The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee has taken a giant step towards limiting the civil liberties of American citizens by approving a bill that, according to investigative reporter Radley Balko, "would make it a federal crime for U.S. residents to discuss or plan activities on foreign soil that, if carried out in the U.S., would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) -- even if the planned activities are legal in the countries where they're carried out."

Balko has done a detailed analysis of the potential effects of the bill for the Huffington Post. He points out, as just one example, that if a couple in the U.S. were to plan to have their wedding in Amsterdam and distribute marijuana to those attending, they would be guilty of a federal crime.

Similarly, doctors or academics who advised their counterparts overseas on such things as needle exchange programs, the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries, or drug decriminalization programs could be charged with violations of the law. It could even apply to someone advising a friend on where to buy cold medicine in another country if it would require showing ID to purchase that same medicine in the United States.

The bill was sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and is nominally intended to plug a legal loophole which allowed an appeals court to find that two men who had planned an overseas cocaine deal while living in Miami were not guilty of any federal crime.

The official description of the Drug Trafficking Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011 sounds fairly innocuous. It states that the purpose of the bill is "to amend the Controlled Substances Act to clarify that persons who enter into a conspiracy within the United States to possess or traffic illegal controlled substances outside the United States, or engage in conduct within the United States to aid or abet drug trafficking outside the United States, may be criminally prosecuted in the United States, and for other purposes."

However, Smith -- who ran into trouble with marijuana legalization advocates earlier this year when he declared that the Judiciary Committee would not even consider a legalization bill sponsored by Barney Frank and Ron Paul -- appears to have broader objectives in mind. According to Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance, the Safe Harbor Elimination Act goes much further than necessary.

"They could have limited this law to prohibiting the planning of activities that are illegal in the countries where they take place," Piper explains. "That would have allowed them to convict the guys in the Miami case. There was an amendment proposed to do that and it was voted down on party lines. They intentionally made sure the bill includes activities that [are] legal in other countries. Which means this is an attempt to apply U.S. law all over the globe."

Civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate also sees the act as an example of governmental overreach. "Just when you think you can't get any more cynical, a bill like this comes along," he told Balko. "I mean, it just sounds like an abomination. First, there's no intuitive reason for an American to think that planning an activity that's perfectly legal in another country would have any effect on America. So we're getting further away from the common law tradition that laws should be intuitive, and should include a mens rea component. Second, this is just an act of shameless cultural and legal imperialism. It's just outrageous."

Like Piper, Silverglate concludes that "I don't see any interest other than to a desire to impose our moral and cultural preferences on the rest of the world."

Photo by United States Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.