Sentencing

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Chronicle AM: House Passes Unemployment Drug Test Bill, Houston Decriminalizes, More... (2/16/17)

The House approves a bill that could open the door to states drug testing people seeking unemployment benefits, harsh sentencing bills advance in Ohio and Kentucky, Houston decriminalizes marijuana possession (in most cases), and more.

The House has approved a bill that would allow states to expand drug testing of people seeking unemployment benefits. (wikimedia
Marijuana Policy

Arizona PAC Plans to File 2018 Legalization Initiative. A political action committee called Safer Arizona was set to file a marijuana legalization initiative with state officials Thursday. Arizona voters narrowly devoted a similar measure last year, but organizers say this one will have some differences, including requiring that people be at least 21 before they can buy it. They will have to gather 150,000 valid voter signatures by July to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Guam Legalization Bill Gets Hearing. In a hearing Tuesday on a marijuana legalization measure, Bill 8-34, representatives of the judiciary said they took no position on the bill, but cautioned that implementing legalization would require a review of the island territory's entire criminal code. Guam Customs and Quarantine acting chief, Maj. Phillip Taijeron also testified, saying he supported the will of the people. "If the will of the people is to enact Bill 8-34, then I am in support of Bill 8-34," Taijeron said.

New York State Assembly Passes Landmark Legislation to Seal Past Marijuana Possession Convictions. The Assembly voted Tuesday in favor of Assembly Bill 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who have been unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view. The vote was 95 in favor and 38 opposed.This sealing legislation has taken on increased importance amid the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and actions targeting immigrant communities. On the national level, simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation, according to the report "Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program?" Sealing records will provide a measure of protection for immigrants by making it difficult or impossible for immigration authorities to meet their legal burden of proof for a judge to find a lawful permanent resident deportable. Additionally, sealing will guard against the Trump administration's Executive Order targeting noncitizens with any criminal arrests and/or convictions for deportation. If the arrest is also sealed and the sealed information is not shared with the FBI, these individuals may be at lower risk of becoming an enforcement target.

Houston to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. The nation's fourth largest city is ready to decriminalize small-time marijuana possession. As of March 1, under a new "Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program," in most circumstances people caught with an ounce or less will face no jail, no tickets, no court appearances and no criminal record. Houston and surrounding Harris County have spent $200 million prosecuting 100,000 pot possession cases in the past decade, with "no tangible public safety benefit," said District Attorney Kim Ogg (D), who took office this year.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana Senate Passes Limited CBD Bill. A measure that would allow people with epilepsy to use low-THC cannabidiol oil passed the Senate Tuesday. The measure, Senate Bill 15, now moves to the House.

Virginia Republicans Kill CBD Expansion Bill. Patient advocates burst into tears Wednesday night as six House Republicans voted to kill a major expansion of the state's CBD law, which limited its use to people with epilepsy. Senate Bill 1298 would have expanded the law to allow its use for treatment for 13 more conditions, but the bill was killed by a 5-6 party line vote in the subcommittee that writes criminal law.

Asset Forfeiture

Colorado Cops Lobby Hard, Defeat Asset Forfeiture Reform. A proposal to expand oversight of police seizures of property was defeated in a party line vote in a Senate committee Wednesday, with Republicans casting all the "no" votes. The measure, Senate Bill 17-136, would also have prevented law enforcement agencies from turning property over to the federal government to get around state restrictions unless the property was worth more than $50,000. The vote came after a parade of law enforcement officers testified against the bill.

Drug Testing

House Approves Measure Aimed at Expanding Drug Testing of People Who File for Unemployment Assistance. The House approved H.J. Res 42, which would repeal a recently finalized Department of Labor rule that interpreted a 2012 federal law that permits states to drug test people who file for unemployment insurance in certain circumstances. Advocates see the repeal of the Department of Labor rule as a first step by some Republicans in Congress at undoing federal restrictions on states conditioning receipt of unemployment and other forms of public assistance on a drug test. The measure now goes before the Senate.

Sentencing

Kentucky Senate Passes Bill Toughening Penalties for Heroin, Fentanyl Sales. The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to approve a bill increasing penalties for people trafficking even the smallest amounts of heroin and fentanyl. The measure, Senate Bill 14, rolls back sentencing reforms enacted in 2011. Under those reforms, trafficking less than House Bill 4, which reverses a state Supreme Court ruling that only the weight of actual cocaine -- not filler -- be used when imposing stiffer sentences for possession and trafficking. Under the bill, prosecutors would be able to sentence defendants based on the weight of the entire mixture. Under the bill, a pound of powder that contained only a gram of cocaine would be considered a pound of cocaine for sentencing purposes. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Chronicle AM: NM Senate on MedMJ & Harm Reduction; Iowa Students Win Speech Case, More... (2/14/17)

Medical marijuana and harm reduction measures advance in New Mexico, a police drug field test kit maker is being sued by a Florida man busted for the glaze on his Krispy Kreme donuts, Idaho considers ending mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and more.

The New Mexico Senate has approved a pair of measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Calls for Decriminalization. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northum (D) called Monday for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement is costly and aimed disproportionately at African-Americans. The move comes weeks after Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) requested that the Virginia Crime Commission study the issue. That move froze pending decriminalization legislation sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Washington State Bill Would Repeal Legalization. Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kenniwick) has filed House Bill 2096, which would repeal "all laws legalizing the use, possession, sale, or production of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.

Wyoming Senate Committee Scales Back Marijuana Sentencing Reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to amend House Bill 197, weakening proposed sentencing reforms by doubling the period during which previous convictions would result in a longer sentence from five years to 10 years. More importantly, the amendment removes the plant form of marijuana from the bill completely, meaning the new tiered sentencing system would apply only to edibles.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 29-11 Monday to approve Senate Bill 177, which would expand the state's program by increasing the amount of marijuana patients may possess to five ounces and increasing the number of plants commercial providers can grow. The bill now goes to the House.

Drug Policy

Idaho Bills Would Alter State's Drug Laws. The House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted Monday to introduce a package of three bills that would reform the state's harsh drug laws. One bill would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and another would bar the seizure of vehicles for simple drug possession and require that property found near drugs be seized only if it is meaningfully connected to the crime. The third bill, however, is a step in the opposite direction -- it would allow heroin sellers to be charged with murder in the event of fatal overdoses.

Drug Testing

Florida Field Drug Test Kit Company Sued By Man Jailed for Possessing Donut Glaze. A Florida man is suing the police field drug test kit manufacturer Safariland LLC after an Orlando police officer using one of its field kits charged him with possessing methamphetamine although the substance being tested was actually the glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. The drug test is either ineffective or unreliable, Daniel Rushing charges in his lawsuit, twice registering a positive result for meth and resulting in his false arrest and imprisonment before felony charges were dropped.

First Amendment

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Student Drug Legalization Group's Free Speech Rights. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university's logo and mascot on t-shirts calling for the legalization of marijuana. Iowa State NORML had sued in 2014 after the university first gave its okay, but then refused permission after pressure from high-ranking state officials, including the governor's office. Instead, the university suddenly changed its guidelines, with new rules prohibiting designs "that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products." Last year a federal district court filed an injunction prohibiting the school from using its new policy to block NORML from printing new t-shirts, and now the appeals court has upheld that permanent injunction.

Harm Reduction

New Mexico Senate Approves Pair of Harm Reduction Bills. The state Senate Monday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state. Senate Bill 47 would improve the state's 911 Good Samaritan law to include alcohol overdoses and eliminate the prospect of criminal liability for violating drug laws while seeking medical assistance for an overdose. Senate Bill 16 would require health care providers to counsel patients on the risk of overdose and to offer prescriptions for the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bills now go to the House.

International

Trump Administration Accuses Venezuela VP of Drug Smuggling. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Treasury said that El Aissimi facilitated drug trafficking in his previous post of Aragua state. The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for "specially designated narcotics traffickers," part of what's known as the Kingpin Act.

Trump Goes Full Nixon on Law-and-Order, Vows 'Ruthless' War on Drugs and Crime [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump last week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America."

"We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in," Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last Wednesday. "We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence."

Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one of its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed "record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins," Trump complained.

And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for "the most serious" drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on "shipping loopholes" he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the US from other countries.

In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday's speech.

Last Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America," but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.

The first, which Trump said would "reduce crime and restore public safety," orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime," propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.

The second, regarding "transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking," directs various federal law enforcement agencies to "increase intelligence sharing" and orders an already existing interagency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, "along with any recommended actions for dismantling them."

"I'm directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people," Trump said Thursday.

The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.

Trump was breathing law-and-order brimstone last week. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
"It's a shame what's been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That's going to stop as of today."

The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.

In a report released last Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The report was coauthored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.

"Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today's crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety," the report said.

The president's crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on "antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses" and Trump's plan would "repeat this mistake," the officials wrote. "We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics."

Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.

"This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest," said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country's mass incarceration crisis."

Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.

"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing," the authors conclude.

Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, the rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn't be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it's not just what's being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what's being imported, too.

"For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, 'OK, the problem with drugs -- that it's creating so much violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico -- is because there's demand for drugs in the US,''" Videgaray said. "We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it's just the other way around," he said, adding that both countries need to get past "the blame game."

And if the US is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels "business model," it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.

"We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico," Videgaray said. "We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns -- and we're not talking small guns, we're talking heavy weapons -- they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels."

Will progress on reducing mass incarceration come to a halt? (nadcp.org)
Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a "dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk," by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. "There is no 'dangerous permanent trend' in violent or non-violent crime," it pointed out.

And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.

"Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work," said Amnesty's Noor Mir. "Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.

There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.

"This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the US criminal justice system," he said. "Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians."

The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more -- not less -- distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.

Chronicle AM: States' Rights Marijuana Bill Filed, Trouble in Morocco's Rif, More... (2/8/17)

A federal bill to let states experiment with marijuana policy is back, CBD cannabis oil and medical marijuana study bills advance at the statehouse, trouble is bubbling up in Morocco's hash-producing regions, and more.

California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is again introducing a bill to give states the lead on marijuana policy. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Republican Congressman Files Federal Bill to Let States Set Own Marijuana Policies. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) Tuesday filed House Resolution 975, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The bill would resolve conflicts between state and federal laws by exempting people and entities from certain provisions of the Controlled Substances Act if they are acting in compliance with state laws. Rohrabacher authored similar legislation in the last Congress, garnering 20 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.

Minnesota Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. Jon Applebaum (DFL-Minnetonka) filed a bill Wednesday to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "Minnesotans are rightfully developing different attitudes on marijuana," Applebaum said in a news release. "Other states' successes, along with the failed prohibition attempts of others, validated the need for a statewide conversation," he added. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Bill to Lower THC Levels, Add Autism Advances. A bill that would add autism to the list of qualifying conditions for using CBD cannabis oil, but would also lower the amount of THC in cannabis oil was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Medical marijuana advocates like Senate Bill 16 for its autism provision, but don't want the lower THC provision. The bill would drop allowable THC levels from 5% to 3%.

Utah House Passes Medical Marijuana Research Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pass House Bill 130, which would allow universities in the state to study medical marijuana. The bill is a fallback after legislators retreated from earlier plans to push an actual medical marijuana bill. The bill now advances to the Senate.

Wisconsin Senate Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a bill allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil to treat seizures. Senate Bill 10 now heads to the House.

Sentencing

Maryland Bill Would Set Criminal Penalties for People Who Sell Drugs Linked to Fatal Overdoses. A bill that would set criminal penalties of up to 30 years in prison for people who sell heroin or fentanyl where "the use of which is a contributing cause to the death of another" has been filed in the House. The measure, House Bill 612, aims not only at the person who directly sold the drug, but also anyone in the supply chain. It's scheduled for a committee hearing on February 28.

International

Morocco Drug Control Policy Sparking Unrest in Country's North. The death of an illegal fish vendor in November has sparked months of widespread protests and unrest in Morocco's Rif, but that unrest has been brewing for years thanks to a lack of economic development and the government's harsh treatment of cannabis growers, one of the few economic activities available to area residents: "This situation in which Rifans are left with few other economic options than to engage in illicit activities and risk criminal sanctions is aggravated by the harsh provisions of the Moroccan narcotics law. While drug use is punished with two months to one year in prison, the law allows for up to 30 years for drug trafficking offenses. The average sentence is around 10 to 15 years, even for minor, non-violent offences."

Philippines President Insults Former Colombia President Over Drug Policy Criticisms. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria "an idiot" for publishing an article in the New York Times criticizing Duterte's murderous crack down on drugs. "To tell you frankly... they say that Colombia leader has been lecturing about me. That idiot," Duterte said.

Colombia Gives Land Titles to Families Abandoning Coca Crops. The Colombian government announced Monday it will grant land titles to some 10,000 peasant families that have given up on coca production. The program will take place in southern Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo provinces, where about half the country's coca is grown. The move comes after the government and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC agreed to a crop eradication and substation program last month.

Chronicle Book Review: This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, by Anthony Papa

After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.

We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.

That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.

In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.

But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.

That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.

Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.

In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.

And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.

Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.

Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.

This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.

His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?

Interview: Marc Mauer on Criminal Justice Reform in the Trump Years [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

For nearly half a century, America has been in the grip of incarceration fever. Beginning with the "law and order" campaigns of Richard Nixon, reprised by Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," and seemingly carried on by inertia through the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the fever only began to break in the last few years.

The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer (Human Rights Project/Bard College)
For the first time in decades, we have not seen the ever-increasing uptick in the number of people behind bars in the United States. After the incredible expansion of imprisonment that made the land of the free the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, the US prison population may have finally peaked. Small declines have occurred in state prison populations, and the federal prison population, fueled largely by drug war excess, is stabilizing.

Much of the progress has come under the Obama administration, but now, there's a new sheriff in town, and he doesn't seem remotely as reform-friendly as Obama. What's going to happen with sentencing reform and criminal justice under Trump and the Republicans?

To try to find some answers, we turned to someone who's been fighting for reform for decades now, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit committed to working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Drug War Chronicle: When it comes to sentencing reform, we're likely in for a rough ride these next few years with tough-talking Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But before we look forward to what may come, it's worth looking back at where we've been and what's been accomplished in the last eight years. How did sentencing reform do under Obama?

Marc Mauer: I think we saw very substantial reform, both in terms of actual policy changes that have made a real difference, but also in terms of a change in the political environment, which is really critical for long-term reform.

We saw substantial changes coming out of Congress, the White House, and the US Sentencing Commission. In Congress, probably the most substantial piece of legislation was the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced -- but didn't eliminate -- the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

But changes put in place by the Sentencing Commission have had the largest impact. It amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce punishments for drug offenders, which affected an estimated 46,000 people currently serving federal drug sentences. Of those, about 43,000 have seen their cases reviewed, with 29,000 getting sentence reductions and 14,000 getting denied. These are going to be rolling reductions -- for people who might have had three years left, the guidelines change might knock that down to six months; for people doing 30 years, it might knock it down to 27. They still have a long way to go, but not as far as before. This is having and will have the most significant effect.

The Obama White House was very active on sentencing reform, too. Obama commuted more than 1,700 federal prison sentences, a third of those life sentences, typically for third-time drug offenses, and that has a very significant effect. They've also done a number of initiatives around re-entry, collateral consequences, "ban the box" policies, and the like.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance to employers about when it is and isn't appropriate to use prior criminal records when considering employment applications. The administration set up an interagency reentry council that brought together a number of cabinet agencies to see what they could do to have an impact on easing reentry.

There's been a congressional ban on inmates using Pell grant education funds, which only Congress can overturn, but the Obama administration created a pilot Pell grant program and was able to restore some funding on a research basis. The estimate is that about 12,000 incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of that.

President Obama meets with federal prisoners, El Reno, Oklahoma, 2015 (whitehouse.gov)
DWC: Now, it's a new era, and Jeff Sessions appears set to become our next attorney general. He was something of a player on criminal justice issues in the Senate; what's your take on what to expect from him on sentencing and criminal justice reform?

MM: I'm not overly optimistic. He's been supportive of some criminal justice reform in the past, most notably the Fair Sentencing Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- that involved a left-right coalition that felt prison rape was a bad thing, and provided money for research, training, and oversight as ways to reduce prison rape and sexual assault.

But in other areas, he's pretty much a hardliner. He was one of a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed sentencing reform legislation that was moving through Congress last year. He's one of the reasons the bill never got a Senate floor vote, even though it had passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

He's expressed skepticism about the work of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, particularly toward the consent decrees that it has imposed on cities and police departments making them agree to try to deal with tensions police law enforcement and African-American communities. That wasn't a pro- or anti-law enforcement approach; we have a real problem, and we need to get the parties working together. Getting law enforcement and local officials to agree that we have a problem is a very important tool to address a very serious problem.

To just say as Sessions does that he supports law enforcement doesn't get us very far. What do we do when law enforcement isn't doing the right thing, when it's violating people's rights? This will be very problematic.

And he continues to express support for harsh sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what perspective he has on what federal prosecutors should do. Eric Holder directed US Attorneys to change their charging practices in low-level drug cases so that people with minimal criminal histories wouldn't be hit with mandatory minimum sentences when possible. We haven't heard from Sessions whether he will keep that in place, or overturn it, or come up with something else. That will be critical. Attorneys general have swung back and forth on this.

DWC: That sentencing reform bill died last year, in part because of election year politics. Now the campaigns are over, but the Republicans control Congress. What are the prospects for anything good happening there now?

MM: There is some hope for sentencing reform. Among the Republican leadership, both Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly expressed a desire to see criminal justice reform go through this Congress. It's not entirely clear what that would look like -- would it look like last year's bill or only contain some aspects? -- but it is encouraging that they're voicing support for moving in that direction. Clearly, the big question is how the White House responds.

DWC: That is the big question. So, what about Trump? What do you foresee?

MM: Well, during the campaign, Trump called himself the law and order candidate, and he's been a vocal proponent of the death penalty and other tough measures, so that isn't encouraging. And if Sessions becomes attorney general, he would be involved, too, and that doesn't bode well for sentencing reform. Whether he makes this a priority issue or lets his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill take the lead will tell us a lot about the prospects.

DWC: With Trump and a Republican Congress you're facing a different political constellation than you were last year. How does that change your work, or does it?

MM: It doesn't change much in the day-to-day work. To make criminal justice reform work, we've always needed to make it bipartisan. It's been too sensitive and too emotional for so long that it's just not going to work unless it's bipartisan. That worked with crack sentencing and some other sentencing reform measures moving through Congress, and we are just going to continue the work. We meet regularly with congressional offices.

When it comes to justice reform issues, the political environment has shifted from the days of just "lock 'em up." There is growing and substantial support for reform from the right, not uniformly, but there is enough commonality of purpose that there is a good base for some kind of legislative change. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though.

DWC: Our conversation has focused so far on the federal level, but it's the states -- not the feds -- who hold the vast majority of prison inmates. How are things looking at the state level, and what impact do you thing the new order in Washington will have at the statehouse?

The states have begun reducing their prison populations. (nadcp.org)
MM: Unlike issues like health care, criminal justice is primarily a state and local issue, and over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been significant forward momentum. Overall, the state prison population has declined modestly, but in a handful of states they have achieved reductions of 25% or 30% over this period. And they did it on their own; this wasn't inspired by Washington.

And this wasn't just a blue state phenomenon. The state with the most substantial prison reduction was New Jersey with 31% -- under Christ Christie, who was generally supportive. Other states that saw big reductions were California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, but also Mississippi. We've also seen reforms enacted in places like Georgia and South Carolina, and Republican governors have been supportive.

It's quite likely the momentum we see at the state level will continue to a significant extent. At that level, policymakers are closer to the issue, and money issues are more relevant -- states actually have to balance their budgets. And by now, a number of states have had good experiences with reducing prison populations, with no adverse effects on public safety. The public has been supportive, or at least not opposed.

DWC: So, where do we go from here?

MM: Our goals and our strategy largely remain the same. We have to speak to broad audiences and work both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, we have to remember that criminal justice reform has never been easy. For several decades, we spent a good part of our careers trying to explain why tough on crime policies are counterproductive. It's been a long battle, but it's come to the point where the public environment has been shifting in a more rational, compassionate direction.

We have to build on the hard work that's been done. Now, we have Black Lives Matter and related grassroots activity, which has really spread quite quickly, creating a broader demand for change from the ground up. Some political leaders lead, but many follow; the more active support there is around the country, the more politicians have to respond.

Still, going backwards is quite possible. What happens to the commitment to civil rights? What happens to sentencing policy? If not actual backward movement, probably at least a halt to work around reentry programming in prisons and the like. That would be a real shame. We have made significant progress, the field has a much greater store of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. We are ready to try to expand on that; it would be extremely foolish in terms of public safety not to take advantage of that.

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Iran Hangs More Drug Prisoners, More... (1/17/17)

As his term winds down, President Obama continues to free more drug prisoners; New Jersey Dems plan a legalization bill, Wisconsin Dems plan a medical marijuana bill, and more.

Obama meets with prisoners at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal detention facility. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

New York Times Editorial Board Calls on Feds to Remove Barriers to Marijuana Research. In a Tuesday editorial, the Times cited last week's report from the National Academy of Sciences as it called on the federal government to reschedule marijuana out of Schedule I or, at least, remove regulatory barriers to further research on it. Marijuana "does not belong with LSD and heroin on Schedule I," the Times declared, but "even if Mr. Trump and Congress are unwilling to reclassify marijuana, they could remove the regulatory barriers to research and let scientists get to work."

New Jersey Democrats Prepare Legalization Bill, Despite Christie's Opposition. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D) said Monday that he and other Democrats will introduced a legalization bill in February, despite the opposition of Gov. Chris Christie (R). But Christie will be gone after the next election, and the legalization bill will still be there.

Medical Marijuana

Wisconsin Democrats to File Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) and Rep. Chris Taylor (D) are circulating a medical marijuana after Republican Assembly Speak Robin Vos said he would be open to the idea. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is not in favor. The Democratic pair have until January 26 to come up with cosponsors and file the bill.

Sentencing

Obama Commutes Sentences for Another 200+ Drug Offenders, and Chelsea Manning, Too. President Obama Tuesday announced he has commuted the sentences of 209 federal prisoners, nearly all drug offenders, as well as imprisoned leaker Chelsea Manning. Tuesday's actions bring to 1,385 the number of sentences commuted under Obama, far exceeding the number of commutations granted by any modern president.

International

Iran Hangs 14 More Drug Prisoners. At least 14 people were hanged at Karaj Central Prison on drug-related charges in the past week, Iran Human Rights reported Tuesday. The group named 10 of the executed: Mohammad Soleimani, Ali Ebadi, Ali Reza Moradi, Majid Badarloo, Omid Garshasebi, Ali Yousefi, Seyed Ali Sorouri, Ebrahim Jafari, Ali Mohammad Lorestani, and Mohsen Jelokhani. The continuing executions come even as the Iranian parliament considers ending the death penalty for drug offenses.

Brazil Approves First Marijuana-Based Medicine. Brazil's National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa)has issued a license for Metavyl, a drug containing 27 milligrams of THC and 25 milligrams of CBD per milliliter. The drug will be available as an oral spray. But Anvisa has designated Metavyl a "black label" drug, meaning it can only be used by patients who have not responded to conventional medicines.

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations Coming, HIA Sues DEA Over CBD, More... (1/16/17)

President Obama will commute more drug sentences before he leaves office this week, the hemp industry sues the DEA over its new CBD rule, New York's governor wants to fix his state's decriminalization law, and more.

Obama is about to free hundreds more nonviolent drug offenders. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

New York Governor to Propose Clarifications to State's Decriminalization Law. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has announced plans to remove a loophole in the state's decades-old decriminalization law that lets police charge people with a criminal offense for possession in "public view." That loophole has been applied mainly against racial minorities. Governor Cuomo pushed heavily for closing that loophole in 2014 but was blocked by Senate Republicans who opposed a measure that would have standardized the penalty for all low-level possession as a violation, which would have resulted in a fine instead of arrest.

Medical Marijuana

HIA Sues DEA Over CBD. The Hemp Industries Association filed a judicial review action against the DEA last Friday over the agency's new rule establishing coding for marijuana derivatives such as CBD cannabis oil. The DEA overstepped its bounds and put at risk a booming cannabis and hemp industry, the suit alleges.

North Dakota Bill Would Delay Medical Marijuana Implementation. State Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) has introduced a bill, Senate Bill 2154, that would suspend implementation of parts of the state's new voter-approved medical marijuana law until the legislature could write a comprehensive law to govern medical marijuana in the state.

Sentencing

Obama Set to Commute Sentences for Hundreds More This Week. As the clock ticks down on his term, President Obama is set to keep on granting clemency to drug offenders up until the last minute. Justice Department officials say he will grant hundreds more commutations this week. He has already cut the sentences of more than 1,100 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any president in modern history.

Chronicle AM: Guam Gov Files Legalization Bill, More Iran Drug Executions, More... (1/11/17)

Marijuana legalization bills get filed in Guam and the District of Columbia, the Global Drug Policy Commission asks Obama to commute more sentences, Chris Christie vows to fight drug addiction during his last year in office, and more.

Iran has already executed ten drug offenders this year, with another dozen set to face the gallows. (iranhr.org)
Marijuana Policy

Guam Governor Files Legalization Bill. Gov. Eddie Calvo Tuesday introduced a bill to legalize marijuana on the US island territory. "I am introducing this bill, not because I personally support the recreational use of marijuana, but as a solution to the regulatory labyrinth that sprouted from the voter-mandated medical marijuana program," Calvo said in a press release. The measure would legalize marijuana for people over 21 and impose a 15% tax on sales. Medical marijuana patients would be exempt from the tax.

DC Councilmember Files Bill for Legal Marijuana Commerce and Regulation. Councilmember David Grosso Tuesday filed a bill to establish a full tax and regulatory framework for legal marijuana commerce. If passed, the bill would put the District in conflict with Congress, which must approve city spending. But Grosso said that Congress had forced the District's hand with its meddling in city affairs.

Drug Policy

New Jersey Governor Vows to Heighten Fight Against Drug Addiction. In his final state of the state address, Gov. Chris Christie (R) said he will spend his last year as governor fighting drug addiction. "Our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey's families than any other issue we could confront," Christie told the legislature in Trenton. "Beyond the human cost, which is incalculable, there is a real cost to every part of life in New Jersey." Christie is pushing for treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders, expanded drug courts, and expanded needle exchange programs, among other initiatives.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill to Clear Way for more Surplus Military Gear for Police Filed. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) has filed House Resolution 426, which would bar the federal government from limiting the sale or donation of excess federal property to state and local agencies for law enforcement purposes. The bill is a response to the Obama administration's short-lived decision last year to block the transfer of military-style equipment to domestic police forces.

Sentencing

Global Drug Policy Commission Asks Obama to Free More Prisoners. In an open letter to the outgoing president, the commission, which includes a number of former heads of state, thanked Obama for his efforts to shift from a punitive approach to drugs, noted that he had freed more than a thousand drug war prisoners through his clemency program, and asked for more: "We hope that in these final days of your presidency, you will use the power of your office to commute even more prison sentences of low-level drug offenders, and restore dignity and hope to their lives," the commission wrote. "May your example inspire not only your successor, but also governors across the country."

International

Colombia Coca Cultivation Set to Increase. Colombia's post-conflict minister, Rafael Pardo, said Tuesday that coca cultivation will increase this year, the third year in a row that has seen increases in the country's coca crop. Pardo said part of the reason was the government's turn away from using aerial eradication, but that a bigger part was the government's devaluation of the peso, which dramatically increased profit margins for drug traffickers.

Iran Starts New Year With Spate of Drug Executions. The world's leading drug executioner is at again. In the first week of the new year, Iran executed 16 people, 10 of them for drug offenses. Iran executes hundreds of people each year, with drug offenders accounting for an increasing number of them. In 2015, the last year with full statistics, 66% of all executions in Iran were for drug offenses. Another 12 prisoners were set to be executed for drug offenses this week.

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 feature story too.)

The year that just ended has seen a serious outbreak of bloody violence against drug users and sellers in one country, it has seen drug offenders hung by the hundreds in another, it has seen efforts to fight the spread of drug-related HIV/AIDS falter for lack of funding, and it has seen the tenacity of the prohibitionist apparatus in the halls of the United Nations.

But there was also good news emanating from various corners of the world, including advances in marijuana legalization in Canada, the US, and Europe and the flouting of the proscription against the coca trade in the UN anti-drug treaties. And speaking of treaties, alhough we didn't include it this year because the drug policy implications remain unclear, the fruition of years'-long peace negotiations between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC, which brings an end to the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war, is certainly worth noting.

Here are the ten most notable international drug policy events of 2016, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs saw progress, but achingly little. (Wikimedia.org)
1. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs

The global prohibitionist consenus was under growing strain at the UNGASS on Drugs, as civil society pressed the UN bureaucracy and member states for reforms as never before. But changes come at a glacial pace at the level of global diplomacy, and the vision of the UNGASS as a platform for discussing fundamental issues and plotting a new course ran up against the resistance of drug war hard-liners like Russia and China, and the studied indifference of European governments, who preferred that the UN drug policy center of gravity remain at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. And while the US delegation advocated for some good stances, it, too, opposed any meddling with the trio of UN conventions that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition.

Still, there were some incremental victories. UN agencies submitted their own position papers, many highly progressive, as were the submissions from some countries and international organizations. EU states and others fought hard for language opposing the death penalty for drug offenses, though unsuccessfully. And while the UNGASS Outcome Document avoids most big issues, it puts strong emphasis on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It acknowledges the importance of human rights and proportionate sentencing. It has support for naloxone (the overdose antidote), medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone and buprenorphine), and safe injecting equipment, though avoiding the term "harm reduction" itself. And it calls for addressing obstacles to opioid availability. (Read a detailed report on UNGASS by some of our colleagues here, and read about some of our own work for the UNGASS here.)

2. Global Harm Reduction for AIDS Remains Tragically Underfunded, and Facing Worse. Despite the repeatedly-proven positive impact of harm reduction measures in reducing the spread and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, donors continue to refuse to pony up to pay for such measures. The UNAIDS program estimates that $2.3 billion was needed to fund AIDS-related harm reduction programs last year, but only $160 million was actually invested by donors as most member states cut their aid levels. That's only 7% of the requested funding level. That's after 2015 saw the first drop in support in five years (see pages 21-22) in funding for AIDS efforts in low- and middle-income countries. The world spends an estimated $100 billion a year on fighting drugs, but it can't come up with 2.3% of that figure to fight drug-related AIDS harms. Harm Reduction International has proposed a "10x20" shift of 10% of law enforcement funding toward harm reduction services by 2020 to address the gap.

Harm reduction's global funding challenges are further impacted by the global AIDS-fighting budget, which has taken a hit as the rise in the dollar has reduced the spending power of contributions from donor countries that use other currencies. Even worse, many of the countries currently benefiting from UN harm reduction funding have progressed economically to a point at which they are supposed to begin funding their own programs according to the UN development framework. But that may not be a realistic expectation, especially for the sometimes politically fraught programs needed to address disease transmission related to drug use.

3. America's Most Populous State Legalizes Marijuana, and So Do Several More. You know the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling when the rot sets in at home, and that's what happened in November's US elections. California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize marijuana, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which had led the way in 2012 and 2014. Now, some 50 million Americans live in pot-legal states, and that's going to mean increasing pressure on the government in Washington to end federal pot prohibition. It's also an example to the rest of the world.

4. Europe's Prohibitionist Consensus Begins Crumbling Around the Edges. No European nation has legalized marijuana, but signs are increasing that somebody is going to do it soon. If 2016 was any indication, the best candidates may be Italy, where a broadly supported legalization bill got a parliamentary hearing this year before surprise election results upset the country's political apple cart; Germany, where "legalization is in the air" as Berlin moves toward allowing cannabis coffee shops and Dusseldorf moves toward total marijuana legalization; and Denmark, where Copenhagen is trying yet again to legalize weed. In both Denmark and Germany, legalization isn't currently favored by the central governments, while in Italy, everything is in limbo after Europe's populist uprising swept the prime minister out of office. Still, the pressure is mounting in Europe.

Amsterdam's famed cannabis coffee houses look set to final get a legal source of supply. (Wikimedia.org)
5. The Dutch Are Finally Going to Do Something About the "Back Door Problem." The Dutch have allowed for the sale of marijuana at "coffee shops" since the 1980s, but never made any provision for a legal pot supply for retailers. Now, after 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference in November, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

6. Canada's Move Toward Marijuana Legalization Continues Apace. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories out of power in October 2015 with a platform that included a clear-cut call for marijuana legalization. Movement toward that goal has been slow but steady, with the task force charged with clearing the way calling for wide-ranging legalization in a report report issued in December. The Liberals say they expect to file legalization bills in the parliament this spring, and Canada remains on track to free the weed.

7. Bolivia Ignores UN Drug Treaty, Agrees to Export Coca to Ecuador. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, opened the year campaigning to decriminalize the coca trade and closed it without waiting for the UN to act by inking an agreement with Ecuador to export coca there. The agreement would appear to violate the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans the export of coca leaf because it contains the cocaine alkaloid, but neither Bolivia nor Ecuador seem to care.

Mexico's latest drug war marked its 10th anniversary last month. (Wikimedia.org)
8. Mexico Marks a Decade of Brutal Drug Wars. In December, 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican army into the state of Michoacan in what he said was a bid to get serious about fighting the drug trade. It didn't work, and in fact, led to the worst prohibition-related violence in the country's history, with an estimated 100,000 + killed and tens of thousands more gone missing. Attention to the cartel wars peaked in 2012, which was a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, and the level of killing declined after that, but has now risen back to those levels. Calderon's replacement, Enrique Pena Nieto, has publicly deemphasized the drug war, but has not substantially shifted the policy. The arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weakened his cartel, but that has only led to more violence as new competitors vie for supremacy.

There are signs of hope on the policy front though, if early ones, with medical marijuana being implemented, attitudes toward legalization softening, and the government playing a role in forwarding the international debate on drug policy reform.

9. Iran Has Second Thoughts About the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the world's leading drug executioner, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the more than a thousand people it executed in 2015 (2016 numbers aren't in yet), but there are increasing signs the regime could change course. In November, the parliament agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drugs. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading before the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors."

10. The Philippines Wages a Bloody War on Drug Users and Sellers. With the election of former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president, the country descended into a veritable blood-bath, as police and "vigilantes" seemingly competed to see who could kill more people faster. Duterte has brushed off criticism from the US, the UN, and human rights groups, and even insulted his critics, although he did have kind words to say about Donald Trump, who had kind words to say about him. As of year's end, the death toll was around 6,000, with the vigilantes claiming a slight lead over the cops.

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