What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:
* A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous.
* The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update: Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
* The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
* Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
* Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
* The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
* The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
* Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.
"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."
Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.
"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."
Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.
"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."
What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.
"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.
That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.
Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.
"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.
The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.
Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."
These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.
"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.
The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."
But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."
As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.
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