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US House Set to Pass Bad Drug Bills [FEATURE]

Going in the face of an ever-increasing clamor to reform decades of failed drug policies, the US House of Representatives is poised to pass two bills that promise more of the same. The House is set to vote any day now -- the vote was originally set until Wednesday night, but was pushed back -- on HR 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would criminalize not only synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), but also synthetic cannabinoids ("fake pot") marketed under names such as "K2" and "Spice."

"This is almost certain to pass," said Grant Smith, federal affairs coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been lobbying to try to stop it. "We're doing our best to try to block it, but it's unlikely we will succeed," he said.

The bill foresees prison sentences of up to 20 years for the distribution of small quantities of synthetic drugs. But despite an intense debate in the House Judiciary Committee last month over the bill's implications, it is moving ahead.

At least 40 states have passed bans on the new synthetic drugs, and the DEA has placed both fake weed and bath salts under emergency bans. The bill would make both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which would make them difficult to research. Scientists have warned Congress that placing synthetic drugs under Schedule I will have a chilling effect on research intended to explore treatments for a range of diseases and disorders.

The bath salts drugs -- primarily methcathinones like mephedrone derived from the khat plant -- have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake pot has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers warned in May that it had seen a nine-fold increase in bath salts-related calls over the previous year, and that was with less than half the year gone. Last year, centers reported 302 calls; as of May of this year, they had received more than 2,200 calls.

That would clearly seem to suggest that use of bath salts is on the rise, but what it means beyond that is not so clear. Without a handle on actual use levels, it is difficult to determine how frequent such adverse reactions are, or how they compare to reported adverse events with other drugs.

Still, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said the substances are the worst he has seen in 20 years at the poison center. "These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others," he said.

Horrible drugs or not, evidence from Britain suggests that some people like them quite a bit. According to an August report in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

"The legal status wasn't considered important," said Fiona Measham, a criminology lecturer who led the research. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."

But Congress was on a different wavelength. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a September hearing, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

"We are in a new era of drugs," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) at the same time, as she prepared to deal with them with the same approach Congress has taken with other drugs -- by banning them.

The second bill, HR 313, the Drug Trafficker Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011, introduced by veteran drug warrior Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) would make it a criminal offense to plan to engage in an activity in another country if that activity would violate US drug laws if committed in the US -- even if that activity is legal in the country where it takes place.

While Smith and other bill supporters say the legislation is aimed at drug traffickers who conspire in the US, opponents point out that it could just as easily be applied to someone who makes plans to attend and partake at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, work at a safe injection site in Vancouver or any of the other 64 cities that have them, or work in a medical marijuana program in Israel. All of those activities are illegal under federal drug laws and thus subject to the purview of the bill.

"Since the war on drugs was declared 40 years ago, the US has spent more than one trillion dollars and arrested tens of millions of Americans for drug law violations, yet drugs are readily available in every community and the problems associated with them continue to mount," said Bill Piper, DPA director of national affairs. "When you're in a hole, you shouldn't just keep digging," he added.

"Facing massive budget deficits, policymakers from both parties should be searching for alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug law offenders, because locking them up is only making us poorer, not safer," said Piper. "The US can't incarcerate its way out of its drug problems and should stop trying. The only way out of the drug war mess is to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue."

"By rushing to criminalize synthetic drugs, Congress is condemning more Americans to years in prison and ignoring warnings from the scientific community that this bill will hurt medical research," said Smith. "Outright criminalization compromises both public health and safety by shifting demand for synthetic drugs into the criminal market. It would be more effective for Congress to pursue comprehensive drug education and create a regulatory framework to reduce youth access to synthetic drugs. This approach is working for tobacco, which has contributed to more deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs combined."

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Crop-Killing Fungi Too Risky, Scientists Say

Using pathogenic fungi to eradicate coca, opium, or other illicit drug crops is too risky because there is not enough data about how to control them and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a panel of scientists commissioned to study the subject by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

fusarium oxysprorum (wikimedia.org)
The finding came in a report, Feasibility of Using Mycoherbicides for Controlling Illicit Drug Crops, which was released November 30 by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council (NRC). ONDCP requested the report after it was required do to so by Congress in its 2006 budget authorization bill.

Mycoherbicides are killer fungi that can be targeted at specific plants and reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for years. Hard-line drug control advocates have urged their use against coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan, seeing them as a potential "magic bullet" that could eliminate drug problems at the source. But Colombia rejected the use of mycoherbicides in 2002 and the Afghan government has strongly signaled that it is not interested in using them there.

The NRC scientists found that the evidence base to support using mycoherbicides was scanty. "Questions about the degree of control that could be achieved with such mycoherbicides, as well as uncertainties about their potential effects on non-target plants, microorganisms, animals, humans, and the environment must be addressed before considering deployment," they said.

The panel did not reject outright the use of mycoherbicides; instead, it recommended "research to study several candidate strains of each fungus in order to identify the most efficacious under a broad array of environmental conditions." But it warned that "conducting the research does not guarantee that a feasible mycoherbicide product will result, countermeasures can be developed against mycoherbicides, and there are unavoidable risks from releasing substantial numbers of living organisms into an ecosystem."

The use of mycoherbicides would require meeting multiple domestic regulatory requirements, as well as possible additional regulations and agreements before being used on drug crops in foreign countries, the report noted. That might also prove problematic because "approval to conduct tests in countries where mycoherbicides might be used has been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past."

Congressional and bureaucratic drug warriors are going to have to look elsewhere for their "magic bullet" to win the war on drugs -- unless they're in the mood to appropriate more funds for more research that may or may not come up with a workable mycoherbicide. Then all they would have to do is sell the idea to the government of the country they want to spray it on.

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Reform Ally Barney Frank Retiring from Congress

Advocates of drug policy reform are losing a key ally on Capitol Hill. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced Monday that he will not seek reelection and will retire at the end of this term in January 2013.

Barney Frank at press conference calling for repeal of a law that denies financial aid to students because of drug convictions
Frank, 71, has served in Congress for 30 years and is now the ranking minority member of the House Financial Services Committee. The openly gay congressman has been a liberal stalwart throughout his tenure on the Hill and among the strongest congressional advocates of drug policy reform.

Beginning in 2001, Frank repeatedly introduced bills that would block the government from intervening in states with medical marijuana laws, and since 2008, he has introduced bills that would decriminalize marijuana possession. This year, he teamed up with libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) to introduce the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. That bill currently has 19 cosponsors.

Frank was also the lead sponsor of the "Removing Impediments to Students' Education" act to repeal a provision added to the Higher Education Act in 1998 that delays or denies federal financial aid to students because of drug convictions. The law was scaled back in 2006 to apply just to offenses committed while one is in college and receiving aid, and in 2009 the House of Representatives passed language as part of a student aid funding bill that would have limited it further to just sales convictions. (The section of the 2009 bill containing that language was stripped as part of Democrats' strategy to pass health care reform, in which the health care reform and education bills were combined.)

In 1994 Frank was one of four members of Congress, a Democrat and Republican from both the House and Senate, who advanced "safety valve" legislation to allow judges to exempt first-time drug offenders from five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences under specified circumstances.

None of his marijuana law reform bills have come close to passage, but Frank gets big kudos from the reform community for his tireless efforts. His sponsorship of marijuana reform legislation has helped change the conversation in Congress, a process he admitted in a 2009 interview with Esquire is still far from complete.

"Announcing that the government should mind its own business on marijuana is really not that hard," he said. "There's not a lot of complexity here. We should stop treating people as criminals because they smoke marijuana. The problem is the political will. This is a case where there's cultural lag on the part of my colleagues. If you ask them privately, they don't think it's a terrible thing. But they're afraid of being portrayed as soft on drugs."

Frank's bold and straightforward stance has helped begin to change that, but with his impending retirement, marijuana and larger drug policy reform will lose a champion in Congress. His seat may remain Democratic, but there are few Democrats who have been as good as Barney Frank when it comes to trying to end the drug war.

Washington, DC
United States

Congressional Briefing on Drug Sentencing Reform in the Americas

            

 
You are invited to a Congressional briefing

 

THE FAIR SENTENCING ACT:
BUILDING ON A BREAKTHROUGH IN DRUG SENTENCING REFORM IN THE AMERICAS

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2011

 

12:00 - 1:00pm in Room 212-10 of the U.S. Capitol Senate Visitor Center

or

2:00 - 3:00pm in 2226 Rayburn House Office Building

Speakers:

Soffiyah Elijah

Executive Director, Correctional Association of New York

Kara Gotsch

Director of Advocacy, The Sentencing Project

Diana Esther Guzmán

Principal Researcher, DeJuSticia

Bogotá, Colombia

Last year’s passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that reduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack cocaine offenses and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine, reformed a law universally condemned for its harshness and the racial disparity it produced.  The drug sentencing changes are a milestone, and form part of a larger movement to reconsider long mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses that pervade sentencing policy in the United States as well as in Latin America.

This event is free of charge and open to the public, but seating may be limited.

Refreshments will be provided.

To attend, please reply to Clay Boggs at cboggs@wola.org.

Sponsored by The Sentencing Project and the Washington Office on Latin America

The Sentencing Project is a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration.

Date: 
Wed, 11/16/2011 - 12:00pm - 3:00pm
Location: 
P.O. Box 53108
Washington, DC 20009
United States

Federal Crack Cocaine Prisoners Start Coming Home [FEATURE]

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison Tuesday, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners are eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The numbers of those released vary by region, but federal prosecutors and defenders said Tuesday they would be freed by the dozens in different cities across the land. The public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia expected 75 to be released this week, while his colleague in San Antonio estimated 15 or 20 and his colleague in St. Louis estimated 30 to 50. The federal prosecutor for the Northern District of West Virginia said 92 would walk free there this week.

At this point, there is some confusion over how many people will be released and how fast.

"We're not sure how many are getting out today," a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told the Chronicle Tuesday. "This is the first day. We're reviewing files, checking for detainers, so some might not be released. And we don't have a date set yet for when we're releasing numbers."

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much maligned disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning this week.

"For the past 25 years, the 100:1 crack/powder disparity has spawned clouds of controversy and an aura of unfairness that has shrouded nearly every federal crack cocaine sentence that was handed down pursuant to that law. I say justice demands this result," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, vice chairwoman of the Sentencing Commission, after it decided on retroactivity in June.

Both the Fairness in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Commission's decision to make it retroactive provoked ire from congressional conservatives. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), opposed both.

"This bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine," Smith said during debate on the bill. "Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals."

But after a quarter century of skyrocketing federal prison populations driven almost entirely by harshly punitive drug laws like the crack statute, Smith's view no longer holds sway. That's in part due to years of efforts by reform advocates, who decried the evident racial disparities in the prosecution and sentencing of crack cases, as well as the Sentencing Commission itself, which for more than a decade has urged Congress to fix the law.

Despite the initial uncertainly, activists, newly freed prisoners, and family members greeted the event with elation. "Beginning today, thousands of individuals across the country will get another shot at justice," said Julie Stewart, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "These people were forced to serve excessive sentences under a scheme Congress has admitted was fundamentally flawed, but, today, they can ask for long overdue relief."

"It's unbelievable. I'm ecstatic," said William Johnson, a Virginia man convicted of crack distribution conspiracy in 1997 and imprisoned ever since. The 39-year-old told CNN he only found out Monday he was going free the next day.

The joyous reunions taking place this week notwithstanding, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war carceral complex requires changes on the front end.

"We want sentencing reform; we'll take anything we can get," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that focuses on federal drug prisoners. "But people have to start demanding that drug war policing tactics change, too. They could stop drug dealing when they see it and stop spending tax dollars on buy and bust operations. Those are front end solutions," she said.

"When the Sentencing Commission evaluated the sentencing schemes, they explained that 'the sentence begins at investigation,' exposing the police tactics that are the beginning of the sentencing process," Callahan continued. "Police control buy and busts and sting operations, and they determine how much drugs or cash they are going to talk some poor SOB into exchanging, or even simply discussing."

Some people imprisoned for too long under racially disparate US drug laws are walking free this week. Others are not. And as long as the drug war keeps rolling along, the federal prisons are going to keep filling up with its victims.

Washington, DC
United States

Senate GOP Blocks Criminal Justice Commission Amendment

An amendment that would have created a national criminal justice commission to study wide-ranging reforms in the US criminal justice system was blocked last Thursday after most Senate Republicans voted against it, saying it would encroach on states' rights.

Jim Webb
The bill, S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, was introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) and has 28 cosponsors. It would set up a commission to review all areas of the US criminal justice system, including localities, states, and the federal government. Its goals are to reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice.

When he reintroduced the bill in February, Webb called the US criminal justice system "broken," citing a whopping 1200% in imprisoned drug offenders since 1980, America's role as the world's number one jailer, the large number of mentally ill people imprisoned, and "haphazard and often nonexistent" post-prison re-entry programs.

In voting down an amendment that would have moved the bill forward, Senate Republicans had virtually nothing to say about the state of the criminal justice system in the US. Instead, they criticized the commission bill as an attack on states' rights.

"We are absolutely ignoring the Constitution if we do this," warned Oklahoma arch-conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R). "We have no role to involve ourselves in the criminal court system or the penal system in my state or any other state."

Fellow conservative Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) echoed Coburn. "This is the most massive encroachment on states' rights I have ever seen in this body," she exclaimed.

Sen. Webb argued in vain that his proposed $5 million commission was only designed to gather advice and make recommendations, not force states to act. "This is not an encroachment; it actually convenes the best minds to get recommendations," he said.

But few of the Republicans were listening. The amendment failed 57-43, three votes short of the 60 needed to pass. All Democratic senators and four Republicans voted in favor of the commission. Efforts continue to pass S. 306.

Washington, DC
United States

Email Congress for the National Criminal Justice Commission Act!

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has reintroduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, legisation to "create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the criminal justice system from top to bottom." The NCJCA, S. 306 in the current Congress, had broad and bipartisan support and passed the House of Representatives in 2010, but did not make the Senate calendar before the end of the year.

Please use our web form to urge your US Representative and your two US Senators to pass S. 306 so the commission can get started! Please follow-up by calling their offices too -- if you don't know their numbers (or aren't sure who they are), you can reach them by calling the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. And please use our tell-a-friend form to spread the word.

The need for S. 306 is urgent. As Sen. Webb's web site notes:

  • With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners.
  • The number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1200% since 1980.
  • Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.
  • Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the US, many of them foreign-based, and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
  • Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

Every day that passes without criminal justice reform is a day that thousands of people who don't need to be in prison, who may have never deserved to go there, continue to languish needlessly behind bars, separated from their friends and families who want them back. Thank you for taking action.

House Moves Bill to Extend US Drug Laws Overseas

A bill that would allow federal prosecutors to charge people in the US with Controlled Substances Act violations for planning activities outside the US that violate US drug laws -- even if those acts are legal in the country where they take place -- has passed the House Judiciary Committee. The committee approved the measure, HR 313, the Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act, on a 20-7 vote last Thursday.

Lamar Smith
The bill is the brainchild of committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who said in a statement that it was designed to close a "loophole" in US drug laws. "Drug traffickers are currently allowed to conspire with impunity in the United States and evade criminal prosecution when their goal is to traffic drugs outside of the United States," he said.

He cited the case of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy involving drugs shipped from Venezuela to Europe in which some meetings took place in Miami. The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned convictions in the case, reasoning that if there was no intent to traffic drugs in the US, there was no violation of US law.

"This bill tells drug traffickers not to plot their illegal activities in the US, and if they do, they will be brought to justice," said Smith. "The United States should not provide a safe haven for the world's drug traffickers to plot their international trafficking operations."

But, as Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance noted, the bill is written so broadly that it could criminalize any violation of US drug laws if that violation is planned in the US. For instance, heroin maintenance therapy is illegal under US drug laws. As the law is written, a US health care professional who made plans to work with colleagues doing heroin maintenance in a country where it is legal could potentially face prosecution.

"Under this bill, if a young couple plans a wedding in Amsterdam, and as part of the wedding, they plan to buy the bridal party some marijuana, they would be subject to prosecution, Piper told the Huffington Post. "The strange thing is that the purchase of and smoking the marijuana while you're there wouldn't be illegal. But this law would make planning the wedding from the US a federal crime."

While the bill has passed the Judiciary Committee, it still must pass the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where it is currently bottled up in the Subcommittee on Health, before it can go to a House floor vote.

US Drug Policy Would Be Imposed Globally By New House Bill

The House Judiciary Committee has passed a bill that would make it a violation of US law for US citizens to engage in conduct in other countries that is legal there but which violate US drug laws here.
Publication/Source: 
The Huffington Post
URL: 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/us-drug-policy-war-congress_n_998993.html

Call-In: The National Criminal Justice Commission Act

Today is the National Call-In Day to pass a very important bill, Sen. Jim Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Read more about the NCJCA here.

Last year the Act passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, but despite having similar support in the Senate did not make the calendar. Please call the US Senate leadership today (or on the first possible business day when you see this) and ask them to prioritize and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, S. 306:

  • US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), 202-224-3542
  • US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 202-224-3135

When you are done, please use our web site to email your own US Representative and your two US Senators in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. You can also use our web site to look up who your members of Congress are and their phone numbers. Please forward this email to spread the word too.

Following are some taking points to assist you with your call:

  • I am calling to ask the senator to support immediate Senate passage of S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.
  • The proposed commission would review the criminal justice system, identify programs and policies that promote public safety, and urge but not mandate reform of policies and practices that aren't working.
  • One policy that needs review is mandatory minimum sentencing. Thousands of offenders receive lengthy mandatory terms. These sentences have filled prisons across the country well beyond capacity.
  • The current incarceration rate comes at a high cost to taxpayers, families and communities.
  • Passage of S. 306 will lead to a more effective and just system. Please pass the bill.

Thank you for supporting this important effort -- send us an email to let us know you took action and how it went!

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