Anniversaries provide opportunities for reflection. This June marks the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs.” In practice, that “war” has been carried out through the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, often called the Controlled Substances Act, which still dictates the United States’ approach to drug control.
This war, which has cost Americans more than $1 trillion over the past half century, has failed.
America is not “drug-free,” and yet the social costs have been significant. Of the ten million arrests made in the US in 2019, those for “drug abuse violations” were the highest. Of these 1,558,862 “drug abuse violations” arrests, 86.7% were for possession. This picture has remained, for the most part, unchanged for more than a decade. Therefore, of the roughly 15 million drug arrests during that time, nearly 13 million were for possession. Not only do these millions of drug arrests and criminal records contribute to the United States’ incarceration rate, the highest in the world, they often result in loss of income, housing, child custody, federal benefits, student financial aid, and, if the record reaches a felony, the right to vote.
On Tuesday, Congress members Bonnie Watson Coleman and Cori Bush announced a new bill that aims to change the status quo. The Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), which will be formally introduced in the coming days, would decriminalize the personal possession of all scheduled substances, and replace the punitive approach with a public-health focused one. For example, regulation of substances in the Controlled Substances Act would be under the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) instead of the Attorney General. The bill also provides for the expungement of certain records and resentencing for individuals currently incarcerated, or otherwise under supervision, for some drug-related convictions. It would ensure that individuals’ access to federal benefits isn’t contingent on a drug test and that a past drug possession conviction cannot lead to job rejection or termination. And, it would direct HHS grants toward harm reduction and treatment services.
“The war on drugs was never about helping people. It was about criminalizing them,” Coleman said during a news conference on Tuesday, after quoting John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former domestic policy chief.
A story published in Harper’s Magazine in 2016 quoted Ehrlichman on Nixon’s drug strategy: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Coleman continued, “That’s what we’re trying to correct today,” adding that the Act “shifts our approach to drugs from a punitive, criminal approach to a restorative health-based and evidence-based approach.”
The Drug Policy Alliance, which worked with Coleman and Bush on drafting the Act, released a poll of registered voters earlier this month in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union that found that 66% of respondents are in favor of “eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services.”
Bush said on Tuesday that the Act “is a major step forward in our work to dismantle systems of violence, trauma, and oppression,” adding that it “will instill confidence that our government is committed to advancing evidence-based public health policies.”
There is growing support across the globe for such a shift. Back in 2017, the United Nations and the World Health Organization released a joint statement that called for “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence,” such as “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use.” And, right here in the United States, President Joe Biden said during the final presidential debate of 2020 that “no one should be going to jail because they have a drug problem,” adding, “we should fundamentally change the system and that’s what I’m going to do.”
The “system,” to which Biden referred during the final debate, is already starting to change. It is shaped by the National Drug Control Budget, which has two broad buckets: demand reduction and supply reduction. Demand reduction focuses on treatment and prevention, while supply reduction focuses on law enforcement. Last year, for the first time since Nixon’s original budget, more money was devoted to demand reduction than supply reduction, a shift that began under President Barack Obama. Put simply, what decriminalization would do, by ending arrests of drug consumers, is to end law enforcement as a means of demand reduction.
Zooming in on cannabis possession arrests, they have already fallen, as legalization spreads from coast to coast, from more than half of all possession arrests ten years ago to more than a third today. Though, it remains at the top of the list.