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Drug Law Reform

NACDL calls upon the federal and state governments to end the War on Drugs by declaring all drug use to be a health rather than a criminal problem and immediately repeal all laws criminalizing the possession, use and delivery of controlled substances. NACDL fights the discriminatory enforcement and disproportionate impact of drug laws on marginalized communities.

State Reform    Federal Reform    Drug Overdose Homicide    Additional Resources on Drug Law Reform

The United States constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population, yet its prisons house 25% of the worldwide prison population. This phenomenon is due largely to the War on Drugs. First declared in the 1970s, the War on Drugs sought to combat the illegal drug trade in the U.S. through policies intended to discourage distribution and consumption of illegal drugs. However, the War on Drugs and the harsh sentencing policies that followed swelled our prison population and disproportionately targeted communities of color. The number of Americans imprisoned for violating drug laws increased from roughly 41,000 to 453,000 between 1980 to 2017 (The Sentencing Project, Factsheet: Trends in U.S. Corrections). 

In recent years, many have begun to recognize that the War on Drugs has failed. States are legalizing the medical and recreational use of marijuana and decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs. Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the racially discriminatory crack-to-powder drug quantity ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. The First Step Act in 2018 made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, applying the law to 3,000 people who were convicted of crack offenses before the law went into effect in 2010. And recently Members of Congress have introduced legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition.

In November 2000, NACDL passed a Resolution of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Calling for an End to the War on Drugs.  



State Drug Law Reform

Recognizing the impact of the failed War on Drugs, many states have taken action in the legislature and on the ballot to change outdated drug policies. In the November 3rd, 2020 election, drug policy reforms were approved by voters in every state in which they were on the ballot. In Oregon, voters passed measures to decriminalize small amounts of all narcotics and to legalize psilocybin, the main psychoactive component in magic mushrooms, for therapeutic uses. In Washington, D.C., voters passed a referendum urging law enforcement to deprioritize enforcement of laws prohibiting entheogenic plants and fungi, like magic mushrooms. Marijuana legalization measures were approved by voters in Montana, Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota, and medical marijuana measures were approved in Mississippi and South Dakota.

As of November 2020, thirty-one states and Washington D.C. have decriminalized simple possession of marijuana. Thirty-six states and Washington, DC have legalized medical marijuana, and fifteen states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. For more information on existing state laws on marijuana, click here.

Consider joining NACDL’s State Criminal Justice Network (SCJN) to exchange information, share resources, and develop strategies for promoting a justice system that prioritizes health and safety over criminalization. 

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State Criminal Justice Network

Federal Drug Law Legislation

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act cut the 100:1 crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity to 18:1. In 2018, The First Step Act made it retroactive, allowing more than 3,000 people to receive sentence reductions for crack offenses sentenced under federal mandatory minimums. H.R. 1693/S. 79, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, would eliminate the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and allow individuals convicted of or sentenced for a federal offense involving cocaine to be re-sentenced under this proposal. In April 2021, NACDL — along with the National District Attorneys Association, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and more than 20 other organizations — submitted a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committee leadership and Congressional leadership in support of the EQUAL Act. To urge your federal legislators to end the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity once and for all, visit NACDL’s Legislative Action Center.  

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In May 2021, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) reintroduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3617), which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act and create a process for expungement and resentencing of prior convictions. In addition to de-scheduling marijuana, the MORE Act seeks to address historic and current racial disparities by funding social equity programs for individuals and communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. In 2020, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act (H.R. 3884/S. 2227), but the legislation failed to advance in the Senate. In 2019, NACDL signed onto a coalition letter in support of the MORE Act.  

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To see more pending federal drug law reform bills, visit NACDL's Legislative Action Center and click on 'View key legislation' under the heading 'Find Legislation.' 

NACDL Legislative Action Center

Drug Overdose Homicide

As opioid-related deaths continue to devastate communities across the country, there is a growing number of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors who are choosing to treat these accidental overdose deaths as homicides. These decisions raise serious policy questions about how resources are utilized, the effectiveness of these practices in curbing opioid related deaths, and how communities view and treat substance use. 

Drug Overdose Homicide laws seek to hold drug distributors criminally responsible for overdose deaths. Believed to target major drug traffickers, these laws are actually resulting in friends, family members, romantic partners, and co-users of overdose victims being charged for their death. According to a 2017 report by the Drug Policy Alliance, individuals charged with or prosecuted for drug-induced homicide increased by over 300 percent in six years, from 363 reported prosecutions in 2011 to 1,178 in 2016. According to the Health in Justice Action Lab, by 2019, there were 26 new & expanded laws that recast overdose as homicide, murder, or manslaughter. No systematic empirical evidence exists that these laws reduce the distribution of illegal drugs. Rather, they are likely counterproductive by discouraging people in crisis from calling 9-1-1 for fear of being charged with homicide,  thereby increasing the likelihood of overdose deaths.

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Drug Overdose Homicide Resources


Drug Law Media Items

  • The Fight for Equitable Cannabis Reform
  • Understanding and Challenging Cause of Death: Forensic Pathology and Coroners Systems - Sample Cross
  • Understanding and Challenging Cause of Death: Forensic Pathology and Coroners Systems

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