June 13, 2018

Amid Congressional Action on Opioid Epidemic, Watson Coleman Introduces Resolution Acknowledging the Failures of the War on Drugs

As the House prepares to vote on more than 20 bills aimed at fighting the opioid epidemic over the next two weeks, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) announced a resolution that seeks parity in the treatment of drug use and addiction and a formal apology for the War on Drugs. H.Res. 933 expresses the sense of Congress that the War on Drugs failed, and calls out the disparate treatment of individuals criminalized for drug use — frequently people of color who used crack and cocaine — to ensure that all future drug policy is based on evidence-based healthcare solutions.


“The War on Drugs didn’t just fail to stem the damage of addiction, its very declaration failed to meet the values of equality and justice our nation was founded on,” said Watson Coleman. “Congress has rightly decided to tackle the opioid epidemic with evidence-based policies that seek to solve the issue of addiction. But for years, we criminalized addiction in ways that caused irreparable harm not just to users, but their families, neighborhoods, and communities. As we offer up funding and resources to address the disease of addiction among overwhelmingly White users, we must acknowledge our failures to do the same with victims of color.”


H.Res 933 specifically acknowledges that the War on Drugs, first declared by President Nixon, was a failed policy that followed a misguided history of criminalizing drug use and, as later admitted by Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, specifically sought to disrupt, incarcerate and antagonize his political opponents and black communities. The resolution apologizes on behalf of the House of Representatives, and also finds that:


·         The War on Drugs created conditions that exacerbated the impact of the opioid epidemic;

·         The War on Drugs led to the racially-charged mass incarceration of millions with outsized impact in communities of color;

·         Further drug policy should see addiction as a health issue, not a criminal one;

·         All laws and policies associated with the War on Drugs should be reconsidered and replaced with evidence-based approaches to addressing addiction;

·         The House should put in place civil remedies and implement restorative justice for individuals incarcerated or otherwise punished by the Federal criminal justice system through the War on Drugs.


In 1994, Ehrlichman admitted in an interview that the War on Drugs was a tool to arrest and manipulate Blacks and liberals stating, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”


The lasting impact of the War on Drugs has been incarceration. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2016 the US made over 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations with 84 percent of those for possession only. Though multiple studies point to the fact that White people use and sell drugs at a similar rate to Blacks and Latinos, people of color made up 57% of those incarcerated for a drug offense in state prisons — despite Black people making up just 12 and Latinos making up just 17 percent of the US population.


The resolution has been endorsed by:


·         Amnesty International

·         The Drug Policy Alliance

·         The Justice Policy Institute

·         Justice Strategies

·         The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

·         NAACP

·         The Sentencing Project


To read the resolution in its entirety, click here.