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Legislative Update

From Network News, a monthly publication for the Drug Policy Foundation's Advocacy Network

In a span of eight days in early March, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced three important drug policy reform bills that could do much to bring some justice and compassion to our nation's drug policies. The first, introduced on March 2, was H.R. 912, the "Medical Use of Marijuana Act." The bill would reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II drug, which would allow doctors to prescribe, patients to possess, and growers to produce marijuana in states that have approved its use for medicinal purposes.

H.R. 913, also introduced on March 2, would make retroactive the mandatory minimum exemption for certain non-violent drug offenders that was included in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. (The 'Safety Valve'.) Offenders with only one conviction, who did not use violence during the crime, were not involved in an organized crime group, and cooperated with the government, could have their sentence reduced from the mandatory minimum level to that required by the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

The third drug policy reform bill introduced by Frank, H.R. 1053, would repeal a controversial drug provision included in last year's Higher Education Act (HEA). The provision, sponsored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), denies federal student loans, grants, and work assistance to students convicted of any state or federal drug law. Students convicted of possession are ineligible for aid for one year after a first offense, two years after a second offense, and indefinitely after a third offense. Persons convicted of drug sales are ineligible for two years after a first offense and indefinitely after a second offense.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 939, the "Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999" on March 2, along with 25 Democratic co-sponsors. Rangel introduced a similar bill in 1997, but unfortunately did not get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress.

The bill would eliminate the distinction between powder cocaine and crack cocaine, treating both substances equally under federal law. Right now possession of five grams of crack cocaine carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while 500 grams of powder cocaine receives the same sentence. Possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine results in a 10-year mandatory minimum, but it takes five kilograms of powder cocaine to receive a comparable sentence. This difference in penalties is commonly referred to as the "100-to-1 sentencing disparity," and it has disproportionately impacted African-American defendants who are often targeted by drug law enforcement.

In a surprise display of bipartisan unity in dealing with addiction as a health rather than a criminal justice matter, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) have joined forces to expand the provision of maintenance therapy for opiate dependency. The three senators are co-sponsoring S. 324, the "Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 1999," which was introduced on January 28 and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill would allow a general practitioner to maintain an opiate-dependent patient on a narcotic, in this case a Schedule IV or V drug. The sponsors of the bill are particularly interested in allowing physicians to prescribe buprenorphine and a buprenorphine/naloxone combination to maintain or detoxify patients.

Under the Narcotic Treatment Act of 1974, physicians must now get a DEA registration and approval by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to use approved narcotics in drug abuse treatment. Additionally, state agencies are involved in the regulation process. This burdensome regulatory scheme has resulted in a treatment system that is "preventing physicians from treating patients in an office setting or in rural or small towns, thereby denying treatment to thousands in need of it," Sen. Levin said.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced S. 423, the "Addiction Free Treatment Act," on February 11, which would significantly reduce the number of methadone patients and the amount of time patients would be allowed to be maintained on methadone. According to McCain, methadone maintenance is "Orwellian" and "disgusting and immoral."

The bill would require: (1) Medicaid payments for methadone and Levo-Alpha Acetyl-Methadol (LAAM) treatment to be terminated after a maximum of six months; (2) clinics to conduct random and frequent drug testing; and (3) the termination of a patient's treatment if s/he tests positive for illicit drugs. Federal funds administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would be subject to the same restrictions.

McCain's bill is very similar to a plan promoted last summer by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, which would have required methadone patients at city hospitals to be abstinent within 90 days. At the end of five months, only 21 of the 2,100 patients were methadone-free, and five of those had relapsed into heroin use. In January, the mayor abandoned his plan, saying it was "somewhat unrealistic."

On February 26, President Clinton certified Mexico as fully cooperating in the drug war, despite criticisms from Republicans who argue that Mexico's efforts have been inadequate.

Thus far, two certification-related bills have been introduced in the Senate. S. 554, introduced by Sen. Bill Campbell (R-Col.) on March 5, would allow for the temporary waiving of a country's decertification status on national security grounds. Aid to a country would be cut off in October of the same year if the country did not meet conditions spelled out by the President when the waiver was granted.

S. 596, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Cal.) and introduced March 11, would exempt from the certification process certain countries with which the United States has bilateral agreements and other counterdrug plans.

H.R. 906 - Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 - Sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) This bill would restore the federal voting rights of persons who have been released from incarceration. Presently, conviction of a federal crime results in permanent loss of voting rights.

H.R. 982/S. 227 - Syringe Exchange Funding Ban Sponsored by Rep. Goodlatte (R-Va.)/Sen. Coverdell (R-Ga.) This would prohibit the expenditure of federal monies to "directly or indirectly" fund syringe exchange programs.

Contact Your Representative and Senators!

Bills to Support:

  • S. 324 - Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 1999 (Hatch, R-Utah)
  • H.R 906 - Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 (Conyers. D-Mich.)
  • H.R 912 - Medical Use of Marijuana Act (Frank, B., D-Mass.)
  • H.R. 913 - Retroactive Application of Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve (Frank, B., D-Mass.)
  • H.R 939 - Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999 (Rangel, D-N.Y.)
  • H. R. 1053 - Repeal of Higher Education Act Drug Provision (Frank, B., D-Mass.)

Bills to Oppose:

  • S. 5 - Drug Free Century Act (DeWine, R-Ohio)
  • H. R. 12 - A bill to limit the jurisdiction of the Federal courts with respect to prison release orders.
  • S. 146 - Increases Sentencing for Powder Cocaine (Sen. Abraham, R- Mich.)
  • S. 295 - Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1999 (Rep. Sweeney, R- N.Y.)
  • S. 423 - Addiction Free Treatment Act (McCain, R-Ariz.)
  • H.R. 982/S. 227 - Syringe exchange funding ban (Rep. Goodlatte, R-Va./Sen. Coverdell. R-Ga.)
  • H.R 484 - Save our Children Act of 1999 - Provides penalty enhancements for drug offenses (Rep. Nethercutt, R-WA)

To Call: Find out who your representative is by calling the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 225-3121 or your senator by calling (202) 224-33121. Have your zip code ready to give the operator.

To Fax, Write a Letter or Email: Call the Capitol Switchboard, then call your Representative's or Senator's office to get the fax number. You can email your House and Senate members by going to: or

Letters can be sent to your representatives in both houses as:

Honorable [name of your Representative]
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-1101

Honorable [name of your Senator]
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510-2203

Raise your voice!

Sign a Congressional petition to repeal the drug offender exemption of the Higher Education Act - (The HEA) HR 1053. Go to:

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