Blog Post

Congress Is Trying to Make It Easier for Jeff Sessions and the DEA to Outlaw Any Drug They Want

Stefanie Jones

UPDATE (6/15/18): The House passed the SITSA Act 239-142. We’re disappointed to lose this vote but confident we can stop the Senate from moving the bill. Thanks to all who helped! Stay tuned for more updates and ways to take action.

There are a lot of problems about the way the United States decides whether to make drugs illegal or not. Unfortunately, it may be about to get worse.

The House of Representatives is about to vote on a bill that, if it passes, would give the DEA and Justice Department nearly unilateral power to make any new substance illegal – without checking with any scientists or health officials at all. That’s why it’s crucial to tell House members to vote NO on the SITSA Act.

The SITSA (“Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues”) Act is ostensibly intended to stem the rising number of hospitalizations and deaths related to novel psychoactive substances (NPS). NPS, or analogue drugs, are substances that are chemically similar to “classics” already outlawed like heroin, cannabis and MDMA. Some NPS have already been prohibited – but as soon as they are made illegal, new versions show up on the market.

It’s a vexing problem – which Congress is offering a completely wrongheaded solution to.

The most egregious part of this bill involves giving the Attorney General the power to apply penalties to any new drug without having to prove the drug is harmful, or confer with science or health officials at all. The idea of offering this power any individual – especially the Attorney General, who typically has no background in drug or health science – is already problematic. But given that our current Attorney General is Jeff Sessions, who is known for his regressive and uninformed opinions about drugs, it is terrifying.

Based on Sessions’ whims, millions of people could become criminals overnight and thousands more could end up behind bars. This is the last thing we need in a country already so overwhelmed by the number of people in prison we’ve developed a shorthand term to talk about it: mass incarceration. While the legislation is focused on sales and trafficking, most people arrested for sales are also users – there simply isn’t a bright line between these two groups. Merely sharing drugs with a friend can land you in prison for “drug distribution”.

The potential impact of this breathtakingly ill-advised legislation isn’t just confined to new drugs, either. Botanical substances, like kratom, are also caught up in the mix. Kratom, a medicinal plant used for millennia in Southeast Asia, is also used by millions of people in the U.S. – and many have found that it has helped them cut back or quit using opioids. The SITSA Act is written in such a way that the Attorney General is not limited to outlawing substances we know little to nothing about, but can even schedule those that have a long and well-documented history of beneficial human use.

Even for truly new substances that arise, legislation that allows one person to outlaw them at a whim closes down any possibility of discovering value in these drugs. Simply because a drug has the potential to be harmful does not mean it can’t also be useful. We must not let avenues of research and learning be closed off by fear-based legislation like this.

The SITSA Act, while aimed at addressing a real concern, is a truly awful piece of legislation that would upend the U.S.’s already-flawed process for criminalizing certain drugs and create an entirely new “Schedule A” with substances to be outlawed based solely on the Attorney General’s opinion.

Urge your Congress member to vote NO on SITSA – so that “Schedule A” does not become a reality where “A” stands for “Anything” the Attorney General feels like, with the potential to impact “Anyone.”

Stefanie Jones is the director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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