(Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a stop-gap spending measure that averts an Oct. 1 government shutdown and extends the U.S. Export-Import Bank's ability to operate for another nine months.
The measure, passed 319-108 with opposition evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, also contains a separately approved authorization for the Defense Department to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants.
The bill, which now moves to the Senate for consideration on Thursday, extends current funding levels for discretionary government programs and agencies through Dec. 16. This will allow lawmakers time to sort out a longer-term spending measure when they return to Washington after the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid objected to Republican calls for a separate Senate vote on the Syrian rebel provision now contained in the funding measure. He said he would present a single "up or down vote on what we get from the House of Representatives. We cannot have another government shutdown."
The temporary spending extension also provides $88 million to help fight the Ebola epidemic in Africa, including $58 million to speed production of the ZMapp antiviral drug and two vaccine candidates, as well as $30 million for additional staff and supplies at the Centers for Disease Control.
The extension of the Export-Import Bank's charter through June 30, 2015, puts off any decisions about the trade finance agency's future and allows its conservative Republican opponents more time to build a case to close or reform the 80-year-old institution.
The House rejected a last-minute attempt by Democrats to push through a seven-year extension for the Ex-Im Bank. A similar effort by a group of Senate Democrats is unlikely to be considered on Thursday, a senior Democratic Senate aide said.
The House-passed measure maintains discretionary spending at the fiscal 2014 annual rate of $1.012 trillion and leaves the Pentagon's overseas contingency budget for war operations unchanged at an $85 billion annual rate. This is well above the Obama administration's request of $58.6 billion for fiscal 2015, leaving ample funding capacity for President Barack Obama's air campaign against Islamic State fighters.
Money for the Syrian rebel training effort can be shifted from these accounts with permission from certain Congressional committees.
It also includes a provision allowing funding flexibility for border security and customs agencies to maintain staffing levels, border patrols, detention space and immigration enforcement activities.
The measure extends to Dec. 11 the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which bars state and local governments from taxing Internet access and was due to expire on Nov. 1.
A panel of top global narcotics experts fronted by prominent public figures including Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and eight ex-national presidents, is strongly urging that drugs be a matter for health professionals, not the police, in a new report.
“Overwhelming evidence points to not just the failure of the drug control regime to attain its stated goals but also the horrific unintended consequences of punitive and prohibitionist laws and policies,” states the study, published by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) this week.
“A new and improved global drug control regime is needed that better protects the health and safety of individuals and communities around the world,” the report says. “Harsh measures grounded in repressive ideologies must be replaced by more humane and effective policies shaped by scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights standards.”
GCDP's view of the current drug control policies
There have been previous groups that have advocated radical reform, and drugs panels that have been staffed with respected and sober politicians, but never have the two been combined to produce a body with such clout. Among its board members are the ex-presidents of Brazil, Chile, Switzerland, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Colombia, some of the countries with the most acute drug problems in the world.
(L-R) Sir Richard Branson, Kofi Annan, Ernesto Zedillo, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria, Ruth Dreifuss, Michel Kazatchkine, Jorge Sampaio, Thorvald Stoltenberg (GCDP / Rebecca Bowring)
As a sign of its stature, the GCDP leadership met with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday, in the hope of swaying the current UN chief ahead of the 2016 UN session on drugs. The conference will direct global policy for the next decade and the GCDP hopes that it will radically alter the “dated rhetoric and unrealistic goals” of the previous session in 1998.
The GCDP’s report enlists a litany of statistics in aid of this cause.
The UN estimates that the number of drug users rose 18 percent from 203 million to 243 million between 2008 and 2012. In the past three decades, opium production has risen almost fourfold.
“The facts speak for themselves. It is time to change course,” said former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “We need drug policies informed by evidence of what actually works.”
The side effects of drug prohibition is a “thread” that runs through all of public life, the group says.
“Punitive drug law enforcement fuels crime and maximizes the health risks associated with drug use, especially among the most vulnerable,” say the authors, citing the studies that show – among other grim findings – that almost four in 10 Russian heroin users are HIV-positive.
“Criminal drug producers and traffickers thrive in fragile, conflict-affected and underdeveloped regions, where vulnerable populations are easily exploited. The corruption, violence and instability generated by unregulated drug markets are widely recognized as a threat to both security and development,” says the GCDP report.
The Mexican government’s war against the cartels that control the lucrative drug routes to the US has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths in less than a decade, while drugs have also played a key role in conflicts in Colombia and Afghanistan.
The GCDP’s recommendations for solving this are bold: governments must ensure that citizens inflict as little harm upon themselves while using drugs; no users should ever be arrested for possession; and the government must itself control the drug market.
"Decriminalization of drug consumption is certainly crucial but not sufficient. Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria, if the engines of organized crime profiting from drug traffic are to be truly dismantled," said former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo.
“Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation,” said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former President of Brazil. “Let’s start by treating drug addiction as a health issue – rather than as a crime – and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let’s also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking.”
In essence, the vision of the recreational drug industry painted here is similar to the government-regulated cannabis sale points that were pioneered in the modern era by the Netherlands, and have recently been taken up in Uruguay and several states in the US.
Employees stock shelves at Cannabis City before their "high noon" grand opening during the first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Seattle, Washington July 8, 2014 (Reuters / Jason Redmond)
This civilized version of the drug trade, accompanied by extensive medical facilities and rehabilitation programs, seems infinitely more desirable than the wars over opium fields in Afghanistan, or Colombian jungle raids.
Yet it is unclear if members of the UN will believe that this vision can be scaled up to other, more dangerous drugs, such as heroin, although the authors do say that they believe crack cocaine, and Russian-invented necrosis-causing drug Krokodil should be banned from sale. It is also less obvious if the model of drug supply in affluent Western societies leads to the same social consequences if transposed to poorer, underdeveloped regions such as rural India or China.
“It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.
In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.
No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.
The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it.”