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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.
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the impact of the failed War on Drugs, many states have taken action in the legislature and on the ballot to change outdated drug policies.
As of October 2023, thirty-one states and Washington D.C. have decriminalized simple possession of marijuana. Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical marijuana, and twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. Find more information on existing state cannabis laws.
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.
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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- "Wisconsin Lawmakers Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill,"
- "Philadelphia council bans safe-injection sites in most of the city,"
- "Marijuana recommendation by US health agency hailed as first step to easing weed restrictions,"
Drug Law News Releases
News Release ~ 03/19/2018
Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Blasts Retrograde Trump Rhetoric on Death Penalty –Washington, DC (Mar. 19, 2018) – In New Hampshire this afternoon, the president made clear his view about the importance of harsh penalties, including the death penalty for “big pushers,” as a tool in the fight against public health problem of drug addiction.
News Release ~ 04/11/2014
Nation’s Criminal Defense Bar Welcomes U.S. Sentencing Commission Vote to Reduce Drug Trafficking Sentences -- Washington, DC (April 11, 2014) - Yesterday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission took another step toward making federal drug sentences more reasonable. The agency approved an amendment that would reduce the guidelines level for most drug offenses by two levels, amounting to an 11-month sentence reduction on average. NACDL applauds the Commission’s action and urges Congress not to obstruct this modest, incremental reduction.
News Release ~ 01/27/2014
Unanimous Supreme Court Applies Rule of Lenity; Reverses a 20-Year Mandatory Sentencing Enhancement for Sale of One Gram of Heroin -- Washington, DC (January 27, 2014)—Today, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court issued an important criminal law ruling in the case of Burrage v. United States by applying the rule of lenity – a rule of statutory construction that resolves ambiguities in the language of a law in favor of the defendant.
Drug Law Media Items
Drug Decriminalization in Oregon
The War on Drugs has served, and continues to serve, as a powerful mechanism of mass incarceration and oppression in America. The drug war sought to combat the illegal drug trade in the U.S. through policies intended to discourage distribution and consumption. However, the harsh sentencing policies that followed swelled the nation’s prison population and disproportionately targeted communities of color. At every stage of the criminal justice process – from the geographical distribution of police, to stops and searches, to arrest, to pretrial detention, to sentencing, to post-conviction, to collateral consequences – communities of color, especially Black communities, disproportionately bear the brunt of the War on Drugs. In February 2021, Oregon’s drug decriminalization measure (Measure 110) took effect, making it the first state to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of all drugs. Join this panel to hear from advocates who are working to end the drug war and advance a public health approach. Also hear how things are going on the ground in Oregon!
- Morgan Godvin, Post-Graduate Fellow, Health in Justice Action Lab
- Tera Hurst, Executive Director, Health Justice Recovery Alliance
- Emily Kaltenbach, Senior Director of State Advocacy and Criminal Legal Reform, Drug Policy Alliance
- An Introduction to the Cannabis Justice Initiative [Engage & Exchange Discussion Series]
The Fight for Equitable Cannabis Reform
Since the onset of the war on drugs, cannabis prohibition has carried devastating consequences for communities of color. In the past decade alone, despite similar usage rates, Black Americans across the country have been 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans. Cannabis criminalization has also been used to justify an increase in police surveillance, expanding the overall scope of policing and diverting scarce resources away from education and valuable social services. Today, lawmakers are beginning to rethink these practices, instead introducing new policies advancing legalization, decriminalization, retroactive expungement and resentencing, and community reinvestment.
- Sarah Gersten, Executive Director, Last Prisoner Project
- Chelsea Higgs Wise, Executive Director, Marijuana Justice Virginia
- Ean Seeb, Special Advisor on Cannabis, State of Colorado
- Moderated by: Maritza Perez, Director of the Office of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Law Champion Articles
Don’t Gamble With the Future: Immigration Consequences of Drug Convictions
A drug conviction can banish a noncitizen from the United States without regard to any rehabilitation or family ties. In addition, drug violations may torpedo a person’s chances of obtaining a visa, a green card, or citizenship. When should a criminal defense attorney get an immigration attorney involved?
- Book Review: Helena Star by Stewart Riley
A Dose of Reality: Drug Death Investigations and the Criminal Justice System
Due to the increased push for prosecutions in drug-related deaths, it is more important than ever for criminal justice system stakeholders to have access to accurate, standardized, and professional death investigation and death certification. Amy Hawes and Denise Martin share some of the common pitfalls in drug death investigations, discuss national recommendations for coroner and medical examiner investigations, and set forth the qualifications death investigation experts should possess.