Drug War Sea Change in the US Congress?

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.”

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