“50 years. That’s how long our government has waged a war—not on drugs, but on people.”
Aiming to declare an end to the so-called “War on Drugs,” two Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday introduced legislation—drafted with the help of one of the country’s most influential groups fighting to decriminalize drug use—to end federal criminal penalties for possession and reverse many of the harms caused by the drug war in communities across the United States.
Two days before the 50th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s declaration that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” in the U.S. and that he would “wage a new, all-out offensive,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) denounced that offensive as a war “not on drugs, but on people” as she joined Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) in introducing the Drug Policy Reform Act.
In addition to decriminalizing drug possession at the federal level, the bill would shift the regulatory authority for drugs from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services; automatically expunge and seal records for people convicted of possession; invest in harm reduction programs and pre-arrest diversion programs, and eliminate many of the consequences that follow people long after they’ve been incarcerated for drug offenses.
“Those that are struggling with drugs should be handled by doctors and counselors, not judges and jailers,” said Watson Coleman.
“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which helped develop the legislation. “Drug possession remains the most arrested offense in the United States despite the well-known fact that drug criminalization does nothing to help communities, it ruins them. It tears families apart, and causes trauma that can be felt for generations. The drug war has caused mass devastation to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities and today we say, ‘Enough is enough!'”
Watson Coleman called the War on Drugs “a stain on our national conscience since its very inception” in 1971 and a “cynical political tactic.”
“The War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families,” the congresswoman said. “As we work to solve this issue, it is essential that we change tactics in how we address drug use away from the failed punitive approach and towards a health-based and evidence-based approach.”
The lawmakers introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act two weeks after Democratic members of the House reintroduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment & Expungement (MORE) Act, which would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The DPA was also instrumental in bringing the MORE Act to the House floor.
The proposal also follows growing evidence that the majority of Americans favor a radical shift in the government’s approach to people who use drugs.
The DPA and the ACLU released a poll last week showing that 66% of American voters support removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-centered solutions. Last November, 59% of Oregon voters backed a referendum to decriminalize small amounts of drugs and also voted to legalize psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms, for people over the age of 21.
Following November’s elections, one in three Americans now live in states that have decriminalized marijuana use, following the approval of recreational use in four more states and of medicinal use in Mississippi.
Bush said that as public sentiment regarding drug use and decriminalization changes rapidly, the Drug Policy Reform Act will offer benefits of that shift to communities that were “[robbed]… of so many lives” in previous decades.
“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,” said Bush. “As a nurse, I’ve watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid 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,” she added. “It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”
The bill would enlist the help of state and local law enforcement agencies by incentivizing the adoption of decriminalization policies—conditioning their eligibility to receive funding through the Byrne and COPS grant programs on their participation.
“We will not be subjugated any longer by an offensive that was created solely with the purpose of ‘disrupting’ our communities,” said Adesuyi. “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.”