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Interview: David Bronner and the White House Hemp Civil Disobedience

David Bronner grinds hemp plants into oil, H St. outside Lafayette Park at the White House, 6/11/12
[This interview with David Bronner was conducted Sunday afternoon, prior to today's civil disobedience action. Read our accompanying news report on the action here, and watch video footage here.]

Drug War Chronicle: You have been making efforts to get the Obama administration to reassess its hemp policy. How has that been going?

David Bronner: It's been incredibly frustrating. It's been clear for some time that Obama is being incredibly lame on this. It took them seven months to answer our hemp petition, and when they did, it was with this Orwellian response calling hemp marijuana and opposing legalization. They also refused to meet with a North Dakota delegation, where everyone from the governor on down wants to grow hemp, so what are we going to do?

Chronicle: And now we have the Wyden-Paul amendment. What do you think of that and what are its chances?

Bronner: The introduction of the Wyden amendment is good news. Rand Paul came on board, too. The drug warriors will try to strip it out of the farm bill, of course, but maybe the energy out of this civil disobedience action will do the trick. The introduction of the amendment last week certainly sets up this action nicely.

Chronicle: You will be transporting hemp plants to the vicinity of the White House and processing them to produce hemp oil, but the federal government doesn't differentiate hemp from marijuana. You're going to have about 10 pounds of hemp. Aren't you worried about the possible legal consequences?

Bronner: I will be inside a steel cage to prevent police from getting to me while I prepare the hemp oil-

Chronicle: That's a switch.

Bronner: Yeah, although I do expect to eventually be arrested. I'll plead not guilty; this isn't marijuana. I'll fight them all the way, unless all they want to do is give me something like a traffic ticket. Medical marijuana has provided many opportunities for civil disobedience, but hemp is different. You're not going to have a farmer spending months growing a hundred acres for an act of civil disobedience, so I'm doing it.

Chronicle: But it's not just about hemp or what goes on in Washington, DC, for you, is it?

Bronner: We just gave $50,000 to the cannabis legalization campaign in Colorado. Although that initiative does direct the legislature to enact a hemp farming program, this is mainly about legalization. We'll give money to the Washington state effort, too, because once one or two states go, there will be a seismic shift, and the prohibition of hemp will become increasingly lame and untenable.

[Disclosure: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps is a financial supporter of this newsletter.]

Washington
United States

Hemp Civil Disobedience at the White House NOW

David Bronner, president of the widely-known Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, locked himself in an iron cage with hemp plants (the non-psychoactive type) this morning to protest the federal government's ban on hemp. Dr. Bronner's uses hemp oil in its soaps, imported from Canada. There is a live stream at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/hempaction2, though I just got a malware infection message from my browser the site so proceed with caution. David is just being taken away to a police cruiser right now.

In a few moments I will be posting an interview Phil conducted yesterday with David, and a short news report on the action, and photos from this morning, which also discusses an amendment to the federal farm bill being submitted by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rand Paul (R-KY), the first Senate pro-hemp legislation.

Chronicle Book Review: Home Grown

Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, by Isaac Campos (2012, University of North Carolina Press, 331 pp., $39.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer, Editor

For anyone with a serious interest in the history of marijuana prohibition, Isaac Campos has made an indispensable contribution to the literature with Home Grown, his scholarly work on the history of marijuana in Mexico. In so doing, he not only opens up a previously neglected area of marijuana research -- Mexico! -- but also makes a compelling case for a revisionist view of the standard narratives of pot prohibition in the United States.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/homegrown.jpg
Relying on archival research, access to thousands upon thousands of Mexican press articles over more than 150 years, and the latest social science insights into the social and cultural construction of narratives about drug use, as well as some groundbreaking Mexican intellectual and scientific history, the University of Cincinnati historian covers the career of marijuana in Mexico from its introduction by Spanish colonists shortly after Conquest through its prohibition throughout nationwide by the new revolutionary government in 1920.

Campos traces marijuana's arrival in Mexico to at least as far back as 1530, when one of the conquistadors was granted royal approval to import it for hemp farming. Back then, it was known as canamo, the Spanish word for cannabis. Hemp farming never really took off in Mexico, but the plant itself, a native of Southwest Asia, certainly went native, so to speak.

And that was part of pot's problem. While efforts to farm hemp had largely died out by the beginning of the 19th Century -- mainly for lack of reliable seed supplies -- knowledge of the plant spread during the colonial era among Mexico's indigenous population, which was already well-versed in the use of a wide variety of herbs and plants, including psychoactive ones. Indigenous medical and spiritual practices, which were closely tied, ran afoul first of the Inquisition, which tried to suppress them as the devil's work, and later, of modernizing Mexico, which wanted to shun its "primitive" or "degenerate" indigenous heritage for "civilized" European status.

Campos notes the first report of smoking marijuana for its psychoactive effects in 1846. By then, the plant had been thoroughly Mexicanized, so much so that it was considered indigenous and its introduction as cannabis forgotten. In fact, many observers didn't even realize that the demon weed, now becoming known as "marijuana" was the same plant as cannabis.

As Campos shows in painstaking historical detail, over the next century and a half, marijuana developed a reputation as a bringer of madness and violence, a view that was widely shared both by the indigenous masses and scientific and medical scholars. Newspaper reports of marijuana were almost exclusively and unanimously about people who had smoked it, then committed horrid crimes of violence while driven insane by its pernicious effects. Peasants were known to scream in terror or make the sign of the cross at the mere sight of the plant, associated as it was not only with madness, but with indigenous witchery.

Throughout the 19th Century, there was no counter-narrative to Mexican reefer madness (in fact, when one Mexican physician dared to challenge the orthodox view in 1938, he was nearly drummed out of the profession amid great scandal). Marijuana made you crazy, and the only people who smoked it were criminals, prisoners, and soldiers in barracks. That was the common wisdom, and it was universally supported by the science of the day.

Since running amok on weed seems so foreign to our cultural experience with the drug, Campos devotes some effort to explaining why the reports of madness and mayhem were so consistent. Did it actually make people go crazy? Here he delves into set and setting, the social construction of drug use, and the modern of science of marijuana to suggest that while people may have occasionally really rampaged on reefer, it is more likely that the reports conflated marijuana and other drug use, especially alcohol; that the existing narratives created a sort of "placebo effect" where people did what was expected of them -- go crazy on weed -- that the reports were sometimes made up to sell newspapers, and that because Mexican law provided a sort of insanity defense for people who were intoxicated, people claimed to have been under the influence to avoid criminal sanctions for their crimes.

By the late 19th Century, the repression of marijuana was underway in Mexico. First came restrictions on the sale of marijuana at herbolarias, the market herb stalls operated by indigenous women (you can still see them at the Sonora witches' market in Mexico City), then state and local bans, and in 1920, national marijuana prohibition in Mexico.

Campos' history of marijuana in Mexico is fascinating in its own right and is an outstanding contribution to the literature in itself, but he makes a real contribution to our understanding of pot prohibition in the US as well. The standard narrative, laid down by Bonnie and Whitebread in The Marijuana Conviction and Musto in The American Disease, and relied on by most later scholars, is that Reefer Madness was largely fueled by prejudice and racism toward Mexicans and their drug.

Campos shows that while anti-Mexican sentiment indeed played a role in the construction of the Reefer Madness narrative, that narrative was as much a Mexican import as the weed itself. Mexican public and scientific opinion fully embraced the "marijuana is madness" meme, English-language Mexican newspaper reports of pot atrocities were reprinted widely in the US -- sometimes the same Mexican press story would circulate for years in the US, being reprinted at different times by different newspapers, often with sensational embellishments. Mexico delivered a nicely-wrapped, full-blown Reefer Madness narrative into the eager arms of the likes of Harry Anslinger, who would use it as the basis of our very own version of Reefer Madness.

And that means we have to revise the standard narrative on the history of pot prohibition in the US. We didn't cram marijuana prohibition down Mexico's throat; the Mexicans did it themselves, and the process began long before the US began trying to impose its prohibitionist views on the rest of the world. And, as Campos makes abundantly clear, blaming it on racism directed at Mexicans is just too simple.

Home Grown is a most welcome and important contribution to the history of marijuana prohibition. It has broadened our understanding of how we got to this place, and it belongs on the book shelf of every serious student of the topic.

The Drug Czar's False Statement About Marijuana and Hemp Should be a Bigger Scandal

My latest Huffington Post rant calls out the drug czar's preposterous excuses for the ban on industrial hemp cultivation. Check it out

Hemp Farming Bill Filed in Kentucky

A bill to allow farmers to register to grow industrial hemp in Kentucky was filed last Thursday. House Bill 286 has 12 cosponsors.

hemp field at sunrise (votehemp.com)
The bill would create a process through which farmers could apply to grow hemp and then be vetted by state officials. If applicants passed a background check, they would pay a fee to be registered to grow hemp.

Hemp production is prohibited under federal law (unless the DEA authorizes a permit, which it doesn't), and the bill acknowledges as much, saying "nothing in [this bill] shall be construed to authorize any person to violate any federal rules or regulations."

But bill supporters said passage of a hemp legalization bill would send a message to Washington that Kentucky is joining the list of states that want to grow hemp. Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a former House member, is among those supporters.

"This sends a message that this is something we're serious about here in Kentucky," Comer said.

According to the industry group Vote Hemp, nine states have passed bills authorizing either hemp production or research into it, while eight states have passed resolutions calling for legal hemp production.

Kentucky passed a hemp research bill in 2001, and hemp production bills have been introduced there each year since 2009.

Hemp is produced in at least 30 countries, and can be legally imported to the US, but not grown here because the DEA refuses to make a distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana. Hemp is the only plant that can be imported, but not produced here.

The bill was filed Thursday by Rep. Richard Henderson (D-Jeffersonville), with co-sponsors including former House Speaker Jody Richards (D-Bowling Green), David Osborne (R-Prospect) and Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville).

The bill has been assigned to the Agriculture and Small Business Committee.

Lexington, KY
United States

Mitt Romney Doesn't Know What Industrial Hemp Is

This is…I mean, what can I even…oh whatever, just watch.

Um, it's what the Constitution was written on. But it's illegal now, and we're trying to get to the bottom of the situation. Our best guess presently is that there's been a big misunderstanding of some sort. The DEA seems to think hemp is drugs. It's not, though. Could you look into it for us?

*Thanks to our friends at Students for Sensible Drug Policy for hitting the ground in New Hampshire and making this happen.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Newt Gingrich Says George Washington Would Have Punished Pot Growers

Pot growers such as…George Washington? This gem comes courtesy of our friends at SSDP who are on the ground in New Hampshire confronting candidates about the War on Drugs.

Newt is apparently unaware that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew marijuana crops for the purpose of harvesting hemp. Or, maybe that's just not what Newt had in mind when he heard the question. But even if he'd known or understood, what then would he have said? It's nevertheless a fact -- a very stupid fact -- that it's presently illegal to grow hemp anywhere in America, and no one better try to make rope and paper the way our forefathers did, or there'll be hell to pay.

Whatever Newt may or may not know about hemp farming at Mount Vernon and Monticello is beside the point. The real story here is that our government is so embarrassingly terrified of the marijuana plant that modern farmers aren't even permitted to grow harmless and useful hemp crops for fear of…hell, who even knows.

Hemp isn't even a drug, and we're at war with it because it looks like one. If you can think of anything stupider than that, please don't tell Newt Gingrich about it.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

White House Rebuffs Marijuana Legalization Petitions

As promised, the White House has responded to the online petition to "Legalize and Regulate Alcohol," and seven other similar pot petitions as well, but the response wasn't favorable. That's not particularly surprising, given that the person chosen to deliver the response, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske, is mandated by law to oppose legalization.

"Isn't it time to legalize and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol?" asked the petition submitted by "Erik A" of Washington, DC. "If not, please explain why you feel that the continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

The threshold for an official response was at least 25,000 signatures by 30 days from October 3. The marijuana legalization petition was by far the most popular, with more than 74,000 signatures as of Friday night. Another seven petitions similarly calling for one form of pot legalization or another, which Kerlikowske also included in his response, carried an additional 76,000 signatures.

The marijuana legalization petitions far exceeded all others. Currently, the other leading contenders are banning puppy mills (30,234), abolishing the TSA (28,515), and two other issues that are closely related to marijuana reform -- allowing for industrial hemp (20,498) and ending the war on drugs (18,614).

The official response from drug czar Kerlikowske is certain to disappoint and infuriate marijuana legalization supporters and drug reformers, but should come as little surprise. Under the 1998 ONDCP Reauthorization Act, the drug czar is required by law not only to not spend any money to study legalization but also to "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize" a Schedule I substance, a category that under federal law includes marijuana. The drug czar could no more come out for marijuana legalization than the 17th Century Holy Office could endorse a universe without the earth at its center.

That the administration chose the drug czar to respond sends a strong signal that legalization talk will go nowhere in this administration. That it chose to release its response during the late Friday afternoon "news dump," when it will hopefully vanish over the weekend suggests that it realizes it isn't going to win many political points with its position.

"Our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug's effects," Kerlikowske begins before warning that "marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment." He then wheels out marijuana treatment admissions and emergency room visits, reminds that potency has increased, and concludes that "simply put, it is not a benign drug."

Kerlikowske asserts that the administration is "ardently support[ing] ongoing research" into marijuana as a medicine, but scoffs at smoked marijuana as a medicine. Then he actually addresses the petition.

"As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem," the drug czar continued. "We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

Instead, Kerlikowske recommends, not surprisingly, his own 2001 National Drug Control Strategy, "emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities." What is needed is not marijuana legalization, but more drug treatment and more drug courts, Kerlikowske concludes.

The legalization petition was drafted in response to the White House's We the People campaign "because we want to hear from you," according to the web page. "If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it is sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response."

The drug czar's recitation of the harms associated with marijuana use is certainly debatable and will doubtlessly be thoroughly criticized in days to come. But as the administration response makes clear, that marijuana is a dangerous drug that Americans cannot be trusted with to use responsibly is the official line, and they're sticking to it.

Washington, DC
United States

Brown Vetoes California Hemp Bill, Criticizes Federal Ban

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers in select counties to grow hemp, saying it would subject them to federal prosecution, but in doing so, he lashed out at the federal ban on hemp farming in the US, calling it "absurd."

hemp field at sunrise (votehemp.com)
Sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the bill, Senate Bill 676, would have allowed farmers in four Central California counties to grow industrial hemp for the legal sale of hemp seed, oil, and fiber to manufacturers. The bill specified that hemp must contain less than 0.3% THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and farmers would have to submit their crops to testing before they go to market.

The bill had mandated an eight-year pilot program that would end in 2020, but not before the California attorney general would issue a report on law enforcement impact and the Hemp Industries Association would issue a report on its economic impact.

But although, like three other hemp bills that have been vetoed in California in the past decade, the bill passed the legislature and had the broadest support of any hemp measure considered in the state, Gov. Brown killed it, citing the federal proscription on hemp farming.

"Federal law clearly establishes that all cannabis plants, including industrial hemp, are marijuana, which is a federally regulated controlled substance," Brown said in his veto message. "Failure to obtain a permit from the US Drug Enforcement Administration prior to growing such plants will subject a California farmer to prosecution," he noted.

"Although I am not signing this measure, I do support a change in federal law," Brown continued. "Products made from hemp -- clothes, food, and bath products -- are legally sold in California every day. It is absurd that hemp is being imported into the state, but our farmers cannot grow it."

Industry groups were not assuaged by Brown's language criticizing the federal hemp ban. In a press release Monday, Vote Hemp and the Hemp Industries Association blasted the veto.

"Vote Hemp and The Hemp Industries Association are extremely disappointed by Gov. Brown's veto. This is a big setback for not only the hemp industry -- but for farmers, businesses, consumers and the California economy as a whole. Hemp is a versatile cash and rotation crop with steadily rising sales as a natural, renewable food and body care ingredient. It's a shame that Gov. Brown agreed that the ban on hemp farming was absurd and yet chose to block a broadly supported effort to add California to the growing list of states that are demanding the return of US hemp farming. There truly was overwhelming bipartisan support for this bill," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp and executive director of the HIA.

"After four vetoes in ten years in California, it is clear we lack a governor willing to lead on this important ecological, agricultural and economic issue. We will regroup, strategize and use this veto to our advantage at the federal level," added Vote Hemp Director and co-counsel Patrick Goggin.

The US hemp market is now estimated to be about $420 million in annual retail sales, but manufacturers must turn to foreign suppliers because the DEA, which refuses to differentiate between industrial hemp and recreational and medical marijuana, bars its cultivation here.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

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