Blog Post

How the War on Drugs Harms the LGBTQIA+ Community

Grace Ramsey

Although many are aware of the oppression experienced by those with non-conforming sexualities, consideration of how this translates to the criminal justice system is often not commonplace. While the harms of drug war-era policies are well documented in minority communities, the impacts on those that are LGBTQIA+ are shocking.

As a minority group, those in the LGBTQIA+ community are often subject to discrimination, denial of civil rights, harassment, victimization, family alienation, social exclusion – the list unfortunately goes on.

The current climate may be dire, but there have been some steps forward in recent years. In a historic 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court ruled that states must recognize and license civil same-sex marriages. In early 2017, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Civil Rights Act applies to LGBT workplace discrimination. President Obama even announced the first national monument to the fight for LGBT rights in 2016. Despite these strides, there is still much ground to cover. As of late it seems that we have taken one step forward and two steps back, especially in light of Trump’s push for a transgender military ban, and the discrimination that has been characteristic of the current presidency.

Discrimination from governmental organizations is nothing new in the LGBTQIA+ community, and drug war policies exacerbate this unfortunate phenomenon, although the specifics around this are difficult to discern due to a lack of solid research in the area. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are often included in the few studies that are conducted on this topic, while other non-conforming sexualities and gender identities are left out. We must encourage more diversity in research so that the situation can be better understood.

What we do know is that, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are more than twice as likely than their heterosexual counterparts to have used illicit drugs in the past year, and almost three times as likely to have a substance use disorder. This can be due to a mix of factors, including the effects of minority stress overall as members of a marginalized group and overrepresentation in experiences with major depressive episodes.  

Being part of a minority population and having higher rates of illicit drug use creates the perfect storm for discrimination by drug war policies, and from all actors of the criminal justice system. In fact, 25% of LGBT respondents in a survey reported police misconduct and harassment during their interaction. After policing and in the transition to prisons, the mistreatment continues, including disproportionately higher rates of gay and transgender prisoners – more than three times that of the U.S. adult population. Many are held pretrial due to a mix of social, political, and economic reasons and too many are subject to the pains of solitary confinement for purposes of their protection.

The judicial system holds anything but justice for these folks, and the Drug Policy Alliance is committed to ensuring that they are included in the push for reform around current policies and prison conditions.

Too many LGBTQIA+ Americans have fallen victim to unfair policies and practices within the criminal justice system, which exacerbates the issues of mistreatment in greater society.

We hope to add prison, policing, and sentencing reform to the list of LGBTQIA+ milestones toward equality, and the first step is raising awareness about these egregious violations of human rights.

Grace Ramsey is an intern for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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