Three New Jersey Democrats ally with ‘War on Drugs’ Republicans in Congress

Six New Jersey members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for legislation that would ramp up mandatory minimum sentencing for fentanyl analogs, continuing tactics that defined the failed ‘War on Drugs’ started during the Nixon administration.

Top: Congressmen Chris Smith, Donald Norcross, and Jeff VanDrew Bottom: Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill, and Thomas Kean Jr.

Support for the Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl (HALT) Act (H.R. 467), which passed in a 289-133 vote, brought on furious criticism from civil rights, public health, drug policy, faith, law enforcement, criminal legal reform, and public policy research organizations

Supporting the legislation to double down on draconian tactics that have proved useless over the last fifty years were conservative Democrats Josh Gottheimer, Mikie Sherrill, and Donald Norcross, as well as Republicans Jeff Van Drew, Chris Smith, and Thomas Kean Jr.

Under this legislation, fentanyl-related substances are assumed harmful, and people will be criminalized regardless of the science.

“This shoot-first, ask-questions-later legislation would permanently schedule all fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I without first testing them for benefits or harm,” said civil rights advocate Lisa McCormick. “By putting fentanyl-related substances on that list, they are among the most harshly criminalized drugs regardless of the science.”

Of the few fentanyl-related substances tested on a limited basis by the FDA, McCormick said at least one showed properties similar to the overdose-reversing medication naloxone. Others were found to be completely harmless and should never have been classified as Schedule I.

“This bill also imposes mandatory minimum sentences of 10 to 20 years in prison for fentanyl analog cases, hearkening back to failed drug war strategies of the past that have led to a stronger, more potent illicit drug supply,” said McCormick. “Yet, Republican members of Congress and their corporate-controlled Democratic allies continue to double down on the disproven, failed approach of drug prohibition at the expense of people’s lives.”

“Of the nearly two million people incarcerated in the U.S. today, one in five is locked up for a drug offense,” said McCormick, who said the legislation was strongly condemned by a variety of non-partisan civil rights, public health, drug policy, faith, law enforcement, criminal legal reform, and public policy research organizations.

“Our communities deserve real health solutions to the overdose crisis, not political grandstanding that is going to cost us more lives,” said Maritza Perez Medina, director of the Office of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Yet, sadly, in passing the HALT Fentanyl Act, the House seems intent on doubling down on the same failed strategies that got us here to begin with.”

“While it may seem politically expedient to crack down on fentanyl and its analogs, history has shown us time and again, this only creates further harm,” said Medina. “Increasing criminal penalties and expanding the use of mandatory minimums, as this bill does, has never reduced the supply or demand of illicit drugs.”

“Instead, it only exacerbates racial disparities in the criminal legal system and creates the conditions for an even more unknown, and more potent, drug supply to flourish,” said Medina. “We call on the Senate to reject these dangerous efforts and act quickly to implement the health solutions we urgently need to save lives.”

“It’s sad to see lawmakers revert to over-criminalization once again when we have 50 years of evidence that the war on drugs has been an abject failure,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “A vote for this bill was a vote against evidence and science.”

“We know that harsher criminal penalties have done nothing to address the overdose crisis, which has only gotten exponentially worse since Congress put the temporary class-wide scheduling policy into place,” said Pitter. “This would make that policy permanent and not only entrench mandatory minimums but expand them. It will also undermine efforts by scientists to find solutions for problematic substance use and discourage people who drugs who want help from seeking it because they will face harsh penalties.”

Jesselyn McCurdy of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, New Jersey civil rights advocate Lisa McCormick, and Fair and Just Prosecution Executive Director Miriam Aroni Krinsky argue that Congress is on the wrong track with the failed ‘War on Drugs’

“I lost my brother to an overdose, so I understand the pain that so many families in our country are feeling during this crisis,” said Lt. Diane Goldstein (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “As a retired police professional, I know that increasing penalties for fentanyl will cost us more lives because people will be even more afraid to call 911 if they see someone succumbing to overdose for fear of a long prison sentence.”

“Mandatory minimums punish low-level drug offenders rather than providing the treatment they so often need,” said Goldstein. “We should be focusing all of our efforts on making public health interventions accessible to save lives, not doubling down on the strategy that brought us to where we are today.”

“Fentanyl and other deadly drugs pose a real threat to the health and safety of our communities, but Congress must invest in public health solutions rather than the ineffective harsh sentences and mandatory minimums we have relied on in the past,” said Marta Nelson, director of Government Strategy, Advocacy and Partnerships, at the Vera Institute of Justice.

“By permanently scheduling fentanyl-related substances as Schedule 1, the HALT Fentanyl Act relies on that old mandatory minimum playbook, which contributes to mass incarceration and does not prevent substance use,” said Nelson. “We must reject so-called tough sentencing policies and instead lift up solutions-based policymaking that addresses the root causes of substance use and saves lives.”

“We know what keeps us safe: living in communities where all of us can provide for our families and build the future we want,” said Jesselyn McCurdy at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The classwide scheduling that this bill imposes will exacerbate pretrial detention, mass incarceration, and racial disparities in the prison system, doubling down on a fear-based, enforcement-first response to a public health challenge. Classwide scheduling and mandatory minimums merely repeat the mistakes of the past by magnifying our incarceration problem.”

“Fifty years after the beginning of mass incarceration, the evidence is clear: the War on Drugs has harmed communities,” said Sentencing Project attorney Liz Komar. “Harsh punishments don’t save lives or make us safer. We urge Congress to remember the lessons of the 1980’s and 1990’s – mandatory minimums are not the answer to the overdose crisis.”

“Any hope that we have of ending the overdose, HIV, and viral hepatitis epidemics in the United States lies in an embrace of evidence-based best practices and a rejection of the punitive and racially inequitable policies that have destroyed millions of lives over the last half-century,” said Drew Gibson, director of advocacy for AIDS United. “Passage of the HALT Fentanyl Act and the draconian expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing for fentanyl-related substances contained in it would be a reckless repetition of the costly mistakes of the war on drugs that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities and creates the conditions for even more harmful illicit substances to enter the drug supply.”

“Our country has spent half a century trying to treat drug-related harms with fear and punishment,” said Fair and Just Prosecution Executive Director Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor. “The dismal results are clear: these draconian policies ballooned our prison population even as the number of annual drug-related deaths grew exponentially.”

“Recent, tragic increases in fentanyl-related deaths have underscored the urgent need to adopt evidence-based, effective drug policies,” said Krinsky. “Yet the enactment of the HALT Fentanyl Act would signal to the world that our government has learned nothing from the catastrophic failures of the War on Drugs, stymie harm reduction efforts that save lives, and funnel more people into what is among the largest prison systems in the world.”

Last week, a coalition that includes the aforementioned organizations) of advocacy groups sent a letter to House leadership urging them to reject this proposal and instead support public health approaches like the Support, Treatment, and Overdose Prevention of Fentanyl (STOP Fentanyl) Act of 2021 (H.R. 2366) and the Test Act. 

The STOP Fentanyl Act proposes increased access to harm reduction services and substance use disorder treatment, improved data collection, and other evidence-based methods to reduce overdose. 

The TEST Act would require the federal government to test all fentanyl-related substances that are currently classified as Schedule I substances and remove those that are proven medically beneficial or otherwise unharmful. It would also require the attorney general to notify any person who has been wrongly convicted, or sentenced, of the change.

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