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Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #595)

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.

US Capitol, Senate side
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:

  • A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous. (See related story here)

  • The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
  • The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
  • Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
  • Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
  • The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
  • Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.

"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."

Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.

"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."

Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.

"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."

What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.

"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.

That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.

Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.

"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.

The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.

Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."

These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.

"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.

The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."

But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."

As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.

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.


Legalization is not a partisan issue. There are libertarians and republicans on the libertarian end of the spectrum who are solidly pro legalization. This is such an important movement for restoration of freedom and every ally should be embraced.

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 2:27pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

As Mr. Sterling says, "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change." But what do we mean by "culture"?

Parents may freak out at warnings that their children are "exposed"--but to what?

At this point in the discussion, if it surfaces in mass media, you are likely to see a picture of a "joint" (hot-burning overdose containing at least 500 mg. of herb-- just like a conventional commercial hot-burning overdose cigarette). Parents' fears of a "marijuana culture" imposed on their children are stoked by pictures of what is really an overdose tobacco culture masquerading as a marijuana culture.

One Congressman, now running for Senator, even joined the "skunkweed" scarehunt-- if the herb really is much stronger today, a "joint" could be devastating to your kid.

We forget this hot-burning 700-mg. cigarette "culture" was invented over a century ago mainly to get all tobacco addicts to buy as much tobacco as possible, making the most possible money for the companies. You can see pictures of long-stemmed one-hitters (in which one could burn 25-mg. of tobacco or whatever herb) in 19th century editions of "Huckleberry Finn", "Great Expectations" etc. Soon they were decried as filthy, unsanitary. The first big overdose advertising putsch doubled US consumption of cigarettes between 1913 and 1918. (Oh yes, something else happened in those years which helped sell cigarettes-- that's why the companies fund war-hungry politicians even today).

The way to win this "culture war" is to promote the definition of cannabis use as meaning a vaporizer, an e-cigarette with THC inside, or if you haven't the money for those, a long-stemmed one-hitter (with flexible drawtube). Repeat the idea that 25-mg. is the standard toke. Demand that commercial tobacco cigarettes have the true net weight of tobacco listed on the side of each cigarette (usually 700-mg.) and require stores with a tobacco sales license to exhibit pictures of safer equipment (25-mg. serving size) and offer same for sale. Attack overdose just as the scaremongers have attacked "drugs" up till now.

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 3:26pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)


Are there 40 doses in a gram? I'm a lightweight. I don't need much to get a buzz. I'm usually the first one to say, "no thanks, I've had enough," when a pipe or joint gets passed around. A gram of good pot will do the trick for me maybe ten or fifteen times. I haven't counted how many hits I get out of a gram, but it seems to me that 25 mg (1/40th of a gram) would only be one very small hit. Saying that's a serving size is kind of like when you see that a little bag of chips is supposed to be two servings according to the label, or that a 20 oz pop bottle is 2.5 servings. Few people are going to stop at half a hit, although I must admit I sometimes do that if I have really good pot and I haven't smoked in a while. I generally don't like to get really stoned, and even when I feel like getting stoned I don't keep smoking and smoking because I'm only going to get so high and I don't like to waste it. A quarter ounce usually lasts me months, but of course I usually smoke alone and I don't do it everyday and rarely will I do it more than once in a day.

I probably smoke less than most pot smokers, and I'll smoke more than 25 mg most every time I smoke. Clearly most people don't smoke a 500 mg joint all by themselves in one sitting, but I bet almost all will smoke a good bit more than 25 mg.

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 4:54pm Permalink
Underdog (not verified)

This bill should have been mentioned as it would move marijuana to Schedule II Controlled substance status and end myriad restrictions on cannabis research.

Call your congressman and demand action.

Fri, 07/24/2009 - 5:29pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

If you think the factions that keep Drugs Illegal are just going to lay down and say that these laws are Bad ones and really need to go away your kidding your self . I suspect that a great many of them truely belive that drugs are bad, any drug that isn`t controled , wait thats not what they mean , What i mean is you haven`t heard anything yet and they have lied about the effects and the problems for so many years that the public couldn`t help but belive the worst of everything . They want to keep us under control , because were just not smart enough to take control of our selves. When we get the politicians to get off their hindends and do the right things for all of us , not only here in the USA but for ther whole world we will probably be screaming holy crap Batman how could this BE!!

Sat, 07/25/2009 - 5:36am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It doesnt take much to get me going, Im lucky with that. But drug reform is not that big a deal in todays times anyhow. To reschedule mary jane from 1 to 2 with it have medical value and getting prescribed by your doctor, should not be a big deal. Allowing needle exchanges etc thats a bit more serious. Crack too. All drugs should be regulated.

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 3:20pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Legalising Cannabis would have impacts across the board, some positive and some negative. As responsible adults we must look at the facts of this situation and make decisions based on facts, not propaganda. When I look at who is profiting from keeping cannabis illegal, I see cartels running drugs over our border (more recently growing inside our border in publics parks) to gangs who then distribute the products to our kids. We see gangs fighting over turf, customers, to maintain their cash flow. Why do we continue to feed this chaotic cycle that just creates violence and criminals? Cannabis is currently the most used substance in the US, and yet we don't see very many cannabis related deaths compared to alcohol. Why do we not legalise and tax cannabis users, diverting the money from cartels to public works and community programs?

Cannabis has been proven to be less harmful then alcohol and cigarettes, less harmful not harmless. Why is it irresponsible to use a safer substance? I saw a comment earlier saying we should drill for oil, did you know that cannabis creates diesel fuel? Wouldn't that be a great way to help become energy independent, at the same time removing tons of CO2 from the atmosphere? Cannabis consumes vast amounts of CO2 while growing, as it is one of the only plants that can reach over 20' in 5 months. The uses of the cannabis plant are many, more then I would care to go into, as an industry for materials as well as for recreational consumers.

It makes sense to regulate a market that will not go away and is proven to be very stable. Why should we be paying taxes for people to be in jail for consuming a substance? If they are not committing any crime other then growing cannabis or consuming cannabis, why should we spend millions to keep them in jail with murders and rapist? I agree if they are commiting crimes, they need to be charged with that, with "committed while under the influence" tagged onto it, while raising the penalty, and mandate treatment classes, like we do with alcohol.

With the money we spend on fighting cannabis, we could spend on catching real criminals, the ones that rape, murder and kidnap. Yet we spend more fighting cannabis then those three. With the profits we reap from the taxes we can put into funding our schools and education for responsible use. I think that with 30 minutes of research, one can learn quite a bit about cannabis and its risks. Educating ourselves is the only answer, being closed minded will not make this problem go away, it will only make it worse. Look to our border with Mexico, a situation that has been created by prohibition as it did when alcohol was prohibited.

Taxes will be raised, why not tax a substance? Only those who choose to consume it will have to pay it. If we don't tax and regulate cannabis, what will they tax or raise taxes on next? Time to legalise and make cannabis consumers pay their share.

Sun, 07/26/2009 - 5:52pm Permalink
MLK (not verified)

why are we afraid of widespread dispensaries? Should we cower in fear and hold back while the left is in power? No, we should strike while the iron is hot and move forward as far as we can.

The sooner we have stakeholders in legitimate businesses paying salaries and taxes the sooner we win. Holding back because of lack of political progress in DC is silly, we're massively outgunned on that front, we'll be waiting an eternity to break through in Congress.

This reminds me of gay marriage advocate saying "we've gone too far, too soon!" when Massachusetts passed gay marriage, fortunately those people were ignored and now gay marriage is legal in several states, even Iowa.

"The time is always right to do what is right"

-Martin Luther King

Mon, 07/27/2009 - 1:58pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

1. To get 25-mg. servings, use a narrow (1/4" = 6-mm-i.d.) screened (40-mesh)-crater utensil with a long flexible drawtube, sifting herb before use so 25-mg. will consist of numerous particles. While sucking very slow through the drawtube, hold moderate lighter flame under the crater opening so it heats the herb without setting it afire; this will let THC vaporize out. If herb darkens, that is o.k. If some catches on fire, the burning particles will help heat unburning ones. You can give the lighter a rest after 10 seconds and breathe in and out of a 1-liter sack numerous times before resuming operation. Finally you may get impatient and burn off the toke, but by that time the herb should be dried out anyway from exvaporizing the vitamin. Eat the ashes which contain nutritionally available minerals. Scratch screen windows gently with a sharp pinpoint (don't dig too hard). (You can make the above-mentioned one-hitter with a 1/4" socket wrench piece, see wikiHow "How to Make Smoke Pipes out of Everyday Objects".)

2. Good point about hyperparental chauvinism. You can answer by reminding them that at least half of all hot burning overdose nicotine cigarette addicts (including the President as he told reporters on quitting smoking in 2007) were already hooked before they were legal age to smoke. And legal inexpensive one-hit skunkweed in a one-hitter or VAPORIZER might immunize millions of youngsters against ever getting hooked on a hot burning overdose of anything.

Fri, 09/04/2009 - 3:20pm Permalink

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