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Drug Policy Alliance
New York, NY (Headquarters)
givvers: jason, tweaks

The Drug Policy Alliance Network (DPA Network) is the nation’s leading organization promoting policy alternatives to the drug war that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.

Our supporters are individuals who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. Together we advance policies that reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition, and seek solutions that promote safety while upholding the sovereignty of individuals over their own minds and bodies. We work to ensure that our nation’s drug policies no longer arrest, incarcerate, disenfranchise and otherwise harm millions of nonviolent people. Our work inevitably requires us to address the disproportionate impact of the drug war on people of color.

Drug Policy Alliance is a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

New York’s marijuana arrest crusade began more than 20 years ago. Since then, police departments across the state have arrested more than 800,000 New Yorkers for low-level marijuana possession offenses. In 2016, more than 22,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana – 80% of whom were black or Latino. What’s worse, many of these arrests were the product of an unconstitutional stop. Once convicted, a permanent record can follow these mostly young people of color for the rest of their lives – a record easily found by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards. Today, thousands of New Yorkers are still being burdened by these arrests even after the Governor and law enforcement officials admitted they were wrong.

Recently, the New York State Assembly passed a landmark piece of legislation to provide some reprieve for those who have been most criminalized in our state. The responsibility for pushing this bill forward now falls to the Senate and the Governor, who have an opportunity to right a wrong by sealing these arrests.

This sealing legislation has also taken on increased importance amid the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and actions targeting immigrant communities. Simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation at the national level, and sealing records will provide a measure of protection for noncitizens by making it difficult or impossible for immigration authorities to meet their legal burden of proof for a judge to find a lawful permanent resident deportable.

On Tuesday, February 28 advocates will demand reprieve for the harm that has been caused and mobilize for legislative solutions to keep New York families together.

What: Press Conference: Advocates Push Crucial Legislation to Seal Past Marijuana Possession Convictions
When: Tuesday, February 28 at 11:30am
Where: Great Western Staircase (Million Dollar Staircase), New York State Capitol, Albany, NY
Drug Policy Alliance
Brooklyn Defender Services
Legal Aid Society

Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (Confirmed)
Senator Jamaal Bailey (Confirmed)
Senator Jesse Hamilton (Confirmed)
Assemblymember Luis Sepúlveda (Confirmed)
Assemblymember Crespo (Confirmed)
Assemblymember Mosley (Confirmed)
Senator Rivera (Invited)
Assemblymember Blake (Invited)
Assemblymember Rodriguez (Invited)
Assemblymember Squadron (Invited)
Assemblymember Walker (Invited)
Assemblymember Perry (Invited)

Date Published: February 27, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed legislation this week that legalizes syringe access programs in the state. Virginia has been experiencing significant increases in opioid overdose, opioid misuse, injection drug use, and rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection. These concerning trends led Virginia’s health commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine and Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare the state’s opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency late last year.

“Increasing access to sterile syringes is essential to reducing rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, Policy Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Establishing syringe access programs will save thousands of lives in Virginia by preventing the spread of HIV and other preventable diseases.”

Here are some quick facts about Virginia’s new law and syringe access programs:

  • The legislation (HB 2317) authored by Delegate John M. O'Bannon III (R - House District 73) authorizes the Commissioner of Health to establish and operate syringe programs during a declared public health emergency. The objectives of these programs are to reduce the spread of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases in Virginia, including through the accidental transmission of needle stick injuries to law enforcement and other first responders, and to provide information to individuals who inject drugs regarding addiction treatment services. These programs will be located in at-risk communities, in accordance with criteria established by the Department of Health. The legislation takes effect on July 1st.
  • Syringe access programs have a proven, decades-long track record of preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, in addition to reducing problematic drug use by connecting people who inject drugs with testing, health care and treatment.
  • Many jurisdictions adjacent to Virginia already have successful syringe services programs, including North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
  • With the new law, Virginia will join a growing number of states that recently passed syringe access reforms, including Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland. Due to recent Congressional action to modify the decades-long ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, these newly expanded programs will be able to seek federal support for their work.
  • By implementing syringe programs now, Virginia may be able to avoid public health crises like the 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana, in which a lack of access to harm reduction resources like syringe  access contributed to over 200 new cases of HIV (whereas Scott County typically only saw 5 HIV cases per year).
  • An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that eight Virginia counties (Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Wise, Tazewell, Patrick and Wythe) are at risk of an outbreak similar to Scott County, Indiana.
  • Virginia already has seen a spike in hepatitis C cases: in 2014, more than 6,600 cases were reported to the Virginia Department of Health and in 2015 more than 8,000 cases were reported. This significant rise in blood borne pathogens could signal a spike in HIV on the horizon as well.

“Thanks to the dedication of Virginia’s Health Commissioner, Governor McAuliffe and the sponsor of the syringe measure, Del. John O’Bannon, Virginia has taken a huge step toward preventing further harms from the opioid and heroin crisis,” added Boecker. “We hope this is just the beginning of broader efforts in Virginia to reduce preventable harms caused by outdated drug laws and drug misuse.”

Date Published: February 24, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

In a press conference today, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer strongly indicated that Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice (DOJ) will crack down on recreational marijuana programs. When asked about whether the federal government will take action in states that have legalized marijuana, Spicer replied, “I do think you’ll see greater enforcement. The Department of Justice, I think, will be further looking into [the issue]. I believe they are going to continue to enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana.”

Spicer noted that Trump supports medical marijuana and understands that patients are in pain and facing terminal illness and have a right to medical marijuana. He also noted the Congressional rider – commonly known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment – was in force and prevents DOJ from intervening in medical marijuana states. But Spicer said that there is a big difference between medical and recreational marijuana, commenting that “When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people.”

In response, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of Drug Policy Alliance, released this statement:

“Trump seems insistent on throwing the marijuana market underground, wiping out tax-paying jobs and eliminating billions of dollars in taxes,” said Nadelmann. “As for connecting marijuana to the legal opioid crisis, Spicer has it exactly backwards. Greater access to marijuana has actually led to declines in opioid use, overdoses and other problems.”

According to a Quinnipiac poll released today 71% of Americans say the government should not enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana use.

Date Published: February 23, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

The criminalization of people who use psychedelics is rooted in myths that are the vestiges of colonialism and the drug war – and, one by one, those myths are crumbling down.

We’ve learned in recent years that people who use psychedelics are significantly *less* likely to end up developing mental health problems, perpetrating domestic violence, or suffering from psychological distress and suicidal thinking.

Meanwhile, recent research has shown that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can be an effective treatment for people struggling with difficult-to-treat conditions such as substance use disorders. Not much has been known, though, about the connection between psychedelic use and substance misuse in the general population.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has found that experiences with psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are associated with decreased risk of opioid abuse and dependence among respondents with a history of illegal opioid use. Psychedelic use is associated with 27% reduced risk of past-year opioid dependence and 40% reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse.  Other than marijuana use, which was associated with 55% reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse, no other illegal drug was associated with reduced risk of past-year opioid dependence or abuse.

The study is based on six years of data from the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which surveys 70,000 people each year.  While the findings are far from causal, the authors conclude that the associations between psychedelic use and opioid misuse are “pervasive and significant” and “suggest that psychedelics are associated with positive psychological characteristics and are consistent with prior reports suggesting efficacy in treatment of substance use disorders.”

Although more research is needed to determine exactly why there’s such a strong correlation between psychedelic use and decreased risk of opioid misuse, this study does appear to validate the experiences of many people who have found substances like ibogaine, marijuana or kratom to be life-changing tools that have helped them lead happier, more fulfilling lives. For many, these substances have helped them cut back or quit their use of opioids or other substances with which they’ve had a problematic relationship. Safe access to these substances – along with 911 Good Samaritan laws, naloxone access programs, supervised injection facilities, various forms of maintenance therapy, and, of course, ending the criminalization of drug use – should be part of the discussion when it comes to dealing with addiction and skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths.

And let’s not forget our commander-in-chief is ramping up the drug war and thinks he can deal with opioid addiction by building a giant wall and deporting millions of people, both documented and undocumented.  Let’s remember, too, that thousands of people are getting handcuffed, arrested, branded as criminals, and serving time behind bars every year simply for using or possessing a psychedelic substance in the U.S. – and these people are more likely to be young, non-white, and socioeconomically marginalized than most people who use psychedelics.

While psychedelic-assisted therapy could be approved by the FDA in the next decade, that would do nothing to change the criminal penalties faced by millions of people who use psychedelics outside of government-sanctioned, medically-supervised settings. That’s why it’s incumbent upon people who care about psychedelics to advocate for reducing the criminalization of people who use them outside of medical contexts, while also advocating for psychedelic-assisted therapy research.

Given the widespread scientific consensus that drug use and addiction are best treated as health issues, there’s no good reason for people who use psychedelics to be treated as criminals – especially considering how much we already know about prohibition’s discriminatory impact on people of color and other marginalized groups.

This study also forces us to reflect on why abstinence-only policies can be so harmful and counterproductive.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, federal government data has consistently shown that the vast majority of people who use opioids, including heroin, don’t end up developing an addiction. So our focus should be not just on preventing people from using opioids – after all, they can be essential medical tools – but also ensuring, above all else, that people who use them don’t go on to struggle with addiction.

A truly health-centered approach to drug addiction assesses improvement by many measures, not simply by someone’s drug use level, but also by their overall health, their social relationships, and their general well-being.  Determining success by boiling it down to the single measure of abstinence to an arbitrary group of certain drugs isn’t realistic or effective.

Addiction is a complex phenomenon, but I think it’s safe to say that it can only be genuinely resolved when people find meaning in their lives.  This study is yet another indication that the meaning people seem to find from psychedelics has considerable implications for our prevailing healthcare and criminal justice paradigms.

Jag Davies is the director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance (

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Author: Jag Davies
Date Published: February 21, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

What does it mean to reduce the harm of white supremacy? How can we, as a society, look beyond drug abuse as an illness and reckon with anti-black oppression, punishment and capitalism as the cruelest addictions in this country?

In that context, white supremacy is the pusher, but black people aren’t the ones with the habit.

Samuel K. Roberts Jr., Ph.D.—director of the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies, associate professor of history at Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, and associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health—is an expert in the field of African-American and public health history and politics.

Roberts is currently researching a book project on the history of drug addiction policy and politics from the 1950s to the present, a period that encompasses the various heroin epidemics between the 1950s and the 1980s, therapeutic communities, radical recovery movements, methadone maintenance treatment and harm-reduction approaches.

Roberts’ focus on harm reduction for people of color encompasses much more than ensuring individual safety; rather, it is about dismantling systems that are unsafe for black people in the United States of America.

In our wide-ranging interview, Roberts and I discussed radical recovery; the critical need for “harm reduction of color” to end the so-called war on drugs, which has always been a war against the most oppressed and has targeted black and brown communities; and why “white flight” is a misnomer that gives entirely too much credit to whiteness.

The Root: Let’s talk about the critical need for harm reduction of color. Because that specificity and intentionality, that reframing, is not something that is discussed enough.

Samuel Roberts: Yes, HROC, harm reduction of color, is a specific view. Harm-reduction-of-color critique in particular is concerned with structural inequality. So it recognizes the whole social issues of drugs and the political aspects of drugs as being bound up with structures that are in place, with the effect and the function of maintaining inequality for people of color and communities of color. From this view, we see that there’s a connection between a failing education system, hyper-vigilant state security systems, the mass carceral state, and deindustrialization and lack of job opportunities. Those are all connected structurally in our harm-reduction-of-color critique. I emphasize harm reduction of color because there are harm-reduction organizations that are just about helping people stay safe as they use drugs, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s very different from what I’m talking about.

This is a protest movement in many ways, or at least an advocacy movement that will seamlessly do that seamless analysis of gender and sexual oppression, economic subjugation and mass incarceration, police brutality—you know, the whole nine. HROC is a political analysis that draws from a decadeslong history of radical movements from the ’60s and ’70s and forward, but also drawn more immediately from the energy and analyses offered by the various movements, including the Movement for Black Lives.

Photo Credit: Averie Ann Cole

TR: Absolutely, and a large part of that is eradicating the racialized stigma attached to drug use. Not just the stigma, but also poverty, criminalization and addiction ... it’s a lot to dismantle and to reckon with. And in the context of white supremacy, these are radical notions.

SR: Absolutely. An HROC perspective recognizes that stigma actually has a function. That if you’re gonna rationalize locking up 2 million people at any given point in time, as this country has, you have to have an ideology that convinces people that they’re OK with that. So you need to have a series of stigmas about there being violent, predatorial, bad mothers; drains on the welfare state, cheats, you know, unwilling to work, animalistic—all of those things, you know; potential or active terrorists. You need to have all of those in place if you’re gonna get people to sign off on all that, because let’s be clear: Putting together a carceral state is not easy.

Has anyone been successful convincing the American public to put tens of billions of dollars behind the educational system? No. It’s a lot to convince people to put in that kind of money. So you have to have them scared, and you have to have them thinking that the people against whom the stigmas are being mobilized are really not worthy of any sympathy or any respect, really.

TR: What really stood out to me while reading over your synopsis of your book research was the term “radical recovery.” I’m thinking here about mothers who may lose their job or the father who may have his children taken away. People stand to pay a steep price for speaking out about their addictions, and that can suppress recovery. Can you talk a little bit about the history of radical recovery in movement spaces?

SR: Well, since the ... mid- to late 60s, we’ve had a number of instances in which organizations have tied the issue of drugs, drug use, drug policy, to larger socioeconomic and political questions. So the radical part here is, we’re not just talking about plain recovery. A lot of recovery programs are not political, and that’s fine. In fact, some are actually very much, assertively anti-political. In most of your 12-step programs, you don’t come in there talking politics, you know what I mean? Because for them, that detracts or distracts you from your own responsibility and problems.

Then there’s other organizations that were supported by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. There was a group called White Lightning, which was an anti-racist, largely white organization. These organizations and other, smaller ones, made the connection between drug use in what was then called America’s ghettos and later called inner cities, or center cities where jobs are basically fleeing. You know, we talk about white flight from neighborhoods, but it’s not so much white flight that’s a problem; it’s capital flight. These neighborhoods didn’t get in trouble because there were no white people there. We could do fine without white people.

It’s that all the money left, right? All the jobs left. At the same time, for a young, employable population, if one of the only games in town is the drug trade, well, that’s what you’re gonna do.

TR: Exactly, and that carried right on over into later decades.

SR: Right. In the ’80s and ’90s, you know, a number of things happened. First we get HIV ... by the early 1980s, heroin has taken such a toll in black communities—not just heroin use itself, but also the police ramifications that many in our mainstream leadership pushed, the politics of respectability.

They basically washed their hands of people who used drugs, and they washed their hands of the issues, any issue besides law and order. And then you combine that with Reagan’s war on drugs, which wasn’t just about locking people up for using drugs; it actually ended up remaking governance itself. And what I mean by that is, imagine a period of time where the surest way you’re gonna get grants from the federal government is to do drug interdiction. Not education, public health—remember, Reagan was cutting down all those; not job training, not community development—Reagan was slashing budgets for all that.

The one thing, if you needed anybody from the federal government to balance your municipal budget, you had to ... basically ask for drug money or drug fighting, drug-war money. So after a few decades of that, then if all you’re carrying is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

“These neighborhoods didn’t get in trouble because there were no white people there. We could do fine without white people.”

TR: Absolutely; the same held true for Bill Clinton in the ’90s and Hillary Clinton’s popularization of John DiIulio Jr.’s term “superpredator.” Under Clinton, states began passing their own version of “three strikes” laws, and they were awarded Truth-in-Sentencing grants to build and expand prisons.

SR: Absolutely. Clinton had the same enthusiasm for all those policies.

TR: So let’s talk about this country’s commitment to punishment, capitalism and anti-blackness and how it has fueled the so-called drug war—because we know it’s really a war on the most targeted black and brown communities in the country. Now, we have this “gentler” war on drugs for white users, but it remains punishment for black people who sell drugs.

SR: So we do have to be careful here. Since 1973, with the Rockefeller drug laws, our impulse to separate drug users from so-called drug dealers is actually a pretty artificial one. Most people who use drugs at some point have sold drugs, even if mostly casually. And most people who sell drugs really are doing it just for side money and to support their own habit. So what I’m saying is, it’s very difficult to separate drug dealers from drug users.

There’s plenty of people who just use drugs and they never sold it. There are people out there who sell drugs and don’t use. But with the majority, there is this overlap. The number of people that we would describe as “king pins” or major distributors is a pretty small number. So we have to be careful with separating the user from the seller, because all discretion is with the prosecution.

TR: That’s an excellent point. White drug use is primarily a public health issue, even though these white people also sell small quantities of drugs. Black drug sellers, even in small quantities, are hypercriminalized because our judicial system chooses to not see them as users. And if it does, there is stigma attached.

SR: And that’s the danger of it, right? Because so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. At what point is somebody a user and at what point are they a dealer? If we decide as a society that we’re going to take a public health approach to drug using, but continue to take a draconian approach to drug dealing, then we really haven’t [done] as much reform as we’ve thought. We can’t demonize one and empathize with the other.

So if you have a white woman who has developed a heroin problem and on the side she’s selling a little bit of heroin to maintain her own habit, somebody might say, “Oh, this poor woman; we need to get her a program because she’s not really a dealer.” You can take a black woman in the same case, but it’ll conjure up all these myths of crack moms and black women are terrible mothers, and she gets the book thrown at her.

Half a measure of reform is not the full thing. For most of our history, the drugs that we decided are the most dangerous were the ones that were associated with people who were not white. It’s really never about the drug itself, because there is no drug that is so dangerous that it warrants locking somebody up for 25 years of their lives.

Photo Credit: Averie Ann Cole

TR: I’m thinking here about [former Police Officer] Daniel Holtzclaw and how he targeted black women, specifically black women with criminal charges or who had battled some form of addiction and were afraid of being incarcerated. He used his power to do that. We could also look at women who are addicted to drugs and how some of them are not involved in sex work because it’s something that they want to do, necessarily, but something that they need to do to survive.

You look at what [former Gov.] Mike Pence did in Indiana, stopping the needle-exchange programs and limiting women’s access to reproductive choices, and how that affected women of color and exploded the HIV rate. There is a dangerous intersection of criminalization and misogyny, particularly as it pertains to black women. Sexual assault is the second-highest reported form of police brutality after excessive force.

So this is not only a public health issue for black women, or a criminal issue, but a feminist issue.

SR: Absolutely. There’s really so much in terms of drug policy and criminal-justice policy that affects black women in very specific ways. Black women’s incarcerated population mushroomed in the early ’90s, late ’90s, and the first decade of the 2000s.

Black women in particular are more vulnerable to the problems of fraying community bonds, such as domestic abuse, the state incursions and state violence, and so there’s certain ways in which substance use with black women has its own particular dimensions, as clearly an indication of self-medication. And once they’re in the system, they are particularly more vulnerable to the sexual assault and violence, either in encounters with police officers or with correctional officers. This is a critical issue.

TR: Absolutely. Poverty is also a systemic illness that affects personal wellness in black and brown working-class communities and those living in deep poverty. And while there has been some movement on policy around the country, do you think there has been progress eradicating the intentional stigmas that fuel this oppression?

SR: Yes, one of the many inspiring things about the Movement for Black Lives is the high proportion of black women, queer and/or trans in the leadership of these organizations. Because with them comes a very complex and sophisticated analysis of various problems and an ability to connect all those.

So if you want to talk to someone, if you want to get some of the most sophisticated analysis of sexual violence and sexual politics, drug policy, war on the poor and war on black people, you talk to a trans activist of color who works with homeless youth. Because they’ve seen all of those things, and it can show how they all seamlessly work in this really hideous system that’s essentially designed to brutalize entire populations. These are individuals that were not in the forefront of black political mobilization even 15 years ago, let alone 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement. We are in a really creative movement in terms of black politics.

“For most of our history, the drugs that we decided are the most dangerous were the ones that were associated with people who were not white. It’s really never about the drug itself, because there is no drug that is so dangerous that it warrants locking somebody up for 25 years of their lives.”

TR: There are a lot of tentacles deeply rooted in the history of black people in the United States that have been shaped by the so-called war on drugs. What does winning this war look like to you?

SR: Massive investment in education, obviously, right? But we also need to think about how we plan an economy where there are industries waiting for people who have that education. And that’s gonna take a lot of political will as well. And we need to think about our health infrastructure.

As you started off our conversation, where you were saying poverty as a disease ... being poor is probably the most dangerous threat to your health. ... And so we ... need to really work on that infrastructure. Most of the issues that we attribute to drug use will be vastly mitigated if we paid more attention to these other things. When you give people more tools with which they can be in control of their lives, they tend to not be as harmful to themselves or to others. And, in this moment, I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.

The so-called war on drugs has been exposed for the capitalist money grab and the white supremacist assault that it is. And this I know to be true: It is our duty to win. We will not allow stigma to infest our communities, and we will continue to fight back when we see it.

We will have greater empathy for those who make the decision to self-medicate the pain of struggling to survive in an anti-black society. And we will focus on radical recovery because the shame is not ours, and it never has been.

We will look at poverty as an illness and not a moral failing, and we will insist, to others and to ourselves, that our humanity in the face of intentional institutional violence and oppression is always worth fighting for.

Kirsten West Savali is a journalist with

This piece originally appeared on

*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.

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Author: Kirsten West Savali
Date Published: February 17, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

In October, the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Office of Academic Engagement hosted an influential conference, entitled White Faces, Black Lives: Race and Reparative Justice in the Era of A “Gentler War on Drugs.” Scholars and advocates - some of the most prominent thought leaders on health and drug policy - shared their research and perspectives on historical responses to drug use, the continuation of drug war tactics in some communities, the persistent criminalization of Black and Brown drug users, and the current political shift to a public health approach.

This video captures powerful moments by our speakers:

Panelists acknowledged that the political about-face, from criminalization and prisons to treatment and health resources, was largely driven by the national opioid crisis. As the New York Times noted in its controversial article, In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs:

“When the nation’s long-running war against drugs was defined by the crack epidemic and based in poor, predominantly black urban areas, the public response was defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. But today’s heroin crisis is different. While heroin use has climbed among all demographic groups, it has skyrocketed among whites; nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time in the last decade were white.

And the growing army of families of those lost to heroin — many of them in the suburbs and small towns — are now using their influence, anger and grief to cushion the country’s approach to drugs, from altering the language around addiction to prodding government to treat it not as a crime, but as a disease.”

Panelists called out the hypocrisy laden in entreaties for a gentler war on drugs, and together demanded acknowledgement for those who have suffered and still suffer under draconian drug policies, which favored prison over care.

Since the conference and under the new political landscape, our collective world has shifted. People are hitting the streets everyday demanding a repudiation of stigma, abandonment of draconian policies, and calling for the protection of human rights. What millions are protesting for around the country is what we clearly stated on October 19, 2016:


Our work to retract the reach of the drug war is more pertinent than ever. The appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general means that not only must we continue to push for evidence-based, non-punitive drug policy, but also fiercely protect past reforms that center people and families first. 

Need some more inspiration? Videos from all of the conference panels are available online. Share them with your networks to spread the work we all are embarking on together. We will continue to build out an agenda for reparative justice. We will take what we have learned from our time together in October and apply it to create a community-centered vision for a world without a war on drugs. We will define what reparative justice looks like to acknowledge, atone for, and act to end the drug war.

Dionna King is the policy coordinator at the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Author: Dionna King
Date Published: February 16, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

In recent years, there has been increasing media attention on drugs like “Spice”, “K2”, “bath salts”, “flakka”, fentanyl, “molly”, and others. Unfortunately, much of the coverage – even by some of the most well-meaning journalists – contains misinformation or inaccurate or misleading terminology. It is often difficult to find reputable sources for information on newer substances like synthetic cathinones (commonly called “bath salts”) and synthetic cannabinoids (commonly called “Spice” or “K2”). This all serves to perpetuate unfounded myths and unhelpful hysteria about these substances in reporting.

The Drug Policy Alliance has created media tip sheets to help journalists accurately and constructively cover drugs that are frequently misrepresented in the media. They address some prevailing myths and common misinformation, as well as give a basic understanding of what these substances are and their known effects.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about drugs and their effects, whether it’s new substances like synthetic cannabinoids – often called “K2” – or ones like MDMA, now referred to as “molly”, that have been around a while. Rather than simply repeating myths or incorrect terminology, members of the media can play an important role in providing clear and factual information, and we hope these tip sheets help accomplish that,” says Stefanie Jones, director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance.

This release includes media tips sheets for synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic opioids, synthetic cathinones, and MDMA, with topics including:

Media Tip Sheet: Synthetic Cannabinoids

  • What is “synthetic marijuana?”
  • Are synthetic cannabinoids legal?
  • Who’s using synthetic cannabinoid products like “Spice” and “K2” and why?
  • What risks are associated with synthetic cannabinoid use?
  • What can be done to prevent these risks?

Media Tip Sheet: Synthetic Opioids

  • What are synthetic opioids?
  • What risks are associated with synthetic opioid use?
  • Why is heroin being cut with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids?
  • How prevalent are overdoes due to synthetic opioids?
  • What can be done to prevent these risks?

Media Tip Sheet: Synthetic Cathinones

  • What are “bath salts”?
  • What risks are associated with synthetic cathinone use?
  • Can synthetic cathinone use turn people into crazed flesh-eating zombies?
  • Are synthetic cathinones legal?
  • What can be done to better manage synthetic cathinone use and its risks?

Media Tip Sheet: MDMA/Molly/Ecstasy

  • What is the difference between MDMA, ecstasy, and molly?
  • Can MDMA be used as medicine or therapy?
  • Why is using the word “overdose” in association with MDMA usually inaccurate?
  • What risks are associated with taking MDMA?
  • What can be done to prevent these risks?

Many of these topics come in response to past coverage that was incomplete, inaccurate or misleading.

In 2012, for instance, synthetic cathinones began getting a frenzy of media attention after a particularly gruesome case out of Miami made headlines. Rudy Eugene had attacked and chewed at the face of Ronald Poppo. Media outlets quickly blamed “bath salts,” based purely on the unfounded speculation of one police officer. Later, toxicology found no trace of synthetic cathinones in Eugene’s system, however, by that time many stories had already repeated the information and never offered a correction. Sensationalized stories were published warning of drug-induced cannibalism, dubbing synthetic cathinones the “zombie drug,” and even going so far as calling “bath salts” use an epidemic.

In 2016, media coverage of synthetic cannabinoid use and related hospitalizations engendered unconstructive hysteria. Reports on the drug’s presence in Brooklyn referred to people who use “K2” as zombies, and emphasized the spike in hospitalizations, all with little discussion of the vulnerable communities that are impacted the most by these substances. Additionally, most outlets used misleading terms like “synthetic weed” or “synthetic marijuana” for a class of substances that is chemically distinct from marijuana and often causes stronger and more numerous negative effects.

In addition to these media tip sheets, DPA maintains dozens of systematic, thoroughly-cited fact sheets on a broad spectrum of drug policy issues, for use by members of the media, academics, advocates and others.

Date Published: February 16, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

In recent years, there has been increasing media attention on drugs known as “K2”, “bath salts”, fentanyl, “molly”, and others. Unfortunately, much of the coverage – even by some of the most well-meaning journalists – contains misinformation and inaccurate or misleading terminology. This all serves to perpetuate unfounded myths and unhelpful hysteria about these substances.

The Drug Policy Alliance has created media tip sheets on synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic opioids, synthetic cathinones, and MDMA to help journalists accurately and constructively cover these frequently misrepresented substances. These tip sheets address some of the biggest mistakes made when reporting on these drugs, including:

Casual Use of Incorrect Terminology

Media coverage is littered with colloquial and slang terms for drugs. This is seemingly benign, but incorrect terminology spreads confusion among people who use drugs and the public.

For instance, what is “K2”? Originally, it referred to a specific synthetic cannabinoid product sold legally in bodegas and corner stores across the country. It came in tiny colorful packaging and the brand name was “K2.” Since that particular brand, along with another called “Spice,” became popular, the names stuck, and now they are both used to refer to any synthetic cannabinoid.

“Ecstasy” and “molly” are other examples of this. Both are slang terms for MDMA, but journalists often use them interchangeably. MDMA refers to the actual substance people believe they are taking, while “ecstasy” and “molly” can actually contain any number of different substances due to the lack of legal regulation.

Using these terms sans quotation marks, or any kind of clarification, gives the false impression that “K2,” or “molly” is one specific, consistent substance. In reality, these terms could refer to any number of substances, each with different possible effects – an important fact that is easily obscured.

Oh, and don’t call synthetic cannabinoids “synthetic marijuana” or “fake pot.” Though synthetic cannabinoids often act on many of the same receptors in the brain as THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – the comparison doesn’t stretch much further than that. Calling synthetic cannabinoids “fake pot” perpetuates the harmful myth that these substances are similar.

Jumping to Conclusions

In the rush to get a story out, journalists often report speculation as fact before all the evidence has come to light. This can quickly start an endless cycle of misinformation.

In 2012 an especially horrific story out of Miami made headlines; a man had attacked and chewed at the face of another man. At the time, one police officer had speculated that synthetic cathinones (commonly known as “bath salts”) were involved. Based on this speculation, and despite a lack of evidence, outlets readily reported that “bath salts” had caused this man to turn into a “cannibal” and a “flesh-eating zombie.”

A month later, toxicological tests found no trace of synthetic cathinones in the attacker’s system. By that time, however, the damage was done. There was suddenly a frenzy of media attention on alleged cases of synthetic cathinone use – most with bizarre behavior, and many later proven to be unconnected to synthetic cathinones. Regardless, “bath salts” became synonymous with “cannibalism” and “zombies.”

Relying on outlier cases and speculation of witnesses promotes unhelpful hysteria, erodes public trust in reporting, and adds to the misinformation that surrounds these substances. This can be harmful in the long term, especially when there are real risks.

Calling Humans “Zombies,” and Other Dehumanizing Language

Speaking of zombies...

Often, when a wave of drug use affects an area, or a particularly gruesome drug-related incident occurs, the word “zombie” begins to pop up in the news. In fact, going by headlines, one might think that episodes of drug-induced zombie-like behavior are a somewhat regular occurrence here on earth.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon, nor is it particular to any one drug; it is all part of the age-old pattern where media uses overly sensationalized language when reporting on drugs. While this may make for a vivid story, it takes away from its ability to explore underlying social issues. Moreover, this portrayal of people who use drugs can be dehumanizing, and contributes to the prevailing stigmatized image of people who use drugs, all the while fueling unproductive hysteria.

Just this past year, a spate of synthetic cannabinoid (“K2”) related hospitalizations hit parts of Brooklyn and Harlem. Story after story described the situation as a “zombie apocalypse,” and painted a picture of “hordes” of people overrunning the neighborhood. This sort of exaggerated language obscures the fact that these so-called “zombies” are real human beings. Furthermore, a narrow focus on the cases with the most bizarre behavior, combined with over-the-top imagery, frames the issue in a way that fails to explore larger social issues at play or any possible solutions.

Ignoring the Role of Prohibition

“New” drugs come with many risks – but the danger these substances pose are due to prohibition. Just because a substance is illegal doesn’t mean the market for it goes away. Chemists can tweak a formula to make a legal substitute for a popular illicit drug, and without any oversight or regulation, the new substances created can be quite dangerous.

Let’s return to “molly” as an example. The drug MDMA is well-researched and is not that harmful if taken with intentional precautions. A copycat substance, mephedrone, became popular, but also caused far more unpleasant experiences and hospital visits. A main reason mephedrone even entered the market was because there was a shortage of MDMA – one example of prohibition driving invention and substitution.

Reporters also err when they don’t point out that many overdoses could be avoided if currently-illegal substances were made legal, and then regulated. The recent rise in deaths from fentanyl-related overdoses is driven by prohibition in two ways. The potent, cheaper-to-produce fentanyl is cut into heroin in the first place to increase profit margins. Then, because people are buying from an unregulated underground market, they have no way to know if their heroin is adulterated.

Prohibition is also behind people choosing to use riskier drugs simply because they are not illegal yet or because they don’t show up on drug tests. The synthetic cannabinoid market meets a demand created by the ongoing prohibition of marijuana. In fact, people would be much less likely to use synthetic cannabinoid products if legally regulated marijuana were accessible to them.

The media plays an essential role in shaping the public’s understanding and perception of drugs. It is well worth the effort to report on these substances accurately and constructively – and hopefully make these four common mistakes a thing of the past.

Stefanie Jones is the Director of Audience Development at the Drug Policy Alliance. qureshi [dot] sara22 [at] gmail [dot] com (Sara Qureshi) is a media consultant for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Author: Stefanie Jones and Sara Qureshi
Date Published: February 16, 2017
Published by Drug Policy Alliance