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Sens. Leahy, Paul Introduce Federal Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill [FEATURE]

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) joined Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in introducing legislation that would give federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing in cases where mandatory minimum sentences are involved. The bill, Senate Bill 691, also known as the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would expand the "safety valve" to apply to all federal crimes.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY)
Currently, the "safety valve" allows judges to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum only in some drug cases. Only about 25% of federal drug offenders are currently able to take advantage of the "safety valve" to earn reduced sentences.

The bill comes as the federal government faces chronic budget crises and a federal prison population that has grown nearly 10-fold in the past three decades and by 55% since 2000. In 1980, there were some 25,000 federal prisoners; now there are more than 217,000, and almost half of them are drug offenders. At more than $7 billion this year, the federal prison budget now accounts for almost one-quarter of all Justice Department spending, and is up by $2 billion in the last five years alone.

The bill also comes amidst a rising hue and cry to move away from mandatory minimums. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service issued a January report that suggested that instead of expanding federal prison construction, Congress "could consider options such as modifying mandatory minimum penalties," as well as increased resort to probation, reinstating parole in the federal system, and "repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses."

Similarly, the US Sentencing Commission surveyed federal judges in 2010 and found that 70% of the 600 judges who responded favored expanding the "safety valve" to all mandatory minimum sentences. Rising federal prison budgets and sentencing reform have also been a continuing concern for Chairman Leahy. He held hearings last summer on the issue, and now he has sponsored legislation to do something about it.

"As a former prosecutor, I understand that criminals must be held accountable, and that long sentences are sometimes necessary to keep criminals off the street and deter those who would commit violent crime," Sen. Leahy said. "Our reliance on mandatory minimums has been a great mistake.  I am not convinced it has reduced crime, but I am convinced it has imprisoned people, particularly non-violent offenders, for far longer than is just or beneficial. It is time for us to let judges go back to acting as judges and making decisions based on the individual facts before them.  A one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing does not make us safer."

"Our country's mandatory minimum laws reflect a Washington-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach, which undermines the constitutional separation of powers, violates the our bedrock principle that people should be treated as individuals, and costs the taxpayers money without making them any safer," said cosponsor Sen. Paul. "This bill is necessary to combat the explosion of new federal criminal laws, many of which carry new mandatory minimum penalties."

Drug and sentencing reform advocates celebrated the bill's introduction, although some thought that even more should be done.

The Yankton (SD) Federal Prison Camp. It used to be Yankton College, but now houses minimum security prisoners. (wikimedia.org)
"I am thrilled that Sen. Leahy and Sen. Paul are promoting this common-sense sentencing reform," said Julie Stewart, founder and executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "The mandatory minimum sentences Congress might be appropriate in many cases, but certainly not in every case, especially those involving non-violent offenders. By giving courts more flexibility, Congress will ensure that judges use our scarce prison beds and budget to keep us safe from truly violent offenders."

"Congress must reexamine mandatory minimum sentencing to determine whether they are necessary and appropriate while also analyzing the racial disparities that have arisen in the imposition of mandatory sentences," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill is a step in the right direction. While overdue, the recent reform of the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity did not do enough to alleviate mass incarceration, or racial disparities, in the federal system. Passage of this bill will hopefully mean more judges won’t give low-level drug law offenders draconian sentences reserved for drug kingpins. Research has shown that more than half of all federal drug law offenders had little or no criminal history but they make up more than half of all federal prisoners."

"We are pleased that after decades of 'lock 'em up' rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats are beginning to realize that ever increasing penalties are not the most effective way to keep Americans safe," said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. "Nowhere is this more true than in the area of mandatory minimum penalties, which are limited because they address severity of punishment, not certainty. A recent Congressional Research Service report shows that mandatory minimums are a primary driver of our high prison populations and costs. Moreover, they are rife with racial unfairness.  While it would be better to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether, we are pleased that Senators Leahy and Paul have introduced legislation that would mitigate their harshest effects. Congress should take up this legislation to address ineffective 'one size fits all' mandatory minimum penalties that allow little consideration for individual characteristics and drive racial disparities in sentencing."

And, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal prisoners, has been pointing out for years, mandatory minimum reforms and sentencing reforms in general are "back end" solutions. While such measures are a necessary corrective to ameliorate what Leahy called the country's "mass incarceration problem," the more radical solution is on the "front end" -- stopping those federal arrests and prosecutions.
 

"It's a good news bill, don't get me wrong," Callahan said Thursday. "Dismantling the drug war a brick at a time is one way to get rid of it -- or will we just create more space for more people to do less time? I can't help but know that leaders can get bolder than this. And those judges would do well to use a lot more discretion pretrial and start disallowing various 'extrajudicial procedures' like count-stacking, reliance on informants and rewarded witnesses; fast-tracking--and it wouldn't take an act of Congress."

Washington, DC
United States

Marijuana Legalization Bill Introduced in Nevada

On Monday, Nevada became the latest state to see a marijuana legalization bill filed this year. Assemblyman Joe Hogan (D-Las Vegas) introduced Assembly Bill 402, which would allow people 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and would set up a system of state regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce.

Nevada now joins Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Oregon as states where legalization bills have been or will be filed. A legalization bill died earlier this year in Hawaii, and one died last week in New Hampshire, but another New Hampshire legalization bill is still alive.

The Nevada bill expressly does not allow driving while impaired, does not require employers to accept marijuana use, and limits legalization to those 21 and over.

Marijuana has already been legalized by voters in Colorado and Washington, and the Alaska courts have recognized a privacy right allowing for the possession of small amounts of marijuana in one's home. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Hogan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he introduced the bill because of what he called the persecution of young people.

"I think it's better than chasing young kids around the neighborhoods, endlessly, and damaging them," he said. "We've been wasting terrible amounts of money on these completely unsuccessful law enforcement techniques. I think it's time to get serious, get it fixed and move on."

Hogan said that marijuana legalization would raise badly needed money for the state's education system. It envisions excise taxes on both wholesale and retail sales of marijuana and marijuana products.

"There's enough tax money in this line of products to properly and fully support education in the state of Nevada, which we have failed to do for a number of years," Hogan said.

The bill is the brainchild of Dr. Steven Frye, a retired Las Vegas psychiatrist and marijuana legalization activist. Frye told the Review-Journal legalization could generate as much as $500 million a year in tax revenues.

"It's a big tourist issue," he said. "And we create green jobs in Nevada growing, processing and selling it."

Carson City, NV
United States

Indiana House Approves Welfare Drug Test Bill

The Republican-controlled Indiana House voted overwhelmingly Monday to approve a "reasonable suspicion" drug testing bill for welfare recipients. House Bill 1483 advanced to the state Senate on a 78-17 vote.

The bill would require all adult recipients of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to undergo an assessment to see if there is "reasonable suspicion" that they might be using illicit drugs. Recipients who are deemed "suspicious" would then go into a pool for random drug testing, with half of the pool members being subjected to drug testing.

People who fail the drug test would lose their benefits unless they enrolled in a drug treatment program and produced negative results on future drug tests. Repeated positive drug tests could result in the permanent loss of benefits.

The bill defines "reasonable suspicion" as having been charged with a drug offense, having previously presented positive drug test results, or having been assessed as a likely drug user by the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory test, a commercial test that claims a 90% accuracy rate.

The House approved the bill despite a legislative staff financial analysis that showed the state would spend $2.7 million on the program to possibly the save the state $1.5 million in denied benefits. That means the state would lose $1.2 million next year if the bill were to become law.

Indianapolis, IN
United States

Look Out, New York, It's Credico For Mayor! [FEATURE]

New York City has earned itself the sobriquet of Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World, with tens of thousands of minor pot possession arrests every year -- mostly of young men of color -- generated in good part by the city's equally infamous stop-and-frisk policing, again aimed primarily at the city's young and non-white residents. There's a man running an outsider campaign for the mayor's office there this year who wants to end all that.

Randy Credico during 2010 Senate campaign
Veteran Big Apple civil rights, social justice, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and drug reform activist Randy Credico, who also doubles as a professional comedian, is mounting an insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party mayoral nomination, and he wants to end the city's drug war and a whole lot more, and he wants to do it now.

The inventively funny, yet deadly serious, agitprop artist has an ambitious 17-point program for his first day in office, with promises that range from going after "the biggest criminals in our city" -- the Wall Street bankers -- and reforming the city's tax code to favor the poor to rolling back privatization of city schools and reforming various city agencies.

But just beneath banksters and taxes is a vow to begin reining in the NYPD by firing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (to be replaced with Frank Serpico) and "abolishing the NYPD’s unconstitutional policies of racial profiling, stop and frisk, domestic spying, entrapment, and its infamous (albeit unadmitted) 'quota system.'"

Central to that policing reform plank, Credico says, is reclassifying the smoking and carrying of marijuana as no longer an arrestable offense. He also vows to fire any officer who lies or perjures himself on the stand, and to bar the use of "no-knock" warrants and stun grenades "except in the case of legitimate terrorist attack."

And he wants to replace the city's Special Narcotics Office with a Harm Reduction Office, whose leadership he has offered to Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann. He also vows to shut down the Rikers Island prison and turn it into a treatment center and education facility with a state of the art library, and to nominate law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, to run it.

That's quite a tall order for a first day in office, but Credico says he's up for it.

"I plan to stay up for 24 hours and get all that stuff done," he told the Chronicle.

Of course, first he has to win the Democratic Party nomination and then win the general election, and that's a pretty tall order, too. There is a bevy of candidates (polling data at the link as well) running for a shot at the prestigious post, and he is facing stiff establishment opposition in the primary, most notably from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the as yet officially undeclared city council Speaker Christine Quinn, who leads the other Democrats in early polls, but is in a close race with "undecided."

The Republican race includes a handful of announced or potential candidates led by former Metropolitan Transit Authority head Joseph Lhota (who still trails "undecided" by a large margin) and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is as yet unannounced. The Libertarians may also field a candidate this year, possibly former "Manhattan madam" and gubernatorial candidate Kristin Davis, and we can't forget the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, either.

"The GOP has a rich guy who just jumped in, and the Democrats have a six-pack of hacks, all getting money from the real estate interests and Wall Street and none of whom will talk about the issues," Credico explained. "The Democrats are all doing the Schumer act -- just talking about the middle class, not the poor, the homeless, the division between the rich and poor, not about drug policy. This city is virtually a police state right now."

Credico has a remedy for that: Elect him.

"I will get rid of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is a combination of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Fouche, Napoleon's dreaded head of the secret police. Everyone is afraid of him. He's got the Red Squads going; they were infiltrating groups at Occupy Wall Street. Kelly is doing all these joint operations with the feds under the guise of fighting terrorism, and this city is crawling with undercover cops -- FBI, DEA, AFT, all running joint task forces with the NYPD. They've foiled 14 plots, all hatched by the NYPD. Ray Kelly has way too much power," the veteran activist said flatly.

"There is a lot of money not only in the prison industrial complex, but also the police industrial complex," Credico noted. "They have asset forfeiture and lots of new schemes, tons of undercover agents, who are really there to beat up on the black community. They infiltrate, demonize, and destroy lives, and this has to stop."

Credico has been active in the Occupy Wall Street moving, having been arrested five times by the NYPD, but before that, he was active in the city's minority communities for years, working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (in between stints flying out to Tulia, Texas, to deal with the bogus mass arrests of black men on drug charges there), and fighting stop-and-frisk. He currently is taking time out of his days to attend hearings in the criminal trial of the NYPD officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his own bathroom as he was flushing a bag of weed down the toilet.

"I go to every one of the court dates and sit right next to his mother," he said. "This cop invaded Ramarley's house and shot him in the head for weed, but it's not an isolated incident. No cops go to jail for killing a black person, but a spit on a cop and you can go to jail for years. This is just one cop -- and he's like the Lt. Calley of the NYPD. [Editor's Note: Calley was the sole US Army officer convicted of a crime in the Vietnam War My Lai massacre.] It's not an isolated incident; it's the policy, the same policy that killed Ramarley Graham and Sean Bell and Amador Diallou. So many people have been killed by the NYPD, and it's not just the guys on the street; it's a brutal force."

Marijuana could also be a wedge issue for him, Credico said.

"I'm a committed pot smoker, and I think it should be legal, and I'm the only candidate saying it should be legal. Of course, it's up to the state legislature to do that, but I would direct the NYPD not to enforce those laws and particularly not to arrest anyone."

Under current state law, pot possession is decriminalized, but beginning with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD had a policy of turning what should have been tickets for possession into misdemeanors by either reaching in someone's pocket and removing the baggie or intimidating the person into revealing it himself, thus elevating the offense from an infraction to the misdemeanor of "public possession." Under increasing pressure over the tactic, Commissioner Kelly last year issued an order for it to stop, and arrests have declined somewhat, but still remain at unacceptably high levels.

In 2011, there were some 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in the city, nearly 80% of them of people of color. Nearly one-quarter (12,000) were youth aged 16 to 19, and of those, 94% had no prior criminal records.

And it's not just marijuana, Credico said.

"There should be no more prosecutions for drug possession," he said. "They should be going after the real criminals, the guys on Wall Street. They don't have to go up to Harlem and Washington Heights, the real big barracudas are right down here."

The city's criminal justice system is rotten to the core, he said.

"This is like Tulia, this is like the South," he moaned. "The criminal justice system here is a black box where blacks and Latinos go in and disappear into the penal system. The cops are white, the judges are white, the prosecutors are white -- only the Bronx has a rainbow coalition of prosecutors -- the rest are white, and they're going after black people in this city."

Many of those busted ended up in Rikers Island or the Tombs, often after first spending hours or days crammed into precinct holding cells.

"Rikers Island is like Alcatraz for poor people on minor drug offenses," said Credico. "It's all Mickey Mouse; there's no Hannibal Lectors there. They need to turn it into a university for poor people. And no one is talking about the Tombs. I've been there. There are lots of junkies in there going through withdrawals, filthy toilets, people penned in like cattle. No one will talk about that, or about the hundreds of precincts with their holding cells."

Unsurprisingly, Credico doesn't think much of his establishment opposition.

"Christine Quinn is Bloomberg in drag wearing a red wig," he declared, "and de Blasio supported stop-and-frisk. He was also Hillary's hit man when she was running for the Senate, and derailed Grandpa Munster Al Lewis's campaign then."

Lhota, who has recently made noises about legalizing marijuana, "looks like a weed head," Credico snorted. "But I actually smoke it."

Now, Credico has to go through the process of qualifying as a Democratic candidate, smiting his foes within the party, and then taking on the Republican challenger in the general election. His first official campaign task will be to complete a month-long signature-gathering drive in late spring to qualify for the primary.

"I'll be on talk shows -- people all over the place are asking for interviews -- making some ads and some YouTube videos, and they'll be interesting and funny. It will be a very entertaining campaign. We have buttons coming out soon, we have the web site, there are people who will be putting ads in the Nation," he explained.

"Drug reformers are interested in my campaign, and I've got tons of volunteers from the stop-and-frisk campaigns and people from OWS," he said. "I'm getting a lot of attention right now."

Credico, of course, is a long-shot, but even if he doesn't become the next mayor of New York, to the degree that his campaign shines a light on the problems in the city's criminal justice system and forces other candidates to address them, he will be judged a success.

(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.)

New York City, NY
United States

Florida Must Pay Attorney Fees in Employee Drug Test Lawsuit

A federal judge has ordered the state of Florida to pay more than $190,000 in attorneys' fees in a case challenging an executive order ordering suspicionless drug testing of state employees issued last year by Gov. Rick Scott (R). Those taxpayer funds have now been lost to Scott's chimeric crusade to impose drug testing on various fronts.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/rick-scott-200px.jpg
Gov. Scott's controversial lawmaking has already cost Florida a million in legal fees.
Last Friday, US District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro ordered the state to pay attorneys' fees to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 79, which filed suit to block the executive order in May 2011. The union is the plaintiff in the suit challenging Scott's ability to randomly test workers in state agencies.

A report by the Orlando Sentinel found that the state has now incurred over a million dollars in legal bills for controversial legislation pushed by the governor.

Judge Ungaro had ruled that Scott's executive order was unconstitutional back in April, saying the governor did not show a "compelling need" to impose drug testing. Scott has appealed to the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Scott's drug testing plan has never been implemented except among some employees of the Department of Corrections. He put it on hold because of the legal challenge.

Another of Scott's pet projects, the mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients has also been so far stymied in the federal courts. In that case, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking implementation amid strong hints she would eventually rule that the practice was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, despite the legal roadblocks -- and financial costs to taxpayers of fighting them -- Scott and the legislature last year passed another bill, House Bill 1205, which would allow, but not require, state agencies to conduct random suspicionless drug testing of state workers. That law, too, is on hold as it faces challenges in the federal courts.

FL
United States

Law Enforcement Call on DOJ to Respect State Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

Tuesday morning, former Baltimore narcotics officer Neill Franklin delivered a letter signed by 73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents to Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department in downtown Washington , DC, urging him not to ignore the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington state who voted to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.

LEAP leader Neill Franklin delivers letters to the Justice Department. (leap.cc)
Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supported Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington. Both measures won with 55% of the vote in this month's elections.

"As fellow law enforcement and criminal justice professionals we respectfully call upon you to respect and abide by the democratically enacted laws to regulate marijuana in Colorado and Washington," the letter said. "This is not a challenge to you, but an invitation -- an invitation to help return our profession to the principles that made us enter law enforcement in the first place."

The Obama administration's response to the legalization votes could help define its place in the history books, LEAP warned.

"One day the decision you are about to make about whether or not to respect the people's will may well come to be the one for which you are known. The war on marijuana has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths both here and south of the border, it has empowered and expanded criminal networks and it has destroyed the mutual feeling of respect once enjoyed between citizens and police. It has not, however, reduced the supply or the demand of the drug and has only served to further alienate -- through arrest and imprisonment -- those who consume it," the letter said.

"At every crucial moment in history, there comes a time when those who derive their power from the public trust forge a new path by disavowing their expected function in the name of the greater good. This is your moment. As fellow officers who have seen the destruction the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, on our police forces, on our lives, we hope that you will join us in seeking a better world," the letter concluded.

The LEAP letter is only the latest manifestation of efforts by legalization supporters to persuade the federal government to stand back and not interfere with state-level attempts to craft schemes to tax and regulate marijuana commerce. Members of the Colorado congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would give the states freedom to act, while other members of Congress, notably Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), have called on the Obama administration to "respect the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington." Frank and Paul are cosponsors of a pending federal legalization bill.

"We have sponsored legislation at the federal level to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana because of our belief in individual freedom," Frank and Paul wrote in a letter to President Obama last week. "We recognize that this has not yet become national policy, but we believe there are many strong reasons for your administration to allow the states of Colorado and Washington to set the policies they believe appropriate in this regard, without the federal government overriding the choices made by the voters of these states."

"We seem to be at a turning point in how our society deals with marijuana," said Franklin Tuesday. "The war on marijuana has funded the expansion of drug cartels, it has destroyed community-police relations and it has fostered teenage use by creating an unregulated market where anyone has easy access. Prohibition has failed. Pretty much everyone knows it, especially those of us who dedicated our lives to enforcing it. The election results show that the people are ready to try something different. The opportunity clearly exists for President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do the right thing and respect the will of the voters."

"During his first term, President Obama really disappointed those of us who hoped he might follow through on his campaign pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws," continued Franklin. "Still, I'm hopeful that in his second term he'll realize the political opportunity that exists to do the right thing. Polls show 80% support for medical marijuana, and in Colorado marijuana legalization got more votes than the president did in this most recent election."

"From a public safety perspective, it's crucial that the Obama administration let Colorado and Washington fully implement the marijuana regulation laws that voters approved on Election Day," added LEAP member Tony Ryan, a retired 36-year Denver Police veteran. "There's nothing the federal government can do to force these states to arrest people for marijuana possession, but if it tries and succeeds in stopping the states from regulating and taxing marijuana sales, cartels and gangs will continue to make money selling marijuana to people on the illegal market. Plus, the states won't be able to take in any new tax revenue to fund schools."

At a Tuesday noon press conference, Franklin and other LEAP members hammered home the point.

"LEAP members have spent the majority of their careers on the front line of the war on drugs and have seen the failure of prohibition," he said. "We call now to end prohibition and embrace a new drug policy based on science, facts, and the medical field."

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper told the press conference the war on marijuana was essentially a war on youth, especially minority youth, that sours police-community relations.

"I have come to believe that the war on marijuana has made enemies of many law-abiding Americans, especially many young, black, Latino, and poor Americans," Stamper said. "The law and the mass incarceration behind it have set up a real barrier between police and the community, particularly ethnic communities."

Legalization and regulation will help change that negative dynamic, Stamper said.

"This frees up police to concentrate on violent, predatory crimes, those crimes that really scare people, drive property values down, and diminish the quality of our lives," he said. "We're convinced that by working with the community, including those victimized by these laws, we can build an authentic partnership between police and the community and create true community policing, which demands respect for local law enforcement. By legalizing we have a chance to significantly reduce race and class discrimination. Watch what we do, we will use these states as a laboratory, and the sky will not fall."

"I joined this movement when I was made aware the war on drugs was a war on our community," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "Instead of being protected, we were being targeted. We don't feel like the police are protecting us; instead, they have declared war on our young men and women. The amount of resources being used in this war to divide the community is why we have so many incidents between law enforcement and our community. We know that come Friday and Saturday night there will be a ring of law enforcement personnel ringing our community looking to make those low-level drug arrests."

"I believe the regulation and legalization of marijuana is not only long overdue, but will make our communities safer," Huffman continued. "I am very hopeful that our president, who has some experience of his own with marijuana use, which didn't prevent him from becoming a strong leader, will see the light and get rid of these approaches that do nothing but condemn our people to a life of crime because they have felonies and are no longer employable. Instead of treating them like criminals, maybe we can treat them like people with health problems."

The Obama administration has yet to respond substantively to this month's victories for marijuana legalization. Nothing it says or does will stop marijuana from becoming legal to possess (and to grow in Colorado) by next month in Washington and by early January at the latest in Colorado, but it could attempt to block state-level attempts to tax and regulate commercial cultivation and distribution, and it has some months to decide whether to do so. Tuesday's letter and press conference were part of the ongoing effort to influence the administration to, as Franklin put it, "do the right thing."

Washington, DC
United States

At NORML, A Sharp Focus on the Marijuana Initiatives [FEATURE]

The 41st National NORML conference took place at a downtown Los Angeles hotel over the weekend under the theme of "The Final Days of Prohibition." With marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two others, the several hundred attendees could almost smell the scent of victory come election day -- or at least a historic first win for legalization.

Rick Steves, Keith Stroup, Ethan Nadelmann, Brian Vicente for OR Amendment 64, Roy Kaufman for OR Measure 80 (radicalruss.com)
"This is a great movement, not because it's about marijuana, but because it's a movement about truth and freedom, the freedom to live our private lives as we wish," NORML board chairman Paul Kuhn told the crowd in his conference-opening remarks. "A White House that serves liquor, a president who smoked a lot of marijuana, and a speaker of the house who is addicted to nicotine -- they have no business demonizing us because we prefer a substance less dangerous than liquor or alcohol."

For Kuhn, as for many others at the conference, supporting the legalization initiatives was front and center. (While grumbling and gnashing of teeth was heard among some attendees, particularly over the Washington initiative's drugged driving provision, no initiative opponents were seen on any of the panels or presentations.)

"We're beyond the concept of legalization. Now, we're supporting real laws, and no law will satisfy everybody in this movement," Kuhn continued, implicitly acknowledging the dissension around the Washington initiative. "We have our differences, sometimes heated, and this is healthy and necessary if we are to evolve and craft the best laws and regulations, the best form of legalization. All of us in this movement are allies, we're friends, we share the same goals of truth and freedom and legal marijuana. We have worked too hard for too many years to let our opponents divide us, or worse, divide ourselves."

"These are the final days of prohibition. The data is clear," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, pointing not only to public opinion polls but also to the political reality of the initiatives and the progress the movement has made in Congress and the states. "We have a cannabis caucus in our Congress and in the state houses, and we helped get them elected. There are 15 or 20 members of Congress who are genuine supporters of ending prohibition, most of them are Democrats. In the states, we now have sitting governors and representatives calling us and saying 'we want your support, your endorsement, your money.'"

 With the initiatives looming, much of the conference was devoted to the minutiae and arcana of legalization, regulation, and taxation models. Thursday afternoon saw extended discussions in panels on "Cannabis Legalization and Regulation: What it Might Look Like" and "Cannabis and the 'Demo' Gap: Who Doesn't Support Legalization and What We Can Do about It."

"How do we win the hearts and minds of non-smokers?" asked Patrick Oglesby of the Center for New Revenue. "The revenue card is one we can play. That gives people something to vote for. Every state in the union legalizes and taxes alcohol and tobacco. Revenue from marijuana isn't going to fix our economic problems, but let's start with the easy stuff, let's fix this and get some revenues."

"At least one state will tip in November, and others will follow," predicted Pepperdine University researcher and Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know coauthor Angela Hawken. "Parents will wake up and realize their children didn't turn into zombies."

Parents -- and mothers in particular -- are a key demographic that must be won over if marijuana legalization is to advance, and the way to win them over is to address their fears, panelists said.

"Women are more safety conscious and they tend to believe authority," noted NORML Women's Alliance coordinator Sabrina Fendrick. "They just need to be educated. Proposition 19 failed in large part because of women and seniors. Many were concerned over the driving issue and children being on the road with stoned drivers. The way to bring support up is to educate them about the difference between use and abuse, and to make women who support legalization feel safe about coming out."

The NORML Women's Alliance is working on that, and on increasing the number of female activists in a movement that has been male-dominated from the outset.

Law enforcement is another key bastion of opposition to legalization, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) representative Steven Downing told the audience the key to swaying law enforcement was not in the rank and file, but at the pinnacle of the command structure.

"We have to influence change at the top," he said. "When that comes, the young officers on the street will do as they're told. Many of them already agree with legalizing marijuana. Don't treat the police as the enemy, but as people who can benefit from the education you can give them. Do it in a way that they're not defensive, then refer them to LEAP," the former LAPD officer suggested. "Tell them that if they support the war on drugs, they're not supporting public safety."

On Friday, longtime Seattle marijuana activist-turned-journalist Dominic Holden gave a spirited defense of Washington's I-502 initiative and ripped into its movement critics, including calling out NORML board member and Seattle defense attorney Jeff Steinborn, who has been a vocal foe of the initiative despite a unanimous board vote to support it.

"Who is opposing 502?" Holden asked. "The law enforcement opposition has been quiet and halfhearted. It's Steve Sarich, who runs CannaCare, it's cannabis doc Gil Mobley, and a whole passel of pot activists along with them. The ones opposing pot legalization right now are the ones making money hand over fist with prohibition. If they're profiting off it, I don't give a rat's ass what they think," he said.

"They don't like the DUID provision and its per se standard. They say that someone who uses marijuana regularly will test positive, but there is not a single scientific study to back them up. Their argument is fundamentally flawed because it is a lie," Holden countered, mincing no words.

"There is also concern that if we pass it, the federal government will challenge us on legalizing pot. That's the damned point!" he thundered.

"But marijuana is going to be taxed, they complain. Shut up, Teabaggers!" Holden jeered. "What planet do you live on where they're not going to tax a huge agricultural commodity?"

He pointed out that Steinborn and Sensible Washington, who are opposing I-502, had tried unsuccessfully to mount an initiative of their own.

"If you want to run a winning campaign, you need a bunch of money, credible spokespeople, campaign professionals, and the polling on your side," he said. "Part of that is compromise. You don't always get what you want, you don't always get the initiative of your dreams. What you want is a bill that can win."

"This is poll driven," said travel writer, TV host, and I-502 proponent Rick Steves. "It isn't a utopian fix. We need to win this. This doesn't feel pro-pot, but anti-prohibition."

"Regulate marijuana like alcohol is our message," said Sensible Colorado head and Amendment 80 proponent Brian Vicente. "We don't talk about legalization, but regulation. We've built support for this through two avenues, medical marijuana, where we've worked hard to make our state a model for how it can be taxed and regulated, but also through consistent earned media pushes and ballot initiatives to introduce the public to the idea that this isn’t the demon weed. We're consistently ahead five to ten points in the polls. We think this will be a damned close election."

When Vicente noted that the Colorado initiative had no drugged driving provision, he was met with loud applause. 

Drug Policy Alliance
head Ethan Nadelmann provided a primer on what major donors look for when it comes to supporting initiatives.

"We don't pick out a state in advance," he explained. "We want to know at the get-go if there is already a serious majority in favor of legalization. To think you can use a campaign to move the public is not true; the role of the ballot process is to transform majoritarian public opinion into law when the state legislature is unable or unwilling to do so. You want to go in with 57% or 58% on your side. Anything short of that, you're going to lose."

And watch out for October, he warned.

"In the final weeks, the opposition mobilizes," Nadelmann said. "You get the cops, the politicians, the feds speaking out and scaring people -- that's why these are hard to win, and that's why I'm still really nervous."

Still, the Drug Policy Alliance is deeply involved in Colorado and has put a lot of money into Washington, Nadelmann said, while noting that the Marijuana Policy Project had also put big bucks into Colorado.

"We have to win this year so we can figure out how to win a bunch more in 2016," Nadelmann said, adding that he was looking toward California. "We're going to try to put together the best and most winnable legalization initiative in California in 2016.

NORML 2012 wasn't all about the initiatives -- there were also panels on advances in medical marijuana, advances in the Northeast, and the role of women in the movement, among others, and a rousing speech from long-time anti-war activist Tom Hayden and a new-born movement star in Ann Lee, the mother of Richard Lee -- but with the marijuana legalization movement looking like it's about to step foot in the Promised Land after decades in the political wilderness, next month's elections dominated. The prospect of imminent victory really focuses the mind.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Danes Want Heroin Pills for Addicts

In remarks reported by the Copenhagen Post Sunday, Danish Health Minister Astrid Krag announced that she is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection.

Heroin safer in pill form? Danes thinks so. (wikimedia.org)
It is time to offer users a safer choice, Krag said, adding that the pills should be available next year. She said the Danish Board of Health had evidence to believe making heroin available in pill form would reduce the risks of disease and overdose.

"With tablets, we get a tool that lessens the risk of incorrect dosages, injuries and incidences of cancer," she explained. "This will be an improvement of the current system. It clearly needs to be in place by 2013."

The Danish government approved heroin maintenance in 2008, with the first clinic opening in 2010. There are now five of them. A supervised injection site is set to open in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Vesterbro later this year. In the meantime, a mobile injection site is zooming around the neighborhood.

Opposition conservative party spokespersons said they were open to the proposal, but wondered how it would be paid for. But spokespersons for the government Socialistisk Folkeparti said that was just politics.

"It is remarkable that [the conservative opposition] says that financing must be in place before you make a proposal," said Jonas Dahl, health spokesman for the Socialists. "The working procedure has always been that we first get a professional recommendation from the Board of Health and then find the money."

Copenhagen
Denmark

DOJ to Sentencing Commission: Fewer Prisoners, Please

In a congressionally mandated annual report to the US Sentencing Commission on the operation of federal sentencing guidelines, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said continuing increases in the federal prison populations and spending are "unsustainable" and called on the commission to work with other stakeholders to reduce federal corrections costs. But the report failed to address the single largest factor driving the growth in the federal prison population: the huge increase in the number of federal prisoners doing time for drug offenses.

Even the feds can no longer sustain current mass incarceration policies. (US Supreme Court)
According to data compiled by Drug War Facts and based on Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, in 1980, there were some 19,000 federal prisoners, with some 4,500 having a drug offense as their most serious offense. By 2010, the number of federal prisoners had increased tenfold to more than 190,000, and a whopping 97,000 were doing time for drug offenses, also a tenfold increase. The percentage of drug offenders increased during that period from roughly 25% of all federal prisoners in 1980 to 51.7% in 2010.

As DOJ noted in its letter, the first decade of that period corresponded to the end of decades of increases in crime and violent crime, leading to record high crime rates, which had generated a number of policy responses, including more police, harsher sentencing, and an increased emphasis on illegal drugs. But as DOJ also noted, beginning in 1992, violent crime has dropped consistently, and the US is now safer than it has been in decades.

All that costs money. The DOJ report noted that state, local, and federal criminal justice expenditures jumped nearly six-fold between 1984 and 2006, from $32.6 billion to $186.2 billion. State and local spending continued to rise until 2009, when the financial crisis and subsequent economic recession took hold, while federal criminal justice spending rose nearly ten-fold, from $4.5 billion to $41 billion.

But even though the federal government is more cosseted from economic hard time than the states, even it can no longer spend freely. As the DOJ letter noted, "The Budget Control Act of 2011 sent a clear signal that the steady growth in the budgets of the Department of Justice, other federal enforcement agencies, and the federal courts experienced over the past 15 years has come to an end."

While federal criminal justice budgets have been relatively flat in the last few years, the costs of imprisoning an ever-increasing number of people has not, and that means fewer resources for other criminal justice spending, including aid to state and local law enforcement and prevention and intervention programs. Within DOJ, the core law enforcement functions (policing, prosecution, prisons) have increased from 75% of the budget in 2002 to 91% this year.

"The question our country faces today is how can we continue to build on our success in combating crime and ensuring the fair and effective administration of justice in a time of limited criminal justice resources at all levels of government?" the DOJ noted. "In other words, how will the country ensure sufficient investments in public safety, and how will those involved in crime policy ensure that every dollar invested in public safety is spent in the most productive way possible?"

With budgets flat, criminal justice spending has to get more bang for the buck, the DOJ letter said.

"We must ensure that our federal sentencing and corrections system is strong but smart; credible, productive and just; and budgetarily sound," the letter said. "But maximizing public safety can be achieved without maximizing prison spending. The federal prison population -- and prison expenditures -- have been increasing for years. In this period of austerity, these increases are incompatible with a balanced crime policy and are unsustainable.

"We believe federal sentencing policy should be reviewed -- both systemically and on a crime-by-crime basis -- through the lens of public safety spending productivity. Adopting that perspective, we think it is clear that there are many areas of sentencing policy that call be improved," the letter continued. "We have identified many of the crime-specific areas over the last several years that warrant substantive reexamination. And we have also put forward legislative proposals to make systemic changes that would help control prison costs in a responsible way that furthers public safety. As to the guidelines process itself, we think reforms -- including some simplification of the guidelines and some limits on sentencing appeals -- are worth fully considering."

It is clear what is driving the growth in the federal prison population and the federal corrections budget: drug war prisoners. While the Obama administration DOJ is to be credited with taking some steps that move in the direction of reducing the number of prisoners and the corrections budget, such as supporting the partial reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, its failure to directly address the consequences of policies of mass imprisonment of drug offenders means that it is missing the elephant in the room.

Washington, DC
United States

Washington Marijuana Initiative Has Good Week

This has been a good week for I-502, the Washington state initiative to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana, and its sponsors, New Approach Washington. Over the weekend, the campaign racked up big bucks with a handful of six-figure contributions, and just before that, a new poll had it with a promising lead.

SurveyUSA polled registered voters last week on the question of whether I-502 should be enacted into law, and 55% said yes, while only 32% said no. That's a 23-point lead, a figure that exceeds the number of undecideds (13%). Even if the undecideds break strongly against I-502, as they are wont to do in initiative votes, the measure merely needs to not shed too much support to still be able to win in November.

The good poll numbers were followed over the weekend by New Approach Washington's announcement that it had received $1.25 million in new donations. The measure had already received $1.7 in donations before announcing the latest round.

The big bucks came from a handful of donors: $450,000 from Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform sugar daddy Peter Lewis; another $450,000 from the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance; $250,000 from TV travel show host Rick Steves, who had already kicked in another $100,000; and $100,000 from the ACLU of Washington.

I-502 would legalize the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Marijuana and marijuana-infused products would be grown by state licensed growers and sold in state-licensed stores. The measure would impose steep excise taxes on pot sales.

It is opposed by state law enforcement associations, but also by some legalization and medical marijuana activists concerned with its provision that would impose a new limit on active THC in the blood of drivers. Those critics argue that the provision would effectively criminalize driving by medical marijuana patients and other regular users.

It wasn't all good news this week. Word came out late last week that Steve Sarich, the state's most prominent purveyor of medical marijuana, and other opponents of I-502 have filed a lawsuit to keep the measure off the November ballot. They claim that passage of I-502 would be "ruinous" to the state budget and that the Office of Financial Management is conspiring with the I-502 campaign by not yet releasing a fiscal impact statement. But as Holcomb noted, the agency has until August 10 to do so.

WA
United States

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