Communities across the U.S. are staggering under the weight of half a century of failed drug policies. The war on drugs has cost the nation more than one trillion dollars, exacerbated racial injustices, and torn families apart through the routine criminalization of communities of color and the deportation of immigrants.
The federal government remains mired in its ineffectual response, while leadership at the state level is often lacking. Local jurisdictions have the opportunity to begin repairing the damage of the decades-long war on drugs and to develop and implement a more compassionate, and ultimately, more successful response.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has developed a Municipal Drug Strategy framework for implementing policies rooted in harm reduction and human rights at the local level – where they are most likely to have the greatest impact.
The goal is to craft drug policy reforms that promote public health, safety, and the dignity and rights of people who use drugs or are impacted by drug use.
Municipal approaches undertaken in Europe, Canada, and more recently the U.S. illustrate how people in local communities most impacted by drug use and deeply flawed public policies are stepping forward to make a difference.
Cities like Frankfurt, Germany and Vancouver, Canada built local drug reforms with key stakeholders from their communities, with a focus on moving away from punitive approaches and instead helping people who are involved with drugs.
Frankfurt's drug scene emerged openly in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the late 1980s, the problems surrounding it had compounded dramatically. People who use drugs congregated near the city’s main transit station, and syringes and drug paraphernalia littered the city. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C spread rapidly among people who injected drugs. Overdose deaths rose, despite aggressive policing.
Representatives from Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Zurich across Europe convened in Frankfurt in 1990 with a goal to chart a new way forward. These cities became the first signatories of the Frankfurt Resolution. Thirty-four cities in nine European countries and Israel later followed their lead.
The “Frankfurt Way” of addressing problematic drug use includes innovative “low-threshold drop-in centers” to provide information on safer substance use, sterile syringe access, and medically controlled heroin for patients, also known as heroin-assisted treatment. By 1999, overdose deaths in the city of Frankfurt dropped to 26 from their high of 147, and crime rates related to problematic drug use also declined.
In February 2016, Ithaca, New York, made history when it launched the first Municipal Drug Strategy in the U.S. Mayor Svante Myrick – working together with DPA – pulled together a group of local stakeholders with the goal of thinking differently about drugs and drug policies.
The committee’s recommendations included:
Since then, the city has had a dramatic expansion of opioid-agonist treatment providers and fentanyl testing is now available. The city has also laid the groundwork for a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program and continues to push for supervised consumption services.
Ithaca's progress has spread to all of Tompkins County where leaders have come together to pursue alternatives to the failed drug war. The county has shown downward declines in both drug arrests and overdose deaths. They have also passed a variety of harm reduction and anti-drug war policies, including requiring all public buildings to be equipped with the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
In 2017, the City of Santa Fe established a Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force to develop approaches to problems related to both drug and alcohol addiction and policy responses to it. Their proposed drug strategy is rooted in public health and safety.
The task force’s recommendations included:
Start a formal process to evaluate your jurisdiction and create lasting change. Complete our assessment to see if your jurisdiction is ready to develop local solutions to the devastating war on drugs now.
Contact your elected officials. Share with them our Lessons in Taking Drug Policy Local (PDF) and ask them to start repairing the damage the drug war has wrought in your community.