Feature: Enhanced Mandatory Minimums Blocked in New Methamphetamine Bill 11/18/05

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After months of posturing and finger-pointing over the demon drug du jour, methamphetamine, and literally dozens of meth bills introduced, Congress is now set to pass the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. This year's anti-meth legislation will make the restrictions on over-the-counter cold medications containing the meth precursor pseudoephedrine adopted by some states the law of the land, but in a partial victory for reformers and their allies, the final version of the bill eliminates draconian enhancements of current mandatory minimum meth sentences that were originally part of legislation sponsored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) and coming out Rep. James Sensenbrenner's (R-WI) House Judiciary Committee.

The meth bill is folded into the Patriot Act reauthorization measure, which is on a fast track to passage. The measure could have been voted on by the time you read these words or it could be passed over the weekend or early next week -- provided negotiations between House and Senate conferees over the Patriot Act don't derail everything. With Democrats and some Republicans deeply concerned over various Patriot Act provisions, there is talk of a possible filibuster.

"This bill was originally full of draconian mandatory minimums and contained no money for drug treatment," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "But after an exhausting fight, the mandatory minimums were killed and money for drug treatment was added."

But reformers can only claim a partial victory. Two provisions of the bill are bad news. One provision creates a new penalty of up to 20 years in prison for selling or cooking meth in a home where a child lives -- even if that child is not there at the time. The foreseeable result of this provision is the mass incarceration of meth-addicted parents, said Piper.

"Basically, if you have a kid and commit a meth offense you can get up to 20 years, and that's on top of the underlying offense," said Piper. "Most people who make meth in their homes or who are low-level sellers are meth addicts. Mothers are going to get long prison sentences and have their children put in foster care when treatment would be the appropriate response. At least it's not a mandatory minimum."

DPA also objects to the pseudoephedrine provision. Once the bill passes, law-abiding Americans will need to show identification and have their names entered on government logs in order to buy legal products such as Nyquil, Theraflu, Sudafed, and other cold remedies.

"Putting mothers with substance abuse problems in federal prison for 20 years and requiring law-abiding citizens to give out personal information to buy cold medicine won't reduce the availability of methamphetamine or the harms associated with methamphetamine abuse," Piper added.

But if the bill still retains bad provisions, reformers and their allies can take heart in having managed to strip the mandatory minimum sentence enhancements from the House version of the bill. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which lobbied against the provision, called the removal of the new, tougher mandatory minimums "a major victory."

"The Souder bill had this awful trigger that lowered the thresholds for mandatory minimum sentences," said Troy Dayton of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative, which lobbied on the bill. "Currently, it takes 50 grams to earn a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence; under the Souder bill, it would have been lowered to five grams. Likewise, it currently takes five grams to earn a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while the Souder bill would have lowered it to three grams," he explained.

"That is more draconian that what we currently have for crack," Dayton continued. "In response to that provision, we met with religious leaders and had them sign onto a letter denouncing mandatory minimums, and sent that and a list of all denominations that have taken a position against mandatory minimums to the committee. We also worked behind the scenes with some Evangelicals on this. When the committee met behind closed doors to strike a deal, the new triggers came out of the bill, and they were by far the most objectionable, really awful provisions."

The new mandatory minimum enhancements also came under sustained fire from Democrats in the House. "It's too much. It's too tough, and it destroys too many lives," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) during debate on the bill.

Mandatory minimums for drug offenses have been around for 20 years now and have done little to reduce drug abuse and related crime, said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). "This bill won't reduce crime, and it's a waste of taxpayer money because it doesn't work," Scott said.

That reformers and their allies were able to put the brakes on ever harsher meth sentences is a sign of growing dissatisfaction with mandatory minimum sentences, Dayton said. "That we were able to put pressure on the Republicans and cause a break in the ranks, forcing them to take that out of the final bill and make everyone happy is a real victory."

DPA's Piper agreed that the terrain is shifting. "Yes, this bill will pass, but what you are seeing is that they are having to continually water down bills to get around opposition to them," he said. "They are afraid to even try to move some of the more draconian stuff anymore, like the Snitch Act and last year's Drugs and Terror Victory Act. I think there is a growing rebellion against mandatory minimums in general. Even a lot of Republicans are saying enough is enough."

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps it is time to go on the offensive against mandatory minimums. After all, according to the US Sentencing Commission, meth users in the federal system are currently serving an average of eight years.

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Issue #411 -- 11/18/05

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Editorial: Tell Me Why | Feature: Enhanced Mandatory Minimums Blocked in New Methamphetamine Bill | Feature: The 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Long Beach, California | Feature: Deported for a Trace -- Farid's Tale | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Sports: Under Congressional Pressure, Major League Baseball, Union Agree on Drug Testing Policy | Medical Marijuana: Two Michigan Towns Pass Ordinances -- Officials Balk | Search and Seizure: Supreme Court Hears Search Case Where Wife Consented but Husband Refused | Latin America: Guatemala's Top Narc Arrested in US | Europe: Sativex Coming to England, Spain | Asia: Korean Actress Who Challenged Marijuana Law Sentenced to Prison | Web Scan: In These Times, Alternet on Sembler and Straight, New SSDP Blog | Weekly: This Week in History | Announcement: Senlis Council Seeking Research Proposals on Afghani Opium Licensing Schemes | Job Opportunities: Webmasters for MPP in DC, CRCM in Nevada | Internship Opportunity: Criminal Justice Policy Foundation | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar |

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