House Backs Fines Up to $10,000 for Casual Drug Users
The House, moving to crack down on casual drug users, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to permit the federal government to levy civil fines of up to $10,000 on people found to possess small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and other controlled substances.
On a 293-115 vote, Democrats and Republicans supported an amendment by Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) to the omnibus drug legislation being debated by the House. Final action on the overall drug bill is not expected until late next week.
“Today, we’re sending a message to weekend cocaine users and occasional pot smokers,” Edwards said. “We’re saying they must be accountable for their selfish indulgence.”
But critics said the amendment is unconstitutional because it would discriminate against the poor and strip those accused of basic rights, including the right to an attorney and a jury trial. Many poor people would not have the money to fight the action and would suffer unduly from the fines, they said.
“No court will accept this,” said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). “You’re setting up two systems of justice here. One for the rich and one for the poor.”
The lopsided vote reflected Congress’ belief that law enforcement should attack the nation’s drug problem among users as well as growers and suppliers. Last week, the House adopted an amendment that would deny many federal benefits, including public housing, to people convicted of drug possession who refuse to enter rehabilitation programs.
Under Edwards’ amendment, alleged drug users could be subject to the federal penalty even if they were never found guilty of possession in a criminal court proceeding. Based on information provided by law enforcement agencies, the attorney general’s office would decide whether to levy a fine against particular people. Those accused would have 30 days to appeal the fine before an administrative law judge.
Edwards said his proposal was a response to “the growing frustration over the criminal justice system’s inability to control America’s drug problem.” He noted that many cases involving small amounts of drugs “fall through the cracks” and are never prosecuted because of the nation’s increasingly overburdened courts.
“People who use cocaine and marijuana may think they have little in common with heroin addicts, but they all depend on a network of criminals, murderers and smugglers to keep them supplied with drugs,” he said. “If people get caught, they should pay the price.”
Others said the amendment would give law enforcement another valuable tool, noting that it would not replace or supersede existing criminal penalties against drug possession.
“We have too many of these cases where people just walk away from the court system, because they possessed only small amounts of drugs,” said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). “With this bill, we’d have the attorney general look at the assets of a person involved . . . a millionaire would obviously be punished more than a person who lives at the poverty level.”
But Glickman and other critics said the amendment threatened basic constitutional rights, adding that the poor would have more difficulty paying “lesser” civil fines than more affluent defendants.
They noted that people subject to the fines would have to challenge the decision before an administrative law judge, not a criminal court. Unlike criminal cases, those accused would not have the right to a court-appointed attorney or a jury trial.
Under one scenario outlined by Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), people who are cited by police officers for drug possession--but never prosecuted in criminal court--could be liable for heavy fines. And if they could not afford those fines, they might wind up in jail, he said.
“This will open up a Pandora’s box,” Hughes said. “You’re setting up a system based on the ability to pay. We may be setting up a system in which the poor would come under criminal law proceedings, but rich people could get off with fines.”