The “Do-nothing Congress” moved the needle on drug reform
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The narrative we often hear about Congress is that it is unproductive and unable to tackle major issues. Yet the past two years have seen a quiet unraveling of the war on drugs. The recent release of Drug Policy Action’s Congressional scorecard underlines the fact that both parties in Congress are taking huge steps away from the failed policies of the war on drugs.

The 114th session was a landmark year for marijuana reform. After years of toiling in the wilderness, advocates rejoiced at movement on marijuana in the Senate. There had previously been no marijuana-related bills introduced in the Senate; by October 2016 there were almost 10.

The one that came first made the biggest impact – the CARERS Act. The Booker-Paul-Gillibrand bill to let states set their own medical marijuana policy was met with praise by the media and public alike. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Cardi B posts message of support for Ilhan Omar #IStandWithIlhan trends after crowd at Trump rally chants 'send her back' MORE’ bill to end federal prohibition for all forms of marijuana (medical or recreational), also received a lot of positive attention, not least because he was running for president.

But it wasn’t just a time to celebrate the introduction of bills. Advocates also won a number of important votes. On the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee became the scene of many historic victories, with seven wins out of seven on a range of marijuana issues from allowing banks to provide services to marijuana businesses to allowing veterans access to medical marijuana. On the House side, a floor vote allowing vets access to medical marijuana failed by three votes in 2015 but won by 44 votes in 2016 – a sign of the momentum on this issue. And worryingly for prohibitionists everywhere, advocates came within striking distance in a vote to prevent the feds from blocking marijuana reform in states that have legalized, a de facto vote on ending prohibition.

Criminal justice reform is another “almost there” tale. The flagship bill – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – would reduce mandatory minimums for drug offenses and apply many of these changes retroactively, impacting thousands of individuals. The bill sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with the support of Senators Grassley, Cornyn, Durbin and Leahy, amongst others, but was unable to make it to the floor. On the House side, advocates still hope that Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOcasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump MORE will keep his promise and bring the House version of the bill to the floor.

Either way, there is a sense of inevitability around sentencing reform.

One other major victory for advocates involved stopping the DEA from banning kratom. Kratom is a medicinal plant that many individuals use to treat opioid addiction. Prominent members of Congress including Senators Hatch and Booker, sent letters to the DEA criticizing the proposed kratom ban and calling on the agency to provide a public comment period. The DEA had never backed down when using its controversial emergency powers to ban a substance, so the victor has broad ramifications. Advocates were also able to lift the federal ban on syringe program funding, a move that will save lives.

It wasn’t all good news for drug policy reformers. One theme which has emerged is that while members recognize incarceration is not the answer for commonly known drugs like heroin or marijuana, many still believe that “tough on crime” policies work for new drugs, with which they are unfamiliar. The House passed a dreadful synthetic drugs bill that would increase sentences for people who use drugs. And advocates have had to push back against bills intended to increase penalties for fentanyl – an opioid that is mixed with heroin and linked to many overdose deaths. Draconian bills from Senator Ayotte (R-NH) – who wished to dramatically increase penalties for small amounts of fentanyl – and Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) - who wants people selling fentanyl to get the death penalty – should be a thing of the past, but advocates must still work hard to defeat these measures.

Thankfully, there are more drug policy champions than ever, and on both sides of the aisle. Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Overnight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners MORE (D-OR) are among the many members who have pushed to end the futile war on marijuana. However, drug warriors remain. Rep. John FlemingJohn Calvin FlemingThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles Overnight Energy: Watchdog opens investigation into Interior chief | Judge halts Pruitt truck pollution rule decision | Winners, losers in EPA, Interior spending bill amendments MORE (R-LA) and Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) still think the public will buy their reefer madness rants. And two Democrats from Massachusetts, representatives Joe Kennedy and Bill Keating, think the feds should be able to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients who follow state law. Finally, in one of the most egregious abuses of power, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) used his position as Appropriations Committee chair to strip out an amendment allowing veterans to access medical marijuana from a final bill, even though it had already passed the House and Senate.

The outlook for next year is more positive than ever. Criminal justice reform will take center stage, and with more states likely to legalize marijuana in November, the end of the federal war on marijuana is close. Don’t say it too loudly, but drug policy is one area where Congress manages to get things done.

Collins is the Deputy Director of Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. Follow the Drug Policy Alliance on Twitter @DrugPolicyOrg


 

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