Nick Sandberg, 1999
In 1980s Britain, the government of Margaret Thatcher found itself wanting to pass into law some incredibly restrictive legal measures. And, concerned that citizens might, not unreasonably, start quoting George Orwell’s 1984 in the face of asset seizure notices for shoplifting offences, it devised a means by which such legislation could pass into the law books with few people becoming any the wiser.
A Criminal Justice Bill would be scripted, touting harsh offences for major crimes such as terrorism and drug trafficking. And, once passed into law, the Act would later be amended, such that the subsection referring to, say, asset seizure for major drug traffickers, would now be extended to include those found guilty of any indictable offence. By this means, legislation that most people would regard as being harsh but necessary to combat major crime could quietly be extended to include all but the lightest law-breaker.
Although, thus far, cases where these incredibly repressive measures have been used are relatively rare, (though by no means non-existent), it remains the case that in the UK today one can legally find onself subject to major infringements of privacy, asset seizure and similar measures on the flimsiest of excuses.
Across the Atlantic, the last months of the Clinton administration seem in part to be devoted to preparing the legislative way for a similarly repressive regime, quite possibly under Republican favourite, George W. Bush. And, in keeping with tradition, the American Government takes a more blasé approach to the business of eroding the civil rights of its citizens. No two-act scenarios stretched out over a couple of sessions of parliament here. The preferred technique in the US would appear to be to construct a bill that would appear on the surface to be so necessary and reasonable that barely a soul would dare to oppose it. But one that, deep within its belly, contains a proposed section that subtly razes constitutional rights to the ground.
Such a Trojan horse is the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, 1999, currently making its way through the House of Representatives. Let’s take a look.
H. R. 2987To provide for the punishment of methamphetamine laboratory operators, provide additional resources to combat methamphetamine production, trafficking, and abuse in the United States, and for other purposes.IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
September 30, 1999Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled.SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.This Act may be cited as the `Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 1999′.[emphasis added]
Glancing briefly at the title and opening paragraphs, one might imagine that such a piece of legislation is clearly in the public good and deserving of being speeded on its way towards becoming law. And, indeed, flicking quickly through the 20 sections of the bill, it does appear to contain many realistic and intelligent measures that any modern democracy might utilise to combat the proliferation of a dangerous illicit substance. Proposals include increases in penalties; controls on precursor chemicals; measures to combat environmental damage; guidelines for investigating agents and more. It all seems highly reasonable. But what might that last line “and for other purposes” refer to?
It would appear to refer to Section 5, which, instead of concerning itself with solely amphetamine or methamphetamine, instead applies itself to all controlled substances. And reads as follows:
|SEC. 5. CRIMINAL PROHIBITION ON DISTRIBUTION OF CERTAIN INFORMATION RELATING TO THE MANUFACTURE OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES.(a) IN GENERAL- Part I of title 18, United States Code, is amended by inserting after chapter 21 the following new chapter:CHAPTER 22–CONTROLLED SUBSTANCESSec. 421. Distribution of information relating to manufacture of controlled substances(a) PROHIBITION ON DISTRIBUTION OF INFORMATION RELATING TO MANUFACTURE OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES -(1) CONTROLLED SUBSTANCE DEFINED- In this subsection, the term `controlled substance’ has the meaning given that term in section 102(6) of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802(6)).(2) PROHIBITION- It shall be unlawful for any person -(A) to teach or demonstrate the manufacture of a controlled substance, or to distribute by any means information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of a controlled substance, with the intent that the teaching, demonstration, or information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime; or(B) to teach or demonstrate to any person the manufacture of a controlled substance, or to distribute to any person, by any means, information pertaining to, in whole or in part, the manufacture or use of a controlled substance, knowing that such person intends to use the teaching, demonstration, or information for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime.(b) PENALTY- Any person who violates subsection (a) shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.[emphasis added]
Again, from the heading, things don’t seem too unreasonable. Proposed are additional measures to restrict the circulation of information relating to the manufacture of controlled substances. But, take a closer look, and one sees that the actual wording of the section refers not only to manufacture, but also to use. It might seem a minor point, but the widening of the scope of this section now allows it to take in virtually any drug-related activity government doesn’t like the look of.
Websites explaining the medical uses of marijuana could be attacked and their operators sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment. Club operators providing leaflets explaining the dangers of Ecstasy consumption potentially face the same. On another level, an American journalist writing an article about, say, ibogaine – a treatment for addiction that is still currently controlled in the US – could find himself in court.
This legislation is potentially a quite flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Yet it is, as this piece goes to press, quietly finding its way into the law books, camouflaged by an Act so well scripted few would dare oppose it.
[The Section of the Act in question is also found in two other Acts currently going through the House of Representatives and the Senate – the Bankruptcy Reform Act, 1999, HR 833, and the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act, 1999, S 2612. US citizens who wish to register their feelings can find details of how to do so at www.drcnet.org/freespeech/ )
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