Congresswoman Cori Bush, representing St. Louis, Missouri in the House of Representatives, has broken new ground by indicating her support for a safe supply of controlled substances for people who use them, in response to a Filter reporter’s question.
On June 15, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) held a press conference unveiling the Drug Policy Reform Act of 2021 (DPRA). It featured DPRA co-authors Representative Bush and Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, together with DPA board member Dr. Mary Bassett and Neill Franklin, former executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.
The bill will eliminate criminal penalties for possession of any scheduled substance up to quantities to be determined by a novel commission. It additionally invests in substance use disorder treatment and harm reduction services, while, among other things, preventing people being refused employment, housing, federal benefits, and immigration status due to a criminal record for drug possession or personal drug use.
“Do we support a safe supply? Yes.”
During the press conference, DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique posed my question to the congresswomen: Do you support medical practitioners prescribing to patients their controlled substances of choice in order to encourage them to divest from the adulterated illicit supply, just as US doctors did in the late 1910s and early 1920s?
Rep. Bush gave a clear answer. “Do we support a safe supply? Yes,” she said. She also explained why DPRA does not provide for some form of safe supply policy. “Right now, our focus is to decriminalize.”
Her comment appears to be one of the first, if not the first, public endorsements by a US politician of a safe supply policy. It’s increasingly a priority for progressive drug-user activists in North America, driven by Canadian advocacy, like that of the Drug User Liberation Front.
“We are enthused to have a congressional leader who is willing to support evidence-based, life-saving interventions like safe supply,” Queen Adeyusi, a policy manager at DPA’s Office of National Affairs, told Filter.
Rep. Watson Coleman offered promising, albeit inconclusive, thoughts on the safe supply question. Part of the “whole issue of […] personal use of substances,” she said, is “how you get them” and how consumers avoid “getting drugs that kill you as opposed to the right drug that you’re looking for.”
(Ensuring consumers have consistent easy access to pharmaceutical-grade drugs—instead of the unpredictable and adulterated illicit supply that’s driving fatal overdoses—has been shown in multiple studies to greatly reduce engagement with the unregulated supply.)
“To have it in the health care realm instead of the criminal realm is what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Rep. Watson Coleman.
“Everything that we’re talking about, we’re looking at it from an evidence-based standpoint,” said Rep. Bush. “So, making sure we are looking for guidance from people like Dr. Bassett and others.”
Rep. Watson Coleman suggested the question of safe supply policy could be one for the planned Commission on Substance Use, Health and Safety to consider, saying it “will be looking at issues of this nature and will be making recommendations to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”
According to a summary of DPRA published by DPA, the Commission will provide “recommendations for preventing the prosecution of individuals possessing, distributing, or dispensing personal use quantities of each drug for the purpose of subsistence distribution.”
The biggest win for the North American safe supply movement thus far has, according to advocates’ critiques, been largely symbolic: British Columbia’s mostly-unimplemented prescribing guidelines to provide consumers with pharmaceutical alternatives to adulterated street drugs.
A strong grassroots movement for safe supply policy has yet to materialize in the United States, and advocacy organizations like DPA are still developing their strategy. “We do deep work internally and with movement before moving to introduce legislation,” said Adeyusi. “We are working on a safe supply strategy with others, that can include legislation, but we are not ready yet.”
It appears that Representative Bush may be a meaningful ally to such efforts when the time comes.
Photograph of Cori Bush as a congressional candidate speaking at an Expect Us rally in 2020, by Craig Currie/PhotoNews247 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0
DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship. LEAP was formerly the fiscal sponsor of The Influence Foundation.