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A heroin junkie's 'kit' to shoot up drugs. (Photo: Matthew T. Rader)
A heroin junkie’s ‘kit’ to shoot up, a target in the war on drugs. (Photo: Matthew T Rader)

Fifty years ago today (June 15) then-President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Today, Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) filed a bill in Congress to finally end it.

Their bill, titled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), would decriminalize all drugs at the federal level and start treating drug use and addiction as a health problem.

The U.S. Justice Department would be cut out of the action and regulatory authority would shift to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs,” said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement.

“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,” she added.

“It tears families apart, and causes trauma that can be felt for generations.”

Bush said in a statement she saw the crack-cocaine epidemic first hand growing up in St. Louis.

“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,” she said.

On June 18, 1971, then President Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1.”

It was clear, if unstated from the outset, that the Nixon administration had ulterior political motives for launching the war.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

–Nixon Counsel John Ehrlichman in a 1971 Harper’s magazine interview.

The so-called “war on drugs,” a term popularized by the media, was a global effort to discourage the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal psychoactive drugs.

It had just the opposite effect. The policy’s three key pillars were eradication, interdiction, and incarceration. The latter has had a devastating effect, especially on minority communties.

“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 Coleman, in a statement.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which had a hand drafting the legislation, estimates the United States spends $51 billion annually on the drug war.

Far from curbing drug use, the government’s policy has had just the opposite effect. It has spawned large, sophisticated and dangerous drug cartels and remains the principal cause of violence on city streets around the country.

A decade ago, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report declaring the global war on drugs a failure, “with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

Officials at the state and local level, including President Obama failed to take action. In fact, Obama continued the policies of previous Republican presidents.

The bill would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level once and for all. It would 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.

“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,” said Adesuyi.

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.

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

Here are the measure’s key provisions.

  • 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.