Drug War Sea Change in the US Congress?

By chillinwill · Dec 10, 2009 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    Domestic Initiatives Are Cause for Hope; Foreign Drug War Funding Remains Unchanged For Now

    The United States Congress set its sights on the drug war this week. Legislators have or will consider several important bills that address the drug war at home and abroad. According to decriminalization advocates, the news is mostly good.

    On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives unanimously voted to create the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission. This week the House is expected to vote on the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which includes measures that would repeal a national syringe funding ban and allow Washington, DC, to establish a medical marijuana program. The Appropriations Act, also known as the Omnibus bill, also includes further funding for violent drug wars in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia.

    Drug Policy Commission

    The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission will evaluate US drug policy in the Western Hemisphere and "submit recommendations on future US drug policy to Congress, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)," according to Federal Information & News Dispatch.

    The Commission has been created upon the premise that the drug war has failed in the Western Hemisphere. "Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean. In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between. Clearly, the time has come to take a fresh look at our counternarcotics efforts here at home and throughout the Americas, and the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission will do just that," said Rep. Eliot Engel, who proposed the bill creating the commission.

    Engel says that in examining US drug policy in the region, the Commission will look at domestic prevention and treatment programs. This is an aspect of US drug policy that has, up until now, been sorely neglected. Relative to the vast resources the US government devotes to law enforcement and military solutions to problems associated with drug abuse and trafficking, treatment in particular appears to be merely an afterthought.

    Needle Exchange

    The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) happily reports that the House version of the 2010 Omnibus bill includes language that "would repeal the decades-old policy prohibiting cities and states from using their share of HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchange programs which reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases."

    According to Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use."

    However, needle exchange programs are largely critical of the measure. The House version of the Omnibus bill, while explicitly repealing the federal funding ban, prohibits federal funding for needle exchange programs located within 1,000 feet of any place where children might gather, such as arcades, public swimming pools, libraries, colleges, schools, and parks. The New York Times reports that the provision "would apply to a majority of the country's approximately 200 exchanges." In particular, critics argue that it would be nearly impossible to find office space that complies with the provision in large cities such as Chicago, New York, and Washington.

    “This 1,000-foot rule is simply instituting the ban in a different form,” Rebecca Haag, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, told the New York Times. “Clearly the intent of this rule is to nullify the lifting of the ban.”

    Despite its drawback, the repeal would allow existing and new needle exchange programs located outside the 1,000-foot perimeter to receive federal funding.

    Because the Omnibus bill provides critical funding for a wide array of government agencies, it is highly likely the bill will pass.

    Medical Marijuana

    In 1998, 69% of voters in Washington, DC, approved a ballot initiative that would have "legalize[d]--for medical purposes only--the possession, use, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana in the District of Columbia, and maintain the prohibition and criminal sanctions against the use of marijuana for any nonmedical purpose."

    US Representative Bob Barr quickly sprung into action to protect DC residents--against their will--from the chronically ill pot smokers amongst them. He added an amendment to the DC budget (which Congress controls despite the fact that not a single voting member of Congress is actually a permanent DC resident) to stop the referendum. His amendment prohibited funding for the ballot initiative, preventing the certification of the referendum results by the Board of Elections and Ethics after the election.

    The Barr amendment held for over ten years--until now. The Barr amendment is notably absent from the proposed 2010 Omnibus bill, allowing the DC government to reinitiate the process of enacting the initiative if the bill passes Congress.

    Business as Usual in Foreign Drug Wars

    Despite its promising and long overdue domestic drug measures, the 2010 Omnibus bill contains even more funding for the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia. The Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia provide military and law enforcement funding to Mexico, Central America, and Colombia to fight the war on drugs, and, in Colombia's case, insurgents. Both initiatives have failed to reduce drug trafficking and production. On the contrary, drug production and trafficking is on the rise in Mexico and Colombia, where the bulk of military and law enforcement funds are directed.

    The Omnibus bill includes $210.25 million for Mexico under the Merida Initiative. Less than 5% of that aid is for development assistance. $190 million is for law enforcement, and $5.25 million is for military equipment and training.

    The Initiative's controversial human rights conditions apply to about 15% of those funds. The final bill chastises the State Department over a report it submitted to Congress on Mexico's compliance with four human rights conditions laid out in the Merida Initiative. Congress notes that the report did not comply with the Merida Initiative conditions because the report did not actually state that Mexico had met the requirements in the law.

    The Omnibus bill also includes $83 million to Central America under the Merida Initiative. The bill explicitly includes money for Honduras, which is currently controlled by a coup government and therefore should be ineligible for foreign aid. Given the Merida Initiative's emphasis on law enforcement and military funding, and the de facto Honduran government's propensity to use law enforcement and the military to repress coup opponents, the inclusion of funding for Honduras is troubling.

    Colombia will also receive $251.88 million under Plan Colombia. Unlike the Merida Initiative, Plan Colombia includes (in addition to law enforcement and domestic military funding) money for US military presence in Colombia. The funds can be used to target insurgent organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

    An End in Sight?

    This week's congressional drug war initiatives are promising. On the domestic front, Congress has finally begun to accept scientifically-proven alternatives to prohibition, such as needle exchanges and medical marijuana. On the other hand, Congressional funding for violent drug wars in foreign countries continues unabated. However, the creation of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission has the potential to carry out a long-overdue holistic investigation and analysis of drug control policy both at home and abroad. Hopefully its recommendations will reflect the growing awareness that law enforcement and military solutions to drug-related problems hurt more people than they help.

    Drug Policy Alliance executive directory Ethan Nadelmann argues, “It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare – the war on drugs – is really over. But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.”

    Kristin Bricker
    December 9, 2009
    The Narcosphere

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  1. chillinwill
    Congressional Budget Deal Allows Medical Marijuana and Federal Funding for Needle Exchange in the Nation's Capital

    US House and Senate negotiators in conference committee approved the finishing touches on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget Tuesday night, and they included a number of early Christmas presents for different drug reform constituencies. But it isn’t quite a done deal yet--this negotiated version of the FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act must now win final approved in up-or-down, no-amendments-allowed floor votes in the House and the Senate.

    What the conference committee approved:

    * Ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs--without previous language that would have banned them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and similar facilities.

    * Ending the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia.

    * Allowing the District of Columbia to implement the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1998 and blocked by congressional diktat ever since.

    * Cutting funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from $70 million this year to $45 million next year.

    In a news release after agreement was reached, this is how the committee described the language on needle exchange:

    Modifies a prohibition on the use of funds in the Act for needle exchange programs; the revised provision prohibits the use of funds in this Act for needle exchange programs in any location that local public health or law enforcement agencies determine to be inappropriate

    Its description of the DC appropriations language:

    Removing Special Restrictions on the District of Columbia:...Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities.

    And its language on the youth media campaign:

    National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: $45 million, $25 million below 2009 and the budget request, for a national ad campaign providing anti-drug messages directed at youth. Reductions were made in this program because of evaluations questioning its effectiveness. Part of the savings was redirected to other ONDCP drug-abuse-reduction programs.

    Citing both reforms in the states--from medical marijuana to sentencing reform--as well as the conference committee’s actions, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann stopped just short of declaring victory Wednesday. “It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare – the war on drugs – is really over,” said Nadelmann. “But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.”

    But, as noted above, there are still two votes to go, and DPA is applying the pressure until it is a done deal. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban,” said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives.”

    Washington, DC, residents got a two-fer from the committee when it approved ending the ban on the District funding needle exchanges and undoing the Barr Amendment, the work of erstwhile drug warrior turned reformer former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), which forbade the District from implementing the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which won with 69% of the vote.

    “Congress is close to making good on President Obama’s promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana,” said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people.”

    "The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest."

    Medical marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol? Federal dollars being spent on proven harm reduction techniques? Congress not micromanaging DC affairs? What is the world, or at least Washington, coming to?

    Phillip Smith
    December 9, 2009
    Stop The Drug War
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