Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush on Tuesday introduced legislation to end all criminal penalties for drug possession at the federal level.
The Drug Policy Reform Act, which is co-sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, would expunge existing records and provide opportunities for re-sentencing for people already convicted of federal drug crimes.
The legislation essentially aims to end the federal War on Drugs — declared 50 years ago this week by President Richard Nixon — by shifting federal authority over controlled substances away from the Department of Justice to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Fifty years. That’s how long our government has waged a war— not on drugs— but on people,” Bush said a Zoom call with reporters.
After numerous states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, House Democrats passed legislation last year to decriminalize it at the federal level. The marijuana bill stalled in the Senate at the time, but now that Democrats control the chamber it is likely to come to the floor in the future with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s vocal support.
Bush and Coleman’s bill takes the decriminalization policy a step forward by applying it to all drugs, but that could be a tough sell to moderate Democrats who have embraced marijuana legalization but remain wary of decriminalizing other drugs.
Bush, a St. Louis Democrat whose first year in office has been marked by her aggressive calls for police reform, pointed to the racial disparities in drug enforcement.
“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,” Bush said in a statement Tuesday.
“As a nurse, I’ve watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid use. 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,” she said. “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.”
In addition to decriminalization, the bill would prohibit denial of employment based on past drug convictions, prevent the use of drug testing as a requirement to receive federal benefits and end restrictions on federal food assistance and welfare programs based on drug convictions.
It would also restore voting rights to people who lost them based on federal drug convictions.
“Every 23 seconds, a person’s life is ruined for simply possessing drugs,” said Queen Adesuyi, a policy manager for national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that consulted on the legislation.
“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. It tears families apart, and causes trauma that can be felt for generations.”