Intersecting Movements: Drug Policy Reform and Climate Action

By Erica Darragh|October 31, 2019

Climate justice is racial justice, and we cannot achieve racial justice without ending the War on Drugs.

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Following the 2016 election, the complete dissonance between elected officials and the electorate was palpable and signaled the dire need for large-scale organizing. It was in this moment that Sunrise Movement was born. Sunrise is a decentralized youth-led movement demanding climate action in the form of the Green New Deal. In 2016, the founders of Sunrise Movement dropped everything to study social movement theory and the history of social movements (major lessons are detailed in Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is an Uprising). All of this culminated into Sunrise Movement’s strategy: utilizing direct action (including sit-ins and regular climate strikes) to organize as many young people as possible to register as many voters as possible, then turn out the vote and stage mass non-cooperation events until the Green New Deal is formally adopted.  More concisely: Organize, vote, strike.

Sunrise’s mission is simple: implement the Green New Deal so that young people will have a livable future and environmental justice can be attained by our most vulnerable populations. Regular climate strikes act as powerful community building events that nonviolently escalate the conversation. The urgency is real, and presenting a dire problem (climate emergency) beside a comprehensive solution (the Green New Deal) in a unity-focused tone (Sunrise) ensures that every individual can become engaged, if only we find what resonates.

Sunrise Movement’s strategy involves developing a People’s Alignment which does not shy away from speaking the truth about our nation: We have not addressed the trauma of indigenous genocide and slavery, which has led to catastrophic policies including the War on Drugs. This manifests in the context of the climate emergency as environmental racismResearch demonstrates that the people who have contributed the least to climate change experience the harshest and most immediate consequences of the crisis, especially impoverished communities and specifically communities of color. Environmental racism and the War on Drugs are both systems of institutionalized racism. Climate justice is racial justice, and we cannot achieve racial justice without ending the War on Drugs.

The Green New Deal addresses the climate crisis with the kind of transformative change necessary to save our planet from catastrophe. The legislation includes principles of environmental justice and community reinvestment, extending protection and service to communities most directly and immediately impacted by the climate crisis. Both domestically and internationally, there are overlapping injustices of drug war criminalization and climate crisis, and there is even data suggesting that the full-scale militarization of the War on Drugs is directly contributing to carbon emissions, deforestation, and toxic pesticide use, especially in South America.

We have presidential candidates who are running on platforms that address many major components of the War on Drugs, including: cannabis legalization (everyone except Joe Biden, with Bernie Sanders leading the charge to define social equity as a tenet of legalization), ending mass incarceration, de-felonization of drug possession, and the medicalization of the opioid crisis via implementation of harm reduction policies. We even have candidates who have gone as far as suggesting that all drugs should be decriminalized! 

Beyond drug policy reform, some candidates have published extensive criminal justice reform platforms, including Bernie Sanders (whose platform headline includes “end the War on Drugs”) and Elizabeth Warren. Information about candidates’ positions on drug policy reform, harm reduction, and criminal justice reform are being synthesized into a zine by Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s Inter-Chapter Collaboration Committee.

The same candidates who champion the Green New Deal also advocate for the tenets of an end of the War on Drugs and economic liberation via abolition of student loan debt, comprehensive healthcare reform, and federal living wage legislation. The drug policy reform, harm reduction, and psychedelic renaissance movements must recognize our obligation to build power with a movement which seeks to fundamentally disarm corporate entities that maintain their dominance by means of economic force. 

2020 is the 100th anniversary of both women’s suffrage and the inauguration of successful nonviolent direct action, first led by Gandhi in 1920 against British occupation of India. Synchronously, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of both the signing of the Controlled Substances Act and the first Earth Day, inviting a powerful opportunity for direct co-creation of the April 22, 2020 strikes.

Young people have been the largest voting generation since 2016, and in 2018 we outpaced Boomers in voting participation for the first time ever – and that was in a midterm election year when participation rates are historically even lower than those of general election years. Voters ages 18-39 will make 37% of the electorate in 2020. The 2020 election will be decided by voter turnout, so student and youth organizers’ most pressing task is finding the messaging that resonates with those we are trying to persuade and connecting those who can already hear us to the drug policy reform and climate action coalition network. 

Revolutions are completed when intersecting movements intentionally align toward a shared goal, so the most important thing we can do right now is find each other. Then, we organize. Get connected via People for Sensible Drug Culture. If you are a student, find your local SSDP chapter. Non-students are also invited to join a campus-based SSDP chapter. The first wave of resources for the drug policy reform/climate action coalition will be made available in the coming weeks. In the meantime, connect with your Sunrise hub and start the drug policy reform conversation in your local climate action network as organizing begins for December 6 #ClimateStrike. Climate justice ends the War on Drugs. People are receptive to this message, but we can’t expect them to understand if we don’t meet them where they’re at.

By mobilizing young people to participate in what is, in many ways, the counterculture’s full circle, we are raising a generation who know that we can change the world. We are planting the seeds of the restorative justice movement that will follow our anti-prohibition and climate action revolution. By layering the climate action and drug policy reform movements, we can laser-focus our strategy and take back our future in 2020.

The foundation of this article originally appeared on SSDP’s blog.

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Erica Darragh

Erica is a harm reductionist, peer educator, and community organizer working in drug policy reform, climate justice, and digital rights advocacy.