Extracting Punishment from Our Civil Systems: DPA Launches New Initiative with Series of Reports Illustrating How the Drug War Has Contaminated Six Critical Systems

Press Release February 16, 2021
Media Contact

Matt Sutton (202) 556-3291
[email protected]

New York, NY – Today, the Drug Policy Alliance announced the launch of a major new initiative—Uprooting the Drug War—with the release of a series of reports and interactive website that aim to expose the impact of the war on drugs beyond arrest and incarceration. The project is designed to engage activists across sectors and issues in understanding and dismantling the ways in which the war on drugs has infiltrated and shaped many other systems people encounter in their daily lives—including education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. 
“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. 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,” said Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “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. 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 goal of the new initiative—a natural extension of DPA’s decriminalization advocacy work—is to collaborate with aligned movements and legislators through meetings, webinars, convenings, and organizing to explore the ways the drug war has infected the systems and institutions that are at the core of their policy advocacy and create momentum for concrete policy proposals that begin to end the drug war in all its forms.
The project, which lives at UprootingtheDrugWar.com, includes analysis of six different systems through first-hand stories, data spotlights, and reports that take a deep dive into how drug war policies have taken root and created grave harm in the fields of education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. Each report explores the history of how the drug war is waged (or enforced) in each system, as well as the underlying assumptions of drug war policies, through an examination of federal and New York state law. In addition to the reports, six ‘Snapshots’ provide a brief overview of how drug war punishment and logic show up in these systems at a national level and make policy recommendations that would begin to extract the drug war from these systems. Finally, the site offers six ‘Advocacy Assessment Tools,’ which give partners and legislators the opportunity to evaluate drug war policies and practices in their own community so they can take action to uproot the drug war locally.
“Harsh disciplinary policies and increased police presence, fueled in part by the war on drugs, have led to the criminalization of youth in schools, especially youth of color. Underlying this criminalization are assumptions propagated by the drug war that students who possess drugs or commit other policy violations cannot be good students; do not deserve an education or support; and must be removed before they disrupt other students’ learning.” On the contrary, “emphasis on enforcement and punishment creates an adversarial relationship between students and school officials and undermines the role that schools should play for students: a safe place for learning and support. Denying education to students, primarily students of color, for drug possession and other policy violations leads to negative consequences, including increased unemployment, income inequality, costly health problems, and incarceration.” – Excerpt from the Education Snapshot

“Policies stemming from the war on drugs exclude millions of people who use drugs or who have criminal convictions from employment and its associated benefits. These policies disproportionately impact people of color, who already face additional barriers to employment. The underlying assumptions of these policies are that people who use drugs cannot perform their jobs; any drug use is problematic and indicates a personality flaw; and a criminal conviction should permanently bar employment opportunities.” On the contrary, “employment provides a means to support oneself and others and connections to coworkers and the community. Ensuring access to employment is a crucial way to reduce poverty. Not being employed can lead to negative health effects and is strongly associated with increased rates of substance use and substance use disorders.” – Excerpt from the Employment Snapshot

“Policies that stem from the war on drugs deny housing to many based on misguided ideals of deterring people from using or being around drugs. Underlying these ideals are the assumptions that people who use drugs and their families do not deserve housing; cannot be good tenants or neighbors; and punishing them will persuade others not to use drugs. On the contrary, harsh penalties that remove and restrict people from housing contribute to the very negative outcomes the drug war supposedly seeks to prevent: harm to children, reduced education and employment, and deteriorating health (including increased drug use and overdose death).” – Excerpt from Housing Snapshot

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 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.” On the contrary, “Separating children from their parents often leads to the very harms from which these policies purport to protect. Removal from parental care is associated with long-term mental health problems, smoking, poverty, lower educational attainment, and use of public assistance. Placing the blame on individual parents and drugs offers an easy scapegoat that detracts from focusing on structural issues like racism, poverty, and lack of supportive services.” – Excerpt from Child Welfare Snapshot

“For over one hundred years, certain classes of immigrants have been falsely associated with drug use and activity. The underlying assumptions behind this reasoning and resulting policies are that immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, are dangerous, undesirable people who bring drugs into the country that harm U.S. citizens (read: white U.S. citizens); people who use drugs need to be removed from our communities and, when possible, country; and an immigrant cannot be a good community member if they use drugs or have a criminal record. This mentality has helped to create the world’s largest immigrant exclusion, detention, and deportation apparatus.” On the contrary, “law enforcement has disproportionately focused domestic enforcement of the drug war in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, including immigrant communities, and international enforcement in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which has helped solidify assumed connections between immigrants and people of color with drugs and crime. In turn, increased deportations, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and expanded enforcement of and incarceration for immigration offenses has reinforced these connections in the public’s eye. A great irony is that the U.S.’s international drug policy contributes to violence and instability in Latin American countries that drives many people to immigrate to the U.S.” – Excerpt from Immigration Snapshot

Public Benefits
“The war on drugs provided a rationale for states to limit access [to public benefits] in the name of deterring drug involvement. The assumptions behind this rationale are that some people deserve help while others do not (i.e., people who use drugs do not deserve basic necessities); people are just trying to game the system and squander public money (e.g., the “welfare queen” stereotype); and people who use drugs are not and cannot be responsible community members.” On the contrary, “By denying benefits that can help people out of poverty, our policies may actually contribute to increased substance use disorder rates, in addition to negative health and education outcomes that contribute to generational poverty. Public benefits also help people reduce the risk of returning to jail or prison after incarceration. The war on drugs has limited access and deterred many people from accessing public benefits that could help support their families and improve health, safety, and wellbeing.” – Excerpt from Public Benefits Snapshot

The full Uprooting the Drug War series of reports can be found at UprootingtheDrugWar.com

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

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