Welcome to the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. We work for an honest, fair and efficient criminal justice system.

Areas of Impact

The United States is at a crossroads in its drug policy. Since the days of President Richard M. Nixon, the U.S. has relied upon an enforcement approach to control drug use in the U.S. Our goals have been to protect young people from using drugs, to save lives from the risks of drug overdose and the suffering of addiction, and to reduce crime and violence. For four decades, from the 1970s, through the first decade of the 21st Century, laws have been toughened, and more money has been dedicated to fighting a "war on drugs." However, since 1996, state after state has adopted laws to provide marijuana to sick people who are not getting relief from traditional medications to prevent nausea, to stimulate appetite, to control muscle spasticity, to treat epilepsy (especially among children), and to reduce pain. Since 2012, eight states are legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, and licensing businesses to produce and sell marijuana.

The nation is well aware of the suffering that addictive drugs can cause. The effects varies by region. Many cities and regions lived through an epidemic of smokable cocaine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later, methamphetamine addiction was found in some states and cities and not others. For a decade, addiction to prescription opioids such as oxycodone (Oxycontin (R)) was especially intense in Appalachian region, New Hampshire, Florida and other states. In 2016 and 2017, addiction to opioids crosses between prescription pain medications and heroin (sometimes adulterated with fentanyl and other drugs), and is widespread in many states. Nationally the number of deaths from overdoses and poisons was estimated to be greater than 60,000 in 2016.

In recent years, the response to the opioid addiction crisis has differed profoundly from the reaction to the crack cocaine addiction crisis. The August 2017 interim report from the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis called for harm reduction measures, not more law enforcement. One analysis is that the opioid addiction crisis is dramatically afflicting white Americans, not merely people of color. Reporting of the current opioid epidemic locates the crisis in rural and suburban America. This is in marked contrast with previous addiction crises which were perceived to primarily afflict over the past 140 years people who were in turn primarily Chinese, African American, Hispanic, or "undesirable" whites such as hippies or gay men. Now many in the nation are pursuing harm reduction measures for the current crisis. Resistance to sterile syringe exchange has fallen away in order to prevent the spread of HIV. The distribution of naloxone (Narcan (R)) to reverse overdoses has become widespread. States are even changing regulations to permit the purchase of naloxone without a physician's prescription. Criminal laws are being modified to bar prosecution for possession of narcotics for those who call 9-1-1 for medical assistance (so-called Good Samaritan 9-1-1 laws).

Lives are being saved.  Yet in some counties police are announcing they will no longer use naloxone to save lives if a person has been revived from an overdose more than once or twice -- it's too expensive. To respond to the increase in overdose deaths, prosecutors are seeking to prosecute for murder and seek the death penalty the distributors of opioids if someone who received drugs directly or indirectly from the distributor dies from the drugs. (Of course, most street distributors have no way to know what contaminants are in the street drugs they have obtained for redistribution.) In 2017, the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the Department of Justice, are returning to decades-old harsh language, and reviewing the reform policies adopted under Attorney General Eric Holder for possible repeal.

Public health measures associated with drugs have been successful: Addiction to tobacco is going down. Driving while intoxicated by alcohol is going down. In states with regulated marijuana markets, teenage use is not increasing.

To repeat, we are at a cross roads. Do we respond to the opioid addiction epidemic with a compassionate vision that we must reduce and minimize the suffering of drug users, and make the saving of their lives a top priority? Or do we return to the ham-fisted approach of enforcement and punishment that has been urged upon us by the police for much of the past half century? During our war on drugs we spent in the range of one trillion dollars trying to quell the drug trade, intensify border security, increase arrests, lengthen sentences, and strip the rights of drug users who get caught. To deter drug use we introduced drug testing in our nation's schools and workplaces.

We provided billions of dollars to other nations for a variety of anti-drug police and military operations. With that money, we have seen over the decades the authorities inflict countless human rights abuses against farmers, couriers, distributors, users, and those rumored to be so. These tragedies have played out over and over in Bolivia, the Bahamas, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Afghanistan, and lately the Philippines. Extrajudicial killing, death squads, extortion, gang violence, and widespread corruption.

Our friends in Europe have reduced overdose, reduced the spread of HIV and Hepatitis, reduced crime, reduced homelessness, and reduced the number of addicts without focusing on imprisonment and punishment. Heroin maintenance has been legalized in Switzerland and is carried out in Britain and the Netherlands. Portugal decriminalized the possession and use of drugs coupled with public health interventions achieving dramatic declines in HIV infection, death and numbers of persons addicted.

Yet in the United States the availability and purity of drugs have steadily increased, hundreds of thousands of Americans remain ensnared in addiction, additional hundreds of thousands are imprisoned, and people wanting help to become sober cannot get appropriate treatment.

Increasingly, the American people are recognizing that by attempting to control the drug market through force, prohibition and incarceration, our policies have created a more efficient drug trade and a hugely profitable drug market. Every comprehensive conversation about our domestic problems -- gun violence, poverty, racial tension, health, educational achievement and opportunity, community development, civil liberties and terrorism, even the environment -- recognizes the significant contribution of the illegal drug market to the seriousness of the problem. Thus, increasing numbers of Americans are rethinking our drug goals and trying to contemplate a new strategy.

To support a well-designed change of direction, we provide specific policy-related information on each of the following drugs: marijuana (including medical marijuana), heroin and other opiates, crack cocaine and alcohol.

We also discuss areas of the criminal justice system tightly linked to drug policy that are in great need of reform: mandatory minimums, prosecutorial overreach, civil asset forfeiture and clemency.