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Congress Passes Anti-Drug Bill, Then Adjourns

Times Staff Writer

The 100th Congress adjourned early today after passing election-year anti-drug legislation designed to get tough on professional drug traffickers and casual users alike.

Enactment of the drug bill was the final legislative flourish in a two-year congressional session that will go down in history for its enormous productivity and its dogged determination to keep working three weeks beyond its original adjournment deadline.

In addition to the drug legislation, which the House passed by a vote of 346 to 11 and the Senate cleared by voice vote just before adjourning at 3:17 a.m., the Congress in its final hours passed a flurry of other bills--including one that granted special breaks for some taxpayers and another that imposed new restrictions on post-employment lobbying by members of Congress, their top staff members and executive branch officials. (Details of tax bill, Page 27.)

Many Lawmakers Absent

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Nevertheless, with the Nov. 8 election fast approaching, many members who are facing difficult election challenges back home were not present for the final vote on the politically popular drug bill. One of the absentees was Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who has made the war on drugs a centerpiece of his campaign against Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

“Not only are there not enough (senators) here for a quorum,” quipped Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N. H.), “there’s not enough here for a good poker game.”

Members were in such a rush to adjourn that few--if any--had read the tax or drug legislation. In fact, copies of the final version of the bills, which were drafted during many long hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations, were not even available to most members before the vote.

The drug bill calls for an expenditure of $2.8 billion over two years, but it provides only $500 million in funding so far. Under the spending restrictions imposed by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law, it is uncertain whether Congress will be able to find the additional revenues when it returns next January.

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One of the programs that was authorized but not funded was a $5-million pilot project, sponsored by Wilson, that would institute random drug testing of first-time applicants for driver’s licenses in four states, including California.

Among other things, the drug bill will impose the death penalty in drug-related murder cases, establish a Cabinet-level drug czar to coordinate the federal anti-drug campaign and vastly increase the government’s role in drug treatment, prevention and research.

In its final form, the bill no longer contains many of the most stringent enforcement provisions that initially upset civil libertarians. But it does include some extraneous, controversial provisions toughening federal child pornography and obscenity laws.

Although the drug bill was originally conceived as a simple election-year tool for incumbents to incorporate in their campaign material--much as they did after passing an earlier drug bill in 1986--it eventually grew into a landmark piece of legislation that will radically alter the federal government’s approach to the drug war.

“This is a very effective bill,” boasted Rudman, who was deeply involved in the drafting of the House-Senate compromise. “It’s the first comprehensive assault on the drug problem in America in this nation’s history.”

Rudman added: “We believe that this problem of drug use is becoming one of crisis proportions, creating both a health crisis and a law enforcement crisis. If we are not successful, the whole country is facing a very uncertain future.”

Despite a Democratic majority in both chambers, the bill bears the unmistakable stamp of conservative Republicans, who wrote a wide variety of provisions designed to incorporate the popular notions of “zero tolerance” and “user accountability” into the legislation.

The bill’s user accountability provisions permit the courts to suspend federal benefits, such as student loans, small business loans and federally guaranteed mortgages, for people convicted of drug possession. It would also permit the Justice Department to assess civil penalties of up to $10,000--depending on a person’s income--against those convicted of possession of small amounts of drugs intended for personal use.

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Advocates of these new penalties argued that it is the well-heeled casual user who is to blame for funding the drug trade.

Federal benefits could be suspended for up to five years after a second drug possession conviction, up to five years for a first drug trafficking conviction and up to 10 years for a second trafficking conviction. Third-time drug trafficking offenders would lose their benefits permanently.

But even conservative supporters acknowledged that the suspension of benefits might create an administrative nightmare. As a result, Congress chose to delay implementation of the measure until next Sept. 1, and it asked the President to decide by then which of the nearly 600 different types of federal benefits and licenses would be affected.

In assessing civil penalties against drug users, the Justice Department must permit administrative hearings and judicial review for all who seek it.

As for the Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, Congress responded to an outcry from boat owners by creating an “innocent owner” legal defense for owners of boats, airplanes and other vehicles seized for drug violations. The innocent owner defense could be used in cases where small amounts of drugs were found and where the court determines that the owner was not “willfully blind” to their presence.

Under the death penalty provision, a judge would be permitted to impose capital punishment for anyone convicted of carrying out or arranging a murder involving a serious drug felony or a continuing criminal enterprise. It could be imposed on those killing or arranging the murder of a law enforcement officer in connection with a drug felony.

Only two crimes--murder in the act of air piracy and espionage by military personnel--are now subject to the death penalty under federal law.

The bill ends a long-running dispute between the Congress and President Reagan over the creation of a drug czar. In 1982, Reagan vetoed another crime bill because it would have created a drug czar--a task he said was being performed by Vice President George Bush.

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In the future, the vice president, the attorney general or any person who occupies another position in the government will not be permitted to serve as drug czar. The new official will occupy a special position in the Executive Office of the President.

In other action, Congress gave final approval to an immigration bill that would extend visas for nurses and allocate about 15,000 additional U.S. visas per year to Ireland and 35 other countries whose immigration has lagged behind that of other nations.

House and Senate members also ironed out a last-minute glitch that developed in legislation, approved Thursday, that limits the sale and manufacture of plastic handguns. With a minor amendment, members clarified the authority of the secretary of the Treasury to recommend a lower minimum metal content for guns, as metal detection technology improves in the future.

And despite the rhetoric directed at drug users, the Senate cleared a measure halting the drug-related deportation proceedings against Michael Wilding, the 36-year-old son of actress Elizabeth Taylor.


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