To truly reimagine safety, we must end the war on drugs

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; iStock)

Kassandra Frederique is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Over the past year, we have witnessed visceral examples of how the systems that purport to protect and support us too often cause harm, especially to communities of color. Yet not enough attention has been given to the central role played by the war on drugs in creating this harm, and to how ending it is integral to reimagining public safety within our communities.

To truly reimagine safety, the federal government must make a dramatic shift in its approach to drug policy.

While the “war on drugs” was declared by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 under the pretense of making our communities healthier and safer, it has instead achieved the opposite. From its origins until the present day, it has perpetuated racism and racial inequality with deadly consequences.

Drug enforcement is one of the top justifications used by police systems to target individuals and entire communities. This can lead to devastating outcomes, as was the case in the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. But the war on drugs also undermines personal and community safety in countless other ways.

Drug possession remains the most arrested offense in this country, with 1.35 million arrests in 2019 alone — making it the No. 1 opportunity for law enforcement harassment, assault and even killings of Black, Latinx and indigenous people to occur. And decades of extreme racial disparities in enforcement show how, far from being about safety, the war on drugs has instead been weaponized against communities of color from the beginning. The facts are clear: Despite consuming drugs at roughly the same rate, Black people are five times more likely than White people to be arrested on drug charges. And drug arrests echo for a lifetime, limiting career opportunities, access to housing, educational prospects and so much more.

But the intense harm inflicted by the war on drugs is not confined to arrests and incarceration. It has also infiltrated critical social systems that we all interact with daily — including education, employment, housing and public benefits — to the point that they frequently no longer serve their intended purpose. Instead of being beacons of support and safety, these systems are now wielded to punish and surveil.

The war on drugs provides justification for tearing children from their parents, separating families through deportation, evicting people from their homes, terrorizing children by placing armed officers — but not social workers — in their schools, preventing people from obtaining employment and barring access to public benefits meant to keep food on the table and the lights on.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Demonizing drugs and the people who use them is a distraction that hides structural issues such as racism and poverty, which remain unresolved. Finding another approach is not only possible but also urgent. Ending the criminalization of drugs and increasing access to necessary supports — such as health and harm-reduction services, housing and job assistance — would be a powerful step toward dismantling the racist policies that have robbed so many of their safety, autonomy and economic opportunity.

It’s up to all of us to work to move beyond criminalization and build a world centered in real support and safety.

Real safety means families having peace of mind knowing that they won’t be ripped apart, that they will have a roof over their head and that they will be able to put food on the table. Real safety means our children have the opportunity to be supported in their education. Real safety means workers have the opportunity to make a living that isn’t contingent upon urinating in a cup. Real safety means noncitizens have assurance that they won’t be torn from their communities and sent back to a country they may not even know or where they could face grievous harm. These are not unreasonable expectations — they are basic necessities that have been denied in the name of the war on drugs for far too long.

A project of the Editorial Board, in conversation with outside voices.

In the 2020 election, the state of Oregon passed Measure 110 — which decriminalized drug possession and funds increased access to services — by an astounding 17-point margin. In fact, every drug policy reform initiative that was on a ballot this past election — even in the most conservative states — passed, and most by significant margins. This proves that change is not only politically viable but also incredibly popular. It is demonstrative of a larger shift in understanding that drug policies should be centered in public health and science rather than punishment.

Ending the war on drugs will not end racism, nor will it end state-sanctioned violence against Black, Latinx and indigenous people — but it will eliminate one of the most powerful tools used to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate and deport millions.

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