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Congressional Budget Deal Allows Federal Funding for Needle Exchange and Medical Marijuana in the Nation's Capital

US House and Senate negotiators in conference committee approved the finishing touches on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget Tuesday night, and they included a number of early Christmas presents for different drug reform constituencies. But it isn’t quite a done deal yet--this negotiated version of the FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act must now win final approved in up-or-down, no-amendments-allowed floor votes in the House and the Senate. What the conference committee approved: * Ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs--without previous language that would have banned them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and similar facilities. * Ending the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia. * Allowing the District of Columbia to implement the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1998 and blocked by congressional diktat ever since. * Cutting funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from $70 million this year to $45 million next year. In a news release after agreement was reached, this is how the committee described the language on needle exchange:
Modifies a prohibition on the use of funds in the Act for needle exchange programs; the revised provision prohibits the use of funds in this Act for needle exchange programs in any location that local public health or law enforcement agencies determine to be inappropriate
Its description of the DC appropriations language:
Removing Special Restrictions on the District of Columbia:...Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities.
And its language on the youth media campaign:
National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: $45 million, $25 million below 2009 and the budget request, for a national ad campaign providing anti-drug messages directed at youth. Reductions were made in this program because of evaluations questioning its effectiveness. Part of the savings was redirected to other ONDCP drug-abuse-reduction programs.
Citing both reforms in the states--from medical marijuana to sentencing reform--as well as the conference committee’s actions, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann stopped just short of declaring victory Wednesday. “It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare – the war on drugs – is really over,” said Nadelmann. “But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.” But, as noted above, there are still two votes to go, and DPA is applying the pressure until it is a done deal. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban,” said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives.” Washington, DC, residents got a two-fer from the committee when it approved ending the ban on the District funding needle exchanges and undoing the Barr Amendment, the work of erstwhile drug warrior turned reformer former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), which forbade the District from implementing the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which won with 69% of the vote. “Congress is close to making good on President Obama’s promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana,” said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people.” "The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest." Medical marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol? Federal dollars being spent on proven harm reduction techniques? Congress not micromanaging DC affairs? What is the world, or at least Washington, coming to?
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Press Release: Congress Close to Ending Ban on Medical Marijuana in Washington, D.C.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                              
DECEMBER 9, 2009

Congress Close to Ending Ban on Medical Marijuana in Washington, D.C.

CONTACT: Bruce Mirken, MPP director of communications …………… 415-585-6404 or 202-215-4205

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a historic move, Congress is now poised to end the decade long ban on Washington, D.C. implementing the medical marijuana law District voters passed in 1998 with a 69 percent majority. Known as the Barr amendment, the provision – a rider attached to appropriations for the District -- has forbidden D.C. from extending legal protection to qualified medical marijuana patients and has been derided by advocates for years as an unconscionable intrusion by the federal government into the District's affairs.

            The omnibus spending bill that Democratic leaders will shortly be bringing to a vote in the House later this week removes this onerous provision. Once both chambers approve this final language and the president signs it, the Barr amendment will no longer block medical marijuana in D.C.

         "The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. “This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. D.C. residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest."

            Advocates noted that the welcome repeal will come too late to help Jonathan Magbie, a D.C. quadriplegic man who died in prison in 2004 from lack of medical care after being convicted for using marijuana to treat his pain.

         "Jonathan Magbie would be alive today if the District been able to implement its medical marijuana law when it passed in 1998,” Houston said. "Perhaps now nobody in the District will ever have to suffer as he and his family did simply for using the medicine that works best for them."       

         Recently, the American Medical Association called on the federal government to reconsider marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug, which bars medical use.

         With more than 29,000 members and 100,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit http://MarijuanaPolicy.org.

####

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Alert: Tell Congress to Repeal Unjust Crack Cocaine Sentences

One of the most glaring injustices in US drug policy is the infamous crack/powder sentencing disparity, in which possession of a mere five grams of crack cocaine draws a five-year mandatory minimum sentence under federal law. It takes 100 times as much powder cocaine, 500 grams, to get the same sentence. The law has been applied in a racially disparate fashion since it was enacted 23 years ago, but reform efforts have mostly stalled.

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Until this year, that is. Last July the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives approved H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. In October, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate, S. 1789.

Please call your US Representative and your two US Senators to urge their strongest possible support for the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act. The number for the Capitol Switchboard and your legislators is (202) 224-3121, or click here to look them up online. Whether you call today or not, please use our online form at this web page to email your Rep. and Senators too.

Visit the Crack the Disparity Coalition for further information about this issue and campaign. Following are some talking points from the Coalition to help with your call or to learn more:

Please support and cosponsor H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. This legislation will:

  • Restore federal law enforcement priorities. When Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988, the intended targets of mandatory minimums were "serious" and "major" traffickers. In practice, the law failed to live up to its promise. Mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses have been applied most often to individuals who are low-level participants in the drug trade, who comprise more than 60% of federal crack defendants.
  • Save federal tax dollars and ease prison overcrowding. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates it costs $25,895 a year to house each prisoner. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, eliminating the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine would reduce the prison population by over 13,000 in 10 years.
  • Counter the perception of unfairness in the criminal justice system. African Americans account for 81.8% of defendants sentenced to federal prison for crack cocaine offenses. Crack cocaine sentences average 37 months longer than sentences for powder cocaine. This disparity has contributed to a damaging perception of race-based unfairness in our criminal justice system.
  • Treat two forms of the same drug the same. Crack cocaine is pharmacologically the same as powder cocaine. Myths about crack cocaine, that have been dispelled since the sentencing law was passed 23 years ago, contributed to these out of proportion penalties.

Click here for our archive of reporting and announcements on this issue.

Congress is starting to listen...

Dear friends:

I wanted to say thank you to Sioux Colombe, an ASA Ambassador in Sacramento, California.  The email she received below demonstrates that Congress is starting to hear us.

Sioux had asked her Member of Congress, Representative Doris Matsui, to support the Truth in Trials Act.  Sioux got the response below, which is a perfect example of the kind of dialog we want to build with our elected officials.

This reply means that Rep. Matsui's office took the time to research the Truth in Trials Act and respond.  The next step is to ask Rep. Matsui to become a supporter -- a "cosponsor" -- of the bill.

Will you do the same for your U.S. Representative? 

If your Rep gets a phone call from you, they will start paying attention.

Here's what you have to do -- it will take 5 minutes.

1. Find out who your Rep is.  Go to http://www.house.gov and type in your zip code in the upper left corner.  If it asks for your full "Zip+4", just look at your last piece of junk mail.

2. Dial 202-224-3121.  Ask the operator to transfer you to your Member of Congress.

3. Tell your Rep ... "I'm calling from ______ and I want you to cosponsor HR 3939, the Truth in Trials Act."

4. Reply to this email and tell me who you called.

Thanks!

- Sanjeev, ASA

P.S.  The full email that Sioux received is below.


Sanjeev Bery
National Field Director
Americans for Safe Access


----- Forwarded Message ----
From: Congresswoman Doris O. Matsui
To: Sioux Colombe
Sent: Tue, December 1, 2009 12:22:29 PM
Subject: From the Office of Congresswoman Matsui


December 1, 2009 
 

Ms. Sioux Colombe
Sacramento, California

Dear Sioux:

Thank you for contacting me regarding medical marijuana.  I appreciate hearing from you on this issue.

As you may know, 13 states, including California, currently allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes.  In these jurisdictions, state-level penalties for the cultivation, possession, and use of medical marijuana have been removed, and programs to regulate patients' use have been established or are currently being considered.  However, in these 13 states where medical marijuana use is legal, users remain subject to federal penalties for such use.

In an effort to correct this, legislation has been introduced in the 111th Congress to permit the use of medical marijuana under federal law in states where marijuana is currently being used for medicinal purposes.  The Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act (H.R. 2835), would achieve this end by re-classifying marijuana into a less restrictive category of drug under the regulatory structure of the Controlled Substances Act.

Another piece of legislation, the Truth in Trials Act (H.R. 3939), responds to the Justice Department's directive on medical marijuana policy, which tells federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing cases against individuals who legally use medical marijuana.  Specifically, H.R. 3939 would allow a person on trial for a federal marijuana-related offense to introduce evidence that the alleged marijuana-related activities were performed in compliance with state laws.

Again, thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding medical marijuana.  To learn more about my work in Congress, or to sign up for occasional e-mail updates, please visit my website at http://matsui.house.gov.


Sincerely,


DORIS O. MATSUI
Member of Congress

Support Medical Marijuana Legislation in Congress

URL: 
/medical_marijuana

StoptheDrugWar.org Legislative Action Center

The links on this web page allow visitors to review the voting records of federal and state legislators on matters of importance to drug policy reform. Please note that this is a work in progress, and that so far it is only our federal voting scorecard that is officially ready for public consumption.

There is other information that can be found by following links -- bills of interest at the federal and state level, and voting records at the state level -- that has not yet gone through our review process for accuracy. Feel free to take a look, and let us know if you spot anything we've missed or gotten wrong.

Click here for our current action alerts.

Click here to see a list of federal votes we've tracked, with their outcomes, and follow the links on that page for details on the vote outcomes by member and state.

Click here to look up federal and state legislators, and their voting histories, by zip code.

Click here to read a list of current federal bills we are following.

Click here to read a list of state bills we are following (not yet proofread).

Click on the following links to look up members of Congress by name or state:
Scorecard: House of Representatives, 2009 (111th Congress, 1st session)
Scorecard: US Senate, 2009 (111th Congress, 1st session)
Scorecoard: House of Representatives, 2008 (110th Congress, 2nd session)
Scorecard: House of Representatives: 2007 (110th Congress, 1st session)
Scorecard: House of Representatives: 2005 (109th Congress, 1st session)

More is coming soon, including write-your-legislator web forms for a range of action alerts, federal bills of interest, state bills of interest, and state legislator voting records.

The Staggering Incoherence of Drug Warrior Charles Grassley

Earlier this month, notorious drug war cheerleader Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) provoked outrage by attempting to censor debate about drug policy reform in Congress. He proposed an amendment that would literally ban a congressionally appointed expert panel from discussing legalization or decriminalization as part of a broad evaluation of criminal justice policies.

It's just a transparently pathetic strategy of defending the drug war status quo by outlawing meaningful debate and keeping alternatives off the table. Fortunately, just about everyone saw right through it. Pete Guither points out that Grassley is so cornered, he's now begging his constituents in Iowa to back him up on this. And the harder he tries to defend it, the weaker it sounds:

First and foremost, Congress ought to tackle issues whenever possible before bucking them to commissions. Increasingly, Congress is using commissions to avoid doing what Americans elect members to do: ask tough questions, identify possible answers, debate policy solutions and take a stand. [Des Moines Register]

Yeah, who needs experts when we've got politicians to make all our decisions for us?

This commission also would cost $14 million. It's hard to justify that expenditure in the current fiscal situation, especially when it's work that Congress should be doing itself.

Wait, so you can justify spending $50 billion a year on the war on drugs, but we can't justify $14 million to evaluate whether it makes any sense?

Finally, I put forward an amendment to address the issue of decriminalization and legalization of any controlled substance. I filed this amendment in an effort to start a debate on this important issue.


Really, Chuck? Really? How exactly does banning discussion of something promote debate? Everything, from the language of Grassley's amendment to his rich history of ignorant pro-drug-war posturing, proves what a total lie that is. The very essence of this controversy is that he blatantly attempted to prevent experts from looking into the issues he doesn’t want to talk about. Clearly, Grassley greatly underestimated the growing public demand for a new dialogue about our drug policies and got burned by his own arrogance, to such an extent that he is now hilariously masquerading as the champion of that critical discussion.  

The obvious bottom line here is that Grassley is consumed by his fear about what the experts will say. That is just implicit in all of this. If he wasn't deeply afraid of their conclusions, he wouldn’t be introducing amendments telling them what conclusions not to reach.  

The commission hasn’t even been appointed yet, so the very notion that it will become a referendum on the urgent need for sweeping reforms to our drug policy is purely a product of his paranoid imagination (combined perhaps with a subconscious recognition that the drug war is a gaping suckhole and smart people aren't exactly in love with it anymore). If Congress had named an expert panel consisting of Ethan Nadelmann, Rob Kampia, Jacob Sullum, Paul Armentano, Micah Daigle, Norm Stamper, Pete Guither and Willie Nelson, then maybe Charles Grassley could be forgiven for tearing from D.C. to Des Moines on horseback, flailing a dinner bell over his head and screaming that the legalizers are coming.  

Until that happens, the drug war pep squad would be well advised to just pipe down for the time being, lest their suggestions that we not discuss certain things should lead to yet more discussion of the things they don’t want discussed.

Update: Turns out Grassley's piece was a response to this Op-ed by Marni Steadham of University of Iowa SSDP. More coverage here.

Feature: Fired Up in Albuquerque -- The 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference

Jazzed by the sense that the tide is finally turning their way, more than a thousand people interested in changing drug policies flooded into Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend for the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. Police officers in suits mingled with aging hippies, politicians met with harm reductionists, research scientists chatted with attorneys, former prisoners huddled with state legislators, and marijuana legalizers mingled with drug treatment professionals -- all united by the belief that drug prohibition is a failed policy.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vigildpa09.jpg
candlelight vigil outside the Albuquerque Convention Center (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
As DPA's Ethan Nadelmann said before and repeated at the conference's opening session: "We are the people who love drugs, we are the people who hate drugs, we are the people that don't care about drugs," but who do care about the Constitution and social justice. "The wind is at our backs," Nadelmann chortled, echoing and amplifying the sense of progress and optimism that pervaded the conference like never before.

For three days, conference-goers attended a veritable plethora of panels and breakout sessions, with topics ranging from the drug war in Mexico and South America to research on psychedelics, from implementing harm reduction policies in rural areas to legalizing marijuana, from how to organize for drug reform to what sort of treatment works, and from medical marijuana to prescription heroin.

It was almost too much. At any given moment, several fascinating panels were going on, ensuring that at least some of them would be missed even by the most interested. The Thursday afternoon time bloc, for example, had six panels: "Medical Marijuana Production and Distribution Systems," "After Vienna: Prospects for UN and International Reform," "Innovative Approaches to Sentencing Reform," "Examining Gender in Drug Policy Reform," "Artistic Interventions for Gang Involved Youth," and "The Message is the Medium: Communications and Outreach Without Borders."

The choices weren't any easier at the Friday morning breakout session, with panels including "Marijuana Messaging that Works," "Fundraising in a Tough Economy," "Congress, President Obama, and the Drug Czar," "Zoned Out" (about "drug-free zones"), "Psychedelic Research: Neuroscience and Ethnobotanical Roots," "Opioid Overdose Prevention Workshop," and "Border Perspectives: Alternatives to the 40-Year-Old War on Drugs."

People came from all over the United States -- predominantly from the East Coast -- as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe (Denmark, England, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, and Switzerland), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico), and Asia (Cambodia and Thailand).

Medical marijuana was one of the hot topics, and New Mexico, which has just authorized four dispensaries, was held up as a model by some panelists. "If we had a system as clear as New Mexico's, we'd be in great shape," said Alex Kreit, chair of a San Diego task force charged with developing regulations for dispensaries there.

"Our process has been deliberate, which you can also read as 'slow,'" responded Steve Jenison, medical director of the state Department of Health's Infectious Disease Bureau. "But our process will be a very sustainable one. We build a lot of consensus before we do anything."

Jenison added that the New Mexico, which relies on state-regulated dispensaries, was less likely to result in diversion than more open models, such as California's. "A not-for-profit being regulated by the state would be less likely to be a source of diversion to the illicit market," Jenison said.

For ACLU Drug Policy Law Project attorney Allen Hopper, such tight regulation has an added benefit: it is less likely to excite the ire of the feds. "The greater the degree of state involvement, the more the federal government is going to leave the state alone," Hopper said.

At Friday's plenary session, "Global Drug Prohibition: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives," Australia's Dr. Alex Wodak amused the audience by likening the drug war to "political Viagra" in that it "increases potency in elections." But he also made the more serious point that the US has exported its failed drug policy around the world, with deleterious consequences, especially for producer or transit states like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

At that same session, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda warned that Latin American countries feel constrained from making drug policy reforms because of the glowering presence of the US. Drug reform is a "radioactive" political issue, he said, in explaining why it is either elder statesmen, such as former Brazilian President Cardoso or people like himself, "with no political future," who raise the issue. At a panel the following day, Castaneda made news by bluntly accusing the Mexican army of executing drug traffickers without trial. (See related story here).

It wasn't all listening to panels. In the basement of the Albuquerque Convention Center, dozens of vendors showed off their wares, made their sales, and distributed their materials as attendees wandered through between sessions. And for many attendees, it was as much a reunion as a conference, with many informal small group huddles taking place at the center and in local bars and restaurants and nearby hotels so activists could swap experiences and strategies and just say hello again.

The conference also saw at least two premieres. On the first day of the conference, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Legalization, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of a near-final version of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" -- which enjoyed a larger budget and consequently higher production level -- played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted." "10 Rules" was one of a range of productions screened during a two-night conference film festival.

The conference ended Saturday evening with a plenary address by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who came out as a legalizer back in 2001, and was welcomed with waves of applause before he ever opened his mouth. "It makes no sense to spend the kind of money we spend as a society locking up people for using drugs and using the criminal justice system to solve the problem," he said, throwing red meat to the crowd.

We'll do it all again two years from now in Los Angeles. See you there!

Latin America: Former Mexican Foreigner Minister Accuses Army of Extra-Judicial Executions in Drug War

Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister under President Vicente Fox, said Saturday that the Mexican military is engaging in the extrajudicial execution of members of drug trafficking organizations. The frank and surprising comments came as Castañeda spoke on a panel at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Jorge Castañeda
"We are having more and more 'false positives,'" Castañeda said, referring to a term used in Colombia to describe people executed by the military and then described as guerrillas killed in combat. "Here in Mexico, apparent gang war killings are in fact being carried out by the military. Every time the cartels catch the police and military infiltrators and slice them up, the army says 'We're taking out ten of yours.' The statistics say that 90% of the killings are within the cartels, but the army is engaging in these killings."

President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006. Since then, more than 15,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico, including more than 6,000 so far this year. Hundreds of police and soldiers are among the dead.

In response to a question asking for documentation of his assertions, Castañeda said: "The only known incident was a town in Chihuahua where the bodies of 29 sicarios (assassins) were found, with witnesses who said this was after they were detained. The press has not wanted to investigate this."

But the military can't keep its mouth shut, Castañeda said. "They go to bars and restaurants and get drunk and talk and they are going around saying how many people they have knocked off," he reported. "The 12 military officers killed by the cartels in Michoacan -- that's why the army went out and killed a bunch of other people."

Castañeda's comments come as the US State Department is preparing the process of certifying Mexican compliance with human rights conditions as part of the $1.4 billion Plan Merida anti-drug assistance package. The bill authorizing the aid requires that portions of it be withheld if the State Department determines Mexico is not in compliance.

Castañeda also criticized President Obama for turning a blind eye to human rights violations by the Mexican military. "Obama regrettably said that the human rights violations he was most concerned with was with the victims of the drug war," the former diplomat noted.

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.

Drug War Issues

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