WASHINGTON - House Democrats on Tuesday sharply criticized a bill designed to curb the availability of methamphetamine in the United States, singling out a provision that would impose tougher prison sentences for trafficking.
At a hearing in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, the Democratic lawmakers said incarcerating drug dealers for longer terms has failed to stop drug addiction over the past two decades, while ruining lives in poor communities.
"Whether it's crack or meth, we've got a drug problem in America, and it's not going to be solved with mandatory minimum sentencing," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
The opposition is unlikely to derail House Resolution 3889, which enjoys the support of House Republican leaders and the bipartisan Congressional Meth Caucus. The chairman of the crime subcommittee, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., is a co-sponsor, and spokesman Ed McDonald said Coble hopes to schedule a vote soon.
Still, Tuesday's hearing made clear that any vote in committee or on the floor likely would be far from unanimous. Supporters had hoped to design a meth bill free of controversial elements that would slow its progress.
The hitching point in the bill is an expansion of the types of meth cases in which defendants could receive 10- and 20-year mandatory minimum sentences. For example, current law imposes a 10-year sentence for trafficking in 50 grams of meth. Under the bill, possession with intent to sell 5 grams of meth would draw a 10-year term. Five grams is about 50 doses of meth.
Most of the bill deals with increased international regulation of companies that buy and sell pseudoephedrine, the main meth ingredient. Little of that language came under attack at the hearing. And an industry association, the Food Marketing Institute, submitted a statement in support of the bill, praising international controls on pseudoephedrine.
Waters also made clear that she did not have a problem with precursor control or curtailing meth production in Mexico.
"Come in here and talk to me about (Mexico's president) Vicente Fox and what you're going to do with them and trade if they don't do something about the transporting of stuff across the border from the superlabs in Mexico," Waters said.
"But just to talk about young people who use this meth to get high going to penitentiaries, that's not doing anything to make me believe it's going to be helpful."
Democrats, who are in the minority in Congress, used the hearing to fire pointed questions about mandatory minimums at sponsors of the bill and an official from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Historically, there has been a racial component to discussions of sentences for drug crimes. African American lawmakers have long criticized the disparate impact on black communities created in the 1980s when Congress enacted longer sentences for small amounts of crack cocaine.
Members of the crime panel on Tuesday said that longer prison terms were an equally ineffective way to deal with meth, whose users are overwhelmingly white.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee's top Democrat, said Congress has repeatedly tried the punitive approach with meth and other drugs -- and failed.
"Meanwhile, the epidemic has grown exponentially," Scott said.
Scott, an attorney, reserved his closest cross-examination for Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy chief of enforcement operations for the DEA.
After a relentless series of questions, Scott concluded, "You did not reduce the incidence of crack use by having a draconian five-year mandatory-minimum sentence, did you?
"Putting it that way," Rannazzisi said, "I guess not."
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said punishment should be balanced by additional money to treat addictions.
"There's no reference in the legislation about treatment," Delahunt said. "You've got to attack this on the demand side."
Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., a sponsor of the bill, defended the tougher criminal penalties by saying Congress must send a "send a strong signal" to drug traffickers.
"We've been sending messages," Delahunt responded. "I think there should be now conclusive evidence that just simply enhancing penalties is in no way going to reducing the trafficking in a particular controlled substance."
Apart from the criminal sentencing, 19 of the bill's 24 pages deal with greatly expanding controls over the pseudoephedrine trade internationally. It would require the State Department to estimate legitimate demand for cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine worldwide, and compare that figure with actual production. Top importers who fail to control diversion to the meth trade could lose U.S. aid dollars.
It also would set quotas on imports to the United States based on medical need and allow the DEA to examine the sales records of the world's nine major manufacturers of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in India, Germany, China and the Czech Republic.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who is the lead sponsor of the measures, said some supporters wanted even more stringent penalties but that these had been removed to build bipartisan backing. Sponsors now include Democrats such as Reps. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., and Brian Baird, D-Wash.
Souder said he had little doubt the legislation would survive.
"We have overwhelming support," said Souder.
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