U.S. Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) have introduced new legislation the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), alongside the Drug Policy Alliance. If passed, the bill would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level. The legislation comes days ahead of the 50th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “war on drugs” (June 17).
“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said Congresswoman Bush in a provided statement. “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.”
Rep. Coleman added, “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 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.”
Understanding what it means to decriminalize possession of drugs and how the potential law impacts those already in jail can get complex. Here are five key points to understanding the Drug Policy Reform Act.
The Definition of Decriminalization
The DPA defines drug decriminalization “as the removal of criminal penalties for drug law violations.” It allows investing in treatment and harm reduction services, we can reduce the harms of drug misuse while improving public safety and health. It does not encourage or promote the use or sale of controlled substances.
According to a 2018 TIME report, in 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize drug possession and use and since then, the drug-death rate has dropped significantly, the HIV infection rate has dropped, drug use by citizens aged 15-24 has declined and treatment rates have gone up due to less stigma around drug use and addiction. In the European country, dealers still go to prison, but those caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug see a doctor, lawyer, and social worker and learn of treatment programs.
In February, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs and greatly increase access to treatment, recovery, harm reduction, and other services. The law could account for a 95% decrease in racial disparities in drug arrests in the Pacific state.
Who Is Impacted
“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs. 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!’” said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the DPA.
According to Human Rights Watch, since the mid-1980s, Black people have been disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated on drug charges.
What Voters Have To Say
In a poll conducted by Bully Pulpit Interactive, data found that found 66% of American voters were in support of removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-centered approaches. Additionally, 63% say drug use should be addressed as a public health issue while only 33% say it should be addressed as a criminal justice issue.
83% say the “War on Drugs” has failed with 65% of voters offering support to end the “War on Drugs.” 64% of Americans support repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and 61% of voters support commuting, or reducing, the sentences of people incarcerated for drugs.
What Happens If the DPRA Passes
If the Drug Policy Reform Act is successfully signed into law, the personal use and possession of all drugs will be decriminalized and criminal penalties on a federal level and will be replaced with a health-centered approach across the country. The bill also incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies by limiting eligibility to receive money through grant programs that expand police funding.
In addition to decriminalization, the DPRA includes the following actions:
- Automatically expunges and seals records.
- 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.
President Joe Biden’s Stance
As a senator, Joe Biden was a supporter of crime bills criminalizing drug usage in the 1980s and 1990s. According to On The Issues, he called the decision a mistake during the third 2020 presidential debate.
“One of the things is that in the ’80s we passed 100 percent, all 100 senators voted for a bill on drugs and how to deal with drugs, it was a mistake. I’ve been trying to change since then particularly the portion on cocaine. That’s why I’ve been arguing that in fact, we should not send anyone to jail for a pure drug offense, they should be going into treatment across the board, that’s what we should be spending money [on],” Biden remarked.
“And that’s why I set up drug courts which were never funded by our Republican friends. They should not be going to jail for a drug or an alcohol problem; they should be going into treatment. I think the American people have now seen that it was a mistake to pass those laws relating to drugs, but they were not in the Crime Bill.”
In April, the White House announced its first-year drug policy priorities. Regina LaBelle, Acting Director of National Drug Control Policy shared seven listed priorities that propose targeted actions to reduce overdoses and promote recovery. This included the expansion of access to quality treatment, reducing an increasingly lethal supply of illicit substances, and enhancing harm reduction services that engage, developing priorities for criminal justice reform and advancing racial equity in our approach to drug policy, and building trust with people who use drugs.
“These priorities lay out the aggressive, evidence-based, whole-of-government response that we need to implement in the first year of this Administration in order to bend the curve,” said LaBelle.
At the time that this article was published, President had not issued a statement regarding the proposed Drug Policy Reform Act.