Court decision highlights drug legislation’s flaws

Perhaps the most egregiously ill-conceived portion of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, passed by Congress in 1988, was re-affirmed Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court at the expense of four California senior citizens. In 1998, the Oakland Housing Authority initiated eviction proceedings against the four senior citizens for violation of part of their lease agreement because an acquaintance of theirs used drugs. Unfortunately, there was little the court could do but uphold their evictions, because to do otherwise would amount to legislating from the bench.

The problem lies not in the interpretation of the law but in the law itself, which states that public housing agencies should use leases to combat “any drug-related criminal activity on or off (federally assisted low-income housing) premises, engaged in by a public housing tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, or any guest or other person under the tenant’s control.” And the tenant is liable, according to the law, even if the tenant, “for lack of knowledge or other reason, could not realistically exercise control over the conduct of a household member or guest.”

The act does not, according to the court, violate any constitutional rights. But its broad application, both in word and in practice, make it seem more useful for a war against the poor than the war against drugs. Congress justified this guilt-by-association clause by reasoning that publicly funded housing should not in any way support drug use and that a
tenant who cannot control drug use among acquaintances poses a danger to the housing project and other residents.

Any merit this reasoning might have had has been thoroughly debunked by the law’s application and the fact that it is blatantly targeted at the poor. For instance, one of the tenants, Barbara Hill, was evicted because her grandson was caught smoking marijuana outside the building. Granted, she and her grandson purportedly had a close relationship. But surely most parent-child relationships are closer and a father bears at least as much responsibility for the child’s behavior than a grandparent. Under the act, then, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush should have been evicted from the governor’s mansion months ago after his daughter was caught illegally using prescription drugs.

Of course, evicting a governor is far from what Congress intended. But this case illustrates just how far off the mark this legislation is. The problem of inner city drug use is far too complex to be solved by such a simple-minded punishment.

It is no coincidence that the drug problem is most pervasive in areas of the country where poverty and homelessness are highest. As such, it is ludicrous to think that creating a larger homeless population – an unavoidable consequence of this law – will reduce drug use. Congress should view the court’s recent decision not as an affirmation, but as an illumination of their 14-year-old mistake.