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Drug Policy Alliance Announces New Effort to Uproot the Drug War

‘Uprooting the Drug War’ Highlights Need to Remove Drug War’s ‘Roots’ From Education, Employment, Housing, Child Welfare, Immigration & Public Benefits

The Drug Policy Alliance recently announced the launch of a major new initiative—Uprooting the Drug War—with the release of a series of reports and interactive website that aim to expose the impact of the war on drugs beyond arrest and incarceration. The project is designed to engage activists across sectors and issues in understanding and dismantling the ways in which the war on drugs has infiltrated and shaped many other systems people encounter in their daily lives—including education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. 

“Even as there is growing momentum for treating drug use as a matter of personal and public health, the systems on which we would normally rely to advance an alternative approach are infested with the same culture of punishment as the criminal legal system and have operated with relative impunity. Today, we expose those systems and their role in fueling drug war policies and logic that compound the harms suffered by people who use drugs and people who are targeted by drug war enforcement,” says Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Ending the drug war in all its vestiges is critical to improving the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. But, this is not DPA’s fight alone, nor even that of the broader criminal legal reform movement—it is a collective and intersectional fight that must happen in partnership with allies both within these systems and outside of them. It will take all of us, because the drug war impacts us all. Only through creating awareness of the drug war’s insidious impacts across sectors can we begin to disentangle it and the culture of criminalization it promulgates from our lives.” 

The goal of the new initiative—a natural extension of DPA’s decriminalization advocacy work—is to collaborate with aligned movements and legislators through meetings, webinars, convenings, and organizing to explore the ways the drug war has infected the systems and institutions that are at the core of their policy advocacy and create momentum for concrete policy proposals that begin to end the drug war in all its forms.

The project, which lives at, includes analysis of six different systems through first-hand stories, data spotlights, and reports that take a deep dive into how drug war policies have taken root and created grave harm in the fields of education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. Each report explores the history of how the drug war is waged (or enforced) in each system, as well as the underlying assumptions of drug war policies, through an examination of federal and New York state law. In addition to the reports, six ‘Snapshots’ provide a brief overview of how drug war punishment and logic show up in these systems at a national level and make policy recommendations that would begin to extract the drug war from these systems. Finally, the site offers six ‘Advocacy Assessment Tools,’ which give partners and legislators the opportunity to evaluate drug war policies and practices in their own community so they can take action to uproot the drug war locally. 

"Harsh disciplinary policies and increased police presence, fueled in part by the war on drugs, have led to the criminalization of youth in schools, especially youth of color. Underlying this criminalization are assumptions propagated by the drug war that students who possess drugs or commit other policy violations cannot be good students; do not deserve an education or support; and must be removed before they disrupt other students’ learning.” On the contrary, “emphasis on enforcement and punishment creates an adversarial relationship between students and school officials and undermines the role that schools should play for students: a safe place for learning and support. Denying education to students, primarily students of color, for drug possession and other policy violations leads to negative consequences, including increased unemployment, income inequality, costly health problems, and incarceration." - Excerpt from the Education Snapshot 

  • Drug use has become the second-highest source of referrals of students to police. These policies remove any ability for school officials to support students, and they promote harsh punishment over resources and education on drug use.
  • Over one-third of school districts have policies for randomly drug testing students, some requiring tests for students as young as 11 years old.
  • Police routinely use specially trained dogs to sniff students’ backpacks for contraband.
  • Ten million students are in schools that have law enforcement but no social workers.
  • Twenty-three states have almost as many police and security officers as they do school counselors.
  • At its height, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program was present in 75% of the nation’s public school districts and remains the predominant drug education curriculum, despite a multitude of studies showing it doesn’t work.
  • Fourteen states have some temporary or permanent denial of financial aid for college or university education for people with criminal records. Before December 2020, drug convictions could lead to temporary or indefinite suspension of federal financial aid for college students. 

"Policies stemming from the war on drugs exclude millions of people who use drugs or who have criminal convictions from employment and its associated benefits. These policies disproportionately impact people of color, who already face additional barriers to employment. The underlying assumptions of these policies are that people who use drugs cannot perform their jobs; any drug use is problematic and indicates a personality flaw; and a criminal conviction should permanently bar employment opportunities.” On the contrary, “employment provides a means to support oneself and others and connections to coworkers and the community. Ensuring access to employment is a crucial way to reduce poverty. Not being employed can lead to negative health effects and is strongly associated with increased rates of substance use and substance use disorders.” - Excerpt from the Employment Snapshot

  • In 1988, President Reagan signed the Drug-Free Workplace Act into law, which requires all federal contractors and grantees to establish drug-free workplace requirements.
  • By 1996, 81% of surveyed employers said they subjected employees to drug tests.
  • Every state allows drug testing in some job settings, and 18 states allow all employers to conduct drug testing regardless of job function.
  • Even in states that have legalized all adult use or medical use of marijuana, employers may still be able to terminate employees for a marijuana-positive drug test.
  • For employees that have substance use needs, employer support is often lacking. When these needs are identified, employers have wide discretion to sanction or terminate the employee, which can then exacerbate drug use.
  • Widespread criminalization, fueled in large part by the drug war, has resulted in as many as one in five people in the United States. having some type of criminal record. Laws vary by state, but employers generally have wide discretion to deny employment to people with criminal records.
  • Many licenses needed to work in certain sectors can be denied based on criminal records. More than one-quarter of jobs in the United States require a license, which immediately limits access to people with criminal records.
  • These barriers have significant economic impacts; employment barriers faced by people who have a felony conviction were associated with a loss of $78 billion to the economy in 2014.

"Policies that stem from the war on drugs deny housing to many based on misguided ideals of deterring people from using or being around drugs. Underlying these ideals are the assumptions that people who use drugs and their families do not deserve housing; cannot be good tenants or neighbors; and punishing them will persuade others not to use drugs. On the contrary, harsh penalties that remove and restrict people from housing contribute to the very negative outcomes the drug war supposedly seeks to prevent: harm to children, reduced education and employment, and deteriorating health (including increased drug use and overdose death)." - Excerpt from Housing Snapshot 

  • Federal law requires that public housing tenants refrain from engaging in an “drug-related criminal activity” on and off premises.
  • Federal “One Strike” policies encourage immediate eviction after suspected drug activity,regardless of whether such activity is problematic.
  • Once evicted for drug-related activity, federal law requires housing authorities to ban access to public housing for three years, though authorities in at least 12 states impose even longer bans.
  • Six months after authorities first implemented One Strike policies in the mid-1990s, nearly 20,000 people were denied housing for criminal or drug-related activities: more than double in the preceding six months.
  • People who have been evicted for drug activity are disqualified from receiving Section 8 vouchers for a minimum of three years, even if never convicted of a drug offense.
  • Private landlords also perpetuate the war on drugs mentality by denying leases to people with criminal convictions, including drug convictions. There are very limited protections against discrimination based on criminal record, giving wide discretion to landlords to deny housing based on often old and irrelevant convictions. In one survey, nearly one-half of landlords said they would not overlook a person’s record.
  • Local ordinances are used to evict people who call for emergency services to respond to an overdose.

Child Welfare
“The war on drugs has provided a key tool to perpetuate family separation, especially against parents of color. According to drug war logic, any drug use – even suspected – is equivalent to child abuse, regardless of context and harm to the child. The underlying assumptions are that parental drug use automatically harms children; parents who use drugs cannot be good parents; the foster care system can provide better care for children; and it is better to remove children from their parents than to provide support to improve the situation.” On the contrary, Separating children from their parents often leads to the very harms from which these policies purport to protect. Removal from parental care is associated with long-term mental health problems, smoking, poverty, lower educational attainment, and use of public assistance. Placing the blame on individual parents and drugs offers an easy scapegoat that detracts from focusing on structural issues like racism, poverty, and lack of supportive services.” - Excerpt from Child Welfare Snapshot 

  • Drug use has become one of the most prevalent allegations in maltreatment investigations, even though the assumption that drug use results in the inability to care for children is not supported by evidence. Cumulatively, some researchers estimate that over one-third of U.S. children have been the subject of a maltreatment investigation. Over one-half of Black children have been subject to a maltreatment investigation.
  • Some researchers estimate that over 80% of all foster system cases involve caretaker drug allegations at some point in the case.
  • Over one-third of removals in 2016 involved parental alcohol or other drug use as a contributing factor, representing a 17% increase from the turn of the century and the largest increase of any reason for removal in the last five years.
  • Often a finding of maltreatment based on parental drug use is based on a drug test rather than on any demonstrated harm to the child. Yet, the simple presence of drugs in a drug test is a common reason relied on by child welfare agencies across the country to sustain a finding of child maltreatment.
  • A positive drug test can also be used as justification to mandate abstinence-based drug treatmenteven where the person does not have a substance use disorder.
  • Drug use has especially been used to demonize pregnant people who use drugs, despite a lack of evidence supporting a link between in utero drug exposure and negative long-term health effects. 
  • Even though the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s and '90s was proven to be a myth that only served to castigate and punish women of color, states responded by passing laws defining drug use during pregnancy as child abuse. Today, increased attention to neonatal abstinence syndrome in babies exposed to opioids during pregnancy continues this trend by catalyzing legislative efforts to define this exposure as per se child abuse.
  • Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have statutes that consider any drug use during pregnancy to be child maltreatment. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to removal of children born to parents who used drugs during pregnancy, even without signs of harm. In New York City’s Bronx borough, nearly one-half of removals of children under one month old were due to drug use during pregnancy.
  • Mandatory reporting laws are a big contributor to child abuse investigations stemming from alleged drug use during pregnancy. One-half of all states and the District of Columbia require doctors to report any suspicion of drug use to child welfare authorities. At least one-half of reports to child protective services about newborns exposed to drugs in utero come from medical professionals.
  • Parents who are in substance use disorder treatment may be told by judges to switch programs, including some courts that require people using methadone and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder treatment to taper off their medications. 

“For over one hundred years, certain classes of immigrants have been falsely associated with drug use and activity. The underlying assumptions behind this reasoning and resulting policies are that immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, are dangerous, undesirable people who bring drugs into the country that harm U.S. citizens (read: white U.S. citizens); people who use drugs need to be removed from our communities and, when possible, country; and an immigrant cannot be a good community member if they use drugs or have a criminal record. This mentality has helped to create the world’s largest immigrant exclusion, detention, and deportation apparatus.” On the contrary, “law enforcement has disproportionately focused domestic enforcement of the drug war in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, including immigrant communities, and international enforcement in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, which has helped solidify assumed connections between immigrants and people of color with drugs and crime. In turn, increased deportations, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and expanded enforcement of and incarceration for immigration offenses has reinforced these connections in the public’s eye. A great irony is that the U.S.’s international drug policy contributes to violence and instability in Latin American countries that drives many people to immigrate to the U.S.” - Excerpt from Immigration Snapshot

  • Drugs have been used to stigmatize immigrants and prevent immigration into the United States for nearly 120 years.
  • In 1875, the city of San Francisco passed the country’s first drug criminalization law, an ordinance prohibiting opium dens, based on the false rationale that Chinese people were corrupting white people with opium.
  • In the 1930s, federal laws criminalizing marijuana were enacted with the support of racist propaganda linking the drug with “dangerous” immigrants from Mexico.
  • The racist rhetoric of connecting drugs and criminal activity to noncitizens was echoed by past president Donald Trump in 2015 during his candidacy when he asserted these negative stereotypes.
  • The Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) increased deportations, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and expanded enforcement of and incarceration for immigration offenses, solidifying the connection between immigrants and crime, and thereby reinforcing these connections in the public’s eye.
  •  A conviction for a drug offense can cause extremely serious immigration consequences, including making a person deportable, inadmissible (unable to enter or reenter into the United States), ineligible for citizenship, and ineligible for other forms of relief, including asylum.
  • “Aggravated felonies,” a category of crimes established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and greatly expanded in 1996, created a legal category for which noncitizens can be deported under immigration law. This can include something as minimal as possessing ten dollars’ worth of marijuana for sale.
  • Noncitizens who have been convicted of drug offenses may be subject to mandatory detention, which requires them to be incarcerated in immigration detention facilities without bond hearings for the duration of their removal proceedings.
  • Offenses involving drugs are the most common reasons for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests.
  • In fiscal year 2019, ICE made over 74,000 arrests of people convicted of or charged with driving under the influence and over 67,000 arrests of people convicted of or charged with a nontraffic drug offense.
  • After illegal entry, drug offenses were the most common offense among people who were deported in 2019.
  • When people are arrested for a suspected criminal offense, the pressure to accept a plea deal is enormous, leading 97 percent of all people facing charges to accept plea deals. For noncitizens, many do so without knowing or understanding the immigration consequences of a conviction, resulting in the person becoming subject to being torn from their family and community and exiled to another country.

Public Benefits
"The war on drugs provided a rationale for states to limit access [to public benefits] in the name of deterring drug involvement. The assumptions behind this rationale are that some people deserve help while others do not (i.e., people who use drugs do not deserve basic necessities); people are just trying to game the system and squander public money (e.g., the “welfare queen” stereotype); and people who use drugs are not and cannot be responsible community members." On the contrary, “By denying benefits that can help people out of poverty, our policies may actually contribute to increased substance use disorder rates, in addition to negative health and education outcomes that contribute to generational poverty. Public benefits also help people reduce the risk of returning to jail or prison after incarceration. The war on drugs has limited access and deterred many people from accessing public benefits that could help support their families and improve health, safety, and wellbeing.” - Excerpt from Public Benefits Snapshot 

  • Over one-quarter of states require people to undergo screening for drug use and, depending on the result, submit to a drug test prior to receiving TANF benefits. If the drug test indicates drugs are in the person’s system, they can be denied benefits or required to attend abstinence-based treatment (possibly paid out of the applicant’s pocket) in order to get the benefits.
  • In 2016, less than 1% of people applying for TANF in states that require drug screening and testing ultimately tested positive. These states collectively spent more than one million dollars enforcing these policies in that year; this is money that could be used for more supportive services.
  • More recently, states have tried to extend drug testing requirements to other public benefits programs like SNAP, Medicaid, and Unemployment Insurance.
  • Federal law requires states to deny TANF and SNAP benefits to anyone with a felony drug conviction (which can be for simple possession in many states) or to affirmatively opt out of or modify the ban.
  • Nine states permanently bar people with felony drug convictions from TANF benefits and one does so for SNAP benefits. Over one-half of states have instituted modified bans to limit TANF and SNAP eligibility for people with felony drug convictions.
  • These policies can require TANF and SNAP beneficiaries to submit to regular drug testing or complete treatment programs, regardless of need, in order to maintain benefits.
  • Restrictive policies disproportionately harm people of color, who due to targeted enforcement of drug laws in their communities, are more likely to have felony drug convictions.
  • By denying benefits that can help people out of poverty, our policies may actually contribute to increased substance use disorder rates, in addition to negative health and education outcomes that contribute to generational poverty. 

The full Uprooting the Drug War series of reports can be found at

Source: Drug Policy Alliance