Weed Watch

The draconian R.A.V.E. Act sneaks back into Congress, but reform advocates are pushing drug bills across the nation -- including in Texas

It's baaaack. The proposed, and extremely draconian, Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act has reemerged this Congressional session -- although it no longer bears that catchy little moniker. The bill was filed last session by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and proposed extending the nets of the infamous Biden-sponsored Eighties "crack house laws" by broadening their definition to include any businessperson, club owner, or promoter on whose property or at whose events illicit drugs are used or sold. The legislation was clearly aimed at squashing the rave scene, but drug reformers and civil libertarians quickly cried foul at the law's broad language, which could apply to any use of property, no matter how "temporary," potentially including citizens who use drugs in their own homes. Representatives from the ACLU, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and other reformers took their ire to Capitol Hill last fall when they staged a rave dance-rally in the halls of Congress. Shortly thereafter, the bill began to hemorrhage sponsors and then quietly disappeared.

That is, until this month, when it cropped up again attached to an omnibus domestic-security bill -- the Justice Enhancement and Domestic Security Act of 2003, sponsored by Tom Daschle, D-S.D. -- in a section on "Crack-House Statute Amendments." The ploy -- attaching a controversial provision to a fuzzy-bunny bill that no one is likely to vote against -- is common. Indeed, the revamped RAVE Act has been dumped into legislation whose other provisions would help protect missing and exploited children, senior citizens, and rape victims, and would combat telemarketing fraud and identity theft. But RAVE wasn't hidden well enough to evade the eyes of drug reformers, who are planning once again to protest. For more info, check out the Drug Policy Alliance Web site at www.dpa.org.

Despite the disappointing failure of last November's various drug-reform ballot measures, reformers have upped the ante and now have medical-marijuana, decriminalization, or industrial-hemp legislation pending in 13 states, including Texas. In an e-mail addressed to supporters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML director and founder Keith Stroup says the current legislative season has been the biggest for drug reformers since the 1970s. Currently, decriminalization bills are pending in Connecticut, Oklahoma, and California -- where the penalty for possession of up to one ounce would be reduced from a misdemeanor to an "infraction," akin to a traffic ticket. Legislators in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Montana, Maryland, Arkansas, Wyoming, and New York are all considering medical-marijuana bills. In Maine, a proposal that would legalize the cultivation of industrial-grade hemp is making its way through the legislative process. So far this year NORML has only noted one legislative failure; on March 7, the New Mexico Legislature defeated a medical-marijuana bill by a floor vote of 46 to 20.

Over on Congress Avenue, Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed Texas's lone drug reform bill of the session, HB 715, which would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of pot. The bill would make such possession a Class C misdemeanor (punishable by up to a $500 fine) and would forbid the state from suspending the license of anyone convicted of the charge. Howard Wooldridge, a former Michigan cop turned lobbyist for Texas NORML, said he is optimistic about the bill's passage. Currently, Texas NORML is courting the favor of House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin, a lawyer and former Travis Co. sheriff.

Wooldridge says that so far, his work at the Lege has been aimed at education. While cops are out harassing drivers, looking for small amounts of marijuana, he said, "drunk drivers are speeding by and killing people." So far, he said, the legislators he's talked to have been receptive to this train of thought. And if they fear that some constituent will label them as "soft on crime," he points them to a recent Time magazine poll that shows 70% of the population supports decriminalization for up to an ounce of pot. "I am trying to give these people some backbone to do the right thing," he said. "Win, lose, or draw, this will be worth it."

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