Drug Policy Reform Act Is Introduced in Congress but Faces Long Road Ahead

The Drug Policy Reform Act, a sweeping bill announced last week by Democratic Reps. Cori Bush (MO-01) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) earned praise for its focus on harm reduction, though the path to passage for this comprehensive proposal remains unclear.

“The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs,” Watson Coleman said in a press release. “The War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception … As we work to address the opioid epidemic, it is essential that we change tactics in how we address drug use away from the failed punitive approach to a health-based and evidence-based approach.”

The Drug Policy Reform Act, announced as 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs, seeks to decriminalize all drugs at the federal level and to implement numerous reforms to criminal justice policies in the United States.

Harm Reduction Popular With Americans and Lawmakers

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance released a poll indicating 82 percent of respondents believe the War on Drugs has failed. The poll also found that 66 percent of respondents support removing criminal penalties for drugs and replacing them with health-centered approaches.

“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,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Office of National Affairs at DPA, said in a press release. DPA collaborated with Reps. Bush and Watson Coleman in drafting the Drug Policy Reform Act.

“This bill gives us a way out,” Adesuyi continued. “[It is] 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.”

Harm reduction appears to be a unifying sentiment across party lines, though it remains to be seen to what extent that concurrence can foster support across the political spectrum for comprehensive drug-related criminal justice reform policies like those included in the DPRA.

Jeffrey A. Singer, a general surgeon and fellow at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, praised DPRA for its harm reduction approach that includes shifting authority of the Controlled Substances Act from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Department of Health and Human Services. But Singer rejected related reforms in the bill, arguing they “raise federalism concerns.”

“Drug use and substance use disorder should be viewed as health issues, not criminal justice issues,” Singer wrote. “Law enforcement has no expertise and should have no say in classifying narcotics and psychoactive substances.”

He continued, “A few features of the bill, such as the ones restoring voting rights to those who served time for drug crimes and the insurance that ex‐​cons can gain access to drivers’ licenses raise federalism concerns as they intrude on state sovereignty. Yet the bill defers to the states when it comes to state‐​level drug policy and only decriminalizes drugs on the federal level. Another provision, which prohibits the denial or termination of employment based on a criminal history of drug possession, infringes on the right to contract and on freedom of association.”

As Singer notes, the federal decriminalization called for in the bill does not equal legalization. Decriminalization, as described in the DPRA proposal, eliminates federal criminal penalties for drug possession, but it does not supersede prohibitions at the state level.

Drug Policy Reform A Low Priority For Congressional Leadership, Biden Administration

This consensus around harm reduction will continue to play a role in federal drug policy reform discussions — the Office of National Drug Control Policy in April issued a letter outlining its priorities focused on harm reduction — but a broader view of the current political climate suggests a lack of urgency from President Joe Biden’s administration and congressional leadership to tackle major drug-related policy reforms this year. 

In April, Vice President Kamala Harris said the Biden administration is “too busy” dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic to take up cannabis decriminalization. And though bipartisan lawmakers continue to introduce decriminalization and legalization bills in both houses of Congress, leadership has been slow to bring proposals to committee or floor votes. 

In early June, frustrated with a lack of action, a coalition of civil rights groups urged House leadership to pass the latest iteration of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act this month, a call that is all but guaranteed to go unanswered.

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“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” Bush said in a press release announcing DPRA. “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.” 

In May, Biden issued an extension of former President Donald Trump’s emergency rescheduling of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, which carries with it mandatory minimum sentences. In his 2020 bid for the White House, Biden campaigned on ending mandatory minimums.

“As a nurse, I’ve watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid use,” Bush said. “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.”

President Biden also campaigned on ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, a promise on which he has yet to deliver. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court this month upheld a lower court’s ruling that low-level crack cocaine offenders are ineligible for resentencing consideration under the 2018 First Step Act, which was meant to address sentencing disparities.

Bipartisan lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced versions of the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, a proposal that would end crack and powdered cocaine sentencing disparities, but neither proposal has received a committee hearing.

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Watson Coleman acknowledged the long road ahead for DPRA in light of current political realities.

“We’re really in the infancy stages here,” she told Marijuana Moment. “We recognize that we’re beyond this being urgent, and so we’ll be doing our outreach and trying to garner the kind of support … working with the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and every other caucus to get as many members as possible to sign on.”

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