The Drug War is Harming D.C. Here’s How.
Washington, D.C. is home to rich history, culture, and communities that have been working to reimagine public safety, health, and wellness – all in the face of racially-biased policies and policing, and the political consequences of being deprived of full representation, rights, and recognition as a state.
Over 50 years ago, former President Nixon formally declared the U.S. “war on drugs” right here in the District. Decades later, we are still harmed by the exponential impact of drug war policies that unjustly target Washingtonians that are Black, experiencing poverty, and/or struggling with substance use disorder.
All Washingtonians deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness with tangible opportunities to thrive and prosper. In order to live full lives, every person deserves to have their most basic needs met from access to stigma-free health care and safe and stable housing to living in community and experiencing joy and pleasure.
Yet, this is not the reality in D.C.
Right now, D.C. is facing an urgent crisis that D.C. Council must address. According to CDC data, in 2020, the District saw the highest overdose rates on record. And there are scarce health services for those who need it most. Make no mistake about it, the lack of substantial investment in healthcare, housing, and other social supports in favor of criminalization is fueling the overdose crisis.
Drug possession is the most arrested offense in the United States, with one arrest every 31 seconds. It deviates from D.C.’s and America’s promise of fairness, enabling law enforcement to harass, prosecute, deport, incarcerate and even justify killing – disproportionately Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people.
Criminalization of drug use and possession traps people in poverty, breaks up families, takes people’s homes, and robs employees of job opportunities and the ability to take care of themselves and their families. What most people don’t know is that criminalization makes the drug supply unregulated and dangerous. This has been one of the biggest contributors to the overdose crisis and why our friends, families, neighbors, and loved ones are dying of overdose at devastating rates even though it’s preventable.
In order to save lives, the District must end arresting and incarcerating people simply for possessing or using drugs, while simultaneously investing in health and harm reduction services.
Drug decriminalization – if enacted in the District and across the United States – would keep millions from entering the criminal legal system and allow people who use drugs chaotically or struggling with addiction to get health-services. It’s time to stop wasting resources on arrest, incarceration, and punishment for drug use and possession and instead invest in critical health, overdose prevention, and harm reduction services that are proven to save lives.
Eighty three percent of D.C. voters agree. Now the D.C. Council must act. With your help, our campaign is urging the D.C. Council to pass a bill that would decriminalize drug possession, establish a 24/7 harm reduction center, address life-long consequences of convictions, and invest in life-saving and stabilizing support and resources instead of punishment.
Join the Movement to Decriminalize Drugs
Take a Deeper Dive: What Decriminalization of Drugs Will Accomplish:
Reduces Drug-Related Harms
Evidence from around the world shows that eliminating criminal penalties for possession of drugs decreases drug-related harms, while not significantly increasing rates of drug use.
Increases Access to Treatment
Instead of arresting and incarcerating people, decriminalization can include provisions for people who use drugs to voluntarily connect with healthcare services. Additionally, all drug decriminalization efforts include infusing resources into treatment and services for people who use drugs.
Reduces Racial Disparities in the Criminal Legal System
Targeted enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal legal system. When enacted, decriminalization has the potential to dramatically reduce – and nearly eliminate – racial disparities in drug arrests.
Reduces Deportation Risk
Drug enforcement is a primary driver of the U.S. deportation machine: after entry, drug offenses were the most common offense among people who were deported in 2019. Instead of cruelly tearing families apart and sending people back to countries where they may not have connections or support, decriminalization would help to limit immigration consequences for drug law violations and provide non-citizens with adequate healthcare and support.
Reduces Far-Reaching Harms of the Drug War
Drug law violations are one of the leading nonviolent causes for reincarceration and excessive jailing in DC. In addition to hefty fines and lengthy jail sentences, decriminalization would help to reduce the number of people with criminal records. Criminal records can be a barrier to people getting jobs, housing, student loans, public assistance, professional licenses, and more.
Better Spends Taxpayer Money
Criminalizing drug possession and placing people in prison, jail, or on probation or parole is an enormous waste of resources that comes with a staggering price tag for U.S. taxpayers. If penalties were removed for drug possession, money spent on arrests and incarceration could be allocated to funding areas like community-driven crisis intervention, healthcare, affordable housing, harm reduction and treatment services, nutritious food, and infrastructure.
Why the District of Columbia?
High incarceration and overdose rates make the District a critical place to decriminalize drugs and connect people with healthcare, treatment, harm reduction services, and other social and economic supports. According to CDC data, in 2020, the District saw the highest overdose rates on record. It is estimated that 511 people died from accidental overdose deaths in the District. We are in a state of emergency that requires an urgent, systemic change to how the District addresses drug use, starting with the end of arresting and incarcerating people simply for possessing or using drugs while simultaneously investing in health and harm reduction services. In order to save lives, use funds more efficiently, and re-imagine public safety and health, DC Council should urgently consider removing criminal penalties for personal use drug possession, establish a 24/7 harm reduction center, address life-long consequences of convictions, and invest in life-saving and stabilizing support and resources instead of punishment.