Top 5 Drug Policy Changes To Watch For in 2016

2015 was an unforgettable year for harm reduction and drug policy reform. 2016 looks to be even bigger. The Fix‘s Tessie Castillo looks forward.

drug-reformThe unprecedented shift on the federal and local level towards a health-based approach to drug use seemed to signal the impending demise of a $1 trillion drug war that has left the country with a crippling public health problem, the largest incarcerated population in the world, and addiction rates as high as ever. Last year heralded such victories as the largest number of states ever passing naloxone access laws to save lives from drug overdose, a surge for justice with the Black Lives Matter movement, a historic Congressional deal to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing, and the release of 6,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Can the momentum continue? Let’s take a look at what’s on the horizon for 2016.

1. Marijuana Reform – The End of Prohibition?

Marijuana legalization will have a pivotal year in 2016. Following on the heels of Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, several states are considering similar legislation or ballot initiatives, including California, Nevada, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and Massachusetts. If just a few of these states legalize marijuana, it could be the tipping point for the rest of the country to follow. As most advocates could tell you, marijuana legalization is less about increasing access to the drug than it is about cutting back on the collateral consequences of criminalization. Former president Jimmy Carter nailed it when he said, “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself; and where they are, they should be changed. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.” Marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States and according to an ACLU study, 88% of those arrests were for possession only. Also, people of color are more than three times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates. Legalization means millions of people who might not see the inside of a jail cell or be shackled with the lifetime of stigma and discrimination that comes from having a criminal record.

2. Clamor for Change at the United Nations Special Session on Drugs.

 In 1998, the United Nations called a special session on drug policy entitled, “A Drug Free World: We Can Do It!” The session solidified the “lock’em up and throw away the key” drug policies of the late 1980s and 1990s with calls for increasingly harsher penalties for even simple possession of drugs. Fast-forward 17 years and much has changed. Though the special session was originally scheduled for 2019, leaders in Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, countries bathed in blood and aerial herbicide as a result of the drug war, put forth a petition co-sponsored by 95 countries to move up the date. The session is now scheduled for April 2016 in New York City. Drug policy advocates around the world are holding planning sessions to ensure that the mistakes of the past two decades are not repeated. Highlighting the public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption and violence generated by drug prohibition, they are a growing voice calling for common sense, health-based approaches to drug use. In 2016, they will finally have a chance to be heard.

3. Syringe Exchange Is Coming to Dixie.

The coming year may herald a strange sight in the land of barbecue and revival preachers: syringe exchange programs (SEPs). SEPs provide participants with sterile syringes in exchange for used ones and are shown to be remarkably effective at connecting people to social services, including drug treatment programs. In the South, SEPs remain controversial and mostly illegal due to moral qualms about providing injection equipment to people who use drugs, but after the shocking 2015 outbreak of injection-related HIV infections in Scott County, Indiana, states such as Kentucky and West Virginia—some of the staunchest opponents of syringe exchange programs—actually implemented them. Other Dixie states such as North Carolina and Virginia are poised to do the same during their 2016 legislative sessions. “We’ve spent the last five years demonstrating the numerous public health benefits of syringe exchange programs, including reducing HIV and hepatitis C rates, decreasing needle-stick injuries to law enforcement, and connecting people to treatment and social services,” says Robert Childs, executive director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for health-based approaches to drug use. “In the past year or so we’ve seen a swell of support for syringe exchange programs in our state, especially from law enforcement. This might be the year we finally legalize.” The debates will be something to watch as health-based advocates clash with old Southern stalwarts who don’t take kindly to science-based arguments. To the rest of the country: break out the popcorn and prepare to be entertained.

4. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Programs Pick Up Speed.

With near daily news coverage of law enforcement abuse of power, change is nigh for how police enforce drug laws. One of the most promising reforms is called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program that diverts low-level drug and prostitution offenders from jail to social services where they can be connected to housing, career development, drug treatment, and other resources to address the root cause of their behavior. Police departments in Seattle, Santa Fe and Albany have already launched LEAD programs with promising results. Evaluations of the Seattle program reveal that participants are 58-87% less likely than non-participants to be re-incarcerated after joining the program. The annual criminal justice costs incurred by LEAD participants also dropped about $2,000, while the control group costs rose by almost $6,000. There is hope that LEAD programs can produce a trifecta of change: reduce recidivism, save criminal justice costs, and connect people with much-needed social services. “I hope that more law enforcement agencies will begin to support the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs,” says Donnie Varnell, coordinator for an upcoming LEAD program in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “These programs are designed to identify subjects who would be better served by treatment programs than by incarceration. We [law enforcement] have all dealt with particular subjects that due to their addictions are constantly being arrested for petty charges. By using one of these LEAD programs, these subjects have the chance to find treatment and resources that can break the cycle of arrest.” In 2016, seven more cities will join what is hoped to become a national movement towards law enforcement reform: Atlanta, Georgia; Bangor, Maine; Camden, New Jersey; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Los Angeles, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Read more “the fix”…

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