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New Bill Would Revolutionize Federal Drug Policy

The Drug Policy Reform Act would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level

Drug Policy Alliance

This week marked the the 50th anniversary—on June 17—of when President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) observed the occasion by unveiling the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA).

The bill would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level. It would shift the regulatory authority from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Additionally, the DPRA 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. These include 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,” said Queen Adesuyi, DPA policy manager. “It tears families apart, and causes trauma that can be felt for generations. Enough is enough!”

“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,” Adesuyi said.

The Act doesn’t just eliminate criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level. The DPRA also incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies. It achieves this 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:

  • Automatically expunges and seals records.
  • Provides relief for people currently incarcerated or on supervision for certain drug convictions.
  • Shifts regulatory authority for substances listed under the Controlled Substances Act from the Attorney General to the Secretary of HHS. 
  • Reinvests funds to support expanding access to substance use treatment, support harm reduction, and reduce criminalization of individuals who use drugs by supporting development 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, and other federal benefits.
  • Stops 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.
  • 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.
  • 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

Drug Policy Alliance Works With Coleman, Bush

The Drug Policy Alliance announced it has been working in partnership with Reps. Coleman and Bush to provide expertise and counsel in drafting the DPRA. The bill incorporates elements of the federal decriminalization proposal, Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, unveiled by the organization in August 2020. The group 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 Coleman. “The War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families.”

“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said Congresswoman Bush. “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,” Bush said. “This punitive approach creates more pain, increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation.

“It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment,” Bush said.

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

Full details of the Drug Policy Reform Act are here.