New drug bill: something for everyone. Reagan to sign law, but how to pay will be a problem for next Congress
Boston — The antidrug bill that should land on President Reagan's desk this week marks a fundamental shift of tactics in the drug war - a triumph of good sense over election-year sensibilities to some, and perhaps a troubling precedent to others. Mr. Reagan is expected to sign it into law.
The $2.6-billion bill touches on virtually every aspect of the illegal drug business: growers, smugglers, dealers, users, potential users. Next year, for the first time, the United States will spend more money on drug abuse treatment and preventive education than on trying to intercept drugs at the border. Interdiction efforts, however, will be stepped up as well.
That is, the government will spend the money if it gets it. A widely acknowledged failing of the two-year bill is that while billions of dollars are authorized, less than a fifth ($500 million) is available this fiscal year, which began in October. Congress has vowed to address this shortcoming when members return in January.
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, a prime architect of the bill, is pleased with the House-Senate compromise. ``What had started out as an `election-year special,' with a lot of fluff and no substance, turned into a substantial piece of legislation.''
Unorthodox procedures sped the bill through Congress, notes Leslie Harris, the American Civil Liberties Union's leading lobbyist on the bill. Congress short-circuited the deliberative process, says Ms. Harris, a ``troubling precedent.''
``Most of the safeguards against ill-conceived legislation were abandoned,'' says ACLU director Mort Halperin. Committee hearings were put on tight deadlines, or dropped in favor of informal consultations. A committee made up of the top leaders in the House and Senate formed the ``court of last resort'' for amendments or wording changes.
The drug bill had some ``very basic'' constitutional flaws right up until two days before it passed, Harris says. Had it not been for some ``heroes'' like Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, those flaws might have been cemented into the new law, she says. (Save for the death penalty and an unrelated provision on pornography, the ACLU has no major problems with the bill now, Mr. Halperin says.)
Senator Rudman defends the process, saying it was a flexible, appropriate, and successful response to a daunting election-year problem. But, as one representative reportedly quipped, ``What do we need Congress for, if we have this leadership meeting?''
The drug issue reemerged at the top of the list of voter concerns this spring, and no congressman facing reelection wanted to go home to accusations of inaction, observers pointed out. Among the bill's major provisions:
Drug producers. Foreign-aid sanctions against governments that do not cooperate in antidrug efforts; law-enforcement assistance to Latin American countries fighting drugs.
Drug smugglers. Money laundering provisions tightened; death penalty for drug-related murders.
Drug dealers. Increased penalties, including those for dealers who use children to carry or distribute drugs.
Drug users. At judge's discretion, suspension of federal benefits for those convicted of drug crimes; civil fines and penalties, including revocation of drivers' licenses or passports; drug tests for federal prisoners before release or parole.
Education and treatment. Aid to state and local programs; warning labels for alcoholic beverages; grants to federal and state agencies for treatment research.
The new law also provides for a Cabinet-level ``drug czar'' to oversee antidrug efforts and for a pilot program to randomly test first-time applicants for drivers' licenses for drug use.