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Chronicle AM -- January 20, 2014

Marijuana law reform bills just keep coming, a most likely unconstitutional food stamp drug test bill gets filed in Georgia, Australian regulators block urine drug testing of state energy company workers, Jamaican legalizers grow impatient, and more. Let's get to it:

Jamaican marijuana users want something to smile about (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Legalization Resolution Introduced in New Mexico Senate. State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (D-Bernalillo County) Friday pre-filed Senate Joint Resolution 10, which would amend the state constitution to tax and regulate marijuana use by persons 21 and older. If the bill passes the legislature, the amendment would be placed on the November 2014 ballot for voters to decide.

Indiana Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Portage) last week introduced Senate Bill 314, which would decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana. Similar legislation was defeated there last year.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Health Department Rejects Adding New Medical Marijuana-Eligible Conditions. The Arizona Health Department last Friday decided not to approve adding post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and migraines to the official list of debilitating conditions that are treatable by medical marijuana. Director Will Humble said the decision was due to a lack of published data regarding the risks and benefits of using medicinal cannabinoids to treat or provide relief for those conditions. The department will accept new petitions January 27 through 31.

Bill to Undo Virginia's Already Toothless Medical Marijuana Law Filed. Virginia has had a law allowing for the medical use of marijuana on the books for years, but it has never actually been used. Now, a Republican legislator, Delegate Robert Marshall of Manassas, has filed a bill to repeal even that. House Bill 684 (click on the link) was set for a hearing today.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Providers Drop by Half. The number of medical marijuana patients registered with the state declined slightly in 2013, but the number of providers declined much more dramatically, by nearly 50%. The number of patients dropped from 124,000 to 118,000, a 5% decline, while the number of providers dropped from 50,000 to 27,000, according to two annual reports required by the state legislature. The decline in providers is attributed to new laws regulating the industry and adverse court rulings and prosecutions. The state did, however, realize a $6.9 million profit in receipts from fees over program costs, up from a $6.3 million profit in 2012.

New York Poll Has Strong Support for Medical Marijuana. A poll released Monday (see questions 36 and 37) showed strong support for medical marijuana in the Empire State. The Sienna Poll found majority support for the legislature taking action on the issue, while a smaller number of respondents favored Gov. Cuomo's limited pilot program. Only about one out of five respondents wanted medical marijuana to remain illegal and unavailable.

Drug Testing

Georgia Suspicionless Food Stamp Drug Testing Filed. A bill that would require all food stamp applicants to undergo mandatory, suspicionless drug testing was filed last Friday. House Bill 772 is the brainchild of Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia). A similar bill passed the state legislature in 2012, but was put on hold after Florida's mandatory suspicionless drug testing was successfully challenged in the federal courts.

Methamphetamine

Indiana Meth Crackdown Bill Gets Hearing Date. A bill that would make pseudoephedrine a Schedule III controlled substance requiring a prescription and would heighten penalties for some methamphetamine possession and trafficking offenses will have a January 27 hearing. The bill, House Bill 1248 (click on the link), is sponsored by Indianapolis Republican Rep. Ben Smaltz.

International

Vietnam Sentences 30 Drug Traffickers to Death. A court in Quang Ninh province has sentenced 30 people to death in a massive heroin smuggling conspiracy case involving over two tons of the drugs. Dozens of others got prison sentences of from two years to life in the largest drug trafficking trial in Vietnamese history. Vietnam sentenced at least 86 people to death in 2012, but it's unclear how many were drug offenders.

Australia's New South Wales Unions Welcome Drug Test Ban. Unions in New South Wales cheered after the state's Fair Work Commission last week upheld a 2012 decision to block a state-owned energy company from doing drug testing based on urine samples. Such testing, which measures off-duty drug use (as opposed to on-the-job impairment), is "unjust and unreasonable," the commission said, ordering the company to use mouth swab drug tests, which would detect only immediate recent use. "While oral testing accurately identifies recent drug use... urine tests unfairly monitor workers' private lives," Neville Betts, from the Electrical Tr ades Union's NSW branch, said in a statement.

Jamaica Marijuana Reformers Want to Step Up Pressure on the Government to Act. The Jamaican Ganja Law Reform Coalition wants a more aggressive campaign to pressure parliament to act on legalizing marijuana. "We need a young MP to break the party ranks and put forward proposals for more meaningful legislation than the half steps that they are taking," coalition chairman Paul Chang told the opening session of the Cannabis Stakeholders Conference organized by the coalition. Parliament is currently dithering with bills that would decriminalize pot possession and expunge arrest record for marijuana offenses, but that's not enough, coalition members said.

Chronicle AM -- January 17, 2014

Washington's attorney general has dealt a body blow to the statewide legalization of marijuana commerce there, medical marijuana continues to keep state legislatures busy, a New Mexico town and county pay out big time for a horrid anal search, heroin legislation is moving in Kentucky, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Washington Attorney General Rules Localities Can Ban Marijuana Businesses. In a formal opinion released Thursday, the Washington attorney general's office held that "Initiative 502 as drafted and presented to the voters does not prevent local governments from regulating or banning marijuana businesses in their jurisdictions." The ACLU of Washington said the attorney general's opinion is mistaken and it "will go to court if necessary" to see it overturned, while the state Liquor Control Board, which is charged with implementing I-502 said that the "opinion would be a disappointment to the majority of voters who approved the law."

Marijuana Reforms Will Be on the Legislative Agenda in Louisiana Again This Year. State Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans) has already introduced House Bill 14, which would dramatically lessen the state's draconian marijuana penalties, and further-reaching bills could be forthcoming. The Badon bill passed the House last year before dying in the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill to Get Hearing This Month. State Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Chuck McIlhinney (R) said Thursday he had scheduled a public hearing for January 28 on a medical marijuana bill introduced this week. The bill, Senate Bill 1182, is cosponsored by Sens. Daylin Leach (D) and Mike Folmer (R).

Hawaii House Speaker Says State Needs Dispensaries. House Speaker Joe Souki said Wednesday that the lack of places for medical marijuana patients to obtain their medicine was "a gap in the law" that needs to be addressed. That patients can use medical marijuana but have no place to obtain it is "an anomaly," he said. Addressing dispensaries is a "humanitarian" issue, he added.

Utah Poll Finds Narrow Majority for Medical Marijuana. A new Salt Lake Tribune poll has 51% of Utahns supporting medical marijuana, but 67% opposing decriminalization or legalization.

Georgia Poll Finds Narrow Majority for Medical Marijuana. A new InsiderAdvantage poll has 51% of Georgians supporting medical marijuana "in very specific instances, such as in a liquid form to reduce seizures from young children." Some 27% were opposed, and 22% undecided. "The key here is that any legislation must be on a limited basis. That said, Republicans and Democrats both support this legislation by well over 50 percent, while independent voters are close to a majority as well," said Matt Towery, president of InsiderAdvantage and a former legislator.

Heroin

Kentucky Senate Approves Bill to Reduce Overdose Deaths, Increase Trafficking Penalties. The state Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 5, which would create more treatment beds for heroin users and lengthen prison sentences for heroin and methamphetamine traffickers. A similar version of the bill passed the Republican-led Senate last year, but stalled in the Democratic-led House. The bill would require the state Medicaid program to cover several inpatient and outpatient treatment options for people addicted to opiates, including heroin and prescription painkillers. It also would divert some of the state's hoped-for savings from a 2011 prison sentencing reform package to expand treatment programs. But the bill would also stiffen penalties for people convicted of trafficking in larger quantities of heroin, methamphetamines or both, requiring them to serve at least half of their prison sentences before they are eligible for shock probation or parole.

Search and Seizure

New Mexico Town, County Pay Out Big Time for Forced Anal Searches of Drug Suspect. A Deming, New Mexico, man who was subjected to a hospital anal exam involving three enemas, a colonoscopy, and being forced to defecate in front of police and medical personnel in a fruitless search for drugs will get $1.6 million in damages in a settlement from Deming and Hidalgo County. David Eckert will most likely win additional damages from a local hospital where doctors agreed to perform the exam.

Sentencing

Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections Funded in Federal Spending Bill. The omnibus federal spending bill filed this week and expected to pass quickly includes $1 million to establish the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, an independent, bipartisan grouping that will examine a number of challenges facing the federal correctional system, including overcrowding and ways to minimize growth, violence behind bars, rehabilitation, and reentry. Colson was a Nixon administration official jailed in the Watergate scandal who became a prison reformer in the wake of that experience.

International

Spurred by Attorney, Bermuda's Medical Marijuana Debate Heats Up. Attorney Alan Gordon's online petition to have the Bermudan government allow emergency access to medical marijuana for cancer patients has spurred considerable notice on the island, with National Security Minister Michael Dunkley and Gordon publicly clashing over the law and whether Dunkley can act. Click on the link to see Dunkley's comments and Gordon's well-publicized written response.

Vietnam Sentences Three Drug Offenders to Death; Iran Executes Six. And the resort to the death penalty against drug offenders continues. According to the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain, three Vietnamese men charged with heroin trafficking got death sentences, while Iran, the world's leading drug offender execution, hung another six.

Chronicle AM -- January 10, 2014

The marijuana issue continues hot and heavy, one of our favorite authors is nominated for an award, harm reduction bills move in Wisconsin, and the US Sentencing Commission wants to cut drug sentences. And more. Let's get to it:

Dr. Carl Hart, nominated for an NAACP Image Award for "High Price" (columbia.edu)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Legal Marijuana Sales Hit $5 Million in First Week. Sales of legal marijuana in Colorado since January 1 are estimated to have exceeded $5 million, with some 100,000 people lining up to buy it, according to industry insiders.

Colorado Republicans File Bill to Ban Food Stamps in Marijuana Shops. File under: solutions in search of problems. There is no evidence that anyone has ever used a food stamp EBT card to purchase marijuana products, but that hasn't stopped a handful of GOP state legislators to file a bill to outlaw it. "We need this bill, if for nothing else, as a statement," said Rep. Jared Wright (R-Grand Junction). "We shouldn't be enabling anyone to buy a substance that is banned under federal law. It's not a good use of taxpayer money," he said. The bill is Senate Bill 37.

New Hampshire House Didn't Vote on Marijuana Legalization. The House was set to vote Wednesday on a bill to legalize marijuana, but it didn't happen. The vote has instead been pushed back for a week as legislators dealt first with attempts to override vetoes on bills passed last year. The bill is House Bill 492.

No Marijuana Legalization Bill for Ohio This Year. The only Ohio legislator to push for marijuana legalization last year won't try it again this year. Rep. Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown) said he had no plans to introduce a measure this year after last year's effort to pass a resolution to let residents vote on the issue was sidelined.

Washington Congressman Urges Feds to Act Quickly on Marijuana Banking. Rep. Denny Heck (D-Washington) Friday called on federal regulators to move swiftly to resolve the issue of financial institutions being able to do business with legal marijuana businesses. In a statement, the coauthor of pending federal legislation that would do just that said that "it is urgent federal regulators come to a resolution on this issue as soon as possible."

Powerful Maryland Pol Comes Out for Marijuana Legalization. Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) has joined the list of powerful state legislators calling for marijuana legalization. She said legalization is one of "the biggest, most important issues" facing the General Assembly this year. She joins Senate President Thomas Miller (D) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur in supporting legalization, but Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and House Speaker Michael Busch (D) both oppose it.

Steny Hoyer Opposes Marijuana Legalization in Maryland. US House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Thursday he opposes legalizing pot in the state. "I'm not a proponent of legalizing marijuana," he said. "As I talked to people who deal with drug abuse issues, with rehabilitation issues, I became convinced that marijuana was, in fact, a threshold drug and it would lead to the use of harder, very harmful drugs," he added.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky House Panel Holds Medical Marijuana Hearing. The House Health and Welfare Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss medical marijuana. No specific bill was under discussion, but one legislator, Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) filed a bill this week, Senate Bill 43, which would legalize medical marijuana.

Florida House Committee Chair Will Propose Bill to Legalize High CBD Strains for Seizures. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said Thursday he would introduce a bill to allow for the medical use of marijuana strains that are high in CBDs. The vow came after a heart-wrenching hearing from parents of children who suffer seizure disorders, who called on the legislature to legalize strains such as "Charlotte's Web."

Asset Forfeiture

Utah Attorney General Sees Asset Forfeiture as Tool against Drug Legalizing Attorneys. After changes to undo asset forfeiture reforms approved by voters in 2000 snuck through the state legislature last year came under this week, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a brief defending the new law. But a bullet point justifying a new cap on attorneys' fees for people who successfully defend their property is setting off alarms among First Amendment advocates. "By setting a limit on attorney's fees it will take away the incentive for attorneys who actively promote the legalization of drugs in the state of Utah from soliciting clients who are engaged in criminal activity," the attorney general's brief said. Click on the link for a lengthier critique.

Drug Testing

Welfare Drug Testing Bill Coming Back in Indiana. House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) said Thursday that while welfare drug testing legislation is not part of the House Republican agenda, a pending bill to do just that is "one we're going to enthusiastically endorse and move forward on." The bill, which passed the House, but not the Senate, last year, would require drug testing of welfare recipients based on some form of reasonable suspicion.

Harm Reduction

Push On to End Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Funding Bill. Harm reduction and public health advocates are urging lawmakers to lift the prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for needle exchange programs. The battlefield is the conference committee that will reconcile House and Senate budget bills. The Senate version had language that included funding for needle exchanges, but the GOP-led House is expected to oppose it.

Wisconsin Overdose 911, Naloxone Bills Pass Assembly Committee. A bill to provide limited legal immunity to people who notify authorities of an overdose passed the Assembly Criminal Justice Committee Thursday. So did a bill that would allow first responders to carry and use the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Both now goes to the full Assembly, which should vote on them Tuesday. The bills have the backing of Attorney General JB Van Hollen (R) and are expected to sail through the Senate as well.

Honors

Carl Hart Wins NAACP Image Award Nomination for "High Price." Neuroscientist and Drug Policy Alliance board member Carl Hart's "High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self Discovery That Changes Everything You Know About Drugs and Society" has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category of literary nonfiction. The awards ceremony takes place on February 22.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission Suggests Lowering Drug Guideline Sentences. The US Sentencing Commission voted Thursday to publish proposed federal drug sentencing guideline amendments that would include lowering guideline sentences for drug trafficking offenses. The amendments would reduce drug trafficking sentences by about 11 months, leading to a reduction in the federal prison population of more than 6,000 prisoners five years after taking effect. The commission is now seeking public comment on the proposal.

International

Jamaica Marijuana Growers to Organize. Jamaican legalization activists and marijuana growers will form a Cannabis Future Growers and Producers Association as part of a major conference next week. The "Going Forward -- Legalize It" conference is organized by the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force, and the National Alliance for the Legalization of Ganja, and hopes to help lay the groundwork for a legal marijuana industry on the island.

Canada's SensibleBC Sees 2014 as a Building Year. After an effort to put marijuana reform on the provincial ballot via an initiative faltered last year, Sensible BC leader Dana Larsen said this year would be a year of building momentum, training canvassers, and spreading the message of marijuana legalization. Larsen will also be touring the province this spring and summer to build support.

Chronicle AM -- January 9, 2014

Alaska appears poised to vote on marijuana legalization, New York's governor announces a half-step toward medical marijuana, the ACLU fights for our rights on a couple of fronts, and trouble could be coming to the coca fields of Peru. And more. Let's get to it:

Bolivian President Evo Morales has a new bully pulpit from which to crusade for coca. (wikimedia.org)
Alaska Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Hands in Signatures. Supporters of an initiative to legalize marijuana in Alaska handed in 46,000 signatures Wednesday. The campaign only needs 30,000 valid signatures to qualify for the August ballot. State election officials have 60 days to verify the signatures.

Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed in Alabama. Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) has filed a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. An as yet unspecified fine would apply to offenders. The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and will be scheduled for a hearing when the session gets underway next week.

Alabama Governor Rejects Legal and Medical Marijuana. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said Wednesday he opposes legalizing marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes, although he suggested he would be open to FDA-approved medical marijuana products. "I do believe there are medications out there that will do the same thing," Bentley said. "Now if someone wants to use the medicine that is in marijuana, go through the testing when you do that through the FDA, go through all of that -- that's fine. I have no problem with that."

Medical Marijuana

New York Governor Announces Limited Medical Marijuana Program. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) used his State of the State address Wednesday to announce he will initiate a limited medical marijuana program through executive action. Advocates said the measure was not enough and that the state legislature needs to pass pending medical marijuana legislation.

Asset Forfeiture

Utah Moving to Undo Asset Forfeiture Reforms. The Utah legislature moved late last year to roll back asset forfeiture reforms approved by state voters in a 2000 referendum. In unanimous votes, legislators approved a bill that will kill the provision requiring reimbursement for property owners who win in court and to require prosecutors to file such cases in a timely manner. Read Radley Balko's lengthy report by clicking on the link.

Drugs and Pregnancy

Experts File Brief Challenging Use of Child Abuse Law against Pregnant Women Using Methadone. Some 76 groups and experts in maternal, fetal, and child health, addiction treatment, and health advocacy filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the New Jersey Supreme Court, urging it to overturn a lower court ruling making the state's civil child abuse law applicable to women who received medically prescribed methadone treatment while pregnant.

Search and Seizure

Indiana ACLU Challenges Pain Medication Drug Test Rules. The ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court challenging a new state rule that requires patients prescribed a certain level of pain medications to undergo annual drug tests. The rule concocted by the state Medical Licensing Board last month requires such patients to sign a treatment agreement that includes agreement to undergo the annual tests. The ACLU argues that the rule violates Fourth Amendment proscriptions against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Massachusetts ACLU Sues to Block Drug Dog Sniffs of Prison Visitors. The ACLU of Massachusetts and a prisoners' rights group have filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court seeking to block the state Department of Corrections from using drug dogs to search prison visitors. The suit seeks a preliminary injunction to immediately stop the practice and allow for public comment on the policy, which the department instituted in November. A hearing is set for January 24.

International

Peru Coca Eradication to Target VRAEM for First Time, DEVIDA Head Says. The Peruvian government for the first time will attempt to eradicate large amounts of coca crops in the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro river valleys (VRAEM), the head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency DEVIDA said Wednesday. The area is the most densely planted coca growing region in the world, accounting for more than half of all Peruvian production, and is the home of Shining Path guerilla remnants who got involved in the drug trade as their rebellion fizzled 20 years ago. DEVIDA wants to eradicate 37,000 acres of coca crops there, about 75% of total plantings in the region. Look for trouble when eradication efforts actually get underway, probably in August.

Bolivia to Use G-77 Post to Push for Legal Coca Leaf Internationally. Bolivian President Evo Morales has assumed chairmanship of the Group of 77 nations, and he said Wednesday that he would use his position to push for removing coca leaf from the 1961 UN Single Convention's list of internationally banned drugs. Bolivia briefly left the treaty in 2012 before returning last year with a reservation that it did not recognize the ban on coca leaf chewing. "Last year, we achieved recognition of traditional consumption of the coca leaf," he said. "Our next task will be to remove the coca leaf from the list of prohibited substances."

Germans Not Ready for Marijuana Legalization, Poll Finds. Only 29% of Germans said they favored legalizing marijuana in a new poll, while 65% were opposed. The only political party with a majority favoring legalization was the Greens, and just barely, with 51%. A Green politician, Monika Herrmann, is trying to open a Dutch-style cannabis coffee shop in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, but would need federal government approval. This poll isn't going to help.

France Approves Marijuana-Based Medicine for Multiple Sclerosis. France's health ministry announced Thursday it had approved the use of Sativex, a cannabinoid mouth spray, to treat patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). The drug is the first marijuana-based medicine to be made available in the country. Sativex is already approved in more than 20 countries.

The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

Last year is receding in the rear view mirror, but before looking forward to the battles of 2014, let us take a moment to savor what was, overall, a pretty big year for drug reform on the domestic front. Unsurprisingly, marijuana makes up a lot of the news, but there were also signs that America's decades-long incarceration fever is breaking, and even though the impulse to scapegoat the downtrodden through public benefits drug testing remains strong, it doesn't really seem to be picking up much traction, and the year ended with suspicionless public benefits drug testing slapped down by a federal judge. Here are the highlights of 2013:

October Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on state marijuana legalization
#1 The Obama Administration Doesn't Try to Block State Marijuana Legalization

While the truly historic moments in US marijuana legalization -- the November 2012 election victories in Colorado and Washington and the commencement of legal marijuana sales in Colorado on Wednesday -- neatly bracketed 2013, history was being made by the Obama administration as well. The first presidency to deal with states voting to legalize marijuana for adults in direct contravention of federal law did so in a remarkably reasonable fashion: by largely getting out of the way. In August, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a three-page memorandum affirming that the US Justice Department would allow the two states to move forward with statewide efforts to license and regulate the adult marijuana market. Cole later reaffirmed the agency's position in testimony before the US Senate, stating, "We will not … seek to preempt state ballot initiatives."

#2 State Officials Don't Try to Block Marijuana Legalization Where Voters Approved It

Kudos are also due to legislators, elected officials, and functionaries in Colorado and Washington, who accepted the voters' choice to legalize marijuana with apparent good faith. The Washington state Liquor Control Board and Colorado legislators both came up with workable ways of implementing the will of the voters, while being careful to also heed the concerns of those worried about problems legalization could bring with it. Colorado's system rolled out this week and Washington's will come in a matter of months.

#3 Public Support for Marijuana Legalization in the US Reaches All-Time Highs

If 2012 was the year public opinion in favor of marijuana legalization reaching the tipping point, 2013 was the year it went over it. An October Gallup Poll had support for legalization a record-breaking 58% nationwide. That was in line with a number of other polls since the 2012 elections that showed support either above or just below 50%, depending on the pollster. The on-going sea change in public opinion has also been apparent in polls showing majority support not just where it might be expected, like California, but also where it isn't, like Louisiana and Texas, both of which reported late year majorities for legalization.

Capital City Care medical marijuana dispensary, Washington, DC
#4 The Advance of Medical Marijuana Continues

Bills legalizing medical marijuana passed in Illinois and New Hampshire, bringing the number of states that allow it to 20, along with the District of Columbia. Dispensaries opened for the first time in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. And bills that will allow dispensaries to open this year passed in Nevada and Oregon. About two dozen states saw medical marijuana legislation filed last year; expect a similar level of activity this year.

#5 The Number of State, But Not Federal, Prisoners in America Keeps On Declining

For the third year in a row, the number of people in prison in the US declined, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in July. (The figures are actually for year's end 2012, but the report came out in 2013, so here we are.). The figures do not include jail inmates. At the end of 2012, there were 1,571,013 prisoners in America, down 1.7% (or 27,770 inmates) from the previous year. Breaking down the numbers, that means that somewhere north of 330,000 people were serving time for drug crimes in US prisons at the end of last year, down from a record high of nearly half a million at the beginning of the century. The decline is because of shifts in sentencing policies in the states; the federal prison population kept expanding, although at a lower rate than over the past decade.

#6 Momentum for Sentencing Reform Grows in Washington

The clamor to do something about drug sentencing reverberated throughout the nation's capital in 2013. In August, Attorney General Holder announced an administration package of sentencing reforms, some of which could be enacted administratively, such as prosecutors not routinely resorting to mandatory minimum charging decisions, but others of which require congressional action. And while Congress didn't actually pass anything, it laid the groundwork for action next year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an increasingly loud critic of mandatory minimums, allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, and similar legislation has been introduced in the House. In another sign of interest in sentencing reform, 10 members of the House Judiciary Committee formed an "over-criminalization" task force in May. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing in September to whip up support for their legislation and other sentencing reform bills, and the committee held a mark-up session on the bills in December. The stage appears set for real movement this year.

#7 "Defelonization" Emerges as a Sentencing Policy Option for States

Although, over the years, 13 states and the District of Columbia have moved to reduce incarceration burdens by treating simple drug possession offenses as misdemeanors instead felonies -- defelonization -- the idea got renewed impetus in 2013, especially on the West Coast. In California, a bill that would have allowed prosecutors the option of charging felony possession cases passed the legislature, and in Washington state, legislators and activists announced late last year that they would try to move a similar bill there this year. Unfortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the defelonization bill, but as a result of that veto, the San Francisco DA and the San Diego police chief have filed a defelonization initiative. While 2013 was a building year for defelonization efforts, they could well bear fruit this year.

#8 A Tough Year for Public Benefits Drug Testing Bills

Legislation seeking to make public benefits beneficiaries pass drug tests continued to popular in Republican-dominated state legislatures in 2013, with bills introduced in at least 30 states, but by year's end, only a handful had actually passed, and all of those were "reasonable suspicion" bills instead of bills requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing. Drug testing bills passed in Kansas (welfare, unemployment), North Carolina (welfare, passed over the Republican governor's veto), Michigan (unemployment), and Texas (unemployment). But as the year went on, there was rising criticism of the cost of enforcing such legislation and the small number of actual drug users found in states that had previously passed similar bills, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah. And the last day of 2013 saw a federal judge throw out Florida's suspicionless welfare drug testing law as unconstitutional. The up side is that that ought to drive a stake through the heart of any more suspicionless drug testing bills; the down side is that legislators elsewhere have already figured that out, which is why all of the 2013 bills that passed were "reasonable suspicion" bills.

#9 Historic Firsts for Hemp

Not only were industrial hemp bills filed in both houses of Congress last year, but for the first time ever, the House passed a hemp production measure. The measure was an amendment to the farm bill, but unfortunately, the entire bill was defeated after Republicans attempted to attach drug testing provisions for food stamp recipients. A later version of the bill passed without the hemp amendment. Still, there is hope that the hemp amendment, which also had Republican support, will reemerge whenever the Senate and House meet in conference committee. Meanwhile, more states took up hemp legislation, with a bill passing Kentucky and another one passing in Colorado (as part of the implementation of Amendment 64). Hemp bills were also filed in California (approved in the state Senate), Missouri, New Jersey, and Vermont (as part of a broader legalization bill). And in November, a Colorado farmer oversaw the first hemp crop harvest since World War II., even though it remains illegal under federal law.

#10 Obama Exercises Clemency Power, Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Others

Just before year's end, President Obama granted clemency to eight crack cocaine offenders, bringing an early Christmas present to poster boy for drug war sentencing excess Clarence Aaron and seven other crack cocaine offenders. Aaron has served more than 20 years for his peripheral role in a cocaine conspiracy, and the others were serving equally onerous sentences. The commutations were a departure for the Obama administration, which has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before the pre-Christmas commutations, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

The Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

What a year in drug reform! 2013 saw a historic breakthrough on the international front, as well as evidence that powerful currents are shifting inexorably away from the prohibitionist consensus of the last half-century. There were also new, innovative approaches to regulating drugs and new, innovative approaches to buying and selling them illegally.

But on the other hand, there were also continuities. Major drug producing regions kept producing drugs, major drug-related conflicts continued, and the global drug war continues to grind on. A bullet-point Top 10 list can't hope to offer a comprehensive review of the year on drugs internationally, but it can illuminate some key events and important trends. With apologies in advance for all those important stories that didn't make the cut, here is Drug War Chronicle top ten global drug policy-related stories of 2013:

#1 Uruguay Legalizes Marijuana

No question about it; this has to be the top international drug policy story of the year. After a year and a half of laying the groundwork, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and his ruling Broad Front pushed marijuana legalization through the legislature and Mujica signed the bill into law just before Christmas. Uruguay now becomes the first signatory to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Drugs to break decisively with the treaty and the global prohibition regime on marijuana policy. Uruguay's example is already causing reverberations in Argentina and Chile, and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called it "an important step" that could serve as "a pilot plan" in the regional war against drug trafficking. And that's even before the new law goes into effect in a few weeks.

#2 The Global Prohibition Regime is Under Increasing Attack

In May, the Organization of American States released a report that included an analysis of alternatives to prohibition, including regulation and legalization regimes. The report was an outgrowth of Latin American criticism of the drug war at the Cartagena Summit in 2012. In September, Latin Americans took the call for drug reform to the UN General Assembly, and in a consensus statement agreed to by Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, and others, called on the UN "to reevaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction." And in December, a leaked draft document revealed even broader divisions among member states, with several European nations offering serious criticism of the drug prohibition status quo.

#3 Bolivia Reenters UN Drug Treaty, But Rejects Coca Chewing Ban

The UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, took a hit in January, when Bolivia successfully rejoined the convention, but only with the reservation that it would ignore the treaty's ban on coca leaf chewing despite the objections of the US and the International Narcotics Control Board. Bolivia had withdrawn from the treaty the year before to protest the inclusion of the ban on coca chewing, a traditional indigenous practice that had gone on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Eurocentric treaty negotiators managed to criminalize it internationally under the Single Convention.

Coca Museum, La Paz (Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle, 2007)
#4 New Zealand Moves to Regulate -- Not Prohibit -- New Synthetic Drugs

In July, New Zealand took a historic step away from drug prohibition and toward regulation when a new law went into effect to regulate and control new synthetic drugs. The law had breezed through Parliament on a 119-1 vote. Synthetic drug manufacturers who meet safety standards are now licensed and regulated, and their products are available legally at retail outlets. The law is designed to avoid the dangers of driving the trade underground and to end the perpetual game of prohibitionist catch-up played with synthetic drug makers, who, when one drug is criminalized, simply tweak a molecule or two to create a new one.

#5 The Dark Net Emerges as a Drug Marketplace

After quietly lurking in the dark corners of the Internet, the online illicit drug (and other goodies) marketplace Silk Road hit the big time in a big, bad way in October, when its operator, Ross William Ulbrict (AKA the Dread Pirate Roberts) was arrested by the FBI on drug trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking charges. Silk Road and other "dark net" web sites require an anonymized browser (Tor) that was supposed to keep operators and users safe from prying government eyes, although the Ulbrict and related busts suggest that isn't entirely the case. Other sites, including Sheep Marketplace and Black Market reloaded, sprung up to replace it, but they have had their own problems. In November, Silk Road announced it was back, in Version 2.0. Meanwhile, the saga of the original Silk Road continued at year's end, with Ulbricht suing the federal government for the return of $30 million worth of bitcoins he argues were improperly seized. The battle between governments and Internet black marketers is doubtlessly continuing, even if most of us don't know about it until after the fact.

#6 Mexico: New President, Same Old Drug War

The wave of prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico didn't garner the media attention last year that it did in 2012, a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, but it continued nonetheless under incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012. According to Milenio's annual survey of drug war deaths, there were more than 10,000 killed last year. That is down from over 12,000 the year before, but still unconscionably high. Pena Nieto came into office vowing to reform the government's approach, but so far the changes have been mainly rhetorical, with the government shifting emphasis from going after top capos to increasing public safety and security. And the top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful, remain apparently untouchable.

Afghan anti-drug art (Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle, 2005)
#7 Afghan Opium Production Hits All-Time High

Thirteen years after the Taliban virtually eliminated opium production in a bid to win foreign favor and US funding, and 12 years after the US invaded Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power, Afghan opium production was at its highest level ever, about 5,500 metric tons, accounting for around 90% of global illicit production. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey, opium production increased a whopping 49% over 2012, while the area under cultivation increased 36%. The previous high was in 2007. US anti-drug policies have been consistently relegated behind US counter-insurgency imperatives during the US and NATO occupation of the country, leaving Afghanistan with little likelihood of significant changes after the bulk of Western forces are scheduled to leave at the end of this year.

#8 Peru Overtakes Colombia to Regain Title as World's Largest Coca Producer

Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century. But this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Peru was once again back on top. According to the UNODC, Peru had 151,000 acres under cultivation, compared to 125,000 for Colombia. The return to first place comes even as the government of President Ollanta Humala steps up eradication and enforcement efforts and suggests that 2014 could be a conflictive year in the coca valleys of Peru.

#9 Iran Continues to Execute Hundreds of Drug Offenders Each Year

Sharing a 1,300 mile long border with Afghanistan and its booming opium trade, Iran suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates and battles mightily to suppress the cross-border drug trade. One of the grisliest weapons in the mullahs' arsenal is the hangman's noose. In recent years, the Iranians have executed hundreds of drug traffickers each year, and last year was no exception. Final figures are not available, but Iran began the year by executing 21 drug offenders in January alone and ended the year with more than 30 executions in December. It's not clear how many of those were drug offenders because reports from Iran are often sketchy, but it appears safe to say that 2013 was another year where Iran hanged hundreds of drug offenders.

#10 Colombian Peace Negotiations Progress

Forty years ago this year, the leftist guerrillas of the FARC rose up in armed struggle against the Colombian state. Based in the country's rural peasantry, the FARC generated enough wealth from the coca and cocaine trades to finance its insurgency, fighting the Colombian military, backed with US assistance, to a sweaty stalemate. Now, however, weakened by years of offensives by the Colombian military and convinced that the government of President Santos is willing to negotiate in good faith, the FARC has been engaged in a so-far months-long series of talks with government negotiators in Havana. Based as it is in the peasantry, one of the FARC's key concerns is agricultural reform; another is dealing with the coca/cocaine economy. The FARC is calling on the government to initiate alternative development and crop substitution programs, and wants to be involved, and in December, the FARC called for the decriminalization of drug use and coca cultivation. It's too early to tell if the negotiations will lead to an end to the world's longest insurgency, but the progress so far is a positive sign.

Chronicle AM -- December 23, 2013

The marijuana court judge was drunk, Dread Pirate Roberts wants his bitcoins back, Beto O'Rourke wants the Border Patrol to answer some questions, Rand Paul and Cory Booker tweet policy, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Florida "Marijuana Court" Judge Comes to Work Drunk. Florida Judge Gisele Pollack, who pioneered the notion of a "marijuana court," where misdemeanor pot offenders are steered toward treatment, showed up at work last Tuesday drunk out of her mind. When court staff tried to keep her off the bench, she responded, "Fuck you, you're fired." She was also reportedly screaming and crying as she demanded that her car keys be returned to her. She later told reporters she would be off for two weeks in "an intense outpatient program."

Medical Marijuana

Florida Signature-Gatherers Held Day of Action Saturday. Organizers for the campaign to put a medical marijuana initiative on the Florida ballot held a "Day of Action" Saturday as their effort heads into its final weeks. Supporters set up locations in 14 cities, including Daytona Beach and Orlando, where volunteers picked up and dropped off petitions. They need 700,000 to make the ballot, but are seeking to gather one million to have a cushion.

Asset Forfeiture

Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts Wants His Bitcoins Back. Ross Ulbricht, also known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, is asking the federal government to return more than $30 million worth of bitcoins it seized after it shut down his Silk Road web site for allowing visitors to buy and sell illegal drugs and other contraband. Ulbricht argues in a legal filing that the currency should be returned because it isn't subject to civil forfeiture rules.

Law Enforcement

Beto O'Rourke Calls for Investigation into Heavy-Handed Border Drug Searches. US Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) is calling for an investigation into border drug search practices after, in the latest border search scandal, a New Mexico woman is suing after having been subjected to body cavity searches, including anal and vaginal probes while crossing into El Paso from Mexico. "Recent allegations brought against CBP for extreme and illegal searches are deeply troubling and, if true, completely unacceptable," O'Rourke said. "Individuals do not waive their constitutional or human rights simply because they choose to cross one of our international bridges. The war on drugs cannot be an excuse for sexual assault under the color of legal authority. Constitutional limits exist so that the rights of our citizens are protected and the government does not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," O'Rourke said. "CBP has a responsibility to ensure that all persons entering into our country are treated humanely and in accordance with our laws."

Sentencing Reform

Paul-Booker Tweet Fest Could Be Harbinger of Reform Alliance Next Year. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) engaged in a Twitter exchange today that could augur cooperation on moving forward with sentencing reform and marijuana and hemp legalization next year. Both are among the highest-profile senators seeking sentencing reform. Read the exchange at the link.

International

A Thousand Rally for Marijuana Legalization in Tel Aviv. More than a thousand people rallied in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Saturday night in favor of marijuana legalization and easing restrictions on medical marijuana. Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin and Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg have proposed a bill that would legalize marijuana and ease access to it for medical use.

Costa Rica Presidential Candidates Not Keen On Marijuana Legalization. Costa Rica's two leading presidential candidates have said they do not support the full legalization of marijuana in Costa Rica. Proponents of medical marijuana, however, might glean some hope from the candidates' responses. Front-runners Johnny Araya of the National Liberation Party and Jose Maria Villalta of the Broad Front are lukewarm at best on marijuana reform. Araya said "I'm against legalizing marijuana in Costa Rica," while Villalta, while not endorsing legalization, at least called for "a broad national dialogue" on the issue.

SF DA and San Diego Police Chief File Defelonization Initiative

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne filed an initiative with state officials Thursday that would defelonize most drug possession and nonviolent offenses. The move comes on the heels of so far fruitless efforts to get a defelonization bill through the state legislature.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon (wikimedia.org)
The smartly titled Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would "require misdemeanors instead of felonies for non-serious, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession, unless the defendant has prior convictions for specified violent or serious crimes." It would also authorize resentencing for anyone sentenced as a felon for acts which would become misdemeanors.

Initiative sponsors estimate the move would save the state $250 million a year in corrections costs. The measure mandates that those savings be earmarked for programs reducing recidivism (65%), education (25%), and crime victims' services (10%).

The defelonization effort comes a year after voters approved Proposition 36, a statewide initiative, which dramatically rolled back the state's notorious "three strikes" sentencing law by exempting most nonviolent offenders. Prop 36 passed amidst a seemingly perpetual prison overcrowding and funding crisis, which has still not gone away.

"I really think the timing is right -- it's a great opportunity to reform a part of our criminal justice system that's been broken for so long," Gascon told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We are looking basically at creating a scenario where we can prioritize violent crimes, we can keep dangerous criminals locked up, but move away from locking up people who basically just need medical help."

Whether sponsors are serious about actually getting the initiative on the ballot for 2014 remains to be seen. They would have to come up with more than 500,000 signatures by April to qualify for the November ballot.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 20, 2013

A pair of state appeals courts slap down cops who take people's medicine and won't give it back, there are problems with Kansas' drug testing law, Peru is buying shining new toys to prosecute its drug war, and more. Let's get to it:

Hash is medicine, and the cops have to give it back, the Oregon appeals court ruled. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

DPA California Initiative Revised. The Control, Regulate and Tax Marijuana initiative, filed earlier this month by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), has been revised. The new version increases the personal grow limit from four plants to six, makes the 1,000-foot buffer rule around schools optional instead of mandatory, and makes the California Industrial Hemp effectively immediately. Left intact were no changes in criminal penalties, no changes in the state's medical marijuana law, and a 25% tax on adult retail sales. DPA head Ethan Nadelmann said in a conference call yesterday that the group would decide early next year whether to move forward for 2014.

Medical Marijuana

Oregon Appeals Court Rules Cops Must Give Back Seized Medical Hash. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday in Oregon v. James Jonathan Ellis that a medical marijuana patient whose hash was seized during an arrest can get it back. A district court judge had refused to order it returned, finding that hash wasn't covered under the state's medical marijuana law, but the appeals court disagreed, citing the federal Controlled Substances Act's definition of marijuana, which Oregon's law adopted, and which includes "every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the plant or its resin."

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Cops Must Give Back Seized Medical Marijuana. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in Colorado v. Robert Clyde Crouse that a district court judgment ordering Colorado Springs Police to return marijuana seized from leukemia patient Crouse was correct. Colorado Springs authorities had argued that federal drug laws preempted their returning Crouse's medicine, but neither the district court nor the appeals court was buying it.

Wyoming Legislator to Introduce Medical Marijuana Bill. Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) said this week that she intends to introduce a bill in the legislative session that starts early next year to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Wallis said the death a year ago of her husband, Rod McQueary, brought the issue of legalizing medical marijuana into sharp focus for her. She said he benefited greatly from medical marijuana from Colorado in his last days.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Legislator Introduces Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) has introduced a bill, House Bill 5213,that would prohibit civil asset forfeiture unless and until a person is convicted of a criminal offense. "Asset forfeiture was sold as a needed tool for law enforcement to attack drug kingpins and gang leaders," Rep. Irwin said. "[But] too often, law enforcement uses the current asset forfeiture law to take tens of millions of dollars every year, mostly from low-level users and small-time dealers. We need to change how asset forfeiture works. By requiring a person be convicted of a crime before their seized property is subject to forfeiture, we will stop the worst abuses and curtail the insidious incentives that lead some law enforcement to short circuit due process and the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty."

Drug Testing

Kansas Drug Testing Law Punishes Welfare Recipients, But Lets Lawmakers Skate. The Kansas legislature this year passed a bill, Senate Bill 149, that allows for drug testing of welfare recipients. Amid charges of hypocrisy, solons added language to include drug testing of themselves. But Wednesday, the director of Legislative Administrative Services, who is charged with implementing legislator testing, told legislative leaders that the law does not include any ramifications for a positive drug test and does not explicitly make the results public, so he will be treating them as confidential medical records.

Sentencing

Connecticut Sentencing Commission Recommends Cutting Drug-Free Zones. The Connecticut Sentencing Commission recommended Thursday that lawmakers sharply curtail drug-free zones around schools. The commission said they created racial disparities, unfairly affecting blacks and Latinos, who are more likely to dwell in urban areas, where schools and day cares are more densely packed. The commission recommended scaling the zones back from 1,500 feet to 200 feet. It also recommended limiting drug-free zone charges to those actually intending to infringe on the zones, as opposed to those just passing through.

International

Peru in Half-Billion Dollar Deal to Buy Russian Helicopters for Anti-Drug, Anti-Terrorism Effort. The Peruvian and Russian governments announced a deal Wednesday in which Russia will provide 24 Mi-171 helicopters to the Peruvian armed forces. The Peruvians plan to use them for anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism work in the central mountain areas where coca leaf and cocaine production are widespread.

Belgian Cannabis Social Club Raided. Belgian police acting on orders of the Justice Ministry raided the country's second cannabis club Wednesday (sorry, link in Dutch only). Raiders hit the Mambo Social Club in Hasselt, which follows the country's one-plant-per-person guidelines, seizing plants, records, and computer equipment. No word yet on any criminal charges.

Obama Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Other Crack Offenders [FEATURE]

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama had granted commutations to eight federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack cocaine offenses, including poster boy for drug war excess Clarence Aaron, who has spent the last 20 years behind bars. The president also pardoned 13 former prisoners.

Finally, Clarence Aaron will go free.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."

[Editor's Note: The Senate Judiciary Committee was marking up three sentencing reform bills this same day.]

Some sentencing reforms have been enacted since the harsh escalation of the drug war in the Reagan era, including the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was unfair to continue to let people languish serving sentences no longer applicable, Obama suggested.

"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," he said." Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

The commutations are a departure for the Obama administration, which until now has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before today, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

While all eight people whose sentences were commuted suffered for years under the impact of harsh federal sentencing laws racially biased in result if not, charitably, in intent, Clarence Aaron in particular has served as the face of the unjustly punished deserving of presidential mercy. Then a college student, the first-time, nonviolent drug offender was sentenced to three life sentences for a peripheral role in a cocaine deal in 1993.

A model prisoner, his case became widely known as a result of a PBS News Frontline special about the use of informants in drug cases. His case drew additional publicity when the investigative journalism consortium ProPublica documented problems with the Office of the Pardon attorney, using Aaron's more than a decade-long effort to obtain a pardon as Exhibit #1.

Aaron's reaction to the news was not surprising.

"He was just overcome," said his attorney, Margaret Love, herself a former US Pardon Attorney, who spoke with Aaron this morning shortly after he received the news. "We're very grateful to the president," she told ProPublica after the commutations were announced.

That all the commutations were for crack cocaine-related offenses, Love said, "says something very important about the long federal sentences for drug crimes. There are a lot of people in prison whose cases are similar to the ones being commuted."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said four of its supporters, including Aaron, had had their sentences commuted, but that there were many more who deserved to come home, too.

"Now that the president has opened the door to doing commutations, he might make it a more regular activity, and not just save it for the holidays or the end of his term," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "He certainly has plenty of cases that he could choose from. I guess that time will tell."

Other sentencing and drug reform organizations were pleased and encouraged by the news, but joined FAMM and the president in calling for more.

ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta chimed in, "President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families. This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system. We hope the President will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane." A recent report by the ACLU on people serving life without parole sentences highlighted the cases of four of the people who received commutations this week -- Aaron, Stephanie George, Jason Hernandez, and Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr.

"It's wonderful news that Obama has granted clemency to these individuals. We hope this is the just the beginning of the President using his executive powers to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. "I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families."

"Through his actions today, the President has signaled his willingness to undertake needed reforms to the criminal justice system," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice Washington, DC, office. "For too long, harsh sentences and punitive policies have fed a system of mass incarceration in this country. A comprehensive effort, involving the Administration and Congress, is needed to solve this crisis and return balance to the scales of justice by creating a more rational, fair, and cost-effective criminal justice system."

"We commend the President on this right and just action. It shows bold and necessary leadership," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "This marks a year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, this shows a trajectory towards real justice in the criminal justice system."

The trajectory may be there, but take-off has yet to be achieved, several advocates warned.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in a statement, "Until there is legislative action to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, these commutations are the only relief available to federal inmates and their families. But the administration can only do so much; it is up to Congress to address this systemic failure.

"Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "But shame on the President for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses."

And while the commutations are welcome, they are not the real solution, said FAMM's Stewart.

"Even if President Obama used his clemency power energetically, which he has not, he simply wouldn't be able to commute every excessive sentence," she said. "The sentencing laws themselves are the problem. Congress needs to get moving and pass mandatory minimums sentencing reforms that save the worst prison terms for the worst offenders," Stewart said. "We hope there will be even more commutations today, but it's only Congress that can prevent the need for commutations tomorrow."

Still, it is good that Clarence Aaron and a few others are going home.

Washington, DC
United States

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