Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Elena Kagan and the Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

Obama's Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan once served as deputy director of President Clinton's Domestic Policy Council, where she served on a working group that argued for delaying critically important sentencing reforms:

The memos…show that Kagan served on a government working group that decided to dial back the Clinton administration’s efforts to decrease the disparity in sentencing between crimes involving crack and those involving powdered cocaine. A draft report from the group painted the decision as a grudging but realistic one based on a stalemate in Congress over the issue. "Our more nuanced message will not sell as well as the 'tough on crime' opposition message in an age of sound bites," the report read. [Politico]


What an ugly quote and a rare glimpse inside the twisted thought processes that have allowed our worst mistakes to endure for so many shameful years. It's just sickening to think that some of the drug war's most racist policies might have been fixed more than a decade ago if spineless advisors like Kagan hadn't put politics ahead of equal justice.

In purely political terms, they might have been right – sentencing reform took several more years to gain sufficient momentum – but do we want this sort of callous and calculating partisan operative deciding who is and is not protected under the U.S. Constitution?

Update: I edited the post to make it clear that Kagan was part of a group which made this recommendation, and wasn't solely responsible for it herself. A wise colleague pointed out to me that it's possible she didn't even agree with the position of the group. In the context of the Politico story, it's clear she made a lot of politically motivated decisions at that time, but I could be off-base in blaming her personally for recommending this position on the sentencing disparity.

Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

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sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

Congress: Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), S. 1789, would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1.

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Senate disappoints
Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in.

Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee.

A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version.

Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.

Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."

But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said.

"We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight."

"Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789 would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1. Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in. Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee. A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version. Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said. Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community." But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said. "We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight." "Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we’ve moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Senate Judiciary Committee Unanimously Passes Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would reduce -- but not eliminate -- the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under the bill introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789, the disparity would have been completely eliminated, but the committee instead approved an amended version that reduces the ratio between crack and powder cocaine quantities from 100:1 to 20:1.

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US Capitol, Senate side
Under current federal law, it takes only five grams of crack to garner a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same prison time. Under the Senate bill, an ounce of crack will get you a five-year prison sentence while it would take more than a pound of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. But even retaining the 20:1 disparity, advocates estimate that some 3,100 cases would be affected each year, with sentences reduced by an average of 30 months.

The amended bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine possession. But it also directs the US Sentencing Commission to increase sentences for aggravating factors such as violence or bribery of a police officer.

"This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing," said Julie Stewart, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "We hoped the committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder. There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1. However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year."

Stewart also noted with approval the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentence for simple crack possession. "If enacted, this legislation would repeal a mandatory minimum law for the first time since the Nixon administration," she said.

Stewart's sentiments were echoed by spokespersons for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which, like FAMM, has been lobbying on the Hill for years to undo the draconian and racially disparate impact of the federal crack laws. Although African-Americans make up only 30% of crack consumers, they account for 82% of all federal crack prosecution. Nearly two-thirds of all those convicted under the crack laws were low-level dealers or other minimally involved players.

"Today is a bittersweet day," said DPA's Jasmine Tyler. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate Judiciary Committee, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 20:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

"It's pretty amazing when you think about everything the Republicans and Democrats are fighting over -- health care, budgets, all that -- this is the one thing they can all come together on," said DPA national affairs director Bill Piper, noting the unanimous committee vote.

A similar bill passed the House Judiciary Committee during this same session of Congress last July. Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), HR 3245 completely eliminates the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses by simply removing all references to crack cocaine from the federal statute.

Now it is up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to get the respective measures to a floor vote. Advocates are urging the White House to support the House bill.

"We're urging people to be very clear to the House, the Senate, and the president that the disparity should be completely eliminated and not just reduced," said DPA's Piper. "The House bill is the one that should ultimately be voted out of Congress. Our challenge is to get the full 1:1 bill approved, not the 20:1. That said, even 20:1 is a step in the right direction," he added, noting the glacial, multi-stage pace of Rockefeller drug law reform in New York state.

"While Democrats and Republicans bicker over healthcare, unemployment, education and other issues, it’s good to see that they unanimously agree that US drug laws are too harsh and need to be reformed," said DPA's Tyler. "While many will benefit from this change, more needs to be done. The disparity must be completely eliminated, and President Obama and Speaker Pelosi will have to stand up firmly on the issue to make that a reality."

Now it is a matter of political will in the White House and among the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate, said Piper. "It is totally up to the House and Senate leadership to decide when and what they will take to the floor, but we have to do it this year, or everything dies, and we have to start over again next year."

The first significant rollback of a federal drug sentencing law in decades is drawing tantalizingly near after almost a quarter-century of hysteria-driven federal crack laws. Will the congressional Democrats have the gumption to push either the House bill or the Senate bill to a floor vote? Stay tuned.

Press Release: Senate Judiciary Votes to Reform Federal Crack Law

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE     
Date:  March 11, 2010                                       
Contact: media@famm.org              
 

BREAKING NEWS:
Senate Judiciary Votes to Reform Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing Policies
Eliminates first mandatory minimum since Nixon Administration

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Moments ago, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would reduce the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The bipartisan vote to approve an amended version of Senator Richard Durbin’s (D-Ill.) bill, S. 1789, acknowledged that disparate sentencing policies enacted for federal crack cocaine offenses in 1986 have had a negative impact on the nation’s criminal justice system. 

The amended bill would reduce the ratio between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 20:1 and direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to enhance penalties for aggravating factors like violence or bribery of a law enforcement officer.  Significantly, the bill also would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack.

“This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing.  We hoped the Committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder.  There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1 ,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year.

With regard to the bill’s provision that would eliminate the mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack, Ms. Stewart stated, “If enacted, this legislation would repeal a mandatory minimum law for the first time since the Nixon administration.”

Under the Senate’s proposed 20:1 ratio, a conviction for 28 grams of crack cocaine will trigger a five year prison sentence and for 280 grams of crack a 10 year sentence.   The 20:1 ratio could affect an estimated 3,100 cases annually, reducing sentences by an average of about 30 months.  The bill would not, however, reduce sentences for those currently incarcerated for crack offenses.  Impact of the amendment’s other provisions has not yet been calculated. 

The House Judiciary Committee passed its own crack cocaine sentencing reform bill on July 29.  H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009, introduced by Congressman Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-V.A.), removes references to “cocaine base” from the U.S. Code, thus treating all cocaine, including crack, the same for sentencing purposes.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety.  For more information on FAMM, visit www.famm.org or contact Monica Pratt Raffanel at media@famm.org

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Feature: Obama Seeks Increase in Drug War Spending in a Drug Budget on Autopilot

The Obama administration released its Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal this week, including the federal drug control budget. On the drug budget, the Obama administration is generally following the same course as the Bush administration and appears to be flying on autopilot.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), the administration is requesting $15.5 billion for drug control, an increase of 3.5% over the current budget. Drug law enforcement funding would grow from $9.7 billion this year to $9.9 billion in 2011, an increase of 5.2%. Demand side measures, such as prevention and treatment, also increased from $5.2 billion this year to $5.6 billion next year.

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The $15.5 billion dollar drug budget actually undercounts the real cost of the federal drug war by failing to include some significant drug policy-driven costs. For instance, operations for the federal Bureau of Prisons are budgeted at $8.3 billion for 2011. With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses, the real cost of current drug policies should increase by at least $4 billion, but only $79 million of the prisons budget is counted as part of the national drug strategy budget.

The Obama drug budget largely maintains the roughly two-to-one imbalance between spending on treatment and prevention and spending on law enforcement. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske called the imbalanced budget "balanced."

Highlights and lowlights:

  • Funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration prevention programs (SAMHSA) is set at $254.2 million, up $29.6 million from this year, while funding for SAMHSA treatment programs is set at $635.4 million, up $101.2 million from this year.
  • Funding for ONDCP's Drug Free Communities program is set at $85.5 million, down $9.5 million from this year.
  • Funding for the widely challenged National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is set at $66.5 million, an increase of more than 50% over this year.
  • The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring II program (ADAM) is funded at $10 million. It got no money this year.
  • Funding for the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment program is set at $1.799 billion, the same as this year.
  • Funding for the Second Chance Act for reintegrating people completing prison sentences is set at $50 million, a whopping 66% increase over this year.
  • Funding for the Justice Department's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force is set at $579.3 million, up $50.8 million over this year.
  • Funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program is set at $210 million, down $29 million from this year.
  • Funding for the Defense Department's counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan is set at $501.5 billion, up about one-third over this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in West Africa is set at $13.2 million, up $10 million from this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in Colombia is set at $178.6 million, down $26.6 million from this year.
  • Funding for the DEA is set at $2.131 billion, up 5.5% over this year. That pays for 8,399 employees, 4,146 of whom are DEA agents.
  • Funding for the Office of Justice Programs' Byrne grant program, Southwest Border Prosecutor Initiative, Northern Border Prosecutor Initiative, and Prescription Drug Monitoring program has been eliminated.

"The new budget proposal demonstrates the Obama administrations' commitment to a balanced and comprehensive drug strategy," said Kerlikowske. "In a time of tight budgets and fiscal restraint, these new investments are targeted at reducing Americans' drug use and the substantial costs associated with the health and social consequences of drug abuse."

Drug reformers tended to disagree with Kerlikowske's take on the budget. "This is certainly not change we can believe in," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's extremely similar to the Bush administration drug budgets, especially in terms of supply side versus demand side. In that respect, it's extremely disappointing. There's nothing innovative there."

"This budget reflects the same Bush-era priorities that led to the total failure of American drug policy during the last decade," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "One of the worst examples is $66 million requested for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign when every independent study has called it a failure. The president is throwing good money after bad when what we really need is a new direction."

Houston also took umbrage with the accounting legerdemain that continues to allow ONDCP to understate the real cost of federal drug policies. "It's disconcerting to see the Obama administration employ the same tactics in counting the drug budget that the Bush administration did," said Houston. "Congress told ONDCP in 2006 to stop excluding certain items from the budget, and we had a Democratic committee chairman excoriate John Walters over his cooking of the books, but it doesn't appear they've done anything to stop that. Maybe they have to cook the books to make this look like a successful program."

But reformers also noted that some good drug policy news had already come out of the Obama administration. They also suggested that the real test of Obama's direction in drug policy would come in March, when Kerlikowske releases the annual national drug control strategy.

"I'm a little disappointed," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "but I think there is a significant difference in the environment from the Bush years. Maybe not in this budget, but things like issuing those Department of Justice regulations on medical marijuana have made a major difference."

"They are unwilling or unable to change the drug war budget, but the true measure of their commitment to a shift in drug policy will be the national drug control strategy that comes out in a few weeks," said Piper. "The question is will their drug strategy look like Bush's and like their drug budget does, or will they articulate a new approach to drug policy more in line with the president's comments on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one."

The Obama administration's decision to not interfere with medical marijuana in the states was one example of a paradigm shift, said Piper. So was its support for repealing the federal needle exchange funding ban and ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

"In a lot of ways, the budget trimming that comes out of the White House is a fraud because they know Congress won't make those cuts," said Piper. "I wonder if that's the game Obama is playing with the Byrne grants. That's the kind of thing they can articulate in the drug strategy if they wanted to. They should at least talk about the need to shift from the supply side to the demand side approach. They could even admit that this year's budget does not reflect that, but still call for it."

This is only the administration's budget request, of course. What it will look like by the time Congress gets through with it is anybody's guess. But it strongly suggests that, so far, there's not that much new under the sun in the Obama White House when it comes to the drug budget.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Alert: Tell Congress to Repeal Unjust Crack Cocaine Sentences

One of the most glaring injustices in US drug policy is the infamous crack/powder sentencing disparity, in which possession of a mere five grams of crack cocaine draws a five-year mandatory minimum sentence under federal law. It takes 100 times as much powder cocaine, 500 grams, to get the same sentence. The law has been applied in a racially disparate fashion since it was enacted 23 years ago, but reform efforts have mostly stalled.

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Until this year, that is. Last July the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives approved H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. In October, a similar bill was introduced in the Senate, S. 1789.

Please call your US Representative and your two US Senators to urge their strongest possible support for the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act. The number for the Capitol Switchboard and your legislators is (202) 224-3121, or click here to look them up online. Whether you call today or not, please use our online form at this web page to email your Rep. and Senators too.

Visit the Crack the Disparity Coalition for further information about this issue and campaign. Following are some talking points from the Coalition to help with your call or to learn more:

Please support and cosponsor H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. This legislation will:

  • Restore federal law enforcement priorities. When Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988, the intended targets of mandatory minimums were "serious" and "major" traffickers. In practice, the law failed to live up to its promise. Mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses have been applied most often to individuals who are low-level participants in the drug trade, who comprise more than 60% of federal crack defendants.
  • Save federal tax dollars and ease prison overcrowding. The Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates it costs $25,895 a year to house each prisoner. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, eliminating the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine would reduce the prison population by over 13,000 in 10 years.
  • Counter the perception of unfairness in the criminal justice system. African Americans account for 81.8% of defendants sentenced to federal prison for crack cocaine offenses. Crack cocaine sentences average 37 months longer than sentences for powder cocaine. This disparity has contributed to a damaging perception of race-based unfairness in our criminal justice system.
  • Treat two forms of the same drug the same. Crack cocaine is pharmacologically the same as powder cocaine. Myths about crack cocaine, that have been dispelled since the sentencing law was passed 23 years ago, contributed to these out of proportion penalties.

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Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School