Congress Should Reject Biden’s Harmful Scheduling Proposal and Focus on Public Health Solutions to the Overdose Crisis
Contact: Mariah Wildgen [email protected]
House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee Hearing on President Biden’s Proposal to Permanently Classify Fentanyl-Related Substances at Schedule I Leaves Out Expert Voices
Washington, DC — Today, the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing on President Joe Biden’s harmful proposal to permanently classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs. A classwide scheduling order would expand mass incarceration, worsen racial disparities in the criminal-legal system, and further fuel the cycle of substance use exacerbated by policies rooted in criminalization. A coalition of leading civil rights activists and policy experts is urging members of Congress to reject Biden’s proposal and pass health-based strategies that are proven to save lives.
To meaningfully address the overdose crisis and save lives, a compassionate public health-centered approach — focusing on harm reduction services like increased access to test strips, overdose-reversing drugs like Naloxone, and safe-injection sites — is desperately needed. The Energy and Commerce Committee hearing failed to substantively consider these public health options. All of the witnesses at today’s hearing were administration officials, while advocates were locked out of the discussion. Congress, federal agencies, and the Biden administration need to listen to voices that truly understand substance use and incarceration.
“Drug criminalization has poisoned the drug supply in this country and led us to this point: record-number of preventable overdose deaths,” said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Congress must chart a new course to save lives. The only way forward is moving health-centered legislation that can provide life-saving harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs. Anything less is not a solution — it’s a cop out for Congress.”
“Continuing to treat the overdose crisis as a criminal-legal system issue rather than the public health issue it is, is a disastrous waste of resources and ignores the root cause of the problem, said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Rather than continuing to weaponize our deeply biased and flawed criminal-legal system and deepen the racial and socioeconomic disparities wrought by the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ and criminalization, Congress should rely on the expertise of medical professionals, advocates, and those who are directly impacted to implement evidence-based policies and provide treatment and harm reduction resources to those struggling with substance use issues.”
“The facts don’t support the argument that a harsh law enforcement approach, such as permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances, will curb drug distribution, sale, and use,” said Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice. “This policy has been in effect on a temporary basis since 2018, yet overdose deaths have sadly skyrocketed. Years of research demonstrate that harsher punishments do not deter unlawful behavior, particularly when that behavior is rooted in substance use disorder, trauma, and poverty. Congress and the administration should instead center an evidence-based public health approach to saving lives now lost to overdose, and futures lost to long incarcerative sentences dictated by classwide scheduling.”
“As thousands of Americans die every month of overdose — and as the recent 12-month mark of over 100,000 overdose deaths in our nation reached a tragic and unprecedented new high — the last thing we need to address this crisis is more punitive carceral responses. The proposal to classify all fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs and to perpetuate failed tough-on-crime responses will only deepen racial disparities without making our communities safer or saving lives. Instead, elected prosecutors and communities are increasingly recognizing that we need to embrace harm reduction strategies and public health responses to address a public health problem,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director at Fair and Just Prosecution.
“If the record number of overdose deaths in the past year has shown us anything it’s that continued over-criminalization does not work yet Congress and the Biden administration continue to pursue the same failed policies. We need leaders to treat this like the public health crisis that it is and implement harm reduction and treatment strategies that we know work and will save lives,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.
“An untargeted, blanket ban on thousands of chemical substances only serves to further overcrowd our prisons and harm our society’s most vulnerable,” said Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department. “If Congress accepts President Biden’s misguided recommendations, it will undermine the movement for criminal justice reform. Each and every member of Congress has a decision to make: continue to lock up Black and brown people and hope overdoses magically stop, or give people the resources and support to lead healthy, dignified lives.”
“Our communities have suffered for decades under unjust policies that criminalized people who use drugs, tearing families apart and causing preventable overdoses,” said Megan Essaheb, director of federal affairs at People’s Action. “Criminalization is a failed experiment that disproportionately hurts poor people and Black and brown folks. Congress and the Biden administration should finally listen to these communities and take bold and immediate action to address the overdose crisis through public health, evidence-based solutions.”
About the Drug Policy Alliance – The Drug Policy Alliance envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies but only for crimes committed against others, and in which the fears, prejudices and punitive prohibitions of today are no more.
About The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights – The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 230 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.
About the Vera Institute of Justice – The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.
About Fair and Just Prosecution – Fair and Just Prosecution is a national and bipartisan network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate and fiscally responsible criminal justice reforms. To learn more about FJP’s work, visit www.fairandjustprosecution.org.
About Human Rights Watch – Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization that monitors human rights violations in more than 90 countries, including the United States. We investigate abuses, expose the facts related to those abuses, and advocate that those with power respect rights and secure justice. www.hrw.org
About the American Civil Liberties Union – The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation’s guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Read more about the history and mission of the ACLU.
About People’s Action – People’s Action is a national network of 40 state and local grassroots, power-building organizations in 30 states, united in fighting for justice. Our Overdose Crisis Cohort brings together people who are current drug users, those in recovery and family members who have lost loved ones. We work intentionally to build bridges across geographies, race and experience as it relates to overdose and focus on ending criminalization approaches to drug use and towards public health solutions including harm reduction tools and treatment access.