New Federal Drug Decriminalization Bill Follows Oregon’s Lead

“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs. 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. It tears families apart, and causes trauma that can be felt for generations. The drug war has caused mass devastation to Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income communities and today we say, ‘Enough is enough!’” Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Richard Nixon named drug abuse “public enemy number one” and declared a war on drugs a half century ago and the Drug War is clearly an abysmal failure that has had dire racist and classist consequences, ruining too many lives over the last 50 years. Just ahead of the June 17th anniversary of Nixon’s launch of an ill-fated war on our own citizens, federal legislation has been introduced that follows the lead of Oregon Measure 110, a drug decriminalization bill that reinvests resources towards addiction and treatment services. Just as they helped craft Oregon’s pioneering move towards a health-based approach to treating drugs, the Drug Policy Alliance partnered with Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) to introduce the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) to, among other things, end federal criminal penalties for drug possession, shift the regulatory authority from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), expunge records and provide for resentencing, and reinvest in alternative health-centered approaches. The DPRA also eliminates many of the collateral consequences associated with drug convictions, including the denial of job opportunities, public benefits, immigration status, drivers’ licenses, and the right to vote.

DPA laid out many of the reform provisions of the Drug Policy Reform Act in a press release:

  • 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.

“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. 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. 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,” Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush. 

“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. 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,” New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman.

I definitely want to take a moment to note that DPA has many women in their leadership ranks, that I was proud to work for and with many women on Measure 110 (including my co-chief petitioners) and that this landmark legislation is being introduced by women. Additionally, the Health Justice and Recovery Alliance, the group leading Measure 110’s implementation at the Oregon Legislature, ensuring that the will of the voters is fulfilled, is led by women. It takes bold leadership to tackle entrenched special interests like the prison-industrial complex, but these women ain’t scared of doing what’s right for our nation. They understand that our policies shouldn’t focus on the drugs, the focus should be on people, what we want for our loved ones, as drug use and addiction crosses all demographics.

With over 80% of Americans agreeing that the Drug War has failed and 2/3 of voters wanting to follow Oregon’s lead in “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services,” there has never been a better time to debate a new approach to drugs in the halls of Congress. Just as cannabis legalization was successful state by state, creating the momentum to pass the MORE Act last year, Drug War reforms will follow a similar pattern. Oregonians can be proud of helping lead the way, by passing Measure 110 with nearly 59% of the vote, in our fight to end Nixon’s futile and harmful war on American citizens.

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