Attention cartographers: all your maps depicting America’s borders stopping at the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans need updating. On Thursday, the US House Judiciary Committee approved a bill (HR 313) to amend the Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would make it a crime for US residents to discuss or plan (within the US) activities overseas that run afoul of US law, even if the activity in question is legal in the country in which it takes place. The text of the bill reads as follows:
Whoever, within the United States, conspires with one or more persons, or aids or abets one or more persons, regardless of where such other persons are located, to engage in conduct at any place outside the United States that would constitute a violation of this title if committed within the United States, shall be subject to the same penalties that would apply to such conduct if it were to occur within the United States.
Speaking to the Huffington Post, US drug law reform advocate Bill Piper gave an example of how the bill could be (mis)applied. “If a young couple plans a wedding in Amsterdam, and … they plan to buy the bridal party some marijuana, they would be subject to prosecution.” As conspiracy laws allow prosecutors great leeway in ‘widening the net’, anyone involved in these Amsterdam wedding plans — even those who’d never heard of the proposed pot buy — would be subject to prosecution. If that weed wedding scenario seems too outlandish for you, HuffPo’s Radney Balko suggested US doctors will be prevented from discussing needle exchange programs with their counterparts overseas (or even just north of the border in Canada).
Piper calls the bill “an attempt to apply US law all over the globe.” Civil libertarian Harvey Silvergate went further, calling the bill “an act of shameless cultural and legal imperialism.” For the moment, the bill refers only to drug crimes, but US legislators aren’t exactly immune to the phenomenon of ‘mission creep’, so who knows where this will stop.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tx), the current Judiciary Committee chairman who believes online gambling sites are “fronts for money laundering, drug trafficking and criminal organizations.” If this bill was extended to online gambling, would Caesars Entertainment executives – who entered into a partnership with UK online poker operator 888 Holdings – be guilty of conspiracy for discussing online gambling on a trans-Atlantic phone call? Will Caesars’ Gary Loveman end up trading in his pinstripes for prison stripes? (No wonder Gary’s so keen to push Washington to pass online poker legislation this year.)
Clearly, despite all signs pointing to the balance of global power tilting eastward, some US politicians’ brains are still locked in ‘hyperpower’ mode. That phrase was coined in the early 1990’s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the world minus one ‘superpower’ and elevated (by default) America’s global influence to a previously unimaginable altitude. Without the Communist counterweight, America found itself almost without constraints in its dealings with other nations, and absolute power quickly began to absolutely corrupt America’s sense of itself. In 2004, an unnamed Bush administration official was quoted in the New York Times Magazine: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
Time for a reality check.