What Will a Democratic Congress Mean for Drug Reform?

One of the articles I'm working on this week will be called "Drug Reform and the Democratic Congress: What's Really Going to Happen?" I've already talked to a number of inside the beltway drug reform types--the folks who actually work the halls of Congress--and I've got feelers out to more, as well as to the offices of several of the congressional Democrats who will be chairing key committees. There are quite a few drug policy-related issues that could come before the Congress next year. You can find my initial list of them a couple of paragraphs below. Here's how the article is likely to begin: 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 after 12 long years out in the cold. 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 goodies only to snatch them away? The 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; • 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 is 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 or 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; • 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 made sympathetic noises 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 government relations *** 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." There will be much more on Friday...
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