House Subcommittee Holds Second Hearing Attacking Drug Policy Reform

By Scott Ehlers, Drug Policy Foundation*

The House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources held its second hearing on the drug policy reform movement on Tuesday, July 13, continuing its assault on virtually all variations of reform. Although this hearing, "The Decriminalization of Drugs," was not as vicious as the first (see link to WOL story, below), it was nonetheless stacked against reformers. Keith Stroup, President of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijana laws served as the only advocate for a de-escalation of the drug war, and both Democrats and Republicans were beating the drug war drum with equal fervor.

The hearing started with testimony from the former Administrator of the DEA, Thomas Constantine, who began his statement with the classic government falsehood that "harm reduction is a euphemism for drug legalization," and that the drug policy reform movement is only interested in making drugs more available to children and the poor. Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke was criticized for his drug policy reform views, which, according to Constantine, were to blame for Baltimore's high incidence of heroin use. When Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) suggested that the United States hasn't really fought a war on drugs, Constantine agreed, saying that U.S. citizens haven't made enough sacrifices to create a drug-free society.

The second panel was the most interesting. Keith Stroup, executive director of NORML, Robert MacCoun, a professor and consultant to RAND's Drug Policy Reseach Center, Sandra Bennett, president of Drug Watch International, and Bruce Glasscock, chief of police in Plano, Texas each testified. Stroup began his statement by laying out NORML's policy position, namely that all penalties for the private possession of marijuana by adults should be eliminated, that regulation of the marijuana market should be instituted, with the caveats marijuana should not be used by children, and should only be used in a responsible manner by adults. Stroup made a good case for marijuana decriminalization based on the fact that studies show that marijuana and hard drug use did not increase in those 11 states where marijuana has been decriminalized, and that criminalization is excessively harmful and costly. One message that Stroup reiterated was that the vast majority of "marijuana smokers are otherwise law-abiding citizens who work hard, raise families and contribute to their communities... Arresting and jailing responsible marijuana smokers is a misapplication of the criminal sanction which undermines respect for the law in general."

Professor Robert MacCoun's testimony was one of the best-informed, as it consisted of a review of research he and others had conducted on the effects of marijuana decriminalization in the United States and in countries such as the Netherlands and Australia. According to the available research, little or no increase in marijuana or other drug use has been shown under decriminalization, nor have adolescent attitudes changed as a result. It was noted that the Netherlands saw a significant increase in marijuana use among 18 to 20 year-olds between 1984 and 1992, a time in which the number of coffeeshops selling cannabis in Amsterdam increased tenfold. However, Dutch heroin and cocaine use have not increased, and crime rates have not increased because of the policy. In fact, it appears that fewer Dutch cannabis users go on to use cocaine, possibly because the quasi-legal cannabis market is separated from the illicit hard drug market.

Sandra Bennett of Drug Watch International gave one of the most emotionally charged testimonies, which is understandable given that her son died of heart failure, possibly as a result of cocaine use. She referred to advocates for reform as "scofflaws" and "pro-drug advocates," and accused them of filling the Internet with "deceptive and dangerous rhetoric." According to Bennett, the nation's universities are to blame for our drug problems because of their "permissive campus drug environment" and because "pro-drug advocates are allowed to operate [there] with impunity." She also believes the "media and our educational institutions are rife with harm reduction propaganda." How will the conspiracy to legalize drugs be accomplished? In Bennett's view, "the pro-drug lobby has cut up its agenda into a dozen smaller packages and is busy trying to dupe the public into accepting the whole pie, one bite at a time."

None of the final panelists espoused conspiracy theories, but many were strong advocates for coerced treatment and the need for harsh sentencing statutes to be used as an incentive in the treatment process. Charles Hynes, the District Attorney for Kings County, New York, described the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison Program (DTAP) he runs, which serves as a diversion program for addicts who commit non-violent crimes to support their habit. The program has been in effect since late 1990, and has shown promising results in terms of reducing recidivism, reducing criminal justice costs, and increasing employment.
Katherine Lapp, Director of Criminal Justice in New York State, sought to make the case that the Rockefeller Drug Laws are not unjust and that people in New York State prison belong there "because of their repeated criminal behavior."

Finally, Barbara Broderick, the State Director of Adult Probation in Arizona, presented the preliminary results of research on the effects of Proposition 200, the Arizona Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act. The law requires that persons convicted of a first and second drug possession charge must receive treatment rather than jail time. Prop. 200 created the Drug Treatment and Education Fund (DTEF), which distributes money generated by alcohol taxes to probation-based treatment, as well as to the Arizona Parents Commission on Drug Education and Prevention. According to Ms. Broderick, $3.1 million went to probation-based treatment programs in the first year, with 2,600 additional treatment slots being created. Three of five probationers successfully completed treatment, with treatment costing half as much as incarceration.

While the hearing did not get much coverage in the press, Chairman Mica (R-FL) seems intent on continuing with the charade of having an "open debate" on drug policy.

(Scott Ehlers, a Senior Policy Analyst for the Drug Policy Foundation testified last month at the first subcommittee hearing, as covered in our last issue.)

*The Drug Policy Foundation, having merged with the Lindesmith Center is now the Drug Policy Alliance