As a communications intern at the ACLU of Arizona, and someone who is deeply passionate about drug policy reform, I was beyond excited when I got the opportunity to attend the 2023 International Drug Policy Reform Conference with the ACLU this October. My interest in drug policy began with my interest in both history and language because, to me, anti-drug policy is the perfect entanglement of the two things. Drug wars, drug scares and anti-drug policy are essentially a consequence of the power of language to write, rewrite and manipulate the stories and history of individuals and entire countries. So, when I got the opportunity to attend the Reform Conference, I knew I was about to attend the Super Bowl of drug policy reform.
Hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, over 1,300 people gathered to listen to around 200 speakers provide expertise on a comprehensive range of drug policy issues and provide a space to work together to find alternatives to the drug war. The conference sessions covered a variety of topics, from surveillance and policing, bodily autonomy amidst the drug war, capitalism and the opioid epidemic, engaging cartels in reform, harm reduction education, how the overdose crisis fuels racism and xenophobia, and more. See? The Super Bowl.
As we approach the 2024 legislation session, amidst rising overdose rates and an opioid epidemic, we can anticipate anti-drug and anti-fentanyl bills to be introduced at our state capitol, as has been the case in the past. In preparation for the battles ahead, I want to share my four key takeaways from the Reform Conference so we can support better informed policy. Here is what I learned, and here is what Arizona can learn:
1. Drug decriminalization cannot and is not meant to solve all social issues.
Drug use has historically been used as a scapegoat for various social and economic issues in our country, and uncoincidentally, drug decriminalization policy has been used similarly. That’s why it is important to understand what drug decriminalization can and cannot do. For example, decriminalizing drugs can:
- change the public perception of people that suffer from substance use disorder.
- help people struggling with substance use get the treatment they need.
- begin to unravel the harms caused by the drug war.
However, it cannot:
- end the housing crisis.
- mend the systemic inequities of our healthcare system, cure overdoses or address the toxic drug supply in the United States.
Acknowledging both the capacities and limitations of drug decriminalization is integral in understanding its necessity.
2. Harm reduction can mean the difference between life and death.
Coercive treatment and forced abstinence do not work for everyone, and while lawmakers are arguing over the “right path” for drug users, people are dying. Drug overdose deaths per year are the highest they have ever been in the U.S. despite consistent laws increasing drug possession penalties and coercive treatment. While 40.3 million people suffered with substance abuse in 2020, only 4 million people received any treatment. Criminalizing drugs and the people who use and sell them is just not working—we must adjust. Treatment must be accessible, voluntary, and grounded in human rights. Treatment must center human dignity. Meeting drug users where they are is integral in protecting their life. Harm reduction offers options and alternatives, including services like naloxone distribution and syringe exchange programs, that are proven to keep people safe and alive.
3. The narrative that drugs are innately harmful is an ideological one, not a scientific one.
During a session held by Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the DPA, the two explained how science and drug research is not immutable from politicization, commercialization, biased funds, and capitalism. Some government agencies, interest groups, and businesses may selectively fund research projects that align with their goals and political narratives. They may also selectively interpret findings and “cherry-pick” data to support their pre-existing objectives and use these selective findings to push policy reflecting their agendas. This politicization, commercialization, and capital influence on science and research results in policy not founded in fact but founded in ideology. One such example of this is the narrative that drugs are simply just harmful, and therefore must be criminalized.
4. Asking ourselves “who is this law protecting?” is vital to supporting safe and equitable policy.
Common responses to drug abuse and overdose are to increase penalties for possession and sale. However, these responses are unfounded as there is no evidence that increased penalties act as effective deterrence methods for use or sale of drugs, much less provide any sort of treatment or prevention. If the goal of drug policy is to save lives and support those in need, then we know that criminalization is not an effective way to do this.
As the 2024 legislative session approaches, we can expect bills introduced in Arizona and across the country that further criminalize drugs and people, rather than saving lives and providing treatment. Among these include fentanyl-murder bills and drug induced homicide bills that establish it a felony to deliver substances to someone that result in death. In effect, these criminalization laws would actually reduce the likelihood of calling 911 in case of an overdose emergency, possibly leading to even more overdose deaths. It’s time Arizona lawmakers stop playing political games and support safe and equitable policy.
The Reform Conference, and these takeaways, left me with a deepened appreciation for individuals and organizations committed to reform, an incredible amount of important information relating to drug decriminalization, and even more questions and curiosities. I wondered what it would be like if these narratives were the ones reflected in drug policy. What would it look like if we replaced racialized social control with liberation and autonomy? What would happen if lawmakers centered research-based, compassionate, and just drug policy that emphasizes human dignity? I hope we can work together to find out.