Policy Summary

Over the course of decades, the United States has adopted a number of policy actions aimed at addressing the epidemic of drug use and associated criminal activity. Ending the nation’s war on drugs would involve a range of policy actions. Typically, those policy actions are outlined as such:

  • Pass the Drug Policy Reform Act – At the federal, state, and local levels, the US should eliminate arrest and prosecution for small quantities (personal-use amounts) of controlled substances.
  • Eliminate the Inequitable and Harsh Sentencing Constructs – Courts should move to eliminate mandatory minimum drug offenses, specifically conspiracy charges. This policy has significantly contributed to mass incarceration and created unintended victims.
  • De-incarceration and Record Expungement – For those currently incarcerated, on parole or probation, individuals should be afforded the opportunity to have their criminal records expunged reflecting the nation’s new policy and eliminating the stigma of their records.
  • Eliminate Collateral Consequences of Drug Convictions – There is a range of ancillary sanctions individuals may face as a result of a drug conviction. To ensure that citizens can productively engage in society, this policy advocates for eliminating the denial of public benefits and educational loans.
  • Legalization of Cannabis: Several states have moved to decriminalize or legalize controlled substances such as cannabis. However, it remains on the federal government’s list of controlled substances, thus limiting the ability of states and localities to fully institute reforms.

Case for Equity

The United States is undergoing a rapid shift in public attitudes regarding controlled substances and our decades-long policy response in addressing them. Sentencing disparities and discriminatory policing practices have combined to bring about the over-incarceration of people of color and have helped to decimate entire communities. We have known for decades that whites and people of color use drugs at equal rates, yet people of color are incarcerated at far greater rates.

The implications of the war on drugs reach far and wide, hampering the employment trajectories and economic mobility of those touched by the system. The economic loss to communities is immeasurable. Across the country, local and state leaders are reforming policies, correcting long-standing inequities, and eliminating failed strategies. Our nation’s current response to the opioid crisis, which largely impacts white communities, is emblematic of the forward-thinking approach needed with respect to other controlled substances.

Return on Investment

Return on Investment for this policy is rated as HIGH based on the combination of costs savings and benefits to individuals and society.  

The research clearly shows that there is a tremendously favorable cost-benefit to implementing alternatives to incarcerating drug offenders. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy examined the impact of drug offender sentencing alternatives and found that for a net cost of $1,714 per participant, the policy produced a total taxpayer and community benefit of $23,912 (WIPP 2018). Research from individual states shows that for every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment, states save $7 in criminal justice and law enforcement and an additional $4 in healthcare costs (Huang 2006).

On the other side of the ledger, looking only at the money expended in the war on drugs, the combined state and federal expenditures on incarcerating individuals with drug offenses total $10.3 billion annually (Wagner and Raybuy). In contrast, focusing solely on cannabis, states are moving towards the legalization of cannabis and those cost savings are adding up. Estimates are that if all states were to legalize cannabis, taxpayers would save $7.7 billion per year in expenditures and garner $6 billion in tax revenue (Miron, 2005). These totals ignore the billions spent annually by federal and state agencies on administering the war on drugs which totaled $61 billion annually in 2015, of which 55% is spent on interdiction, eradication, and domestic law enforcement (White House ONDCP 2015). Research suggests that the total savings derived from diverting offenders, eliminating ineffective and outdated strategies, and reinvesting money in prevention would be astronomical.

Research Base

The research base is rated as being HIGH given the scope, quality, and depth of the available research. 

We have decades of research available examining the efficacy of the range of policies that fit under the large umbrella of alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses.  This literature consistently finds positive benefits across a range of outcomes, and those benefits are found to be consistent across a range of methodologies. This finding persists independent of the definition of effectiveness. With respect to individual impacts, these studies demonstrate a high level of sophistication regarding measurement and conceptualization of the principles of effective intervention. The most consistent finding is the decrease in recidivism for participants. In some programs, the reductions persist for years post-program participation (Aos et al 2006;  Barnoski and Aos 2003; Wilson et al 2006).  

For programs like drug courts, the research shows a high level of interplay between the research literature and the practitioner community such that there is a consistent feedback loop that informs program design and implementation, which in turn has led to reliably consistent outcomes and research (Bostaph and Cooper 2008).

State & Local Ease of Implementation

This policy is rated as having a MODERATE level of implementation difficulty. The need for new programmatic structures and the political barriers are the major factors impacting scoring on this dimension.

Fully ending the war on drugs requires coordination across multiple levels of government. While states have made significant strides, fully ending the war requires federal intervention. Full implementation of the necessary complementary public health interventions and criminal justice alternatives would require new local systems. Politically, this has proven to be a difficult policy to address, and the federal government has shown little inclination towards shifting its policy orientation.

Review legal mechanisms for addressing sentencing reforms in your state. A key aspect of confronting the war on drugs is shifting the criminal justice system’s practices. A number of states in recent years have undertaken these reforms including California, Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Virginia. A 2018 report by the Urban Institute summarizes these efforts.

Gather data and research regarding how the drug war is impacting specific communities in your state/city. Establishing the actual effects of policing practices and other system factors is essential. Several reports are available from the city of New York’s experience with policing communities of color that provide insight into potential documentation strategies.

Convene leaders from law enforcement along with leaders in other sectors to gain an understanding of the intersection between the systems that contend with the prosecution of the drug war, including health systems, law enforcement, and other related entities.

Work with legislative researchers or other research entities to examine potential financial and other social impacts from shifting the community’s disposition towards drug offenses. Researchers from the University of Washington provide a useful model in their analysis of the costs and consequences of cannabis policy in Seattle.

Innovations Across America

Washington, D.C. | Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2021

Action Space: State Level

Cost: Allocates $10.5 million recurring and $1 million one-time allocations

Mechanism: Proposed Enabling Legislation

Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced the Safe Cannabis Sales Act of 2021 to legalize the sale of adult-use cannabis and empower and uplift residents who have been disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of cannabis, specifically low-income communities of color. The policy addresses past harms through expungement, targets the investment of cannabis tax revenues, provides cannabis industry opportunities to those affected by prior drug war policies, and ensures that D.C. residents have ownership opportunities in the industry.

  • Laying the Groundwork: The District began the process in 2014 by decriminalizing cannabis and making it legal to possess small amounts of cannabis for consumption, transfer, and cultivation. This was preceded by the legalization of medical cannabis in 2013. However, they stopped short of legalizing the selling of cannabis or the possession of large amounts. Adopting communities may need to focus on an incremental approach.
  • Focusing on Equity: The cannabis legalization initiative in D.C. has strong support from government leaders, the public, and the District’s Congressional representative. However, given the District’s non-state status, the passage will require Congressional action.
  • Leadership: On all fronts, the push is embedded in a desire to address past harms and provide future opportunities for disadvantaged communities. Provisions include specific licensure or business opportunities for residents of communities specifically impacted by past over-policing of cannabis laws.

Oakland, California | Oakland’s Equity Permit Program

Action Space: City Level

Cost: $6.5 million in state funds

Mechanism: City Ordinance (Link to City Resource Page)

This program is designed to minimize barriers to cannabis licensing for those who have been the most victimized by the war on drugs. An eligible Equity applicant is an Oakland resident who either has a cannabis conviction in Oakland after November 5, 1996 or has lived for 10 of the last 20 years in the police beats with a disproportionately higher number of cannabis-related arrests. Equity applicants must show an annual income at or less than 80% of the 2018 Oakland Average Median Income (AMI) thresholds. Oakland’s cannabis regulations reward General applicants that provide free space and “incubate” Equity applicants. Like an incubator, a General applicant receives permitting priority over the other General applicants.

  • Targeting: With any program seeking to address harms from the War on Drugs, effectively tailoring the program to its intended recipients is key. The Oakland initiative focuses on long-term residents of affected communities. Policymakers should be cognizant of who benefits and who is left out when making these decisions. Issues of class, geography and legal status are all issues to consider.

Denver, Colorado | Turn Over a New Leaf Program

Action Space: City Level

Cost: Program launched with an initial $25,000 allocation

Mechanism: City Ordinance (Link to City Resource Page)

Turn Over a New Leaf is a free program in the City and County of Denver that streamlines the process for individuals to have certain low-level marijuana convictions vacated, dismissed, and sealed. Any person who has at least one low-level marijuana offense committed in Denver and resulting from conduct that is now legal is eligible under the program. Common causes that are eligible include possession of less than one ounce of marijuana or growing a small number of marijuana plants. Low-level cases involving hemp, marijuana paraphernalia, or marijuana-infused products may also be eligible. [Report, 2019]

  • Ease of Access: The program offers a digital application that streamlines the application process. Given the challenges of navigating bureaucracies, time off from work, and other factors, this program feature is indispensable. Policymakers should consider ways to lower barriers to access to programs like these.
  • Resource Support: Without sufficient resources, any new program implementation can suffer. In the criminal justice arena, program underfunding is an all-too-common reality. In Denver, the city attorney’s office and/or the district attorney maintains staffing resources to assist applicants with the process.

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “National Drug Control Budget: Fy2016 Funding Highlights,” (Washington, DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy, 2015). 

Etner, S., Huang, D., Evans, E., Ash, D. R., Hardy, M., Jourabchi, M., &Yih-Ing, H. (2006) Benefit-Cost in the California Treatment Outcome Project: Does Substance Abuse Treatment “Pay for Itself”? Health Services Research. 41(1): 192–213. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6773.2005.00466.x 

Etner, S., Huang, D., Evans, E., Ash, D. R., Hardy, M., Jourabchi, M., & Yih-Ing, H. (2006) Benefit-Cost in the California Treatment Outcome Project: Does Substance Abuse Treatment “Pay for Itself”? Health ServicesResearch.41(1): 192–213. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6773.2005.00466.x  

Wager, P. and Raybuy, B. Mass Incarceration: 2015. The Whole Pie. Prison Policy Initiative.  

Mai, Chris and Ram Subramania. 2017. The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015. Vera Institute for Social Justice 

Miron, Jeffrey A. 2005. The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition. In: Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition. Oxford University Press, Inc; 2006.

Bostaph, L. and Cooper J. 2008. Review of Research on Alternatives to Incarceration for Adults. Idaho Criminal Justice Commission.  

Aos, S., Miller, M. Drake, E. 2006. Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates, Washington State Institute for Public Policy. 

Barnoski, R. & Aos, S. (2003). Washington State’s drug courts for adult defendants: Outcome evaluation and cost-benefit analysis. (Tech. Rep.). Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute for Public Policy. 

Wilson, D.,  Mitchell, O., MacKenzie. D. 2006. A systematic review of drug court effects on recidivism Journal of Experimental Criminology volume 2, pages459–487 

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