Congressional Democrats on Tuesday introduced a bill to decriminalize all drugs at the federal level and shift authority for the substances from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The measure, introduced by Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ) and Cori Bush (MO) also includes social justice provisions including records expungement and sealing, and relief for people currently incarcerated or on supervision for certain drug-related convictions. The proposal would also eliminate the consequences associated with drug convictions, including denial of employment, public benefits, immigration status, drivers’ licenses, and voting rights.
The measure was introduced ahead of the 50-year anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs— on June 17—by then-Republican President Richard Nixon.
In a statement, Coleman described the War on Drugs “as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception.”
“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.”—Coleman in a press release
In a story for Harper’s in 2016, reporter Dan Baum interviewed Nixon’s former Chief Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman who said that the War on Drugs was a weapon against two of the disgraced former president’s “enemies”: the antiwar left and Black people.
“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,” Ehrlichman told Baum. “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.”
Bush described the crack-cocaine epidemic robbing her community “of so many lives” and called the war on cannabis “malicious.” She added the Black people are arrested for cannabis possession at three times the rates of their white counterparts despite similar usage rates.
“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,” she said in a statement. “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.”
The bill was drafted by the Drug Policy Alliance whose Manager for the Office of National Affairs Queen Adesuyi added in a press release that someone’s “life is ruined” for drug possession every 23 seconds.
“We will not be subjugated any longer by an offensive that was created solely with the purpose of ‘disrupting’ our communities,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Democrats hold slim majorities in both chambers of Congress and, were the measure approved by the House, it would face very long odds in the Senate.
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