With prisons serving as COVID-19 hotspots, Congress needs to act to end the failed war on drugs
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Singapore has been notorious for its harsh response to drug trafficking, including the death penalty. But the United States today has effectively given a death sentence to hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug offenders trapped in COVID-19 hotspots in our prisons and jails. By some estimates, over half the prison population is comprised of non-violent drug offenders, many of whom posed little risk to the community when originally sentenced and certainly pose no threat today.

It’s past time for the United States to end this legacy of the failed war on drugs and its hopeless racial inequities to those incarcerated and their families. Today, the calls for reform and release take on a new urgency. The prison population is incapable of social distancing for the numbers and the conditions that inmates face.

When Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, I published a blueprint toward cannabis legalization that outlined the role that every congressional committee could play in ending this failed prohibition, and much of it has come to fruition. It’s ironic that at a time when Congress has finally awakened from decades of ignoring the issue of drug reform, the COVID-19 crisis has sidelined unprecedented legislative action.


Groundbreaking reform legislation has passed out of major congressional committees with bipartisan support. Issues dealing with veterans’ access to medical cannabis is long overdue and life-saving. Ending the failed and dangerous federal prohibition on cannabis research, which hampers the ability for product safety, as well as the development of new dramatic health discoveries, is being addressed. Fixing the foolish regulations on state legal cannabis businesses, which have been sanctioned by voters and legislators in 33 states and the District of Columbia, would end the spectacle of paying hundreds of millions of dollars of state and local taxes with shopping bags full of $20 bills.

As chair of Congressional Cannabis Caucus along with Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeHouse Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis 150 House Democrats support Biden push to reenter Iran nuclear deal San Francisco mayor says Harris replacement pick 'a real blow to the African American community' MORE (D-Calif.), I’m fighting for the three R’s: Restore, Repair and Reinvest. We must restore the lives of individuals who have been the target of the War on Drugs, repair the communities that have been the most harmed, and reinvest in the men and women of color, the economically-disadvantaged, and others who have borne the brunt of our nation’s failed war on drugs with opportunities to reap the benefits of this billion dollar industry.

4/20 has been an unofficial symbol of the cannabis movement, its reform and the engagement of its culture. What better way to observe April 20 in these turbulent times than to acknowledge the title wave of public support nationally, the emergence of a multibillion-dollar industry employing almost a quarter million Americans in times of economic struggle, and ending the tragic consequences of racial injustice embedded in Richard Nixon’s failed War on Drugs.

As we are dealing with unprecedented upheaval and understanding of the flawed nature of so many policies and practices, the need for cannabis reform and urgent economic stabilization amidst this health crisis is a small but important opportunity to get the policies right, save lives, lower the cost of health care, and strike a blow for racial equality and personal freedom.

More than 30 years ago, as a member of the Oregon legislature I voted to decriminalize cannabis possession. We were the first state to do so. Since then, out-of-touch and out-of-date federal cannabis policies have ruined the lives of too many people and cost us more than a trillion dollars at home and abroad in the process. We are not Singapore. We should not sentence non-violent drug offenders to a death sentence in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to releasing non-violent drug offenders, we can save lives, save money, and promote justice by moving on these important reforms that are tee’d up and ready for action in both the House and Senate.

Blumenauer represents the 3rd District of Oregon and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee. He is chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.