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Legislation Granting Jeff Sessions New Anti-Drug Powers Moves Forward in Congress

Drug policy advocates are understandably leery or allowing Sessions to create and enforce laws without scientific review.

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The House Judiciary Committee just advanced a bill that would greatly expand the ability of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ban new drugs while increasing criminal penalties for drug offenders. The Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017 (SITSA), would create a new drug schedule in the Controlled Substances Act for drug analogues.

Drugs like fentanyl, bath salts, and synthetic marijuana strains known as K2 or spice (which are all synthetic versions of traditional opioids, amphetamines, or cannabis) have been flooding the country over the past several years. Manufacturers and importers of these drugs are often able to avoid prosecution by slightly altering the chemical makeup of each new batch of the drug, making it legal again until federal or local governments get around to banning the new version.

“Criminals can figure out a way to change one molecule in a drug, but the resulting drug is just as dangerous, and often even more so,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte. “This bill closes this dangerous loophole by ensuring our laws keep pace with the creation of new, chemically-altered drugs and by providing law enforcement with the tools needed to keep these drugs off of our streets.”

In order to grant the Attorney General the power to quickly ban any new drug analogue, the bill proposes removing a long-standing federal law requiring that the Attorney General obtain a scientific evaluation and recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services before a drug can be scheduled.

Advocates of drug policy reform are understandably leery of allowing Jeff Sessions unchecked power to ban any drug without oversight, given his oft-stated intentions to reinstate the federal government's ineffective War on Drugs. Opponents of the SITSA bill have also raised concerns over the bill's expansion of penalties for drug offenses.

Committee members received letters from criminal justice groups arguing that the bill concentrates too much power with the Attorney General by allowing him to create and enforce laws without scientific review. The letters also argue that increasing penalties for drug offenders is an ineffective tactic for controlling the nation's substance abuse crisis.

“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.

If passed, this bill would certainly give the federal government more power to prosecute creators and distributors of synthetic marijuana. It is not yet certain, however, whether the passage of this bill would give the Attorney General more power to prosecute canna-businesses or users in states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana.

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