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The Surprising State That Could Be the Next to Legalize Weed [FEATURE]

[This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.]

It's looking more and more likely that voters in a key battleground state will be voting on marijuana legalization in November, and recent polling suggests it could win. That's this November, not November 2016.

The state is Ohio, where a controversial legalization initiative is already well on the way to qualifying for the ballot, and its backers -- or should we say investors? -- have the cash on hand to make sure it does.

There are marijuana legalization bills pending in any number of states, and early on, there were hopes this would be the year a state legislature would get around to legalizing it. New England states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont looked like the best bets, but it now doesn't seem like it's going to happen.

2016 promises to see a wave of legalization initiatives -- think Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts, for starters, with Arkansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio also likely to see serious efforts emerge.

But that's next year. The group ResponsibleOhio is well on the way to putting the issue before Buckeye State voters this year. They've already had their proposed constitutional amendment approved for signature gathering and, thanks to paid signature-gatherers, are cruising toward qualifying for the ballot.

To qualify in Ohio, initiatives need 305,000 valid voter signatures; ResponsibleOhio collected 180,000 raw signatures in its first three weeks and still has more than two months to gather the rest. And the campaign is still expanding.

Veteran initiative watchers will tell you campaigns want a cushion of excess signatures to account for ones that are thrown out, maybe 25% to 30% above the requirement at a bare minimum. In Ohio this year, that would be 400-450,000 raw signatures. The campaign says they are aiming for 700,000.

Given the progress so far, and the organization and money behind it (see below), ResponsibleOhio's legalization initiative looks like it will qualify for the ballot.

A New Legalization Model

This is not legalization like we've seen anywhere else. Yes, it allows adults 21 and over to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana and yes, it calls for a system of regulated and taxed marijuana production and sales. And it even has provisions for medical marijuana.

But under ResponsibleOhio's initiative, commercial marijuana production can only take place at 10 sites in the state, and those sites have already been allocated to 10 sets of investors, who have already kicked in $1.7 million for the campaign so far and who are prepared to spend up to $20 million convincing the public to vote for it.

The Big O in his NBA heyday. (wikimedia.org)
The investors include a number of Ohio business interest-real estate developers, venture capital firms, philanthropists, with nary a Cheech or a Chong among them -- but also some home state big names that could sway public opinion. These include NBA legend Oscar "Big O" Robertson, Cincinnati-based fashion designer Nanette Lepore, and former Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker (now with the Arizona Cardinals).

In return for their hoped-for voter-granted monopoly, the investor groups would pay a $100,000 fee and a 15% tax on their gross revenues, as well as other commercial fees. Critics have charged that the plan freezes out all but the initial investor groups, but ResponsibleOhio counters that there will be plenty of commercial opportunities in making and selling marijuana products.

The ResponsibleOhio plan has raised a lot of hackles among movement veterans such as NORML founder Keith Stroup, who voices widely-held worries about the impact of big money in the movement and Ohio activists, some of whom have their own initiative plans, but they may not matter as much as suburban Columbus soccer moms when it comes to election day.

And while this written-in monopoly may seem strange to many, it's not going to seem that strange to Ohio voters. In 2009, they legalized gambling by approving a constitutional amendment that specified sites for four casinos owned by the companies backing the amendment.

Can It Win?

Initiatives need to have money, momentum, and votes to win.

ResponsibleOhio looks to have deep enough pockets to put on a full-scale, multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Estimates are that to win in California next year, legalizers will have to spend $10 million or so in advertising, but ResponsibleOhio is talking about spending up to $20 million in a much smaller media market, and it doesn't have to go begging to donors.

The momentum is there. The entire country is riding a wave of increasing support for marijuana legalization, and Ohio is no exception. A Quinnipiac University poll last month had support at 53% (it also had narrow majorities for legalization in swing states Florida and Pennsylvania), up two points from the same poll a year earlier.

The conventional wisdom is that initiatives should be polling 60% or more at the beginning of the campaign because they are bound to lose some support in the face of organized opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, these hardly seem like conventional times. National polls show an upward trend, and Ohio polls show an upward trend. Whether it can win at the polls in an off-off-year election remains to be seen (the casino initiative did), but it certainly looks like it's going to be on the ballot, and it's got a very good shot on Election Day.

Ohio isn't the West Coast or New England. It's a mid-sized Midwest swing state critical in presidential politics. If Ohio legalizes it this year, the politics of pot is going to get very, very interesting next year.

OH
United States

Chronicle AM: Good New Pot Polls, State Dept. Drug Report Released, UN Iran Drug Aid Criticized, More (3/19/15)

A new national pot poll has good numbers and so does a Vermont poll, a Washington state home grow bill is filed, a Missouri hemp bill moves, the DEA warns on fentanyl, critics pounce on the UNODC over aid to Iran, and more.

UNODC is preparing a new drug aid package for Iran despite the country's resort to the death penalty. (handsoffcain.info)
Marijuana

Benenson Strategy Group Poll Has Support for Legalization at 61% Nationwide. The poll, which has a 3.5 +/- margin of error, also has 72% for decriminalization. A General Social Survey poll, the "gold standard" of polls, last week had support at 52%. Other recent polls have also found support above the 50% mark. In this week's BSG poll, Republicans were practically split, but 59% of GOP voters under age 50 supported legalization.

Massachusetts Initiative Group Warns Legislators on Excessive Taxation. The group Bay State Repeal, which intends to run a legalization initiative campaign next year, has released a statement saying it welcomed legislative efforts to legalize it, but cautioned against excessive taxation and fees. "A major aim of legalization is to limit access to minors by driving out the black market," the group said in its statement. "But inevitably, unlicensed producers will continue to supply consumers at the black market if legal marijuana is more expensive."

Vermont Poll Has Support for Legalization at 54%. A new Castleton Polling Institute survey has a majority for legalization, with 70% of respondents under 45 in favor and 61% of respondents over 65 opposed. The poll comes as the legislature considers a legalization bill, but signs are the bill will not move this year.

Washington State Bill Would Allow Home Grows. Washington is the only legalization state that does not allow home cultivation (except for medical), but a pair of bills introduced today would change that. Senate Bill 6083, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and House Bill 2196, sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake, would let adults 21 and over grow up to six plants and possess up to eight ounces of their harvest.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolinians Rally for New Medical Marijuana Bill in Raleigh. More than a hundred people rallied at the state capitol today in support of House Bill 317, which would allow for medical marijuana use by terminally ill patients. Rep. Kelly Alexander formally introduced it today.

Tennessee GOP Senator Says He Will File Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) said today he is working on a bill that would allow for medical marijuana. He said he expected to have final details by Monday. A Democratic bill in the House has yet to make it out of committee.

Hemp

Missouri Hemp Bill Heads for House Floor Vote -- Maybe. An industrial hemp bill, H.B. 830 has passed its final House committee hurdle and awaits a House floor vote. But it is unclear whether House Majority Leader Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) will give it time for a debate and a vote.

Opiates

DEA Warns on Fentanyl. Fentanyl is increasingly showing up in heroin, the DEA warned yesterday. The opioid is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and dealers are using it to increase the potency of their products, but the result can be accidental overdoses. "Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety," said DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.

International

State Department Releases Annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. "The two-volume report offers a comprehensive assessment of the efforts of foreign governments to reduce illicit narcotics production, trafficking and use, in keeping with their international obligations under UN treaties, while also presenting information on governments' efforts to counter money laundering and terrorist financing," State says. Click on the link to read the report.

UNODC Preparing New Iran Aid Deal Despite Drug Executions. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is planning a new five-year financial assistance deal with Iran, one of the world's leading executioners for drug crimes. Iran executed at least 350 drug offenders last year and about two a day so far this year. That has critics very unhappy. "Iran has hanged more than a hundred so-called drug offenders this year, and the UN has responded by praising the efficiency of the Iranian drug police and lining them up a generous five-year funding deal," said Maya Foa, strategic director of the death penalty team for Reprieve, a British advocacy group.

Israeli Marijuana Party Fails to Reach Threshold to Enter Knesset. Aleh Yarok, the Israeli political party pushing for marijuana legalization, failed to gain the 3.25% of the popular vote needed to give it representation in the Knesset. Aleh Yarok garnered only 38,000 votes, or 0.97% of the vote. The party may have lost some votes to Meretz, which appealed to youth voters by also embracing marijuana reforms.

New Report Shows How Western-Imposed Prohibition Policies Hurt Poor Countries [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with Alternet and first appeared here.

Wealthy Western countries are undermining good governance and social and economic development in poor, drug-producing countries by pressuring them to enforce prohibitionist policies that exploit peasant farmers and waste millions of dollars a year on failed crop eradication and drug interdiction programs. That's the conclusion of a recent report by the British advocacy group Health Poverty Action (HPA).

Afghan poppy fields (unodc.org)
In the report, Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is Harming the World's Poorest, HPA shows how the West exports much of the harms of drug prohibition -- violence, corruption, environmental damage -- onto some of the world's poorest societies and weakest states. In fact, the report argues, by forcing these countries to devote scarce resources to trying to keep the West from getting high, the West makes them poorer and weaker.

Whether it's horrific prohibition-related violence in Mexico and Central America, the lack of funds for real alternative development in the coca growing areas of the Andes, or the erosion of public health services in West African countries tasked with fighting the trans-Atlantic drug trade, the policy choices imposed by these countries as conditions for receiving assistance have devastatingly deleterious consequences for local populations.

Here are five ways the report says global drug prohibition and rich countries' insistence that poor ones fight their battles for them hurts poor countries:

  1. Disintegrated and accountable states: Corruption and conflict stemming from current drug policies undermine democracy and make governments unable to adequately provide basic services. States can't function because they're stuck in a losing war against cartels.
  2. Lost resources: The global cost of enforcing anti-drug policies is at least US$100 billion a year. Dealing with the violence, environmental destruction, and health impacts caused by the War on Drugs costs poor countries much more and diverts both resources and attention away from essential services.
  3. Undermined economies: By making poor countries more unstable and tying up government funding in the global drug war, current policies sabotage economic growth and worsen inequality.
  4. Inequality: The War on Drugs disproportionately affects the poor, further marginalizing vulnerable populations and undermining efforts towards social and economic justice.
  5. Poor health: Current drug policies exacerbate health harms such as HIV and hepatitis, and have a serious impact on the social and economic determinants of health.

It doesn't have to be this way. Although changing the international drug prohibition regime is a glacially-paced ongoing project, the pace of change is picking up. The next UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is set for next year, and the prohibitionist consensus is crumbling. Perhaps one of these years, we will arrive at a better, less damaging, way of dealing with the global trade in mind-altering substances.

Chronicle AM: NH Decrim Bill Passes House, CO Legal Pot Sales Record, Coca-Chewing Day in Bolivia, More (3/12/15)

Marijuana stories all over the place, medical marijuana, too; federal drug policy bills (good and bad) get filed, it's it's National Coca-Chewing Day in Bolivia, and more. 

Marijuana Policy

Alaska Legislators Get Earful from Public Over Changes to Legalization Bill. The Senate Finance Committee overhauled Senate Bill 30, the bill that would implement the Measure 2 legalization initiative, by reversing language in the bill that would have removed marijuana from the state's controlled substance schedules and by creating new marijuana crimes. That didn't sit well with the public, who raked the committee over the coals during a hearing yesterday. It's holding another hearing today.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Drafters Grapple with Home Cultivation. A split has emerged between Safer Arizona and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) over including home cultivation language in a proposed legalization initiative. The latest draft of the initiative contains no language allowing for home cultivation, and Safer Arizona is accusing MPP of doing the bidding of dispensary operators, who it says want to corner the market. MPP says it supports home cultivation, but may be willing to sacrifice it if it thinks such a provision could delay ending pot prohibition in a given state. Stay tuned.

Colorado January Recreational Pot Sales Hit Record.  Sales in January were $36.4 million, according to the Department of Revenue, more than double the $14 million reported in January 2014. January recreational pot sales generated nearly $2.35 million in excise taxes designated for schools. Last year was when recreational marijuana sales began rolling out, so it is expected that 2015 is going to be even bigger than 2014, when more than $300 million in recreational sales occurred.

Connecticut Poll Has Solid Majority for Pot Legalization. A new Quinnipiac poll has support for marijuana legalization at 63%, up nine points from the same poll less than a year ago. The poll comes as the Judiciary Committee considers two bills that would legalize it, House Bill 6703 and House Bill 6473.

Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. David Rogers (D-Belmont), Sen. Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville), and 13 bipartisan cosponsors today introduced House Bill 1561, which would legalize marijuana for adults and establish a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. If the legislature doesn't act on legalization, reform advocates are vowing to put an initiative before voters I n 2016.

Michigan Group Plans 2016 Legalization Initiative. A group calling itself the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee said today it is planning a 2016 legalization initiative petition drive. The committee's chairman, Jeffrey Hank, said "the time is right" to create "a responsible tax and regulation scheme for adult use age 21 and over, and permits the farming of hemp."

New Hampshire House Overwhelmingly Approves Decriminalization Bill. A veto-proof majority of the House voted yesterday to approve House Bill 618, which would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of pot, five grams of hash, and six pot plants. The House has passed similar measures before, only to see them die in the Senate. If it passes the Senate this year, it still faces a probable veto from Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).   

Medical Marijuana

Federal Judge Reject Prosecution Attempt to Jail Kettle Falls Five Defendants Before Sentencing. Just one week after three medical marijuana patients were acquitted by a federal jury of all but one charge stemming from the widely watched Kettle Falls Five trial, US District Court Judge Thomas Rice rejected attempts by the Justice Department (DOJ) to imprison the defendants pending sentencing on June 10th. Judge Rice's ruling comes just a day after defense attorneys filed their opposition to the government's pre-sentencing detention effort

Hawaii House Approves Dispensary Bill. The House Tuesday gave its approval to a bill that would allow for at least 26 dispensaries to open across the state. The measure is House Bill 321.

Iowa CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Moves. A bill that would expand medical marijuana access in the Hawkeye State won a subcommittee vote in the state Senate yesterday. The legislature last year approved a law allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil for epilepsy, but didn't provide for the legal distribution of the oil. The current bill would do that, as well as expand the number of qualifying conditions.

Pennsylvania Poll Shows Growing Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Robert Morris University poll has support for medical marijuana at 67.5%, up more than 11 points from a similar Robert Morris poll last year. At least three medical marijuana bills are currently before the General Assembly.

Tennessee CBD Cannabis Oil Wins Committee Vote. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee has approved House Bill 197, which would allow people with seizures to use CBD cannabis oil with a doctor's recommendation. The bill now goes to the full House Criminal Committee.

Asset Forfeiture

Texas Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. State Rep. David Simpson has introduced House Bill 3171 to repeal civil asset forfeiture. "No one should forfeit their property without being convicted of a crime," the Republican said. "Our current civil forfeiture provisions, though a well-intended tool for law enforcement, have eroded the constitutional rights of individuals. It is time we end the practice."

Rehabilitation and Reentry

Federal Bill to Seal or Expunge Records for Nonviolent Offenses Filed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has filed Senate Bill 675, which provides for the sealing or expungement of records relating to federal nonviolent criminal offenses. It's been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sentencing

Connecticut Poll Finds Strong Support for Reducing Penalties for Drug Offenses. A new Quinnipiac poll finds two-third (67%) of voters support making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony and 82% support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug possessions.

Harm Reduction

Federal Bill to Encourage Use of Opiate Overdose Drug Filed. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Edward Markey (D-MA) yesterday filed the Opioid Overdose Reduction Act, which would  "protect first responders, health professionals and family members who are educated in administering an opioid overdose prevention drug, such as naloxone (also known as Narcan) in an emergency situation of overdose. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) plans to introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives in the coming weeks. The bill is not yet available on the congressional website. Similar legislation was filed last year.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill Aimed at Candy-Coated Drugs Filed. Octogenarian Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) today filed the Candy-Flavored Drugs Act, under which ""criminals who manufacture, create, distribute, dispense or possess candy coated drugs with the intent to distribute them to a minor would get up to 10 years for the first offense and 20 years for the second offense." The bill is not yet available on the congressional website.

International

It's National Coca Chewing Day in Bolivia. Bolivian social movements are marching from the La Paz suburb of El Alto toward Villaroel Square in the capital to commemorate National Coca-Leaf Chewing Day. The event is part of a domestic and international campaign to restore the traditional uses of the coca leaf. 

Chronicle AM: UN Drug Session in Vienna, Bernard Noble Rally in New Orleans, AZ Welfare Drug Test Flop, More (3/9/15)

The global drug prohibition bureaucracy meets in Vienna, researchers say banning psychedelics offends human rights, new synthetics increase in Europe, an Arizona welfare drug testing bill comes up short in results, and more. Let's get to it;

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs gets down to business in Vienna. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Washington House Approves Marijuana Deals With Tribes. The House last Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow the state's Indian tribes to participate in the state's legal marijuana industry. The bill is House Bill 2000, and it now goes to the state Senate.

First Government-Run Pot Shop Opens in Washington Town. The city of North Bonneville, Washington, has become the first government entity to open a marijuana retail store. The Cannabis Corner opened over the weekend after the city won approval from the state.

Psychedelics

Prohibition on Psychedelics An Offense Against Human Rights, Researchers Say. A pair of Norwegian researchers who, after studying population data from more than 135,000 people, including 19,000 users of psychedelics, reported no link between using psychedelics and mental health problems, have said that continuing to ban them has no justifiable public health basis and is "against human rights." Click on the link for more details.

Drug Testing

Arizona Welfare Drug Testing Law Didn't Produce Predicted Savings. When the state passed its welfare drug testing law in 2009, lawmakers said it would save about $1.7 million a year by removing drug users from welfare rolls. Not quite. In the more than five years since the law went into effect, only 42 people were flagged for drug tests. Of those, 23 didn't take the drug test and were denied benefits for one year. Nineteen other took the drug test; only three failed. The total savings are now estimated at $3,500 over the entire period, not $1.7 million a year.

Harm Reduction

Mississippi 911 Good Samaritan Bill Moving. A bill that would provide limited immunity from prosecution for people who report active drug overdoses in a bid to get medical assistance has passed the state Senate and a key House committee. Senate Bill 2780 now awaits a House floor vote.

Pregnancy

Oklahoma Bill Would Charge Pregnant Drug Users With Assaulting Fetus. A bill that would change the definition of assault to include illegal drug use by a pregnant woman has won a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote. Senate Bill 559 would still have to get through the House.

Sentencing

New Orleans Rally for Man Doing 13 Years for Two Joints. Supporters of Bernard Noble, who is doing 13 years in state prison for possessing two marijuana joints, rallied Saturday to support a campaign to gain clemency or a commutation for him. All appeals to state courts have failed, and now it's up to Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to act.

International

Morocco's Main Opposition Party Calls for Amnesty for Hash Growers. The Istiqlal Party, the largest opposition party, has called on the parliament to adopt a bill that would grant amnesty to hashish farmers. The party says that more than 300,000 people make a living in the hash fields.  The party's proposed bill would limit hash cultivation to specified regions of the country. The Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) has also called for the legalization of marijuana cultivation. Morocco is one of the world's leading cannabis producers.

More than A Hundred New Synthetic Drugs Appeared in Europe Last Year. The European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reported today that 101 new substances were reported last year by the European Union's Early Warning System, up from 81 in 2013. That means more than 450 new synthetic drugs have been identified by the agency, more than half in the last three years alone. Click on the link for more details.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Session Underway in Vienna.The 58th annual session got underway in Vienna today. It comes as the international drug prohibition consensus crumbles in the face of drug war failures and moves to liberalize drug laws, especially marijuana laws. This is also part of the lead-up to the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs. 

Louisiana Man Gets 13 Years for Two Joints, Commutation Campaign Underway [FEATURE]

This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes -- and he's still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.

Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.

Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts -- African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population -- and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.

In Bernard Noble's case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state's harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as "the bitch.") Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.

Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.

Taking into account Noble's minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.

"Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture."

It has also shattered Noble's family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother's house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He's been locked up ever since.

Bobby Jindal has a chance to do the right thing. (gov.state.la.us)
But there's renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it's a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.

If Jindal's record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.

"This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker," said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. "He's been in there 44 months, and he's not even close to finishing his sentence. He's just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment."

Noble's sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.

The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses -- staffing and inmate care and programs -- as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.

Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn't happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.

Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.

"Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it's mostly black men fed into the prison system from there," said Cadore. "Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him."

Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.

"What's rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community -- the black community," Dore pointed out. "We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that's black, and it has a gender, and that's mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier."

Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he's just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.

"If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state," said Cadore.

"We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We're in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do," she continued. "Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they're not paying attention or that they're not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?"

Chronicle AM: TX Border Surge Flops, Belize Decrim Proposal, British Drugged Driving Law, More (3/2/15)

There will be a smoke-out in Trenton later this month, medical marijuana is moving in Utah, the Texas "border surge" accomplishes little, KY cops ignore asset forfeiture reporting, a tough, new British drugged driving law has gone into effect, and more.

Indiana has to try again to ban synthetic drugs. (MN Dept of Public Health)
Marijuana Policy

Indian Tribes Gather in Washington State to Talk About Marijuana Production. Representatives of at least 75 tribes attended a conference in Tulalip last Friday to discuss legalizing, regulating, and producing marijuana on their reservations. The move comes after the Justice Department announced that it would not block tribes from doing so. Many tribes are cautious or reluctant to consider the notion, but there appears to be plenty of interest, too.

Colorado's 2014 Marijuana Sales Numbers. According to a to new report from the state, nearly five million pot-infused edibles and nearly 75 tons of marijuana were legally sold in Colorado last year. And that's with only 67 of the state's 321 local jurisdictions allowing for the sale of recreational or medical marijuana. Of course, those 67 localities are where most of the people are. Medical marijuana accounted for nearly 110,000 pounds of marijuana sales, while recreational accounted for nearly 39,000 pounds.

New Jersey Legalization Advocates Plan "NJ Spring Smoke-Out Rally" in Trenton. A coalition of groups advocating legalization will hold a "Million Marijuana March" for legalization or "any progressive measures on marijuana" on March 21. The groups include the East Coast Cannabis Coalition, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana -- New Jersey, CB Delaware, Delaware NORML, Decarcerate the Garden State, The Legalize Marijuana Party, Legalize Cannabis in Atlantic City and Fully Baked Radio. Check the event's Facebook page for more details.

Medical Marijuana

New, Weaker CBD Cannabis Oil Bill Filed in Georgia Senate. The House last week passed a CBD cannabis oil bill, but now, Sen. Lindsey Tippins has filed a new bill that would not make the drug available, but would instead set up a four-year study. The Tippins bill is not yet up on the legislative website; the House bill that passed is House Bill 1.

Poll Shows Strong Support for Medical Marijuana in Iowa. A new Des Moines Register poll has support for medical marijuana at 70%, up from 59% a year ago. The state approved a CBD cannabis oil bill last year, but patient advocates say that law is useless because it doesn't provide for distribution of the medication.

Utah Medical Marijuana Wins Senate Committee Vote. The state Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday approved Senate Bill 259, a full-blown medical marijuana bill. The measure should go to the Senate for a floor vote this week.

Heroin & Prescription Opiates

Illinois Lawmakers File Omnibus Bill to Battle Opiate Addiction. House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Lou Lang (D) and GOP Rep. John Anthony were set today to file a comprehensive, 240-page bill to deal with heroin and prescription opiate use and addiction. It would allow the overdose reversal drug naloxone to be distributed more widely, require the creation of a drug prevention program for schools, require that coroners report all overdose deaths to the Department of Public Health, require pharmacies to serve as drug "take back" sites, and limit pain reliever prescriptions.

Kentucky Senate Panel Hears House's Heroin Bill. Although the state Senate has already passed its own omnibus heroin bill, Senate Bill 5, the Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary last Friday took up the House's omnibus heroin bill, which has lesser sentencing increases for heroin offenders, has a Good Samaritan provision, and allows for the broader use of the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The committee took no action on the bill.

New Synthetic Drugs

Indiana Supreme Court to Hear State's Appeal of Ruling Throwing Out Ban on Synthetic Drugs. The state's high court has agreed to hear an appeal from the state attorney general of a January Court of Appeals decision throwing out the state's ban on synthetic drugs as unconstitutionally vague. The appeals court explicitly rejected a list of more than 80 chemical compounds, look-alike substances, and synthetics as too difficult to understand.

Asset Forfeiture

Kentucky Cops Generally Ignore State's Asset Forfeiture Law. LEX 18 TV News has looked into state law enforcement agencies' compliance with asset forfeiture statutes and has found that "a state law designed to give oversight of Kentucky asset forfeiture practices is mostly ignored by Kentucky police agencies." According to the station, only 63 of about 400 law enforcement agencies in the state filed required annual reports on their drug-related seizures last year, "leaving potentially millions of dollars' worth of goods unaccounted for."

Law Enforcement

Texas "Border Surge" Accomplishes Little. Last year's "surge" on the Mexican border, which saw Texas National Guard troops, state troopers, and game wardens flood the border, has done little to stop the flow of drugs, state officials said Friday. But they still want another $815 million for two more years' worth of surging.

International

New British Drugged Driving Laws Now in Effect. New drugged driving laws went into effect yesterday in the UK. Officers can now do roadside tests for cocaine and marijuana with a "drugalyser." Previously, they had to arrest suspect and take them to a police station for a blood draw under medical supervision. Other drugs will still require going to the police station for a test. The law also covers prescription drugs. Under the law, police will not be required to prove impairment, only that the drugs were present.

Israeli Leftist Party Embraces Marijuana Legalization. With elections looming, the leftist Meretz Party is looking for a boost by embracing marijuana legalization. "Legalization and decriminalization have a political home, and that home is Meretz," said Tamar Zandberg in a video released on the party website last week. Zandberg is number five on Meretz's list for the Knesset.

CARICOM Agrees on Commission to Look at Pot Legalization. The Caribbean Community agreed over the weekend on the composition of a commission to look into marijuana legalization. Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie, currently chairman of the group, said members expect the commission to "soon begin its work to look into the economic, health and legal issues surrounding the use of marijuana and to consult with stakeholders to get a view on the issue." The move comes just days after Jamaica gave final approval to decriminalizing marijuana.

Belize Decriminalization of Marijuana Committee Issues Report, Calls for… Decriminalization. After nearly three years of pondering, the decriminalization committee has called for decriminalization. The committee is calling for possession of less than 10 grams to be subject only to administrative penalties.

Chronicle AM: Marijuana Legal in Alaska Tomorrow, Kosher MedMJ in NY, Chinese Meth, More (2/23/15)

Alaska's Measure 2 legalization begins to kick in tomorrow, the UFCW organizes medical marijuana workers in Minnesota, Chuck Schumer wants more drug war money, India bans the new synthetic drug mephedrone, and more. Let's get to it:

Mephedrone, now banned in India. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

First Phase of Alaska Legalization Goes Into Effect Tomorrow. As of Tuesday, February 24, 2015, the first phase of Alaska's voter-approved Measure 2 marijuana legalization goes into effect. Beginning then, people 21 and over can legally possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants in their home (only three flowering). Adults may also share up to an ounce of weed with other adults and give them up to six plants. Taxed and regulated marijuana commerce will come next year. Click on the link for more.

Maryland Legalization Bill Gets Hearing Tomorrow. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing in the General Assembly on Tuesday, February 24, to consider a bill that would regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol. Supporters of the bill, including representatives of the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland, are expected to testify. The hearing will take place in Room 101 of the House Office Building at 1:00pm ET. The bill is House Bill 911, sponsored by Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore).

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Workers Unionize. Workers at Minnesota Medical Solutions, which will operate four medical marijuana dispensaries, have signed a labor agreement with the company under the auspices of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UCFW), Local 1189. The union is also in discussions about representing workers at the other four planned dispensaries in the state, which will be operated by LeafLine Labs. The UFCW has also organized marijuana workers in California, Colorado, and Washington.

Missouri Medical Marijuana Bill Gets Hearing Today. Rep. Dave Hinson's (R-St. Clair) House Bill 800, which would allow for medical marijuana for eligible payments, was set to get a House hearing today. Come back tomorrow for results.

West Virginia Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. On the last day to file Senate bills in the legislative session, Sen. Mitch Carmichael (R-Ripley) introduced Senate Bill 546, the "Creating Compassionate Use Act for Medical Cannabis." The bill would allow for medical marijuana for designated debilitating medical conditions and would require patients and caregivers to be registered with the state. The bill now goes before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Kosher Medical Marijuana Coming to New York? Orthodox Jews in New York may soon be able to get kosher medical marijuana. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, head of the Orthodox Union's kosher certification agency said he has held "preliminary discussions" with several companies seeking to obtain a kosher seal of approval for medical marijuana. Click on the link for more.

Law Enforcement

Chuck Schumer Lobbies to Restore HIDTA Funding Cuts. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said Sunday Congress should reject President Obama's plan to cut funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. "This is one area where I disagree with the president, and I'm going to fight to reverse his decision," Schumer said. He wants $100 million in drug war funding restored, in part to fight heroin use in his state.

International

UN Official Blames "Corrupt" Chinese Pharmaceutical Industry for Meth Production. Chinese police recently busted 2.4 tons of meth in Guangdong Province, provoking UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) official Jeremy Douglas to say that "corruption in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries" in China was behind the easy availability of chemicals needed to mass produce the drugs. "To operate a lab like this, you need a lot of chemicals, which are legitimate, regulated chemicals from the pharmaceutical industry," Douglas said. "This group has been able to get their hands on the precursor chemicals necessary to produce the drugs. They've been doing it for a long time, which means they're getting these chemicals on a regular basis. There is some kind of corruption in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry taking place allowing this to happen."

India Bans Mephedrone. India has now classified mephedrone (also known as "Meow-Meow" or "M-Cat") as a psychotropic substance that falls under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985. That means mephedrone will now be treated as a controlled substance like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Previously, the new synthetic was not regulated in the country.

Chronicle AM: IA MJ Penalty Bill Moves, NM Hemp Bill Moves, MD Heroin OD Homicide Bill Filed, More (2/11/15)

Missouri's marijuana lifer may get a shot at freedom, Colorado is raking in the tax dollars from pot, the VA is pondering how to deal with medical marijuana for veterans, medical marijuana regulation bills pop up in California and Washington, and more. Let's get to it:

Dealers who sell dope that someone ODs on could be charged with murder under a Maryland bill. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Took in $76 Million in Marijuana Taxes and Fees Last Year. The state collected $44 million in recreational marijuana taxes and another $12 million in recreational pot fees last year. Taxes and fees on medical marijuana added another $19 million, bringing the total revenues to $76 million. The recreational pot tax bonanza is less than what was estimated before legalization, but is still a hefty chunk of change.

Iowa Bill to Cut Marijuana Penalties Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved Senate Study Bill 1121, which would make possession of less than five grams a simple misdemeanor with a maximum 30-day jail term. Currently, possession is punishable by up to six months in jail. Senators who approved the bill said it was an effort to address racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system. Iowa has one of the highest rates of racial disparity in pot busts of any state.

Missouri Governor Will Take "Hard Look" at Pardoning Marijuana Lifer. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said Tuesday he will review the case of Jezz Mizanskey, 61, who is serving life in state prison for a marijuana conviction. Mizanskey has been behind bars for 21 years already after being convicted of a third nonviolent pot offense. "It's a very serious amount of time," Nixon said. "If the laws change after someone is sentenced, then you want to give those things a close look." An online petition seeking Mizanskey's release has more than 386,000 signatures.

Medical Marijuana

VA Tells House Committee It is Actively Exploring Medical Marijuana for Veterans. A top Department of Veterans Affairs official told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs today "there are active discussions going on now" about how to deal with the growing number of vets seeking to use medical marijuana for their ailments. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA's interim under secretary for health, told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Wednesday "there's an incredible opportunity for us to learn from some of those experiences, but I think that we have to be careful given the variation in legal issues."

California Regulation Bill Supported by Cops and Cities Introduced. Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) Monday filed Assembly Bill 266 with the backing of the California League of Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association. The bill seeks to impose state-wide regulation on the Golden State's medical marijuana scene, but California NORML says it has some objectionable features, including too stringent transportation regulations, inadequate provision for the licensing of current growers, and a prohibition on licenses for people with prior drug offenses.

Florida Medical Marijuana Bill Filed; Would Not Allow Smoking It. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) has filed House Bill 683, which would only allow people with eight specified medical conditions to use it and which bars the used of smoked marijuana. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) earlier filed another, less restrictive medical marijuana bill. "The big differences are, it doesn't allow for smokeable marijuana," Steube said Tuesday of his bill and Brandes' bill. "Brandes, in his bill, says a doctor could prescribe (medical marijuana) if you had severe and persistent pain. That was taken out. We kept it to specific diseases."

Washington State Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Introduced. Reps. Luis Moscoso (D-Kirkland) and Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) have introduced House Bill 2058 to create a licensed and regulated medical marijuana system for the state. The bill is identical to legislation that passed both the House and Senate in 2011 only to be vetoed by then Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) over fears of federal intervention.

Hemp

New Mexico Hemp Bill Advances. The Senate Conservation Committee Tuesday voted 9-0 to approve the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (Senate Bill 94). Sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque), the measure would allocate $100,000 for the regents of New Mexico State University, the state's land grant university, to establish a seed bank and seed certification program for hemp. An additional $50,000 would be appropriated under the bill for the state Department of Public Safety to train officers to identify industrial hemp. A similar bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque).

Heroin

Maryland Bill Would Allow Heroin Dealers to Be Charged With Murder in ODs. Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County) Tuesday filed House Bill 222, which would allow prosecutors to seek homicide charges in heroin or fentanyl overdose deaths that can be linked to a specific dealer. The maximum sentence would be 30 years in prison. The bill had a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee the same day.

Harm Reduction

North Carolina Heroin Summit Tomorrow. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) is hosting a summit on heroin in Raleigh tomorrow. "Together with law enforcement, members of the NC medical and public health community, NC legislators, and people who have used or been impacted by heroin, we will engage in a series of panel events focused on discussing legislative solutions to heroin use and heroin-related overdose in the state," the group says. Click on the title link for event details.

Maine Governor Won't Support Expanding Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Gov. Paul LePage (R) said Tuesday that he would oppose efforts to expand access naloxone. Rep. Henry Beck (D-Waterville) has introduced HP 98, which would allow friends of drug users to carry the overdose reversal drug and has a Good Samaritan provision. A similar bill last year allowed family members and law enforcement to carry the drug, but the friends and Good Samaritan provisions were stripped out at LePage's insistence. Now, legislators will try again.

International

Transnational Institute Brief on Reforming Drug Law Enforcement in Latin America. The Institute has made available "Fixing a Broken System: Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement in Latin America," the latest of its series on legislative reform of drug policies. It argues that drug prohibition has mostly failed to reduce supply and demand while creating new problems and creating vast collateral damage. It has a number of recommendations; click on the link to read them.

The President's Budget: Drug War on Cruise Control [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

President Obama (whitehouse.gov)
President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal today, and when it comes to the drug war budget, it's largely more of the same old same old. Despite the growing realization that the war on drugs is failed policy and despite the wave of marijuana legalization beginning to sweep through the states, there is no sign of anything new here.

Budget documents describe the drug war spending as "a 21st Century approach to drug policy that outlines innovative policies and programs and recognizes that substance use disorders are not just a criminal justice issue, but also a major public health concern" and calls for "an evidence-based plan for real drug policy reform, spanning the spectrum of prevention, early intervention, treatment, recovery support, criminal justice reform, effective law enforcement, and international cooperation."

But the rhetoric doesn't match up with the spending proposals. Instead, the decades old, roughly 60:40 split in favor of law enforcement over prevention and treatment continues. While the Department of Health and Human Services would get more than $10 billion for treatment and prevention programs (more than $6 billion of it for Medicaid and Medicare), drug law enforcement spending in the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the drug czar's office would total more than $14.5 billion.

Justice Department drug war spending would increase from $7.79 billion this fiscal year to $8.14 billion next year under the president's proposal. That includes nearly $3.7 billion for the Bureau of Prisons (up $187 million), $2.46 billion for the DEA (up $90 million), $519 million for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (up $12 million), and $293 million for the Office of Justice Programs (up $50 million).

That last line item -- the Office of Justice Programs -- is where the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which typically fund multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, are found. It would see a rather substantial 20% funding increase despite congressional efforts in recent years to cut it back. That means more drug task forces, more drug busts, and more back-end costs associated with them (see the Bureau of Prisons line item).

While the overall federal drug budget is up to $27.57 billion (from $26.34 billion last year), there are decreases in some line items. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) would be cut from $375 million this year to $307 million next year, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program would be cut from $245 million to $193 million, and Defense Department drug war spending would be cut from $1.307 billion to $1.267 billion.

There are no huge increases in the drug war budget, but neither are there significant decreases. This is very much a drug war budget on cruise control. And this is, of course, only the president's proposed budget. What the Congress will do with it remains to be seen.

If everyone agrees the drug war is a failure, someone forgot to tell the president.

Washington, DC
United States

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