Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

For Immediate Release

Contact

Matt Sutton, 212-613-8026, msutton@drugpolicy.org

Press Release

U.S. House Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman & Cori Bush Unveil Federal Bill to Decriminalize Drug Possession, Replace with Health-Centered Approach

Drug Policy Alliance Hosts Virtual Press Conference Tuesday, 6/15 at 11:15am EST on the Introduction of the Drug Policy Reform Act–Featuring Bill Sponsors Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman & Cori Bush
WASHINGTON -

Today, ahead of 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) unveiled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), alongside the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been a strategic partner on the development of the legislation. The bill would end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, 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 bill also eliminates many of the life-long consequences associated with drug arrests and convictions, including 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. 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!’” said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “We will not be subjugated any longer by an offensive that was created solely with the purpose of ‘disrupting’ our communities. 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.”

In addition to eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level, the bill also incentivizes state and local governments to adopt decriminalization policies 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 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.

The Drug Policy Alliance has been working in partnership with Reps. Coleman and Bush to provide expertise and counsel in drafting the DPRA, which included elements of the federal decriminalization proposal, Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, unveiled by the organization in August 2020. The Drug Policy Alliance 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 Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ). “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.”

“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” said Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO). “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. I’m proud to partner with Congresswoman Watson Coleman on legislation to end criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level and repair harm in Black and brown communities. It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”

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

Full details of the Drug Policy Reform Act can be found here.

DPA will be hosting a virtual press conference on Tuesday, June 15 at 11:15am EST, where the DPRA sponsors Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Cori Bush will be unveiling the bill alongside advocates and discussing its significance in the context of the 50th anniversary of the drug war. To attend, please RSVP here.

###

The Drug Policy Alliance is the nation’s leading organization promoting drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.

Medicare for All Advocates Take to the Streets of Over 50 US Cities

"How can we have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when we live in constant fear of illness, bankruptcy, or homelessness because of the outrageous for-profit healthcare system?"

Jessica Corbett ·


Thousands Join Budapest Pride Parade to Protest Attacks on LGBTQ+ Hungarians

"A lot has happened over the last few years, and it's time to show that we're not okay with it," said one of the organizers.

Jessica Corbett ·


US Lawmakers Demand $34 Billion for Global Vaccine Equity Funding in Reconciliation Package

"No investment in the fight against Covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible."

Jessica Corbett ·


Ilhan Omar Demands Answers After First Somalia Airstrike of Biden Era

"It is critical that we realize we are not going to simply drone the al-Shabaab problem to death," the Somali-American congresswoman asserted.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Huge Legal Win': Court Stops Police From Blockading Line 3 Protester Camp

One attorney described the blockade as "an outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority serving the interests of the Enbridge corporation against its environmental opponents."

Kenny Stancil ·