Congress Makes Two Major Stealth Moves to Reform the Drug War

The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning includes several drug reform provisions, although reformers didn't get everything they wanted. The bill includes language blocking the Justice Department and DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws or hemp research projects and also lifts a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs. 


But Congress failed to approve amendments to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses or allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, despite the Senate having approved both. And the Congress again included provisions that block Washington, D.C. from taxing and regulating marijuana. 

The language blocking the Justice Department from going after medical marijuana where it is legal also came in the form of an amendment from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), which was passed last year, but had to be renewed this year. In the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) sponsored the amendment. 

Drug and criminal justice reformers welcomed the progress on Capitol Hill. 

"The renewal of this amendment should bring relief for medical marijuana patients and business owners," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "For decades Congress has been responsible for passing disastrous drug laws. It’s encouraging to see them starting to roll back the war on drugs by allowing states to set their own medical marijuana policies." 

"Patients who benefit from medical marijuana should not be treated like dangerous criminals, and the businesses that support them need to be protected from the old drug war mentality that still runs deep within the DEA," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "It’s very encouraging to see such widespread support for protecting state’s rights and the rights of patients." 

Reformers also cheered the removal of the ban on states and localities spending federal funds for needle exchange programs. The ban had been put in place in the midst of drug war and AIDS hysteria in 1988 and was repealed in 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers, but reinstated by congressional Republicans after they regained control of the House in 2011. 

Since then, outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis C in southwestern Indiana and the impact of rising heroin use in states like Kentucky and West Virginia have weakened Republican opposition to restoring the funding. 

"Syringe access programs are a sound public health intervention, rooted in science, and proven to drastically reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C," said DPA's Collins. "Lifting this archaic ban will save thousands of lives." 

“Needle exchange is a public health and safety necessity,” said retired corrections officer and LEAP speaker Patrick Heintz. "This new law will not only protect those who use drugs from disease, but it will help prevent other innocent victims who come into intimate contact with people who use IV drugs that have been forced for so long to share contaminated needles." 

Needle exchange programs are proven to reduce the spread of HIV, Hep C, and other blood-borne diseases and are supported by every major medical and public health organization, including the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bar Association, and U.S. Conference of Mayors, as well as UNICEF, the World Bank, and International Red Cross-Red Crescent Society.

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