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Drug Reform and the Democratic Congress: What's Going to Happen?

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #464)
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

To hear the buzz in drug reform circles, Christmas came early this year. To be precise, it arrived on Election Day, when the Democrats took back control of the Congress. There is a whole long list of drug reform-related issues that the Democratically-controlled Congress can address, and hopes are high that after a dozen years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill, progress will come on at least some of them. But will the Democratic Congress really turn out to be Santa Claus, bestowing gifts on a movement long out in the cold, or will it turn out more like the Grinch, offering up tantalizing glimpses of the goodies only to snatch them away?

US Capitol, Senate side
Drug War Chronicle is trying to find out what's likely to happen, so we talked to a number of drug reform organizations, especially those with a strong federal lobbying presence and agenda, as well as with the offices of some of the representatives who will be playing key roles on Capitol Hill in the next Congress.

The list of drug war issues where Congress could act next year is indeed lengthy:

  • Sentencing reform -- whether addressing the crack-powder cocaine disparity or mandatory minimums or both, and other reforms;

  • Medical marijuana, either through the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment barring federal funds to raid patients and providers in states where it is legal or Barney Frank's states' rights to medical marijuana bill;
  • The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) is up for reauthorization;
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) and its drug provision are up for reauthorization;
  • Removing drug offender restrictions from food stamp, public housing, and other social services;
  • The Washington, DC, appropriations bill, where Congress has barred the District from enacting needle exchange programs and a voter-approved medical marijuana law;
  • Plan Colombia;
  • The war in Afghanistan and US anti-opium policy;
  • The pain crisis and the war on pain doctors;
  • Prisoner reentry legislation, particularly the Second Chance Act;
  • Police raids.

While there is optimism in drug reform circles, it is tempered by a healthy dose of realism. The Congress is a place where it is notoriously difficult to make (or unmake) a law, and while some of the new Democratic leadership has been sympathetic on certain issues, drug reform is not exactly a high-profile issue. Whether congressional Democratic decision-makers will decide to use their political resources advancing an agenda that could be attacked as "soft on drugs" or "soft on crime" remains to be seen. But according to one of the movement's most astute Hill-watchers, some "low-hanging fruit" might be within reach next year.

"Some of the easiest things to achieve in the new Congress will be the HEA ban on aid to students with drug violations, because the Democrats will have to deal with HEA reauthorization, and the ban on access to the TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) to public housing, because they will have to deal with welfare reform," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "There is also a chance of repealing provisions in the DC appropriations bill that bar needle exchanges and medical marijuana. These are the low-hanging fruit."

For Piper, there is also a chance to see movement on a second tier of issues, including medical marijuana, sentencing reform and Latin America policy. "Can we get the votes to pass Hinchey-Rohrabacher in the House and get it to the Senate?" he asked. "There is also a good chance of completely changing how we deal with Latin America. We could see a shift in funding from military to civil society-type programs and from eradication to crop substitution," he said. "Also, there is a good chance on sentencing reform. Can the Democrats strike a deal with Sen. Sessions (R-AL) and other Republicans on the crack-powder disparity, or will they try to play politics and paint the Democrats as soft on crime? Would Bush veto it if it passed?"

Clearly, at this point, there are more questions than answers, and time will tell. But the political ground has shifted, Piper noted. "We are no longer playing defense," he argued. "Now we don't have to deal with folks like Souder and Sensenbrenner and all their stupid bills. This puts us in a really good position. For the first time in 12 years, we get to go on offense. And unlike a dozen years ago, the Democrats who will control the key committees are really, really good. This is probably the first time since the 1980s that drug policy reform has been in a position to go on the offensive."

Representatives sympathetic to drug law reform will fill key positions in the next Congress, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who will be the incoming chair of the crucial House Judiciary Committee. Replacing HEA drug provision author and leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) as chair of the important Government Reform Committee Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources will be either Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) or Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) -- the assignment isn't yet set -- while Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) will chair the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, the key subcommittee when it comes to sentencing reform.

While it is too early to get firm commitments from committee heads on hearings next year, a spokesman for Rep. Conyers told Drug War Chronicle sentencing reform is definitely on the table. "Congressman Conyers is certainly interested in these issues, he's been quite outspoken on this, and it is something he will address, but we haven't come out with our agenda and we don't have a timeline yet," said House Judiciary Committee press officer Jonathan Godfrey. "But this will definitely be an issue for the committee," he added.

Conyers and the new Democratic Congress may not yet have established their agendas, but the drug reform movement certainly has, and sentencing reform, whether through addressing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity or through a broader assault on the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, is front and center. Perhaps not surprisingly, many leading reformers said addressing the crack-powder disparity was not enough.

"There's been a lot of discussion about eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, or even removing the definition of crack from the guidelines entirely," said DRCNet executive director Dave Borden. "We of course support that, but we also hope the issue of mandatory minimums themselves, and the sentencing guidelines, are also taken up. Those are far bigger problems, affecting far more people than that one controversial but small piece of them. It may be that only small changes are possible at this time, even with our best Congressional friends in important positions. Nevertheless, the opportunity should be taken to raise the larger sentencing issues, to organize around them, build support, attract cosponsors for mandatory minimum repeal bills, all the things that go with any legislative campaign -- what better time than now?"

"While we of course favor reforming the crack-powder cocaine disparity, we need to stop thinking small," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We need to be looking at sentencing reform as a whole. We will be asking for legislation to address the crack-powder disparity, but we will also be asking for hearings on the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing," she said. "Whether we can get that is another question, but it's time to ask for the sky."

Stewart's sentiments were echoed and amplified by Nora Callahan, executive director of The November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on winning freedom for federal drug war prisoners. "What we need is an omnibus crime bill," Callahan said. "Otherwise we'll be picking this thing apart for the next five decades. An omnibus bill would open the door to broad hearings where we could address the myriad negative effects of the drug war, from imprisoning huge numbers of people to depriving students of loans and poor people of housing and other federal benefits, and from police corruption to police violence. If we try to deal with all these problems one by one, the prison population will have doubled again by the time we get it done."

Of course, sentencing reform isn't the only drug policy issue activists will be pushing next year. Medical marijuana remains on the agenda, with the biggest push likely to be around the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would bar the use of federal funds to raid patients and providers in states where it is legal. "We will be looking for meaningful protections for medical marijuana patients," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project. "We will judge progress by the extent to which patients can use the medicine that works best for them without fear of federal arrest or prosecution. We need meaningful reforms, not ones that sound meaningful but are not, like rescheduling," he added.

"Our legislative priorities in the past have been Hinchey-Rohrabacher, the states' rights to medical marijuana bill, and the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow for an affirmative defense in federal court," said Houston. "Of these, we expect that we should be able to pass Hinchey. Last year, we had 167 votes, and we picked up 19 new members in November who we think are supportive. And when Speaker-elect Pelosi assumes the gavel in January, it will be the first time we have a strong medical marijuana supporter at the helm of the House of Representatives."

Those numbers are encouraging, but not quite enough to win yet. It takes 218 votes to win a majority in the House if everyone votes.

And as DPA's Piper noted above, the HEA reauthorization bill next year should be a good opportunity to finally kill Souder's drug provision once and for all. "We have a tremendous opportunity here with the Democrats taking control and deciding which legislation moves forward," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will chair the House Education Work Force Committee, and he's a cosponsor of the RISE Act. Also, one of our biggest supporters, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), is in line to chair the subcommittee that handles higher education, which is where the RISE Act sits right now."

But Andrews may not end up with the chairmanship, Angell warned. "He's a supporter of for-profit colleges, and the Democratic leadership doesn't like that, so he might not get it," he said.

"We'd like to see the HEA drug provision repealed, and we think it's possible in the new Congress," said DRCNet's Borden. "There just isn't a lot of passion from very many members of Congress for keeping the provision, even among those who have voted to do so. We'd like to see legislation to repeal similar provisions in welfare and public housing law -- we have a coalition of over 250 organizations that have signed on to repealing the HEA drug provision, and activating that network and building it to take on more issues is definitely on our agenda."

The RISE (Removing Impediments to Students' Education) Act would repeal the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision, SSDP's key congressional goal. While Angell was optimistic about prospects in the next Congress, he was also looking for early indicators. "The introduction of the bill, the number of cosponsors, and the top names behind it will be a good indication of how likely we are to repeal the penalty," he said. "I'm looking for that to happen early in the session. We had 84 lobbying meetings on Capitol Hill during our annual conference last month, and we will be following up on those and working closely with the staff of the education committee."

But repealing the HEA drug provision isn't SSDP's only goal on Capitol Hill, said Angell. "We are hoping to be working with DPA and MPP to reduce or eliminate funding for the ONDCP media campaign and we will be working to reduce or eliminate funding for student drug testing grants," he explained. "Besides HEA, those are our big issues."

One issue that has emerged as a hot topic in recent weeks is the issue of police violence. With the killing of Atlanta senior citizen Kathryn Johnson in a "no-knock" drug raid and the killing of New York City resident Sean Bell a few days later in a volley of more than 50 shots fired by NYPD officers, policing in America is under the spotlight. Civil rights activist and former presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton called this week for congressional hearings on the issue. Sharpton said he had already been in contact with Rep. Conyers about the possibility.

That's something DRCNet's Borden would like to see, too. "We'd like to see action taken to rein in these paramilitary police forces and not have SWAT teams breaking down people's doors in the middle of the night when there is not an emergency situation. I think there should be hearings in Congress, as well as state legislatures, with victims of bad drug raids playing a prominent role, as well as police experts, civil rights experts, and the like. We are considering launching a petition calling for all of this," he said.

And then there is the US drug war abroad. With Plan Colombia about to enter its seventh year, and the flow of cocaine unabated despite massive aerial spraying of herbicides, congressional Democrats will seek to cut back or redirect US spending to emphasize development instead of drug war. And although Congress has not yet come to grips with the serious contradictions inherent in waging war on poppies at the same time it seeks to wage a war on terror in Afghanistan, facts on the ground suggest it will be unable to continue to ignore them.

This should be a year of change in our drug policy abroad, said DRCNet's Borden. "We'd like to see the coca and opium eradication programs stopped. They are useless; all they do is move the cultivation from place to place," he noted. "In Afghanistan, it's driving people into the arms of the Taliban for protection, and that's disastrous for our national interests and potentially for global security. There are credible plans put forward, by the UN and other international bodies, and by experts in the nonprofit sector, that don't rely on eradication; let's look at those."

Borden also urged Congress to act to address the crisis in pain care in the context of the administration's war on prescription drug abuse and prosecutions of pain doctors. "Last but not least, something must be done about the pain doctor prosecutions," he said. "I believe the law in this area has been fundamentally warped. Conyers has supported important work being done in this area. Now he's in a position to kick it up a notch."

Drug reformers have a mighty busy agenda for Congress in the next two years. Congressional Democrats have said they are interested in reforms; now that they will be in power, we will see if they are as good as their word and we will have the chance to prod them to act.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

You probably understand when I express my anger over these rediculous subjects. The liars teach us that we are 'free' but free only to consume from Walmart and mucdonalds. The conservatives want to put everyone they can into jail in order that they cannot vote. The pseudoliberals want to shove silly ideas down our throats which ends up in DHSH/Homeland security fascism.

Will it ever end?

End the Drug War, end the fascism of the US government1

Fri, 12/08/2006 - 4:54pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Let's see the Democrats be good for their word in changing fundamentally warped drug laws that do more harm than good today. I vote that Congress move for change on laws that don't work. PODW

Fri, 12/08/2006 - 6:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The Dems will probably be scared to act and do what's right for fear that Congress will be Republican again in '08.

I hope I'm wrong.

Fri, 12/08/2006 - 7:03pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It would be better strategy for them to wait until the next presidential election so they have a possibility of having a democratic president that won't veto their work. I think it better for them to work on populist issues and clear their name in the eyes of the republican base than try to do things that will only bring out the ignorance in full force to vote republican for president and congress. The only way we will REALLY be able to change the US drug policy is to get major Networks running stories of LEAP and JudgesAgainstTheDrugWar. You change the people... THEN you can change the politicians.... if you're gonna act from the top down with positive results is when you've got common sense power in every branch...

Fri, 12/08/2006 - 8:19pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd say an easy way to push the legalization / regulation of drugs subject to the forefront without commiting political suicide would be to site the 21st amendment as precident. The crime in our inner cities, prisons, wars in Afganistan and Columbia among others are causing us to run big time deficits. This could be sited as a cause of precious government services lack of funding. No new laws need to be created, the old one just needs to be observed.

Sounds easy enough to me if someone really wanted to go into the history books as the party that fixed the most disasterous problem in the history of our country.

Fri, 12/08/2006 - 11:59pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Public support for medical marijuana is overwhelming. I don't see how Democrats would be taking a public opinion hit by letting states decide for themselves, apparently it would be very popular. Some other reforms might be as well. Here's hoping.

Sat, 12/09/2006 - 12:25am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Waiting for a Democratic president before acting as progresives would be like waiting for the terrorists to hit us again....we gota go for it because it will be felt by the public ,and create controversy that will bring the issues to light...we have to stop believing that we are evil for wanting what is Human and natural,but that we are both good and evil and because of this fact we can choose "suffering" as optional.

Sat, 12/09/2006 - 8:32pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

we need a common sense approach to the problem. In my oppinion we should decriminalize all plant material. Unless it has been extracted it poses no harm to anyone. The plants from which most drugs are extracted have been used safely since the dawn of time. Anyway you can't stop mother nature.
As long as these plants are on earth they will be consumed.

Tue, 12/12/2006 - 3:50am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If we let them fight the war with the mycoherbicides, as suggested by a recent bill in congress, they might elimnate one of the plants producing these "illegal substances". The problem is, when they release their mycoherbicides, they might open Pandora's box! When their baby gets out of control and kills all of the other plant life on earth, then they will have helped destroy the human race! Very few would survive a famine induced by the "drug control" herbicide! The result points out the stupidity of the fight of the drug war. (ie., We will eliminate drugs from our society if it kills us!!!!!)

Good by human race!

Michael G Langley, MD

Tue, 12/12/2006 - 2:12pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

i agree full tilt on this issuse. and i recommend everyone reading this do something about it by contacting their state and national reps. the bill isnt up yet..and sad to say the mycoherbicides isnt a bill will be attached to the ONDCP reauthorization hasnt been put out quite yet...and we have a great chance if everyone acts now. do something, for god's sake why exterimate the greatest and most useful plant in the world...or even worse the human race.

"a plant is a plant, and that you need to learn."
"my creator had visions in the things he saw."

Thu, 12/14/2006 - 7:54am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, are pretty smart. Pretty simple stuff though, the government must not be thinking things through (big surprise). Mycoherbicides = dead everything. You probably dont look at this much. Do you know who this is? August 30th right?

Tue, 01/22/2008 - 4:07am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's about time. I am so sick of paramilitary cop attacks on everyday citizens. Who in the hell are these people? Judge, jury, and executioner?

Drugs don't make citizens dangerous, the laws and police make drugs dangerous for citizens.
Stop the violence, Stop the insanity...
God made pot ...legalize

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Fri, 12/15/2006 - 12:53am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Why was ibogaine omitted from the list of issues up for consideration by the new democratic majority in Congress?

I can't think of any reason other than DRCnet's onesided policy of coverage highlighting drug reform groups that advocate across-the-board legalization of drugs, and their continued slighting of the broad harm reduction movement that is not part of their D.C. clique.

That's why Cures not Wars will continue to champion an actual cure for addictions, licit and illicit, and why we're doing our own lobbying of Congress.


Tue, 12/26/2006 - 2:23pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


DRCNet does extensive coverage of the harm reduction movement -- such as the recent New Jersey needle exchange victory, heroin maintenance in various places including Vancouver, reports on harm reduction conferences that Phil Smith attended, safe injection sites, overdose prevention, just to name a few of the harm reduction issues that we deal with regularly.

Ibogaine for whatever reasons has not yet made it so far yet. We certainly will gladly report on whatever activity does happen or relevant events. If you want to organize an ibogaine lobbying effort in the new Congress, we'll let people know.

In the meanwhile, the issues for which there are some prospects in the new Congress, as far as we know are the ones highlighted in our article.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sat, 12/30/2006 - 1:00am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Folks we need to urge our new congress to act now to allow law abiding citizens the right for personal liberty.

Drugs don't make citizens dangerous, the laws and police make drugs dangerous for citizens.
Stop the violence, Stop the insanity...
God made pot ...legalize

Tue, 01/02/2007 - 10:38pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I really hope some one can help these people that are locked up for a long time and it is there first time and they are non violent offenders doing 10,20,15,30 yrs it is crazy. Hope these Dem. really do what thet said they were . They know the Law is crazy. Send these people home, it aint doing no good keeping them locked up it's really making it worst.

Thu, 06/28/2007 - 6:33pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I know someone who has been incarcerated for drugs, it was their first offense. Murderers, child molesters and rapists get less time than this person got. These people need rehabitation. They don't need to be locked away with hardened criminals who will tell them how to be street smart and become smarter criminals. I never thought I would be saying this but I wish that you would leagalize marijuana and maybe people wouldn't get on the hard stuff.

At the present there is an investigation into the corruptness of local law enforcement for the letting the rich off and sticking it to the poor.

I have never done drugs, not even prescription medication. Don't believe in it, but with all the stresses of life, lack of employment, low paying jobs, and general hopelessness I can understand why some people try it and get hooked. The pharmacutical companies are legal drug pushers and making a killing by pushing their "legal" drugs, which are literally killing people.

Tue, 07/10/2007 - 12:09am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Some people dealing with this law is not always the person who they are after and they get caught up. Just because they were with somebody and now they life is over do to the crack guide lines. What about the person family? What about there kids? What about the child growing up without a parent? What about how there family is going to surivie? Or is that that they dont never want us to get ahead?

Tue, 07/21/2009 - 2:30pm Permalink

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