New Report Finds Nationwide Momentum Building Against U.S. War on Drugs

Press Release September 15, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or Ariel Kalishman at 212-613-8036

A first-of-its-kind report was released today by the Drug Policy Alliance detailing the numerous drug policy reforms that have taken place around the country in recent years. The report, State of the States: Drug Policy Reforms, 1996-2002, found more than 150 changes in state legislation on a range of issues, including: advancing alternatives to incarceration, protecting medical marijuana patients and providers, expanding sterile syringe availability, and restoring benefits and voting rights to former drug offenders. The full report can be found at

While the federal government continues to spend billions of dollars on the failed, three-decade-old war on drugs, forty-six states have responded by passing more effective and fiscally-responsible legislation, according to the new report. Seventeen of these states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington, have passed three or more pieces of drug policy reform legislation between 1996 and 2002. The reforms were initiated, sponsored and supported by Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens and Independents.

“The war on drugs may well be the most wasteful use of government resources today,” said Don Murphy, a former Republican state legislator from Maryland who spoke at today’s press conference to release the report. “As a taxpayer, it’s nice to know that Maryland is not alone in embracing more pragmatic approaches.”

Murphy was joined by Washington State Senator Adam Kline (D-Seattle), Connecticut Representative Michael P. Lawlor (D – 99) and Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“It’s exciting to see state after state taking a look at their drug policies and saying, ‘Hey, we could do this a lot better,'” said Senator Kline. “We’re close to our constituents, and know what’s important to them — real safety, better healthcare and fiscal responsibility. These types of reforms address all of those concerns.”

State of the States: Drug Policy Reforms, 1996-2002 was researched and written by the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs and promote new drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.

“Much of this started in the mid 90’s when voters in California, Arizona and elsewhere started passing ballot initiatives, demonstrating that the public was ahead of the politicians on this issue,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Alliance. “Now legislators around the country are increasingly shedding their fear of being labeled ‘soft on drugs.’ It’s only a matter of time before Congress follows suit.”

The report is organized by issue and by state. Examples of issues (excerpted from the report) include:

Alternatives to Incarceration — In an era of budget crises, state governments are under strong pressure to reduce prison overcrowding and other law enforcement excesses. Alternatives to incarceration divert certain nonviolent drug offenders from prison to drug treatment, offering compassionate options in public policy, with obvious fiscal advantages. Imprisonment costs an average of $30,000 per person per year, while treatment can cost as little as $4,000. Plus treatment is more effective than punishment in reducing substance abuse. Six alternative to incarceration reforms were enacted between 1996 and 2002 in Arizona, California, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.

Medical Marijuana — No drug policy reform is more widely supported in America today than the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Many patients have found that marijuana helps provide relief from symptoms related to AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. Numerous medical and scientific studies have validated their testimony. Fifteen reforms to protect medical marijuana patients and providers were enacted between 1996 and 2002 in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Nevertheless, the federal government continues to use its discretion under federal law to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate patients and their caregivers in these states.

Sterile Syringe Availability — Sharing of syringes among people who inject drugs is a crucial factor in the worldwide spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. It affects not only those who inject drugs, but also their sexual partners and children. Every established medical, scientific and legal body to study the issue concurs in the efficacy of improved access to sterile syringes in reducing the spread of such diseases. Between 1996 and 2002, nine states passed legislation to increase the availability of syringes through needle exchange programs, pharmacy deregulation and the decriminalization of syringe possession. Those states are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Washington.

Other drug policy reform issues addressed in the report include: reforming drug sentencing, reducing fatal overdose, banning racial profiling, restoring benefits and voting rights to former offenders, promoting industrial hemp and reducing civil asset forfeiture abuses. Many of these reforms are well established in some nations of Western Europe and other countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And many more reforms have been underway in the U.S. since 2002.

“At a time when states are laying off school teachers and slashing other essential services, cutting drug war spending is an easy way to save millions of dollars and at the same time enact more humane, rational policies,” said Nadelmann.

The Drug Policy Alliance will soon launch a major campaign focusing on drug policy reform as an important cost-saving measure for states facing financial hardship. It will include advertising in major media outlets, working with key legislators and organizing activists and concerned citizens around the country.

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

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