Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Please Support H.R. 3245, the "Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act." National Call in Day: Dec. 2, 2009

Please Support H.R. 3245, the "Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act."

National Call in Day: Wednesday, December 2, 2009

For the first time, crack cocaine sentencing reform legislation received a favorable vote in Congress when the House Judiciary Committee in July approved the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009, H.R. 3245.  This bill would completely eliminate the crack-powder sentencing disparity by applying current powder cocaine sentences to all forms of cocaine.  To move the bill forward we need a vote on the bill by the entire House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, December 2, please help NACDL reach this goal by calling your Representative and asking them to support and cosponsor H.R. 3245 .  Take action by clicking the link above and/or by entering your zip code to obtain your Representative's office phone number.  Please use the talking points provided to tell your Representative to support this important piece of legislation.

With support from the Administration and key members of Congress, the prospects for reforming this unjust, 23-year-old law are good.  Change cannot happen, however, without your continued pressure on Members of Congress.

Feature: The State of Play -- Federal Drug Reform Legislation in the Congress

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US Capitol, Senate side
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.

Medical Marijuana

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.

Marijuana Decriminalization

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.

Industrial Hemp

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.

Washington Post Story on Crack Sentencing Bill

Carrie Johnson at the Washington Post has written a nice story on the Durbin bill to reduce federal crack cocaine penalties to the level of powder cocaine penalties. It quotes my colleagues Jasmine Tyler of Drug Policy Alliance (known inside the Beltway as "Jazz") and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the sentencing reform group that has led the fight to end mandatory minimums since the early '90s. I have a minor nitpick with the article, which is that it presents the issue as having civil rights and justice reform advocates and some politicos on one side, with law enforcement on the other, quoting a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police saying that in the past their members have favored raising powder cocaine penalties instead. While the article doesn't say that all law enforcement is against reducing the penalties, it does fail to mention that there is also law enforcement support for lowering penalties. The press release from Sen. Durbin announcing the bill cites Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, Miami police chief John Timoney, and the National Black Police Association. I also have to comment on some of the comments I saw by Post readers. Most of the commenters were in support of reducing penalties as the bill does. But a few characterized it as "stupid," saying it would allow people to go on selling crack in inner city black communities, and thereby hurting those communities. As usual, it's the people throwing around words like "stupid" who've done the least thinking about the issue. If they had in fact stopped to think, they would realize that: 1) possession sentences are getting adjusted by this bill, helping people now going to prison for years for just for possessing tiny quantities of crack; and that: (2) incarcerating a drug dealer just creates a job opportunity for another dealer. Often the new would-be dealers fight it out over the old dealer's turf, hurting the community much much more.

Sentencing: Sen. Durbin Introduces Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) Thursday introduced the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, which would eliminate the 100:1 sentencing disparity in federal crack and powder cocaine cases. Under current laws, in place since the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same sentence.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Fair Sentencing Act would eliminate that disparity. Companion legislation has already passed the House Judiciary Committee. Ending the disparity is also supported by President Obama.

Pressure to remedy the injustice of the sentencing disparity has been building for years. The US Sentencing Commission has reduced sentences for crack offenses and has argued for years that the disparity needs to be eliminated. It has been joined by a growing coalition of faith-based, drug reform, criminal justice, and other interest groups. Now, finally, something is moving in Congress.

"Drug use is a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it," Durbin said in a statement Thursday taking a very mainstream line. "But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. Our current cocaine laws are not," the statement continued. "The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations. Congress has talked about addressing this injustice for long enough; it's time for us to act."

"Sen. Durbin's bill will not only restore judicial discretion, which has been undermined by the statutory mandatory minimum sentences that Congress enacted 23 years ago, but will directly address racial disparities in our criminal justice system and ensure that there is, in fact, 'justice for all'," said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The House and Senate should move quickly on this issue, 23 years is too long to wait for justice to be served."

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NAACP's Hilary Shelton addresses ''Crack the Disparity'' coalition Congressional Briefing Tuesday
The act is cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and six other Judiciary Committee members: Sens. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Russell Feingold (D-VT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward Kaufman (D-DE), and Al Franken (D-NM). Also cosponsoring the bill are Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Chris Dodd (D-CT). Some Republican senators have expressed support for reforming the sentencing disparity, but none have yet signed on as cosponsors.

"Today, the criminal justice system has unfair and biased cocaine penalties that undermine the Constitution's promise of equal treatment for all Americans," Leahy said. "To have faith in our system Americans must have confidence that the laws of this country, including our drug laws, are fair and administered fairly. I believe the Fair Sentencing Act will move us one step closer to reaching that goal. I commend Senator Durbin for his leadership in fixing this decades-old injustice. We should do what we can to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system. Correcting biases in our criminal sentencing laws is a step in that direction."

Click here for C-Span footage of a Tuesday Congressional briefing held by the Crack the Disparity coalition.

Senators Sponsor Bill to Lower Crack Cocaine Penalties

Update: There's video footage from C-Span2 of a Tuesday Congressional briefing on this issue by the Crack the Disparity coalition, online here. First speaker, Chief of NAACP DC Bureau Hilary Shelton. In July we reported that a bill in the House of Representatives, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, had passed the full Judiciary Committee. Today Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a Senate version of the bill. There's no bill number yet, but we'll post back with it when available. Click here to read the Durbin office's press release. The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act Fair Sentencing Act would increase the quantities of crack cocaine that are needed to trigger certain mandatory minimum sentences. Currently one can receive a five-year mandatory minimum prison term for possession of just five grams of crack cocaine, vs. 500 grams of powder cocaine needed for the same sentence, for example. Passage of the Act will mean that it would take 500 grams of crack to trigger the mandatory. In addition to Durbin, seven other Judiciary Committee members are original cosponsors: Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT), Judiciary Committee Members Arlen Specter (D-PA), Feingold (D-WI), Cardin (D-MD), Whitehouse (D-RI), Kaufman (D-DE) and Franken (D-MN). Two other senators, John Kerry (D-MA) and Chris Dodd (D-CT) are also original cosponsors. While these are all Democrats, some conservative Republican senators had indicated they were likely to or were considering also supporting it. We'll see what happens. We were one of many organizations signing a letter to the Hill supporting this reform. Groups cited in the press release as supporting the bill include the American Bar Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Black Police Association, and the United Methodist Church. The release also cites as supporters LA and Miami police chiefs Bill Bratton and John Timoney, and US Attorney General Eric Holder. All of these sentences should be repealed, of course, but in the meanwhile the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act Fair Sentencing Act will help a lot of people to avoid some terribly long prison terms. Crack sentencing has been an injustice since the laws were passed in the mid-'80s, and a political issue since at least the early '90s when I started tuning in, so it's taken awhile to get to this point. It is looking pretty good for this to finally happen, but we can't take anything for granted. Look for an action alert sometime next week after there's a bill number.

Sentencing Project Recommendations to U.S. Sentencing Commission

Dear Friend, Today the United States Sentencing Commission will be meeting in Washington, D.C. to establish its priorities for the 2009-2010 program year. In preparation for this meeting, the Commission has invited interested parties to recommend areas of focus on federal sentencing policy. On August 5, The Sentencing Project submitted a letter to the Commission highlighting four areas of attention. Our recommended issue areas are the following: 1. Prepare a Report for Congress on the Impact of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences - The last substantial report produced on mandatory sentencing is now nearly 20 years old. We recommend a fresh examination of these issues, including the impact of mandatory sentencing on public safety and racial disparity, and the utility of the federal "safety valve" sentencing provision. 2. Continue Recent Activity in the Area of Cocaine Sentencing Policy - The Commission should continue to play an active role in Congressional deliberations regarding changes in the penalty structure for crack and powder cocaine sentencing. 3. Prepare a Report for Congress on Alternatives to Incarceration - Building on evidence that alternatives are underutilized in the federal system, particularly for drug offenses, the Commission should examine options for expansion of alternatives and guidelines restrictions that need to be reconsidered. 4. Examine the Impact of Time Served in Prison on Crime, Costs, and Disparity - Between 1993 and 2006 time served in prison for federal offenses increased by 44%. The Commission should examine these changes to assess their value and cost regarding public safety outcomes. We hope you find these recommendations useful in your work, and we will keep you posted regarding the priorities established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. -The Sentencing Project

Feature: Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Bill Passes Key House Subcommittee, Heads for Floor Vote

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Wednesday approved a bill designed to end the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 (H.R. 3245), passed by a vote of 16-9 and now heads for a House floor vote.

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the late Lillie Blevins, served life sentence for a crack cocaine ''conspiracy'' after being convicted on the word of a snitch who received probation in return (courtesy november.org)
Under laws passed in the midst of the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s, it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. For example, five grams of crack earns a five-year mandatory minimum, but it takes 500 grams of powder to garner the same sentence.

A majority of crack users are white, but more than 80% of federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at blacks. When Hispanics are added in, nearly 96% of all federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at non-whites.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) addresses the disparity by removing all references to crack cocaine in federal sentencing laws and treating the two forms of the drug equally. Under the bill, it would take 500 grams of either crack or powder cocaine to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for possession of any amount of crack.

"We have taken a big step today toward ending the disparity that exists between crack and powder cocaine sentencing," said Judiciary committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who cosponsored the bill. "African Americans serve almost as much time in federal prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), largely due to sentencing laws such as the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity. Since 1980, the number of offenders in federal prisons for drug offenses has skyrocketed from less than 5,000 to almost 100,000 in 2009. Currently, drug offenders represent 52% of all federal prison inmates."

The crack/powder sentencing disparity has been the most glaring example of racially imbalanced drug enforcement in recent years and has been under attack not only by sentencing reform advocates, civil libertarians, and civil rights groups, but also by the US Sentencing Commission, which has for more than a decade called for its elimination. But any moves to address it languished during the Bush administration.

The atmosphere has changed with Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. Both President Obama and Attorney General Holder support ending the disparity, so do congressional Democrats, and even some congressional Republicans.

Remaining Republican hard-line drug warriors in the subcommittee attempted to subvert the spirit of the bill, resorting to time-honored anti-drug political tactics, but failed. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the committee, was concerned about sending messages. "The bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in ravaging human lives. It sends the message that Congress does not take drug crimes seriously," he complained.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced an amendment to address the disparity by making the current draconian penalties for crack apply to powder cocaine as well. He said he supported reducing the sentencing disparity, but "let's do it on the side of making sure our streets are safer, not less safe."

But committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) ruled the amendment out of order. It was then tabled on a 14-13 vote.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC) captured the majority sentiment for ending the crack/powder sentencing disparity. "It did not work," he said. "We were wrong."

The vote was welcomed by sentencing reform advocates. "Today's vote is an historic first step in ending a 20-year injustice," said Michael Macleod-Ball, interim director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "Lawmakers must act now to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing by treating both forms of the same drug equally under federal law. Congress alone has the authority to put a stop to the crack-powder disparity and long mandatory minimum sentences."

"Justice won today," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today's vote represents another step to restoring basic fairness to our sentencing laws and to fulfilling the Constitution's promise of equal justice under the law. We urge the full House to act quickly on this measure."

"It makes no more sense to punish crack cocaine offenders more harshly than powder cocaine offenders than it does to punish wine drinkers more harshly than beer drinkers. Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "When all is said and done people will look back at this as a watershed moment -- the day that Congress began rolling back some of the drug war's worst excesses."

The bill still has to pass the House. On the Senate side, Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) is preparing to introduce his own measure to eliminate the sentencing disparity. It is expected to win bipartisan support from his fellow Judiciary Committee members.

Crack Sentencing Reform Bill Passes Full Judiciary Committee

Last week we reported that the crime subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee had unanimously passed H.R. 3245, a bill to reduce federal crack cocaine penalties to the same level as those for offenses involving powder cocaine. The full Judiciary Committee approved the bill today, we just heard, by a vote of 16-9. I'll post back with a link to the roll call when it becomes available on Thomas, or follow the link to the bill above to check in the meanwhile. Reports indicate it is expected to be taken up on the floor of the House of Representatives, and that a bipartisan Senate bill is expected out soon too. So this is big news. Not the only big news -- read more in our current top Chronicle feature, "Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress."

Sentencing: House Subcommittee Approves Reducing Federal Crack Cocaine Penalties

An end to the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine may be in sight. After more than a decade of congressional dawdling since the US Sentencing Commission called for the disparity to be ended because of its racially disproportionate impact, a bill that would do so is finally moving in the Congress.

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DEA crack cocaine photo
Under current federal law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized for years, especially because about nine out of 10 federal crack prosecutions are aimed at African-Americans. (Most crack users are white, despite popular belief.)

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security passed H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. They did so unanimously, making the vote a striking moment of bipartisanship on a once controversial issue. The bill removes all references to "cocaine base" -- federalese for crack -- from the US criminal code, effectively treating all forms of cocaine the same for sentencing purposes.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and has 20 cosponsors, including every Democrat on the subcommittee. It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), also an ardent supporter of ending the sentencing disparity.

Sentencing reform advocates cheered the bill's progress. "I knew it was coming," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. " There has been so much attention paid to sentencing policies in the past six months that it was only a matter of time before one of the half-dozen sentencing bills in Congress would start moving. Today it did."

Repealing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is a much needed step in restoring trust and enacting smarter policies , said Stewart. "If Congress eliminates the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, it would not only restore some faith in the justice system among the communities most affected by the law, it would reduce prison overcrowding and free up funding for more effective rehabilitation efforts. A minimum of $26 million would be saved in the first year of the reforms and nearly $530 million over the next 15 years," she said. "FAMM strongly urges Congress to make the changes retroactive so that people currently serving unjust sentences for crack cocaine can benefit and taxpayers will see even greater savings."

Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

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.

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US Capitol, Senate side
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. (See related story here)
  • 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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