Drug War Dragnet: Surveillance, Criminalization & Freedom from the Drug War

Video April 28, 2022

This conference brought together leading thinkers to map the more invisibilized forms of drug war surveillance within civil systems.

The conference took place from April 27-28 2022, hosted by Drug Policy Alliance and co-sponsored by Upturn and the Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work. This conference focused on drug war surveillance within people’s everyday lives – from housing and employment to public benefits and the family regulation system and immigration – and how we can uproot the drug war in all its forms.

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In recent years, we have seen a growth in robust, deep analysis of surveillance in the U.S. particularly of Black and Brown people, Muslims, LGBTQ+ people, unhoused people, and people experiencing poverty. We have also seen organizing against police and state surveillance tactics and technologies, like facial recognition technology, automatic license plate readers, drones, predictive policing technologies, high-definition cameras, and sharing of data across police jurisdictions. Less examined are the ways that people who use drugs or people suspected of using and/or selling drugs are subject to surveillance within civil systems, such as housing, employment, public benefits, and others. In the opening plenary, we’ll unpack what we mean by drug war surveillance. Why are we seeing these types of surveillance technologies and mechanisms now?

This keynote featured a conversation with  Dr. Dorothy Roberts, author of Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World;  Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor; and  Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance.


Panel 1:

What is the range of surveillance technologies deployed within civil systems to monitor people who use drugs or people suspected of using and/or selling drugs? What technologies are on the horizon? Are there spaces that are particularly subject to surveillance? In this panel, we will discuss technologies such as algorithms and predictive analytics, digital health and criminal legal data sharing, background checks, and drug testing. We’ll explore the incentives driving the proliferation of these technologies, who they impact, and how.

Panelists: J Khadijah Abdurahman, We Be Imagining; Kelly Knight, University of California, San Francisco; Puck Lo, Community Justice Exchange; Andrea M. López, University of Maryland; David McElhattan, Purdue University

Panel 2:

How is policing happening outside of the criminal legal system? What people and workers have been enlisted to carry out drug war surveillance of people? How has drug war surveillance been used to dictate which people can participate fully in society? How has surveillance dictated expectations of how people get to live their lives? In this panel, we will discuss the actors, policies, and practices that govern people’s lives outside of the purview of the criminal legal system, including mandatory reporting laws, nuisance laws, behavioral modification interventions, and collaborations between police and civil systems.

Panelists: Lesly-Marie Buer, Choice Health Network Harm Reduction; Sarah Carthen Watson, Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center; Maria Fernandez, Advancement Project; Vivianne Guevara, The Federal Defenders of New York – Eastern District; Anjana Samant, The American Civil Liberties Union

Panel 3:

What are the impacts of surveillance? In this panel, we will discuss impacts, like family separation, loss of benefits and resources, erosion of trust, worse care, poorer physical and emotional health, economic disenfranchisement, violation of autonomy and self-determination, and more. Then we will ask, what are the levers of change? What are solutions and intervention at the policy, programmatic, and individual levels?

Panelists: Jacinta Gonzalez, Mijente; Joyce McMillan, JMacforFamilies; Emily Paul, Upturn; Roberta “Toni” Meyers-Douglas, Legal Action Center; Kim Smith, VOCAL-Rochester


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

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