Drug Czar Office Safe for Now: House Votes for Five More Years of Same Old Drug War, Senate Vote Pending 10/3/03

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On a voice vote and with limited debate, the US House of Representatives voted Tuesday to authorize the Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) for five more years. The reauthorization vote granted approval of existing programs directed by ONDCP, including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which funnels federal dollars into locales designated as special problems, and the drug czar's controversial media campaign, which has attempted, among other things, to persuade young people not to smoke pot because they would be aiding terrorists. ONDCP is the lead federal agency in setting drug policy and fighting off opposition to the drug war.

Drug war opponents were able to win only changes at the margins -- notably overturning the ban on using HIDTA funds for drug use prevention -- but also managed to win some small skirmishes during earlier votes in the House Judiciary and Government Operations committees. Among the victories were reform of the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision and blocking proposals that would have allowed the drug czar to use the ONDCP media campaign for attack ads against political opponents. Congressional reformers also blocked him from moving HIDTA funds from law enforcement in states with medical marijuana laws to the DEA.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where reformers have vowed to continue to fight for a better bill. "We're working to improve the bill even further," said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance. "We want to remove the ban on using HIDTA funding for drug treatment, just as we got rid of the ban on using HIDTA funds for prevention. That would be first step in diverting millions of dollars from law enforcement to treatment," he told DRCNet. "We will also directly attack the drug czar's ability to lobby. In the House, we were able to get something written into the bill that expressly prohibits the media campaign from being used in elections, and we want that expanded to include the entire ONDCP, so that it is not used to campaign and lobby against reform and reformers. We also will seek to reduce the authorization of the media campaign, either by cutting its reauthorization from five years to one or by cutting spending on the program. And we will seek to expand on the HEA reform provisions we won in the House. They need to be stronger," he said.

The House bill sponsored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) authorizes spending of about $2.5 billion over the next five years for ONDCP programs. While the bill largely stays the course on Bush administration drug policy, it does include some changes, particularly in the HIDTA program.

One provision, championed by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who represents an inner city Baltimore district, diverts at least $1 million per year in HIDTA funding in the Washington-Baltimore area from law enforcement to protecting communities that suffer from high levels of drug-related crime. The Cummings measure came in response to the deaths of Baltimore residents Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children, who were killed in a firebomb attack on their townhouse after Mrs. Dawson repeatedly complained to police about drug dealing in her neighborhood.

The House bill also takes a tiny first step at reigning in the HIDTAs, which have expanded from five designated HIDTA areas in 1990 to now take in all or part of 41 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. With its rote rhetorical justifications -- in the eyes of law enforcement, any highway, railroad, port or airport in the county can be labeled a "major drug transit corridor" -- and its pork-barrel aspects -- is South Dakota really a major drug trafficking center or is it designated one because Sen. Tom Daschle is Senate minority leader? -- the HIDTA program has raised eyebrows even among drug war stalwarts. Under the House bill, the criteria for designating HIDTAs will be tightened. The House bill requires drug czar John Walters to review current HIDTAs and dismantle those that do not meet the new criteria.

While the bill is not as bad as it could have been, DPA's Piper was disappointed in House Democrats. "Maxine Waters (D-CA) was the only one to speak against the bill, she was the only one to say the emperor has no clothes," he said. The rest of the Democrats bartered away their right to a real debate and to force a roll-call vote on the bill in return for "scraps like some prevention funding," said Piper. "We understand the political dynamics of the drug war, but we are disappointed Democrats didn't stand up on this."

But, as noted earlier, the bill isn't law yet. "We are hoping we can get the Democrats to stand and fight in the Senate," said Piper. "We hope the Republicans will cave in on some of the things we want. And there is also the conference committee."

To read the the ONDCP reauthorization bill online, go to http://thomas.loc.gov and search for H.R. 2086.

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