A first-ever bill to federally decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs—and incentivize states to follow suit—is being introduced in Congress.
The measure, which will be filed later this week, is timed to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs that has contributed to mass incarceration, disproportionately impacted communities of color and created collateral consequences for countless Americans who have been criminalized for possessing certain psychoactive substances.
Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) are sponsoring the legislation, which aims to promote a public health- and evidence-based approach to substance misuse. The bill is titled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) and was drafted in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
The proposal would end the threat of incarceration for people caught possessing drugs for personal use. Courts would still have the option of imposing a fine, but that could be waived if a person couldn’t afford it.
Importantly, the measure would make it so the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—rather than the Justice Department—would be responsible for classifying drugs, with the intent being to shift that role to a health-centric model.
Our approach until now has not been to help sick people with treatment and counseling, but to throw them in jail. Along the way, we’ve seen millions get swept up in a criminal justice system that completely derails their lives and those of their families.https://t.co/kmWOP9gUxG
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 15, 2021
Federal district courts would be required to facilitate expungements and record sealing for those with qualifying convictions within one year of the bill’s enactment.
Almost half of the federal prison population is currently serving time over drug-related offenses—a much smaller percentage of which is for possession alone—and so the direct impact of the legislation’s decriminalization provision would be somewhat minimal on incarceration rates, especially when factoring in the size of state-level prison populations.
But that’s where another key component comes into play: the bill would withhold federal funds for law enforcement through the Byrne and COPS grant program for states and cities that continue to enforce criminalization of simple drug possession. The threat of losing that money could be enough to incentivize states and municipalities to stop locking people up for drugs.
“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Office of National Affairs at DPA, said in a press release. “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.”
We need a new approach to drugs.
Our bill will not only decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs, but it will shift the focus of federal drug policy from the Department of Justice to the Department of Health and Human Services.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 15, 2021
This may seem controversial given that Congress has consistently stalled on more modest drug policy reform proposals such as simply protecting banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses. But recent polling from DPA and the ACLU shows that the public is ready for the policy change.
In fact, two-thirds of American voters believe that the war on drugs should end, and they support decriminalizing simple possession of currently illegal substances, the survey released last week found.
Federal decriminalization and incentivizing reform at the state level are the main cruxes of the new legislation. But it’s a multifaceted proposal that would fundamentally change the federal government’s decades-long approach to drugs. Here are some other key components:
-HHS would be required to create a commission within 180 days of the bill’s enactment to establish what the possession threshold should be for decriminalization, among other responsibilities
-The department would also have to publish a report on its determination, in addition to recommendations on how to prevent prosecutions for the low-level drug offenses, and share it with DOJ.
-Funds would be reinvested to support harm reduction and substance misuse treatment programs.
-Drug testing would not be allowed as a condition of receiving federal benefits.
-Drug convictions could not be used against people applying for or receiving food or housing assistance.
-It would be illegal to deny employment on the basis of criminal history involving simple drug possession.
-People could not be denied immigration status because of a drug offense.
-No one would lose the right to vote over drug possession or use, and there would be a process to restore voting rights for those who have lost them in the past.
-Civil asset forfeiture could not be used in cases where a person is suspected of “possessing a quantity of controlled
substance solely for personal consumption.”
-The federal requirement to suspend driver’s licenses because of drug convictions would be repealed.
-There would be a requirement for federally funded drug education programs to by scientifically accurate, culturally competent and evidence-based.
-Data collection on drug enforcement would be improved.
“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,” Watson Coleman, who is also the sponsor of a congressional resolution to condemn the drug war, said.
“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,” she said. “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.”
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Bush, a freshman congresswoman, said the “punitive approach” of the drug war “creates more pain, increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation with limited support and healing.”
50 years. That’s how long our government has waged a war—not on drugs, but on people.
I’m proud to partner with @RepBonnie in introducing the Drug Policy Reform Act to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level and repair harm in Black and brown communities.
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) June 15, 2021
Broad decriminalization might be new to Congress, but lawmakers in several states have recently been pushing for the reform.
Last month, a joint Maine House and Senate committee advanced a bill to broadly decriminalize possession of illicit drugs.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
President Joe Biden has voiced support for ending incarceration for low-level drug cases, saying “nobody should be going to jail for the use of drugs” and the country should “change the way we deal with all drug abuse.” But the administration has not taken any demonstrable steps to redirect federal policy so far, and he’s yet to grant presidential clemency for any people incarcerated for drugs.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in April that Biden’s pledge to release federal inmates with marijuana convictions specifically would start with rescheduling cannabis—a proposal that advocates say wouldn’t actually accomplish what she suggested.
Meanwhile, congressional lawmakers are also working to end a more specific federal prohibition on marijuana.
Senate leadership is continuing to draft a bill to end federal cannabis prohibition, which Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has repeatedly said would be introduced “soon.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is also working the bill alongside Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), said to expect a filing “very soon.”
The full text of the drug decriminalization legislation is not yet available, but a DPA summary is below: