Bill Advances Despite Strong Opposition from Major Criminal Justice and Conservative Groups
Advocates: Tough Sentences for Heroin Didn’t Stop the Opioid Crisis and Won’t Work for New Drugs
The House Judiciary Committee advanced today legislation that greatly expands the penalties for new drugs and gives Attorney General Sessions unilateral new powers to schedule drugs. Opponents warned that the legislation is a counterproductive approach to the opioid crisis that will exacerbate mass incarceration and enable Attorney General Sessions to ban hundreds of substances and prosecute people with long federal prison terms in violation of the new drug laws.
Committee members had received a letter from four conservative groups opposing the bill, as well as a separate opposition letter from more than 60 criminal justice groups prior to the vote today warning committee members that the bill concentrates too much power with the Attorney General to make and enforce drug laws without scientific review and relies on excessive and ineffective drug sentencing laws that expand the drug war. In late 2015, this same committee voted overwhelmingly to advance the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, which reduced drug sentencing penalties.
“Tough sentences and expanding the drug war will not stop demand for drugs, only public health approaches that emphasize treatment and education can do that,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance.
The bill, known as the “Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017,” or “SITSA,” creates a new drug schedule in the federal Controlled Substances Act for drug analogues and gives the Attorney General sweeping new powers to both temporarily and permanently ban any substance that is chemically similar to a drug that is already banned under federal law. To do this, the bill proposes circumventing a long standing federal law that requires the Attorney General to obtain a scientific evaluation and recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services before a substance can be scheduled.
During a recent House Judiciary hearing on the bill, a witness for the Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledged in testimony that current mechanisms for prosecuting analogue cases are “workable” and existing federal laws already permit the Attorney General to emergency schedule substances.