose epidemics, we urge Members of Congress to commit to supporting comprehensive legislation that decriminalizes drug possession and centers health, equity, autonomy, and justice. The undersigned national, state, and local drug policy, criminal legal reform, public health, and advocacy organizations believe that federal drug decriminalization legislation should include the following components:

  • Shift the authority for classifying and regulating controlled substances from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to a health-centered agency like the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In order to fully treat drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal legal one, federal drug decriminalization should shift the regulatory authority away from the DEA to an agency like HHS that is better suited to following scientific research and health outcomes when making decisions about classifying substances.
  • Eliminate criminal penalties for possession and provide for resentencing. The U.S. spends billions of dollars every year on the failed and harmful strategy of arresting and incarcerating people for possessing drugs. Given the fact that being arrested and incarcerated for drug possession is ineffective in reducing substance use, separates people from their families and other needed social supports,[13] and only increases the likelihood that someone will fatally overdose or die by suicide upon release, federal drug decriminalization should ensure that people cannot be arrested, incarcerated, or punished for possessing drugs and provide for immediate resentencing for those convicted of possessing substances in amounts decriminalized.
  • Invest in public health services. Due to underinvestment in health services for people who use drugs, many find themselves in jail or prison without adequate support. For people charged with drug possession who also have substance use disorders, necessary treatment and medications are rarely available in our country’s jails and prisons.[14] Between 2001 and 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600%.[15] In contrast, voluntary, community-based treatment has been found to be dramatically more effective in meaningfully addressing substance use disorders than involuntary and prison-based treatment.[16] Moreover, most treatment facilities and other health services outside of the criminal legal system often operate at capacity because of limited funding, leaving the general public with inaccessible treatment options.[17] Rather than continuing to annually invest billions of dollars in ineffective and harmful strategies like drug possession arrests, incarceration, and punishment,[18] federal drug decriminalization legislation should instead invest resources in evidence-based and health focused services that can benefit society and help curb addiction, including critical overdose prevention programs and harm reduction services.
  • Repeal the ban on federal benefits for impoverished families, eliminate many of the life-long consequences associated with simple possession drug arrests and convictions, and automatically expunge and seal drug possession-related records. Drug convictions restrict and deny people’s access to life-stabilizing benefits and resources. These restrictions are life-long and detrimental–especially for people with children and families whose livelihoods depend on them. For those with substance use disorders, these restrictions can impede people’s recoveries and increase their likelihood of using drugs upon release from jail or prison.[19] Because criminalizing drug use cuts off the very resources that sustain and preserve entire communities already experiencing economic insecurity, federal drug decriminalization legislation should automatically expunge and seal possession-related records, repeal the ban on federal benefits for impoverished families, and eliminate many of the consequences associated with drug arrests and convictions for drug possession, including the denial of employment, public benefits, drivers’ licenses, and voting rights.
  • Protect people from legal system abuses. In the pursuit of drugs, legal system agencies have been given unchecked power to use aggressive tactics which particularly target Black, Latinx Indigenous, and lower-income people. Examples of such processes include civil asset forfeiture and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests. Both civil asset forfeiture and ICE arrests disproportionately affect ordinary people, people who use drugs, and communities of color rather than the heads of drug distribution networks. For instance, criminal charges are never filed against a property owner in 80% of civil asset forfeitures,[20] and 266,000 non-citizens who had a drug conviction as their most serious offense were deported.[21] Federal drug decriminalization legislation should thus protect people convicted of possession of a controlled substance solely for personal consumption from legal system abuses, like civil asset forfeiture and deportation.

There has never been a more pertinent time to advocate for such necessary change. According to a June 2021 Bully Pulpit Interactive poll released by the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, 83% of American voters say the war on drugs has failed and 66% percent of voters support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.” According to a new poll released by Data for Progress, a strong majority of voters continue to support drug decriminalization in Oregon by a +22-point margin nearly two years after its passage, with majority support for the measure found in all parts of the state.[22] Moreover, in Oregon, a strong bipartisan majority (72%, a +48-point lead) further believes addiction should be addressed through the public health system and not the criminal legal system.[23]

Drug decriminalization is a sensible path forward given  the amount of evidence that demonstrates the harms of drug criminalization and the need for a public health approach to drug use. We urge Members of Congress to support comprehensive federal legislation that ends the criminalization of drug possession, resentences and expunges convictions, invests in evidence-based public health approaches to drug use, eliminates the life-long collateral consequences of drug law violations, and protects people from legal system abuses.

For questions about anything included in this letter, please contact Hanna Sharif-Kazemi, Policy Coordinator at Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs at


A Little Piece Of Light

A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)

Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center

Advancement Project

Advocating Opportunity

AIDS Alabama

AIDS Foundation Chicago

AIDS United

American Atheists

American Civil Liberties Union

American Friends Service Committee

Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)

Any Positive Change Inc.

Arkansas Community Organizations

Arlene & Michael Rosen Foundation

Aunt Rita’s Foundation

Ballroom We Care

Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition

Being Alive - LA


Brave Technology Co-Op

California Pan Ethnic Health Network

CAN-DO Foundation

Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition

Caring Ambassadors Program

Cascade AIDS Project

Community Based Public Safety (CBPS) Collective

Center for Community Alternatives

Center for Housing & Health

Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research (CLEAR)

Chicago Drug Users' Union

Civil Rights Corps

College and Community Fellowship

Community Alliance on Prisons

Community Initiatives Inc.

Community Outreach Prevention and Education Network (COPE Network)

Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)


Decarcerate Sacramento

Decriminalize Massachusetts

Decriminalize Nature Michigan

Decriminalize Nature San Francisco

Defending Rights & Dissent

Elephant Circle

End Hep C SF

Equality Federation

Equitas Health

Equity and Transformation 

Fair and Just Prosecution

Faith in Harm Reduction

Florida Harm Reduction Collective Inc.

Florida Rising

Freedom BLOC

Fruit of Labor Action Research & Technical Assistance, LLC

GLIDE Center for Social Justice

Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP)/Broken No More

Harm Reduction Action Center

Harm Reduction Ohio


Health Justice Recovery Alliance

Health Not Prisons Collective


Homeless Health Care Los Angeles

HomeRise (Formerly Community Housing Partnership)

Housing Works

Housing Works - Positive Health Project

Howard Brown Health

Human Rights Watch


Idaho Harm Reduction Project

Illinois Harm Reduction & Recovery Coalition

Indiana Recovery Alliance

Japanese American Citizens League

JOLT Foundation

Justice Forward Virginia

Justice Strategies

Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN)

Last Prisoner Project

LatinoJustice PRLDEF

Law Enforcement Action Partnership

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley

Long Island Social Justice Action Network

Los Angeles LGBT Center

Magic City Harm Reduction

Maine People's Alliance

Marijuana Justice

Minorities for Medical Marijuana

Minority Veterans of America

Movement for Black Lives

MPact Global Action

Multnomah Democrats' Criminal Justice Study Group

National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD)

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Center for Transgender Equality

National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health

National Coalition for the Homeless

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence- Maryland Chapter

National Employment Law Project

National Harm Reduction Coalition

National Health Care for the Homeless Council

National Homelessness Law Center

National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC)

Naxos Neighbors

Nelsonville Voices

NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice

New Hour for Women & Children Long Island

New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition

Newark Homeless Outreach

Newark Community Street Team

NEXT Distro

North Carolina AIDS Action Network

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

North Carolina Survivors Union

On The Bright Side LLC

Outside the Frame

Overdose Crisis Response Fund

Parabola Center for Law and Policy

Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network

People's Action

People's Action - Pennsylvania

Perfectly Flawed Foundation

Positive Women's Network-USA

Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN)

Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention  (PONI)

Prison Policy Initiative

Progressive Maryland


Psychedelic Medicine Alliance of Washington

Public Health Awakened


Reframe Health and Justice

Rights & Democracy New Hampshire & Vermont

River Valley Organizing

Sana Healing Collective

San Francisco Treatment on Demand Coalition

Save Our Families

Smoky Mountain Harm Reduction

Strategies to Overcome Obstacles and Avoid Recidivism (SOOAR)

Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

Southern Tier AIDS Program/Southern Tier Care Coordination

Strategic Transitions Consulting

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy - Michigan Chapter

Suncoast Harm Reduction Project

Texas Center for Justice & Equity

The Chicago Recovery Alliance

The Festival Center

The Gubbio Project

The i-71 Committee

The National Center for Advocacy and Recovery, Inc.

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls

The Night Ministry

The Porchlight Collective SAP

The Puerto Rico Project

The Sentencing Project

The SOAR Initiative

The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society


Thrive For Change

Treatment Action Group (TAG)

Truth Pharm

United Vision for Idaho

URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity

Vital Strategies




Washington AIDS Partnership

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)

Wellness Services Inc.

William E. Morris Institute for Justice

West Virginia Citizen Action Group

Young People in Recovery




[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime Data Explorer,” 2021.

[2] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022”, Prison Policy Initiative, March 14, 2022.

[3] “Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems,” Pew Charitable Trusts, June 19, 2017.

[4] David H. Cloud et al. “Documenting and Addressing the Health Impacts of Carceral Systems.” American Journal of Public Health, 110, no. 1 (2020); and Aliza Cohen et al. “How the War on Drugs Impacts Social Determinants of Health Beyond the Criminal Legal System, Annals of Medicine, 54, no. 1 (2022): 2024-2038.

[5] Shabbar I. Ranapurwala et al. “Opioid Overdose Mortality Among Former North Carolina Inmates: 2000–2015,” American Journal for Public Health, 109, no. 09 (2018): 1207-1213, and Axel Haglund et al., “Suicide after Release from Prison - A Population-Based Cohort Study from Sweden,” Clinical Psychiatry 75 no. 10 (2014): 1047-53.

[6] Megan Comfort. “‘A Twenty-Hour-a-Day Job’: The Impact of Frequent Low-Level Criminal Justice System Involvement on Family Life. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665, no.1 (2016): 63–79.

[7] Aliza Cohen et al. “How the war on drugs impacts social determinants of health beyond the criminal legal system,” Annals of Medicine, 54, no. 01 (2022): 2024-2038.

[8] “Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2013).

[9] Centers for Disease Control, Drug Overdose Deaths Rise, Disparities Widen: Differences Grew by Race, Ethnicity, and Other Factors. (2022).

[10] Ingrid A. Binswanger et al. “Mortality After Prison Release: Opioid Overdose and Other Causes of Death, Risk Factors, and Time Trends From 1999 to 2009.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 159, no. 9 (2013):592–600.

[11] Oregon Health Authority, “Access to Care: Reporting Outcomes,” 2021.

[12] Saba Rouhani et al., “Evaluation of Prosecutorial Policy Reforms Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Drug Possession and Sex Work in Baltimore, Maryland.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2021),

[13] Leo Beletsky et al., “Fatal Re-Entry: Legal and Programmatic Opportunities to Curb Opioid Overdose Among Individuals Newly Released from Incarceration,” Northeastern University Law Journal 149, no. 7 (2015): 155-215.

[14] David Olson (2017), “Substance Abuse Treatment in Prisons and Jails,” in Issues, in Corrections: Research, Policy and Future Prospects (Carly M. Hilinski-Rosick & John P. Walsh, eds.)

[15] Ann Carson, “Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001-2018–Statistical Tables” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (n.d.).

[16] Doug McVay, “Treatment or Incarceration? National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment,” Justice Policy Institute, (2004).

[17] Samuel R. Bondurant et al.,  “Substance Abuse Treatment Centers and Local Crime,” National Bureau of Economic Research (2016).

[18] Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, “The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition,” The Cato Institute. (2010). prohibition.

[19] Ingrid Binswanger et al., “Return to Drug Use and Overdose after Release from Prison: A Qualitative Study of Risk and Protective Factors, Addiction Science & Clinical Practice 7 no.1 (2012): 3.

[20] Lina Knepper et al., “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Institute for Justice, December 14, 2020.

[21] “Report: The War on Drugs Meets Immigration,” Drug Policy Alliance, 2021.

[22] Anika Dandekar & Tenneth Fairclough II, “Oregon Voters Want Measure 110 to Remain in Place,” Data for Progress, September 12, 2022.

[23] Id.

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