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The Drug Policy Reform Act, introduced today, intends to decriminalize drug use and possession, providing health-centered approaches and rehabilitation instead.
Ahead of June 17—the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the “war on drugs”—2 US representatives, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO), revealed the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), alongside their strategic partner Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).1 The aim of this bill is manyfold: to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level; to shift regulatory authority from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services; to expunge criminal records; to provide for resentencing; and to reinvest in alternative health-centered approaches.
“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!’” Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance said to the press. “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.”
The DRPA bill also intends to eliminate many of the life-long consequences associated with drug arrests and convictions: denial of employment, public benefits, immigration status, drivers’ licenses, and voting rights. Furthermore, the bill incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies—if they do not, their eligibility to receive funds in the Byrne and COPS grant programs will be limited.
“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 Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. “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.”
Congressman Cori Bush also shared her thoughts on the bill, relating it to her personal experience: “Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives. 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.”
According to a national poll conducted by Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) and released by the DPA last week, 66% of American voters were in support of removing criminal penalties for drugs and reinvesting resources into treatment and addiction services. About 65% support ending the war on drugs, and 64% support repealing mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related crimes.2
“A different reality—one where we treat people who use drugs with dignity and respect, and one where drugs are no longer an excuse for law enforcement to surveil, harass, assault and even kill Black, Latinx and Indigenous people—is 100% possible, and these results clearly prove that,” said Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.2
The DPA has consistently advocated for drug decriminalization as a critical first step in ending the war on drugs, as is evident in some of its previous reports.3
In an exclusive quote to Psychiatric TimesTM, Thomas R. Kosten, MD, Jay H. Waggoner Endowed Chair and co-founder at the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, said this on the new bill: "This Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021 is a great contribution to more equitable treatment rather than prosecution of drug users, while preserving some of the deterrence needed for reducing drug trafficking and its black market economy and associated crime. Making substance use a health issue and not a criminal issue is brilliant and long overdue. These actions can also start to empty our over-crowded and often inhumane prisons, which are over-populated with low level drug users and minorities. The Commission process to determine a benchmark amount of each drug type for personal use is another brilliant aspect of this bill. Prohibiting the drug testing of individuals in order to receive or deny federal benefits is long been needed. New initiatives to expand access to treatment provides a well-considered six item list. Overall, there is everything to like about this bill and very little to criticize with an intelligent balance of enforcement needed for public health and evidence based drug education and flexibility for adult drug use."
1. Drug Policy Alliance. Summary of the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) of 2021. June 15, 2021. https://drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/dpra_summary_2021.06.11_v2.pdf
2. Sutton M. On 50th anniversary of “war on drugs,” new poll shows majority of voters support ending criminal penalties for drug possession, think drug war is a failure. June 9, 2021. https://drugpolicy.org/press-release/2021/06/50th-anniversary-war-drugs-new-poll-shows-majority-voters-support-ending
3. Drug Policy Alliance. It’s time for the US to decriminalize drug use and possession. July 2017. https://drugpolicy.org/resource/its-time-us-decriminalize-drug-use-and-possession