June 15, 2021

Reps. Watson Coleman and Bush Introduce Federal Bill to Decriminalize Drug Possession, Replace with Health-Centered Approach

Today, ahead of Thursday’s 50th Anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “war on drugs,” Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) and Cori Bush (MO-1) introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), a bill to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level and to shift regulatory authority from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill would also expunge existing records and provide for resentencing, reinvest in alternative health-centered approaches, and eliminate many of the life-long consequences associated with drug arrests and convictions including the denial of employment, public benefits, immigration status, drivers’ licenses and voting rights.

Last week, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released a poll showing that the vast majority of American voters believe the War on Drugs has failed (83%). The poll also found that 66% of American voters were in support of removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-centered approaches

“The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs - the War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience and since its very inception,” said Congresswoman Watson Coleman. “Begun in 1972 as a cynical political tactic of the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families. As we work to address the opioid epidemic, it is essential that we change tactics in how we address drug use, away from the failed punitive approach to a health-based and evidence-based approach.”

“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said Congresswoman Bush. “I lived through a malicious marijuana war that saw Black people arrested for possession at three times the rate of their white counterparts, even though usage rates are similar. As a nurse, I’ve watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid use. And now, as a Congresswoman, I am seeing the pattern repeat itself with fentanyl, as the DEA presses for an expanded classification that would criminalize possession and use. This punitive approach creates more pain, increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation with limited support and healing. I’m proud to partner with Congresswoman Watson Coleman on legislation to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level and repair harm in Black and brown communities. It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”

“50 years later, it is no secret the devastation the drug war has caused on Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income communities, and yet, drug possession still remains the most arrested offense in the United States. Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs,” Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Today, we say enough is enough. We will not be subjugated any longer by an offensive that was created solely with the purpose of ‘disrupting’ our communities. This bill gives us a way out – a chance to reimagine what the next 50 years can be. It allows us to offer people support instead of punishment. And it gives people who have been harmed by these draconian laws a chance to move forward and embrace some semblance of the life they have long been denied.”

In addition to eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, the bill also incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies by otherwise limiting their eligibility to receive funds in the Byrne and COPS grant programs.

Aside from eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession, the Drug Policy Reform Act:

·      Automatically expunges and seal records within one year of the bill’s enactment.

·      Provides relief for people currently incarcerated or on supervision for certain drug convictions.

·      Shifts the regulatory authority for substances listed under the Controlled Substances Act from the Attorney General to the Secretary of HHS.

·      Reinvests funds to support programs that work on expanding access to substance use treatment, support harm reduction services, and reduce the criminalization of individuals who use drugs by supporting the development or expansion of pre-arrest diversion programs.

·      Promotes evidence-based drug education.

·      Prohibits the denial of employment or termination based upon a criminal history for drug possession.

·      Explicitly prohibits drug testing for individuals to receive federal benefits.

·      Prevents drug use charges/convictions from being held against an individual in order to receive SNAP/TANF, housing assistance and other federal benefits.

·      Prevents individuals in the U.S. from being denied immigration status due to personal drug use.

·      Prevents individuals from being denied the right to vote regardless if they have served their sentence or not, and restores voting rights to those who have been impacted in the past.

·      Ensures individuals with drug convictions can gain access to drivers’ licenses.

·      Prohibits the use of civil asset forfeitures related to personal drug possession cases.

·      Charges HHS with establishing a “Commission on Substance Use, Health and Safety,” to determine the benchmark amounts for drug possession and publish an online report on their findings within 180 days. The report will also include recommendations for preventing the prosecution of individuals possessing, distributing or dispensing personal use quantities of each drug.

·      Improves research on impact of drug criminalization and enforcement.

·      Funds data collection and transparency on all available data related to enforcement of drug laws, including local arrests for drug possession and distribution offenses, possession of drug paraphernalia, public or intoxication, loitering, and all other drug-related violations.

The Drug Policy Reform Act text can be read here