Fifty years ago on Thursday, President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” In a special address to Congress, he promised a coordinated federal response to drug addiction, which he described as a “national emergency” that “destroys lives, destroys families, and destroys communities.” Five decades and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the War on Drugs has done nothing to curb addiction. Instead, it has destroyed the lives, families, and communities of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, who have been incarcerated for drug offenses.
Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) are attempting to undo some of this damage by introducing the Drug Policy Reform Act. The DPRA, which the two lawmakers are introducing Tuesday, would decriminalize all drugs, expunge existing records and allow for re-sentencing, and invest in health-centered measures to take on drug addiction. The bill has little chance of passing through Congress, but it will serve as an important legislative marker for the movement to end the punitive War on Drugs.
“The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs,” Watson Coleman said in a statement. “The War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception.”
The DPRA goes beyond ensuring Americans will not face any legal consequences for drugs. It also holds that drug use or a drug-related criminal record will not impact an individual’s ability to get or keep a job, to get a drivers license, or to obtain federal welfare benefits, nor will they affect immigration status or voting status. The shift from a punitive to a health-based approach to addiction is also fundamental, as the bill transfers regulatory authority over drugs listed in the Controlled Substances Act from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said 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.”
The DPRA’s introduction comes as support continues to build behind legislation aimed at reimagining the nation’s approach to drugs. An increasing number of states — even conservative ones — are legalizing cannabis, and some localities have moved onto psychedelics and other drugs. Last fall, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, the first federal cannabis legalization bill to make it through either chamber of Congress. Leading Democrats, most notably Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have promised throughout 2021 that new legislation is on the way, but battles over voting rights and a new infrastructure bill have pushed it down the agenda.
The public’s appetite for drug policy reform hasn’t waned as it waits for movement in Washington, D.C. The Pew Research Center found in April that over 90 percent of Americans believe cannabis should be legal for either medicinal or recreational use, while other polling indicates a majority of the nation supports decriminalizing all drugs.