DPA COVID-19 Policy Recommendations

COVID-19 is a public health crisis that is exacerbating the harms of the drug war – and we at the Drug Policy Alliance are doing all we can to respond to this pandemic, fight alongside our community members, and carry out our shared mission.

DPA offers the following COVID-19 drug policy priorities to protect public health, individual rights, and the dignity and well-being of those in our communities who are most harmed by structural inequities.

In order to be most effective, equitable, and sustainable, all policy responses must: 

  • Address structural racism and systemic inequities; 
  • Ensure access to benefits and services regardless of immigration status; 
  • Reflect the differing needs of communities across the country; 
  • Research and measure the social, racial, economic, and health impacts of COVID-19 and the policy responses to COVID-19; and 
  • Be supported and maintained beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

Read the full set of recommendations (PDF).

We must improve access to life-saving harm reduction and treatment services.

Many federal and state policies are designed to make it difficult for people who use drugs to access life-saving harm reduction services and substance use disorder treatment, particularly the addiction medications buprenorphine and methadone for treating opioid use disorders. Some governments have relaxed long-standing barriers to care during the pandemic. We are fighting to ensure people have continued access to effective harm reduction and treatment interventions during this crisis – and to preserve those reforms after.

Treatment Recommendations:

  • Expand access to buprenorphine and methadone, including home delivery and in prisons and jails.
  • Expand access to outpatient and remote treatment as an alternative to residential programs.
  • Fund treatment providers that practice evidence-based substance use disorder care.

Harm Reduction Recommendations:

  • Expand availability and access to harm reduction services like sterile syringes and naloxone.
  • Create overdose prevention centers where people can take pre-obtained drugs in controlled settings under the supervision of trained staff.
  • Ensure housing accommodations for people that use drugs prioritize harm reduction services.

We must get people out of prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers – and reduce the number of people going in.

For too long, drug war policies have targeted and imprisoned people who use drugs, people of color, and immigrants. This pandemic has made their incarceration an even greater injustice. People in prisons and jails are stuck in crowded, unsanitary spaces. They are prevented from taking basic safety measures, like practicing social distancing, to help protect themselves from COVID-19.

DPA stands with our allies in the criminal justice field who are calling for the broad-scale release of people currently incarcerated in institutions and settings that cannot possibly follow CDC directives on safe practices for reducing risk of COVID-19 transmission and so are putting people at unnecessary risk of harm. Our priorities simply reflect the calls we have fought for historically and those we organizationally find even more urgent today. If we're going to save lives during this crisis, we need to overhaul systems of mass criminalization.

Pre-entry/Arrest Recommendations:

  • End criminal penalties for drug possession and establish community-based alternative programs.
  • Reduce the number of people taken into custody and detained while they wait for trial.
  • Reform probation and parole practices with suspended drug testing and early probation release for those under supervision only for drug offenses.
  • Monitor drug arrest data so we can understand how law enforcement resources are being used during shelter-in-place orders.
  • Suspend and limit immigration enforcement operations, especially those in and around hospitals or medical clinics or those targeting people for drug-related offenses.

Decarceration Recommendations:

  • Reduce prison populations by releasing people who:
    • Are more likely to have severe health impacts from COVID-19
    • Have almost completed their sentences
    • Are being held for trial
    • Are incarcerated for drug offenses, especially possession and other low-level offenses
    • Are being held for parole, probation, or technical violations.
  • Release undocumented residents/immigrants from detention centers.
  • Protect people who remain incarcerated by providing adequate COVID-19 testing, protective equipment, and hygiene supplies.

We must provide reentry services to those newly released.

Our work doesn't stop once people are released from prisons and jails. Federal and state policies bar newly released people from accessing the resources that are vital for them to successfully reenter society, especially those struggling with substance use. We are fighting to make sure people have access to housing, food assistance, employment, healthcare, harm reduction services and medications, and overdose prevention resources.

Reentry Recommendations:

  • Provide social supports to all people being released from prisons and jails, like naloxone and TANF and SNAP assistance.
  • Provide healthcare access to people being released, including Medicaid.

We must protect people's access to marijuana.

There are several million state-licensed medical cannabis patients in the U.S., in addition to people who use cannabis for other reasons. This pandemic is making it difficult for them to safely access marijuana. There are also 200,000 workers in the state-licensed cannabis industry who are struggling during this financial crisis. We are fighting to protect patient and consumer health, as well as cannabis businesses and employees.

Marijuana Recommendations:

  • Declare cannabis businesses as essential and allow cannabis delivery and online or telephone orders.
  • Provide harm reduction information about COVID-19 and marijuana to protect patient and consumer health.
  • Offer financial assistance programs to cannabis businesses, guidelines for employee health and safety, and paid sick leave.
  • Enact federal and state laws to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, including the MORE Act.

Read the full set of recommendations (PDF).

What You Can Do

Watch our COVID-19 and drug policy discussion series 
In this 7-part series, we explored issues like decarceration, reentry, treatment, and policing. Advocates and allies discussed how we can sustain progress and which obstacles still remain.

Listen to the DPA podcast
We've been discussing our issues through the lens of COVID-19, including episodes with activist Alejandra Pablos who talks about her experience in an immigrant detention center and DPA's Mary Sylla who talks about the current reality of health injustice in prisons and jails.

See COVID-19 resources from our allies 
Learn how to protect yourself and others during this pandemic with resources from Harm Reduction Coalition, Vital Strategies, The Justice Collaborative, Vera Institute of Justice, and more.

Sign DPA action alerts 
Join us as we call for Congress, the CDC, and governors to take action now to save lives during COVID-19.

Read the coalition letters we've signed 
We're joining our allies to call for lifesaving measures during this public health crisis like releasing all people detained in ICE custody and providing access to medication-assisted treatment.

Join us to discuss COVID-19 rapid response research
Our Department of Research and Academic Engagement is facilitating conversations about how rapid response research on the impacts of COVID-19 can guide drug policy reform. Watch previously recorded discussions, or join our Google group and listserv to participate.

Share our graphics on your social channels
Educate your followers about how criminal justice reform and harm reduction services will save lives during this pandemic.

Join DPA - become a member
DPA will continue to work in coalition with our partners to fight for effective, permanent drug policy reform. But we also need your help. DPA members help us ensure that people who are systematically targeted by this drug war do not have their needs denied, and are not stigmatized or pushed aside.

Criminal Justice Reform
Harm Reduction
Reforming Marijuana Laws