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The War on Drugs Failed — Lawmakers Must Meet the Fentanyl Crisis With New Solutions

A photo of prison bars.
We must not return to the failed, punitive policies that do not improve public safety or save lives.
A photo of prison bars.
Taylor Pendergrass,
Director of Advocacy and Strategic Alliances, ACLU of Colorado
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March 11, 2022

This editorial was originally published by The Sentinel and has been updated since publication.

The fentanyl crisis continues to cause unfathomable loss across the country. Amid so much pain, we have a responsibility to embrace bold, proven, and life-saving public safety solutions. Now is the moment when we must also put to bed, forever, decades of failed, punitive policies that led to this unprecedented crisis. It is far past time for lawmakers to take aggressive action to protect families by investing in evidence-based solutions that save lives.

For over 50 years, the United States had only one answer to the question of how to save lives and reduce harm from drug use: punishment and prison. The result of this horrifying experiment is a mountain of evidence showing “the overall effect of imprisonment is null.” Prison sentences do not improve safety. They do not save lives. They do not help people recover from substance use disorder. They do not keep us safe from or reduce the supply of dangerous drugs, or save lives in the event of an overdose.

Here is the cold, hard truth: We could increase prison sentences 10-fold, cut them by half, triple them, then eliminate them, and all those changes would do absolutely nothing to protect our families and loved ones from future fentanyl tragedies.

Examining the research is hardly necessary for most American families. They know all too well from their experience with a family member, friend, or even their own lived experience that locking someone up with a substance use disorder will not provide them with the resources and treatment they need. Locking people up only wreaks tremendous intergenerational costs and a never-ending cycle of harm for families and children.

Unfortunately, some lawmakers appear to have no solutions at all, offering only stale and warmed-over war on drugs leftovers. At best, increasing prison sentences for drug-related offenses will have no impact whatsoever on this crisis. At worst, and far more likely, it will stigmatize people who need treatment, exacerbate racial injustice, and squander valuable resources. It is imperative that money be spent on addressing the root causes of the overdose epidemic.

We are thinking far too small for this enormous crisis when we debate about tinkering at the edges of our ancient and ineffective mass incarceration architecture. It is also a colossal waste of time when lawmakers should be laser-focused on rapidly scaling up evidence-based solutions that have proven effective at saving lives: overdose prevention centers, fentanyl test strips, safe supply, drug decriminalization, public education campaigns, and low-barrier access to naloxone and other rehabilitative and life-saving therapies.

Voters of all stripes agree “the war on drugs has failed,” — Democrats (83 percent), Independents (85 percent), and Republicans (82 percent). Voters also know that there is nothing more “soft on crime” than politicians who are too scared to act decisively and aggressively to prevent death and harm from happening in the first place.

Lawmakers claiming the same failed approaches that haven’t worked for the last 50 years are now suddenly going to succeed are displaying a very dangerous mix of willful ignorance, magical thinking, and political expediency. If they have no real solutions to offer, they should step aside and let lawmakers with a real vision and commitment to keeping families safe lead the way. We can and must meet this moment.