CPE Publishes the Redesigning Public Safety: Substance Use White Paper

April 10 2024

The Center for Policing Equity (CPE) announces the publication of Redesigning Public Safety: Substance Use white paper. The latest white paper in our ongoing Redesigning Public Safety Resource Series summarizes the overwhelming evidence supporting the need to center responses to substance use on harm reduction and community resource investment rather than prioritizing punishment. It is published along with an accompanying community toolkit focused on leveraging new funding opportunities to respond to the opioid crisis.

“As Black communities continue to suffer from the dual harms of rising rates of drug overdose and decades of inequitable enforcement, we must be guided by abundant evidence that shows there is no way to punish our way out of a public health crisis,” said Scarlet Neath, CPE Policy Director. “The experiences and expertise of communities already building innovative programs were used to inform today's publication to meet the multifaceted needs of neighbors who use drugs. We hope these recommendations can be used to provide a range of options for more communities interested in shifting from the paradigm of punishment to one of health, equity, and dignity.”

“This paper is a terrific guide for advocates and policymakers who want to end the harmful stigma around substance use and bring drug policy into the 21st century,” said Rob Poggenklass, Executive Director of Justice Forward Virginia.

“At a time when the role of the criminal justice system in overdose crisis response remains hotly debated, the Redesigning Public Safety: Substance Use white paper provides a sober and balanced analysis of what works and what doesn’t,” said Leo Beletsky, Professor of Law and Health Sciences and Faculty Director, The Action Lab at the Center for Health Policy and Law, Northeastern University. “As investments in public health and community-based programs are finally starting to pay off, this report provides guidance on opportunities to shift key crisis response tasks to specialty programs while re-centering the work of police on more traditional public safety responsibilities.”

CPE’s Redesigning Public Safety: Substance Use white paper recommendations to invest in health-centered responses and address racial disparities in enforcement include:

  • Decriminalize Personal Substance Use and Street-Level Selling
    • End arrests for offenses that criminalize illicit substance use, including drug paraphernalia, drug possession, and street-level drug selling.
    • Decriminalize the personal use of all drugs, as well as tools that provide safety for drug users, such as syringes and testing strips.
    • Implement pre-arrest diversion programs (that are not contingent on treatment) for offenses that are motivated by or related to substance use but not covered by decriminalization policies. 
  • Do Not Use Overdose Emergencies for Criminal Investigation
    • Assign overdose calls for service to medical responders.
    • Require police to carry and administer naloxone when they encounter a person who may be experiencing an overdose - and to call for assistance from medics or any available community-based alternative crisis response program.
    • Ban police who respond to overdoses from investigating or arresting anyone at the scene unless it is related to a serious violent crime. 
    • Encourage reporting by families, friends, and bystanders who witness people experiencing overdose by passing or strengthening 911 drug immunity laws and repealing drug-induced homicide laws. 
  • Invest in Community-Based Programs to Prevent and Respond to Substance Use Emergencies
    • Invest in and study community-based models for responding to substance use emergencies. 
    • Train all crisis responders in evidence-based practices for substance use disorders.
  • Align Criminal Legal Systems with Public Health Approaches to Substance Use
    • Legalize marijuana and other drugs with measures that address racialized harm. 
    • End systems of surveillance that undermine safety and support for people who use drugs. 
    • Revise excessive mandatory sentencing laws.
    • Limit the use of fines and fees for offenses related to substance use. 
  • Invest in Public Health Approaches to Substance Use
    • Address barriers to equitable expansion of medications for opioid use disorder.
    • Increase access to and quality of services for substance disorder treatment through Medicaid.
    • Establish and expand syringe services programs and overdose prevention centers.
    • Invest in programs to widely distribute the opioid reversal medication naloxone (Narcan).
    • Pilot and study harm reduction-based drug education programs. 
    • Expand evidence-based incentives for treatment (contingency management programs).
  • Improve Data Collection and Transparency
    • Collect and share up-to-date data on overdoses.
    • Collect and analyze data on substance-use-related calls for service.
    • Analyze outcomes of community-based response systems, diversion programs, decriminalization efforts, and drug legalization.
    • Collect analyzable data on all police stops and uses of force.

Learn more about the Redesigning Public Safety series, CPE’s Unlocking Democracy Learning Communities collaboration with the CSG Justice Center, and see our complete Reports and Publications roster on our website.