Online Free Speech On the Line

Update: The idea of criminalizing the distribution of drug-related information is catching on, from the US Congress to the United Nations.

| Fri Jun. 30, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

Mix Americans' fears around illegal drugs with their fears around technology and you've got a powerhouse of a congressional bill -- even if it does threaten the First Amendment. The Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act, which would make it illegal to distribute information on the manufacture of any controlled substance if the distributor knows that the person receiving the information intends to use it to break federal law, now appears almost certain to pass through the House, having already made it through the Senate. In the meantime, it has spawned two other bills that some say will go even further in limiting free speech.

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The House Judiciary Committee will consider its version of the bill sometime in early July. If approved, as expected, it will go on to the House for a vote. Should the bill fail in the House, it still has a good chance of survival, having been recently tacked on as a rider to an entirely unrelated bankruptcy reform bill.

"I think in the end, some version of the bill is going to pass," says Bill Piper, policy analyst for the Drug Policy Foundation. " It's just a matter of controlling the damage."

Some of the Meth Act's critics say they are even more concerned about a pair of recently introduced bills. The Senate's Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act -- accompanied by the House's nearly identical Club Drug Anti-Proliferation Act -- would ban the spread of information about not only the manufacture of controlled substances, but also their use and acquisition.

The purported goal of the Ecstasy act is to heighten penalties for ecstasy dealers, and to cut down on the spread of information about the drug on the Internet. But, by prohibiting discussions -- online or otherwise -- about the use of drugs, the bill could stifle those who seek to reduce the harm associated with drug use. Such organizations as DanceSafe, which educates ravers on how to take drugs more safely and tests users' drugs for dangerous impurities, would technically be breaking the law.

In fact, the criteria for criminal activity is so broad that the bill practically makes itself illegal. A section of the bill calls for a greater effort to educate young people about the danger of mixing ecstasy with other club drugs and alcohol. This, says Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, is technically information on how to use the drug.

"If this law is being broken by its own author, it tells you how dangerous this kind of legislation is," says Sterling. "It tells you that many other innocent, public-minded people are in danger of breaking this law."

Mike Tiddy, a spokesperson for Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who introduced the bill, says that portion of the bill would only target "people who are engaging in criminal activity" and that the law "would not touch" those who provide harm-reducing information on how to use drugs.

Meanwhile, the speech-restricting spirit of the meth and ecstasy bills seems to be catching on internationally. Pino Arlacchi, the head of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, recently told The New York Times that he sees "a lot of extremely dangerous information" about illegal drugs on the Internet. "And unfortunately," he added, "these views are spreading, and we are now thinking about some instrument to at least stop the expansion of this flow of information."