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Marijuana Law Reform at the Statehouse 2012 [FEATURE]

State legislatures have convened or are convening all around the country, and once again this year, marijuana decriminalization or legalization are hot topics at the statehouse. Legalization bills are pending in three states (as well as on the ballot as initiatives in Washington and almost certainly Colorado), decriminalization bills are alive in nine states, and bills that would improve existing decriminalization laws have been filed in two states.

And this is still early in the legislative season. Bills can still be introduced in many states, and bills that have already been introduced can advance or be killed. By around the beginning of May, a clearer picture should emerge, but 2012 is already looking to be even more active than last year when it comes to decriminalization and legalization bills.

There's a reason for that, said leading reformers.

"We're seeing more bills introduced, and they're having stronger and more sponsors," said Karen O'Keefe, state policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "We're also seeing more and more public support for decriminalization and legalization. We're approaching critical mass as more and more people see marijuana prohibition as a failed public policy, and in legislatures because of fiscal constraints and changing public sentiment."

"Each year, these bills are easier to introduce, there is less controversy, and the media reaction is generally neutral to positive," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "Baby boomers, medical marijuana, the Internet, and the state of the economy have all had an impact, even, finally, on legislators and their staffs," he explained.

"Before 1996, nobody invited NORML; now our staff is regularly going to meetings requested by legislators around the country," St. Pierre recalled. "First, we couldn't get them to return our phone calls; now they're calling us. Everything is in play because of activists around the country doing years of work."

That contact with legislators has led to results, St. Pierre said. "We've been involved in almost all of this legislation. Either we helped write it or legislators contacted us for deep background and we're testifying at public hearings on these bills."

MPP has been busy, too, O'Keefe said. "We have paid lobbyists in Rhode Island and Vermont, and one of our legislative analysts, Matt Simon, is from New Hampshire and has been working on bills up there," she said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, O'Keefe thought the prospects of passage were best in Rhode Island and Vermont. "In Rhode Island, more than half of both chambers are cosponsors of the decriminalization bill, while in Vermont, Gov. Shumlin has been very supportive, and for the first time we have a Republican sponsor in the Senate -- we already had one in the House," she said.

Getting a marijuana bill through a state legislature is a frustrating, time-consuming process, and there is a chance that none of these bills will pass this year. But there is also a chance some will, and some will pass eventually, if not this year, next year, or the year after.

Here is what is currently going on around marijuana law reform at the state house (compiled from our Legislative Center, with additional information from MPP's list of bills and from cantaxreg.com):

Legalization Bills

Massachusetts


Thirteen months ago, Rep. Ellen Story introduced House Bill 1371, which would allow the legal and regulated sale of marijuana to adults. It was referred to the Joint Committee on Judiciary then, and it is still pending. A hearing is scheduled on March 6.

New Hampshire

Last month, Rep. Calvin Pratt (R) introduced HB 1705, which would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce and allow for regulated retail and wholesale sales. Marijuana would be taxed at a rate of $45 an ounce at wholesale and at 19% of the wholesale price at retail. The bill is now before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Washington

Last year, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D) and 13 cosponsors introduced House Bill 1550, which would replace prohibition with regulation. It and a companion bill, Senate Bill 5598, are still both alive. Dickerson's bill is pending in the House Committee on Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness.

Decriminalization Bills

Arizona


On January 9, Rep. John Fillmore (R) filed House Bill 2044, which would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a petty offense punishable by up to a $400 fine. Simple possession is currently a Class 6 felony in Arizona.

Hawaii

In March 2011, the Hawaii Senate passed Senate Bill 1460, which would reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce to a civil fine capped at $100. The current law specifies a jail stay of up to 30 days and a $1,000 fine. That bill was carried over and is now before the House Health, Public and Military Affairs, and Judiciary committees. Also carried over is House Bill 544, which would make possession of less than an ounce a violation instead of a misdemeanor and impose a maximum $500 fine. That bill is before the House Judiciary Committee.

Illinois

In January 2011, Rep. LaShawn Ford introduced House Bill 100, which would reduce the penalty for possession of up to 28.35 grams of marijuana to a $500 fine for a first offense, $750 for the second, and $1,000 for a subsequent offense. It would also reduce the charge from a misdemeanor to a petty offense. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce can be penalized with up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. The bill has been referred to House Rules Committee, and is still alive in Illinois' two-year session.

Indiana

Last month, Sen. Karen Tallian introduced Senate Bill 347, which would reduce several marijuana-related penalties, including by making possession of up to three ounces of marijuana a civil infraction, punishable by up to a $500 fine and court costs. SB 347 was referred to the Committee on Corrections, Criminal, and Civil Matters.

New Hampshire

Last week, House Bill 1526, which would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce, got a hearing in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Sponsored by Rep. William Panek (R),the bill would mandate a maximum $100 fine. It also provides for notification of parents of minor offenders, who could be ordered to attend a drug awareness program.

New Jersey

Last month, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D) introduced Assembly Bill 1465, which would reduce the penalty for 15 grams or less of marijuana to a civil penalty. The first violation would be punishable by a $150 fine, $200 fine for a second offense, and $500 after that. Any adult caught three times would be ordered to undertake a drug education program, as would any minor regardless of prior offenses. The bill is currently before the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Rhode Island

Last month, more than half of the Rhode Island House of Representatives cosponsored Rep. John Edwards' bill to fine adults for simple possession of marijuana and to sentence minors to drug awareness classes. The bill, House Bill 7092, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. Current law provides for up to a year in jail and $500 fine; the bill would make it a civil offense with a maximum $150 fine.

Tennessee

In February 2011, Rep. Mike Kernell introduced House Bill 1737, which would reduce the penalty for less than 1/8 of an ounce of marijuana to a fine between $250 and $2,500. Possession would remain a Class A misdemeanor, but the bill would remove the possibility of a year-long jail sentence. Fines would remain the same.  A companion bill, Senate Bill 1597, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both bills remain alive in the state's two-year legislative session.

Vermont

Last year, a tri-partisan group of legislators led by Rep. Jason Lorber filed House Bill 427, which would reduce the penalty for adults' possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to civil fine of up to $150. Minors would be sent to drug education and community service for a first offense, as would adults under 21 convicted of a second or subsequent offense. The current penalty for first offense possession of marijuana is a fine of up to $500 and/or up to six months in jail. Second offense possession is currently punishable by up to two years in prison and/or up to a $1,000 fine. The bill is still alive in the state's two-year legislative session. Last month, Sen. Joe Benning (R) and Sen. Philip Baruth (D) filed Senate Bill 134, which would reduce marijuana penalties, including by reducing the penalty for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana to a civil fine of up to $100. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Decriminalization Improvement Bills

New York


Last year, legislators filed bills aimed at removing New York City's reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital. The state's current decriminalization law creates an exception for marijuana possessed in a public place and which is burning or open to the public view. The NYPD has used that exception to arrest more than 50,000 people a year on misdemeanor charges instead of issuing them tickets. In May, Sen. Mark Grisanti (R) filed Senate Bill 5187, while Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries introduced a companion bill, A 7620. Both bills were referred to their chambers’ Codes Committees and are still alive.

North Carolina

A bill that would reclassify possession of an ounce as an infraction instead of a misdemeanor has been filed in North Carolina. HB 324 increases the decrim amount from a half-ounce, but removes the automatic suspended sentence for a first offense.

Twelve states have decriminalized marijuana possession so far (and possession in small amounts at home is legal under the Alaska constitution), but between an initial burst of reform activity in the 1970s and Nevada's decriminalization in 2002, there were three decades of stagnation. Since then, three more states- -- California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts -- have come on board, and chances are more will follow shortly, Legalization remains a tougher nut to crack, but so far, there are opportunities in five states this year.

Marijuana Reform Polling Well in Rhode Island

Rhode Islanders are ready to decriminalize and maybe even legalize marijuana, according to a new Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). The poll found nearly two-thirds support (65%) decriminalization and bare majority support (52%) for legalization.

The poll comes as the state legislature ponders a pair of bills, House Bill 7092 and Senate Bill 2253, which would reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of weed to a citation with a maximum $150 fine. Under current law, possession is punishable by a $500 fine and up to a year in jail.

Decriminalization had support across the political spectrum, with 73% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, and 60% of independents in favor of the measure. In addition to political party, the poll provided cross-tabs on age and gender. In no group was there less than majority support for decriminalization. The least supportive group was voters over 65, and even 58% of them supported decriminalization.

But maybe legislators should set their sights a bit higher and go for legalization. It looks like the Rhode Island electorate is just about there already with 52% saying they supported taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Legalization won majority support among men (59%), but not women (45%); among Democrats (55%) and Republicans (54%), but not independents (49%); and among every age group except voters over 65, 55% of whom opposed it.

"As this polling demonstrates, the public is clearly aware that marijuana prohibition is failed policy and they are ready for change," said MPP legislative analyst Robert Capecchi. "The people of Rhode Island understand the need for sensible marijuana policy reform. Ending marijuana prohibition would created entire industries with hundreds of jobs, allow the government to collected needed revenue from responsible sales, and keep marijuana out of the hands of minors through thorough regulations."

The poll also asked about medical marijuana and found strong support (72%) for the state's program. Nearly as many (70%) said they wanted Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to implement the state's 2009 creating three nonprofit dispensaries for patients. Chafee stopped the program because of fears of federal intervention.

RI
United States

California Medical Marijuana Initiative Polls at Nearly 60%

A medical marijuana initiative aiming at the November ballot found nearly 60% support in a poll conducted last week. The Probolsky Research poll reported that 34.5% of respondents would "definitely vote yes," 22.5% would "probably vote yes," and 2.3% were "leaning toward" a yes vote.That comes out to 59.8% saying they favor the initiative

The initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Tax Act (MMRCTA) would impose comprehensive, statewide regulations on medical marijuana distribution. The act would create a state medical marijuana board, require all dispensaries and commercial cultivation operations to be licensed after July 1, 2013, and impose a 2.5% state medical marijuana sales tax. (For more detail on the initiative, see our recent feature article here.)

Only 23.6% of respondents would definitely vote no, with another 9.7% who would probably vote no, and an additional 2.0% who were leaning toward no, for a total "no" vote of 34.3%. Some 5.5% of respondents were either decisively uncertain or refused to answer.

The question respondents answered was directly about the MMRCTA: "The California Medical Marijuana Regulation Act may appear on the November ballot in California. It reads: 'Creates a state enforcement division to regulate and control all entities involved in the commercial cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana in California; requires their mandatory registration with the state; and establishes a state excise tax of upon all medical marijuana grown for sale in California.' If the election were held today, would you vote Yes to approve or No to reject this initiative? And would you say that you would definitely vote [yes/no] or probably vote [yes/no]? If unsure, would you say that you lean one way or another?"

Only limited additional polling data is available at this point, but Probolsky did provide data on where support for the initiative was strongest: among Democrats (65.8%), unaffiliated voters (67.4%), foreign-born voters (67.5%), Asian voters (66.7%), and those who feel California is on the right track (68.4%). Democratic voters over age 55 are especially supportive at 70.0%.

The poll was conducted last week in English and Spanish using landline and cell phones. A total of 750 surveys were recorded, yielding a margin of error of +-3.7%.

The MMRTC campaign has a self-imposed goal of raising a million dollars by February 9 and estimates it could take twice that much for a successful signature-gathering campaign. This poll should help push them toward that goal. The conventional wisdom is that initiatives need to be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins, and MMRTC is very, very close.

CA
United States

"Regulate Marijuana Like Wine" Wins 62% in CA Poll

A voter survey commissioned by California's Regulate Marijuana Like Wine (RMLW) initiative campaign suggests the initiative could win at the polls in November -- if it manages to make it onto the ballot.

RMLW is one of handful of proposed 2012 California marijuana legalization initiatives, all of them ill-funded. For any of them to make the ballot, they have to come up with more than 500,000 valid voter signatures by April, a task that is considered almost impossibly to accomplish by volunteer efforts alone.

RMLW commissioned the poll in a bid to show potential funders it could win in November, and with these poll results, the campaign can now make that argument. California initiative watchers estimate that it would take between $1 and $2 million in paid signature-gathering to make the ballot.

The statewide poll of 800 likely voters conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates found support for the initiative at 62%, with 35% opposed and 3% undecided. No cross-tabs have been made available.

The poll found even higher levels of support for more general critiques of current drug laws and the level of attention California law enforcement pays to marijuana. Four out of five respondents (80%) agreed with the statement, "State and federal drug laws are outdated and have failed, therefore, we need to take a new approach that makes sense for today," while 71% agreed that law enforcement spends too much, time, money, and resources enforcing marijuana laws.

If RMLW were to pass, the California Legislative Analyst's Office has projected "savings of potentially several tens of millions of dollars annually to state and local governments of the costs of incarcerating and supervising certain marijuana offenders," as well as potentially generating "hundreds of millions of dollars in net additional tax revenues related to the production and sale of marijuana products."

"There is no policy that is more discriminatory or wastes more tax dollars," said RMLW treasurer Steve Collett, who hailed the poll results. "This initiative helps farmers, reduces prison overcrowding, relieves burdens on the courts, generates revenues for the state, and frees up police to work on real crimes."

The results also encouraged Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) co-founder Jack Cole. "LEAP believes the citizens of California are far ahead of the federal government in assessing a policy that will reduce death, disease, crime, and corruption, when they register 62% support for the initiative Regulate Marijuana Like Wine," he said.

Proponents of the competing marijuana legalization initiatives are working to set up a joint meeting, a so-called "Cannadome" in the Bay Area for mid-February. Whether these new poll results will make any difference in forging unity then remains to be seen.

CA
United States

Marijuana Legalization Trails in Michigan Poll

The campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the Michigan ballot is going to have its work cut out for it, if a new poll accurately reflects voter sentiments. The Detroit Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll had respondents rejecting legalization by a margin of 50% to 45%.

The conventional wisdom on initiatives is that those that start with less than 60% popular support face long odds.

The poll was conduct by EPIC-MRA of Lansing and surveyed 600 likely voters. It has a margin of error of +/- four percentage points. The poll specifically asked if respondents would vote for the ongoing initiative effort if it makes the ballot.

Breaking down the numbers, legalization had majority support among Democrats (57%) and independents (51%), but not Republicans (29%). Men were more likely to support legalization (48%) than women (43%). Support was stronger among respondents younger than 50 (49%) than over 50 (44%). And a favorable view toward legalization was more likely in the Detroit metro area (48%) than the rest of the state (43%).

The initiative now in the signature-gathering phase is the Campaign for a Safer Michigan. The campaign needs to gather some 322,000 valid signatures from registered voters by June 9 to qualify for the November ballot.[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of signatures needed and the date they must be turned in.]

A legalization initiative was approved for the Washington state ballot Friday, and a Colorado initiative is awaiting certification after handing in nearly double the number of signatures required. Campaigns are still in the signature-gathering phase in California, Missouri, Montana, and Oregon.

MI
United States

Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Rolling Out in California [FEATURE]

A broad coalition of California advocates has filed a statewide medical marijuana regulation initiative aimed at ending the years-long confusion over what is and what is not allowed under state law by explicitly allowing sales and legalizing dispensaries statewide absent affirmative local popular votes to ban them. Pending approval of the measure's title and summary by state officials, the campaign is planning to roll out a signature-gathering and fundraising campaign early next month in a bid to put it before the voters in November.

The Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act (MMRCTA) would create a state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Enforcement (BMME), to regulate medical marijuana cultivation and distribution. The bureau's 21-person governing body would include a mix of patients, patient advocates, industry representatives, union representatives, law enforcement, and other stakeholders appointed by the governor or lieutenant governor.

The BMME would be funded by a 2.5% tax on the sale of medical marijuana. Surplus tax revenues would fund emergency medical services, low-income assistance and health services, scientific and educational grant programs, and research into environmentally-sound cultivation practices.

The initiative would require state registration after July 1, 2013 for anyone cultivating, processing, manufacturing, transporting, distributing, or selling medical marijuana for use by others. Patients and caregivers who are growing at home for themselves would be exempt.

The MMRCTA would make it more difficult -- but not impossible -- for cities and counties to ban dispensaries by declaring that "each city and county shall permit" medical marijuana facilities sufficient to meet local needs, which the initiative defines as at least one dispensary for each 50,000 residents in a county or town of 50,000.

Already existing bans and moratoria, of which there are nearly 200 statewide and growing weekly, would be allowed to continue to exist, but only for a specified period of time. Then they and new proposed local bans could only be enacted through a direct vote via local initiative. Cities would be allowed to maintain reasonable local control over zoning and other regulation of medical marijuana businesses.

The initiative would also outlaw the issuance or use of fraudulent physicians' recommendations. That means it would become an offense to issue a recommendation if the issuer is not a physician.

The measure has some of the biggest players in Golden State medical marijuana politics behind it. Its official proponents are Don Duncan, state director for Americans for Safe Access, the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, and Ron Lind, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, which represents unionized dispensary workers around the state.

Also backing the initiative campaign, called Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana, are California NORML, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the Sacramento-based California Cannabis Association, and the Emerald Growers' Association. The effort is also endorsed by the national reform groups the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project.

But time is tight. The campaign has only until April 20 to gather the more than 500,000 valid signatures it needs to qualify for the ballot, and says it is trying to raise one million dollars by February 9. That will be just the beginning if the initiative is to have a chance to make the ballot.

"To come up with 500,000 valid signatures by April 20 is probably a $2 million proposition," said long-time California NORML head Dale Gieringer, who is also an MMRCTA campaign committee member. "We're a little bit late out of the gate, and we still have to wait for the title and summary to come back, but we have some startup pledges already on hand, so we'll be ready to start circulating petitions early in February."

Even campaign communications consultant Roger Salazar's lower estimate was daunting. "It'll take between one and two million, but with this short time frame, we need these resources on hand," he said. "We need to come up with more like 800-850,000 signatures to be safe; we're looking at around 130% of what is required."

To attract the game-changing big bucks of donors like Peter Lewis or George Soros, who could propel the campaign to success with cash injections, the campaign is going to have to convince them it is worthy. Citing campaign polling, Gieringer thinks they have a shot.

"Regulating medical marijuana is the marijuana issue in California," he said. "Support for the medical marijuana law here polls over 70% and support for uniform state-wide rules polls even higher. So, yes, we're approaching the usual suspects, as well as a couple of others. We know they want to make sure this is a good place to put drug reform money, and we think we'll come out well in comparison with other reform initiatives around the country."

The initiative came together out of widespread frustration with the status quo, said both Gieringer and Salazar. Between heightened federal enforcement and increased local clampdowns, the medical marijuana distribution network is fraying, fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, leaving patients in some areas miles from their medicine and providers even in medical marijuana-friendly locales closing up shop.

"We've seen a lack of state government action to fill in the blanks on Proposition 215 and we've seen the kind of response we've had from the federal government," said Salazar. "Some of the groups that were supporting marijuana legalization decided to try to figure out how to reinforce the voters authorizing use for medical reasons, as well as a way to provide some of the oversight people have been looking for."

"The federal crackdown is widely rationalized by the charge that California doesn't have a legally regulated distribution system," said Gieringer. "The Obama administration said it wouldn't go after people who were in clear and unambiguous compliance with state law, but we don't have any clear and unambiguous state laws. Some say it's legal, some say it isn't," he explained. "We have to do this to protect ourselves from more federal oppression. We need this for patients, the industry, and law enforcement alike; we need to give them a clear idea of what they can and cannot do."

Given the size and diverse nature of California's medical marijuana and marijuana reform communities, any initiative concerning cannabis is going to be contentious. The intense negative reaction to 2010's Proposition 19 in some sectors of the community is evidence of that, as is the inability of would-be legalizers to settle on any one of the four underfunded legalization initiatives languishing in search of signatures this year.

The MMRCTA is no exception, and early detractors have emerged. Medical marijuana activist and gadfly Mickey Martin, who was prosecuted by the feds himself over his Tainted, Inc. edibles, used his Cannabis Warrior blog to vociferously object to the creation of a new state agency to regulate the industry, to the inclusion of union representation on that agency's governing board, as well as his presentiment that the board will be stacked with industry insiders, among other things.

"There is strong support for uniform state regulation," Gieringer replied, "but also for local control. If people really don't want dispensaries, they could vote them down, but legal dispensaries are the default. Once this initiative passes, all of the ambiguity about what will be legal will be gone."

As for the make-up of the board, "We made sure the bureau had knowledgeable people, and why shouldn't labor have a place at the table?," Gieringer retorted. "Labor is a key supporter of the initiative," he said."The UFCW is one of the key sponsors. They've been doing a hell of a lot to organize for this initiative and for legal marijuana in general. They've earned their seat at the table," he said.

There will doubtless be plenty more discussion of the merits and deficits of the MMRCTA in the few weeks culminating in the April 20 signature gathering deadline, but this looks like a serious effort being run by some serious players in California. The question becomes just how serious the big money funders think it is, and what they think its chances of success are.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Marijuana Reform Polls Strongly (Again) in Canada

Just days after Canada's opposition Liberal Party adopted a marijuana legalization resolution, a new poll suggests the Grits have their fingers placed firmly on the pulse of the electorate. The poll found that nearly two-thirds favor decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, while only 20% support leaving the laws the way they are now.

The poll, conducted by Forum Research and published in the National Post Tuesday, found that 40% of Canadians said marijuana "should be taxed and legalized," while 26% favored decriminalization. Respondents in every province produced majorities for legalization/decrim, ranging from a high of 73% in British Columbia to a low of 61% in Quebec.

When it came to "it should be taxed and legalized," support was again strongest in British Columbia at 50% and lowest in Quebec at 36%. Support for legalization was at 42% in the Atlantic provinces, 40% in the Prairie province, and 38% in Quebec.

The poll is roughly in line with other Canada polls in the past decade, although giving respondents both a legalization and a decriminalization choice may have lowered support for legalization somewhat. Four polls taken since 2004 had support for legalization ranging between 51% and 55%, while five polls since 2003 have found support for decriminalization (asked various ways) ranging from 59% to 83%.

In any case, this most recent poll is not good news for the Conservatives, who are attempting to push through their draconian C-10 crime bill, which seeks increased penalties for some marijuana offenses, including mandatory minimum sentences for growing as few as six plants. Only 11% of respondents said marijuana penalties should be increased.

Canada

Poll Finds Washington State Voters Split on Marijuana Legalization

An Elway Research poll released January 4 found more support for than opposition to marijuana legalization in Washington state, but support was under 50%. When asked if they favored legalization, 48% said yes, with 45% opposed.

That marks a decline in support from the last Elway Research poll in July, when 54% favored legalization.

The poll results come just days after New Approach Washington handed in over 355,000 voter signatures in its bid to get its Initiative 502 on the November ballot. The initiative would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and over and would regulate and tax marijuana sales at stores operated by the state Liquor Control Board. (All liquor stores in Washington are also operated by the state.)

The Elway polls asked generic questions about marijuana legalization. A November KING-TV/Survey USA poll that asked about specific provisions in I-502 found greater enthusiasm among voters. That poll had support at 57%.

Noting that the Elway Research poll only asked the generic question, New Approach director Alison Holcomb told the Seattle Times it didn't mention provisions in I-502 that are popular with voters, such as age restrictions and designating marijuana tax revenues for health and prevention programs.

"Our research over the years has shown us that voters really care about what the details are," she said.

WA
United States

The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/usmap-small.jpg
We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:

Progress on Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.

In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.

Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority support among the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.

Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.

In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.

The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.

Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.

Medical Marijuana Advances…

In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.

And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.

…But the Empire Strikes Back

Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.

Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.

There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.

It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.

Synthetic Panic

Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.

Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.

At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.

The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly

overcrowded Mule Creek State Prison, CA
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning in November.

Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.

Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.

Drug Testing the Needy

drug testing lab
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.

The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.

While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.

But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.

Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War

Drug War 40th anniversary demo, San Francisco
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.

In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.

Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges

Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, the ban was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

US Drug War Deaths

As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.

Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms (some in their own homes) and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.

People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.

Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.

The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.

In Conclusion...

Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.


 

Marijuana Legalization Fares Well in Colorado, Massachusetts Polls

Two polls released late last week show strong support for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Massachusetts. Both states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot, and activists in both states are working toward legalization. In Colorado, an effort to put a legalization initiative on the ballot next year is well underway, while in Massachusetts, this year's emphasis is on legalizing medical marijuana.

In Massachusetts, a DAPA Research poll conducted for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition/NORML found that 58% support legalizing marijuana and regulating it like other agricultural commodities with sales prohibited to underage persons. The figure was 69% for Democrats, 44% for Republicans, and 54% for "other."

Support for legalization rose to 62% when respondents were asked if a proposed law would tax and regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana to adults like the state currently regulates alcohol. The figure was 70% for Democrats, 56% for Republicans, and 60% for "other."

The poll also found that 54% opposed the federal government disregarding state laws in states that legalize marijuana, while only 35% supported the federal government disregarding state law.

The Massachusetts poll was conducted in November. It surveyed 600 Massachusetts voters by telephone and has a margin of error of +/-4%.

"The data strongly suggests that Massachusetts voters are more ready than voters in any other state to end prohibition and establish reasonable regulation of cannabis cultivation and commerce for all purposes," said Steven Epstein, a founder and currently an officer of MassCann/NORML. "The data also establishes that if the legislature does not enact a law allowing medical use of marijuana this session the voters will overwhelmingly, perhaps 80%+, approve the voter initiative for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana at the ballot box in November."

"Legalization is essential to ending crime created by the prohibition of cannabis," said Cara Crabb-Burnham, a member of MassCann/NORML's board of directors. "It is important to recognize legal vendors will card customers and keep it out of the hands of children."

In Colorado, a Public Policy Polling survey asked "in general, do you think marijuana usage should be legal or illegal," and legal won by a margin of 49% to 40%. A similar question about medical marijuana showed support at 68%, with only 25% saying it should be illegal. No cross tabs were available for the poll.

The poll surveyed 793 Colorado voters from December 1 to 4. The margin of error for the survey is +/-3.5%.  It was conducted via automated telephone interview.

The poll sends a mixed message for Colorado legalizers. It demonstrates that marijuana legalization is more popular than pot prohibition in the Rocky Mountain State, but not quite popular enough to win at the polls next year. The conventional wisdom among initiative experts is that they should be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins.

But Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Colorado Independent said he had seen polls showing stronger support than this one and that it was early yet. "I think it will go higher as the campaign heats up," he said.

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