Congress must recognize the failures of the war on drugs and apologize to the individuals and communities that have been harmed in its wake, a new House resolution implores.
The measure was introduced by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CBWG), on Tuesday. It calls on the House of Representatives to acknowledge the racist underpinnings of the drug war, the excess spending on drug enforcement efforts and the need to treat drug addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
According to the @DrugPolicyOrg, in 2016 the US made over 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations with 84 percent of those for possession only. This policy is not sustainable; it needs to change.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
We need to acknowledge that the War on Drugs didn’t just fail; it was a failure to stay true to the values of equality and fairness that we hold dear. All drug use, opioid, cocaine, and otherwise, should be treated as an addiction, not criminal behavior.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
To that effect, I’ve introduced a resolution that formally expresses an apology from the US House, while also demanding that anyone suffering from the disease of addiction, receive humane treatment focused on their disease rather than punishment. https://t.co/dNKKfJ7bhh
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
“The War on Drugs didn’t just fail to stem the damage of addiction, its very declaration failed to meet the values of equality and justice our nation was founded on,” Coleman said in a press release. “Congress has rightly decided to tackle the opioid epidemic with evidence-based policies that seek to solve the issue of addiction. But for years, we criminalized addiction in ways that caused irreparable harm not just to users, but their families, neighborhoods, and communities.”
The resolution largely focuses on the racial disparities in how drug addiction has been characterized and addressed over past decades. As the drug war heated up and substances such as crack cocaine were targeted, consumers were often treated as “criminals,” whereas individuals suffering from opioid addiction are commonly described as “victims,” the text of the resolution states.
“As we offer up funding and resources to address the disease of addiction among overwhelmingly White users, we must acknowledge our failures to do the same with victims of color.”
The resolution reflects a growing movement in Congress to reform federal cannabis laws, with groups like the CBC emphasizing the racially disproportionate nature of drug enforcement efforts. For example, the CBC introduced a 1,300-page omnibus bill last month that called for the descheduling of marijuana and the establishment of a “reinvestment fund for communities negatively impacted by the War on Drugs.”
The CBC also released a position statement last week reiterating its stance that marijuana should be decriminalized and calling for “automatic expungement for those convicted of misdemeanors for marijuana-related offenses, and an easy path to expungement for those previously convicted of felonies for marijuana-related offenses.”
This isn’t the first time House members have floated the idea of issuing a formal apology for the failed drug war.
Last year, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) filed a bill that would have established a commission to study the impact of mass incarceration and forced prison labor on black Americans. It also sought answers from the commission as to whether the federal government should “offer a formal apology on behalf of the people of the United States to the African-American victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ and their descendants” and whether “any form of compensation to the victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ and their descendants is warranted.”
Coleman’s new resolution is supported by 27 cosponsors and a number of civil rights and drug policy organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP and the Sentencing Project.
Thank you @RepBonnie for introducing H.Res. 933, a resolution that apologizes for the drug war, calls out the unfair treatment of people of color under drug law enforcement & demands all future drug policies be grounded in evidence-based health solutions. #CongressionalApology pic.twitter.com/HardXdqf6R
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) June 13, 2018
See below the full text of the resolution:
To acknowledge that the War on Drugs has been a failed policy in achieving the goal of reducing drug use, and for the House of Representatives to apologize to the individuals and communities that were victimized by this policy.
Whereas, until the early 1900s, most of today’s illegal substances were not regulated by the Federal Government, and there was no “War on Drugs”;
Whereas, in the 1930s, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, who was a strong opponent to marijuana, pushed a heavy propaganda campaign to demonize marijuana use, stating that it caused people to be violent and criminals;
Whereas much of this propaganda was racially charged against the Mexican-American community, for example as Commissioner Anslinger testified to the 75th Congress in 1937 that, “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions”;
Whereas, in 1937, the 75th Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which criminalized marijuana, and laws passed during the following years were introduced to institute mandatory minimum sentences for those who bought, sold, and used the drug;
Whereas over the course of the next few decades, studies conducted by scientists did not find any connection between the use of marijuana and violent behaviors, and in 1973 the Shafer Commission Report on Marijuana and Drugs concluded that, “The Commission believes that the contemporary American drug problem has emerged in part from our institutional response to drug use. … We have failed to weave policy into the fabric of social institutions.”;
Whereas despite mounting evidence, the Federal Government’s approach to the abuse of drugs continued to be one of criminalizing drug abuse instead of treatment;
Whereas, on June 18, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, stating that drug abuse is “public enemy number one”;
Whereas the Federal Government’s attitude toward drug use as a criminal problem only intensified with stricter drug laws, and the Government put little to no focus on treating those impacted;
Whereas the War on Drugs was admitted to be a move by the Nixon administration to attack his political opponents, and in 1994, President Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman admitted in an interview that the War on Drugs was a tool to arrest and manipulate Blacks and liberals stating, “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.”;
Whereas in 1986, the 99th Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act establishing, for the first time, mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of having specific amounts of cocaine;
Whereas, in 1989, drug czar William Bennett announced a $7,900,000,000 plan to combat the drug epidemic, but 70 percent of that amount went to hiring more law enforcement personnel and building prisons;
Whereas that money could have been better used to help provide treatment to the victims of those on heroin, cocaine, and other drugs;
Whereas, in 1986, the 99th Congress increased the sentences for dealing and possessing crack cocaine, and in a few years, enhanced law enforcement presence loomed over and aggressively policed communities of color;
Whereas to this day, these laws greatly target communities of color, dramatically increasing the incarceration rate of these communities and imposing a stigma that people of color are the main users of drugs, despite White Americans using at a similar if not greater rate;
Whereas Professor of Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, Craig Reinarman, and Professor of Sociology at Queens College, Harry G. Levine, studied the use of crack cocaine in the United States and later published in their book, entitled “Crack in America”, which stated that, “In the spring of 1986, American politicians and news media began an extraordinary anti-drug frenzy that ran until 1992. Newspapers, magazines and television networks regularly carried lurid stories about a new ‘epidemic’ or ‘plague’ of drug use, especially of crack cocaine. They said this ‘epidemic’ was spreading rapidly from cities to the suburbs and was destroying American society. It is certainly true that the United States has real health and social problems that result from illegal and legal drug use. But it is certainly also true that the period from 1986 through 1992 was characterized by anti-drug extremism.”;
Whereas the use of opiates such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, heroin, and fentanyl has skyrocketed since the late 1990s and the amount of prescription opioids legally sold nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, despite no change in the amount of pain that Americans reported;
Whereas the National Center for Health Statistics suggested that there were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, and that a majority of these deaths come from synthetic opioids like fentanyl;
Whereas these drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing car accidents;
Whereas, on March 29, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive order to establish the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and in a preliminary report the Commission has recommended that the opioid crisis, among other things, should be “declared a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act”;
Whereas many scholars, journalists, and civic leaders have addressed the strong contrast to the urgency of helping those impacted by opioids compared to those who were impacted by crack cocaine and other substances during the War on Drugs;
Whereas the terminology used to describe those impacted by the opioid epidemic is “victims”, and the terminology used to describe those impacted by the War on Drugs is “criminals”;
Whereas if the concept of equity was considered, meaning that individuals fairly receive what they need in order to create a level playing field, the same funds and support going to help those impacted by opioids will also go to help those impacted by heroin, cocaine, and the other drugs classified in the War on Drugs;
Whereas as stated by Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, “White brothers and sisters have been medicalized in terms of their trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for their trauma and addiction.”;
Whereas, on October 26, 2017, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, which allows access to the Public Health Emergency Fund at the Department of Health and Human Services, which has only tens of thousands of dollars; and
Whereas there has been no formal action by the United States Government to treat the epidemic of drug abuse and the War on Drugs as a health issue: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that—
(1) the War on Drugs has failed to achieve its goal of reducing drug use;
(2) the War on Drugs has created conditions in the United States that has allowed the opioid epidemic to be as deadly as it is;
(3) the War on Drugs is a racially charged policy that has led to the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, disproportionately affecting communities of color, stigmatized these communities as the cause of the drug problem, and has economically, politically, and socially crippled these communities for decades;
(4) in order to help those impacted, drug use has to be seen as a health issue and not a criminal issue;
(5) the House of Representatives should seek to hereby reconsider all laws associated and consistent with the War on Drugs, and prioritizes effective, evidence-based health policy solutions for individuals and communities suffering from addiction;
(6) the House of Representatives should enact civil remedies and restorative justice for any individual who has been incarcerated or otherwise punished through the Federal criminal justice system due to laws associated and consistent with the War on Drugs;
(7) Congress affirms that all individuals suffering from the disease of addiction be treated humanely, with equity and respect as all people struggling with any other health matter; and
(8) the House of Representatives hereby apologizes to the individuals and communities harmed through the War on Drugs and acknowledges that actions by this body have demonized and criminalized addiction for more than 80 years instead of accurately treating it as a health concern.
New Jersey Voters Will Decide On Marijuana Legalization Next Year, Senate Leaders Say
New Jersey lawmakers are giving up on plans to enact marijuana legalization through the legislature and are now seeking to put the question before voters on the 2020 ballot.
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D) announced on Monday that while they had “made further attempts to generate additional support in the Senate to get this done legislatively,” the “votes just aren’t there.” As a result, they filed a proposal that would allow residents to vote on legalization as a constitutional amendment.
“We are moving forward with a plan to seek voter approval to legalize adult use marijuana in New Jersey,” the leaders said in a press release. “We introduced legislation today to authorize a public referendum for a proposal that will lead to the creation of a system that allows adults to purchase and use marijuana for recreational purposes in a responsible way.”
— Brian Thompson (@brian4NY) November 18, 2019
“This initiative will bring cannabis out of the underground so that it can be controlled to ensure a safe product, strictly regulated to limit use to adults and have sales subjected to the sales tax,” they said.
The plan, which NJ.com first reported, is to have the legislature to approve the referendum proposal and get the ballot measure set for a vote in the general election next November. Sweeney and Scutari said they are “confident it will be approved by the Senate, the Assembly and the voters.”
“We will now move forward with a plan that helps correct social and legal injustices that have had a discriminatory impact on communities of color,” they said. “We can make real progress towards social justice at the same time that cannabis is made safe and legal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said he is “disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo—which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color—will continue.”
I am disappointed that we are not able to get this done legislatively and that our failed status quo – which sends roughly 600 people to jail a week for possession, the majority of them people of color — will continue.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
“However, I have faith that the people of New Jersey will put us on the right side of history when they vote next November,” he said. “By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.”
By approving this ballot measure before the end of this legislative session, New Jersey will move one step closer to righting a historical wrong and achieving what I have spent more than three years advocating for.
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) November 18, 2019
After months of negotiation, it became apparent that that progress wasn’t going to happen legislatively in the short-term, with Sweeney indicating as early as May that legalization would likely have to be decided through a voter referendum.
Text of the resolution calling for a referendum doesn’t offer many details about what the proposed legal cannabis market would look like; rather it generally describes a system allowing adults 21 and older to use and purchase marijuana from authorized retail facilities. The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission would be responsible for regulating the program. And cannabis sales would be subject to the state sales tax, with no additional excise tax added.
As written, the draft ballot question is worded somewhat confusingly. Voters would be asked: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”
“Only adults at least 21 years of age could use cannabis,” it continues. “The State commission created to oversee the State’s medical cannabis program would also oversee the new, personal use cannabis market. Retail sales of cannabis products in this new market would be subject to the State’s sales tax, and no other form of tax.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) said in a press release that his chamber “will vote on legislation to put an adult-use cannabis question before the voters.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) November 18, 2019
“We plan to pass the measure this year and next in order for New Jerseyans to have the opportunity to make the decision in November 2020 when we expect voter turnout to be high due to the presidential election,” he said.
Prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana celebrated news of the legislature abandoning plans to pursue legalization legislatively this session and said it would invest resources into a campaign to dissuade voters from supporting the proposed ballot initiative.
BREAKING: New Jersey State Senate abandons push to legalize marijuana during 'lame duck' session.
The marijuana industry outspent SAM 86-1 in this effort.
Our statement: pic.twitter.com/MPtI2fNIzx
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 18, 2019
While adult-use legalization hasn’t panned out as advocates hoped, Murphy did sign a bill significantly expanding the state’s medical cannabis program in July. Sweeney had pointed to that reform move as one reason legalization negotiations stalled.
It’s not clear how the ballot approach is going to impact discussions about regionally coordinating legalization plans in the Northeast, which has been ongoing since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) met to talk about the issue over the summer.
During a joint meeting of governors from around the region last month, Murphy said that “doing things in an intelligent, coordinated, harmonious way is good for the entirety of not just our states but our residents” and emphasized the need for social justice components in a legal cannabis market.
Read the text of the New Jersey marijuana legalization referendum resolution below:
This story has been updated to include comments from the governor and assembly speaker.
Sanders Pledges Legal Marijuana ‘In Every State’ As Biden Faces ‘Gateway Drug’ Backlash
As former Vice President Joe Biden faces a backlash over his suggestion that marijuana could be a ‘gateway’ drug, rival presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are touting their own support for cannabis reform proposals
One day after Biden said he doesn’t support national cannabis legalization because there’s “not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Sanders offered a competing vision, emphasizing in a speech that he wants to “make marijuana legal in every state in the country,” rather than allow prohibition to continue in certain states.
The senator also discussed other elements of a cannabis reform plan he released last month, including his pledge to “expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana” and provide funding to promote participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
“It sounds unfair that when we legalize marijuana, you end up having a handful of corporations controlling that industry,” Sanders said during the Sunday event in Las Vegas. “We have built into our criminal justice program an effort to provide many billions of dollars in help to people in the African-American community, Latino community, other communities, the people who have been hit the hardest by the war on drugs, to help them profit off a legal marijuana system.”
Watch Sanders’s marijuana comments, around 33:00 into the video below:
Sanders described his three-step plan to prevent large corporations from controlling the cannabis market during an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero last month.
Separately, he took to Twitter on Sunday to highlight new polling showing that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
Meanwhile, Harris also appeared to take a direct hit at Biden over his “gateway drug” comment, stating that the debate on that matter is already settled.
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” she tweeted, adding that she’s glad that a bill she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed earlier this year to federally deschedule cannabis is scheduled for a vote in the House this week.
Harris herself has faced pushback from reform advocates and challengers who point out that the senator was involved in criminalizing cannabis consumers, and opposed legalization, during her time as a prosecutor.
Yang, for his part, presented a visual contrast to Biden on Monday, sharing photos of him smiling, surrounded by dozens of trimmed marijuana plants in an undisclosed facility.
He also wrote in a tweet that cannabis “should be legal nationwide” and linked to a campaign site page laying out his reform plan.
Marijuana should be legal nationwide. It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist. https://t.co/0Uhl17MW98
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) November 18, 2019
“It is already legal in several states, it reflects a safer approach to pain relief than opiates, and our administration of drug laws is deeply uneven and racist,” Yang said.
Biden has drawn criticism from lawmakers outside of the presidential race as well, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) calling him out on Monday.
Get with the program, @JoeBiden.
Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.
The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It's past time we end this senseless prohibition.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) November 18, 2019
“Get with the program, @JoeBiden,” the congressman, who has spearheaded Capitol Hill efforts to end federal prohibition, said. “Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period.”
“The war on drugs has ruined countless lives,” he said. “It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
AOC Calls For Decriminalizing The Use Of All Drugs
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) voiced support for decriminalizing the use of all drugs on Sunday.
The freshman congresswoman tweeted that drug decriminalization, as well as marijuana legalization, are “matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
This marks a development in Ocasio-Cortez’s drug policy platform. Previously, she called for decriminalizing the use and research of psychedelics, emphasizing the therapeutic potential of the substances.
To that end, she introduced an amendment to a spending bill in June that would remove a rider that advocates argue has inhibited research into the potential therapeutic benefits of Schedule I drugs such as psilocybin and LSD. The House rejected that measure in a floor vote, however.
There’s a growing push to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs beyond cannabis. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both Democratic presidential candidates, are in favor of the policy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports decriminalizing opioids as a means to combat the drug overdose crisis.
Ocasio-Cortez recently gave her endorsement to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But while the senator was the first major presidential candidate to back marijuana legalization during his 2016 run, he said this year he’s “not there yet” on broader drug decriminalization. It’s not clear if the congresswoman’s role as a surrogate on his campaign will ultimately influence him to adopt the policy.
But as more candidates debate the best way forward on various drug reform proposals, with cannabis legalization being a given for almost all contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden remains several paces behind. He opposes adult-use legalization and said on Saturday that marijuana may be a gateway to other, more dangerous substances.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.