Changing Course in the Overdose Crisis Moving from Punishment to Harm Reduction and Health

Changing Course Square


Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and communities across the country are struggling to respond. But the punitive approach exemplified by the “war on drugs” has driven mass incarceration, exacerbated racial disparities within the criminal justice system, and devastated communities of color. The United States needs a new paradigm that prioritizes community health, harm reduction, and recovery. This report examines the intersection of problematic drug use and the criminal justice system. It offers practical guidance for practitioners, policymakers, and funders by compiling the wide range of interventions that communities can consider to minimize justice system contact for people who use drugs and improve public health and safety.

Key Takeaway

A new path forward requires bold leadership at the local level, where true transformation can occur, and sustained investment in community organizations led by people who are affected directly, centering racial equity and justice in all practices and policies.

Publication Highlights

  • People who use drugs or are directly impacted by drug use should be included in the development of policies and programmatic responses to the overdose crisis.

  • Police officers should support community-based harm reduction interventions, such as naloxone distribution, syringe service programs, and supervised consumption sites and they should also carry naloxone to prevent overdose deaths.

  • Legislation should focus on decriminalizing drug use and increasing resources and infrastructure for public health and community-based harm-reduction responses.

Key Facts