Congress Must Recognize the Harms the Drug War Has Had on Communities of Color and Commit to Something New
Washington, D.C. – Today, leading up to the 50th anniversary of Congress’ enactment of the Controlled Substances Act in October 2020 — which authorized and launched the harsh drug war policies sought by the Nixon Administration — the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released a new federal legislative proposal Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, which provides a roadmap to effectively end the criminalization of people who use drugs and begin repairing the harm drug law enforcement has caused to communities of color.
The DPA model decriminalization legislation – the Drug Policy Reform Act – takes the first steps in dismantling the punitive apparatus built up over the past 50 years. To begin refocusing federal drug policies, the legislation shifts the authority for classifying and regulating controlled substances from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The legislation eliminates criminal penalties for all possession of personal-use quantities of controlled substances, and shifts federal resources away from futile enforcement strategies to supportive initiatives to protect the public health and safety.
“After 50 years of this failed experiment, it’s time to try something new. The U.S.-led drug war is no closer to its alleged goal of reducing supply, but instead has led to the massive growth of illicit markets—here and abroad—that foster violence and lead to unnecessarily risky and harmful conditions for people who use drugs. Relying on punitive drug policies also exacerbates that harm by focusing on punishment and stigma to address public health concerns,” said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. “And because of federal funding and defense equipment transfer schemes directly tied to drug arrests, the drug war incentivizes and funds the kind of militarized policing that has led to the overwhelming demand for reform in recent months. At this moment in time, it is incumbent on Congress to recognize the harm the drug war has perpetrated, particularly on communities of color and low-income communities, and look to alternatives like this one that will begin righting the wrongs of the past. ”
Additionally, the bill:
- Eliminates the inequitable and harsh sentencing constructs, such as mandatory minimum drug conspiracy offenses, that have significantly contributed to mass incarceration;
- Provides for decarceration and expungement of records for those imprisoned under the current system;
- Eliminates collateral consequences of drug convictions, including denial of public benefits and educational loans for individuals who have been convicted of drug offenses; and,
- Abolishes the enforcement agencies that have been primarily responsible for creating the harmful enforcement strategies of the past.
While drug decriminalization cannot fully repair our broken and oppressive criminal legal system or the harms of an unregulated drug market, shifting from absolute prohibition to drug decriminalization helps restore individual liberty, protect against some police abuses, better assist those in need, and save tax dollars.
“Removing criminal penalties for drugs is a first step in repairing the harms of the drug war,” said Theshia Naidoo, Managing Director of Criminal Justice Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “In 2018 alone, over 1.6 million people were arrested on drug charges, over 86% of which were just for possession. These arrests can have impacts that last for a lifetime, often preventing access to employment, housing, financial aid for college, and even jeopardizing parental rights or immigration status. And as we all know too well, these laws are far from equal. They are disproportionately enforced on Black, Latinx & Indigenous people, resulting in generational trauma, vilification and economic hardship on entire communities.”
DPA 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, resulting from a comprehensive review of public health and criminology literature, an analysis of drug policies in the U.S. and abroad, and input from experts in the fields of drug policy and criminal justice.
Learn more and read the entire framework at drugpolicy.org/DrugPolicyReformAct.