RMV Attleboro

The Registry of Motor Vehicles in Attleboro is in a portion of the Shang Building. (Sun Chronicle file photo)

In America’s war on drugs, it was a perfect example of overkill.

More than 20 years ago, as the Reagan-era impetus to “get tough on crime” was reaching its overheated crescendo, a policy of mandatory driver’s license suspension for drug offenses — unrelated to any motor vehicle violation — was being pushed by the federal government.

In Massachusetts, a 1989 law automatically suspended licenses of people convicted of drug crimes unrelated to driving. There was also a $500 penalty for license reinstatement for those convicted of drug crimes. And a federal law passed a few years later threatened states with the loss of highway funding if they didn’t fall into line.

Like other tactics in the war on drugs, license suspension has had unanticipated consequences. It’s unpopular, for example, with state motor vehicle bureau administrators around the country who have called the practice ineffective and counterproductive.

And in most parts of the country, lawmakers have evidently agreed.

Massachusetts was one of only 16 states that still suspend licenses of drug offenders (although possession of a small amount of marijuana was already exempt from the penalty in the Commonwealth.)

Now the state’s House of Representatives, with a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, has reversed the mandatory suspension policy. (The state Senate approved such a bill in September.)

Is that an anomaly in a state that is in the midst of an opioid drug addiction crisis? Not really, because it is also a state that has recognized that addiction is a disease that needs effective treatment more than over-the-top punishments.

The fact that the move to drop the suspension policy faced little or no opposition on Beacon Hill should demonstrate that our Legislature has recognized that, however well-intentioned the policy was in the beginning, it has failed to achieve its goal of reducing drug crime in Massachusetts.

License suspensions for non-violent drug offenses do not impact the overall drug problem. But they do fall heavily on the working poor, who are more likely to struggle to keep employment if they cannot drive. Or get their kids to school and day care. Or help in the care of an elderly relative.

Attorney General Maura Healey said, in a statement to The Sun Chronicle urging repeal, “In a state where 80 percent of workers commute to work by car, prohibiting people from driving can make it very difficult to find and retain employment and reduce rates of recidivism.”

Rep. Heroux told Sun Chronicle staff writer Jim Hand that approving the opt-out provision was not being “soft on crime” but an example of being “smart on crime.”

And now, the Legislature has done the smart thing. And we urge Gov. Charlie Baker to approve the measure quickly.

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