We are at a moment in time when public perception towards drugs and the people who are involved with them is rightfully changing. There may have been no clearer evidence of this than in the most recent election—where every single drug policy reform initiative on the ballot won, and most, pretty significantly. From Oregon becoming the first state to pass all drug decriminalization by 17 points, to red states like Mississippi and South Dakota passing key marijuana reforms, the message was clear: Americans are favoring policies that remove criminalization from our country’s racist and checkered drug policy history in exchange for more equitable, just, and public health-centered approaches.
Key to pushing this change forward will be how President-elect Joe Biden chooses to proceed with the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While the Drug Policy Alliance and other advocates would like to see this enforcement-focused office done away with altogether, the political reality is that it will likely remain. And so, the person who leads the office and, largely, the country’s drug control strategy, must be someone who has a history of centering a health-based approach to drugs.
Given everything we have seen over the last year—in terms of how Covid-19 has exacerbated the already devastating overdose crisis and the way that drugs have too often been used as an excuse to criminalize, and even harm or kill Black, Brown and Indigenous people—it would be a huge mistake to appoint someone to this post that would repeat the same harmful mistakes of the past.
The Biden-Harris administration taking power has given this country hope—and we must ensure that hope and opportunity extends to everyone, including people who use or are otherwise involved with drugs. Instead of continuing the failed and punitive drug war tactics of the last 50 years—which has resulted in skyrocketing mass criminalization and an overdose crisis claiming the lives of more than 70,000 Americans per year—we owe ourselves a new approach grounded in science, compassion, and human rights.
In this selection process, we cannot allow ourselves to fall victim to the false narrative that the criminal legal system still has a role to play in public health matters. That means we must think twice about potential nominees’—such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s—support for things like drug courts and coerced treatment. While these approaches may sound more compassionate and health-centered on the surface, in reality, they expand the reach of the criminal legal system, rob people of their rights, reinforce stigma, and continue to burden people with criminal records that limit their access to employment, housing, education, federal nutritional assistance, and can even cost them their children or immigration status.
Science and compassion must be central to our decision-making on how to best treat people who are struggling with drug use.
Science and compassion must be central to our decision-making on how to best treat people who are struggling with drug use. For much of the last 50 years, the federal government has embraced abstinence-only approaches that neglect the evidence showing that harm reduction and medication-assisted treatment have a vital role to play in reducing overdose deaths and helping people stop using drugs when they are ready. This means eliminating arbitrary barriers to buprenorphine and methadone access that are considered the gold standard for treating people with opioid use disorder, ending the Trump administration’s counterproductive witch-hunt against overdose prevention sites, expanding access to syringe services, and scaling up harm reduction-based drug education programs.
We must ensure that not only is our strategy aligned to support these efforts, but that there is also adequate funding available to provide these resources to the people who need them. And in order to do that, we need a budget that prioritizes harm reduction, treatment and recovery services, and de-prioritizes enforcement and supply-side strategies that have merely perpetuated mass criminalization and enshrined a failed drug war.
We are at a crossroads—and the Biden-Harris administration has the power to make an incredibly important decision with its handling of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and who leads it. Will they choose a path that continues the harmful mistakes of the past that have resulted in the disproportionate criminalization of poor, Black, Brown and Indigenous communities or will they set us on a path to embrace something better, centered in justice, equity, and health? The Biden Administration should listen to the will of the people and make a choice that will take us further down the path towards positive change.
Maritza Pérez is the Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, DC where she leads the organization’s federal legislative agenda and strategy.
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