On August 2, the Biden administration announced a grant program to help develop better drug laws. It is awarding money for harm reduction research to create “model” legislation for state governments to draw on.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which announced the $2.5 million grant, is awarding it to the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association (LAPPA), an independent nonprofit. The grant supports research in harm reduction, “as well as [promoting] equity in access to treatment and drug enforcement efforts for underserved communities.”
The grant program follows a muted February announcement that Biden’s drug policy agenda is prioritizing harm reduction and racial equity. Those developments represent a potential break from 50 years of the federal War on Drugs—as well as from Biden’s own long record of pushing for some of the harshest and most racist federal drug laws.
It’s practical to invest in drug policy reform at the state level. Obviously the federal government itself needs to reform drug policy through Congress. But efforts from recent years, like the BREATHE Act, which would decriminalize all drugs, or the MORE Act, which would legalize marijuana and prioritize social equity, have been stymied by Republican Senators. Often, too few Democrats care enough to push them through either.
But individual states have been acting more quickly. Eighteen states have now legalized adult-use marijuana; New York just decriminalized syringe possession; and Rhode Island just authorized a safe consumption site (SCS) pilot.
Many other state and local governments are doubling down on the drug war, however. West Virginia just implemented a new law that critics say will devastate syringe service programs (SSP), and North Carolina has also proposed heavy restrictions on syringes. SSP have recently been shuttered in Indiana and New Jersey. New York continues to drag its feet on implementing SCS.
The ONDCP’s new grant program should directly encourage more policy innovation. By directly supporting people researching and writing legislation, the grants can bankroll new ideas for drug laws that can save people’s lives. The ONDCP specifically mentioned “Ensuring access to harm reduction services such as SSP, Equitable enforcement of drug laws and access to treatment, and Stigma reduction for substance use disorder” among its priorities for this grant program.
Enforcement Still Part of the Equation
But the program also supports “Strategies to address fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking and use,” without offering much clarity on what exactly those strategies will be. In the same announcement, the ONDCP highlights some of Biden’s other drug policy priorities, including expanding the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. Through HIDTA, more counties will receive “support for regional law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations.”
In 2018 alone, HIDTA-funded operations arrested 99,000 people. This large-scale, intense drug enforcement tends to target lower-level drug sellers and users, rather than the “kingpins” and organized cartels hyped to the media. Filter has reported on how HIDTA anti-drug trafficking efforts are likely making communities less safe by taking out established drug trade figures and disrupting the supply.
The ONDCP’s announcement also highlights Biden’s Congressional budget priorities, which include increased funding for efforts to stop and seize drug shipments throughout the US and along the border. This likely means giving more money to agencies like ICE and the Border Patrol, under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which plays a major role in policing the flow of drugs into the country. DHS is a sprawling department whose different agencies face allegations of internal corruption, theft, kidnapping, and physical and sexual abuse.
We should question how and to what extent ONDCP grant money will go toward research on preventing drug use and trafficking. If it results in legislation that prioritizes more incarceration and state violence for drug users, that would indicate where Biden’s own priorities still lie—despite his promise to back harm reduction.