Senate Considering Raising Methamphetamine Penalties 7/30/99

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Ted Bridges, Drug Policy Foundation, [email protected]

On July 28 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing called "Combating Methamphetamine Proliferation in America." The hearing was prompted by three recently proposed bills on the issue: Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced S. 1428, "The Methamphetamine AntiProliferation Act of 1999" ( 9 cosponsors as of July 29); John Ashcroft (R-MO) introduced S. 486, the "Defeat Meth Act" (7 cosponsors); and Charles Grassley (R-IA) introduced S. 1220, the "Rural Methamphetamine Use Response Act of 1999" (4 cosponsors).

"We need to act before meth becomes the next 'crack' cocaine," said Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI). "I hope we can take the best aspects of all three 'meth' measures, pass them, and promptly enact them into law."

Typical of the proposed legislation is Senator Hatch's bill, S. 1428. The bill authorizes the hiring of new DEA agents, funds additional training for DEA agents for dealing with toxic chemicals produced by meth laboratories, bans the dissemination of drug "recipes" via such media as the Internet, and imposes a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence on meth manufacturers and traffickers.

The only Senator urging caution on Wednesday was Russell Feingold (D-WI), who stressed that law enforcement must be balanced with education and treatment. He also expressed the need to be aware of inefficiencies in mandatory minimum sentences and urged "sensible legislation" on the methamphetamine issue.

One of the lead witnesses was Donnie R. Marshall, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Marshall warned that methamphetamine trafficking and use has increased exponentially over the last five years. Marshall said that, in 1993, the DEA seized a total of 218 methamphetamine labs, whereas, in 1998, the DEA seized over 1,600. However, he maintains that the DEA is making progress in its fight against the drug as evidenced by an overall decrease in the purity of the drug. According to the DEA, nationally the average purity for methamphetamine has dropped from 60.5 percent in 1995 to 27.2 percent in 1999.

Other ideas discussed at the hearing included forcing convicted manufacturers to pay for the cleanup of their laboratories, monitoring more closely the purchase of over-the-counter drugs that contain precursor chemicals (such as Sudafed), and taking measures against those who steal precursor chemicals from farmers in rural areas.

The Drug Policy Foundation recommends writing members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to urge them not to enact harsher penalties, especially without having seen the results of previous legislation. Congress only just increased penalties for methamphetamine offenses last October when it approved the "Speed Trafficking Life in Prison Act." That law mandates minimum sentences similar to those for crack cocaine offenses: a mandatory five years for meth offenses involving five grams of the drug, and 10 years for offenses involving 50+ grams.

Members of the Judiciary Committee who attended the hearing:
Orrin Hatch (Utah), committee chair, John Ashcroft (Missouri), Jeff Sessions (Alabama), Charles Grassley (Iowa), Jon Kyl (Arizona)
Dianne Feinstein (California), Joseph Biden (Delaware), Herb Kohl (Wisconsin), Russell Feingold (Wisconsin)

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Issue #101, 7/30/99 House Reinstates "Social Riders" in District of Colombia Appropriations Bill | New Mexico Republicans Stop Short of Repudiating Governor | Jamaica: Lawmakers Consider Decriminalization of Marijuana, Medical Marijuana Research Facility | Clinton Administration Proposes Changes to Methadone Regulations | Army Spy Plane Disappears Over Colombia, Speculation of Coming US Intervention Abounds | Australian State to Open Legal Heroin Injecting Room | DEA Chief Acknowledges Agency's Ineffectiveness | Newsbriefs | Senate Considering Raising Methamphetamine Penalties | Editorial: Body Bags
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