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Ending Drug War Civil Punishment (Deep Dive)

This section offers a deep dive into the issue of ending civil punishment for people who use drugs. To visit the main page for a quicker overview, click here. Otherwise, keep scrolling to learn more.


Why Ending Drug War Civil Punishment Matters

Civil Systems Should Support, Not Punish People.

No one should be denied their humanity or help with essential needs—whether they use drugs or not. Yet, drug use–real or perceived–is used as an excuse to punish people. Punishments run though many of our civil systems including education, employment, family policing, public benefits, housing, and immigration. Instead of getting necessary resources, people can be denied the right to work and earn a living. They can be denied help with essentials like food and housing. They can lose public benefits, resources, and access to care. Families can be separated and forced apart.

Most people who use drugs do not develop a substance use disorder and lead meaningful lives. Those who do struggle with drugs need support. That means a home, educational opportunities, a stable job, and having their loved ones around them to thrive. And it means better access to addiction services and social supports.

Our civil systems should be providing people with the resources they need, not using drugs as a pretense to punish people. It’s time our civil systems help instead of hurt, regardless of drug use. The Drug Policy Alliance is working to end drug war civil punishment that harms families and communities.


Problems Caused by Drug War Civil Punishment

The Drug War Has Infiltrated Supportive Systems and Our Daily Lives.

President Nixon launched the war on drugs 50 years ago. Since then, decision-makers have approached people who use drugs with punishment, racialized profiling, and stigma. The drug war is not rooted in evidence or compassion. This punitive response has infiltrated nearly every level of our society. It has distorted opportunities for support into battlegrounds of policing, surveillance, and harm.

The effects of the drug war show up in our civil systems: education, employment, family policing, public benefits, housing, and immigration. It tears families apart. It devastates the health and stability of communities. You can learn more about each area at the links below.


Removing the Drug War from Daily Life

The Drug Policy Alliance is Removing the Drug War from Daily Life.

The Drug Policy Alliance and our allies have pushed local and state decision-makers to confront the legacy of damage our nation’s drug laws have caused in people’s daily lives. We have:

Drug testing is one of the most consistent ways the drug war intrudes into everyday life. The Drug Policy Alliance is focusing on ending this practice through far-reaching campaigns.
End Drug Tests for Workers

We are leading efforts to end workplace drug testing. Drug testing yields no measurable improvements in workplace safety or productivity. Instead, it jeopardizes people’s livelihoods. It violates their autonomy and strips them of their dignity. As millions of people are struggling to make ends meet and drug policy reforms are spreading across the country, there is clear momentum for this long-overdue change.

Drug Tests Are Not Parenting Tests

We believe we must move healthcare towards support and away from surveillance. We are working on campaigns in multiple states to require informed consent for drug testing. We are also laying the foundation to remove drug testing altogether. Drug testing is commonly used as a tool to criminalize parents and families. Yet, a drug test does not indicate a person’s capacity to be a good parent. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that punish any drug use during pregnancy as child maltreatment. This is regardless of context and without any signs of harm. When parents are drug tested, there is often no medical explanation given and no treatment provided if someone tests positive. In a violation of people’s civil rights, often the parent doesn’t even know the test is happening.


Benefits of Ending Drug War Civil Punishment

Supporting Lives and Building Up Communities

Everyone should have the right to basic needs like food, housing, and employment to thrive. Research consistently shows that punitive responses to drug use like cutting off food stamps, separating people from family support, and kicking people out of housing have destabilizing effects that can deepen people’s struggles. Drug war policies like these lead to increased problematic drug use and drug-related harms. This includes overdose and infectious disease risk.

People should be able to work, parent, be housed, have a community, experience joy, and live freely regardless of drug use. We need to move in a fresh direction that draws on the evidence for what supports people need to do this.

For example, many housing programs have an abstinence pre-requisite that blocks many people from being able to participate. Yet, studies recommend that people experiencing homelessness who are struggling with both substance use and mental health disorders get supportive housing rather than treatment alone. These studies also found that supportive housing was associated with:

The Drug Policy Alliance is challenging how drug war policing and enforcement show up day-to-day. No more lives should be torn apart because of targeted punishment, harmful surveillance, and the lack of supportive services. We are continuing to fight for a future where no one will be denied a job, a home, an education, and so much more because of a drug arrest or drug test.

End Civil Punishment of People Who Use Drugs

The Drug Policy Alliance is fighting to end the wide-reaching devastation the drug war causes in people’s lives. This includes removing barriers like drug testing that cause immense instability and harm every day.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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