As Richard Nixon's self-declared "war on drugs" reaches its 50th birthday -- he declared drugs "public enemy number one" and pledged to "fight and defeat that enemy" at a June 17, 1971 press conference -- a pair of US representatives are ready to end the half-century campaign that has seen hundreds of billions of dollars burned, millions of people arrested, and relationships between communities and law enforcement strained, all without ever even coming close to defeating that "enemy."Preempting the Nixonian half-centennial, on June 15, Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) unveiled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), whose most striking provision is drug decriminalization. The bill would do away with federal criminal penalties for drug possession, a huge step away from drug war orthodoxy.
And although the vast majority of drug possession arrests are conducted by state and local police under state drugs law -- there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests of all sorts in 2019 and the DEA accounted for only slightly more than 26,000 of them -- the bill is not merely symbolic. It would also penalize states that do not adopt decriminalization by limiting their access to funds from federal law enforcement grant programs.
In line with shifting from a law enforcement approach to drug use to a public health approach, the bill significantly would move regulation over drugs from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill also features a number of other provisions, from expunging past records and allowing currently serving inmates to seek resentencing to removing many of the collateral consequences of a drug possession conviction, such as the loss of voting rights and employment opportunities, the denial of public benefits such as food stamps, and deportation for non-citizens.
"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 since its very inception," said Rep. Watson Coleman in a press release accompanying the roll-out of the bill.
"Begun in 1972 as a cynical political tactic of the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs has 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," Watson Coleman continued.
"Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives," said Rep. Bush in the joint press release. "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. It's time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment."
While the introduction of the bill is a historic first -- no other drug decriminalization bill has ever been filed in Congress -- the public is already on board and waiting for Congress to catch up. According to a June 9ance (DPA), which helped Reps. Bush and Watson Coleman draft the bill, 83 percent of respondents said the war on drugs has failed, 66 percent support "eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services," 64 percent support ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and 63 percent said drug use should be approached as a public health, not a law enforcement issue.
"This is a huge transformational shift, acknowledging that the majority of people who use drugs do not use them problematically," said Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's Office of National Affairs, during a June 15 virtual press conference on the bill. "As evidenced by 50 long years, criminalization and stigma don't make drug use disappear, they just make using drugs more dangerous. We cannot afford another 50 years of drug war violence and neglect. We must consider forging a new path that doesn't include putting people in cages.
Neill Franklin is a 34-year police veteran who for years commanded drug task forces in northeast Maryland. He recently retired as head of the pro-drug reform group the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), and continues to serve as a spokesperson and board member. LEAP's members are past and former members of law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. Franklin was also on the virtual press conference.
"During my career, I was personally responsible for arresting so many people just for possessing drugs," he said. "It's difficult for police to accept what we are now learning about this health issue of drug use, especially after we've been involved in this failed war on drugs for so long, but not one of us at LEAP disagrees with removing the medical issue of drug use from the police and placing it in the capable hands of practitioners and counselors."
Drug decriminalization is especially important now because of fraught relations between police and the communities they are supposed to serve, as evidenced by the mass protests occasioned by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year. Drug prohibition drives many of those tense interactions between police and people of color.
"This is critical for police reform in this country," Franklin continued. "The war on drugs is one of the main reasons we and our community members have conflicts. Searching our citizens day after day, looking for drugs, civil forfeiture, all that."
With only one state -- Oregon -- having so far embraced drug decriminalization, the feds could lead the way, Franklin added.
"With a federal policy of decriminalizing drugs and the people who use them, the states will follow," he predicted.
But with the first federal decriminalization bill just being introduced, the first hurdle is actually moving it. Reps. Bush and Watson Coleman are now busy seeking cosponsors and moving toward hearings as an initial step.
"We're in the process of arranging conversations, looking for a Senate sponsor and speaking with House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) about future hearings," said Watson Coleman during the virtual press conference. "We recognize that this is beyond urgent, and we'll be doing outreach on both the Senate and the House side.