Congress Gets Its Act Together: Repeals Ban on Syringe Exchange Funding, Allows D.C. to Enact Medical Marijuana Program


Washington, D.C. finally seems to be getting the message that the war on drugs has failed.

Following years of resistance if not outright hostility to reforming our nation's drug laws, Congress has passed two major changes to U.S.drug policy as part of an end-of-year omnibus spending package that President Obama signed into law yesterday. First, the legislation repeals a decades-old policy that prohibited cities and states from using their share of federal HIV/AIDS prevention money to fund syringe exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases without increasing drug use by allowing intravenous drug users to trade in their used syringes for sterile ones.

In addition, the bill overturns a provision that barred the city of Washington, D.C. from implementing a medical marijuana law approved overwhelmingly by District voters back in 1998. The city will now be free to set its own medical marijuana policies.

The lifting of the syringe exchange funding ban represents a huge victory for HIV/AIDS prevention and drug policy reform that will protect hundreds of thousands of Americans from contracting life-threatening diseases. Reform advocates are excited that federal money could soon start flowing to syringe exchange programs around the country, and the change in policy would not have been possible without the strong leadership of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Congressman David Obey (D-WI), Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and others who had the courage to stand up for science over drug war hysteria.

The move to allow Washington,D.C.voters to determine their own medical marijuana policies represents another watershed, as Congress has made good on President Obama's promise to halt federal government interference in local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana. Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people, and now the capital city is free to join the 13 states that allow the use of medical marijuana by qualified patients

While there remains a lot of work to do both in the states and at the federal level to dismantle the drug war, the reforms passed this month by Congress signal a national shift toward more sensible U.S.drug policies. For example, in April, New York State reformed its harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for most low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. In November,Maine citizens voted to establish compassion centers to distribute medical marijuana to patients. And the New Jersey legislature this month is expected to pass legislation allowing judges to waive mandatory minimum penalties for certain nonviolent drug law offenses.New Jersey also stands poised to legalize marijuana for medical use. Meanwhile, dozens of states have overhauled their harsh sentencing laws to reduce incarceration and increase the availability of treatment.

On the campaign trail, President Obama called for treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice matter, and it looks like he is beginning to follow through on his pledges. Administration officials have endorsed syringe exchange programs, called for federal sentencing reform and taken steps to reorient U.S.drug policy toward more of a demand-reduction approach. In March, the Justice Department said it would no longer arrest and prosecute individuals who use, grow or distribute marijuana for medical purposes as long as they are following their state's medical marijuana laws, ending a brutal Bush Administration policy.

It's too soon to say that America's long national nightmare, "the war on drugs," is really over, but this recent 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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