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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 1980 to 2017, from roughly 41,000 to 453,000 (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 reduces the crack cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 that resulted in sentencing disparities between African Americans who represented the majority of people arrested for crack offenses and made retroactive by the passage of the First Step Act in 2018. And recently Members of Congress have introduced legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition.
Recognizing the impact of the failed War on Drugs, many states in recent years have made a number of adjustments to their drug laws. Six states have now reclassified all drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor: California (Proposition 47 in 2014), Utah (HB 348 on 2015), Conneticut (HB 7104 in 2015), Alaska (SB 91 in 2016), Oklahoma (State Question 780 in 2016), and Oregon (HB 2355 in 2017).
Twenty-four states and Washington, DC have decriminalized the possession of small amouts of marijuana. Thirty-three states and Washington, DC have legalized medical marijuana, and eleven states and Washington, DC have legalized recreational marijuana.
NACDL tracks state legislation related to marijuana and other drug law reforms. See below for 2019 legislation.
In July 2019, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Kamalas Harris (D-CA) introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884/S. 2227), which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substance Act and create a process for expungement and resentencing of prior convictions. The MORE Act has been referred to as the most far-reaching marijuana reform legislation to be introduced in Congress. Not only will it de-schedule marijuana, but it seeks to address historic and current racial disparities by funding social equity programs for individuals and communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. NACDL signed onto a coalition letter in support of the MORE Act and calls on Congress to pass the legislation.
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On the books in many states and federally, drug-induced homicide laws have gained in popularity as the country deals with an increase in drug overdose deaths. Drug-induced 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 and romantic partners 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, to 1,178 in 2016 from 363 in 2011.
On Wednesday, October 30, 2019 at 2:00 p.m. ET, NACDL will host an Advocacy Call on Drug-Induced Homicide Laws.
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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.
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.
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.
On October 30, 2019, NACDL hosted an advocacy call on drug-induced homicide laws. Speakers included Valena Elizabeth Beety, Professor of Law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and Deputy Director of the Academy for Justice, a new criminal justice center connecting research with policy reform; Leo Beletsky, Associate Professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University, where he is the faculty director of the Health in Justice Action Lab; and Lindsey LaSalle, Managing Director, Public Health, Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
On the books in many states and federally, drug-induced homicide laws have gained in popularity as the country deals with an increase in drug overdose deaths. Drug-induced 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 and romantic partners 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, to 1,178 in 2016 from 363 in 2011. Racial disparities are present with a disproportionate number of charges being brought in cases where the victim is white and the dealer is a person of color. Racial bias is also evident in the gaping disparity of the sentences being handed down to drug-induced homicide defendants of color – a median of nearly nine years, compared to five years for white defendants.
Health in Justice Action Lab
Drug-Induced Homicide Defense Toolkit
Charging ‘Dealers’ with Homicide: Explained
America’s Favorite Antidote: Drug-Induced Homicide in the Age of the Overdose Crisis
"A Dose of Reality: Drug Death Investigations and the Criminal Justice System", The Champion
The Overdose/Homicide Epidemic
DIH Law Proliferation 2009 2019 map (video)
DIH Law Proliferation 2009 2019 bar chart (video)
Learn more about NACDL's State Criminal Justice Network. Monica L. Reid, Host. Music I Will! Rise Above (Jared C. Balogh) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
February's advocacy call was Wednesday February 13 at 12:00 p.m. EST and focused on legislation that passed around the country on medical and personal use marijuana. In particular the call focused on the state responses based on federal policies. Learn more about NACDL's State Criminal Justice Network. Angelyn C. Frazer, Host. Steven Logan, production supervisor. Music I Will! Rise Above (Jared C. Balogh) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.