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Marijuana: US Congressman Mark Kirk Introduces Bill Targeting "Kush Super-Marijuana"

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) Monday introduced a bill that would dramatically increase prison sentences for marijuana trafficking offenses if the pot in question had THC levels over 15%. Warning Monday that "kush super-marijuana" had invaded the Chicago suburbs, Kirk is calling for prison sentences of up to 25 years for trafficking even small quantities of the kind bud.

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Mark Kirk
Under current federal law, the manufacture, distribution, import and export, and possession with intent to distribute fewer than 50 kilograms or 50 plants is punishable by up to five years in federal prison, a $250,000 individual fine and $1 million group fine. Kirk's bill, the High-Potency Marijuana Sentencing Enhancement Act (HR 2828) increases the maximum fines for high-potency pot to $1 million for an individual and $5 million for a group, as well as increasing the maximum prison sentence five-fold. A second offense would double the fines and increase the maximum sentence to 35 years.

In a press release announcing the bill, Kirk warned of "zombie-like" pot smokers stumbling around the Chicago suburbs. "According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 25 million individuals age 12 and older used marijuana in 2007 -- significantly more than any other drug," he said. "That's why Kush and other high-potency marijuana strains are so worrying. Local law enforcement reports that Kush users are 'zombie-like' because of the extreme THC levels. Drug dealers know they can make as much money selling Kush as cocaine but without the heavier sentences that accompany crack and cocaine trafficking. Higher fines and longer sentences aren't the total solution to our nation's drug problem. But our laws should keep pace with advances in the strength and cash-value of high-THC marijuana. If you can make as much money selling pot as cocaine, you should face the same penalties."

Rep. Kirk appears to have swallowed the assumption that higher-potency marijuana is somehow more harmful than lower-potency pot, an old bromide dating back to former drug czar John Walters' "it's not your father's marijuana." But marijuana users say they adjust dosages to achieve the desired effect by smoking smaller amounts of more potent varieties. A user might smoke an entire blunt of low-potency Mexican brick weed, but only a couple of tokes of more potent pot, just as an alcohol user might chug down a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, but only a few ounces of more potent distilled spirits.

Further, kush is only one of a number of different strains of high-potency marijuana now available on the market. Many of those strains will produce potency levels of 15% or higher, much to the pleasure of marijuana connoisseurs.

"I don't know what's more ridiculous about this," said Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, "Kirk's incredible scientific ignorance or the hypocrisy of a man who's taken thousands of dollars from the alcohol and tobacco industries going after marijuana."

By Wednesday afternoon, Kirk's bill had yet to pick up any cosponsors.

Sentencing: Louisiana Bill to Allow Parole for Heroin Lifers Passes Full House, Senate Committee

From the 1970s until 2000, anyone caught possessing, distributing, or producing heroin in Louisiana was eligible for a prison sentence of life without parole. After the legislature changed the law, those penalties were reduced to five to 50 years in prison, with the possibility of parole, but that legislation did not deal with the remaining heroin lifers, who stay behind bars while people convicted since then do their time and go home.

Now, a bill that would redress that injustice has passed the Louisiana House, and on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it, too. The bill, HB 630, would allow heroin lifers to seek parole after they have served at least 15 years.

"It is a matter of basic fairness," Pete Adams, executive director of the District Attorneys Association, told the committee. The association supports the bill.

State Rep. Walt Leger III (D-New Orleans) said the average sentence for heroin offenses these days is five years. Keeping the heroin lifers in prison costs the state too much money, he added.

The legislature has killed similar proposals in recent years, including last year, when the House defeated it 44-48. This year it passed the House 57-29. Legislators had said the heroin lifers should seek review at the Louisiana Risk Review Panel, which reviews the cases of nonviolent offenders to assess how dangerous they would be if released.

But even if the panel recommends a reduction, only the governor has the power to commute sentences. Governors typically "are not into signing these things," testified Rep. Cedric Richmond.

CBC Hosts "Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy" Symposium

The Congressional Black Caucus
 Community Re-Investment Taskforce and the
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice
at Harvard Law School
invite you to attend

"Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy"
25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act
 
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
  U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Ways and Means
1100 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C.

 

Program

Welcome and Opening Remarks by
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX)
 Rep. Danny Davis (IL)
Rep. Charles Rangel (NY)
 
Welcome and Introduction of Attorney General by
Rep. John Conyers (MI)
 
Remarks by
Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice
 
Introduction of Justice Breyer
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. Executive Director, 
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice,
Harvard Law School
 
Hon. Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States
 
Kate Stith, Acting Dean
Yale Law School
 
Mandatory Minimums
 
Panel One: Rep Maxine Waters (CA)
History of Mandatory Minimums
 
Nancy Gertner, Judge, U.S. District Court for the
District of Massachusetts
Hon. J. Spencer Letts, Judge, U.S. District Court,
Central District of California
Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
 
Panel Two: Rep. Bobby Scott (VA)
The Need for Repeal, Including Legislative Update
 
A.J. Kramer, Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender of the
District of Columbia
Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Marc Mauer, Executive Director, The Sentencing Project
Margaret Love, Former Pardon Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice
 
Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine
 
Panel Three: Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX)
 
Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Judge, U.S. District Court for the
District of Columbia
Hon. William Sessions, Vice Chairman, U.S. Sentencing Commission
Bruce Nicholson, Legislative Counsel, American Bar Association
David Kirby, Former United States Attorney for the
District of Vermont
 
Good Time, Community Corrections and Reentry
 
 Panel Four: Rep. Danny K. Davis (IL)
Hon. Ann Aiken, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court of the
District of Oregon
Loretta S. Martin, Chief Probation Officer for the Central
District of California
Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons
            Jane Browning, Executive Director, International Community Corrections Association
Kristen Mamer, Director Public Affairs, FedCure
Isaac Fulwood, Jr., Chairman, U.S. Parole Commission (Invited)
 

Contact: Bernard Moore, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow
Office of Congressman Danny K. Davis
202-360-7551
Bernard.moore@mail.house.gov

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Video: Crack Sentencing Reform Petition Delivered to Congress -- Former Prisoners, Family Members and Advocates Speak Out

Last month the "Crack the Disparity" Coalition delivered petitions signed by tens of thousands of people, calling for an end to the draconian US crack sentencing laws, to the offices of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), respective chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. This short video on ColorOfChange.org shows one of the deliveries, and features comments from Karen Garrison, whose two sons were unjustly caught up in these laws; and from Nkechi Taifa, who heads up justice reform efforts at the Open Society Policy Center. The ColorOfChange.org page devoted to this petition also features audio from the press conference, including former Major League baseball star Willie Mays Aikens, who served 14 years in federal prison after an untreated cocaine addiction drew him into the federal system with crack charges.

Tough Times: California Protests Over HIV/AIDS Budget Cuts -- Needle Exchange Funding at Risk, Prop. 36 Funding to Vanish

California's $24 billion budget deficit and the steep cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to reduce it provoked demonstrations by HIV/AIDS activists and harm reductionists last Friday in Los Angeles, Monday in Fresno, and Wednesday in Sacramento calling for the restoration of funding. Late last month, Schwarzenegger announced plans to slice $80.1 million in funding for critical HIV/AIDS services, including totally eliminating general fund support for all State Office of AIDS programs except the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which will lose $12.3 million in general fund support.

The cuts would zero out state funding for harm reduction services through the AIDS office, as well as most of the HIV/AIDS prevention funds that California cities use to provide grants for needle exchange programs. For most of the 40 needle exchanges in the state, those grants provided between 60% and 90% of their total funding.

HIV/AIDS and harm reduction groups have organized a coalition known as Stop the HIV Cuts in a bid to reverse the proposed cuts. In addition to the demonstration in Sacramento, protests were also held Wednesday in San Diego and Palm Springs.

Funding for Proposition 36, the voter-approved 2001 law that requires that low-level drug offenders be sent to treatment instead of jail or prison, is also on the line. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants the legislature to eliminate the $108 million line-item for the program, which enrolls some 36,000 drug offenders in the state.

But that would leave California in a strange bind. Prop. 36 is not a program, but a state law, approved by the voters, who mandated that the legislature fund the program through 2006. It prevents judges from sending Prop. 36-eligible offenders to prison, instead of requiring that they receive treatment. If the state does not provide funding, the burden will shift to counties and municipalities, which will not be able to make up the difference. That means that Prop. 36-eligible offenders may, in the near future, receive neither jail sentences nor treatment.

Sentencing: Poll Finds Public Open to Probation, Diversion Instead of Hard Time for Drug Possession, Other Nonviolent Offenses

According to a newly released poll, more than one-quarter of the population believes that incarceration is never necessary for nonviolent drug possession offenders. The poll does not ask whether drug possessors should be left alone, placed on probation, or forced into treatment, but the response suggests that a significant proportion of the public is ready for the effective decriminalization, or at least depenalization, of drug possession -- and not just for marijuana.

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overused
The poll was commissioned by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and conducted in April by Zogby International. It examined public attitudes toward incarceration for nonviolent, non-serious offenders, which it defined as "those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual crimes in which the value of lost property did not exceed $400."

Overall, the poll found that a majority of American adults believe some crimes for which offenders are currently incarcerated do not demand jail time, with 77% agreeing that the most appropriate sentence for such offenders is probation, restitution, community service and/or rehabilitative services. The same percentage believes that such alternatives to incarceration to do not decrease public safety, while more than half (55%) believe that alternatives to incarceration would save money for state and local governments.

Regarding drug possession, the poll asked: "Please tell me if you think it is always, usually, sometimes, rarely, or never necessary to incarcerate a person in prison or jail who has been convicted of possession or use of illegal drugs, with no intention to sell and not while driving."

More than two-thirds (68%) responded it was either only sometimes (41%) or never (27%) necessary to jail drug users. Only 15% thought jail was usually necessary, while another 15% thought it was always necessary. Broken down by political affiliation, independents (52%) were more likely than either Republicans (39%) or Democrats (35%) to feel that jail is only sometimes necessary in such cases.

Drug users came out ahead of petty property criminals, with 60% saying the latter offenders should never or only sometimes be jailed, as well as people who solicit prostitutes (48%) and probation or parole violators (40%). On the other hand, 86% thought it was never or only sometimes necessary to jail people convicted of loitering or disturbing the peace and 79% thought that about public drunks. (One has to wonder about the 5% who thought it was always necessary to jail loiterers or peace disturbers.)

Medical Marijuana: California Dispensary Operator Charles Lynch Sentenced to a Year and a Day, Remains Free Pending Appeal

A federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary operator Charles Lynch to a year and a day in federal prison Thursday in one of the first sentences to be handed down since the Obama administration said it was adjusting federal policy on medical marijuana. Lynch was scheduled to be sentenced earlier this year, but US District Judge George Wu postponed that hearing with federal medical marijuana policy up in the air.

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Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Lynch was convicted of five marijuana-related offenses last year for operating his dispensary in Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County even though the dispensary was licensed and operated with the approval of local authorities -- except for the sheriff, who turned to the feds after being frustrated in his efforts to shut down the operation of which he did not approve, but which operated in accordance with state law.

Judge Wu showed some leniency in sentencing. Under federal law, Lynch faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but Wu said Lynch merited an exception. He also allowed Lynch to remain free on bail while pursuing an appeal.

That wasn't enough for drug reform advocates. "For Charlie Lynch to spend one night in federal prison, let alone a year, is a travesty," said Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This dispensary operator followed all state and local rules and has been dragged into a legal nightmare right out of Kafka. He is caught between California's voter-approved medical marijuana system and the Bush administration's single-minded effort to smother it. That Attorney General Holder changed federal policy three months ago only makes this miscarriage of justice all the more disturbing. Charlie is like a forgotten prisoner of war, abandoned after a truce was declared."

"Years from now, Mr. Lynch may well be remembered as the last American to go to federal prison for a mistake, the final victim of an already repudiated policy well on its way to the ash heap of history, but whose mean-spirited effects still linger," said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. "This sentence is a cruel and pointless miscarriage of justice. Mr. Lynch and his attorneys say they plan to appeal, and we hope they succeed. With federal law enforcement at the Mexican border so overwhelmed that traffickers coming through with up to 500 pounds of marijuana are let go, even one more penny spent persecuting a man who is not a criminal in any rational sense of the word is an outrageous waste of resources."

Canadian House Passes Anti-Crime Bill With Mandatory Minimums for Pot, Other Drug Offenses

The Canadian House of Commons today passed the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper' C-15 crime bill, which will institute mandatory minimum sentencing for some marijuana and other drug offenses. The vote, in which after dilly-dallying for days, the opposition Liberals joined in, came despite hearings in which no witnesses favored such a tough on crime approach north of the border. It's not a done deal yet. The bill must still be approved by the Canadian Senate, which issued a report several years ago calling for the government to head in the opposite directoin. But the Senate, which is appointed, is not known for bucking the government and the House of Commons. That the Liberals buckled for fear of being "soft on crime" and supported the Conservatives in this giant step backward is disappointing but not surprising. Oh, Canada! Once we looked to you for a progressive example on drug policy. I will be writing about all this for the Chronicle later this week, as well as focusing on our other border with a feature article on the Obama administration's new initiative to thwart the Mexican so-called drug cartels.

Feature: New York Republicans, Prosecutors in Last Minute Bid to Block Rockefeller Reform Provision

The losers in New York state's effort to reform its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, mainly district attorneys and Republican legislators, made a last-ditch effort this week to scuttle part of the reforms. But given a strong response from reform proponents, Gov. David Paterson (D), and Assembly Democrats, the effort appeared dead in the water as the week wound down.

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New York State Capitol
The brouhaha erupted over a provision in the law that allows judges the discretion to conditionally seal some nonviolent conviction records when a person has completed drug treatment. The reason for the provision is simple: To make it possible for people who have successfully undergone treatment to be able to enter the workforce without having the albatross of their nonviolent, pre-treatment drug convictions hanging around their necks.

With the Rockefeller reform law set to go into effect next week, Senate Republican minority leader Dean Skelos headlined a Monday press conference to warn that allowing judges to seal the records of "dangerous criminals" was a threat to the safety of New Yorkers. "This is one that is potentially going to kill people if it's not repealed," said Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). "This is about life and death."

"It's just mind-boggling in terms of the impact of this provision," said Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) the primary sponsor of the effort to undo the provision. "This change in our state drug laws defies all common sense because it would effectively wipe the slate clean for criminals who will face necessary criminal background checks for positions of confidence and public trust."

"It means someone convicted of selling drugs on a school yard could be hired as a teacher," Skelos added. "Someone caring for toddlers, someone running a crystal meth lab could be delivering medications to your grandmother at a nursing home. And an individual convicted of forgery or grand larceny could be handling your money at the bank or taking your application for a loan or credit card."

DAs also joined in the attack. "If you look at the list of jobs and licenses that you are going to be able to get without having your criminal drug activity revealed to a potential employer is remarkable," Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who heads the state's district attorneys' association, told the Ithaca Journal.

Sounds pretty scary, and that scare tactic worked, at least to some degree. Senate Democrats initially wavered, saying they might take up the issue. On Wednesday, Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan), the Senate sponsor of the Rockefeller reform bill indicated he will try to delay the implementation of the record-sealing provision.

But on closer analysis, the Republicans' and the prosecutors' appeal to public safety appears threadbare, one might even say hypocritical, especially given that DAs have held the same power to seal conviction records for decades -- and have used it expansively with little scrutiny.

The new provision is much more transparent. Under this provision, a judge may order records to be conditionally sealed only after a person has successfully completed both a judicially-supervised drug treatment program and the court-imposed sentence for the offense, and after the judge considers, among other things, the circumstances and seriousness of the offense, the character of the defendant, his or her criminal history, and the impact of the sealing on public safety. A judge must also give the district attorney notice and an opportunity to be heard and may deny a sealing request even if the applicant has completed drug treatment.

Even while signaling he might be open to delay to discuss the provision, Schneiderman defended the bill. "A defendant should be able to go to a judge and say the prosecutor wouldn't do this for me," he said. "Now the judge can overrule the prosecutor," he added before going on to accuse the GOP of trying to "terrorize the citizenry."

If Schneiderman was intimidated by the Republican onslaught, some of his fellow Senate Democrats weren't. Senate Crime Committee Chairwoman Ruth Hassell-Thompson (D-Mount Vernon) said in a statement that the criticism "is an alarmist attitude of a few who refuse to accept the notion that many of these former addicts have served their time and proven themselves worthy of a second chance."

Nor were reform proponents taking the attack lying down. "The real issue here is not about sealing, but who gets to decide," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. "Prosecutors have been sealing records for years, and so long as they held the discretion to seal records, they didn't mind sealing. But now that discretion has been returned to judges, the prosecutors have objections to the practice. This isn't about record sealing, which works when done right. It's about who gets to decide, and prosecutors don't want to lose control over the process."

"The right-of-center representatives and law enforcement officials, mainly DAs, are trying to make political hay out of this issue and are using fairly old-school tactics to bum rush the public into being scared," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a member of the Rockefeller reform coalition Drop the Rock. "But I think our side has defended the sealing provisions very eloquently and forcefully."

"People with past criminal histories -- no matter how old or the nature of the record -- are often indefinitely denied access to many spheres of society including employment," said Anita Marton, vice president of the Legal Action Center. "This provision increases employment opportunities, so people can truly be given a second chance at succeeding in and contributing to society. This is smart policy."

"Prosecutors and some opportunistic elected officials want to set up road blocks and stigmatize people by prohibiting judges from sealing records for people who have successfully completed their drug treatment," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist at the Drug Policy Alliance, who served 12 years for a first time nonviolent drug offense. "We should be removing barriers for people who are reentering society so they can function as productive, taxpaying citizens, and access to employment is an important part of that."

By Wednesday, Gov. David Paterson (D) had weighed in, saying the law should stand as is. The reforms are aimed at giving judges discretion in diverting nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, he said, and people who complete such programs should not be penalized when seeking work. "We feel it helps society to try to place them in homes and in jobs without putting the scar of their addiction on them," he said during a meeting with legislators to discuss the matter.

The governor's statement was on the money, said Gangi. "Sealing the records is actually a very good idea that doesn't increase the risk to public safety," he said. "People who have gone through treatment and avoided prison are going to continue to do well. We don't want to place obstacles in their path."

With Paterson standing firm and Assembly Democrats right there beside him, the issue should be dead now, said Gangi. "The Assembly Democrats won't even be considering looking at this," he said, "even if the Senate Democrats waiver. With the governor's support and if the Assembly Democrats hold the line, this is even more of a non-starter. It should be case closed, and let's move on to the next pressing matter."

My, how the mighty have fallen! Up until last year, DAs and their Republican allies in the state legislature were able to beat back reform with the clubs of fear-mongering and demagoguery. Now, they appear lonely losers, their appeals to fear scoffed at, their shrieks of discontent lost in the wind.

Drug Legalization: Conservative Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo Joins the Chorus

Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, a rock-ribbed conservative who made his national name as an opponent of illegal immigration and "open borders," said Wednesday it is time to consider legalizing drugs. The remarks came as he spoke to the Lincoln Club of Colorado in Denver.

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Tom Tancredo
Tancredo has a 99% favorable rating from the American Conservative Union and has typically voted in favor of drug war spending, especially as it relates to border security. As a states' rights advocate, however, he has voted in favor of congressional amendments that would have barred the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal.

Tancredo ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, largely on his anti-illegal immigration platform. Tancredo served four terms in the US House of Representatives before retiring in 2008. He is considering running for statewide elected office in Colorado.

While admitting it may be "political suicide," Tancredo told his GOP audience it is time to consider legalizing drugs. The country has spent billions of dollars arresting, trying, and imprisoning drug users and sellers, with little to show for it, he said.

"I am convinced that what we are doing is not working," he said. "It is now easier for a kid to get drugs at most schools in America than it is booze," he said.

Tancredo also cited the ongoing prohibition-related violence in Mexico, which has claimed nearly 11,000 lives in the past three years. The violence is moving north, he warned.

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