U.S. House Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman & Cori Bush Introduce Federal Bill to Decriminalize Drug Possession, Replace with Health-Centered Approach

Press Release June 17, 2021
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Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
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Washington, D.C. –  Today, on the 50th anniversary of when President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), following an unveiling of the bill on Tuesday, June 15 alongside the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been a strategic partner on the development of the legislation. The bill would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, shift the regulatory authority from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), expunge records and provide for resentencing, and reinvest in alternative health-centered approaches. The bill also eliminates many of the life-long consequences associated with drug arrests and convictions, including the denial of employment, public benefits, immigration status, drivers’ licenses, and voting rights.

“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 Drug Policy Alliance. “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.”

“With the introduction of this bill, we have the opportunity to begin turning the page on the drug war and start a new chapter today — one in which the systems we have in place in this country begin providing people support, instead of punishment, and where everyone is entitled to the same respect and human dignity no matter what their relationship with drugs is,” Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance said. “While the bill itself won’t end the drug war wholesale, it does put it on notice and ends the number one excuse law enforcement has to harass, surveil, assault and even kill Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income people. We may have endured 50 years of terror as a result of these intentional and racist policy choices, but that doesn’t mean we have to settle for 50 years and one day of it. It’s time to end this now.”

In addition to eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, the bill also incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies by otherwise limiting their eligibility to receive funds in the Byrne and COPS grant programs.

Aside from eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession, the Drug Policy Reform Act:

The Drug Policy Alliance has been working in partnership with Reps. Coleman and Bush to provide expertise and counsel in drafting the DPRA, which included elements of the federal decriminalization proposal, Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, unveiled by the organization in August 2020. The Drug Policy Alliance has long advocated for drug decriminalization as a critical first step in ending the drug war, including in its 2017 report, It’s Time for the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession. 

“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 (D-NJ). “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.” 

“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO). “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.”

Last week, DPA—in partnership with the ACLU—released a national poll conducted by Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) that found 66% of American voters were in support of removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-centered approaches.

Full details of the Drug Policy Reform Act can be found here.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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