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8 states with game-changing drug policy reforms


When it comes drug policies, there are some that numerous states can get behind, like legalizing medical marijuana or increasing access to naloxone. However, some states are going above and beyond by crafting their own policies to help addicts get access to treatment or move forward in their recovery. Other states have also helped this cause by dropping some of their antiquated laws that had been on the books for decades.

Here are eight states that have recently made progressive drug policy reforms to help those who need it most:

Vermont – Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State Policy Overhaul

In January 2014, Gov. Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State speech to addressing Vermont’s ongoing opiate addiction problem. From 2000-2012, the number of people in the state in treatment for opioid abuse increased by a staggering 770 percent. This also translated to the corrections system, with 80 percent of inmates in the state being held on a drug-related charge in 2012.

Shumlin outlined several key initiatives for combating the problem. He immediately allocated $200,000 to allow treatment centers to increase their staff and reduce waiting lists, in addition to $760,000 for the following year to allow courts to more adequately assess offenders and best determine whether they would benefit most from drug treatment or prison. Shumlin also announced plans for a statewide forum that year that would examine best practices in drug treatment options, drug abuse prevention and education.

He also noted that there were both financial and social benefits to these initiatives. Housing an addict in prison costs the state $1,120 per week, while putting them in a state-financed treatment center would only cost $123 per week.

“In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said. “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”

New Jersey – Chris Christie Mandates Sober Housing Residences

In December 2015, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill mandating sober housing residences for students at the majority of state colleges and universities. The bill applies to any state college or university that has at least 25% of their student body living in on-campus housing. Christie cited data which showed that schools with these program have lower dropout rates, higher GPA’s and fewer issues with drugs and alcohol.

“This is going to be great for students at these schools,” said State Sen. Joseph Vitale. “You can of course be in recovery in college, but it’s that much more difficult when you’re living with people who don’t have the same addiction as you and you don’t have that support network around you.”

During his time in office, Christie has been a staunch advocate of giving non-violent drug offenders treatment instead of prison. In July 2012, he signed legislature mandating inpatient drug treatment for non-violent offenders. And in January 2016, he pledged $100 million for drug and mental health treatment facilities throughout the state.

Ohio – New Law Requires Schools To Teach Students About Painkiller Abuse

The 2015-2016 school year marks the first academic year where Ohio students will receive information about the dangers of painkillers as part of their academic curriculum. House Bill 367, which Gov. John Kasich signed into law in December 2014, required the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team to recommend and submit lesson plans on opioid abuse prevention.

Legislators testified that adding this as part of the curriculum was essential because some high school students were already exposed to painkillers after surgery or a sports injury. Many of the state’s school districts were already required to teach students about the dangers of illicit drugs in some way as well.

Ohio is in the midst of a heroin epidemic. The state’s Department of Health reported that heroin deaths reached an all-time high in 2014, with 2,482 overdose deaths in total. Nearly one-fifth of these deaths involved fentanyl, an opiate that is 50 times stronger than heroin.

Massachusetts – Gloucester Launches Angel Program

After this small coastal community held an emergency forum in the spring of 2015 to discuss a major rise in heroin-related deaths in the area, Gloucester police chief Leonard Campanello responded that June by launching the Angel Program. The groundbreaking approach offered three key initiatives:

-An addict who walks into the police station and asks for help will be given a drug detox and access to treatment, without any legal consequences.

-An officer has full discretion in referring to an addict to the Angel Program if the drug user has a run-in with them in the community

-Addicts, along with their families and caregivers, will have access to nasal naloxone. For those who qualify financially, the opioid overdose reversal kits will be dispensed for free by the department.

The program also earmarks a portion of federal criminal seizure money to be used for drug treatment. Gloucester’s plan was met with overwhelming approval from state leaders on both sides of the political fence, with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr even allocating $100,000 for the project.

California – Proposition 47 Reduces Drug Possession To Misdemeanor

In November 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 (otherwise known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act) with 59% of the vote, allowing it to go into effect immediately. The new policy reduced simple drug possession to a misdemeanor charge, resulting in an estimated 40,000 felonies in the state being downgraded annually. In addition, inmates who were currently serving drug possession sentences had the option to apply for a new sentence, resulting in as many as 10,000 inmates potentially being released.

The new act not only enabled California to comply with court orders to reduce its overcrowded prison population, but estimates showed it will save the state $200 million annually in prison expenses. That money is being earmarked for drug addiction and mental health treatment programs, as well as initiatives to keep kids in school.

“By passing Proposition 47, California voters show that they understand that the policies of the past have failed and that we cannot incarcerate our way to safety,” said Lyenore Anderson, chair of the initiative ballot committee. “Californians do not want to waste any more costly prison space on nonviolent, non-serious offenses.”

Kentucky – Voting Rights Restored For Former Non-Violent Felons

In November 2015, Gov. Steve Beshear restored voting rights to nearly 140,000 former non-violent felons throughout the state. An additional 30,000 people will become eligible over time. Beshear’s executive order also enables former non-violent felons to hold public office if they choose to run. It was one of his final acts in office, with his signature coming just two weeks before leaving.

“The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right,” he said at a press conference. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”

Missouri – Lifetime Food Stamp Ban For Convicted Drug Felons Dropped


In June 2014, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon finally removed the state’s archaic lifetime food stamp ban on residents with a felony drug conviction. The legislation he signed will allow anyone with three or fewer felony drug charges to receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). However, they would still need to prove their sobriety by completing or enrolling a substance abuse treatment program approved by the Department of Mental Health, as well as submitting to random urine testing.

During legislative hearings on removing the ban, several people with previous felony convictions testified and said that not having access to food stamps made it harder for them to climb out of poverty. They also questioned why they didn’t have access to food stamps, but the ban didn’t apply to convicted murderers.

“This is really important when these individuals are trying to re-establish themselves,” said Sen. Kiki Curls (Kansas City-D). “Sometimes food stamps help folks get over the edge.”

West Virginia – Addicts Can Sue Doctors For Illegal Prescriptions

A May 2015 ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court places some of the blame for addiction on doctors and pharmacists. The 3-2 verdict means that addicts can now sue doctors and pharmacists for directly contributing to or causing their addiction, even if they are being accused of illegal conduct.

That decision stemmed from the mass lawsuit filed by 29 people against Mountain Medical Center, located in the town of Williamson, which was shut down by the FBI in 2010 for improperly prescribing controlled substances. The plaintiffs all claimed that they entered the clinic seeking treatment for injuries, but became addicted to prescription drugs after having them prescribed by three different pharmacies and four physicians at the center. Chief Justice Margaret Workman wrote that a plaintiff’s conduct does not forbid them from seeking damages caused by others and that they have the right to have a jury decide a verdict in the case.