November 8, 2022
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
The Honorable Steny Hoyer
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
The Honorable Kevin McCarthy
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. Around 86% of these arrests were for the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs alone and often led to time spent in prison. 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. Rather, these policies have only exacerbated the dangers of drug use and led to poorer health outcomes for people who use drugs, including increasing the likelihood that someone will fatally overdose or die by suicide upon release from prison. 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.
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, 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. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and lower-income communities are also the same communities disproportionately dying from overdoses and lacking access to needed health-interventions–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. 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. 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.
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, 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. Between 2001 and 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons increased by more than 600%. 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. 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. Rather than continuing to annually invest billions of dollars in ineffective and harmful strategies like drug possession arrests, incarceration, and punishment, 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. 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, and 266,000 non-citizens who had a drug conviction as their most serious offense were deported. 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. 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Little Piece Of Light
A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)
Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center
AIDS Foundation Chicago
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
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)
Decriminalize Nature Michigan
Decriminalize Nature San Francisco
Defending Rights & Dissent
End Hep C SF
Equity and Transformation
Fair and Just Prosecution
Faith in Harm Reduction
Florida Harm Reduction Collective Inc.
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 - 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
Justice Forward Virginia
Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN)
Last Prisoner Project
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
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)
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
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 - Pennsylvania
Perfectly Flawed Foundation
Positive Women's Network-USA
Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN)
Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention (PONI)
Prison Policy Initiative
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)
United Vision for Idaho
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
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
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