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On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s Drug War Declaration, Congressional Lawmakers Demand Reform

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Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs—and congressional lawmakers are seizing the day to demand reform.

A historic bill to end the drug war by decriminalizing possession of all currently illicit substances was formally filed on the anniversary, and text has been released. The lead sponsors—Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO)—previewed the proposal during a virtual event earlier in the week.

Also, a House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on Thursday that specifically addressed the historic and devastating impacts of drug criminalization, particularly on communities of color.

Members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security heard testimony from drug policy experts and people personally impacted by punitive drug laws. There were no votes on any particular pieces of legislation, but the meeting served as a preview for the conversation that bipartisan lawmakers hope to continue this session.

Drug criminalization “became an engine for mass incarceration as it resulted in an increase of federal funding for drug control agencies, proposed measures such as mandatory and excessive sentencing laws, and, yes, the now well-known and destructive no-knock warrants,” Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said. “The totality of these punitive measures do not increase public safety; rather it produces permanent harm and disrupts the entire equilibrium of justice.”

Advocates have their eyes on several bills of interest this Congress—including ones to federally legalize marijuana—but the new drug decriminalization measure represents a significant advancement of the conversation about ending the broader drug war in Capitol Hill.

“Punitive policies have achieved no reduction in supplies or prices, but instead have created unnecessarily risky and harmful conditions for people who use drugs,” the findings section of the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) states. “Punitive policies have led to militarized tactics that thwart the spirit of the constitution and have led to the deaths of countless Black and Brown people.”

“While drug decriminalization cannot fully repair our broken and oppressive criminal legal system or the harms of an unregulated drug market, shifting from absolute prohibition to drug decriminalization helps restore individual liberty, protect against some police abuses, better assist those in need, and save tax dollars,” it continues.

It also references the 50th anniversary of the drug war declaration, stating that “in this moment, Congress must recognize the failed experiment in prohibition and move the country in a new direction.”

The “sense of Congress” section lists three main sentiments: the U.S. should 1) address substance misuse as a public health, rather than criminal justice, matter, 2) invest in evidence-based harm reduction programs and 3) pursue international treaties that afford flexibility to signatories to enact reforms like decriminalization.

Here’s what lawmakers are saying about reform on the 50-year drug war anniversary: 

So far, the new decriminalization proposal is being cosponsored by a handful of members, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Lou Correa (D-CA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

The legislation would end the threat of incarceration for people caught possessing drugs for personal use. Courts would still have the option of imposing a fine, but that could be waived if a person couldn’t afford it.

Importantly, the measure would make it so the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—rather than the Justice Department—would be responsible for classifying drugs, with the intent being to shift that role to a health-centric model.

Federal district courts would be required to facilitate expungements and record sealing for those with qualifying convictions within one year of the bill’s enactment.

Almost half of the federal prison population is currently serving time over drug-related offenses—a much smaller percentage of which is for possession alone—and so the direct impact of the legislation’s decriminalization provision would be somewhat minimal on incarceration rates, especially when factoring in the size of state-level prison populations.

But that’s where another key component comes into play: the bill would withhold federal funds for law enforcement through the Byrne and COPS grant program for states and cities that continue to enforce criminalization of simple drug possession. The threat of losing that money could be enough to incentivize states and municipalities to stop locking people up for drugs.

The all-drug legislation may seem controversial given that Congress has consistently stalled on more modest reform proposals such as simply protecting banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses. But recent polling from DPA and the ACLU shows that the public is ready for the policy change, with two-thirds of U.S. voters now backing the decriminalization of drug possession.

A separate new survey, released by The Appeal and Data For Progress, also shows that voters support decriminalizing the distribution of small amounts of drugs.

In fact, two-thirds of American voters believe that the war on drugs should end, and they support decriminalizing simple possession of currently illegal substances, the survey released last week found.

Watson Coleman is also the sponsor of a congressional resolution to condemn the drug war that she reintroduced in March.

President Joe Biden has voiced support for ending incarceration for low-level drug cases, saying “nobody should be going to jail for the use of drugs” and the country should “change the way we deal with all drug abuse.” But the administration has not taken any demonstrable steps to redirect federal policy so far, and he’s yet to grant presidential clemency for any people incarcerated for drugs.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in April that Biden’s pledge to release federal inmates with marijuana convictions specifically would start with rescheduling cannabis—a proposal that advocates say wouldn’t actually accomplish what she suggested.

Read the text of the congressional drug decriminalization bill below: 

Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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