We hear it often on drug treatment infomercials, we see it on pamphlets, and we hear it on a daily basis from politicians when they are speaking on the issue, “This disease does not discriminate based on gender, income level, location, or age — it can happen to anyone.” What they are talking about is the current opioid epidemic, the epidemic where prescription drugs, heroin, and fentanyl are claiming the lives of Americans at an unprecedented rate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015 alone. Just in case you need a reference point, these alarm-worthy statistics dwarf annual fatal car accidents and gun deaths.

Now that the alarm has sounded, President Trump has declared a public health crisis. States and localities have allocated emergency funds to increase their capacities for treatment and recovery services. An increasing amount of police officers are carrying naloxone, a lifesaving drug that reverses the symptoms of an opioid-induced overdose on the spot. And there have been bipartisan calls for the public health and law enforcement communities to work in tandem to drive the persons with opioid use disorders into treatment centers, instead of jail.

Though it was an epidemic of similar magnitude, this balanced response was lacking during the 1980’s “War on Drugs,” a period that employed a heavy-handed approach when dealing with communities of color, marked by an emphasis on increasing means of law enforcement and lengthy sentences to deter drug use - which it completely failed to do. Our nation's current high recidivism rates, high rates of overdose upon release, and lack of economic opportunities for previously incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders illustrate that. And as a result of the laws enacted during the War on Drugs, the prison population ballooned, incarcerating an increasing amount of African Americans at disproportionate levels. In fact, and still today, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men because of the same laws.

The numbers are there - the War on Drugs was disastrous. Many critics of the War on Drugs have already delved into the human rights angle of the issue, and for important reasons, but where I believe opportunity is missed is talking and advocating for a path forward so a War on Drugs never happens again. With the momentum we have in the current movement to better grapple with the current opioid epidemic, the opening is there to self-correct ourselves.

To echo the words of my former boss, Michael Botticelli, the former US Drug Czar, in response to the current opioid epidemic, “we aren't going to incarcerate ourselves out of this epidemic.” So now that we realize we aren't going to get rid of drug use by filling up prisons, we must retroactively look back on our flaws and enact legislation and reforms for the nonviolent population who were handed the heaviest of sentences during the War on Drugs.

Though there has been some progress through federal reforms like the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, it’s not enough. This law simply reduced the disparity between the sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine but did little to help the incarcerated population who were adversely affected by the War on Drugs. This is why we desperately need to employ the same compassionate approach we are using to address the heroin epidemic to heal the ills of our nation’s past War on Drugs. The bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 would be a great start.

Congress can call this legislation up for a vote at this very moment. Every day that this is not passed is an injustice and contradiction to the “values” we are invoking to address the heroin epidemic. Here are just a few of the highlights the Bill would do for the current incarcerated population:

  • Reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders
  • Increase judicial discretion while sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses and repeat offenders
  • Eliminate the 3 strikes mandatory life provision
  • Allow nonviolent offenders to petition the courts for individualized review of their cases
  • Allocate funds for evidence-based reentry programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism
  • Fund a report and inventory of all federal criminal offenses
  • Create a National Criminal Justice Commission to review of the criminal justice system, which has not been done in more than 50 years
We’ve already come to a consensus that long prison sentences do not deter drug use or crime, so what we can do for this population is pass this Bill. We owe it to them, and every day we respond to the opioid epidemic through this approach, we rebut ourselves as a "free and fair" country. Families have been split up, trajectories have been completely derailed, and we are still left with a massive prison state. I ask you to call on Congress today and tell them we desperately need this Bill passed.


David Adeleye is a former political appointee in the Obama Administration, serving at both the White House and US Department of Homeland Security.  He now spends his time helping clients develop novel strategies and messaging to foster the everlasting change they seek in society.