Attorney General Jeff Sessions is revamping policies to escalate the war on drugs, compromising recent progress made by advocates and policy makers to address addiction as a health issue instead of a moral failing or criminal matter.

Sessions is facing sharp criticism from advocates as he formulates a misguided drug policy agenda. He plans to curtail drug use and reduce violent crime by implementing policies that are reminiscent of the inefficient Reagan-era tactics that disproportionately and severely harmed communities of color. Sessions’ agenda includes reviving the failed “just say no” approach for young people and reinforcing mandatory minimum sentencing laws. This agenda threatens the momentum in communities that have reduced the focus on incarceration and policing and prioritized public health approaches to prevention, treatment and recovery.

Sessions intends to reinforce federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws – putting forward policies that damage an already discriminatory and failing system.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that stipulate prison terms of a specific length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. These policies are a product of the war on drugs marked by harsh sentences for drug offenses and targeting communities of color. The subsequent years witnessed an exploding prison population of Black and Latino low-level offenders, resulting in people of color – who represent 37 percent of the U.S. population – making up 67 percent of the U.S. prison population. The results on crime were insignificant and the consensus among professionals is that mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not work.

The stark evidence against punitive methods of policing has prompted a shift in practice throughout communities. Law enforcement, community members, and consumers seek to treat addiction and substance use disorders through public health initiatives rather than the criminal justice system.

One exemplary model is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), where pre-arrest diversion takes the shape of creating alternative community paths for people at risk of arrest related to alcohol and drugs. Police departments are ready to participate in the decriminalization process as they direct individuals to a wide range of services – housing, treatment, basic needs, etc. – rather than funneling low-level offenders through the criminal justice system. Pre-arrest diversion programs significantly reduce recidivism, decrease costs associated with criminal justice and the legal system, and increase the likelihood of finding housing, employment, and income/benefits. 

Sessions’ policy decisions will also be detrimental to our preventive efforts at curbing substance use, especially amount youth.

Despite Jeff Sessions reminiscing about the original D.A.R.E. program and its beloved mascot Daren the Lion as “the best remembered anti-drug program today,” the curriculum had very little effect on decreasing drug use among youth. In some cases it actually sparked the curiosity of students to try drugs. In 2000, the Department of Education decided only to provide funding to programs that were backed by at least one scientific evaluation of effectiveness and had to “just say no” to D.A.R.E.’s funding. A curriculum centered on police officers teaching young students to “just say no” is an ineffective method of prevention.

If we are truly interested in undertaking the issue of alcohol and substance use among young people, we must advocate for evidence-based preventative programs. One example comes in the form of screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT).  SBIRT is a set of tools to help identify alcohol or drug problems in young people, and to guide intervention if a problem exists. SBIRT has been shown to decrease the frequency and severity of drug and alcohol use and demonstrated net-cost savings. This set of tools has been implemented across the country in a wide variety of settings with young people, including schools, school-based health centers, primary care settings, and juvenile justice programs.

Sessions, and his policy agenda, embody a dangerous return to Draconian policies used to deal with drug and substance use. Such policies do not return the desired effects on drug use or crime. Rather, they provide poor preventive measures to curb drug use among young people, exponentially increase prison populations, overburden the criminal justice system and embed the system with racial disparities.

We have a moral imperative to channel resources into actions that recognize the importance of treating addiction and drug use as a public health problem – not a problem that we can end by incarcerating or policing.

Carlos R. Martinez is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He is a summer intern with our Substance Use Disorders program.