WASHINGTON – Exactly 50 years ago today former-President Richard Nixon stood before Congress and declared a “war on drugs.” Like most wars, this one has also left death and destruction in its wake. The pain has been compounded in many minority communities through mass incarceration, punitive sentencing, racial and financial disparities, stigma and the broken households that naturally stem from the constant onslaught from law enforcement. Still, even as drug criminalization grew, substance abuse and dependence became more prevalent — and deadly. Now Democratic representatives are calling for a ceasefire, and they want to use the estimated $1 trillion spent on the war on drugs, on everyday citizens by redirecting those stacks of Benjamin’s to preventative care for addicts, not prisons and police.
Some Democrats took a step towards realizing that dreamlike future today, when Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) — with the assistance of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance — formally introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA). The measure overhauls the current anti-drug (and, they say, anti-addict) policies around substance use. One way they hope to upend the entire criminal justice system across America is through shifting the regulatory authority from the US attorney general to the secretary of health and human services.
To put it another way, DPRA aims to decriminalize all drugs — a historic first in the Capitol because no lawmakers have ever sought to decriminalize all substances since the ‘war on drugs’ was launched a half century ago. The measure was only unveiled this week, so many lawmakers are still reviewing it. But from what she heard, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Crime subcommittee praised the broad contours of the measure.
“Long overdue,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said of the measure at today’s hearing examining the drug war itself. “New thinking needs to be the call of the day.”
“All roads point to the same solutions, we need to roll back the regulations of the past four decades.”NYU Professor of Law Rachel Barkow
New thinking will certainly be crucial if these progressives hope to pass the DPRA. While it’s a long-shot, some Republicans did signal to their Democratic counterparts that they hope to work together on the areas they agree on, including tackling the raging opioid crisis and even stemming mass incarceration.
“I would encourage us to sit down and put aside our partisan differences,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) — the top Republican on the subcommittee – proposed, “and see if there is some way to find concord at least in certain areas that we could move forward.”
After making bipartisan headway on sentencing reform in recent years, lawmakers hope they can come together again to further overhaul the nation’s mandatory minimum prison sentences and pre-trial detentions while also increasing funding and other resources aimed at educating Americans about substances and substance use disorder.
And lawmakers of all stripes are looking for a do-over — even if lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a single piece of legislation. Though many Democrats liked what they were hearing from these progressives.
“What I think it says about us — if we do this — is that we, as a society, get a second chance to admit a mistake,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) said.
Mandatory minimums tie the hands of judges, which experts say has caused the nation’s overflowing prisons. Now, they’re hoping to change the conversation from criminal penalties to public health and safety.
“I would encourage us to sit down and put aside our partisan differences, and see if there is some way to find concord at least in certain areas that we could move forward.”Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ)
“Mandatory minimum sentences are stupid,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) — a lawyer by training — said. “We stupidly force every individualized case into these rigid little boxes that don’t reflect reality. The whole reason we have judges and juries and prosecutors and defense attorneys instead of robots and computers is to provide individualized justice for each unique case. Mandatory minimums strip that away, and it’s had devastating consequences for society and overly harsh punishments.”
In the wake of the racial unrest from coast to coast and progressive’s calls to defund the police, many Republicans are skeptical of Democrat’s new push to allocate money from policing to hospitals and clinics.
“We saw a number of cities cut billions of dollars from police resources, and they say you reap what you sow,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) said.
But the measure’s sponsors say it’s essential to flip this current system on its head, which DPRA does by providing ways for those struggling with addiction to get help, not a jail cell. The bill states that “within 180 days of enactment, Health and Human Services will establish a ‘Commission on Substance Use, Health, and Safety.’”
“Invest money in education, health and employment opportunities rather than enforcement” Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, testified. Still, many Republicans are wary.
“New thinking needs to be the call of the day.”Rep. Sheilla Jackson Lee (D-TX)
“I sure hope we look introspectively,” Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) said. “Maybe we should give it to the states, rather than trying to get this one-size-fits-all approach that clearly isn’t working for the federal government.”
But advocates, educators and researchers say something has to change because it’s clear the current system — which has left more Americans imprisoned than any other nation on the planet — has failed too many for far too long.
“All roads point to the same solutions,” Rachel Barkow, a law professor at NYU, testified. “We need to roll back the regulations of the past four decades.”