Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a bill that would end federal criminal penalties for drug possession, shifting the focus instead to health-centered approaches.
Co-sponsored by Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO), the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) is the latest legislation to be introduced in Congress in response to the nation’s substance use disorder (SUD) epidemic, as overdose deaths continue to rise.
Along with putting an end to criminal penalties at the federal level for drug possession, DPRA contains a number of other measures.
For one, it proposes shifting oversight of controlled substances from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Plus, DPRA would authorize funding to support SUD treatment and harm reduction programs and services.
Additionally, the bill includes measures such as the support of pre-arrest diversion and drug-based education programs, as well as providing relief for people currently incarcerated or on supervision for certain drug convictions.
If passed, DPRA would also forbid workplaces from denying or terminating individuals who have criminal records for drug possession.
Rep. Watson Coleman noted that the bill comes in response to the War on Drugs movement first popularized by the Nixon Administration, which it began in an attempt to combat rising rates of drug use.
President Nixon introduced the concept of the “war on drugs” in a press conference almost exactly 40 years ago, on June 17, 1971. He called for increased anti-drug funding for federal agencies overseeing drug control, as well as mandatory sentencing for drug crimes.
The measures were signed into law a year later.
“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 and since its very inception,” Watson Coleman said in a press release announcing the bill. “Begun in 1972 as a cynical political tactic of the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families. As we work to address the opioid epidemic, it is essential that we change tactics in how we address drug use, away from the failed punitive approach to a health-based and evidence-based approach.”
In introducing DPRA, Rep. Bush pointed out that current drug laws disproportionately target Black individuals.
“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” Rep. Bush said in a press release announcing DPRA. “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.”
Rep. Bush also noted that opioids — which are associated more with white, rural residents — tend to carry less severe criminal penalties than substances like heroin — which is prevalent in urban communities and frequently abused by people of color.
“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,” she added. “It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”