Progressive Democrat Dennis Kucinich takes over a new House subcommittee, signaling changes in
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Category: News and Politics
The Democratic sweep in the 2006 mid-term elections has done more than finally install a woman as speaker of the House. It has also put one of the most vocal critics of the ill-starred "War on Drugs" in a position to affect federal drug policy. On January 18, Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, one of the most progressive Democratic voices in the House, was appointed as chair of the new House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on domestic policy, causing drug reform organizations coast-to-coast to rejoice in hopes that a moment for significant change may have finally come.
This subcommittee replaces the now-defunct Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources subcommittee, which was headed up by staunch drug warrior, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). Kucinich will assume many of his oversight duties, including policy oversight of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed Drug Czar John Walters. One commentator on Stopthedrugwar.org crowed that "the responsibility of overseeing the ONDCP has effectively been transferred from Congress's most reckless drug warrior to its most outspoken drug policy reformer" [his emphasis].
"He is certainly the polar opposite of his predecessor, Mark Souder," says Allen St. Pierre, spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "Since the time the [ONDCP] was created in 1988, there have always been friendly people in that subcommittee and the ONDCP has always been able to get what they want under the guise of protecting children and saving America from drugs. But Kucinich doesn't believe any of that. Any of it!"
For instance, St. Pierre notes, Kucinich is a supporter of industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive product of the cannabis sativa plant. He is also a supporter of medical marijuana and of the federal rescheduling of marijuana, where it is currently illegal as a Schedule I drug, classified as having "no medical value." This classification clashes with states such as California, which have legalized medical use of marijuana, and leads directly to the current rash of raids on medical marijuana dispensaries by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Kucinich is expected, St. Pierre says, to be a sponsor of a new bill to be introduced in March that would decriminalize pot.
Washington insiders, however, are not holding their breath for great upheaval in federal drug policy overall. Sources close to the appointment, who asked not to be named, say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership have effectively embargoed major crime or drug policy legislation for the next two years, to avoid looking soft on crime in the 2008 election.
Kucinich, however, is promising a couple years of entertaining and edifying hearings.
"We're going to open up the discussion to new hearings," says Kucinich, interviewed Sunday in Culver City, where he presented his bill for Universal Health Care, which is co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI). "We want to explore the federal government's policies and the Department of Justice's policies on medical marijuana, for example. We need to also look at the drug laws that have brought about mandatory minimum sentences that have put people in jail for long periods of time. I think it's an appropriate time to look at the proliferation of drugs in America, and how that fits in with our health care crisis, and how that fits in with law enforcement."
The ONDCP did not reply to several requests for comment. That office, however, which is a function of the executive branch, has been deeply involved in pushing heavy sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and resisting medical marijuana, buying big-money ad campaigns attacking marijuana in states trying to legalize at the state level. Controlling that ad money could be a key to reform. When asked if his subcommittee has any budget oversight or other muscle, Kucinich shook his head and added, "No, this committee does not have control of the budgets, but it does have control of the policy, and it can ask questions and get documents that others couldn't get."
That can make a difference, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the nation's biggest drug policy reform organizations. His group plans to push for incremental slices of legislation that can move a progressive agenda while not upsetting Democratic unity, adding that Kucinich can "hold hearings on some of the subjects that haven't been addressed in, you know, decades. Like a hearing on America having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Or maybe a hearing on why the DEA has jurisdiction over medical issues.
"One can obviously empathize with the democratic leadership's desire to be cautious when it comes to supporting drug policy reforms and other sentencing reforms," he adds. "But when you have a growing number of Republicans supporting sentencing reform, this might be a good time for the Democrats to show a little leadership."
In fact, several activists point out, the new Congress may be the most sympathetic to drug-law reform that America has ever seen. Progressives like Senator Richard Durbin and Reps. Pelosi, George Miller, Conyers, Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, Kucinich, and Bobby Scott have all turned up in leadership positions.
"If we had to pick out our 40 best friends in Congress, they'd be disproportionately in leadership positions," says Nadelmann. He includes Sen. Patrick Leahy on that list, but cautions: "Mind you, seven years ago, Leahy said that sentencing reform was one of the top priorities, but now it's not even a top-10 priority. Part of that's because there's so much other stuff to deal with."
Still, action on several fronts is expected. Sentencing reform should get some attention, with an aim of reducing the number of non-violent drug offenders currently getting long prison sentences, which has given the U.S. the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. One such change would be to make sentences involving crack cocaine equal to those given for powdered cocaine, as community activists have long contended these simply punish the black and poor who are more likely to use the drug in the form of crack. Hearings might also bring new media scrutiny to decades-long marijuana rescheduling motions and several Data Quality Act petitions, which force bodies like the Food and Drug Administration to make decisions based on science rather than ideology, and which have been roundly ignored by the Bush administration.
St. Pierre points out another potential point of influence: High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or HIDTAs. Congress funnels millions of dollars to local law enforcement for use in these areas, and activists have long argued they are wrongly prioritized.
"That's a very obscure acronym, but when it comes down to the billions of dollars that get channeled out to local governments and their law enforcement, HIDTA is the battleground. That's where Dennis can come in and say, 'Mr. Walters, we the Congress, and, clearly, your own constituents want methamphetamines as the number one priority, not marijuana, and certainly not in the states that have medical marijuana laws.' A couple of weeks ago, Walters was out in Fresno giving awards away for busting buyers' clubs. Dennis can clip those wings. It all depends on how he's going to want to pull the trigger."
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