CA NORML Legislative News

Drug Reformers Lose One, Win One in Congress

RAVE Act Passes, but Congress Blocks New Powers for Drug Czar

(California NORML Newsletter, June 2003)

Drug warriors in Congress landed another big blow to civil liberties by passing the controversial RAVE Act, which gives the DEA extensive new powers to shut down venues where illegal drugs may be used.

The DEA immediately abused its new powers to shut down a NORML benefit for medical marijuana in Montana.

However, marijuana reformers scored an unaccustomed victory of their own in Congress by halting measures to authorize the Drug Czar to advertise against drug reform and cut federal aid to states with medical marijuana laws.

The RAVE Act, re-named the "Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act of 2003," was passed surreptitiously thanks to a parliamentary maneuver by Sen. Joseph Biden, who managed to insert it into the highly popular "AMBER Alert" child abduction bill, which sailed into law with President Bush’s signature. The RAVE Act, co-sponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was beaten back in committee last year thanks to widespread objections from civil libertarians, landlords, and drug reform forces.

The bill enacts draconian federal penalties against any landlord who allows property to be used for an event where s/he has reason to suspect that illegal drugs will be used. While ostensibly aimed at rave parties, NORML objected that the law could also be abused to shut down marijuana rallies, hemp festivals, and medical cannabis clubs.

These fears were promptly realized when Montana NORML and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy attempted to stage an expensive and highly promoted benefit concert for the medical marijuana campaign in Montana in 2004. The DEA shut down the event on the day it was supposed to be held, intimidating the owner of the premises with the threat of a $250,000 fine under the RAVE Act if anyone was found smoking marijuana there.

The impact of the RAVE Act also hit California’s medical marijuana patients. The Sonoma Health and Harmony Festival announced it was canceling plans to have a medical marijuana smoking area at this year’s event. The festival’s promoters had originally proposed the idea so as to discourage indiscriminate smoking elsewhere. However, concerns about liability under the RAVE Act caused them to drop the idea.

NORML is planning legal action to prevent further abuse of the RAVE Act.

Marijuana reformers remain on the defensive in the current Congress, whose Republican leadership is staunchly prohibitionist. Despite his party’s support for states’ rights, House Speaker Dennis Hastert indicated that he will not allow medical marijuana legislation to come to a the floor on the grounds that this is an instance where the states are wrong.

Led by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), House Republicans on the Committee on Government Reform pressed to escalate the federal war against marijuana by proposing an amendment to the Office of National Drug Control Policy authorization bill that would have allowed the Drug Czar to use its $1 billion anti-drug advertising campaign against ballot measures or candidates in favor of legalization of drugs.

The proposal evoked a firestorm of controversy both within and without Congress, where critics complained about the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds for partisan political purposes. Sponsors said the measure was intended to shield the ONDCP from further complaints like those in last year’s Nevada marijuana initiative campaign, where the Marijuana Policy Project complained to the Federal Elections Commission that ONDCP ads were used to influence the election. Opponents compared the measure to using IRS funds to defeat anti-tax candidates.

The ONDCP funding bill contained a second obnoxious measure withholding federal aid from states with medical marijuana laws. The measure would have allowed the DEA to retain up to $60.5 million in federal aid targeted for "High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas" - money which the DEA could then use for targeting medical marijuana in those states. The measure succeeded in drawing opposition not only from NORML, but also the California Narcotics Officers’ Association, which objected to the loss of federal aid.

Legislators were deluged with calls against the two measures. 4,400 FAXes were generated through the NORML website, an unusually heavy response reflecting growing strength of the marijuana reform movement.

Both measures were defeated in committee thanks in large part to efforts by ranking minority leader Rep. Henry Waxman (D - Los Angeles). The bill was even improved with amendments explicitly barring the ONDCP from using taxpayer-funded ads for political purposes and requiring the ONDCP’s ads to include a notice that they were paid for by the government.

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