Ten months into the Obama administration, drug policy reform in the US Congress is moving along on a number of tracks. Here's an update on some of the more significant legislation moving (or not) on the Hill. With a few exceptions, this report does not deal with funding issues that are tied up in the tangled congressional appropriations process.
Next week Drug War Chronicle will publish a parallel report on the state of play for drug policy in the nation's statehouses.
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity
After years of inertia, efforts to undo the 100:1 sentencing disparity in federal crack and powder cocaine cases have picked up traction this year. In July, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and 83 cosponsors introduced the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, which would eliminate the disparity by treating all cocaine offenses as if they were powder cocaine offenses for sentencing purposes. That bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is now before the Energy and Commerce Committee. On the Senate side, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced companion legislation, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, last month. It is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Federal Needle Exchange Funding Ban
The longstanding ban on the use of federal AIDS grant funds to pay for needle exchange programs may soon be history. Although the Obama administration left the ban in its budget request, Obama pledged to eliminate it during his campaign, and his administration has signaled it wouldn't mind seeing it go. The House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies stripped out the ban language in a July 10 vote. A week later, the full Appropriations Committee approved the bill after voting down an amendment proposed by US Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) that would have reinstated the funding ban, but accepted a poison pill amendment that would ban federally-funded needle exchange from operating "within 1,000 feet of a public or private day care center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, or university, or any public swimming pool, park, playground, video arcade, or youth center, or an event sponsored by any such entity." The House later passed the appropriations bill with the 1000-foot ban intact, but defeated a floor amendment by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) to reinstate the funding ban.
On the Senate side, the appropriations bill has yet to be passed, but the Senate committee working on the issue did not include language ending the funding ban. Reform advocates are hoping that the Senate will come on board for ending the ban in conference committee, and that committee members also strip out the 1000-foot provision.
The National Criminal Justice Commission
Introduced in March by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 would create a commission that would have 18 months to do a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system and come back with concrete, wide-ranging reforms to address the nation's sky-high incarceration rate, respond to international and domestic gang violence, and restructure the county's approach to drug policy. The bill is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where this week it was set to hear a raft of hostile amendments from Republican members. It currently has 34 cosponsors, including Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Restoring College Aid to Students with Drug Convictions
The infamous Higher Education Act (HEA) anti-drug provision, or "Aid Elimination Penalty," which bars students committing drug offenses from receiving financial aid for specified periods of time, is under fresh assault. In September, the US House of Representatives approved H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), one of the provisions of which restricts the penalty to those convicted of drug sales, not mere drug possession. The bill will next go to a conference committee, whose job will be to produce a reconciled version of H.R. 3221 and a yet-to-be-passed Senate bill. The final version must then be reapproved by both the House and the Senate. If that final version contains the same or very similar language, it will mark the second significant reduction of the penalty, the decade-old handiwork of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). In 2006, the provision was scaled back to include only drug convictions that occurred while students were enrolled in college and receiving financial aid (a change supported by Souder himself). Souder opposed this year's possible change.
Late last month, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) reintroduced H.R. 3939, the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow defendants in federal medical marijuana prosecutions to use medical evidence in their defense -- a right they do not have under current federal law. The bill currently has 28 cosponsors and has been endorsed by more than three dozen advocacy, health, and civil liberties organizations. It is before the House Judiciary Committee.
That isn't the only medical marijuana bill pending. In June, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Medical Marijuana Protection Act, which would reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug and eliminate federal authority to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. The measure has 29 cosponsors and has been sitting in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce ever since. Frank introduced similar legislation in the last two Congresses, but the bills never got a committee vote or even a hearing. Advocates hoped that with a Democratically-controlled Congress and a president who has at least given lip service to medical marijuana, Congress this year would prove to be friendlier ground, but that hasn't proven to be the case so far.
In July, the House passed the District of Columbia appropriations bill and in so doing removed an 11-year-old amendment barring the District from implementing the medical marijuana law approved by voters in 1998. Known as the Barr amendment after then Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), the amendment has been attacked by both medical marijuana and DC home rule advocates for years as an unconscionable intrusion into District affairs. The Senate has yet to act. Among the proponents for removing the Barr amendment: Bob Barr.
In June, Reps. Ron Paul (R-TX) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act, which would remove federal criminal penalties for the possession of less than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and for the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce. The bill would not change marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, would not change federal laws banning the growing, sale, and import and export of marijuana, and would not undo state laws prohibiting marijuana. It currently has nine cosponsors and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.
And just so you don't get the mistaken idea that the era of drug war zealotry on the Hill is completely in the past, there is Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL). In June, Kirk introduced the High Potency Marijuana Sentencing Enhancement Act, which would increase penalties for marijuana offenses if the THC level is above 15%. Taking a page from the British tabloids, Kirk complained that high-potency "Kush" was turning his suburban Chicago constituents into "zombies." Nearly six months later, Kirk's bill has exactly zero cosponsors and has been sent to die in the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.
Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) again introduced an industrial hemp bill this year. HR 1866, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009would remove restrictions on the cultivation of non-psychoactive industrial hemp. They were joined by a bipartisan group of nine cosponsors, a number which has since grown to 18. The bill was referred to the House Energy and Commerce and House Judiciary committees upon introduction. Six weeks later, Judiciary referred it to its Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, where it has languished ever since.
Safe and Drug-Free Schools Funding
In May, the Obama administration compiled a budgetary hit list of 121 programs it recommended by cut or completely eliminated, including $295 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools community grants program. (It left intact funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools National Program). Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed with the White House and zeroed out the program. The House education appropriations bill has already passed, but the Senate bill is still in process. Proponents of the program may still try to reinstate it in the Senate or during the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate appropriations bills.
Next week, look for a report on drug policy-related doings in the various state legislatures.
Alos visit our "Eye On Congress" section.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.