Fifty Years After Nixon Declared War on Drugs, More Americans Want to Decriminalize Them
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On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs," which history would later reveal was in actuality a war on Black people, the anti-war left, and hippies. Nixon's drug war later became President Ronald Reagan's battle in the 1980s. Over the decades, the war on drugs has ravaged the criminal justice system, wasted billions of dollars, and ruined the lives of countless Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities. Although it looks different from Nixon and Reagan's crusade, it's a war that continues today.
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of Nixon's war declaration, U.S. House of Representatives Cori Bush (D-MO) and Bonnie Watson Cole (D-NJ) just introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA). This federal bill would, according to a press release, would enact the following:
- End criminal penalties for drug possession at the national level
- Place authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Expunge records and provide resentencing
- Eliminates many of the life-long consequences of drug arrests and convictions
- Reinvest in alternative health-centered approaches
- Promote evidence-based drug education
What the legistlation says
Alongside the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which was a strategic partner in the development of the bill, the legislation also looks to address many of the overlooked repercussions of a drug arrest and conviction, such as the denial of employment, public benefits, immigration status, drivers' licenses, and voting rights. The DPA provided expertise and counsel in drafting the DPRA, which included the DPA's 2020 proposal: Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework.
"Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives," said Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO) in the press release. "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. 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. 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.
"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," said Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) in the press release. "Begun in 1972 as a cynical political tactic of the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families. 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."
"Every 23 seconds, a person's life is ruined for simply possessing drugs. 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. The drug war has caused mass devastation to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities, and today we say, 'Enough is enough!'" said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Manager for the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Unorthodox but sensible
I asked Bridget Hennessey, Weedmaps' V.P. of Government Relations, her thoughts on the significance of the bill ahead of the 50th anniversary of the War on Drugs: ""The five decades-old war on drugs was never won. And the casualties are almost too monumental to comprehend. Untold numbers of individuals, families, communities, and opportunities have paid dearly. We need more than a Marshall Plan to right all the wrongs caused by the misguided leadership and ill-conceived policies that are the hallmarks of this war."
She also praised the DPA and Rep. Coleman and Bush on the boldness of the bill. "Before we rebuild anything, we've got to rethink and reimagine everything. Working closely with the expert staff and leadership of the Drug Policy Alliance, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Cori Bush have done exactly that," Hennessey said. "Yes, this legislation may seem unorthodox. But it's sensible at its core. Despite the fact that it includes programs and policies that health activists and other stakeholders have championed for years, critics will call it radical and out of the mainstream. This bold legislative proposal turns conventional wisdom on its head."
The DPA also hosted a virtual press conference with Reps. Coleman and Bush to announce the unveiling of the bill this morning.