Some House Democrats this week challenged provisions in proposed federal methamphetamine legislation that would increase penalties for trafficking. The tougher penalties were a reflexive response that had failed to work in the past, they said. They also criticized the measure's lack of provisions for drug treatment.
The attacks came Tuesday in a House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime hearing on House Resolution 3889, the Methamphetamine Epidemic Elimination Act (use http://thomas.loc.gov to look up), which is being pushed by congressional heavyweights including House Government Reform subcommittee on narcotics head Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), new House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO) (replacing the freshly indicted Texas Rep. Tom DeLay), House Judiciary Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and the four co-chairs of the House Methamphetamine Caucus, which represents members of both parties.
While the measure concentrates on tightening restrictions on methamphetamine precursors used in home meth labs, it also lowers the threshold for mandatory minimum sentences for meth trafficking offenses. Existing federal law provides for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking more than 50 grams of meth; the bill being considered by Congress would lower the threshold for the mandatory minimum sentence to five grams, and would include possession with intent as well as actual sales.
But in a change from years past, at least some lawmakers are expressing reluctance to simply go down the path of more prison time. "Whether it's crack or meth, we've got a drug problem in America, and it's not going to be solved with mandatory minimum sentencing," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who added that the primary effect of such laws is to devastate poor communities.
While Walters said she had no problem with restrictions on pseudoephedrine, the precursor chemical widely used in home cooking, and even implicitly criticized Mexico for its massive importation of meth, she was having none of any increased sentences. "Come in here and talk to me about (Mexico's president) Vicente Fox and what you're going to do with them and trade if they don't do something about the transporting of stuff across the border from the superlabs in Mexico," Waters said. "But just to talk about young people who use this meth to get high going to penitentiaries, that's not doing anything to make me believe it's going to be helpful."
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the top Democrat on the committee, said the punitive approach has been tried repeatedly without success. "Meanwhile, the epidemic has grown exponentially," he said.
Scott also went after DEA deputy chief for enforcement operations Joseph Rannazzissi, relentlessly quizzing him on the efficacy of harsh sentencing. "You did not reduce the incidence of crack use by having a draconian five-year mandatory-minimum sentence, did you?
"Putting it that way," Rannazzisi said, "I guess not."
While bill sponsor Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-MN) defended the legislation, saying Congress must send "a strong signal" to drug sellers, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA), challenged him on that score. "We've been sending messages," Delahunt responded. "I think there should be now conclusive evidence that just simply enhancing penalties is in no way going to reducing the trafficking in a particular controlled substance."
While Tuesday's hearing is unlikely to derail the bill, sponsors had hoped it would be non-controversial, allowing it to move quickly. But House Democrats have already ensured that will not be the case.