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Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 Drug Offenders [FEATURE]

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

President Obama announced today he has granted clemency to dozens of federal inmates, the vast majority of them sentenced under draconian crack cocaine laws. More than 30,000 federal prisoners have applied for clemency since the Obama administration issued a call for them to do so last year.

President Obama (whitehouse.gov)
The remaining clemency applications are still being processed, but many more could be released before Obama's term expires in January 2017. The Justice Department says it prioritizes applications from low-level, nonviolent offenders who have already serve at least 10 years behind bars and who would have been sentenced to much less time if convicted for those same offenses today.

"We spend over $80 billion incarcerating people, often times who've only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses," Obama said in his announcement of the commutations. "I'm commuting the sentences of 46 prisoners who were convicted many years or in some cases decades ago. These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses so their punishments didn't fit the crime. I believe there's a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system and to make sure our tax dollars are well spent even as we are keeping our streets safe."

Drug offenders account for nearly half of the more than 200,000 doing time in federal prisons. That is a more than 20-fold increase in the number of federal drug prisoners in 1980, just before the start of the Reagan-era war on drugs.

The federal prison at Butner, North Carolina, (bop.gov)
Today's commutations of 46 sentences bring to 90 the number of people to whom Obama has granted clemency during his administration. While more are expected, administration spokesmen made clear that merely wielding the clemency power is not enough.

"While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies," said White House counsel Neil Eggleston.

This is just the beginning of a week heavy on criminal justice issues for the president. Tomorrow, Obama is expected to make a major speech on criminal justice reform before the NAACP, and on Thursday, he is scheduled to visit a federal prison, which would make him the first president to ever do so.

"I am elated that President Obama continues to use his executive powers to grant freedom to those drug offenders who have served draconian sentences," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager of 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 this sends a message to governors of states that have the power to grant clemencies to those who deserve a chance to be reunited with their families."

The United States remains the world leader in incarceration. (nadcp.org)
The president sent a letter to the prisoners whose sentences he commuted: "I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," he wrote. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances."

He urged the soon-to-be-freed prisoners to lead by example.

"Remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better."

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: Fed Marijuana Banking Bill, Flying High Out of PDX, Pope Sips Coca Tea, More (7/9/15)

A bill to allow marijuana businesses access to banking services has been filed in Congress, Oregon's largest airport okays flying with pot (in-state only), Indiana's Church of Cannabis is suing the state, the Pope drinks coca tea on his way to Bolivia, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Federal Marijuana Banking Legislation Filed. Today, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Michael Bennett (D-CO), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act, a bill that would allow banks to provide depository and other financial services to state-legal marijuana businesses. Currently, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, both medical and non-medical marijuana businesses are unable to access banking services like any other business. Consequently, many marijuana businesses operate on a cash-only basis, leading to huge public safety issues as businesses become the target of robberies, and are forced to hire armed security to protect their takings.

Indiana Marijuana Church Sues State to Block Enforcement of Marijuana Laws. The Indianapolis-based First Church of Cannabis is going to federal court to try to stop the state from enforcing marijuana prohibition against church members. The church argues that doing so prevents members from fully exercising their religion. Their attorney says he will rely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to make his case.

Flying With Marijuana Now Okay at PDX. Now that pot is legal in Oregon, Portland International Airport (PDX) has announced that passengers can travel with their marijuana -- as long as they don't leave the state. The airport said that if TSA agents find marijuana on travelers, they will notify Port Police, who will then check to see if the amount is less than the legal limit, the passenger is old enough to carry it, and that the boarding pass shows the passenger is on an in-state flight. If those conditions are met, passengers can fly with their weed. Passengers caught trying to fly out of state with legal amounts of weed will be asked to leave the line and get rid of it before boarding.

Poll: 56% Support for Denver Marijuana Social Use Initiative. A Public Policy Polling survey released today has a solid majority supporting an initiative to allow the use -- but not the sale -- of marijuana at businesses restricted to those 21 and over. The initiative specifies that businesses with liquor licenses would have the option of allowing marijuana use on premises. The Campaign for Limited Social Use needs to collect 4,726 signatures by early August to qualify for the November 2015 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

House Republicans Block Bid for More Medical Marijuana Studies. Republicans in the House Wednesday night killed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have reclassified marijuana so laboratories could conduct "credible research on its safety and efficacy as a medical treatment." The amendment would have encouraged the DEA and the National Institutes of Health to work together to allow studies of the risks and benefits of using marijuana to treat various diseases and conditions. The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Sam Farr (D-CA), as well as marijuana legalization foe Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would have created a new designation in the federal drug scheduling scheme, Schedule 1R, for research.


Pope Francis Drinks Coca Tea On Flight to Bolivia. The Pope sipped on a brew of coca, chamomile, and anise seeds as he flew from Ecuador to the high-altitude airport at La Paz, Bolivia. The drink, made from leaves of the coca plant, is commonly used by travelers to fight altitude sickness. The airport at La Paz is at nearly 14,000 feet.

Canadian Electronic Music Festival Back On, Will Do Pill Testing. The Evolve Festival will go on as scheduled in Nova Scotia beginning tonight and will still offer the harm reduction measure of offering pill testing for attendees. Festival organizers announced earlier this week they would offer pill testing, but their insurer then canceled their liability insurance, leaving the event in doubt. But now, a new insurer has been found, and organizers say they will do pill testing.

ProCon.org: What Have US Surgeons General Had to Say About Medical Marijuana?

What have US Surgeons General had to say about medical marijuana? Read "11 US Surgeons General and Their Views on Medical Marijuana, 1961-Present" to find out, on MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org, part of the ProCon.org family.

This is the final installment in a six part Drug War Chronicle series of "Did You Know" items from ProCon.org. Sign up for ProCon.org's email list or RSS feed to stay in touch with ProCon.org. You can read last week's Chronicle ProCon.org installment here, and follow the similar links in each of them to view all the installments in this series.

ProCon.org is a web site promoting critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan primarily pro-con format.

On the UN's Global Anti-Drug Day, Civil Society Fights Back [FEATURE]

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today released its 2015 World Drug Report as the organization marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, but civil society groups around the world used the occasion to take to the streets to demand an end to the global drug prohibition regime.

The report itself was relatively anodyne by UNODC standards, noting that illicit drug was "stable," with around 250 million people having used illegal drugs in the previous year. There was "little change in the overall global situation regarding the production, use and health consequences of illicit drugs," the UNODC noted.

The annual report did make note of deleterious consequences related to drug prohibition -- including high overdose death rates and health consequences, as well strengthening terrorist and organized crime networks -- but failed to acknowledge the role of prohibition in creating and aggravating the very problems it claims to address.

Global civil society took it upon itself to rectify that omission. Led by the International Drug Policy Consortium, dozens of groups mobilizing thousands of people marched or otherwise took action in at least 150 cities worldwide as part of the Support, Don't Punish global advocacy campaign. Support has more than tripled since 2013, when 41 cities participated.

"On the 26th June, thousands of people in over 150 cities will take part in a global day of action for the Support. Don’t Punish campaign. The campaign is a global show of force to say enough is enough – it’s time to end the wasteful and damaging war on drugs," said Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

"Governments need to wake up," declared Idrissa Ba, Executive Director of the Association Sénégalaise pour la Réduction des Risques Infectieux chez les Groupes Vulnerables (ASRDR) and member of the West African Commission on Drugs. "In the last year we’ve spent another $100 billion on fighting the drug war, and yet again we’ve seen no change, but the human cost in terms of lives lost, new HIV infections or the forced detention of people who use drugs is immeasurable. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, isn’t that the definition of madness?” 

In New York City, people from groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Harm Reduction Coalition, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Espolea, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, and Transform met an UN headquarters to demand reforms in the broken global drug prohibition system.

In Washington, DC, another march went from the State Department to the White House to demand that the Obama administration take stronger steps to bring about an end to global drug prohibition and the human rights abuses committed in its name, including the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses.  

"The purpose of 'Support, Don't Punish' is not only to spread global awareness about the failures of prohibition, but to demand that world leaders place human rights at the forefront of any conversation around global drug trafficking," said Jake Agliata, regional outreach coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization with chapters on hundreds of campuses worldwide and which coordinated the DC march. "Executing people for nonviolent drug offenses is not acceptable, and the State Department should take steps to ensure that our tax dollars never contribute to this archaic practice."

"The World Drug Report has dutifully laid out what some of the key harms of the current system are. But the report fails to note that the system itself is a cause of those harms, not a solution for them," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, cosponsor of the DC march. "Prohibiting drugs sends both use and the trade in drugs into a criminal underground, generating untold profits for drug lords and causing terrible harms to many users. We were at the State Department today because we think the US should get behind efforts to reform the UN drug conventions. It doesn't make sense to maintain a treaty structure that is based on prohibition while the U.S. and other countries are taking steps toward legalization."

The death penalty for drugs is under attack. Here, Iran executes drug offenders. (handsoffcain.info)
The day of action is intended to help frame the debate in advance of a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drug scheduled for next April, where countries have the opportunity to revise international treaties that threaten to stand in the way of reforms such as marijuana legalization and harm reduction measures like syringe exchange.

Last month, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, released a sign-on letter calling on nations to begin the process of revising the drug control treaties. The letter is online here

A full list of events from Friday's global day of action is available here. Actions were set to to take place in Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the USA – as well as in Argentina, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, The Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Moldova, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Serbia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

Medical Marijuana Update

Massachusetts finally sees its first dispensary, the White House removes a barrier to marijuana research (although others remain), a Delaware kids' CBD cannabis oil becomes law, California stays busy, and more.


Last week, the Dalai Lama endorsed medical marijuana. Speaking at a an event in Guanajuato, Mexico, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism said he supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Speaking in response to a question about legalizing marijuana, the Dalai clarified that he opposed its recreational use, but using it medicinally would be "the exception."


On Monday, the White House removed a crucial barrier to marijuana research. The Obama administration announced it is ending a major impediment to marijuana research, the Public Health Service review. That hurdle, created under the Clinton administration, required all applications for marijuana research to undergo an individual review, slowing down marijuana research and making it more difficult to study than heroin or cocaine. More hurdles remain, though.

On Wednesday, the US Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Took Up CBD. The caucus, generally composed of old school drug warriors, somewhat surprisingly examined issues around access to CBDs, focusing on barriers to research and potential medical benefits.


Last Thursday, a Santa Cruz County initiative to overturn a cultivation ban qualified for the ballot. Now, county supervisors must either repeal the ban themselves or give voters the opportunity to do so. The county's ordinance banned commercial grows and limited personal grows to 100 square feet. If supervisors don't act, it could be on a June 2016 election ballot, or supervisors could call a special election.

Also last Thursday, the San Diego Planning Commission okayed a sixth dispensary. The dispensary is set to operate in Mira Mesa. The first approved dispensary in the city opened in Otay Mesa in March. San Diego allows for up to four dispensaries in each city council district.

Last Friday, a judge in Santa Ana denied a request to freeze the dispensary permitting process despite accusations that the process was unfair. That means the city can go ahead with permitting up to 20 dispensaries.

On Monday, the medical marijuana organ transplant bill passed the legislature. The bill would bar health care providers from denying access to organ transplants based solely on the patient's medical marijuana use. Assembly Bill 258 now awaits the governor's signature.

Also on Monday, a Mendocino County initiative to create a marijuana commission failed to qualify for the ballot. Proponents needed 5,004 valid signatures to qualify, but only came up with 2,797 raw signatures.

On Tuesday, Redding officials signaled that they will extend a dispensary moratorium for another year. Zoning Board officials said they would vote Wednesday night to extend the moratorium.


On Tuesday, the governor signed a CBD cannabis oil for kids bill into law. Gov. Jack Markell (D) signed into law Rylie's Law, named after a Delaware youth who suffered from epileptic seizures. The law will allow physicians to recommend the use of CBD cannabis oils for epileptic children who do not respond to other treatments. The oil will only be available at medical marijuana dispensaries, the first of which opens Friday.


Last Friday, the state's first dispensary was approved to sell medical marijuana. The Alternatives Therapy Group in Salem is ready to start selling to patients after winning a temporary waiver from state testing guidelines widely viewed as too strict. The Department of Public Health has said it will reconsider the standards. The dispensary is one of four in the state that have started growing their own supply, and is the furthest along. It opened on Wednesday.

New Jersey

On Monday, a bill to allow sick kids to use CBC cannabis oil at school was filed. Assemblymembers Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) and Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) filed a bill that would allow children to use CBD cannabis oil at school. The bill would require parents or a designated adult to come to the school and administer the oil. The measure is Assembly Bill 4587.

New York

On Monday, an early access medical marijuana bill passed the legislature. A bill that would allow early access to medical marijuana passed the Senate Monday night after already being approved in the Assembly. The move comes as a year has gone by since Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Compassionate Use Act into law, but not one patient has yet to be able to legally obtain any. This bill would provide expedited access to seriously ill patients.

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

Chronicle AM: Dalai Lama on MedMJ, OH Initiative Shenanigans, First MA Dispensary Will Open, More (6/22/05)

Ohio's political establishment gears up to block a controversial legalization initiative, the Dalai Lama supports medical marijuana, the Obama administration removes a barrier to marijuana research, Louisiana's governor rejects clemency for a man doing 13 years for two joints, and more.

The Dalai Lama is down with medical marijuana. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Official Says Proposed Amendment Could Block Marijuana Legalization Initiative. GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted said last Friday that an amendment to block private-interest monopolies would render the ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative invalid if the former passed. Husted and Republican lawmakers have vowed to adopt a resolution to place the monopoly amendment on the ballot. Husted said that if that amendment passes, the ResponsibleOhio initiative would be invalid, even if it also passed, and even if it passed with more votes than the monopoly amendment. The ResponsibleOhio initiative would limit commercial marijuana growing to ten specified locations, the owners of which are also the financiers of the initiative campaign.

Montana Anti-Marijuana Initiative Proposed. Billings anti-pot zealot Steve Zabawa is back at it. In 2014, he proposed an initiative saying that any federal Schedule I controlled substance (read: marijuana) "may not be legally possessed, received, transferred, manufactured, cultivated, trafficked, transported or used in Montana." It failed for lack of signatures. Now he has filed the same initiative again.

Medical Marijuana

Dalai Lama Endorses Medical Marijuana. Speaking at a an event in Guanajuato, Mexico, last week, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism said he supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Speaking in response to a question about legalizing marijuana, the Dalai clarified that he opposed its recreational use, but using it medicinally would be "the exception."

White House Removes Crucial Barrier to Marijuana Research. The Obama administration announced today it is ending a major impediment to marijuana research, the Public Health Service review. That hurdle, created under the Clinton administration, required all applications for marijuana research to undergo an individual review, slowing down marijuana research and making it more difficult to study than heroin or cocaine.

First Massachusetts Dispensary Approved to Sell Medical Marijuana; One Inspection Left. The Alternative Therapies Group in Salem is ready to start selling to patients after winning a temporary waiver from state testing guidelines widely viewed as too strict. The Department of Public Health has said it will reconsider the standards. The dispensary is one of four in the state that have started growing their own supply, and is the furthest along. It must still pass a final inspection before it opens its doors. Much more at the link.

Drug Testing

California Appeals Court Upholds Making Employer Pay for Emotional Distress from Random Workplace Drug Testing. The court upheld an award for the intentional infliction of emotional distress on two law office workers pressured into taking a random drug test by their employer. The employee handbook called for random drug testing for certain safety-sensitive categories, or after an accident or for probable cause, but the company compelled all employees to undergo drug testing on one day in 2011. The two plaintiffs were awarded $15,000 each in damages by the trial court, which is what the appeals court just upheld.

Law Enforcement

Philly Court Throws Out 58 Convictions Tied to Dirty Narcs. A Common Pleas Court judge last Friday reversed 58 convictions in cases linked to six former Philadelphia narcotics officers. The six were cleared of criminal corruption charges in federal court in May, but their misdeeds have tainted hundreds of cases. The Public Defender's Office is seeking reversals of 1,370 cases, and the city is facing 135 civil rights lawsuits based on the unit's behavior. Since 2013, prosecutors have refused to prosecute cases tied to the squad after numerous allegations they planted evidence, beat and robbed suspects, and falsified paperwork. Much more at the link.


Louisiana Governor Rejects Clemency for Black Man Doing 13 Years for Two Joints. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) last week denied a clemency petition for Bernard Noble, sentenced to 13 years in prison for two joints under the state's draconian marijuana laws. Jindal said he rejected clemency because Noble had not yet served 10 years in prison.


China's Wide Open Illegal Drug Chemical Factories. It's pretty darned easy to get new synthetic drugs by the pound or more from Chinese manufacturers, according to this New York Times report. Need spice or flakka or bath salts? It's just a few clicks away.

The US Is Deporting Hundreds of Thousands for Drug Offenses, Many Minor [FEATURE]

(This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)

The US government wants to throw Marsha Austin out of the country. The 67-year-old grandmother came from Jamaica to New York as a lawful resident in 1985, and has lived here ever since with her husband, seven children (two more are in Jamaica), grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All are legal residents or US citizens.

Marsha Austin and her family in the Bronx (hrw.org)
By her own admission, she had problems with drugs. "I live in a drug-infested area," she said of her neighborhood in the Bronx, and she succumbed to the lure of crack cocaine in the wake of her mother's death. Jones racked up several minor convictions before getting popped for making a $5 purchase for an undercover officer in 1995.

That was "attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree," to which she pleaded guilty on her public defender's advice. The attorney failed to tell her the conviction could lead to deportation.

Her convictions led to little or no jail time, but in 2010, as her husband's health faltered, she violated probation by drinking alcohol. She did 90 days in jail, but instead of walking out, she was seized by immigration authorities at the end of her sentence and spent the next 2 ½ years in immigration jail awaiting deportation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly opposed her release, claiming she was under mandatory detention for her drug offenses, but then released her unexpectedly in 2013. She's been in treatment since then and now proudly reports that she's been "clean as a whistle" for the past five years. Now, her husband's health is failing, as is the health of her daughter, who suffered a breakdown after her own daughter suffered a serious illness.

"My kids and my grandkids, that's what I'm living for now," she said.

But she remains in limbo. The US government still wants to send her back to Jamaica, arguing that she is subject to deportation for the "aggravated felony" of buying $5 worth of crack for a narc.

She's not alone. Beginning late in the George W. Bush years and continuing through the Obama administration, the US has been deporting and trying to deport immigrants for drug offenses at a record clip. According to a just released report from Human Rights Watch, more than 260,000 non-citizens -- legal residents and illegal immigrants alike -- were deported for drug offenses between 2007 and 2012. Shockingly, 34,000 people were deported for marijuana possession offenses alone.

The trend is upward. The number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug crime was up 22% over that period, while the number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug possession offense was up even more, at 43%.

Tens of thousands more have been or are being detained indefinitely in immigration jails fighting pending deportation orders. Such extended imprisonments wreak havoc on the families who husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, are caught up behind bars.

The sweeping action against non-citizens comes as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on "criminal aliens," but seems disproportionately harsh when applied to low-level drug offenders, especially people who have lived all or most of their lives here and have strong family and community roots in this country. It is also at odds with the trends toward drug decriminalization and even legalization now at play in the country.

The Human Rights Watch report, "A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses," documents how the US government is routinely breaking up families by initiating deportation proceedings for drug offenses, often ones decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. Researchers interviewed more than 130 affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, and incorporated new data obtained from ICE.

Here are some of the cases examined in the report:

"Raul Valdez, a permanent resident from Mexico who had grown up in the Chicago area from the age of one, was deported in 2014 because of a 2003 conviction for possession of cannabis with intent to deliver, for which he had been sentenced to 60 days in jail.

Ricardo Fuenzalida, a permanent resident from Chile now living in New Jersey, was held without bond for months fighting deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.

Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants, despite having successfully completed a California diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.

Abdulhakim Haji-Eda, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the US at the age of 13, has been ordered deported as a drug trafficker for a teenage drug sale in Seattle. Now 26 years old, he has no other convictions, and is married to a US citizen with two US citizen children and another on the way.

"Antonio S.," who came to the US from Mexico when he was 12 and was eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a "DREAMer" under the executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was detained for over a year in Colorado and deported after a conviction for possession of marijuana, a municipal violation to which he pleaded guilty without an attorney.

"Alice M.," a 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, [was barred] from living in the US with her US citizen fiancé because of a single 1992 conviction for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned long ago in Canada.

"Mr. V.," a refugee and permanent resident from Vietnam, was ordered deported in 2008 for a 1999 conviction for possession of crack cocaine. Although he has since been granted a full and unconditional pardon from the state of South Carolina, Mr. V. remains under a deportation order and only remains in the US because of restrictions on the repatriation of certain Vietnamese nationals."

"Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses," said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses."

The report notes that the Obama administration has been sensitive to the injustices of the war on drugs and urges it to be as sensitive to the harsh effects of its deportation policies related to drug offenses. But it is not just the federal government that can act to improve the situation. Here are the group's recommendations:

"To the United States Congress

Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple possession of drugs.

Ensure that all non-citizens in deportation proceedings, including those with convictions for drug offenses, have access to an individualized hearing where the immigration judge can weigh evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, and other equities against a criminal conviction.

Ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with convictions for sale, distribution, or production of drugs are only considered to have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" through case-by-case determination that takes into account the seriousness of the crime and whether the non-citizen is a threat to public safety.

Ensure that non-citizens who are barred from entering the US and/or gaining lawful resident status because of a criminal conviction, including for drug offenses, are eligible to apply for individualized consideration, i.e., a waiver of the bar, based on such factors as the above mentioned.

Eliminate mandatory detention and ensure all non-citizens are given an opportunity for an individualized bond hearing.

Redefine "conviction" in immigration law to exclude convictions that have been expunged, pardoned, vacated, or are otherwise not recognized by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.

To the Department of Homeland Security

Provide clear guidance to immigration officials that a positive exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be appropriate even in cases involving non-citizens with criminal convictions, with particular consideration for lawful permanent residents and non-citizens whose most serious convictions are for nonviolent offenses, including drug convictions, that occurred five or more years ago.

Provide all non-citizens who have been in detention for six months or more with a bond hearing.

To State and Local Governments

Ensure drug courts and diversion programs do not require a guilty plea from defendants that would constitute a conviction that triggers deportation, mandatory detention, and other immigration consequences even upon successful completion of the program.

Remove barriers to post-conviction relief for non-citizens convicted of nonviolent drug offenses through legal error, including through guilty pleas obtained without adequate advice from defense counsel on the potential immigration consequences of the plea.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use."

To be comprehensive and thorough, drug reform must encompass immigration law reform, too.

Chronicle AM: Senate Panel Wants DEA Out of MedMJ, MI Legalization Inits Approved, More (6/11/15)

The Senate is following the House's lead in telling the DEA not to interfere in medical marijuana states, two Michigan initiatives get the go-ahead for signature-gathering, a package of heroin bills passes the New York Senate, Vancouver gets tired of Cannabis Day, and more.

Cannabis Day in Vancouver. The city wants to shut it down. (cannabisday.ca)
Marijuana Policy

House Budget Bill Blocks DC Marijuana Sales for Two Years, But Doesn't Try to Roll Back Legalization. The House approved an appropriations bill today that would block legal marijuana sales in the District for the next two years. But, in what advocates called a victory, it does not attempt to undo Initiative 71, which allows for legal marijuana cultivation, possession, and consumption.

Michigan Legalization Initiatives Get Go-Ahead for Signature-Gathering. Two separate marijuana legalization initiatives are ready to start gathering signatures after the state Board of Canvassers approved the wording of their petitions Thursday. One is from the Michigan Cannabis Coalition and the other is from the Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee. Now, the groups must each gather 253,000 valid voter signatures in order to send the measures before the legislature. If the legislature fails to approve them, they would go before the voters in November 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Senate Committee Votes to Keep DEA Out of Medical Marijuana. Just last week, in a series of successful amendments to the Justice Department appropriations bill, the House sent a clear message to the DEA and DOJ to stop interfering in medical marijuana states. Today, a similar message came from the Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted two-to-one today in favor of an amendment from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that prohibits the Justice Department, including the DEA, from using federal funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. Click on the link for more details and reaction.

California Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act Wins Committee Vote. The measure, Assembly Bill 258, would bar health providers from denying organ transplants to people solely because they are medical marijuana patients. It has already passed the Assembly, and was approved Wednesday by the Senate Health Committee. It now heads for a Senate floor vote.


New York Senate Approves Package of Heroin Bills. The state Senate Tuesday approved a package of bills aimed at curbing the state's opiate addiction problem. The package is a mix of treatment and law enforcement measures, including a measure allowing police to charge dealers with murder in overdose deaths. The bills now head to the Assembly.


Vancouver Tells Marc Emery to Cool It With His Cannabis Day Festival. "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery and his wife, Jodie, have been holding an annual July 1 Cannabis Day protest for nearly 20 years, but now Vancouver city officials have told them to cease and desist because "the city does not support or approve this event at this location as planned." But Jodie Emery said that people are going to show up regardless, and if there are any problems, "that's going to fall on the shoulders of the City reps who made this call."

Canada Supreme Court Expands Definition of Medical Marijuana to Include Edibles. The Canadian high court today ruled that medical marijuana is not limited to dried, smoked flowers, but also includes edibles, extracts, and derivatives. Read the opinion here.

Senate Committee Votes to Keep DEA Out of Medical Marijuana States [FEATURE]

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

Just last week, in a series of successful amendments to the Justice Department appropriations bill, the House sent a clear message to the DEA and DOJ to stop interfering in medical marijuana states. Today, a similar message came from the Senate.

Congress doesn't want the DEA messing with medical marijuana where it's legal. (wikimedia.org)
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted two-to-one today in favor of an amendment from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that prohibits the Justice Department, including the DEA, from using federal funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.

While the appropriations bill must still be approved by the Senate as a whole, both houses of Congress are now on record as telling the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states. The passage of identical amendments in both houses is a good indicator that they will be included in the spending bill when it gets to President Obama's desk.

While the House has passed similar amendments for the last two years, this is the first time it was offered in the Senate. It mirrors the provisions of the CARERS Act (HR 1538/S.683), introduced earlier this year, but because a ban in an appropriations bill expires at the end of the fiscal year, advocates are still calling for the CARERS Act to move.

The vote was an impressive 21-9, with the only Democrat voting against it being Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Republicans split right down the middle, with eight opposing and eight supporting.

California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, was the only Democrat to vote "no." (senate.gov)
Drug reform advocates were pleased.

"This is another resounding victory for medical marijuana patients, their families, and their care providers. Congress is making it clear that the Department of Justice and the DEA have no business interfering in state medical marijuana laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"The goal of this amendment is to provide deference to the states, making it strikingly similar to the operative provisions of the CARERS Act. Unfortunately, that bipartisan bill has languished for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee because Chairman Chuck Grassley has refused to hold hearings on it. The Senate spoke loudly and clearly today. Hopefully Sen. Grassley was listening," Riffle continued.

"With so many votes going our way these days, each new one gets less and less exciting. But that's a good problem to have," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "We're entering an era where marijuana reform is accepted as mainstream and not seen as controversial, and that's exactly where we want to be. With this vote, it's now clear that a growing bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers are ready to get the federal government out of the way of the effective implementation of state marijuana laws. These temporary funding restrictions certainly help us to demonstrate political momentum, but the next step should be passing legislation to permanently change federal law."

Chronicle AM: DEA Gets Slapped in Congress, 2nd ME MJ Init in Circulation, More (6/3/15)

The DEA gets its budget cut and its activities restricted in the House, but is still wiretapping like crazy, a Delaware decrim bill advances, so does a CBD cannabis oil bill there, and more.

DEA was in the crosshairs on Capitol Hill this week. (justice.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware House Approves Decriminalization Bill. The House Tuesday passed decriminalization 24-14 with no Republican "yes" votes. The measure now goes to the Senate. Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he supports it.

Second Maine Legalization Initiative Gets Go-Ahead for Signature-Gathering. A legalization initiative sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project can begin collecting signatures, state officials said Tuesday. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will need at least 61,123 qualified voter signatures to make the ballot. Another legalization initiative from Legalize Maine is already in the signature-gathering process.

Milwaukee Common Council Votes to Shrink Pot Fines. The council voted Tuesday night to reduce the maximum fine for possessing 25 grams or less from $500 to $50. Mayor Tom Barrett must approve the measure before it can go into effect.

Medical Marijuana

Delaware Senate Passes CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The state Senate approved Senate Bill 90 w/ SA2, known as "Rylie's Law," after a Rehoboth Beach girl who suffers from epileptic seizures. The measure now heads for the House.

Law Enforcement

DEA Slapped Down in Series of Congressional Budget Votes. In a series of votes yesterday, the House voted to end the DEA's controversial bulk data collection program and also passed three amendments cutting funding from the DEA and shifting it to other federal law enforcement priorities. In more votes today, it approved three amendments aimed at blocking DEA and Justice Department interference with industrial hemp, CBD cannabis oil, and medical marijuana in states where they are legal. A fourth amendment that would have barred interference in legal marijuana states was narrowly defeated. The votes came as the House considers the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. Click on the link for full coverage.

DEA Wiretaps Triple in Nine Years. The DEA conducted 11,681 wiretaps in 2014, up from 3,394 in 2005, according to USA Today. Over that period, the agency has increasingly resorted to state court judges to get wiretap warrants in a bid to get around more rigorous federal requirements. "Federal law requires approval from a senior Justice Department official before agents can even ask a federal court for permission to conduct one," the newspaper explained. "The law imposes no such restriction on state court wiretaps, even when they are sought by federal agents."

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