The Drug Policy Alliance’s Strategic Plan
Every person should be able to live freely and with dignity regardless of drug use. The Drug Policy Alliance is the leading organization in the U.S. working to end the war on drugs, repair its harms, and build an approach that puts people first. We envision a world that embraces the full humanity of people who use drugs and where the regulation of drugs is grounded in health, equity, and human rights.
Below is our strategic plan at-a-glance. Click the box to be taken to the relevant section or keep scrolling to read the plan in full.
- The Bridge Towards Health, Equity, and Human Rights
- Decriminalizing Drugs and Building Health-Based Alternatives
- Ensuring Our Systems Help, Not Hurt by Uprooting the Drug War from Our Daily Lives
- Reinvesting Resources into Communities, Divesting from Punitive Police Responses
- Legalizing and Regulating Drugs the Right Way
- Rethinking and Reducing Punishment of People in the Drug Trade
The Bridge Towards Health, Equity, and Human Rights
We all deserve to live our lives with dignity, within whole and loving communities, with the freedom to determine what is best for ourselves, with compassion and support in our times of need, without threat or violence. And we all should be able to live freely regardless of drug use.
The war on drugs has been sold to us by elected officials and leaders as an essential strategy for our protection. Yet, punitive drug laws in the United States, dating back to the 1870s, have served as one of the sharpest tools of oppression. And right now, we have more people dying of drug overdose than ever before. More people arrested for drug possession than any other offense. Millions of lives derailed, and millions of families shattered. The war on drugs is, and always was, a lie.
The war on drugs is a war on people that has pervaded every aspect of our daily lives with devastating impacts on our communities. It’s one of the most insidious tools that our society uses to further criminalize, punish, oppress, and control the groups of people who are targeted by so many other systemic injustices.
Labeling people who use certain substances as criminals has failed to protect us on every front, but it has been a useful scapegoat by elected officials and governments to justify the continued harm of the most persecuted communities including Black, Latinx, Indigenous, people of color, and those who are experiencing poverty.
Ending the drug war goes far beyond drugs – it’s intrinsically connected to the broader fight for health, equity, and human rights that’s shared across movements.
Tearing down the foundation of social injustice requires working across movements (e.g. housing, racial justice, immigration, criminal justice etc.) to end the drug war which has infested our communities, behaviors, systems, and institutions with punishment-first responses and far-reaching impacts on our daily lives.
Many of the reforms we’ve fought for—alongside supporters and partners like you—used to seem impossible. But the Drug Policy Alliance stood strong and pushed the envelope with cutting-edge policies that have fundamentally transformed the direction of drug policy in the U.S. and beyond.
- We led the way on marijuana reform—which is now legal for adults in 19 states, plus D.C.
- Our historic victory in Oregon, the first state in the nation to decriminalize drug possession and instead prioritize health services
- We spearheaded advocacy for the first officially recognized overdose prevention centers in the U.S. to open in New York City
As we fight to end the drug war, we are also building a bridge to a new world where health, equity, and human rights are front and center.
While we celebrate these incredible victories, we are focused on the challenges ahead. While overall marijuana arrest numbers have plummeted in states with legal access, racial disparities have persisted – legalization alone has not impacted all people equally. As the country grapples with the perceived increase in violence in our communities, we are seeing drugs and the people who use them scapegoated and used as a political tactic to roll back reforms and increase criminalization. We’re seeing the dangers of an unregulated drug supply that is poisoning and killing our communities and loved ones.
These realities have informed our plan and our analysis for this next chapter.
Our new strategic vision recognizes these challenging times, and our agenda is ambitious. For more than twenty years, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been the leading organization working to end the drug war and our new strategic plan takes bold steps to dismantle this war on people and communities by ending punishment and building a bridge among movements toward alternative policies centered in health, equity, and justice.
Keep scrolling to read the specifics about our plan.
Decriminalizing Drugs and Building Health-Based Alternatives
Decriminalizing drugs while building health-centered alternatives is a top priority for the Drug Policy Alliance. Drug possession is the most arrested offense in the country. Ending these arrests by decriminalizing the possession of all drugs is the most important step we can take right now to end punishment and the cycle of criminalization that fuels the drug war and the overdose crisis.
We’ll work to build on our historic win in Oregon and advance similar holistic measures that end criminal penalties for possession, reduce law enforcement responses to drug use and reinvest resources into building alternative health responses that prevent overdose deaths and other potential harms that protect the safety and well-being of people who use drugs.
Ending these arrests by decriminalizing the possession of all drugs is the most important step we can take right now to end punishment and the cycle of criminalization that fuels the drug war and the overdose crisis.
Other aspects of our decriminalization work will focus on eliminating criminal penalties for drug paraphernalia like drug-checking supplies and ensuring people who use drugs have access to overdose prevention centers where they can be connected to support services and safely consume drugs under the supervision of a trained professional that can react in the case of an overdose or other health emergency.
Ensuring Our Systems Help, Not Hurt by Uprooting the Drug War from Our Daily Lives
Our recent initiative Uprooting the Drug War exposed how the impact of the war on drugs extends far beyond arrest and incarceration. Up to now little attention has been given to the multitude of distinct ways the drug war itself has contaminated nearly every aspect of people’s lives that we all must interact with daily, including education, healthcare, housing, immigration, and employment.
The way that drug war thinking has distorted these systems by prioritizing punishment and surveillance over care and support has taken a devastating toll. It has deeply destabilized people’s lives: trapped people in poverty, broken up families, taken people’s homes, and robbed employees of their wages and job opportunities.
Up to now little attention has been given to the multitude of distinct ways the drug war itself has contaminated nearly every aspect of people’s lives that we all must interact with daily, including education, healthcare, housing, immigration, and employment.
We’ll build on our work to uproot the drug war and end punishments in these systems by exposing how the drug war has infected vital parts of civil society. That will mean continuing our work to put a stop to family separations and targeting parents using drugs as a pretext, which particularly impacts families of color. We will also work to eliminate employee drug tests that block thousands of people from being hired for stable jobs due solely to whether they test positive for a drug metabolite -- not based on actual impairment or anything related to job function.
Uprooting the Drug War is a call to action for all of us to work together—across movements and with legislators—to provide reform recommendations and create policy proposals to fully extract the drug war and its culture of criminalization from our lives.
Reinvesting Resources into Communities, Divesting from Punitive Police Responses
Each year, state, local, and federal governments spend an estimated $47 billion enforcing drug prohibition laws – money that would have been better spent on supporting communities and addressing the root causes of problematic drug use with robust health, harm reduction, and drug treatment services.
Funding for the drug war has made police more lethal with bloated budgets and unchecked power to pursue drugs with aggressive tactics which have terrorized communities and in too many instances led to killings, particularly of Black and Latinx people.
Each year, state, local, and federal governments spend an estimated $47 billion enforcing drug prohibition laws –
Stops and arrests for drug possession are among the primary ways people come into contact with law enforcement.
Redirecting resources for drug enforcement and reinvesting them into non-punitive responses to drugs will go a long way toward tearing down the very foundation of the drug war as well as the biased police enforcement that has targeted communities of color and resulted in harms that often go well beyond arrests.
Resources must also be committed to repairing the harms that the drug war caused to communities. In New York’s historic marijuana legalization law, we successfully fought for restitution for communities where the drug war has been most unjustly enforced. Under the law, state marijuana tax revenue and savings from the enforcement of punitive laws will to be invested in community-led initiatives that are responsive to the needs people have because of harms inflicted by the drug war, including re-entry services, afterschool programs, skills-building and job training programs, and more.
Reinvestment will remain central to all of our work from decriminalization to marijuana to policing and beyond. We also aim to ensure all our reforms further repair harms by fully addressing and remedying the impact of punishment, incarceration, sentencing, and criminal records so that people don’t continue to suffer or be left behind under new laws.
Legalizing and Regulating Drugs the Right Way
We spearheaded the movement to legalize marijuana with so much success that it’s taken on a life of its own. And our marijuana justice regulation model has become the gold standard for how to “legalize it right” across the country. Our progress has allowed us to shift away from leading state campaigns to focus more on our role as watchdog and advisor ensuring legalization efforts center racial equity, justice, and community reinvestment.
We’ll continue working to make sure these principles are adopted as we fight to end federal marijuana prohibition through The MORE Act. We’ll also pursue ending criminal penalties for marijuana possession in places like the South where the impact of prohibition has been severe.
Legal Regulation of All Drugs
DPA will move beyond marijuana to the next generation of reform: the legal, safe, and responsible regulation of all drugs. Even if marijuana is legalized everywhere, the drug war and its harms will rage on due to the criminalization of other drugs. And even if we eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of all drugs across the U.S., people will still be subject to arrest and incarceration for sales and production. The scaling of health interventions will not outpace contaminated drug supplies that are poisoning people – nor will health approaches alone address the violence and corruption driven by prohibition and drug enforcement within an unregulated market.
We’ll explore models of all-drug regulation and the principles by which drugs should be regulated to promote public health, community safety, and equity. If we truly want to end the drug war and address the overdose crisis, then safe supply and legal regulation must be part of the conversation.
Rethinking and Reducing Punishment of People in the Drug Trade
We often talk about people who sell drugs and people who use drugs as two distinct groups. In fact, they often overlap. Many people who sell drugs are involved in drug selling to support their own drug use. Policymakers in the United States increasingly recognize that drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue. Most, however, continue to support harsh criminal sentences for people who are involved with drug selling or distribution.
Politicians of all stripes have argued that long sentences for drug sellers will reduce drug availability and make remaining drugs more expensive, driving down demand. But this is not how drug markets actually work. Research and history have shown that the vilification and criminalization of people who sell drugs does not reduce problematic drug use nor reduce the availability of drugs and has made people who use drugs less safe.
Policymakers in the United States increasingly recognize that drug use should be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal issue.
Changing this misguided, pervasive criminalization perspective and advancing reforms for people who sell drugs is the next frontier. We’ll shift the narrative by building on our Rethinking the “Drug Dealer” work challenging the misconceptions about people involved in the drug trade which are rooted in racist myths and stereotypes. Laying the groundwork for policy reform related to drug sales is a crucial step toward ending the drug war.