The Drug Policy Alliance launched a major campaign today backboned by six new reports detailing the impact of the War on Drugs across six sectors of society.
One of the primary goals of the Uprooting the Drug War campaign will be exposing the impact the War on Drugs has beyond arrest and incarceration. The digital component of the effort features the release of the reports alongside an interactive website.
DPA said the project is designed to engage activists across sectors and issues. They hope to help foster a better understanding of how the War on Drugs goes so much deeper than the criminal justice issues and public health issues that first pop up in our heads. That’s not to say it’s unreasonable to think of handcuffs, sentencing disparities, or overdoses when you hear the words war on drugs. But the campaign hopes to go even deeper. It will note how misguided drug laws and policies shaped many other systems people encounter in their daily lives. This includes things like education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration and public benefits.
Kassandra Frederique, DPA’s Executive Director, weighed in on the positives we’ve seen in getting society to look at drugs more as a public health issue but spoke to the work to be done.
“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,” said Frederique. “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 went on to emphasize how deeply all this bad policy has permeated throughout society.
“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,” said Frederique. “It will take all of us, because the drug war impacts us all. 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.”
The first sector of life the reports spoke to is education. Places of learning are also unfortunately where a lot of kids have their first run-in with the law. The report notes drug use has become the second-highest source of referrals of students to police. The report argues these cast-a-wide-net policies remove any ability for school officials to support students. Other takeaways included the fact that over one-third of school districts have policies for randomly drug testing students that can be as young as 11 years old. Currently in America, 10 million students are in schools that have law enforcement but no social workers.
One of the more straightforward sections is housing. It’s easy to see how the drug war has impacted people keeping a roof over their heads. The police finding the grandson’s stash and grandma having real problems is a story we’ve heard too many times. A big part of the problem is federal “One Strike” policies that encourage immediate eviction after suspected drug activity, regardless of whether such activity is problematic. Imagine getting your grandma booted from public housing for three years. But the report notes this isn’t just a public housing issue.
“Private landlords also perpetuate the war on drugs mentality by denying leases to people with criminal convictions, including drug convictions. There are very limited protections against discrimination based on criminal record, giving wide discretion to landlords to deny housing based on often old and irrelevant convictions. In one survey, nearly half of landlords said they would not overlook a person’s record,” the report reads.
The next area the report looked at was child welfare. “The war on drugs has provided a key tool to perpetuate family separation, especially against parents of color. According to drug war logic, any drug use – even suspected – is equivalent to child abuse, regardless of context and harm to the child,” the report notes. “The underlying assumptions are that parental drug use automatically harms children; parents who use drugs cannot be good parents; the foster care system can provide better care for children; and it is better to remove children from their parents than to provide support to improve the situation.” The reality is that much of the time separation is severely traumatic for the child, way more so than a joint in the garage when they were in bed clueless to the fact it was happening.
The section on immigration hits particularly close to home. California was the first place to criminalize immigrants possessing drugs. The report notes that in 1875, the city of San Francisco passed the country’s first drug criminalization law, which targeted opium dens on the idea Chinese immigrants were using them to corrupt white people. Even to this day, a drug conviction can result in being deported, unable to enter or re-enter into the U.S., ineligible for citizenship, “and ineligible for other forms of relief, including asylum.” A drug conviction was the second-leading cause for getting deported in 2019 after illegal entry.
The final topic the campaign speaks to is how deeply connected the way we enforce drug laws has become tied to public assistance. The report notes that states have tried to extend drug testing requirements to other public benefits programs like SNAP, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. “Restrictive policies disproportionately harm people of color, who due to targeted enforcement of drug laws in their communities, are more likely to have felony drug convictions,” the report said.