Congress Passes, President Signs Omnibus Funding Bill That Has Reform Advocates Fuming [FEATURE]

The Fiscal Year 2022 Omnibus appropriations bill signed into law by President Biden on Tuesday has drug reform and civil rights groups fuming over both what was left out and what made the final cut. The bill extends class-wide scheduling and harsh criminal penalties for fentanyl-related substances, underfunds harm reduction services, and still includes a rider that bars the District of Columbia from taxing and regulating marijuana sales.

Drug reform and civil rights groups are directing some ire at Capitol Hill. (Creative Commons)
"We're deeply disappointed in House and Senate leadership for allowing this version of the bill to move forward and neglecting this rare opportunity to advance long overdue reforms," the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said in a press release after the bill passed Congress last week.

Congress ended up allocating a measly $18 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Infectious Disease and the Opioid Epidemic program that supports needle exchange and overdose prevention program. While the figure is a $5 million increase over the last year, it fails to respond to urgent need to expand harm reduction services.

"With an overdose crisis that claimed more than 100,000 lives in 2021 alone, we urgently need to employ evidence-based services to save lives. Syringe services programs directly reach people at highest risk for overdose, HIV, hepatitis C and other infections, as well as other harms associated with drug use. It's past time that lawmakers prioritize making more of these lifesaving harm reduction services available," said DPA deputy director of National Affairs Grant Smith.

While Congress is not paying enough attention to harm reduction, its move to extend the Trump-era temporary class-wide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances will only increase the harms of criminal justice system exposure for people of color while failing to address the overdose crisis, civil rights advocates said. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 230 national groups, wrote a January letter to the White House opposing the move, and its members are not happy now.

"During the protests calling for police accountability and criminal-legal reform in 2020, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promised to pursue racial equity. This scheduling policy flies directly in the face of those promises," said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a press release following the vote. "For too long Black and Brown people and their communities have suffered from under-resourcing and over policing, due in large part to the war on drugs. Congress must stop trying to perpetuate mass incarceration and instead advance policies that actually help our communities navigate the overdose crisis as a public health issue."

"We are disappointed that Congress has continued the temporary class-wide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances instead of preventing opioid deaths through comprehensive legislation," said Marta Nelson, director of government strategy at the Vera Institute of Justice. "We urge Congress to use this time to work on a permanent solution -- one that saves lives through public health measures, narrows the definition of fentanyl-related substances subject to criminal prosecution, and removes mandatory minimum punishments. We must change our current approach to this crisis in a way that addresses public safety needs and the needs of communities of color."

"It's hard to believe Congress extended this 'temporary' policy yet again. Overdoses have only skyrocketed since it came into force. It is time to let this expire now," said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "Congress already has the tools they need to prosecute cases involving fentanyl-related substances. This cruel, over-broad approach hasn't helped, and continues to disproportionately impact Black and brown communities."

And then, there is the issue of marijuana in the nation's capital. DC residents overwhelmingly approved the Initiative 71 marijuana legalization measure in November 2014, but because the District, as a federal territory, cannot control its own budget, Congress has been able to block the District from being able to implement taxed and regulated marijuana sales. The "Harris rider," named after conservative Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), frustratingly remains intact despite Democratic control of both houses of Congress.

"We are very disappointed that Congress continues to prevent residents of DC from regulating cannabis despite their urgent and repeated requests for reform. Instead, Congress is forcing the District to maintain a gray market in which cannabis can be legally possessed and consumed by adults, but it cannot be legally sold, regulated, or tested, said Toi Hutchinson, President and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project in a press release. "This places consumers at risk, and entrepreneurs who live in this minority-majority community are denied the ability to open businesses that are available in every other legal cannabis jurisdiction."

That's a whole lot of disappointment and frustration with the Democratic leadership of the Congress. There may be more to come. The SAFE Banking Act remains stalled, and even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-NY) proposed marijuana legalization bill doesn't look like it has enough votes to pass. This could end up being a year to forget when it comes to responsible drug policies from Congress.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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