Congress Should Reject Biden’s Harmful Scheduling Proposal and Focus on Public Health Solutions to the Overdose Crisis

Press Release December 2, 2021
Media Contact

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
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Washington, D.C. — Today, the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing on President Joe Biden’s harmful proposal to permanently classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs. A classwide scheduling order would expand mass incarceration, worsen racial disparities in the criminal-legal system, and further fuel the cycle of substance use exacerbated by policies rooted in criminalization. A coalition of leading civil rights activists and policy experts is urging members of Congress to reject Biden’s proposal and pass health-based strategies that are proven to save lives.

To meaningfully address the overdose crisis and save lives, a compassionate public health-centered approach — focusing on harm reduction services like increased access to test strips, overdose-reversing drugs like Naloxone, and safe-injection sites — is desperately needed. The Energy and Commerce Committee hearing failed to substantively consider these public health options. All of the witnesses at today’s hearing were administration officials, while advocates were locked out of the discussion. Congress, federal agencies, and the Biden administration need to listen to voices that truly understand substance use and incarceration. 

“Drug criminalization has poisoned the drug supply in this country and led us to this point: record-number of preventable overdose deaths,” said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Congress must chart a new course to save lives. The only way forward is moving health-centered legislation that can provide life-saving harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs. Anything less is not a solution — it’s a cop out for Congress.”  

“Continuing to treat the overdose crisis as a criminal-legal system issue rather than the public health issue it is, is a disastrous waste of resources and ignores the root cause of the problem,” said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Rather than continuing to weaponize our deeply biased and flawed criminal-legal system and deepen the racial and socioeconomic disparities wrought by the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ and criminalization, Congress should rely on the expertise of medical professionals, advocates, and those who are directly impacted to implement evidence-based policies and provide treatment and harm reduction resources to those struggling with substance use issues.”

“The facts don’t support the argument that a harsh law enforcement approach, such as permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances, will curb drug distribution, sale, and use,” said Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice. “This policy has been in effect on a temporary basis since 2018, yet overdose deaths have sadly skyrocketed. Years of research demonstrate that harsher punishments do not deter unlawful behavior, particularly when that behavior is rooted in substance use disorder, trauma, and poverty. Congress and the administration should instead center an evidence-based public health approach to saving lives now lost to overdose, and futures lost to long incarcerative sentences dictated by classwide scheduling.”  

“As thousands of Americans die every month of overdose — and as the recent 12-month mark of over 100,000 overdose deaths in our nation reached a tragic and unprecedented new high — the last thing we need to address this crisis is more punitive carceral responses. The proposal to classify all fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs and to perpetuate failed tough-on-crime responses will only deepen racial disparities without making our communities safer or saving lives. Instead, elected prosecutors and communities are increasingly recognizing that we need to embrace harm reduction strategies and public health responses to address a public health problem,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director at Fair and Just Prosecution.

“If the record number of overdose deaths in the past year has shown us anything it’s that continued over-criminalization does not work yet Congress and the Biden administration continue to pursue the same failed policies. We need leaders to treat this like the public health crisis that it is and implement harm reduction and treatment strategies that we know work and will save lives,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. 

“An untargeted, blanket ban on thousands of chemical substances only serves to further overcrowd our prisons and harm our society’s most vulnerable,” said Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department. “If Congress accepts President Biden’s misguided recommendations, it will undermine the movement for criminal justice reform. Each and every member of Congress has a decision to make: continue to lock up Black and brown people and hope overdoses magically stop, or give people the resources and support to lead healthy, dignified lives.”

“Our communities have suffered for decades under unjust policies that criminalized people who use drugs, tearing families apart and causing preventable overdoses,” said Megan Essaheb, director of federal affairs at People’s Action. “Criminalization is a failed experiment that disproportionately hurts poor people and Black and brown folks. Congress and the Biden administration should finally listen to these communities and take bold and immediate action to address the overdose crisis through public health, evidence-based solutions.”

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

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