Alternatives to Incarceration

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Chronicle AM: Mexican Coca, Saudis Behead Another Trafficker, Feds Raid LA Fashion District, More (9/11/14)

A federal CBD medical marijuana bill picks up more sponsors, so does a federal asset forfeiture reform bill, Georgia advocates want whole whole plant medical marijuana, Mexico's first coca patch is busted, Saudi Arabia beheads another drug offender, and more. Let's get to it:

Coca plant. Mexico has found its first plantation. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

York, Maine, Selectmen Refuse to Put Legalization Initiative on Ballot, But… Town selectmen voted against putting the initiative from Citizens for a Safer Maine on the November ballot, but since petitioners have already gathered sufficient signatures to force the issue, they can get their petition notarized to be placed on the ballot. York will join Lewiston and South Portland in voting on initiatives this year; Portland approved one last year.

Medical Marijuana

Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act Picks Up More Sponsors. The Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act (HR 5226), which would exclude cannabidiol (CBD) from the definition of marijuana, has gained new sponsors. It now has 19 cosponsors -- 11 Democrats and eight Republicans. The latest are Reps. Ann Wagner (R-MO), Matthew Cartwright (D-PA), and Chris Stewart (R-UT).

Georgia Advocates Call for Whole Plant Medical Marijuana, Not Just CBD Oil. As legislative hearings in Macon continue to examine the use of CBD oil, medical marijuana advocates are calling for whole plant medical marijuana. "The cannabis plant contains many compounds that have proven to be effective in treating a variety of conditions," said Georgia C.A.R.E director James Bell. "We should not be determining who can and cannot benefit from this healing plant."

Asset Forfeiture

Civil Asset Forfeiture Act Picks Up New Sponsors. The bill, HR 5212, now has five cosponsors. The latest are Reps. Stevan Pearce (R-NM), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Reid Ribble (R-WI). All cosponsors so far are Republicans. The bill, filed by Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R-MI), would increase citizen protections against federal asset forfeiture actions.

Law Enforcement

Feds Raid LA Fashion District in Cartel Money Laundering Probe. More than a thousand law enforcement officers spread out across LA's fashion district Wednesday, raiding more than 60 warehouses, storefronts, and residences, arresting nine people and seizing $65 million in cash that they said was being laundered for Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The feds called the mass bust Operation Fashion Police.

International

OAS Head Claims Regional Consensus on Drug Reform. Speaking in front of the Inter-American Dialog in Washington, DC, Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza said Wednesday that regional leaders have reached consensus on four drug policy reform issues: to emphasize a public health approach, to seek out alternatives to incarceration, to stay strong against organized crime, and to work on strengthening regional institutions. Insulza's remarks come ahead of an OAS Special General Assembly to be held in Guatemala next week.

Mexico's First Coca Plantation Discovered in Chiapas. Mexican soldiers have seized more than 1,600 coca plants being cultivated in southern Chiapas state, near the Guatemalan border. Mexican military and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) officials said it was the first time coca planting had been discovered in the country. "It's a pretty troubling discovery," said UNODC Mexico representative Antonio Mazzitelli. It could amount to "a small-scale experiment to see if there is a possibility of replicating" coca production in Mexico. Coca is currently grown only in the Andes, although there is nothing stopping it from being cultivated elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia Beheads Another Drug Offender. Authorities in Saudi Arabia Tuesday beheaded a Pakistani national convicted of smuggling "a large quantity of heroin." They have executed at least seven other drug traffickers in recent weeks, and 49 people overall so far this year. It's unclear how many of the 49 were drug offenders.

World Leaders Call for Regulatory Alternatives to Drug Prohibition [FEATURE]

In a report released last night and in a New York City press conference this morning, a number of global leaders, including former heads of state, called for drug decriminalization and the regulation of psychoactive drug markets. Those same global leaders are meeting this afternoon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and his deputy, Jan Eliasson.

These world leaders are members of the Global Commission on Drugs and their new report is Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The commission's members include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, and more.

The report's executive summary lists a number of policy prescriptions, some of them quite breathtakingly bold:

  • Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.
  • Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.
  • Rely on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.
  • Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.

In other words, decriminalize drug possession, legalize and regulate drug markets, and end the failed decades-long embrace of prohibitionism. This is a policy advance from the Commission's initial 2011 report, which, while breaking new ground in advancing the debate of drug prohibition, did not go as far as calling for efforts to regulate and legalize drugs.

Global Commission meeting in Warsaw last year, with four former presidents present. (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
"Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation," said Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue -- rather than as a crime -- and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."

"Health-based approaches to drug policy routinely prove much less expensive and more effective than criminalization and incarceration," said former Mexican President Zedillo. "Decriminalization of drug consumption is certainly crucial but not sufficient. Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria, if the engines of organized crime profiting from drug traffic are to be truly dismantled."

The Commission's report today is only the latest evidence of growing global momentum for fundamental drug policy reforms. After the Commission's 2011 report, sitting Latin American heads of state, including Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay, as well as then-President Felipe Calderón in Mexico, for the first time made drug reform a major topic at the Summit of the Americas in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia.

That was followed 13 months later by an Organization of American States report, commissioned by the heads of state of the region, calling for consideration of drug legalization along with other possible scenarios as a potential policy alternative. And late last year, Uruguay broke new ground, becoming the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce.

All of this has created a big push for a new look at global drug prohibition during the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs set for 2016. The last UNGASS, in 1998, was dominated by rhetorical calls for a "drug-free world" and ended with unrealistic goals of suppressing illicit drug production (which, of course, have not been met), but the Commission and the global political leaders whose voices it echoes are working to use the next UNGASS to advance a frankly and radically reformist alternative.

Celebrity Commission member Richard Branson (Wikimedia/David Shankbone)
"We can't go on pretending the war on drugs is working," said Richard Branson. "We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."

American drug reformers liked what they were hearing.

"When the Commission released its initial report just three years ago, few expected its recommendations to be embraced anytime soon by current presidents," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's exactly what happened, with Colombian President Santos and Guatemala President Perez-Molina speaking out boldly, former Mexican President Calderon calling on the United Nations to reassess the prohibitionist approach to drugs, and Uruguayan President Mujica approving the first national law to legally regulate cannabis. Meanwhile, one Commission member, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has opened up the drug policy debate in West Africa, recruiting some of the region's most distinguished figures," he noted.

"The import of the Commission's report lies in both the distinction of its members and the boldness of their recommendations," Nadelmann continued. "The former presidents and other Commission members pull no punches in insisting that national and global drug control policies reject the failed prohibitionist policies of the 20th century in favor of new policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. There's no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle. I'm grateful to the Commission for the pivotal role it has played in taking drug policy reform from the fringes of international politics to the mainstream."

"With polling having shown consistent majority voter support for legalizing marijuana in the US for several years now, it's been clear that this is a mainstream issue in this country," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "Now this group of world leaders has not only put marijuana legalization on the table for serious consideration on the global stage, but has gone even further by suggesting that ending the prohibition of other drugs should be considered as a way to better protect public health and safety. The hope now is that these forward-thinking recommendations by so many respected former heads of state will encourage current officials to modernize their nations' policies."

The Global Commission on Drugs is showing the path forward to more enlightened drug policies. Now it's up to citizens to push for reform from the bottom up, and it's up to national and international leaders to start making those changes at the national and international level.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM -- July 17, 2014

Marijuana decriminalization comes to the nation's capital, Vermont is set to study marijuana legalization, New Jersey residents press for "decarceration," Canadians are ready for marijuana reform, and more. Let's get to it:

Decriminalization is now the law in the District of Columbia.
Marijuana Policy

The District of Columbia is Decriminalized. The decriminalization of the possession of an ounce of less of marijuana is now the law in the nation's capital. A law passed by the DC city council and signed by Mayor Vincent Gray (D) went into effect one minute after minute. Small time pot possession is now punishable only by a fine of $25. But the cops can still take your stash.

Vermont Launches Study of Marijuana Legalization. The state has hired the RAND Corporation to sort through the issues around legalizing marijuana in the Green Mountain State. The administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) says the study is needed because lawmakers are expected to take up the issue during the legislative session next year. A report is expected to be issued by January.

Medical Marijuana

UFCW to Start Representing Washington State Medical Marijuana Workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 367 announced this week that it expects to represents workers at a Puyallup medical marijuana collective. The UFCW represents a variety of retail, food processing, manufacturing, and production workers, but has also been active in the medical marijuana industry and has a Cannabis Workers Rising campaign, especially in California, where it has organized numerous work sites.

Drug Policy

Netroots Nation Gathering to Take Up Drug War Issues Friday. The ninth annual gathering of progressive voices known as Netroots Nation, meeting in Detroit this week, will address the war on drugs during a panel Friday. The panel is called "Marijuana Arrests: The Gateway to Mass Incarceration." The panel will take place at 4:30pm and can viewed live online here.

Sentencing

New Jersey Campaign to Reduce Incarceration Gets Underway. Residents of Essex County have launched a campaign to get lawmakers to pass legislation that would reduce incarceration in the Garden State. More than a thousand of them have signed a Change.org petition urging legislators to pass a bill they call the New Jersey Decarceration Act, which would lead to a large-scale release of nonviolent drug and other offenders.

International

Canadians Ready for Marijuana Reform, Poll Finds. An Ipsos-Reid poll commissioned by the Department of Justice has found that seven out of 10 Canadians are ready to decriminalize or legalize marijuana. Some 37% of respondents said it should be legalized, while another 33% said it should be decriminalized. Only 14% supported the status quo, while 12% wanted harsher penalties. The poll was commissioned by the government in December, but it hid the results until the newspaper The Star managed to obtain them.

Malaysian Court Sentences Nigerian Student to Death for Marijuana Trafficking. A Malaysian High Court judge sentenced Nigerian college student Uchechukwu Nelson Ohaechesi to be hanged after he was convicted of trafficking 26.5 kilograms of marijuana.

Chronicle AM -- June 19, 2014

We can watch the marijuana policy landscape shift before our eyes, with legalization initiatives and decrim measures popping up around the country and even Oklahoma Republicans arguing over legalization. There is also action on the opiate front, the Senate will vote on defunding the DEA's war on medical marijuana in states where it is legal, and more. Let's get to it:

US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) cosponsors an amendment to cut DEA medical marijuana funding. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

House Fails to Add Rider to Block DC Decriminalization Law. The House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee approved a familiar series of social policy riders on the District of Columbia budget, but did not include one that would seek to undo the city's recent adoption of marijuana decriminalization. It's not a done deal yet, however; such a rider could still be added during the legislative process. The subcommittee did approve riders barring the District from funding needle exchanges or medical marijuana programs.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Heads for House Floor Vote. A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and levy a maximum $250 fine passed the House Public Safety Committee today. House Bill 371 now heads for a House floor vote.

Marijuana Policy in the Oklahoma GOP Governor's Race. In next week's GOP primary, sitting Gov. Mary Fallin is up against two longshot opponents who both favor marijuana legalization. Both Chad Moody, also known as "The Drug Lawyer," and Dax Ewbank, a libertarian-leaning Republican, have come out in favor of freeing the weed. But Fallin says that's not on her to-do list: "I just don't see that it provides a substantial benefit to the people of Oklahoma," Fallin said.

Milwaukee Legalization Initiative Signature-Gathering Drive Underway. A coalition of Milwaukee groups have begun a petition drive to place a municipal legalization ordinance on the November ballot. The measure would legalize the possession of up to an ounce. The groups have until July 29 to come up with 30,000 valid voter signatures. People interested in helping out can get more information here.

Philadelphia City Council Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana. The city council today approved a decriminalization measure introduce last month by Councilman Jim Kenney. Up to 30 grams is decriminalized, with a maximum $25 fine. Four years ago this month, the city began treatment small-time possession as a summary offense, with a maximum $200 fine and three-hour class on drug abuse.

Activists Gather Twice the Signatures Needed for York, Maine, Legalization Initiative. Activists supported by the Marijuana Policy Project needed 100 valid voter signatures to present a marijuana legalization petition to the York Board of Selectmen. They handed in 200. Similar petition drives are going on in Lewiston and South Portland, and Portland voters approved a legalization referendum last year. The local efforts are laying the groundwork for a statewide legalization initiative in 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Sens. Rand Paul, Cory Booker Cosponsor DEA Defunding Amendment in Senate; Vote Could Come as Soon as Tonight. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have cosponsored an amendment to the Justice Department funding bill that would shield medical marijuana patients and providers from the attention of the DEA in states where it is legal. The vote could come as soon as tonight or tomorrow. The House passed such an amendment at the end of last month.

New York Governor, Legislature in Tentative Deal as Session Draws to End. With the legislative ticking down its final hours, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and legislative leaders today announced a deal that would allow passage of a medical marijuana pilot program, but would not allow patients to smoke their medicine.

North Carolina Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Wins House Committee Votes. A bill that would allow some patients to use a high-CBD cannabis oil was approved by the House Health Committee Wednesday and the House Finance Committee today.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy in the Colorado GOP Senatorial Race. Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who is running for the state's GOP senatorial nomination, is being attacked as a drug legalizer in a radio ad created by a committee supporting former Sen. Mike Copp. While Tancredo supports marijuana legalization and has in the past spoken of the need to consider drug legalization, he says he is not ready to legalize hard drugs and is demanding that the ads be pulled.

Opiates

Vermont Governor Signs Package of Bills Aimed at Opiate Use. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) Tuesday signed into law a package of bills and executive orders that will ramp up treatment for opiate addiction, but also increase penalties for bringing more than one gram of heroin into the state. The centerpiece of the legislative package is Senate Bill 295, which will fund pretrial screening and drug treatment for suspects before they are arraigned.

New York Assembly Set to Approve Package of Heroin Bills. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and key lawmakers announced Tuesday night that they had a deal on a package of heroin bills that would raise awareness of the issue and increase insurance coverage of heroin treatment. What isn't clear is whether they agreement also includes a series of Rockefeller drug law-style measure passed by the Republican-dominated Senate that would increase criminal penalties for some heroin offenses.

Harm Reduction

DC Police Chief Orders No Arrests for Overdose Victims. In a recent memorandum, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier has instructed her police force to observe protections from arrest and charge granted under a DC law designed to encourage residents to seek immediate medical assistance for a person experiencing an overdose. The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 (#A19-564), which was passed by the D.C. Council in 2012 and took effect on March 19, 2013, provides limited legal protection from arrest, charge and prosecution for those who witness or experience a drug overdose and summon medical assistance.

Sentencing

Federal Fair Sentencing Act Picks Up Another Sponsor. And then there were 39. Rep. William Envart (D-IL) has signed on as a cosponsor to the Federal Fair Sentencing Act. That makes 25 Democrats, along with 14 Republicans. It would reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences and impose retroactivity for crack cocaine sentences handed down before 2010.

International

Britain's Looming Khat Ban Could Create Black Market. A ban on khat is about to go into effect in England, and this report suggests that it could create political tensions in East Africa, as well as creating a black market for the substance in England itself.

Albanian Siege of Marijuana-Producing Village Continues. A police assault on the village of Lazarat that began Monday is still underway as clashes continued between police and armed villagers. Some 800 police are involved in the operation, and they say they have seized or destroyed more than 10 tons of marijuana so far. But that's only a fraction of the 900 tons the village is estimated to produce annually. The town's $6 billion pot crop is equivalent to about half Albania's GDP.

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

Pew Poll Reveals Seismic Shift in Drug Policy Attitudes [FEATURE]

A new national survey released today by the Pew Research Center provides strong evidence that Americans are undergoing a tectonic shift in their views on drug policy. Not only are Americans convinced that marijuana legalization is coming; a majority supports it, and even larger majorities support a fundamental realignment of our drug policies away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment instead of punishment for hard drug users.

rethinking...
Among the key findings of the report was that more than six in ten Americans (63%) say that state governments moving away from mandatory prison terms for drug law violations is a good thing, while just 32% say these policy changes are a bad thing. This is a substantial shift from 2001 when the public was evenly divided (47% good thing vs. 45% bad thing). The majority of all demographic groups, including Republicans and Americans over 65 years old, support this shift.

Similarly, two-thirds (67%) say the government should focus more on providing treatment for people who use drugs like cocaine and heroin. Just 26% think the focus should be more on prosecuting people who use such drugs. The poll did not ask if hard drug users should just be left alone barring harm to others.

"Given that the vast majority of Americans don't think people should be prosecuted for drug possession, it's time to ask the question: Why are we still arresting people for nothing more than drug possession?" asked Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

More than 1.5 million people are arrested in the U.S. every year for a drug law violation. The vast majority -- more than 80% -- are arrested for possession only. Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night for a drug law violation, including more than 55,000 people in state prisons for simple drug possession.

"There's a new consensus that mandatory minimums are no longer appropriate for drug and other nonviolent offenders," said Nadelmann. "This is reflected and confirmed by the growing bipartisan support for rolling back and ending such laws."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/pew-mandatory-minimums-poll.jpg
The passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced, but did not eliminate, sentencing disparities between federal crack and powder cocaine offenders is one example of the emerging reformist consensus. Sentencing reform measures passed by around half the states in the past decade, which have resulted in an absolute decline in state prison populations, have also proven popular with a citizenry increasingly tired of drug war without end.

And President Obama and Attorney General Holder have continued to make a series of moves over the past year indicating that they are serious about reducing mass incarceration and fixing the criminal justice system, including a call from Holder to federal prosecutors to not use mandatory minimum charges if they don't have to.

Likewise, in an otherwise-bitterly-divided Congress, legislators from both sides of the aisle are pushing to reform mandatory minimum drug laws. The reforms are supported by a group of Senators who can only be described as strange bedfellows: Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).

At the same time, the Pew poll illuminates what has been a major shift in attitudes on whether the use of marijuana should be legal. As recently as four years ago, about half (52%) said they thought the use of marijuana should not be legal; 41% said marijuana use should be legal. Today those numbers are roughly reversed -- 54% favor marijuana legalization while 42% are opposed. Just 16% say it should not be legal for either medical or recreational use.

And no matter respondents' personal feelings for or against marijuana legalization, 75% of them think it is inevitable.

Also, more than two-thirds (69%) said that alcohol was more harmful than marijuana for individuals. And nearly the same number (63%) said alcohol was more harmful to society.

"Leadership is needed to overcome the institutional lethargy and vested interest that have stymied meaningful police and sentencing reform," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "The policies are counterproductive, and too many otherwise law-abiding people are getting caught up in the justice system because of them."

"It is good to know that despite the DEA's best efforts the American people are getting scientifically accurate information about marijuana, and the fact that it is objectively less harmful than alcohol to both individual health and society at large. The increase in support since last year's poll shows that more and more Americans understand it's simply bad public policy to steer adults toward alcohol by punishing those who prefer marijuana as a less harmful alternative," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Now that three-quarters of Americans understand taxing and regulating marijuana is inevitable, the writing is on the wall. Congress needs to read it and move forward with legislation allowing states to choose more effective policies without federal interference," Riffle added.

While Nadelmann also greeted the poll results, he warned that it should not be used as fuel for even more, if softer, expansion of the criminal justice system.

"It's good to see yet another poll confirm the results of other state and national polls showing majority support for legalizing marijuana," he said. "And it's nice to see that Americans overwhelmingly support treatment-instead-of-incarceration. But it's important to recognize that there has been overwhelming support for treatment-instead-of-incarceration for well over a decade now -- and that we've reached the point where the public needs to be better educated about the benefits of providing treatment outside the criminal justice system rather than within and through it. It would be a shame if this latest poll result were used to promote drug courts and other coercive, abstinence-only programs rather than meaningful treatment in the community."

Chronicle AM -- April 2, 2014

A new Pew Research poll has some surprising and heartening results, Madison (WI) says legalize it, Wisconsin passes a CBD medical marijuana bill, misbehaving cops get noticed, the Russians are griping about the Aghan poppy crop again, and more. Let's get to it:

Aghanistan opium poppy field (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin, Voters Say Legalize It. Voters in Dane County approved a non-binding advisory referendum calling on legislators to legalize marijuana in the land of the Cheese Heads. The referendum passed with 64.5% of the vote.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Senate Panel Holds Hearing on Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate General Laws Committee heard testimony on a medical marijuana bill Tuesday, but took no action. The measure, Senate Bill 951, is not expected to pass this session.

Wisconsin CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Legislature. The Wisconsin legislature has approved a CBD medical marijuana bill. Assembly Bill 726 passed the Senate Tuesday, the last day of the legislative session. It had already passed the Assembly.

Drug Policy

Pew Poll Finds Tectonic Shift Underway on Drug Policy. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that the public is ready for a truce in America's long-running drug war. Two-thirds favored treatment over jail for heroin and cocaine users and strong majorities said that alcohol was more harmful than marijuana. Click on the link for full poll results, or read our feature story on it in this issue.

Prescription Drugs

US Senator Calls on DEA to Implement Prescription Drug Take Back Program. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) took to the Senate floor Tuesday to press the DEA to implement a 2010 law based on bipartisan legislation she sponsored. The law expands drug take back programs. "Prescription drug abuse has reached crisis levels and is leading to a spike in heroin abuse as well, and we should spare no effort to reverse this deadly trend," Klobuchar said. "My drug take back law will help keep drugs out of the wrong hands and prevent prescription drug abuse as well as heroin abuse. The Administration needs to implement this common sense law so that we can give families new tools to help fight this devastating epidemic." No word yet on any DEA response.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Occupy Activists Given Drugs By Cops Can Sue, Judge Rules. In a bizarre story out of Minneapolis, a federal judge has ruled that Occupy activists plied with marijuana by Minnesota police doing a drug identification training exercise during the protests can sue. Law enforcement agencies that employed the officers involved had filed a motion to throw out the case, but US District Court Judge John Tunheim rejected the motion, noting that "in light of the clear prohibition on providing illicit drugs to citizens," the agencies "are not entitled to the protection of qualified immunity." Click on the link for all the weird details.

Lawsuit Charges Corruption, Harassment Among Alabama Narcs. A former Walker County deputy who worked for the department's Narcotics Enforcement Team before he was fired has filed a lawsuit against the county and the sheriff charging he was fired for cooperating in an FBI investigation of his boss, who killed himself after stealing drug money to pay personal bills and support his mistress. Click on the link for all the sordid details.

International

Russian Drug Czar Charges NATO Doesn't Care About Afghan Drug Production. NATO's decision to phase out cooperation with Russia in training anti-drug officers for Afghanistan reveals the alliance's unwillingness to really combat drug production in this country, Viktor Ivanov, the chief of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, told Interfax on Wednesday. "This is not surprising. What could you have expected from NATO?" Ivanov said. "NATO has long been pursuing a policy aimed at the presence of its military component in Afghanistan. Now they are pulling out of this country, leaving massive drug production there," Ivanov said. Afghanistan accounts for nearly 90% of the world's illicit opium production, according to the UN.

Chronicle AM -- March 12, 2014

Medical marijuana is keeping state legislators busy, Maine's governor has a 20th Century approach to drug problems, New Mexico's governor cuts funds to a diversion program, Indonesia shifts its stance on drug users, and more. Let's get to it:

Responding to new synthetic drugs by banning them is still a favored response in state legislatures. (wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

DEA, LAPD Raid Dispensaries. DEA agents assisted by LAPD officers raided and closed several Los Angeles dispensaries Tuesday. They hit the Black Rose dispensary in Fairfax, Downtown Medical Caregivers off Main Street, Washington and Western Medical Group in Harvard Heights, Herbman in Exposition Park and two homes in Beverly Hills. The same person allegedly owns all four dispensaries.

Vermont Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. A bill that lifts the 1,000-patient cap on the state's dispensaries and authorizes two more dispensaries passed the Senate with little debate Tuesday. Senate Bill 247 now heads to the House.

Revised Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A CBD medical marijuana bill revised by its sponsors so that the University of Alabama-Birmingham would conduct a research study passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Tuesday night. Senate Bill 174 now moves to the House.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A bill that would allow compassionate use of non-intoxicating cannabis oil by Utahns with untreatable epilepsy passed the Senate Tuesday by a wide margin, despite reservations some senators have about the oil's safety and long term benefits. House Bill 105 now goes back to the House, which had already passed it, but now must sign off on changes in the Senate version.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing. Two bills that would legalize the manufacture and sale of medical marijuana-infused products such as brownies and oils and permit communities to allow and regulate marijuana dispensaries got a hearing in the Senate Government Operations Committee hearing Tuesday, but no vote. Committee chair and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) is not expected to schedule another hearing for at least a couple of weeks. The bills are House Bill 5104 and House Bill 4271.

California Bill to Tighten Location Restrictions on Dispensaries Killed in Committee. A bill that would have widened "dispensary free" zone around schools from 600 feet to 1,000 feet has been blocked in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said Tuesday. Conway is the author of the bill in question, Assembly Bill 1588.

American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Releases Study on Marijuana and Epilepsy. The medical research group American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) issued a new scientific review Tuesday, Cannabis in the Treatment of Epilepsy, which compiles much of the leading and historical research on epilepsy and cannabis (medical marijuana) for use by scientists, physicians, patients, and parents, as well as those producing and manufacturing it for treatment. Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) will host a Google Hangout today, March 12th at 8:00pm EDT, featuring AHP director Roy Upton, ASA scientific advisory board member Dr. Sunil Aggarwal and others.

Law Enforcement

Maine Governor Wants More Drug War. Confronted by increasing levels of opiate drug use, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) responded Tuesday by proposing to beef up drug war spending. The conservative governor wants to add 22 new state positions including 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors for the Office of the Maine Attorney General as well as four new district court judges to bolster the state's four drug courts in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland. He also criticized methadone, saying the drug should be provided in a clinical setting only. He said he intended to focus equally on the addiction side of the drug equation but did not offer any details.

New Mexico Governor Vetoes Funding for Drug Diversion Pilot Program. Gov. Susana Martinez (R) vetoed spending $140,000 for a Santa Fe program to divert some drug offenders to treatment Tuesday. The city's pre-booking diversion program, otherwise known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), will begin late this month. If successful, this model could become a model for other New Mexico communities, saving both the criminal justice and health systems tens of millions of dollars each year.

Salvia Divinorum

Rhode Island Bill to Ban Salvia, Jimson Weed Has Hearing Today. A bill that would ban the use of salvia divinorum and Jimson weed was scheduled for committee action today. House Bill 7191, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), gets a vote before the House Judiciary Committee. It's not clear what prompted the bill.

New Synthetic Drugs

Minnesota Synthetic Drug Ban Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would give the state pharmacy board the authority to use its emergency powers to classify new synthetic drugs as banned substances is advancing in the House. House File 2446, introduced by Rep. Erik Simonson (D-Duluth) passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Tuesday with few questions and a unanimous vote.

International

LEAHN Releases Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement. The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) has released the Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement, developed at the International Conference on Drug Policy and Policing last November in Frankfurt. The principles are designed to make law enforcement an effective partner in a harm reduction approach to drug use and related illness.

TDPF Releases Report on Dutch Coffee Shop Policy. Prompted by "misreports and misunderstandings that have led many to believe the Netherlands is retreating from its pragmatic policy of allowing cannabis to be sold via 'coffee shop,'" the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation has released a new report to set things straight. The report is Cannabis policy in the Netherlands: Moving forward, not backwards.

Ghana Anti-Drug Head Calls for Marijuana Legalization Debate. The executive secretary of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Akrasi Sarpong, has called for a national debate on legalization of marijuana in the country. "Ordinary people can say don't legalize it but that will be vocalizing the ostrich hiding its head in the sand, because there is a virtual legalization on the ground," Sarpong said. Many people believe "what you are fighting is not crime," he added. "Reports say cannabis is the number one problem in Africa so what are we therefore saying. People laugh at these things, because, they are growing them in their homes," he said.

Peru Ponders Restarting Drug Plane Shootdown Program.Peru suspended its law allowing its Air Force to shoot down suspected drug planes in April 2001, when the Peruvian Air Force, accompanied by a CIA support plane, mistakenly shot down an aircraft carrying American missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter. Now, Congressman Carlos Turbino, a retired general, has filed a bill to reinstate the program. It is currently before the congressional defense committee, even though it is opposed as unnecessary by the government of President Ollanta Humala.

New Indonesian Drug Law Emphasizes Rehabilitation Instead of Punishment of Drug Users. Indonesian ministers this week signed a memorandum of understanding that they say will declare drug users "victims" instead of criminals, to be treated at rehabilitation centers instead of sentencing to prison. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has gone on the record supporting a softer touch for addicts, but early efforts to push for more rehabilitation centers have met with resistance from judges who are loathe to appear weak on drugs and lawmakers who often use the early release of traffickers as opportunities to grandstand against the president. Drug user make up 42% of all Indonesian prisoners.

Marijuana Reform Rally Set for Glasgow Next Month. A mass marijuana rally called by the Glasgow Cannabis Social Club is set for the city center next month, and it's already causing grumbling. "People will be extremely annoyed at the high-profile celebration of something that's illegal," grumped Conservative MSP John Lamont. "It is disappointing that such a carnival in homage to an illegal substance is being facilitated in this way," he added. The old fogies want the police to shut it down, but the police have said they will stop it only if lawbreaking takes place. The celebration is due to take place at Glasgow Green on Sunday April 20. So far, more than 200 people have signed up via Facebook to attend.

Chronicle AM -- December 16, 2013

Uruguay's president defends marijuana legalization there and finds an ally, marijuana bills are popping up in some surprising countries, the Justice Department says we have a federal prison crisis, and much more. Let's get to it:

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has some harsh words for his critics and finds some support, too.
Marijuana Policy

Denver City Council Takes Up Decriminalization for 18-to-20-Year-Olds. The Denver city council will today vote on whether to decriminalize marijuana possession for people between the ages of 18 and 20. Councilman Albus Brooks, who is pushing the measure, said it would address an inequity in how offenses are currently prosecuted. Juveniles with small amounts are not arrested, but instead sent to a juvenile assessment center, and adults 21 and over who violate the city's pot laws face only small fines, but people over 17 but younger than 21 face up to a year in jail. Brooks' bill would treat the under-21s like those over 21.

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Debate in St. Louis Wednesday. Show-Me Cannabis Regulation executive director John Payne will debate Jason Grellner of the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association Wednesday night in St. Louis. Click on the link for details. Show-Me Cannabis Regulation is attempting to get a legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Public Hearing on New York Medical Marijuana Bill on Long Island Wednesday. The New York Assembly Health Committee will hold hearings on pending medical marijuana legislation Wednesday on Long Island. Click the link for time and place details.

Illinois Launches Medical Marijuana Information Website. Illinois state officials have launched a new website described as the "central location" for information on new medical marijuana laws that go into effect January 1. The public can learn about implementation updates, draft and final administrative rules, application forms, FAQ's, press releases and other materials related to medical cannabis on the site.

Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Dispensary Selection Committee Named. The Department of Public Health last Thursday named the members of a committee that will review 100 applicants for up to 35 dispensaries. Click on the link to see the complete list.

Drug Testing

Minnesota Welfare Drug Testing Law Could Be Costly. A new state law requiring welfare recipients with past felony drug convictions to submit to drug tests "could end up costing taxpayers far more than it saves" while burdening poor families with complex paperwork they could find it difficult to comply with, county officials and advocacy groups said. The law contains costly local mandates and complicated rules that apply only to a tiny fraction of state welfare recipients. Only 0.4% of Minnesota welfare recipients have felony drug convictions, compared to 1.2% among the adult population overall. "I don't think anyone is under the illusion that this is about saving taxpayers money," said Heidi Welsch, director of family support and assistance for Olmsted County. "This is punitive."

Defense Department Now Testing for Synthetic Marijuana. The Defense Department has begun testing for synthetic cannabinoids in its random drug testing program, the head of the program said Friday. "The message we're getting out now is that when you participate in our random urinalysis program, synthetic marijuana products or synthetic marijuana will now be tested along with our other drugs," Army Lt. Col. Tom Martin said. Fake weed had been showing up in 2.5% of drug tests in a random study conducted by the Army, he added.

Sentencing

Justice Department Identifies "Growing Crisis" in Federal Prison System as "Increasingly Critical Threat." An Office of the Inspector General report issued last week, Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice-2013, identified a number of challenges facing the department, but singled out "the growing crisis in the federal prison system" as an "increasingly critical threat" to the department's ability to fulfill its mission. The crisis is two-fold, the report says: escalating costs of running the prison system and rising security and safety issues due to chronic overcrowding. The department identified sentencing reform initiatives and the Smart on Crime initiative as responses, but noted that their impacts are still unclear.

Cornyn Introduces Federal Prison Reform Bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) last week introduced the Federal Prison Reform Act (Senate Bill 1783), which would allow nonviolent, low-risk offenders to complete work, education, skills training, or rehabilitation programs in order to earn up to half of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house. Cornyn is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill has been referred.

International

Uruguay's President Has Harsh Words for INCB Head. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica fought back this weekend after Raymond Yans, head of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) criticized Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana and said it had failed to consult with the board. "Tell that old man to stop lying," Mujica said in an interview with Uruguay's Canal 4. "Let him come to Uruguay and meet me whenever he wishes… Anybody can meet and talk to me, and whoever says he couldn't meet with me tells lies, blatant lies. Because he sits in a comfortable international platform, he believes he can say whatever nonsense," he added. Mujica noted the INCB's relative quiescence before the legalization of marijuana in two US states and accused him of having double standards. "Does he have different rules: one for Uruguay and other for the world's strong countries?"; he asked.

Guatemalan President Supports Uruguay Marijuana Legalization. At a Central American summit in Panama City Saturday, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called Uruguay's marijuana legalization "an important step" that could serve as "a pilot plan" in the regional war against drug trafficking. "I think the step Uruguay took is an important one and is a valuable experience," Pérez Molina said. "It could serve as a pilot plan for all of Latin America, and we hope it will be an experience that eventually all countries can adopt," he added.

Israeli Knesset Passes Medical Marijuana Bill. The Knesset Sunday approved an updated version of Israel's medical marijuana law that will centralize marijuana collection and increase the number of doctors allowed to prescribe it. Some medical marijuana growers and patients aren't happy with the centralization, saying that direct contact between patients and growers is important.

Slovenia Parliament Will Discuss Marijuana Legalization Bills. After a pro-legalization citizens' initiative succeeded in forcing parliament to take up the issue, the Slovenian parliament will hold formal hearings on three legalization bills. It's not clear when that will happen.

Sri Lanka Government Will Submit Medical Marijuana Bill. Sri Lanka's minister of indigenous medicine, Salinda Dissanayake, said Saturday he will submit a bill to parliament to allow marijuana to be used as medicine. The bill would amend the country's Ayurveda Act, which deals with traditional medicine. The same ministry had tried in 2008 to get permission to grow marijuana as medicine, but that didn't happen.

Jerry Brown Vetoes California "Defelonization" Bill [FEATURE]

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Saturday vetoed a bill that would have allowed prosecutors or judges to charge simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The bill would have made drug possession a "wobbler," meaning it could be charged either way, based on judicial or prosecutorial discretion.

overcrowded California prison (supremecourtus.gov)
Some 10,000 people are convicted of drug possession felonies each year in California, and experts estimated that, under the bill, 15% to 30% of them would have been charged instead with misdemeanors. The exact number is unknown because the bill would have left those decisions up to prosecutors and judges. But in any case, the bill would have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice system savings, which would have provided local governments with more flexibility to invest in drug treatment and mental health services and focus law enforcement resources on more serious offenses, along with lightening up on some of the people caught up in the criminal justice system.

The bill, Senate Bill 649, was sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and passed the legislature with bipartisan support, but was opposed by law enforcement and some prosecutors. Leno and supporters had argued that the bill would save the state money on incarceration and related costs.

The bill was premature, given that a broader criminal justice system reform is in the works, Brown said in a veto message. "We are going to examine in detail California's criminal justice system, including the sentencing structure," he said. "We will do so with the full participation of all the necessary parties, including law enforcement, local government, courts, and treatment providers. That would be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws."

Even after the state's vaunted prison realignment, California prisons remain overcrowded, and the more than 4,100 people currently imprisoned on simple drug possession charges only add to that burden. The cost of imprisoning them comes to $207 million a year.

Under current California law, which will now stay in place, simple possession of drugs such as cocaine, meth, and heroin is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Leno's bill left that maximum sentence in place, but would have given either judges or prosecutors the discretion to punish possession as a misdemeanor, with a year in jail as a maximum sentence. Similarly, under the Leno bill, judges or prosecutors could have diverted drug users to treatment or community programs in a bid to reduce recidivism.

Charging drug possessors with misdemeanors instead of felonies would also have created criminal justice system savings with each lower-level prosecution. That's because felony charges require a preliminary hearing, while misdemeanor charges do not.

But law enforcement groups, including the California State Sheriffs Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the California District Attorneys Association all opposed the bill, labeling it a threat to public safety. They argued that the bill would reduce incentives for drug possessors to voluntarily seek drug treatment because they would only face jail time, and the jails are so full -- thanks to prison realignment -- that people sentenced to jail time do only a tiny fraction of that time.

Brown could have let the bill become law without his signature, Leno noted in an interview with the Chronicle earlier this month, and pronounced himself "surprised" at the veto.

"It's quite surprising that the governor would veto a modest attempt at sentencing reform in light of our prison overcrowding crisis," Leno said Saturday.

Bill supporters, including the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance lambasted Brown's decision to veto the bill.

Jerry Brown
"By vetoing SB 649, Gov. Brown has thwarted the will of the voters and their elected representatives by rejecting a modest reform that would have helped end mass incarceration in this state," said Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California.

"California voters and the legislature recognize the urgent need to reevaluate our sentencing laws and enact smart reforms, especially for low level, non-violent drug crimes," Horiuchi continued. "Doing so will allow California to reduce its reliance on incarceration and free up limited resources for the sorts of community-based treatment, education and job training programs proven to reduce crime and create safe and healthy communities. Despite this, Gov. Brown remains inexplicably opposed to meaningful sentencing reform."

"The governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The vast majority of voters agree with the experts -- locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive."

Despite the opposition of the law enforcement establishment, California public opinion wants to see sentencing reform. A 2012 Tulchin poll found that 75% of Californians preferred prevention and treatment as an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders and 62% agreed that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be a misdemeanor.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have such laws, and an effort to pass similar legislation is gearing up in Washington state. But in Sacramento, Gov. Brown was listening to the cops instead of the people.

"Our system is broken," said DPA's Lyman. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities."

Sacramento, CA
United States

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

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