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The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

Last year is receding in the rear view mirror, but before looking forward to the battles of 2014, let us take a moment to savor what was, overall, a pretty big year for drug reform on the domestic front. Unsurprisingly, marijuana makes up a lot of the news, but there were also signs that America's decades-long incarceration fever is breaking, and even though the impulse to scapegoat the downtrodden through public benefits drug testing remains strong, it doesn't really seem to be picking up much traction, and the year ended with suspicionless public benefits drug testing slapped down by a federal judge. Here are the highlights of 2013:

October Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on state marijuana legalization
#1 The Obama Administration Doesn't Try to Block State Marijuana Legalization

While the truly historic moments in US marijuana legalization -- the November 2012 election victories in Colorado and Washington and the commencement of legal marijuana sales in Colorado on Wednesday -- neatly bracketed 2013, history was being made by the Obama administration as well. The first presidency to deal with states voting to legalize marijuana for adults in direct contravention of federal law did so in a remarkably reasonable fashion: by largely getting out of the way. In August, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a three-page memorandum affirming that the US Justice Department would allow the two states to move forward with statewide efforts to license and regulate the adult marijuana market. Cole later reaffirmed the agency's position in testimony before the US Senate, stating, "We will not … seek to preempt state ballot initiatives."

#2 State Officials Don't Try to Block Marijuana Legalization Where Voters Approved It

Kudos are also due to legislators, elected officials, and functionaries in Colorado and Washington, who accepted the voters' choice to legalize marijuana with apparent good faith. The Washington state Liquor Control Board and Colorado legislators both came up with workable ways of implementing the will of the voters, while being careful to also heed the concerns of those worried about problems legalization could bring with it. Colorado's system rolled out this week and Washington's will come in a matter of months.

#3 Public Support for Marijuana Legalization in the US Reaches All-Time Highs

If 2012 was the year public opinion in favor of marijuana legalization reaching the tipping point, 2013 was the year it went over it. An October Gallup Poll had support for legalization a record-breaking 58% nationwide. That was in line with a number of other polls since the 2012 elections that showed support either above or just below 50%, depending on the pollster. The on-going sea change in public opinion has also been apparent in polls showing majority support not just where it might be expected, like California, but also where it isn't, like Louisiana and Texas, both of which reported late year majorities for legalization.

Capital City Care medical marijuana dispensary, Washington, DC
#4 The Advance of Medical Marijuana Continues

Bills legalizing medical marijuana passed in Illinois and New Hampshire, bringing the number of states that allow it to 20, along with the District of Columbia. Dispensaries opened for the first time in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. And bills that will allow dispensaries to open this year passed in Nevada and Oregon. About two dozen states saw medical marijuana legislation filed last year; expect a similar level of activity this year.

#5 The Number of State, But Not Federal, Prisoners in America Keeps On Declining

For the third year in a row, the number of people in prison in the US declined, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in July. (The figures are actually for year's end 2012, but the report came out in 2013, so here we are.). The figures do not include jail inmates. At the end of 2012, there were 1,571,013 prisoners in America, down 1.7% (or 27,770 inmates) from the previous year. Breaking down the numbers, that means that somewhere north of 330,000 people were serving time for drug crimes in US prisons at the end of last year, down from a record high of nearly half a million at the beginning of the century. The decline is because of shifts in sentencing policies in the states; the federal prison population kept expanding, although at a lower rate than over the past decade.

#6 Momentum for Sentencing Reform Grows in Washington

The clamor to do something about drug sentencing reverberated throughout the nation's capital in 2013. In August, Attorney General Holder announced an administration package of sentencing reforms, some of which could be enacted administratively, such as prosecutors not routinely resorting to mandatory minimum charging decisions, but others of which require congressional action. And while Congress didn't actually pass anything, it laid the groundwork for action next year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an increasingly loud critic of mandatory minimums, allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, and similar legislation has been introduced in the House. In another sign of interest in sentencing reform, 10 members of the House Judiciary Committee formed an "over-criminalization" task force in May. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing in September to whip up support for their legislation and other sentencing reform bills, and the committee held a mark-up session on the bills in December. The stage appears set for real movement this year.

#7 "Defelonization" Emerges as a Sentencing Policy Option for States

Although, over the years, 13 states and the District of Columbia have moved to reduce incarceration burdens by treating simple drug possession offenses as misdemeanors instead felonies -- defelonization -- the idea got renewed impetus in 2013, especially on the West Coast. In California, a bill that would have allowed prosecutors the option of charging felony possession cases passed the legislature, and in Washington state, legislators and activists announced late last year that they would try to move a similar bill there this year. Unfortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the defelonization bill, but as a result of that veto, the San Francisco DA and the San Diego police chief have filed a defelonization initiative. While 2013 was a building year for defelonization efforts, they could well bear fruit this year.

#8 A Tough Year for Public Benefits Drug Testing Bills

Legislation seeking to make public benefits beneficiaries pass drug tests continued to popular in Republican-dominated state legislatures in 2013, with bills introduced in at least 30 states, but by year's end, only a handful had actually passed, and all of those were "reasonable suspicion" bills instead of bills requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing. Drug testing bills passed in Kansas (welfare, unemployment), North Carolina (welfare, passed over the Republican governor's veto), Michigan (unemployment), and Texas (unemployment). But as the year went on, there was rising criticism of the cost of enforcing such legislation and the small number of actual drug users found in states that had previously passed similar bills, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah. And the last day of 2013 saw a federal judge throw out Florida's suspicionless welfare drug testing law as unconstitutional. The up side is that that ought to drive a stake through the heart of any more suspicionless drug testing bills; the down side is that legislators elsewhere have already figured that out, which is why all of the 2013 bills that passed were "reasonable suspicion" bills.

#9 Historic Firsts for Hemp

Not only were industrial hemp bills filed in both houses of Congress last year, but for the first time ever, the House passed a hemp production measure. The measure was an amendment to the farm bill, but unfortunately, the entire bill was defeated after Republicans attempted to attach drug testing provisions for food stamp recipients. A later version of the bill passed without the hemp amendment. Still, there is hope that the hemp amendment, which also had Republican support, will reemerge whenever the Senate and House meet in conference committee. Meanwhile, more states took up hemp legislation, with a bill passing Kentucky and another one passing in Colorado (as part of the implementation of Amendment 64). Hemp bills were also filed in California (approved in the state Senate), Missouri, New Jersey, and Vermont (as part of a broader legalization bill). And in November, a Colorado farmer oversaw the first hemp crop harvest since World War II., even though it remains illegal under federal law.

#10 Obama Exercises Clemency Power, Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Others

Just before year's end, President Obama granted clemency to eight crack cocaine offenders, bringing an early Christmas present to poster boy for drug war sentencing excess Clarence Aaron and seven other crack cocaine offenders. Aaron has served more than 20 years for his peripheral role in a cocaine conspiracy, and the others were serving equally onerous sentences. The commutations were a departure for the Obama administration, which has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before the pre-Christmas commutations, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

Chronicle AM -- January 2, 2014

The New Year starts off with a whole bunch of marijuana news, the DEA Cartagena prostitution scandal gets an update, another Republican governor calls for welfare drug testing, and a South Korean comedian gets hammered for toking up. And more. Let's get to it:

South Korean comedian and actress Song In Hwa gets sent to jail for smoking pot. (Facebook)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Stores Open for Business; Sky Doesn't Fall, But Crowds Form. Crowds of would-be customers braved long lines in frigid, snow-blown conditions Wednesday to be able to participate in the historic first day of legal retail marijuana sales to adults in Colorado. The biggest apparent problem was feared supply shortages, leading some retailers to either limit purchases to a quarter-ounce (state law allows purchases of up to an ounce for residents) or raise prices, or both.

Washington State Marijuana Business Applications Top 5,000. As of year's end, state officials have processed more than 5,000 marijuana business applications, the state Liquor Control Board, which is in charge of the process, said Tuesday. There were 1,312 applications for retail outlets, but the state plans to cap their number at 324, so there will be competition. There were also 2,113 applications for cultivation licenses and 1,512 for processing facilities. And there will be more. Although the application window closed December 20, officials are still processing backlogged applications.

New Hampshire House to Vote This Month on Legalizing Marijuana. The New Hampshire House will vote later this month on a bill that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults 21 and over. But even if it passes the House, it faces an uphill battle. Last year, the Senate rejected a bill to decriminalize a quarter-ounce, and Gov. Margaret Hassan (D) opposed even decrim.

Vermont Marijuana Legalization Bill Introduced. State Sen. David Zuckerman (P-Chittenden) has introduced a bill to tax, regulate, and legalize the production, sale, and use of marijuana, but he said he doubted it would pass this year. The state decriminalized possession last year, and Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has said legalization isn't a priority this year. The Marijuana Policy Project said it would use this year to build a consensus for legalization, with an eye on 2015.

Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Coming Back in Hawaii. Marijuana decriminalization got through the state Senate last year, but got stuck in the House. Proponents will try again this year, Pam Lichty of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii told local media.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Medical Marijuana Law Goes Into Effect. Illinois' medical marijuana law went into effect on New Year's Day. Sort of. Patients aren't protected until they have signed up with a state registry, which will not be open until the spring at the earliest, and regulatory agencies are going to spend the next four months establishing rules and regulations for cultivation and distribution. Cultivation applications might be accepted by the fall. In the meantime, the state has created the Medical Marijuana Pilot Program web site, which will have updates and information on the state's progress.

Washington State Wants Medical Marijuana Businesses to Pay Taxes. The state Department of Revenue said Tuesday it will send letters to several hundred medical marijuana businesses informing them that they need to be registered and paying taxes. The department is giving the businesses until January 24 to comply. Some medical marijuana businesses already pay taxes, but others don't, arguing that medical marijuana should be treated like prescription drugs, which are untaxed.

Drug Testing

Mississippi Governor to Push for Welfare Drug Testing. In an interview with the Associated Press, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said he wants to require drug tests for recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Bryant's comments came just hours after a federal judge threw out Florida's suspicionless welfare drug testing law as unconstitutional and as "reasonable suspicion" welfare drug testing laws in states like Utah and Minnesota have come under fire as costly and unnecessary.

Law Enforcement

Sleazy Details of DEA Cartagena Prostitution Scandal Emerge. A FOIA request from Foreign Policy has resulted in the release of a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report on the scandal surrounding Secret Service and DEA agents who accompanied President Obama to the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012. The report is full of juicy, sleazy detail on agents making dozens of calls to prostitutes on their government-issued cell phones, searching for dates with transvestite prostitutes, and seeking to redefine "sex" as not including paying hookers to masturbate them and "prostitution" as not what they had engaged in by paying hookers for sex acts. The OIG said that latter claim defied "common sense and legal definitions." Click on the link for more.

International

South Korean Comedian Gets Six Months in Jail for Smoking Pot. South Korean comedian Song In Hwa was sentenced to six months in prison last Saturday after she was found guilty of using marijuana on two separate occasions, one of them in a Las Vegas hotel room, the other one with her older sister in an unspecified location. The older sister got hit even harder, getting two years in prison. Both sisters also received additional years of jail time with the remainder of the sentences suspended. "Marijuana use by a celebrity is not a light crime given its bad influence on society, but considering the defense's recognition of the crime, her reflection, and the fact that it was only two times, we gave her a suspended sentence," the court said.

Peru Will Seek to Increase Coca Eradication This Year. Peru has set a target of eradicating 75,000 acres of coca this year, the head of the country's anti-drug agency, DEVIDA, said Wednesday. That's up from about 58,000 acres actually eradicated last year. Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world's number one coca and cocaine producer, and the government of President Ollanta Humala has taken an increasingly hard line against illicit coca-growing. Eradication efforts will target the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro river valleys (VRAEM). The government also plans alternative development and crop substitution schemes for some 75,000 coca-growing families.

TNI Issues Report on Corruption and Drug-Related Violence in Rosario, Argentina. The Transnational Institute has released the first report in its new Briefing Series on Drug Markets and Violence, focusing on the interior Argentine city of Rosario. Illicit drug trafficking and associated violence and corruption went unremarked there until the killing on New Year's Day 2012 of three community activists sparked attention. Click on the link for the full report

Dutch Crackdown on Marijuana Grow Leads to Increased German Cultivation. German police said Thursday that they have seen a large increase in marijuana grows in empty buildings in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. They blame a Dutch crackdown on marijuana growers that has been in place since 2011. Since then, German cops in the state have busted 50 big grows, up from one or two a year before then.

Swansea University Global Drug Policy Observatory Up and Running. The recently created Global Drug Policy Observatory at Britain's Swansea University, whose goal is "promoting evidence and human rights based drug policy through the comprehensive and rigorous reporting, monitoring and analysis of policy developments at national and international levels," is open for business. Check out its new web site by clicking on the link above.

Obama Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Other Crack Offenders [FEATURE]

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama had granted commutations to eight federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack cocaine offenses, including poster boy for drug war excess Clarence Aaron, who has spent the last 20 years behind bars. The president also pardoned 13 former prisoners.

Finally, Clarence Aaron will go free.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."

[Editor's Note: The Senate Judiciary Committee was marking up three sentencing reform bills this same day.]

Some sentencing reforms have been enacted since the harsh escalation of the drug war in the Reagan era, including the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was unfair to continue to let people languish serving sentences no longer applicable, Obama suggested.

"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," he said." Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

The commutations are a departure for the Obama administration, which until now has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before today, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

While all eight people whose sentences were commuted suffered for years under the impact of harsh federal sentencing laws racially biased in result if not, charitably, in intent, Clarence Aaron in particular has served as the face of the unjustly punished deserving of presidential mercy. Then a college student, the first-time, nonviolent drug offender was sentenced to three life sentences for a peripheral role in a cocaine deal in 1993.

A model prisoner, his case became widely known as a result of a PBS News Frontline special about the use of informants in drug cases. His case drew additional publicity when the investigative journalism consortium ProPublica documented problems with the Office of the Pardon attorney, using Aaron's more than a decade-long effort to obtain a pardon as Exhibit #1.

Aaron's reaction to the news was not surprising.

"He was just overcome," said his attorney, Margaret Love, herself a former US Pardon Attorney, who spoke with Aaron this morning shortly after he received the news. "We're very grateful to the president," she told ProPublica after the commutations were announced.

That all the commutations were for crack cocaine-related offenses, Love said, "says something very important about the long federal sentences for drug crimes. There are a lot of people in prison whose cases are similar to the ones being commuted."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said four of its supporters, including Aaron, had had their sentences commuted, but that there were many more who deserved to come home, too.

"Now that the president has opened the door to doing commutations, he might make it a more regular activity, and not just save it for the holidays or the end of his term," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "He certainly has plenty of cases that he could choose from. I guess that time will tell."

Other sentencing and drug reform organizations were pleased and encouraged by the news, but joined FAMM and the president in calling for more.

ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta chimed in, "President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families. This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system. We hope the President will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane." A recent report by the ACLU on people serving life without parole sentences highlighted the cases of four of the people who received commutations this week -- Aaron, Stephanie George, Jason Hernandez, and Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr.

"It's wonderful news that Obama has granted clemency to these individuals. We hope this is the just the beginning of the President using his executive powers to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. "I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families."

"Through his actions today, the President has signaled his willingness to undertake needed reforms to the criminal justice system," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice Washington, DC, office. "For too long, harsh sentences and punitive policies have fed a system of mass incarceration in this country. A comprehensive effort, involving the Administration and Congress, is needed to solve this crisis and return balance to the scales of justice by creating a more rational, fair, and cost-effective criminal justice system."

"We commend the President on this right and just action. It shows bold and necessary leadership," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "This marks a year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, this shows a trajectory towards real justice in the criminal justice system."

The trajectory may be there, but take-off has yet to be achieved, several advocates warned.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in a statement, "Until there is legislative action to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, these commutations are the only relief available to federal inmates and their families. But the administration can only do so much; it is up to Congress to address this systemic failure.

"Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "But shame on the President for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses."

And while the commutations are welcome, they are not the real solution, said FAMM's Stewart.

"Even if President Obama used his clemency power energetically, which he has not, he simply wouldn't be able to commute every excessive sentence," she said. "The sentencing laws themselves are the problem. Congress needs to get moving and pass mandatory minimums sentencing reforms that save the worst prison terms for the worst offenders," Stewart said. "We hope there will be even more commutations today, but it's only Congress that can prevent the need for commutations tomorrow."

Still, it is good that Clarence Aaron and a few others are going home.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 19, 2013

Today we have a plethora of pot polls, hope on banking, an important decision by Washington state regulators, and hints of change to come from Canada's Tories, among other news. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

AP Poll Finds Opposition to Legalization Declining. In a poll released Thursday, the Associated Press found opposition to legalizing small amounts of marijuana declining, from 55% in 2010 to 29% now. At the same time, the poll reported support for legalization rising from 33% to 36%. The poll included an option for "neither support nor oppose," with 33% choosing that response. While support is up slightly, according to the poll, a good chunk of those opposed in 2010 have moved to "neither support nor oppose" now.

Wall Street Journal Poll Explores Attitudes on Where Marijuana Should Be Sold. In a poll released Thursday, the Wall Street Journal found that the most popular locations where Americans wanted legal nmarijuana to be sold were pharmacies (69%), followed by pot shops (60%), liquor stores (39%), coffee shops (17%), and supermarkets (13%). The poll also reported that 53% said the sale and possession of small amounts should not be legal, but that 80% said it should be regulated like alcohol. Go figure.

Arizona Pot Polls All Over the Place. Three Arizona polls on marijuana legalization have come up with wildly different results. Two polls from earlier in the year had support for legalization at 56% and 60%, but one just released had support at only 39%. That one is from Susquehanna Polling and Research, which only does polls for candidates who are Republicans and which had Romney beating Obama in Pennsylvania three days before the 2012 election. Obama won the state by five points.

Relief on Banking Could Come Early Next Year. Marijuana businesses could enjoy access to banking and financial services early next year, Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said Thursday. "What we're being told," Finlaw said during a teleconference, "is probably in the first quarter of 2014 there will be some guidance issued that's comparable to the Cole memo from the Department of Justice that will give, maybe not a green light, but a yellow light to banks to allow them to do business [with marijuana businesses] -- to take deposits, to set up checking accounts, to set up small business loans, to allow these businesses to accept purchases through debit cards or credit cards, to allow what normal businesses are allowed to do." The comment comes after a meeting of the Bank Secrecy Advisory Group in Washington, DC, last week.

St. Louis Legalization Debate Packs 'Em In. A Wednesday night debate on marijuana legalization filled the St. Louis Ethical Society to overflowing as Show Me Cannabis Regulation executive director John Payne took on Missouri Narcotics Officers Association vice president John Grellner for 90 minutes of heated, but polite debate. Show Me Cannabis is working to put a legalization initiative on the ballot next year.

Medical Marijuana

Washington Regulators Recommend Letting Patients Keep Their Personal Grows, But Eliminating Collective Grows. The state Liquor Control Board has reversed itself and is now recommending that patients be able to keep their grows of up to six plants. "Allow home grows and the ability for a qualified patient or designated provider to possess marijuana plants. A qualified patient or designated provider may possess 6 plants, 3 flowering and 3 nonflowering," the board recommended. But it also recommended eliminating collective gardens, the backbone of the state's dispensary system.

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Gets Long Island Public Hearing. A medical marijuana bill, the Compassionate Care Act, got a public hearing Wednesday in the chamber of the Nassau County Legislature. It had one earlier this month in Buffalo. The hearings are designed to mount public pressure on the state Senate to get the bill through.

International

UN Security Council Has "Deep Concerns" About West African Drug Trade. In a presidential statement Wednesday after a briefing from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Security Council expressed "deep concern" about a growing drug trade in West Africa and its links to terrorism. Ki-moon told the Security Council $1.2 billion worth of cocaine transits the region each year, where governments are weak, borders are porous, and extremists are on the march.

Canada's Tories to Modernize Marijuana Laws? Canada's governing Conservatives could modify the country's pot laws, Justice Minister Peter McKay hinted Wednesday. Fining marijuana users instead of arresting them is one possibility, he said. "That doesn't mean decriminalizing or legalizing, but it does mean giving police options, for example, to issue fines in addition to any other sanctions, or as a substitute for other sanctions," MacKay told QMI Agency. "These are things that we are willing to look at in the new year, but there's been no decision taken."

Obama Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Others

The White House announced this morning that President Obama had granted commutations to eight federal prisoners, including poster boy for drug war excess Clarence Aaron, who has served more than 20 years.

Finally, Clarence Aaron will go free.
These are commutations--not pardons--which means that people actually still serving time will shortly walk out of prison, as opposed to people who received pardons long after they were actually released.

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said four of its supporters, including Aaron, had had their sentences commuted. The group also said it expected four more crack cocaine offenders to be named as having received commutations as well. 

In the White House statement, President Obama acknowledged that commuting the sentences of a handful of prisoners was only a first step:

"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said. "But it must not be the last.  In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."

We'll have a fuller write-up on this good news later today, but we thought you would want to hear as soon as we did. .

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

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

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

Drug Testing

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

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

Sentencing

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

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

International

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicle AM -- December 12, 2013

A push is on to end the federal ban on needle exchange funding, a secret federal panel meets to discuss marijuana banking issues, UN anti-drug bureaucrats are still unhappy with Uruguay, more bodies show up in Mexico, and more. Let's get to it:

A move is on to end the federal ban on funding needle exchanges.
Marijuana Policy

Federal Banking Panel Meets on Pot Sales. The Bank Secrecy Act Advisory Group (BSAAG) met in Washington, DC, Thursday to discuss how to deal with banking issues related to medical marijuana and legal marijuana industries. Under current federal laws, marijuana sellers can't set up bank accounts or process credit card transaction because financial institutions fear being implicated in drug trafficking or money laundering cases. The meeting is closed-door, and there is no word yet on what, if anything, was decided.

One Year In, Coloradans Still Like Marijuana Legalization. A Public Policy Polling survey released this week found that Coloradans still support marijuana legalization. The poll found 53% agreed that marijuana use should be legal. It will be interesting to see the poll numbers a year from now, when Coloradans have had time to experience a legal marijuana industry. That begins on January 1.

Washington State Regulators Want to Ban Pot Smoking Wherever Alcohol is Sold. The state Liquor Control Board, which is also in charge of legal marijuana commerce, has proposed banning marijuana consumption in businesses licensed for liquor sales, but a Wednesday meeting saw loud opposition, in particular from Frankie Schnarr, owner of Frankie's Sports Bar and Grill in Olympia. Schnarr years ago emerged victorious in a battle with the board over whether he could open the second floor of his bar to smokers, who joined a "club" for the privilege. Schnarr opened his club to pot smokers after I-502 passed, and now claims 13,500 club members. Schnarr and others said the proposed rule was aimed directly at him. The board will vote on the proposed rule next week.

Philadelphia "Smoke Down Prohibition" Marijuana Prosecutions Continue, So Will Demonstrations. Comedian NA Poe will be sentenced Friday in federal court for smoking pot at Independence Hall as part of Philly NORML's ongoing Smoke Down Prohibition demonstrations. Two more members of the "Liberty Bell 4," Chris Goldstein and Don Dezarn will go on trial next week for puffing pot in demos this past summer, while a fourth, US Marine veteran Mike Whiter will make his first court appearance on similar federal charges. Click on the link for more details and how you can participate.

Gov. Cuomo Dismisses New York Legalization Bill as "Non-Starter." Well, that didn't take long. Yesterday, state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) announced she was introducing a marijuana legalization bill. That same day, a Cuomo spokesman scoffed at the bill, calling it "a non-starter."

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Medical Marijuana Expansion Wins Assembly Committee Vote. A bill that would allow Garden State medical marijuana patients to buy the drug in other states and bring it back with them passed the Assembly Health Committee on a 7-4 vote Thursday. But Gov. Chris Christie (R) has said he will veto it or any other expansion of the state's program.

Harm Reduction

Maryland Docs, Scientists Call for End to Federal Needle Exchange Funding Ban. In the wake of the budget agreement announced this week by congressional negotiators, more than 70 Maryland-based doctors and scientists sent an open letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) urging her to act to get the longstanding ban on federal needle exchange funding lifted. The ban had been overturned in 2010, but was reinstated without any public debate during budget negotiations the following year.

Pain Pills

State Attorneys General Call on FDA to Reconsider Zohydro Approval. The FDA is running into more flak over its October decision to approve the first hydrocodone-only drug in America, Zohydro, which will be available in a time-release form. Four US senators challenged the decision earlier this week, and now, 28 state attorneys general have asked the agency to reconsider. They cited the roll-out of earlier pain relieving drugs in time-release formulas, which they said resulted in "overzealous pharmaceutical sales" and "doctors overprescribing narcotics," among other ills. But Attorneys General are typically trained as lawyers, not doctors or pharmacists, and they seem oblivious to the continuing problem of undertreatment of pain that their campaigns foster. The FDA said it would reply directly to the law enforcement officials.

International

UNODC Criticizes Uruguay Marijuana Legalization. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) isn't happy with Uruguay. The South American nation's decision to legalize marijuana is a blow against international cooperation in the war on drugs, said UNODC head Yuri Fedotov. "Just as illicit drugs are everyone's shared responsibility, there is a need for each country to work closely together and to jointly agree on the way forward for dealing with this global challenge," he said in a statement. He also called the move "unfortunate."

More Mass Graves in Mexico. Authorities in the central Mexican state of Morelos have uncovered two mass graves containing at least 20 bodies. Authorities believe some of the bodies are victims of the Beltran Leyva cartel, which was largely dismantled two years ago. Others were apparently killed more recently. The discovery comes on the heels of a similar gruesome find in western Michoacan state, where the latest count had 66 bodies removed from mass graves there. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Mexico's prohibition-related violence since 2006 and tens of thousands more have disappeared, including more than a thousand in the past two years in Moreleos, according to the state human rights commission.

Chronicle AM -- December 5, 2013

Busy, busy on the marijuana policy front today, and there is also medical marijuana news, a new report on coerced federal plea bargains, a call for call-ins to the Senate on mandatory minimums next week, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Possession Legal in Portland, Maine, As of Tomorrow, But... The voter-approved ordinance legalizing the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana by people 21 and over goes into effect Friday. But tokers beware: The police chief says he is going to continue to enforce state law, which is stricter. Maine is a decriminalization state, so getting caught with a small amount of pot will still get you a fine.

Legalization Initiative Filed in Missouri. The Missouri marijuana reform group Show-Me Cannabis Regulation has filed an initiative that would amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana. Petitioners will have to collect signatures from about 320,000 registered voters by May 4 to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

Washington State Marijuana Business Applications Surpass 1,300. Lots of people want to get into the legal marijuana business in Washington state. Regulators there are reviewing over 1,300 applications and there are still two weeks left for people to apply. More than 600 have applied for commercial growing licenses, more than 450 to produce edibles, and 230 have applied to open retail outlets. Regulators will license up to 334 pot shops, and there is no limit to the number of growers or producers, although the state wants to limit production to two million square feet.

Seattle City Attorney Wants More Marijuana Stores. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday that he has asked the State Liquor Control Board to allow at least 50 marijuana retail sales licenses to be issued in the city. The Board has proposed allowing only 21, but Holmes said that will not be enough to meet demand in the city.

Legalization Referendum Proposed for Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin. Dane County voters could vote on whether the state should legalize marijuana after a member of the county Board of Supervisors said he planned to introduce a measure that would ask them just that. The proposal has to pass the board, and if it does, voters would vote on a non-binding advisory referendum on the spring 2014 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Action on Medical Marijuana Bills Delayed in Michigan. The Associated Press reported Thursday that votes on pending medical marijuana bills are unlikely until next year, although it didn't say why. Still, hundreds of people jammed legislative committee rooms to voice their opinions on improving the state's medical marijuana law.

Hearing Today on Medical Marijuana in Buffalo. Legislators in New York held a public hearing to gain support for medical marijuana legislation in Buffalo Thursday. More than two dozen speakers were invited to testify about the proposed legislation. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), chair of the Assembly Health Committee, chaired the meeting.

Sentencing Reform

Call Your Senators on Mandatory Minimum Reform Next Tuesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next Thursday on mandatory minimum sentencing reform and the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410. If passed, that bill would benefit thousands of nonviolent federal offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences (including some crack offenders who are already in federal prison). Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is urging people whose senators are on the committee to call in to voice their support next Tuesday. Click on the link for more details.

Human Rights Watch Report Condemns Forced Pleas in Federal Drug Cases. Human Rights Watch Thursday released a report condemning coercive plea bargaining by federal prosecutors in drug cases and calling for sentencing reform. The report is An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

International

Israeli Health Ministry Bill Would Expand Medical Marijuana Program. The Israeli Health Ministry is proposing legislation that would increase the number of doctors authorized to prescribe medical marijuana and allow it to be distributed through pharmacies. The ministry is resisting allowing even broader access.

British Drug Think-Tank Offers Guide to Marijuana Regulation. The British drug think-tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation has issued How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide for policy makers, drug policy reform advocates and affected communities all over the world, who are witnessing the question change from, "Should we maintain cannabis prohibition?" to "How will legal regulation work in practice?"

Chronicle AM -- December 4, 2013

Some Denver city council members don't know when to give it a rest, some California US reps want stiffer penalties for pot grows on public lands, the Big Dog speaks on drug policy, Ecstasy may be on the rise, Morocco holds a historic hearing on cannabis, and more. Let's get to it:

Ecstasy seems to be making a comeback.
Marijuana Policy

Denver City Council Now Considering Cultivation Restrictions. Just when you thought it was safe again, after an effort to stop people from smoking marijuana on their own property in public view died Monday night, the Denver city council is now considering an effort to cap the number of plants that can be grown in a single household. The measure is sponsored by Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, the same person behind the failed private property smoking ban. The measure would be in conflict with Amendment 64, which is now part of the state constitution and clearly says anyone 21 or older can grow six plants "notwithstanding any other provision of law."

California US Senator, Representatives Seek Tougher Penalties for Federal Lands Marijuana Grows. Several California congressmen, including some who have been strong supporters of medical marijuana, have written a letter to the US Sentencing Commission seeking longer prison sentences for people growing on federal and some private lands. "We are concerned that existing guidelines do not address the long term detrimental threats these operations pose to the environment and nearby communities," the letter said. "The production and cultivation of controlled substances in particular marijuana, on public lands or while trespassing on private property is a direct threat to our environment and public safety." The signatories include Sen. Dianne Feinstein and US Reps. Doug Amalfa, Sam Farr, Jared Huffman, and Mike Thompson.

Drug Policy

Bill Clinton Says Attitudes Toward Drug Legalization Are Changing. Attitudes toward drug legalization are changing, former President Bill Clinton said in an interview with Fusion TV Tuesday. "The drug issue should be decided by people in each country, based on what they think is right," the ex-president opined. "We have a process in America for doing it that's being revisited state-by-state. And Latin America is free to do the same thing. It's obvious that attitudes are changing and opening up," he said. But he added that he didn't think hard drugs should be treated like marijuana. "It's also too complicated to say that if you legalize it, you wouldn't have any of these armed gangs trying to exercise a stranglehold over whole communities and lives, or that we could actually get away with legalizing cocaine and then the criminals would go away," he said.

Vermont Chief Justice Criticizes Drug War, "Tough on Crime" Approach. Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has lashed out at the war on drugs and "tough on crime" approaches in general in a pair of recent speeches and a television interview. "Even with our best efforts, we are losing ground," Reiber told a crowd at Vermont Law School last month. "The classic approach of 'tough on crime' is not working in this area of drug policy. The public responds very well to this 'tough on crime' message, but that does not mean it's effective in changing individual behavior. If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn't going to happen… The criminal justice system can't solve the drug problem."

Club Drugs

Teen Ecstasy-Related Hospital ER Visits Doubled in Recent Years, Feds Say. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported Tuesday that hospital emergency room visits linked to teen Ecstasy use had more than doubled between 2005 and 2011. The number jumped from about 4,500 to more than 10,000 during that period. One third of those cases also involved alcohol. Authorities worry the club drug is making a comeback, although the number of ER visits reported for ecstasy is a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million drug-related ER visits reported each year.

International

Morocco Parliament Holds Hearing on Legalizing Cannabis for Hemp, Medical Marijuana. Morocco's Party for Authenticity and Modernity held a historic hearing Wednesday about legalizing marijuana cultivation for hemp and medical marijuana. The party hopes to introduce legislation next year. Somewhere between 750,000 and a million Moroccans depend on the cannabis crop for a living, although lawmakers said small farmers currently reap very little profit, with most profits going to drug traffickers sending Moroccan hash to Europe.

Former Mexican Border State Governor Charged in US with Money Laundering for Cartels. Tomas Yarrington, the former PRI governor of Tamaulipas state, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, has been indicted by US authorities on charges he took millions in bribes from the Gulf Cartel. Prosecutors allege Yarrington started receiving bribes while running for governor of the state in 1999 and continued to do so throughout his term. He is being sought by US authorities, but has not been taken into custody in Mexico.

Medical Marijuana Update

Massachusetts and Illinois prepare for medical marijuana dispensaries, action is picking up in state legislatures, and Americans for Safe Access issues a report on state compliance with federal enforcement priorities. And more. Let's get to it:

National

On Monday, Americans for Safe Access released a report finding that medical marijuana states have enacted regulations that address federal enforcement concerns and calling on legislators and state rule-makers to keep the August 2013 Justice Department memo on enforcement guidelines in mind as they craft new laws and regulations. But DOJ memos aren't a solution, just a stopgap until appropriate federal legislation is passed, the report said.

Alabama

On Monday, State Rep. Patricia Todd said she will reintroduce medical marijuana legislation. She is talking up a bill that would allow for the use of CBD. Todd's previous medical marijuana bills have gotten nowhere in Montgomery.

California

Last Thursday, four California US representatives called for an end to the harassment of dispensaries.Reps. Barbara Lee (D), George Miller (D), Sam Farr (D), and Eric Swalwell (D) Thursday released excerpts of a letter they sent to US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag challenging her "hostility toward dispensaries." They criticized Haag's approach as "counterproductive and economically prohibitive," as well as being out of step with Obama administration policies as set down in August's Justice Department memo. "It is far past time for commonsense and economic sense to prevail in policies and actions related to medical cannabis dispensaries that serve the patients in our communities," said Rep. Lee. "This harassment and constant threat of prosecution should end."

Also last Thursday, the Santa Cruz planning commission approved plans for a new dispensary to open where one closed last year. The panel unanimously approved a special use permit for CannaCruz Collective. The city only allows for two dispensaries, and one other one is already open nearby.

Illinois

Last Tuesday, the Niles city board approved regulations limiting where medical marijuana facilities can locate. Such businesses will be limited to manufacturing districts with a special use permit. Medical marijuana becomes legal in Illinois on January 1.

Massachusetts

Last Friday, the state Department of Health released the names of finalists for medical marijuana sales licenses. There are one hundred of them, but some may face difficulties finding locations, in part because at least 130 cities and towns have adopted temporary moratoria on them. Applicants each paid a $30,000 application fee to enter the final round.

Michigan

On Monday, a key legislative leader said medical marijuana is a top priority next month. House Judiciary Committee Chair Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) said his top priority next month is to take up three medical marijuana-related bills. The first, House Bill 4271, would revive medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan after recent court rulings effectively stopped the facilities from operating in the state. Cotter also plans to take up two other medical marijuana-related bills. House Bill 5104 would allow patients to use edible forms of marijuana. And Senate Bill 660 would clear the way for pharmacies to sell medical marijuana in Michigan, but only if the federal government decides to regulate cannabis as a prescription drug.

New Jersey

On Monday, a lawmaker filed a bill allowing patients to get their medicine out of state. Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union) introduced a bill that would allow Garden State medical marijuana patients to buy their medicine in other states where it is legal and consume it in New Jersey. The bill attempts to address restrictions in the state's medical marijuana law that prevent easy access to some medical marijuana formulations, especially strains with high levels of CBD.

New York

On Saturday, Democratic lawmakers announced public hearings next month to try to push a medical marijuana bill through the legislature. They plan to hold public hearings next month in Buffalo and Mineola. For the past several years, bills have passed the Assembly, only to die in the more conservative Senate. Another bill is moving this year. Click on the link for hearing details.

On Monday, a New York City council committee approved a resolution urging the federal government to approve the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, which would take medical marijuana off the federal list of controlled substances and enable certified medical providers and researchers to prescribe or access the drug without the threat of prosecution. The vote was unanimous.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

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