Strengthening Families

At the Drug Policy Alliance we are committed to ending the drug war’s assault on families.

One out of every 14 children in this country has had a parent imprisoned. This is in large part due to the mass incarceration of people convicted of drug law violations. Even parents who avoid criminal punishment for drug use risk losing custody of their children. Almost 31% of all children placed in foster care in 2012 were removed from their homes because of “parental alcohol or drug use.” In several states that percentage surpassed 60%.

Current practices in the child welfare and family court systems make many families feel frightened and ashamed rather than supported. Punitive approaches have been shown to disproportionately impact low-income families and communities of color. 

Supporting Children, Parents, and Communities

DPA believes that effective drug policy reform must include reform of child welfare policy and practice.We advocate for humane policies that protect the health, safety and rights of children and families. We fight against policies and practices that contribute to the mass criminalization of people based on their race, class and gender identities.

DPA champions the following principles when it comes to child welfare:

  • The ideal way to support the best interests of children is to keep families intact, while providing adequate supportive resources to caregiver(s). Child welfare policy should reduce punitive practices, prioritize family preservation and extend more rights and protections to parents.
  • Drug consumption or exposure alone is not child abuse or neglect. Non-problematic drug use and parenting can co-exist.
  • When problematic parental drug use is an issue, the state should take into consideration the potential harms of investigations and interventions. Those harms should be mitigated whenever possible and not cause more harm to the family than the drug use itself.
  • The positioning of physicians and other health care providers as mandated reporters can prevent pregnant and postpartum parents from seeking appropriate care. Decisions related to the health of a parent and child should be confidential and free from the threat of criminal action. Parental and fetal health are better served by making prenatal care a welcoming service. This includes offering non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing conversations about drug use and making drug treatment available if needed.
  • Parents struggling with problematic substance use can recover. Recovery is best facilitated with adequate time and supportive resources promoting family unity.
  • Holistic, community-based treatment models for parents with problematic substance use should be a priority for child welfare systems. Treatment should include wraparound care, which is a structured, individualized, team-based approach to coordinating services for people with complex needs.

DPA’s Work

DPA’s Colorado office has co-founded the Colorado Coalition to Protect Children and Family Rights.

DPA’s New York Policy Office has been organizing with parents and children impacted by child welfare services because of drug use.

DPA has represented leading medical and public health organizations in amicus briefs in state and federal cases opposing the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy.

Parents of Autistic Teen Entrapped by Cops Sue School District

Lawsuit Highlights Cruel Practices and Ineffectiveness of Undercover Narcotics Operations in Schools

TEMECULA, CA – The parents of a 17-year-old special needs student arrested in an undercover police operation announced today they are suing the school district that authorized the operation. The student, who suffers from a range of disabilities, was falsely befriended by a police officer who repeatedly asked the boy to provide him drugs.

Contact: Darby Beck: 415.823.5496; Tony Newman: 646.335.5384 or Catherine and Doug Snodgrass: 951.643.4212

Children of Incarcerated Parents Bear the Weight of the War on Drugs

Growing up with an incarcerated parent can be tough. The feelings of isolation and stigma that I and others like me experienced growing up were a tough burden to bear.

To ignore the impact of incarceration on the family is to ignore how the drug war continues to dismantle black and Latino communities. The United States' prison population -- fueled by the war on drugs -- is increasing, with blacks and Latinos being the majority of those incarcerated.

Facts About MDMA ("Ecstasy", "Molly")

May 24, 2013

MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly referred to as ecstasy or molly, is sold either as a pressed pill taken orally, or as a powder that is snorted or swallowed. People who use ecstasy describe themselves as feeling open, accepting, unafraid and connected to people around them. Before MDMA became popular at clubs and raves, it was utilized for therapeutic purposes by psychologists and other mental health practitioners in the 1970s and early 1980s.

LGBT Communities and Drug Policy Reform

January 31, 2013

Personal sovereignty informs both the LGBT liberation and drug policy reform movements. Police surveillance and repression, along with stigma and moral panic, have been used to great effect against both LGBT individuals and people who use drugs.

The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race (English/Spanish)

February 10, 2016


With less than 5%  of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its incarcerated population, the United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world – largely due to the war on drugs. Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing requirements have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for communities of color. Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial and ethnic lines, blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than whites.

Brief of Amici Curiae in support of Appellant, Cameron Douglas

May 21, 2012

Cameron Douglas, the son of famed actor Michael Douglas, was sentenced in 2010 to five years behind bars for participating in drug distribution. Despite his long-time problem with drug addiction, Cameron was not given any drug treatment in prison. While behind bars, Mr. Douglas relapsed on drugs. He was caught with very small amounts of opioids for personal use, and as a result, the judge added another four-and-a-half years to his sentence. This may be the longest-ever federal prison sentence imposed for the simple possession drugs for personal use behind bars.

TANF Policy Brief


Random drug testing of TANF recipients is costly, ineffective and hurts families.

Children of the Drug War

August 1, 2011
Damon Barrett, Editor

Children of the Drug War is a collection of original essays that investigates the impacts of the war on drugs on children, young people and their families.

The full book and each of its four sections are available for free download. It may also be read online.

Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

June 2, 2011
Global Commission on Drug Policy

The Global Commission, whose members include Kofi Annan and four former presidents, calls the drug war a failure and advocates a paradigm shift in global drug policy. The commission's bold recommendations include encouraging governments to experiment with legalization of drugs, particularly marijuana; putting an end to drug policies being driven by ideology and politics; and directing resources away from arresting and incarcerating so many people for drug law violations.

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