The Drug War Redux…
The Drug War is back and it is about to be supercharged!
For almost a century, the feds have treated drugs addiction and recreational drug use as a criminal problem. This policy has led to overstuffed prisons, criminalization of communities based on race and class, violations of civil rights, restrictions on civil liberties, an inflexible criminal justice system, and corruption at all levels of government, while doing nothing to solve the “problem.”
One of Obama’s positives is that under his administration the U.S. started to ease into a sane drug policy, the result of years of grassroots organizing. The “compassionate care” movement — which gained ground under Bush II — saw California legalize marijuana for medicinal use. This re-branding of pot softened public attitudes toward the drug and put lie to anti-cannabis scare-mongering. Legal medical marijuana did not lead to an “epidemic” of addiction. Weed dealers did not mob school yards and playgrounds. No one smoked themselves into “marijuana psychosis” and wandered the streets with a knife. Conservatives started seeing money in pot and another “vice” to tax. The anti-pot generation started to die off as more people tried the stuff. Legal medical marijuana opened the door to legal, recreational pot use in Colorado and Washington. The Obama admin adopted a mostly hands-off policy. The world did not implode.
Decades of very tenacious organizing by advocates of criminal justice reform started to reverse the Drug War’s excesses. Many states examined their Lock’em Up policies, measuring their effectiveness and found nothing. The Tough on Drug Crime approach was doing little more than filling jails and draining coffers. Despite billions spent on locking drug users and dealers up, users still wanted drugs and dealers were happy to deal. Dealers who were part of criminal syndicates were fine with operating from prison, where they found plenty of soldiers for their organizations. Prison gangs were happy to have a lucrative trade there to welcome them when they got out. Police departments got addicted to drug money through asset forfeiture, deepening corruption and putting a point on racist policing policies. Private enterprise slithered its way into every aspect of the Drug War, profiteering and perpetuating a social and health crisis. Trillions of dollars were being wasted on an idiotic, incompetent, corrupt war, so much so that even conservatives started wondering if there was a better way.
When Obama left office, the nation was on its way to a rational, sane drug policy — not quite there but it was something. Now, that something is being attacked. No surprise — as Donald Trump’s surrogate on the campaign trail, Jeff Sessions cranked Trump’s Drug War babble to ten. Sessions used the so-called Opioid Epidemic as a whipping-post, attacking Obama’s reforms and hands-off policy on state’s marijuana laws (ahem, what happened to “states rights,” Mr. Sessions).
Once appointed Attorney General, Sessions acted on his words. Federal prosecutors are now to charge the accused with whatever they could charge, go for max sentences, and no plea deals. Obama’s marijuana policy has been reversed and federal agents must prepare to take down marijuana businesses in states where it is legal, recreational and medicinal. Soft drugs are to be treated as any other drugs. All illegal drug use is criminal. Opioid addiction is a crime. And, now, congress is here to help him out.
Two weeks ago, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Diane Feinstein (D-California) introduced the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act of 2017. It now sits in the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the House, Rep. John Katko (R-NY) and co-sponsor Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) introduced H.R.2851 — SITSA Act, a mirror of Grassley/Feinstein’s legislation. It is now in the House Energy and Commerce and the House Judiciary committees.
As the bill’s title suggests the SISTA Act addresses synthetic drug analogues. Concocted by underground chemists, analogues are drug formulations that mimic the effect of a controlled substance but have a chemical pattern unique enough to make them technically legal.
Read scare stories on the Opioid Epidemic and you’ve come across the drug Fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful opiate, as strong as heroin but more sleepy than euphoric. It is widely prescribed — there is even a Fentanyl lollipop! — but since the opioid scare doctors and pharmacists have been under the fed’s eyeball and it has become harder to find on the street. Enter the underground chemist.
Seeing a demand with a restricted supply, the underground chemist makes a synthetic analogue of Fentanyl and floats it on the market packaged as the real thing. Problem for the consumer is that, unlike the controlled substance, Fentanyl analogues can vary in strength and toxicity. The user buys what he thinks is Fentanyl. It is really an analogue. He takes his usual dose and O.D.s.
The cops lean on the user to give up the dealer. They bust the dealer. Even though the dealer was selling an analogue, because he was selling it as Fentanyl and Fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, the law sees him as selling a controlled substance. But, this is where the prosecutable crime ends. Because analogues aren’t controlled, if the chemist (or his agent) is selling an analogue as an analogue, technically the chemist is doing nothing wrong. Often analogues come from overseas — Eastern Europe and China, typically — and can be legally imported as analogues until the analogue is scheduled as a controlled substance.
What the SISTA Act does is give the Attorney General authorization to classify analogues as a Schedule A drug. This would be a new category used for any drug that was chemically similar to a controlled substance. A drug would be considered Schedule A for no more than five years or until it was determined Schedule I — V.
I say all this drug classification stuff is bullshit. It is based on politics, economics, and repressive morality, not health or science. For example, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, one of the deadliest of the deadly, an equal to heroin. LSD, mescaline, peyote, and psilocybin are also Schedule I. The danger of these hallucinogens? Seeing through the bullshit of the world, perhaps. Cocaine, morphine, and opium are Schedule II drugs. Is weed really as dangerous as meth? Magic mushrooms worse than opium? What good is a new classification when the current ones make no sense?
But, let’s say that you agree with drug classifications. Why do we need a new one? And why must the Attorney General call the shots? Right now, under the Controlled Substance Act the Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Agency have the power to determine if a drug is scheduled and what its schedule is. They can create temporary and emergency listings. Bath salts — yesterday’s drug scare of choice — was immediate made a Schedule I drug after a Floridian or two developed a taste for face. If a synthetic analogue is a problem, DEA or DHS can schedule it.
The Drug Enforcement Agency operates under the Department of Justice, which is ruled by the Attorney General. If the AG wants a drug scheduled, he can get on the phone and tell the head of the DEA (if there is one) to schedule the drug. No need to give the AG more power, especially on something that should be dealt as a health issue not through law enforcement. As conservatives are fond of saying, we do not need more laws. We need to use the ones we have.
And, for christsake, even if there is some logic to SISTA, it makes absolutely no sense to give Jeff Sessions any more power than he currently has. SISTA would enable Sessions to make drug policy. Sessions is unqualified to do this: He is not a doctor or a substance abuse expert. He is “America’s top cop,” a politically appointed cop. He has a political agenda. Worse, he has signaled that he will operate in secret and outside the rule of law. Forget the “Opioid Epidemic,” you don’t give corrupt authoritarians more tools to oppress people!
Some might be surprised to see that there are Democrats co-sponsoring these bills. If so, they forget that the Drug War is what “bi-partisan compromise” looks like! Nixon might have created the War on Drugs, but it was waged by both parties with equal fury. Dems and Repugs often competed for who could be the best drug warrior. Always running strong was California’s Diane Feinstein. To see her leading the charge on the wrong side of this issue is not a shock. This is what DiFi does.
The question now becomes, what will libertarian and conservative Republicans do about this one. Surely, Rand Paul must be organizing opposition. Will Republicans who embraced criminal justice reform a year ago cave on this.
What about Democrats? So far, almost all of Trump’s initiatives have been met unified Democratic opposition. But, it is easy to line up against the Muslim travel ban, Trump’s Wall, and decimating Medicaid. Back in February, when Feinstein made noises that she would run for reelection, I mentioned it on an Indivisible facebook group and wrote that grassroots folks should start talking about running someone to the left of Feinstein. I explained that the chances of overcoming DiFi were slim and that her Senate seat was hers til she died. Still, I was savaged, accused of “eating our own.” The moderator for that group, shut down the discussion with the words, “We want her as an ally, not an enemy.” So, I ask, “Now what?” This is indefensible legislation that will give unprecedented power to an unelected official, the top law enforcement officer in the country. A Democrat is a sponsor of this legislation. Do you fight her on it or do you stand silent? Are you for party or are you for country? What do you stand for?
Illustration: “War On Drugs” by ABCNT.