Weed Watch

Orrin Hatch, Drug Law Reformer?

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch

Amid criticism suggesting that he's either a hypocrite or just plain off his rocker, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is "standing firm" in his decision to help R&B producer Dallas Austin shake a cocaine possession beef in the United Arab Emirates, reports The Salt Lake Tribune. Austin reportedly traveled to Dubai in May to attend a birthday bash for model Naomi Campbell and was popped by police for carrying just over a gram of coke – a charge that could've netted Austin more than a decade in a UAE prison. The producer pleaded guilty and spent two months in jail before he was finally sprung, with a little help from Hatch, last month. The Tribune reports that Hatch made several calls to the UAE consul in Washington, D.C., at the request of attorney and former Hatch staffer Nancy Taylor, whose law firm has represented both Austin – a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna, among others – and Hatch, who fancies himself a singer-songwriter (Hatch has released nine albums with song titles such as "Jesus' Love Is Like a River," "My God Is Love," and the ever-snappy "Heal Our Land: A Prayer for Our Country").

Hatch told reporters that his decision to intercede in the case was based on his "long-standing angst" with mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, which prescribe variously draconian prison terms for a host of crimes – many of them drug-related – without offering judges much leeway to reduce the terms based on a case's individual or mitigating circumstances. Taylor told the daily that she decided to ask for Hatch's help because he is "a very humanitarian person," but in a press statement, her law firm later downplayed Hatch's influence, writing that UAE officials stated that such a release is not uncommon when "the only victim [of the alleged crime] is the accused."

Nonetheless, Hatch took a beating from critics who said he was either setting a bad example by helping an admitted drug user or is a hypocrite for not using his influence to help thousands of similarly situated Americans who face similarly disproportionate man-min sentences in U.S. courts. "I go to court with those very same people every day, and the judges tell me Congress says we have to put you in prison, even for small amounts of drugs," Utah defense attorney Ron Yengich told the Tribune. "I wish that Senator Hatch and the Congress of the United States would understand this guy [Austin] isn't the exception, he is the rule."


In other news, marijuana law reform advocates are anxiously awaiting a ruling from a Drug Enforcement Administration administrative law judge on whether the National Institute on Drug Abuse will be allowed to maintain a monopoly on growing and distributing pot for use in clinical research. The question has been hanging out there since 2004, when the DEA rejected an application – after sitting on it for more than three years – from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that sought permission to grow pot for Food and Drug Administration-approved research. Granting such a request, the DEA opined, simply wouldn't "be consistent with the public interest."

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – a nonprofit research outfit that assists scientists with pot-related research – and U. Mass' Medicinal Plant Program Director Lyle Craker cried foul, challenging the DEA's decision. In testimony last year before Administrative Law Judge Mary Ellen Bittner, they argued that a U. Mass pot-production facility is in the public interest because it would encourage production of a better crop of test pot – researchers have increasingly complained about the poor quality of NIDA's stash, which reportedly makes accurate clinical testing difficult – and would "promote technological and scientific advancement in the field of medicine," reports the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "The DEA's refusal to permit me to grow marijuana for research necessarily prevents an accurate assessment of this plant's potential medical properties," Craker testified.

Unfortunately for researchers, even if Bittner rules in their favor, federal law would allow DEA head Karen Tandy to ignore the decision in the same manner that the DEA has, essentially, ignored research requests.


Send drug war tips to jsmith@austinchronicle.com

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

War on Drugs, marijuana, Orrin Hatch, cocaine, Dallas Austin, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, University of Massachusetts Medicinal Plant Program, Lyle Craker, Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, Karen Tandy, Mary Ellen Bittner, NORML, Ron Yengich, mandatory minimum sentencing, man-mins

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