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Joint Letter to House Leadership on Drug Decriminalization – Human Rights Watch

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Support for Federal Legislation that Decriminalizes The Possession of Personal-Use Amounts of Drugs
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November 8, 2022
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi                         
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
The Honorable Steny Hoyer
Majority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
The Honorable Kevin McCarthy 
Minority Leader
U.S. House of Representatives 
Washington, D.C. 20515
Re: Support Federal Legislation that Decriminalizes The Possession of Personal-Use Amounts of Drugs    
Dear Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer, and Minority Leader McCarthy,
We, the undersigned national, state, and local drug policy, criminal legal reform, public health, and advocacy organizations, write to communicate our ardent support of ending criminal penalties for the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs. In 2020, U.S. law enforcement agencies made 1,155,610 arrests for drug law violations–more arrests than for all violent crimes combined.[1] Around 86% of these arrests were for the possession of personal-use amounts of drugs alone and often led to time spent in prison.[2] Yet, we have an abundance of evidence that demonstrates that drug arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration have had no substantial effect on ending problematic drug use or curbing the illegal drug supply in the United States.[3] Rather, these policies have only exacerbated the dangers of drug use and led to poorer health outcomes for people who use drugs,[4] including increasing the likelihood that someone will fatally overdose or die by suicide upon release from prison.[5] Given the emotional and economic costs associated with drug-related convictions, the criminal legal system has also burdened the lives and health of families and communities whose loved ones have drug convictions.[6]
Drug convictions also create daunting obstacles to a person successfully re-entering their communities after having been incarcerated, including significant barriers to housing, education, employment, treatment, and other public benefits. Given the fact that these resources are key social determinants of health[7], drug convictions often disrupt and eliminate people’s access to the necessary resources they need to live healthy lives. Despite similar rates of reported drug use among people of different races and ethnicities, this burden is felt most acutely by the country’s Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and lower-income communities due to massive disparities in drug arrest rates, sentencing, and access to community-based treatment.[8] Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and lower-income communities are also the same communities disproportionately dying from overdoses and lacking access to needed health-interventions[9]–both of which have only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Punishing people who use drugs rather than providing them with needed resources defies widely accepted understandings of drug use as a health issue and has made a public health approach more challenging to implement, given the fact that involving people in the criminal legal system only puts people already at risk of fatally overdosing at even higher risk.[10] As such, a growing number of lawmakers and others have taken a different approach to drug use, instead calling for health-based alternatives to arresting people who use drugs.
This stance is what ultimately informed the first-ever drug possession decriminalization bill introduced in Congress last year, The Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) of 2021 (H.R. 4020), and the passage of Measure 110 in Oregon in 2020. The DPRA would end criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvest funds in public health and support programs, taking a bold new approach to drug policy. Similarly, the passage of Measure 110 in 2020 made Oregon the first U.S. state to decriminalize the possession of drugs statewide, invest in drug treatment options, and expand the state’s health services. Between 2021-2022, over 16,000 Oregon residents accessed needed services and there has already been a nearly 60% decrease in the number of arrests for all drug offenses.[11] In Baltimore, crime rates and threats to public safety have been unaffected by the city’s State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ending prosecutions for drug possession and other low-level crimes.[12]
To begin meaningfully addressing our country’s mass incarceration and overdose epidemics, we urge Members of Congress to commit to supporting comprehensive legislation that decriminalizes drug possession and centers health, equity, autonomy, and justice. The undersigned national, state, and local drug policy, criminal legal reform, public health, and advocacy organizations believe that federal drug decriminalization legislation should include the following components:
There has never been a more pertinent time to advocate for such necessary change. According to a June 2021 Bully Pulpit Interactive poll released by the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, 83% of American voters say the war on drugs has failed and 66% percent of voters support “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.” According to a new poll released by Data for Progress, a strong majority of voters continue to support drug decriminalization in Oregon by a +22-point margin nearly two years after its passage, with majority support for the measure found in all parts of the state.[22] Moreover, in Oregon, a strong bipartisan majority (72%, a +48-point lead) further believes addiction should be addressed through the public health system and not the criminal legal system.[23]
Drug decriminalization is a sensible path forward given  the amount of evidence that demonstrates the harms of drug criminalization and the need for a public health approach to drug use. We urge Members of Congress to support comprehensive federal legislation that ends the criminalization of drug possession, resentences and expunges convictions, invests in evidence-based public health approaches to drug use, eliminates the life-long collateral consequences of drug law violations, and protects people from legal system abuses.
For questions about anything included in this letter, please contact Hanna Sharif-Kazemi, Policy Coordinator at Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs at [email protected].
A Little Piece Of Light
A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)
Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center
Advancement Project
Advocating Opportunity
AIDS Alabama
AIDS Foundation Chicago
AIDS United
American Atheists
American Civil Liberties Union
American Friends Service Committee
Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)
Any Positive Change Inc.
Arkansas Community Organizations
Arlene & Michael Rosen Foundation
Aunt Rita’s Foundation
Ballroom We Care
Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition
Being Alive – LA
Brave Technology Co-Op
California Pan Ethnic Health Network
CAN-DO Foundation
Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition
Caring Ambassadors Program
Cascade AIDS Project
Community Based Public Safety (CBPS) Collective
Center for Community Alternatives
Center for Housing & Health
Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research (CLEAR)
Chicago Drug Users’ Union
Civil Rights Corps
College and Community Fellowship
Community Alliance on Prisons
Community Initiatives Inc.
Community Outreach Prevention and Education Network (COPE Network)
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)
Decarcerate Sacramento
Decriminalize Massachusetts
Decriminalize Nature Michigan
Decriminalize Nature San Francisco
Defending Rights & Dissent
Elephant Circle
End Hep C SF
Equality Federation
Equitas Health
Equity and Transformation 
Fair and Just Prosecution
Faith in Harm Reduction
Florida Harm Reduction Collective Inc.
Florida Rising
Freedom BLOC
Fruit of Labor Action Research & Technical Assistance, LLC
GLIDE Center for Social Justice
Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing (GRASP)/Broken No More
Harm Reduction Action Center
Harm Reduction Ohio
Health Justice Recovery Alliance
Health Not Prisons Collective
Homeless Health Care Los Angeles
HomeRise (Formerly Community Housing Partnership)
Housing Works
Housing Works – Positive Health Project
Howard Brown Health
Human Rights Watch
Idaho Harm Reduction Project
Illinois Harm Reduction & Recovery Coalition
Indiana Recovery Alliance
Japanese American Citizens League
JOLT Foundation
Justice Forward Virginia
Justice Strategies
Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN)
Last Prisoner Project
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
Law Enforcement Action Partnership
Law Foundation of Silicon Valley
Long Island Social Justice Action Network
Los Angeles LGBT Center
Magic City Harm Reduction
Maine People’s Alliance
Marijuana Justice
Minorities for Medical Marijuana
Minority Veterans of America
Movement for Black Lives
MPact Global Action
Multnomah Democrats’ Criminal Justice Study Group
National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD)
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence- Maryland Chapter
National Employment Law Project
National Harm Reduction Coalition
National Health Care for the Homeless Council
National Homelessness Law Center
National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC)
Naxos Neighbors
Nelsonville Voices
NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
New Hour for Women & Children Long Island
New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition
Newark Homeless Outreach
Newark Community Street Team
NEXT Distro
North Carolina AIDS Action Network
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition
North Carolina Survivors Union
On The Bright Side LLC
Outside the Frame
Overdose Crisis Response Fund
Parabola Center for Law and Policy
Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network
People’s Action
People’s Action – Pennsylvania
Perfectly Flawed Foundation
Positive Women’s Network-USA
Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN)
Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention  (PONI)
Prison Policy Initiative
Progressive Maryland
Psychedelic Medicine Alliance of Washington
Public Health Awakened
Reframe Health and Justice
Rights & Democracy New Hampshire & Vermont
River Valley Organizing
Sana Healing Collective
San Francisco Treatment on Demand Coalition
Save Our Families
Smoky Mountain Harm Reduction
Strategies to Overcome Obstacles and Avoid Recidivism (SOOAR)
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Southern Tier AIDS Program/Southern Tier Care Coordination
Strategic Transitions Consulting
Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP)
Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Michigan Chapter
Suncoast Harm Reduction Project
Texas Center for Justice & Equity
The Chicago Recovery Alliance
The Festival Center
The Gubbio Project
The i-71 Committee
The National Center for Advocacy and Recovery, Inc.
The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
The Night Ministry
The Porchlight Collective SAP
The Puerto Rico Project
The Sentencing Project
The SOAR Initiative
The United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society
Thrive For Change
Treatment Action Group (TAG)
Truth Pharm
United Vision for Idaho
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
Vital Strategies
Washington AIDS Partnership
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Wellness Services Inc.
William E. Morris Institute for Justice
West Virginia Citizen Action Group
Young People in Recovery
[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime Data Explorer,” 2021.
[2] Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022”, Prison Policy Initiative, March 14, 2022.
[3] “Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems,” Pew Charitable Trusts, June 19, 2017.
[4] David H. Cloud et al. “Documenting and Addressing the Health Impacts of Carceral Systems.” American Journal of Public Health, 110, no. 1 (2020); and Aliza Cohen et al. “How the War on Drugs Impacts Social Determinants of Health Beyond the Criminal Legal System, Annals of Medicine, 54, no. 1 (2022): 2024-2038.
[5] Shabbar I. Ranapurwala et al. “Opioid Overdose Mortality Among Former North Carolina Inmates: 2000–2015,” American Journal for Public Health, 109, no. 09 (2018): 1207-1213, and Axel Haglund et al., “Suicide after Release from Prison – A Population-Based Cohort Study from Sweden,” Clinical Psychiatry 75 no. 10 (2014): 1047-53.
[6] Megan Comfort. “‘A Twenty-Hour-a-Day Job’: The Impact of Frequent Low-Level Criminal Justice System Involvement on Family Life. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665, no.1 (2016): 63–79.
[7] Aliza Cohen et al. “How the war on drugs impacts social determinants of health beyond the criminal legal system,” Annals of Medicine, 54, no. 01 (2022): 2024-2038.
[8] “Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2013).
[9] Centers for Disease Control, Drug Overdose Deaths Rise, Disparities Widen: Differences Grew by Race, Ethnicity, and Other Factors. (2022).
[10] Ingrid A. Binswanger et al. “Mortality After Prison Release: Opioid Overdose and Other Causes of Death, Risk Factors, and Time Trends From 1999 to 2009.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 159, no. 9 (2013):592–600.
[11] Oregon Health Authority, “Access to Care: Reporting Outcomes,” 2021.
[12] Saba Rouhani et al., “Evaluation of Prosecutorial Policy Reforms Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Drug Possession and Sex Work in Baltimore, Maryland.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2021),
[13] Leo Beletsky et al., “Fatal Re-Entry: Legal and Programmatic Opportunities to Curb Opioid Overdose Among Individuals Newly Released from Incarceration,” Northeastern University Law Journal 149, no. 7 (2015): 155-215.
[14] David Olson (2017), “Substance Abuse Treatment in Prisons and Jails,” in Issues, in Corrections: Research, Policy and Future Prospects (Carly M. Hilinski-Rosick & John P. Walsh, eds.)
[15] Ann Carson, “Mortality in State and Federal Prisons, 2001-2018–Statistical Tables” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (n.d.).
[16] Doug McVay, “Treatment or Incarceration? National and State Findings on the Efficacy and Cost Savings of Drug Treatment Versus Imprisonment,” Justice Policy Institute, (2004).
[17] Samuel R. Bondurant et al.,  “Substance Abuse Treatment Centers and Local Crime,” National Bureau of Economic Research (2016).
[18] Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock, “The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition,” The Cato Institute. (2010). prohibition.
[19] Ingrid Binswanger et al., “Return to Drug Use and Overdose after Release from Prison: A Qualitative Study of Risk and Protective Factors, Addiction Science & Clinical Practice 7 no.1 (2012): 3.
[20] Lina Knepper et al., “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture,” Institute for Justice, December 14, 2020.
[21] “Report: The War on Drugs Meets Immigration,” Drug Policy Alliance, 2021.
[22] Anika Dandekar & Tenneth Fairclough II, “Oregon Voters Want Measure 110 to Remain in Place,” Data for Progress, September 12, 2022.
[23] Id.
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