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New Daily Roundups from Drug War Chronicle

If you've been following Drug War Chronicle on our web site the past week, you have probably noticed a new, daily feature, "Chronicle AM." The AM is a roundup of stories that have hit the news wires. As Phil noted in his award speech two weeks ago, there is too much happening now to be able to give it all even medium-level coverage, much less to do so quickly. Chronicle AM is a way to survey a lot of the important stories each day, and we continue to publish our usual features and newsbriefs on a daily basis too. The following are the stories we noted in Chronicle AM installments during the past week.

Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Bill Dies in Committee. House Bill 492, which would have taxed and regulated marijuana like alcohol was defeated in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday on an 11-7 vote. The action came just a week after a state poll showed 60% supported the bill.

Federal Judge Cuts Marijuana Sentences. Maryland US District Court Judge James Bredar Monday handed down sentences lighter than called for in federal guidelines in a major marijuana smuggling case, saying such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago. Bredar also noted that the federal government's decision to largely leave marijuana sales in legalization states raised "equal justice" concerns.

Amendments Filed to California Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Americans for Policy Reform, the people behind the 2014 Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act initiative, Wednesday filed amendments to the proposed law. They include strengthening some penalties and clarifying medical marijuana patient ID card requirements. This is one of two initiatives aiming at 2014 in California, neither of which have big donor support.

Portland, Maine, Marijuana Legalization Initiative Draws Late Opposition. Small signs urging Portlanders to "Vote No on Question 1, NO to POTland" have begun popping up just days before the city votes on legalization next week. Who put them up is a mystery; no group has filed paperwork at city hall opposing the initiative. The initiative would not legalize marijuana per se, but would allow people 21 and over to "engage in activities for the purposes of ascertaining the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia."

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel Tuesday rejected the ballot title for a proposed legalization initiative, saying the language was ambiguous. This is the second time he has rejected the measure, which can still be rewritten and resubmitted.

Colorado to Vote Tuesday on Marijuana Tax. Colorado voters will decide Tuesday whether to impose a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales to pay for school construction and a 10% sales tax to pay for marijuana regulation. The tax vote wasn't included in Amendment 64 because state law requires any new taxes to be approved by the voters. The measure is expected to pass despite opposition from some marijuana activists.

No Pot in Washington Bars, State Regulators Say. The Washington State Liquor Control Board Wednesday filed a draft rule banning any business with a liquor license from allowing on-site marijuana use. The state's pot law already bars public use, including in bars, clubs, and restaurants, but some businesses have tried to find loopholes allowing customers to use on premise, such as by having "private clubs" within the establishment.

DC Marijuana Reform Moves Could Spur Congress to Ponder Legalization. The DC city council appears set to approve decriminalization, and DC marijuana activists are pondering a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. That could set the stage for Congress to finally turn its sights on federal marijuana legalization, Bloomberg News suggested in this think piece.

One-Fourth of Americans Would Buy Legal Weed, Poll Finds. At least one out of four Americans (26%) said they would buy marijuana at least on "rare occasions" if it were legal, according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Thursday. Only 9% said they buy it on rare occasions now. One out of six (16%) of respondents said they never buy it now, but might if it were legal.

Dispensaries like this one could become marijuana retail stores in Colorado.
Let A Hundred Pot Shops Bloom… in Colorado. The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division reported late last week that it has received applications from 136 people seeking to open adult use marijuana retail stores. By law, only people currently operating medical marijuana businesses could apply. Those who applied by the end of October will have decisions on their applications before year's end, meaning they could open on January 1, the earliest date adult marijuana sales will be allowed in the state.

NYC Subway Vigilante Bernie Goetz Busted in Penny Ante Marijuana Sting. The New York City man who became a national figure after shooting four teens who asked him for money on the subway back in 1984 was arrested last Friday over a $30 marijuana sale. Bernie Goetz is accused of selling the miniscule amount of marijuana to an undercover officer.

Colorado Voters Approve Marijuana Taxes. Colorado voters approved a taxation scheme that will add 25% in wholesale and retail taxes to the price of legally sold marijuana in the state. Proposition AA was winning with 64% of the vote at last report.

Three Michigan Cities Approve Marijuana Measures. Voters in the Michigan cities of Lansing, Jackson, and Ferndale handily approved local measures to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and over. The measures passed with 69% of the vote in Ferndale, 63% in Lansing, and 61% in Jackson. The trio of towns now join other Michigan cities, including Grand Rapids and Detroit, that have municipally decriminalized pot possession.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Lawmakers Oppose Medical Marijuana Initiative. Florida House and Senate leaders said late last week that they will join Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) in asking the state Supreme Court to block a medical marijuana initiative from going to the ballot. "We certainly don't want a situation like they've got in Colorado," explained state Rep. Doug Holder (R-Venice). Petitioners have gathered only about 200,000 of the more than 600,000 signatures they need to make the ballot. They have until February, unless the state Supreme Court puts the kibosh on the effort.

Florida Governor Candidate Supports Medical Marijuana Initiative. Candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Nan Rich said last Friday she supports a proposed medical marijuana ballot initiative. "I've seen the research, I've studied the issue, and I've met with patients who clearly benefit and desperately need medically prescribed cannabis," Rich said in a statement. "That's why I'm signing the petition to get this important measure on the ballot in 2014 and I'm calling on all of my friends and supporters to do the same. There is simply no reason patients should suffer when an effective, safe, and organic remedy is readily available."

Washington State Regulators to Hold Hearing on Controversial Medical Marijuana Plans. The Washington state Liquor Control Board announced last Friday it will hold a hearing November 13 in Lacey to take public testimony on proposed changes to the state's medical marijuana system. Regulators have issued draft recommendations that would reduce the amount of medical marijuana patients could possess and end their ability to grow their own, among other things.

Search and Seizure

Federal Appeals Court Blocks Judge's Ruling on NYPD Stop-and-Frisk. The 2nd US Court of Appeals in New York City blocked an order by District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin requiring changes in the NYPD's much criticized stop-and-frisk program. In an unusual move, the appeals court also removed Judge Scheindlin from the case, saying she had violated the code of conduct for federal judges by giving media interviews and publicly responding to criticism of her court. Scheindlin had found that NYPD violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by subjecting them to stop-and-frisk searches based on their race.

New Mexico Man Sues over Forced Anal Drug Search. A Deming, New Mexico, man detained for running a stop sign allegedly had his buttocks clenched when ordered out of his vehicle by police, leading them to suspect he had drugs secreted in his rectum. Police obtained a search warrant from a compliant judge, then had medical personnel forcibly subject the man to repeated anal probes, enemas, and a colonoscopy in a futile attempt to find any drugs. In addition to the unreasonableness of the invasive searches, they also took place outside of the jurisdiction where the warrant was issued and after the timeline specified in the warrant. The victim, David Eckert, ought to be picking up a nice check one of these years.

Second New Mexico Anal Drug Search Victim Emerges. Yesterday, the Chronicle AM noted the case of Deming, New Mexico, resident David Eckert, who was subjected to anal probes, enemas, x-rays, and colonoscopies without his consent after being pulled over for running a stop sign. The cops suspected he had drugs. He didn't and is now suing the police, the county, and the medical personnel who participated. Now, a second victim has emerged. Timothy Young was stopped for failure to use a turn signal. As was the case with Eckert, a drug dog -- Leo the K-9 -- alerted, but as was the case with Eckert, no drugs were found, despite the extensive invasive searches. Turns out the drug dog has not been certified for more than two years and has a history of false alerts, and the hospital where the searches were conducted was not within the jurisdiction of the search warrant. It looks like another New Mexico resident will get a big check at the taxpayers' expense one of these days.

Drug Testing

Truckers Object to Federal Bill to Allow Hair Drug Tests. A bill pending in Congress, House Resolution 3403, the "Drug Free Commercial Driver Act of 2013," is drawing opposition from an independent trucker group, the association's organ Landline Magazine reports. The bill would allow trucking companies to use hair testing for pre-employment and random drug tests. Currently, federal regulations mandate urine testing and allow hair testing only in conjunction with urine tests, not as a replacement. Hair-based testing can reveal drug use weeks or months prior to the testing date. The independent truckers accuse bill sponsors of carrying water for larger trucking firms that want to undercut their competition.

Michigan Governor Signs Unemployment Drug Testing Law. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) Tuesday signed a bill that denies unemployment benefits to job seekers who fail employer drug tests. The law is in effect for one year as a pilot program.

Drug Testing Provision Stripped from New Hampshire Hep C Bill. A bill written in the wake of an outbreak of Hep C infections linked to an Exeter Hospital employee will not include random drug testing for health care employees. The bill, House Bill 597, originally contained such language, but it was stripped out in the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee. Federal courts have held that drug tests constitute a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus require probable cause, except in limited circumstances.

Psychedelics

New Group Formed to Assure Sustainability of Psychedelic Plants. The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council was launched at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last weekend. It will concentrate on "assuring the sustainability and safe use of traditional plants," and prominently mentioned ayahuasca in its formation announcement.

Sentencing Reform

Bipartisan Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill Introduced in US House. On Wednesday, Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would significantly reform mandatory minimum drug sentencing policies. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 1410, was introduced in July. The bills would halve mandatory minimum sentence lengths and expand safety valve access, as well as extend retroactivity under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Study Shows Way to Louisiana Sentencing Reform. A study released Tuesday by the Reason Foundation, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation details how Louisiana can reduce its prison population and corrections spending without lessening public safety by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and reforming its habitual offender law. The study, "Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: Reforming Louisiana's Determinate Sentencing Laws," is available online here.

International

At Least Five Dead in Mexico Vigilante vs. Cartel Clashes. Attacks in the Western Mexican state of Michoacan, home of the Knights Templar cartel, between anti-cartel vigilantes and cartel members left at least five dead and thousands without electric power last weekend. The fighting erupted after anti-cartel "self defense forces" marched Friday in the Knights Templar stronghold of Apatzingan and accelerated over the weekend. Vigilantes said they saw the bodies of at least 12 cartel members.

UNODC Head Says Afghan Opium Crop is Thriving, Spreading. In remarks in advance of the release of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's annual Afghan opium survey early in November, UNODC head Yury Fedotov warned that the poppy crop will increase for the third straight year and that cultivation had spread into formerly poppy-free areas under central government control. Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of the global illicit opium supply.

New Zealand to Host International Conference on Drug Reform Laws. The country has drawn international attention for its innovative approach to new synthetic drugs -- regulating instead of prohibiting them -- and will be the site of a March 20, 2014 "Pathway to Reform" conference explaining how the domestic synthetic drug industry began, how the regulatory approach was chosen and how it works. International attendees will include Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann and Amanda Fielding, of Britain's Beckley Foundation.

Canada SSDP to Hold National Conference in Vancouver. Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) will hold its sixth annual conference on November 22-24 in Vancouver, BC. Featured speakers will include Donald McPherson, head of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition; Dana Larsen, director of Sensible BC and the Vancouver Dispensary Society; and Missi Woolrdige, director of DanceSafe, among others.

Hong Kong Docs Criticize Government Drug Testing Plan. The Hong Kong Medical Association said Monday that a government plan to allow police to test anyone for drug use based on "reasonable suspicion" is flawed and violates basic human rights. The local government began a four-month consultation on the plan in September, and now the doctors have weighed in. The association said that drug testing was an unproven method of reducing drug use and resources should instead be devoted to prevention and education campaigns and cooperation with mainland police against drug trafficking.

India to Greatly Expand Opiate Maintenence Centers. Responding to an increase in the number of injection drug users, the Indian government is moving to expand the number of its Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST) centers six-fold, from a current 52 to 300 by the end of the year. Drug user groups, including the Indian Drug Users Forum, and harm reduction groups, such as Project Orchid have been involved in planning the expansion. It's not clear what drug the Indians are using in OST.

Ireland Parliament to Debate Marijuana Legalization This Week. A private motion by independent Dail, or Irish parliament, member Luke "Ming" Flanagan will be debated on Tuesday and Wednesday. Flanagan's bill would make it legal to possess, grow, and sell marijuana products.

Cartel Violence Flares in Mexican Border Town. Sunday shootouts between rival drug trafficking organizations and between traffickers and soldiers left at least 13 people dead in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande River from Brownville, Texas. Four men and a woman were killed in clashes between rival gangs, and eight more died in fighting with Mexican Marines. Somewhere north of 75,000 people have been killed in violence since former President Felipe Calderon called out the armed forces to wage war on the cartels six and a half years ago. Meanwhile, the drugs continue to flow north and the guns and cash flow south.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (wikipedia.org)
Toronto Mayor Admits He Smoked Crack, But Says He's Not an Addict. Months after rumors of a video showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine emerged, but only days after Toronto police said they had a copy of that video, Ford told reporters Tuesday that he had indeed smoked crack, but that he did so "in a drunken stupor" and that he wasn't an addict. Time will tell if his political career survives the revelation.

Marijuana Legalization Debate Looms in Morocco. Moroccan activists and politicians are close to firming up a date later this month for the parliament to hear a seminar on the economic implications of legalization hosted by the powerful Party of Authenticity and Modernity. Morocco is one of the world's largest marijuana producers, with output estimated at 40,000 tons a year, most of which is transformed into hashish and destined for European markets.

Czech Police in Mass Raid on Grow Shops. Although the Czech Republic has a reputation as a pot-friendly destination, recreational marijuana use remains illegal. Czech police served up a reminder of that reality Tuesday, raiding dozens of stores that sell growers' supplies. Police seized fertilizer, grow lights, and marijuana growing guidebooks and said they suspected store owners of violating drug laws by providing people with all the equipment they needed to grow their own. There was no mention made of any arrests.

New Zealand Court Says Employer Can't Force Workers to Undergo Drug Tests. New Zealand's Employment Court has ruled that companies cannot impose random drug tests on workers, nor discipline them for refusing such a test. Mighty River Power Company had a collective bargaining agreement with workers, which allowed testing only under specified circumstances, but initiated random drug tests later. If the company wants random drug test, the court said, it would need to negotiate a new provision in the collective bargaining agreement.

Mexican Military Takes over Key Pacific Seaport in Bid to Fight Cartels. The Mexican military has moved into the major port of Lazaro Cardenas and the adjoining town of the same name in the violence-plagued state of Michoacan. Soldiers are now responsible for policing duties, and all 113 police officers in Lazaro Cardenas have been sidelined until they undergo drug testing and police training. The port of Lazaro Cardenas is the main entrepot for precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, which is produced in the state by the Knights Templar cartel. The Knights are also engaged in ongoing fighting with vigilante "self-defense" forces in the state.

(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.)

Chronicle Daily News--October 31, 2013

Here's our first try at altering our format to continue to bring you comprehensive coverage of what's going on in the war on drugs and the world of drug reform. Look for this or something similar on a daily basis from now on. Let's get to it:

Marijuana

New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Bill Dies in Committee. House Bill 492, which would have taxed and regulated marijuana like alcohol was defeated in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday on an 11-7 vote. The action came just a week after a state poll showed 60% supported the bill.

Federal Judge Cuts Marijuana Sentences. Maryland US District Court Judge James Bredar Monday handed down sentences lighter than called for in federal guidelines in a major marijuana smuggling case, saying such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago. Bredar also noted that the federal government's decision to largely leave marijuana sales in legalization states raised "equal justice" concerns.

Amendments Filed to California Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Americans for Policy Reform, the people behind the 2014 Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act initiative, Wednesday filed amendments to the proposed law. They include strengthening some penalties and clarifying medical marijuana patient ID card requirements. This is one of two initiatives aiming at 2014 in California, neither of which have big donor support.

Portland, Maine, Marijuana Legalization Initiative Draws Late Opposition. Small signs urging Portlanders to "Vote No on Question 1, NO to POTland" have begun popping up just days before the city votes on legalization next week. Who put them up is a mystery; no group has filed paperwork at city hall opposing the initiative. The initiative would not legalize marijuana per se, but would allow people 21 and over to "engage in activities for the purposes of ascertaining the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia."

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel Tuesday rejected the ballot title for a proposed legalization initiative, saying the language was ambiguous. This is the second time he has rejected the measure, which can still be rewritten and resubmitted.  

Drug Testing

Michigan Governor Signs Unemployment Drug Testing Law. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) Tuesday signed a bill that denies unemployment benefits to job seekers who fail employer drug tests. The law is in effect for one year as a pilot program.

Psychedelics

New Group Formed to Assure Sustainability of Psychedelic Plants. The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council was launched at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last weekend. It will concentrate on "assuring the sustainability and safe use of traditional plants," and prominently mentioned ayahuasca in its formation announcement.

Sentencing Reform

Bipartisan Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill Introduced in US House. On Wednesday, Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would significantly reform mandatory minimum drug sentencing policies. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 1410, was introduced in July. The bills would halve mandatory minimum sentence lengths and expand safety valve access, as well as extend retroactivity under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Study Shows Way to Louisiana Sentencing Reform. A study released Tuesday by the Reason Foundation, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation details how Louisiana can reduce its prison population and corrections spending without lessening public safety by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and reforming its habitual offender law. The study, "Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: Reforming Louisiana's Determinate Sentencing Laws," is available online here and here.

International

At Least Five Dead in Mexico Vigilante vs. Cartel Clashes. Attacks in the Western Mexican state of Michoacan, home of the Knights Templar cartel, between anti-cartel vigilantes and cartel members left at least five dead and thousands without electric power last weekend. The fighting erupted after anti-cartel "self defense forces" marched Friday in the Knights Templar stronghold of Apatzingan and accelerated over the weekend. Vigilantes said they saw the bodies of at least 12 cartel members. 

UNODC Head Says Afghan Opium Crop is Thriving, Spreading. In remarks in advance of the release of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's annual Afghan opium survey early in November, UNODC head Yury Fedotov warned that the poppy crop will increase for the third straight year and that cultivation had spread into formerly poppy-free areas under central government control. Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of the global illicit opium supply.

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

Federal Sentencing Break to Include "Pipeline" Cases

In a speech Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was expanding the Justice Department's recently announced policy of not pursuing mandatory minimum drug sentencing to include people whose cases are already in the "pipeline."

Last month, Holder unveiled a major step toward reducing the federal prison population. He said he would direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Now, he is going to include people who have been charged with such offenses, but whose cases have not yet been completed and who have not yet reported to prison, he said.

"I am pleased to announce today that the Department has issued new guidance to apply our updated charging policy not only to new matters, but also to pending cases where the defendant was charged before the policy was issued but is still awaiting adjudication of guilt," Holder said.

"By reserving the most severe prison terms for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers or kingpins, we can better enhance public safety," he told the audience at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Criminal Justice Issues Forum in Washington. "We can increase our focus on proven strategies for deterrence and rehabilitation. And we can do so while making our expenditures smarter and more productive."

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, as of last month, there were some 89,000 people doing federal time for drug offenses. They are by far the largest category of federal prisoners and account for nearly half (46.8%) of all federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

Another Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing...

US Capitol, Senate side
From http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=d3ddc8eaa9b9f780d5af0a554e5fcf98:

September 11, 2013

NOTICE OF COMMITTEE HEARING

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary has scheduled a hearing entitled "Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences" for Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

By order of the Chairman.

Witness List

Hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary

On

"Reevaluating the Effectiveness of Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 226
10:00 a.m.

Panel I

The Honorable Rand Paul
United States Senator
State of Kentucky

Panel II

The Honorable Brett Tolman
Shareholder
Ray Quinney & Nebeker
Salt Lake City, UT

Marc Levin
Policy Director
Right on Crime Initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Austin, TX

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

As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing. He said he will direct US Attorneys that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not tied to gangs or major trafficking organizations should not be charged in ways that trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Eric Holder (usjoj.gov)
Holder's announcement is only the latest indicator that -- after decades of "tough on crime" politics in Washington -- pressure is mounting to do something about the huge number of people in federal prisons. The Chronicle will be reporting on the rising calls for reform in both the executive branch and the Congress later this week.

In a major speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco Monday morning, Holder laid out Obama administration sentencing reform plans, some of which can be implemented by executive action, but some of which will require action in the Congress. The comprehensive sentencing reform package is designed to reduce the federal prison population not only through sentencing reforms, but also through alternatives to incarceration in the first place.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said. "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.

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.

"It's time -- in fact, it's well past time -- to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach," Holder told the assembled attorneys. "While I have the utmost faith in -- and dedication to -- America's legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time -- and our duty -- to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans."

One of those areas, Holder said, is mandatory minimum sentencing.

"We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences -- regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case -- reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries," said the former federal prosecutor. "Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They -- and some of the enforcement priorities we have set -- have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive."

In addition to reducing the resort to mandatory minimum sentencing and directing prosecutors to use their discretion in charging decisions, Holder will also order the Justice Department to expand the federal prison compassionate release program to include "elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences."

Beside the executive branch actions, Holder also committed the Obama administration to supporting sentencing reform legislation currently pending before Congress, specifically the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619), which would give federal judges the ability to sentence below mandatory minimums when circumstances warrant, and the the Smart Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug crimes, slightly expand the existing drug sentencing safety valve, and apply retroactively the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010's reduction in the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

"Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars," Holder said. "Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."

Sentencing and drug reform advocates welcomed Holder's speech and the Obama administration's embrace of the need for criminal justice reforms, but also scolded the administration and lawmakers for taking so long to address the issue and for timidity in the changes proposed.

"For the past 40 years, the Department of Justice, under both political parties, has promoted mandatory minimum sentencing like a one-way ratchet. Federal prison sentences got longer and longer and no one stopped to consider the costs and benefits," said Julie Stewart, founder and head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today, at long last, the politics of criminal sentencing have caught up to the evidence. The changes proposed by the Attorney General are modest but they will make us safer and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process."

"There's no good reason, of course, why the Obama administration couldn't have done something like this during his first term -- and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Americans have suffered unjustly as a result of their delay," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann in a message to supporters. "But that said, President Obama and Attorney General Holder deserve credit for stepping out now, and for doing so in a fairly decisive way."

[See our related story this issue, "Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform?"]

San Francisco, CA
United States

Juries Must Find Facts on Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court Monday dealt a blow to mandatory minimum sentencing, ruling that any facts used to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence are "elements" of the crime and must be proven by a jury, not left to a judge. The 5-4 ruling came in Alleyne v. United States.

Until Monday's ruling, judges had been able to find certain facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences, such as quantities of drugs involved in an offense, based on a "preponderance of evidence" in post-conviction sentencing hearings. Now, those facts will have to established by juries in the course of the trial using the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case is the latest in a line of cases that began with the groundbreaking 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that any fact that increases the range of punishments is an "element" of the crime and must be presented to a jury and proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Sentencing reform advocates were pleased by the ruling.

"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

"No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered -- or worse, considered and rejected -- by a jury," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "As Justice Thomas noted in Monday's opinion, 'mandatory minimums heighten the loss of liberty.' Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs."

Drug offenders are those most likely to be hit with mandatory minimum sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Iowa Federal Judge Criticizes Harsh Methamphetamine Sentences

A Sioux City-based US district court judge has criticized harsh tough methamphetamine sentencing guidelines, writing in a recent opinion that he considers them "fundamentally flawed," not based on empirical evidence, and too harsh for low-level offenders.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-mark-bennett.jpg
Judge Mark Bennett (iand.uscourts.gov)
US District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa cut the sentence of a convicted Sioux City methamphetamine dealer from nearly 16 years to just more than six years, saying in his 44-page ruling that he has a "fundamental policy disagreement" with the meth portion of the federal sentencing guidelines.

"The methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed because they fail to consider additional factors beyond quantity," Bennett wrote in his Friday ruling in US v. Willie Hayes. "The system is too severe in the indiscriminate way it treats offenders… Since the methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed, I find that they fail to promote the purposes of sentencing" outlined in federal law.

Bennett has been a long-time critic of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and in his ruling, he argued that meth sentencing guidelines seemed more based on politics than science and lacked the depth of other portions of the guidelines. Meth dealers are getting much harsher sentences than people convicted of selling heroin or cocaine, he noted.

Iowa defense attorneys consulted by the Des Moines Register said Bennett's ruling was "a very big deal."

"It is a very big deal, and it's also something that's been coming for awhile," said Des Moines defense attorney Angela Campbell. "And he's right. The guidelines are so high, you can have a runner or a very low-level pseudoephedrine (purchaser) who gets life very easily… If you're buying pseudoephedrine for a large-scale drug operation, you don't get hit just on what you buy, you’re responsible for the same thing as the entire conspiracy."

"He's not a lone voice in the wilderness," said Iowa defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown, who added that defense lawyers need to cite Bennett's opinion in meth cases. "It's an argument that defense lawyers in both the Northern and Southern districts of Iowa need to make," Brown said. "It's malpractice not to."

At least two other federal judges, Joseph Bataillon in Nebraska and John Gleeson in New York have issued similar criticisms of meth guidelines. Bennett's ruling drew on their reasoning.

Bennett, for his part, said reducing meth guideline sentences by a third was "a good starting point and a reasonable way to express my policy disagreement." But, he added, he "will reserve the ability to adjust the figure upwards and downwards as I weigh" other "important factors the guidelines do not contemplate."

Prosecutors could appeal Bennett's ruling in the Yates case. If they do, that could open the door to a decision by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in turn could open the door to a US Supreme Court review of sentencing procedure in the world of now-advisory guidelines, or even of the fairness of meth sentences.

Sioux City, IA
United States

Justice Safety Valve Act Introduced in House

On Wednesday, US Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, House Bill 1695, in the House of Representatives. Identical companion legislation, Senate Bill 619, was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) last month.

US Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA)
Under pressure from sentencing reform advocates, as well as civil rights activists, Congress modified its strict mandatory minimum drug sentencing regime years ago to create a "safety valve" allowing some -- but not all -- drug offenders to avoid harsh mandatory minimum sentences. The 2013 Justice Safety Valve Act would expand the safety valve to apply to all federal crimes involving mandatory minimums.

"Mandatory minimum sentences have been shown to mandate unjust results," said Rep. Scott. "They have a racially discriminatory impact, studies conclude that they waste the taxpayer's money, and they often violate common sense."

"The one size fits all approach of federally mandated minimums does not give local judges the latitude they need to ensure that punishments fit the crimes," said Rep. Massie. "As a result, nonviolent offenders are sometimes given excessive sentences. Furthermore, public safety can be compromised because violent offenders are released from our nation's overcrowded prisons to make room for nonviolent offenders."

Noting that the federal Bureau of Prisons accounts for 25% of all Justice Department spending, Scott and Massie said passage of the measure was necessary to help reduce "the bloated federal prison population." Drug offenders make up nearly 50% of the more than 200,000 current federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

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