U.S.: Congress Adopts Significant Drug Policy Reforms In New Spending Bill

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By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

Congress on Friday morning passed a must-pass spending bill that includes language that stops the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice from spending money to block the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. The amendment was passed last year on a temporary basis and had to be renewed this year.

“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 (DPA). “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 Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for 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.”

The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), and approved by the House this summer by 242 votes to 186. The Senate Appropriations Committee subsequently passed the same amendment, sponsored by Sen. Mikulski (D-MD), by 21 to 9. The amendment has already been used to successfully litigate certain court cases. In October, a federal judge threw out a case brought by the DEA against a medical marijuana dispensary by citing the amendment.

The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment protects medical marijuana businesses that abide by state law from federal interference. Federal law still lists marijuana under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category supposedly relegated to drugs that have no medical value or applicable uses in medical settings and extremely high potential for abuse and addiction.

Until the amendment was passed, federal enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were still able to shut down facilities despite state law. A federal judge in California upheld the amendment in October after the DEA brought a case against a medical marijuana business owner.

Provisions preventing Washington DC from taxing and regulating marijuana were included once again, while amendments to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses and to allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana were not included, despite the Senate’s approval of both.

Meanwhile, in a huge win for public health, Congress has included language in the spending bill that would enable states and localities to spend federal funds on syringe access programs, effectively lifting the decades-long ban on federal funding for such life-saving programs.

“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 Michael Collins, deputy director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Lifting this archaic ban will save thousands of lives.”

“Needle exchange is a public health and safety necessity,” said retired corrections officer, substance abuse counselor, 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.”

The ban was put in place in 1988 at the height of hysteria around the Drug War and HIV. It was repealed in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, but reinstated by Republicans in Congress in 2011 after they regained control of the House. But outbreaks of HIV in Indiana, and the rise in heroin use in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, have forced Republicans to rethink their opposition to syringe access programs.

Restricting access to sterile syringes among people who inject drugs has been proven to lead to syringe sharing – a major cause of HIV infections. Clear evidence shows that allowing adults to access sterile syringes – through syringe exchange programs and non-prescription sales of syringes – prevents the transmission of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases, without contributing to increased drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes.

Such programs are also cost-effective. Syringe access programs 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.

In countries where addiction is treated as a health issue, the fight against HIV/AIDS is being won. New HIV infections in countries such as Australia, Germany and Switzerland have been virtually eliminated among people who use drugs, just as mother-to-child HIV transmission has been eliminated in countries that make medicines for pregnant women accessible.

The language modifying the ban is as follows:

SEC. 520. Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, no funds appropriated in this Act shall be used to purchase sterile needles or syringes for the hypodermic injection of any illegal drug: Provided, That such limitation does not apply to the use of funds for elements of a program other than making such purchases if the relevant State or local health department, in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, determines that the State or local jurisdiction, as applicable, is experiencing, or is at risk for, a significant increase in hepatitis infections or an HIV outbreak due to injection drug use, and such program is operating in accordance with State and local law.