A pair of congresswomen will soon be reintroducing a bill to federally decriminalize all currently illicit drugs and facilitate mass expungements.
Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) announced on Saturday—the 52nd anniversary of President Richard Nixon declaring a war on drugs—that they will again be filing the Drug Policy Reform Act.
The lawmakers first introduced the bill in 2021. While it didn’t advance, it marked the first congressional bill designed to comprehensively end drug criminalization and take a public health, rather than criminal justice, approach to substance use.
“52 years ago, President Richard Nixon initiated a violent, racist campaign against Black and brown communities in this country,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “From the start, the War on Drugs has been about suppressing the voices and lives of the marginalized, not about health or safety.”
#OTD 52 y.o. Nixon declared the “war on drugs.”
It was never about health or safety but about suppressing the voices and lives of the marginalized.@RepCori and I will be reintroducing the Drug Policy Reform Act to end the W.O.D. and treat people with a health centered approach https://t.co/S31o18P8TV
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 17, 2023
“Unfortunately, our society continues to perpetuate the discredited War on Drugs today,” they said. “Over a million people are arrested annually for drug related offenses. Yet overdose deaths and substance use disorders remain at shockingly high rates.”
As filed last session, the measure proposed to 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.
The legislation 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.
“Admitting mistakes is never easy, but lives are at stake,” the congresswomen said. “It’s long past time to recognize the substance use crisis as a public health issue and ensure proper redress and structural solutions rooted in equity and public health. That’s why we are proud to announce that we will soon be re-introducing the Drug Policy Reform Act.”
#OTD 52 years ago, President Nixon started a violent campaign against Black and brown communities known as the War on Drugs.@RepBonnie & I are proud to soon reintroduce the Drug Policy Reform Act to decriminalize drug possession, expunge records, & finally end the War on Drugs.
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) June 17, 2023
“We will continue to advocate for this vital legislation in Congress, and we urge the Biden Administration to take every possible step within its power towards a public health approach to drug policy,” they added. “We must transform federal drug policy in our country, protect Black and brown communities, and save lives.”
About 45 percent 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 provisions would be somewhat minimal on incarceration rates, especially when factoring in the size of state-level prison populations.
To that end, the bill would further 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 thinking is that the threat of losing that money could be enough to incentivize states and municipalities to stop locking people up for drugs.
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Given the challenges of enacting even modest cannabis legislation in Congress, it seems unlikely that the broader decriminalization measure will advance under a Republican-controlled House. But the filing is meant to keep focus on the racist origins and long-term consequences of the drug war.
It’s unclear when the bill will be formally filed or if provisions will be revised from last Congress’s version. Marijuana Moment reached out to the sponsors’ offices for clarification, but representatives were not immediately available.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen congressional Democrats recently filed a resolution to recognize the country’s “moral obligation to meet its foundational promise of guaranteed justice for all,” in part by legalizing marijuana and overdose prevention sites as well as expunging drug-related records.
The House has approved federal marijuana legalization bills on two occasions under Democratic control, but they did not advance in the opposite chamber. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) did say in April that he plans to reintroduce a comprehensive measure to end federal prohibition, but the general expectation is that only more incremental reform like a bipartisan cannabis banking bill—perhaps with the addition of expungements provisions or other incremental reforms—stands a chance of passage under the divided Congress.
Meanwhile, the House unanimously approved a separate resolution last week that voices support for Americans incarcerated in Russia—including a U.S. citizen who is serving a 14-year sentence over possession of medical marijuana that he obtained legally in Pennsylvania.