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Critique Law/Legal Nonfiction Theory

Undeserving Addicts: SSI and the Penalties of Poverty

By Dean Spade, 2001

Since the late 1980’s, American media and politicians have produced and participated in a moral panic around the issue of illegal drug use. This panic has generated vivid pictures in the American imagination of drug users as a morally depraved, irresponsible, and willfully criminal underclass. Such images have fueled the “war on drugs,” a multi-faceted rhetoric and policy approach to drug use that focuses on incarceration, interdiction, and other criminal justice strategies. The punitive approach of the war on drugs has bled into poverty and disability policy with alarming persistence. The trend has influenced numerous poverty alleviation and disability programs and protections, leaving drug users increasingly isolated and unaided. This comment explores the impact of such changes on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and two social security policies, Supplemental Security Income (SSD) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). It questions the wisdom of a punitive response to drug use by examining the alternative model of harm reduction and applying the principles of harm reduction analysis to the exclusion of drug users from poverty alleviation and disability programs.

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