The Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Rolling Back the Failed War on Drugs

In the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday Bernie Sanders came out for marijuana legalization. Hillary Clinton supported medical marijuana. Jim Webb talked proudly about his groundbreaking effort to create the first national commission in 45 years to look at America's failed crime policies. And it is not just Democrats. A major bipartisan political shift on numerous drug policy issues is underway that has gone largely unnoticed in the press.

The Republican-controlled House passed numerous amendments in the last year letting states set their own marijuana policies. The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed similar amendments. Senate Republicans included marijuana reform in their recent "minibus" spending package, including prohibiting the DEA from undermining state medical marijuana laws, requiring the Veterans Administration to allow veterans to use medical marijuana, and prohibiting the Treasury Department from blocking banks from providing checking accounts to state-legalized marijuana dispensaries.

These are spending limitation amendments, so they expire in a year and are limited in their impact, but it is remarkable that Republican leadership is under such pressure that they had to include them. Our challenge now is to find a way to translate bipartisan support for marijuana reform into lasting legislative change. The Drug Policy Alliance is coordinating a grassroots and lobbying campaign to pass full legislative reform, most notably the CARERS Act, the sweeping medical marijuana bill we worked with Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand to introduce earlier this year.

The Republican spending bill also eliminates the congressional ban preventing the city of Washington, D.C. from taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. Our political arm, Drug Policy Action, worked with the DC Cannabis Campaign to pass a ballot measure legalizing possession and home cultivation of marijuana. The ballot measure took effect but Congress prohibited the city from going further. If we succeed in repealing this congressional ban, we probably have the votes on the D.C. Council to establish Colorado-style marijuana stores in the nation's capital.

In other exciting news, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte, two traditional drug war supporters, have struck bipartisan deals on comprehensive sentencing reform. And they also appear close to striking deals on civil asset forfeiture reform, the un-American drug war policy that allows law enforcement to take people's money and property without convicting them of a crime and keep the profits for their own agencies.

In July we planned a summit with the White House and several foundations that brought community leaders and law enforcement officials from more than 30 city, county and state jurisdictions together to discuss an innovative program that provides help to people caught with drugs instead of jail. Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, was pioneered in Seattle. We worked to establish similar programs in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Albany, New York and are now working to take money from failed drug war programs to invest in LEAD in other cities.

Finally, it is looking like Congress is close to reforming or eliminating the notorious federal syringe exchange ban, which prohibits states from using their share of federal prevention money on syringe programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases. The devastating impact of injection drug use in red states has made sensible harm reduction politically viable. In addition to syringes, numerous bills that have been introduced in Congress that would make naloxone, the antidote to opiate overdoses, more widely available.

It is not all good news, of course. Buried in sentencing reform legislation are unnecessary penalty increases in a few areas. Numerous states wrestling with rising heroin overdoses are considering new mandatory minimums or other failed law enforcement approaches. There is still a knee-jerk tendency in both journalism and politics to demonize drugs and the people who use and/or sell them.

Overall it is clear though that the failed drug policies of the last 40 years are giving way to smarter thinking. It is time for an exit strategy from America's longest war.


Bill Piper is Director of National Affairs for Drug Policy Action. Follow him on twitter @billjpiper.