Congress Set to Escalate War on Drugs, Despite Decades of Failure and Unaffordable Price Tag

Press Release December 6, 2011
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Grant Smith 202-669-6573</p>

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on two bills that would escalate the war on drugs. One bill scheduled to be voted on today would criminalize possession and sales of chemical compounds found in products such as "K2," "Spice," and "bath salts."  A second bill which is expected to be voted on next week would make it a federal crime to plan to engage in an activity in another country that would violate U.S. drug laws if actually committed in the U.S. – even if the activity is actually legal in the other country.

Both bills are expected to pass and would subject more Americans to lengthy federal prison terms while increasing prison expenses that taxpayers have to pay, at a time when members of Congress are cutting drug education, treatment and prevention citing the need to reduce federal expenses.

"Since the war on drugs was declared 40 years ago, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars and arrested tens of millions of Americans for drug law violations, yet drugs are readily available in every community and the problems associated with them continue to mount," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "When you're in a hole, you shouldn't just keep digging."

Despite the fact that at least 40 states have already passed laws criminalizing Spice and other synthetic drugs, federal lawmakers have advanced a bill that would place more than three dozen chemical compounds found in synthetic drugs under Schedule I, which is the most restrictive schedule reserved for drugs deemed to have no medical value. Chemicals found in synthetic drugs can have scientific and medical uses beyond the purpose of imitating illegal drugs, but Schedule I drugs are difficult to access for research purposes. Scientists have warned Congress that placing synthetic drugs under Schedule I will have a chilling effect on research intended to explore treatments for a range of diseases and disorders.

The bill could subject young people and other Americans to federal prosecution and lengthy prison terms of up to 20 years or more for distribution of small quantities of a synthetic drug – at enormous cost to taxpayers.  Although this legislation initially encountered little resistance as it moved through the U.S. House of Representatives, House Judiciary Committee members engaged in an intense debate last month on the adverse implications this bill will have on scientific research, its excessive cost to taxpayers, and the need for a national drug policy that is grounded in science rather than politics.

A second bill under consideration in Congress would authorize federal criminal prosecution of anyone in the U.S. suspected of conspiring with one or more persons, or aiding or abetting one or more persons, to commit at any place outside the United States an act that would constitute a violation of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act if committed within the United States. These penalties apply even if the controlled substance is legal or semi-legal under some circumstances in the other country. Americans who could face arrest include treatment providers working with doctors in England, Denmark, Germany, or Switzerland to provide heroin-assisted treatment, harm reduction workers volunteering at one of the approximately 65 supervised injection facilities operating in foreign cities, and anyone assisting legal medical marijuana programs in Canada, Israel, or other countries.

"Facing massive budget deficits, policymakers from both parties should be searching for alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug law offenders, because locking them up is only making us poorer, not safer," said Piper. "The U.S. can't incarcerate its way out of its drug problems and should stop trying. The only way out of the drug war mess is to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue."

"By rushing to criminalize synthetic drugs, Congress is condemning more Americans to years in prison and ignoring warnings from the scientific community that this bill will hurt medical research," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Outright criminalization compromises both public health and safety by shifting demand for synthetic drugs into the criminal market. It would be more effective for Congress to pursue comprehensive drug education and create a regulatory framework to reduce youth access to synthetic drugs. This approach is working for tobacco, which has contributed to more deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs combined."

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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