Unheard Voices

Testifying Before Congress on Failed Drug Policies

I appeared alongside fellow renowned researchers in the field of criminal justice reform, to deliver data-driven research, perspective, and provide reason to federal drug policy reform, that could transform communities of color that have long harbored our country’s past failures.

In my prepared remarks, I shared an overview of the evolutionary impact of federal drug policies on Black communities, as well as suggested an equity-based framework for the reframing of national drug policies. It’s from here that I believe there should be three priorities legislators could pursue to establish more equitable federal drug policies of the future.

First, it’s time for the federal government to legalize marijuana. To date, there are:

  • 31 states that have decriminalized marijuana
  • 17 states that have fully legalized marijuana
  • 36 states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes

The growing mandate for federal legalization and decriminalization of marijuana can no longer be ignored.

Second, we need to remove drug criminalization from the criminal justice system’s purview, and rather, handle it from the public health standpoint that it is.

Unfortunately, our legislators took the wrong turn years ago by placing substance abuse issues in the hands of the criminal justice system. And where did that get us? Here’s a snapshot:

  • Someone is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds
  • Since 1971, the war on drugs is estimated to cost this country over $1 trillion
  • Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino
  • 75% of those currently federally sentenced for fentanyl trafficking are people of color

Leveraging incarceration has only exacerbated the issue before us. However, compassionate, evidence-based treatment and behavioral responses can get us back on the right track.

Third, it is my strongest recommendation that we shift our approach to one that is grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.

We need to reimagine and regain control of the country’s drug policy in pursuit of a higher standard that allows us to regulate drugs from a scientific standpoint. Through this new approach, we no longer have to allow fear, prejudice, and prohibitions to govern our policy. Instead, those who are suffering can receive the support they need without the threat of being punished for what they consume.

It is my deepest hope our congressional representatives take the information and perspectives shared in the committee hearing to continue having productive conversations. However, my experience was much more powerful than simply providing recommendations.

It was about bridging an ever-growing gap in research translation, policy impact, and representation to correct our country’s past mistakes.

All around the world, there is incredible demand for grounded academic research that accounts for real-world impact. Criminal justice reform is not immune to that reality. Universities are establishing think tanks to help connect and translate our research to address concrete societal challenges. At the Center of Justice Research, that’s precisely what we are working to do. We understand this can be a challenge because politics oftentimes get in the way of fact. Nevertheless, we work that much harder to translate our work into impact.

One way we do that is by ensuring we are contributing to the local and national conversation through current and emerging research that provides transparent insight into critical global issues. For example, a faculty fellow at the Center for Justice Research is examining Nigeria’s criminal justice reform efforts. Why? Because the need for reform does not sit within the U.S. alone.

As a life-long researcher, my goal is to provide evidence-based research and real-life perspectives to help legislators implement policies that are not only going to be effective but that are also going to be fair. That means reshaping existing measures to adopt new approaches that do not place undue stress on specific individuals based upon who they are, what they look like, or where they come from.

When it comes to federal drug policy, we need to dismantle the War on Drugs mindset and start anew. If we know what works – and we do know what works – the greatest challenges ahead of us are gaining acceptance of alternative perspectives and relinquishing the social control that keeps the cycles of systemic oppression in play.

In the grand scheme of history, the U.S. is a maturing young country. We are still learning from our mistakes, and one thing we’ve learned the hard way is the criminal justice system cannot handle substance abuse and drug addiction. Fortunately, we’re at a time where most Americans now recognize the need for reform, and we have the tailwind we need to create real change.

The congressional testimony was a one-day event I spent a lifetime preparing for because, as it turned out, the graduate thesis I sat down to write in 2000 is what led me to this moment 21 years later. It was over before I knew it, but the work in front of us is just getting started.

Howard Henderson is professor of justice administration and founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University where his research focuses on identifying factors predictive of an unjust criminal justice system.

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