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A D.C. drug initiative would throw cocaine users into rehab, pot smokers behind bars.
If it becomes law, Initiative 62 on this fall’s ballot—”Treatment Instead of Jail for Certain Non-Violent Drug Offenders”—will offer speed and cocaine offenders in the District the option of going into rehab instead of facing a trial and prison. But pot smokers and ecstasy users will continue to be put behind bars.
The disparity is a product of the ongoing battle between D.C. drug-reform advocates and congressional overseers. In the past, Congress has stopped the District from enacting liberal-minded drug-law reforms and, at one point, even enjoined the city from counting the results of a medical-marijuana initiative.
Proponents of Initiative 62, ever mindful of Capitol Hill’s big-footing ways, have fashioned their measure to appease Congress. The measure excludes people charged with possessing or using Schedule I controlled substances—which include marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD—from taking advantage of the drug-treatment option.
“We didn’t want to poke a finger in Congress’ eye,” explains Bill McColl, president of the D.C. Campaign for Treatment and director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We’ve drafted our law specifically to conform to Congress’ concerns. We think that’s still going to reach quite a number of people who really could use treatment.”
At issue is the so-called “Barr Amendment,” spearheaded by Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr to block implementation of the District’s 1998 ballot issue—approved by nearly 69 percent of D.C. voters—to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes. Barr’s measure prohibited the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics from certifying the results of any ballot initiative that aimed to reduce penalties for Schedule I drug offenses.
On March 24, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan struck down the Barr Amendment, declaring it an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. But the Bush administration has challenged Sullivan’s ruling, with its appeal to be heard in September. If the government wins on appeal, the current medical-marijuana measure could be thwarted before ballot booths even open.
To avoid the risk of having their own measure shot down, Initiative 62’s backers removed Schedule I offenders from eligibility for treatment. The drugs categorized under Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act—which also covers heroin and PCP—are deemed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to have the highest potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
Chemicals classified under Schedule II, such as cocaine, codeine, morphine, oxycontin, and methamphetamine, are also ripe for abuse but remain widely recognized for their usefulness in medicine. To surgeons, for instance, cocaine can serve as an effective anesthetic.
An effort to reclassify marijuana for its apparent uses as a painkiller and appetite stimulator was rejected by the DEA and ultimately by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on May 24.
Initiative 62 drafter Dave Fratello admits that the decision to eliminate Schedule I drugs from the ballot issue was “one of the hardest choices” that organizers had to make. “Protect some, or try to cover everyone and risk losing. It’s a terrible position to be in,” says Fratello, political director for the Los
Angeles-based Campaign for New Drug Policies.
But with many imprisoned offenders in the District doing time for cocaine, McColl says, the initiative can serve as “an incremental measure that’s going to help some people right now.”
Other drug-law reformers say the deletion sends a mixed message.
“I understand they’re trying to make some accommodations for Capitol Hill,” says Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “On the other hand, it does seem a little selective to say, ‘We’re gonna switch from a criminal response to nonviolent drug use to a treatment mode, but for marijuana, we’re going to continue to arrest you.’”
Though most marijuana offenders in the District don’t spend much time in jail, Stroup says, their lives are nonetheless disrupted upon arrest. Some lose their jobs. Others spend thousands of dollars on attorneys’ fees to stay out of jail. Though most pot puffers “aren’t sick,” and therefore don’t need treatment, he says, some might favor rehabilitation over fighting charges in court. Offenders themselves should make that choice, he says.
“Clearly, it’s a step forward if we stop jailing some people and start getting them treatment,” Stroup says. “But most illicit drug users don’t use cocaine and amphetamines—they smoke marijuana. So in some ways, it seems to me, Initiative 62 is ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” CP