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Democrats in Congress introduce decriminalization bill for all drugs, not just weed

The Drug Policy Reform Act would focus on health-centered approaches rather than arrests

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

US Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) are introducing a bill today that would decriminalize not just cannabis but all drug possession, in favor of what they’re calling a “health-centered approach.”

The Drug Policy Reform Act (DRPA) would end criminal penalties for “personal use” drug possession at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and shift the regulatory authority from the attorney general to the secretary of Health and Human Services, “to emphasize that substance use is a health issue and not a criminal issue.”

Under the act, people could still face fines for drug possession, but a court could waive the fine if the person is unable to pay. The act would require HHS to establish a commission on substance abuse, health, and safety to determine the “benchmark” amount for personal use drug possession.

It would also limit state and local governments from being able to receive funds under the Byrne and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant programs — both of which help fund state and local police departments — if they don’t adopt decriminalization policies.

“Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives,” Bush said in a statement. “It’s time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment.”

Under the DPRA, a criminal drug possession charge would not be grounds to deny someone employment or to terminate an employee. It also would prevent drug charges and convictions from being used as grounds to deny someone federal assistance benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and housing assistance. The act would restore voting rights to those previously convicted of drug possession.

The treatment piece of the bill requires the HHS to establish grant programs to support the expansion of treatment programs and connect people to services, including medication-assisted treatment, peer support and recovery services, and emergency response and crisis intervention programs that don’t involve police.

The bill is being introduced just days before the anniversary of the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon launched in the 1970s.

“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,” Coleman said. “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.”

To this point, most of the conversation about decriminalization of drugs has focused on marijuana, which is legal for recreational or medical use in dozens of states. But people convicted of prior marijuana-related crimes continue to languish in jails across the country, and half a million people are arrested for marijuana possession annually in the US.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said that he and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on cannabis reform legislation, saying in a February joint statement that lawmakers “must enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.”

And late last month, Democrats reintroduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), which would eliminate criminal penalties and expunge prior cannabis possession charges, as well as create social equity programs. The MORE Act was introduced in the last Congress, but ended in the Senate which was Republican-controlled at the time.

But even though the Democrats included marijuana decriminalization in their 2020 platform, President Joe Biden was once a leading voice in the War on Drugs. He’s shifted his stance on the issue since, and said on the campaign trail that he would “reschedule cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”

It’s been a tough uphill climb for federal marijuana reform legislation, even as the public largely supports legalizing it. How an even broader piece of legislation like DRPA may fare in the divided Congress (the bill doesn’t have a Senate sponsor yet) remains to be seen.

But Matt Sutton of the Drug Policy Alliance, which worked with Bush and Coleman on the bill, said DRPA marked a first step toward federal decriminalization and would not interfere with the cannabis-specific legislation Schumer has planned. “We will be building support for all drug decriminalization, which will end the more far-reaching harms of the drug war,” he said. “Specifically for people who use other drugs or have other drug convictions, and lead to a health-centered alternative approach to drugs in this country.”