Reps. Cori Bush, Bonnie Watson Coleman to introduce drug decriminalization bill

"...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," said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.

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On the 50th anniversary of the inception of the state-sanctioned War on Drugs, representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) want remembrance to accompany radical change.

On Tuesday, the Congresswomen unveiled the Drug Policy Reform Act—a federal bill that would decriminalize drug possession and end punitive practices in favor of health-centered approaches. 

The origins of the Nixon Administration’s War on Drugs is traced back to a press conference held on June 17, 1971, during which then-President Richard Nixon named drug abuse as “public enemy number one” and declared that “in order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”

What followed was a sweeping government initiative that implemented punitive responses to drug use and possession, including an increase in federal drug agencies, mandatory sentencing, and no-knock warrants, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which partnered with Coleman and Bush in crafting the bill.

“…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,” said Coleman.

“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.”

As evidenced by its legacy of mass incarceration, today we know that the War on Drugs was not as much about solving drug abuse as it was about disrupting Black and Brown communities, and the confession of former Nixon White House aide John Ehrlichman provided additional confirmation. 

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said during a 1994 interview with Harpers Magazine.

“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.” 

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In addition to the removal of criminal penalties for drug possession, the Drug Policy Reform Act would: expunge records, shift regulatory authority over controlled substances from the Attorney General to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, reinvest funds in drug treatment and pre-arrest diversion programs, among many other provisions, and prohibits the denial of employment or employment termination because of drug possession history, drug testing people who receive federal benefits, and the denial of immigration status due to drug use.

“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, ” said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Rep. Cori Bush said she witnessed how the War On Drugs ravaged her hometown of St. Louis during the crack cocaine epidemic and sees a cycle in the national response to marijuana usage and the opioid crisis. 

“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, “ said Bush. “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.”

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