1. Home
  2. Articles
  3. How the US Drug War Is a Tool to Criminalize LGBTQ+ People

How the US Drug War Is a Tool to Criminalize LGBTQ+ People

When we think of the criminalization of the LGBTQ+ community, our minds likely veer to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. But to see that as the whole picture is to erase the struggles that have continued to plague our community over the last half century. Across the country, LGBTQ+ people have faced and still face discrimination and criminalization for our sexual orientation, taking on many forms, with one of the most common being drug arrests.

As we have seen with other minority groups, as laws were created to protect LGBTQ+ people from overt discrimination, and engaging in sexual acts with someone of the same gender was no longer a crime, law enforcement found new ways, such as drug possession, to replicate age-old practices of bias, abuse and profiling. Law enforcement didn’t even have to change locations in most cases⁠: The same places, such as gay bars, that were already under surveillance became easy targets for drug arrests.

Because of early childhood trauma—many times including rejection from their families of origin and even their homes, experiences of aggression and violence, and other stress associated with being part of a marginalized group—LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience mental health issues, substance use issues and homelessness. With an absence of available resources and historically even less family support, LGBTQ+ people are often denied the care and support they need to handle these challenges.


It comes at no surprise that members of our community find themselves under heightened police surveillance resulting in disproportionate criminalization.


These factors, combined with widespread employment discrimination, mean that in many cases, LGBTQ+ people—especially trans women of color—need to participate in survival economies just to meet the most basic needs that others take for granted.

Specifically, with an estimated 20-30 percent of LGBT people using drugs to cope with these experiences and hardships, compared with 9 percent of the general public with substance use issues, we are disproportionately impacted by harmful drug policies.

So, it comes at no surprise that members of our community, especially LGBTQ+ people of color and low-income LGBTQ+ people, find themselves under heightened police surveillance resulting in disproportionate criminalization. Between 2013-2018 alone, 25 percent of LGBT people and people living with HIV surveyed reported at least one type of police misconduct or harassment—such as verbal assault, being accused of an offense they did not commit, sexual harassment or physical assault.

According to federal data, gay, lesbian and bisexual adults are three times as likely to be incarcerated as the general population. In fact, 40 percent of women incarcerated are lesbian or bisexual. And according to the most recent US Transgender Survey, one in 10 Black transgender women reported being incarcerated in the previous year, and 47 percent of Black transgender women had been incarcerated at some point in their lives—compared to less than 1 percent of the general population.

On top of that, research shows that LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately represented, serve longer sentences and are mistreated and sexually victimized in US jails and prisons, which only adds to the likelihood they will have a harder time re-integrating back into society.

And because of the rejection many face from their peers and even their homes, members of our community are also much more likely to get caught up with the system at an early age, whether through the child welfare or juvenile justice courts, staining their record and presenting obstacles before they even get a fair shake at life. 

For those removed from their homes through the child welfare system, lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer youth were more than twice as likely as straight youth to have been physically abused, and gender non-conforming or transgender youth were more than four times as likely to be physically abused than conforming youth. Although gay and transgender youth only account for about 4-6 percent of the youth population, they make up about 15 percent of those currently in the juvenile justice system. All in all, over 300,000 LGBT youth are arrested or detained each year, 60 percent of whom are Black or Hispanic.


We won’t be free from oppression without intentionally acknowledging and fighting back against the drug war as an issue of LGBTQ+ rights. 


So yes, 51 years after the Stonewall Riots, the fight is not over. LGBTQ+ people may not be criminalized solely because of our sexual identity, but are criminalized nonetheless, largely under the harmful cloud of the drug war. We won’t be free from oppression without intentionally acknowledging and fighting back against the drug war as an issue of LGBTQ+ rights. 

In order to do that, first and foremost we must end the practices of harassment, profiling and abuse by law enforcement. We can start with policymakers providing funding to research the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of LGBTQ+ individuals, since so little has been done to further understand it.

It is also essential that we create safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ people. That means ensuring people working in law enforcement, education, mental health services, treatment facilities, prisons, jails and detention centers, re-entry services and child welfare are fully trained in cultural competency and trauma-informed care.

And to ensure LGBTQ+ people, especially youth, get the resources and support to have a fighting chance, we must address issues like youth homelessness and provide mental health and substance use treatment, harm reduction and other health services.

For LGBTQ+ people, like other communities, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s certainly true when it comes to criminalization. We must keep in mind the unique challenges this population faces and the disproportionate harm the drug war has inflicted. And because of that, we must create a holistic and united approach that addresses the many cultural, economic, societal and public health factors at play.


This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.

* Richard Burns is the interim executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. As a nonprofit management consultant and activist, he has previously served as interim executive director of Lambda Legal, the Johnson Family Foundation, the North Star Fund, PENCIL, the Funding Exchange, Funders for LGBTQ Issues and the Stonewall Community Foundation. He was the executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City from 1986 to 2009.

Previous Post
Peru’s War On Drugs Is An Abject Failure – Here’s What It Can Learn From Bolivia
Next Post
Epicurus and the Philosophy of Harm Reduction

Related content