Spending Priorities

RSS Feed for this category

US Sentencing Commission Votes to Cut Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

The US Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted unanimously Thursday to reduce sentences for most federal drug trafficking defendants. The move comes as the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by drug offenders, even as prison populations in the states are on the decline.

In the past decade, in many states, the harsh Reagan-era war on drugs approach to drug use and trafficking has given way to smarter approaches geared toward diversion and treatment of drug offenders, but when it comes to reforms, the federal system has lagged behind.

Passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders, was a step in the right direction. And passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act (House Resolution 3382/Senate Bill 1410), which has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is pending in the House, would be another.

That bill, which is supported by the administration, would direct federal judges to not sentence some drug offenders to mandatory minimum sentences, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for other drug offenders, and apply the more lenient crack cocaine sentencing scheme under the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders sentenced before it was passed. It also calls on USSC to amend its sentencing guidelines and policy statements for drug offenders to minimize federal prison overcrowding and reduce and prevent racial disparities in sentencing.

But in the meantime, USSC has now, with the administration's support, acted on its own. The commission voted to reduce sentences by amending the federal sentencing guidelines to lower the base offense guidelines in the Drug Quantity Table across various drug types.

The quantity tables place specific quantities of each controlled substance in corresponding sentencing "levels," which in turn contain a range of recommended sentences based on a defendant's criminal history. For instance, under the current guidelines, a drug offense involving at least 10 grams of methamphetamine, but not more than 20 grams, is in sentencing level 18, where the recommended sentence range for an offender with one or no criminal history points is 27-33 months. Under the new guidelines, the same quantity of methamphetamine will be a level 16 offense, which means the recommended sentence range for a first-time offense will be 21-27 months.

The example above is on the low end for federal drug sentences. USSC said the changes would affect about 70% of federal drug trafficking defendants and would result in an average sentence decrease of 11 months. That means the average federal drug trafficking sentence will drop from just over five years to just over four years.

The USSC move could cut the federal prison population by 6,500 over five years. (supremecourt.gov)
This commission has concentrated this year of addressing federal prison costs and capacity. It estimates that the changes it approved Thursday will reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over the next five years and have an even greater impact over the long run.

"This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner," said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the commission. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991."

There are currently more than 216,000 federal prisoners, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Slightly more than half (50.1%) are doing time for drug offenses.

Attorney General Holder welcomed the move, calling it "a milestone" in reshaping the way the system deals with drug offenders. He called for Congress to take the next steps.

"It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system," Holder said. "Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety. I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on these types of common-sense reforms."

Attorney General Holder approves -- and wants more. (usdoj.gov)
Civil liberties and sentencing reform advocates also pronounced themselves pleased at a step in the right direction.

"We commend the Sentencing Commission for taking this important step toward reforming federal drug sentences," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "This change will save taxpayers money, help to rein in federal prison spending, and bolster the spirits of tens of thousands of federal defendants who are facing impractical and disproportionately long sentences."

"Our country is slowly but steadily reversing the damage done by the failed, racially biased war on drugs," said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The actions taken by the Sentencing Commission today are another positive move toward reducing unnecessarily long sentences that have led to bloated, overcrowded prisons. Our criminal justice system is smarter, fairer, and more humane than it was a year ago, and we need to make sure momentum continues in the right direction."

"This is a terrific, if modest, first step toward genuine sentencing reform for drug offenders," said Mary Price, legal counsel for FAMM and an expert on the Sentencing Commission. "The next step is for Congress to pick up where the Commission left off by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act."

But first, Congress must allow the USSC recommendations to become law. The drug quantity table amendment, along with others approved by the commission, will go to Congress in May. Barring legislative objections, the new guidelines will become law on November 1, 2014.

Unless USSC votes to make the new guidelines retroactive, they will impact only those defendants sentenced after November 1. The commission voted Thursday to conduct a prison impact study before voting on retroactivity.

Chronicle AM -- March 12, 2014

Medical marijuana is keeping state legislators busy, Maine's governor has a 20th Century approach to drug problems, New Mexico's governor cuts funds to a diversion program, Indonesia shifts its stance on drug users, and more. Let's get to it:

Responding to new synthetic drugs by banning them is still a favored response in state legislatures. (wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

DEA, LAPD Raid Dispensaries. DEA agents assisted by LAPD officers raided and closed several Los Angeles dispensaries Tuesday. They hit the Black Rose dispensary in Fairfax, Downtown Medical Caregivers off Main Street, Washington and Western Medical Group in Harvard Heights, Herbman in Exposition Park and two homes in Beverly Hills. The same person allegedly owns all four dispensaries.

Vermont Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. A bill that lifts the 1,000-patient cap on the state's dispensaries and authorizes two more dispensaries passed the Senate with little debate Tuesday. Senate Bill 247 now heads to the House.

Revised Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A CBD medical marijuana bill revised by its sponsors so that the University of Alabama-Birmingham would conduct a research study passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Tuesday night. Senate Bill 174 now moves to the House.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A bill that would allow compassionate use of non-intoxicating cannabis oil by Utahns with untreatable epilepsy passed the Senate Tuesday by a wide margin, despite reservations some senators have about the oil's safety and long term benefits. House Bill 105 now goes back to the House, which had already passed it, but now must sign off on changes in the Senate version.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing. Two bills that would legalize the manufacture and sale of medical marijuana-infused products such as brownies and oils and permit communities to allow and regulate marijuana dispensaries got a hearing in the Senate Government Operations Committee hearing Tuesday, but no vote. Committee chair and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) is not expected to schedule another hearing for at least a couple of weeks. The bills are House Bill 5104 and House Bill 4271.

California Bill to Tighten Location Restrictions on Dispensaries Killed in Committee. A bill that would have widened "dispensary free" zone around schools from 600 feet to 1,000 feet has been blocked in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said Tuesday. Conway is the author of the bill in question, Assembly Bill 1588.

American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Releases Study on Marijuana and Epilepsy. The medical research group American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) issued a new scientific review Tuesday, Cannabis in the Treatment of Epilepsy, which compiles much of the leading and historical research on epilepsy and cannabis (medical marijuana) for use by scientists, physicians, patients, and parents, as well as those producing and manufacturing it for treatment. Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) will host a Google Hangout today, March 12th at 8:00pm EDT, featuring AHP director Roy Upton, ASA scientific advisory board member Dr. Sunil Aggarwal and others.

Law Enforcement

Maine Governor Wants More Drug War. Confronted by increasing levels of opiate drug use, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) responded Tuesday by proposing to beef up drug war spending. The conservative governor wants to add 22 new state positions including 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors for the Office of the Maine Attorney General as well as four new district court judges to bolster the state's four drug courts in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland. He also criticized methadone, saying the drug should be provided in a clinical setting only. He said he intended to focus equally on the addiction side of the drug equation but did not offer any details.

New Mexico Governor Vetoes Funding for Drug Diversion Pilot Program. Gov. Susana Martinez (R) vetoed spending $140,000 for a Santa Fe program to divert some drug offenders to treatment Tuesday. The city's pre-booking diversion program, otherwise known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), will begin late this month. If successful, this model could become a model for other New Mexico communities, saving both the criminal justice and health systems tens of millions of dollars each year.

Salvia Divinorum

Rhode Island Bill to Ban Salvia, Jimson Weed Has Hearing Today. A bill that would ban the use of salvia divinorum and Jimson weed was scheduled for committee action today. House Bill 7191, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), gets a vote before the House Judiciary Committee. It's not clear what prompted the bill.

New Synthetic Drugs

Minnesota Synthetic Drug Ban Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would give the state pharmacy board the authority to use its emergency powers to classify new synthetic drugs as banned substances is advancing in the House. House File 2446, introduced by Rep. Erik Simonson (D-Duluth) passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Tuesday with few questions and a unanimous vote.

International

LEAHN Releases Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement. The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) has released the Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement, developed at the International Conference on Drug Policy and Policing last November in Frankfurt. The principles are designed to make law enforcement an effective partner in a harm reduction approach to drug use and related illness.

TDPF Releases Report on Dutch Coffee Shop Policy. Prompted by "misreports and misunderstandings that have led many to believe the Netherlands is retreating from its pragmatic policy of allowing cannabis to be sold via 'coffee shop,'" the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation has released a new report to set things straight. The report is Cannabis policy in the Netherlands: Moving forward, not backwards.

Ghana Anti-Drug Head Calls for Marijuana Legalization Debate. The executive secretary of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Akrasi Sarpong, has called for a national debate on legalization of marijuana in the country. "Ordinary people can say don't legalize it but that will be vocalizing the ostrich hiding its head in the sand, because there is a virtual legalization on the ground," Sarpong said. Many people believe "what you are fighting is not crime," he added. "Reports say cannabis is the number one problem in Africa so what are we therefore saying. People laugh at these things, because, they are growing them in their homes," he said.

Peru Ponders Restarting Drug Plane Shootdown Program.Peru suspended its law allowing its Air Force to shoot down suspected drug planes in April 2001, when the Peruvian Air Force, accompanied by a CIA support plane, mistakenly shot down an aircraft carrying American missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter. Now, Congressman Carlos Turbino, a retired general, has filed a bill to reinstate the program. It is currently before the congressional defense committee, even though it is opposed as unnecessary by the government of President Ollanta Humala.

New Indonesian Drug Law Emphasizes Rehabilitation Instead of Punishment of Drug Users. Indonesian ministers this week signed a memorandum of understanding that they say will declare drug users "victims" instead of criminals, to be treated at rehabilitation centers instead of sentencing to prison. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has gone on the record supporting a softer touch for addicts, but early efforts to push for more rehabilitation centers have met with resistance from judges who are loathe to appear weak on drugs and lawmakers who often use the early release of traffickers as opportunities to grandstand against the president. Drug user make up 42% of all Indonesian prisoners.

Marijuana Reform Rally Set for Glasgow Next Month. A mass marijuana rally called by the Glasgow Cannabis Social Club is set for the city center next month, and it's already causing grumbling. "People will be extremely annoyed at the high-profile celebration of something that's illegal," grumped Conservative MSP John Lamont. "It is disappointing that such a carnival in homage to an illegal substance is being facilitated in this way," he added. The old fogies want the police to shut it down, but the police have said they will stop it only if lawbreaking takes place. The celebration is due to take place at Glasgow Green on Sunday April 20. So far, more than 200 people have signed up via Facebook to attend.

Jerry Brown Vetoes California "Defelonization" Bill [FEATURE]

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Saturday vetoed a bill that would have allowed prosecutors or judges to charge simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The bill would have made drug possession a "wobbler," meaning it could be charged either way, based on judicial or prosecutorial discretion.

overcrowded California prison (supremecourtus.gov)
Some 10,000 people are convicted of drug possession felonies each year in California, and experts estimated that, under the bill, 15% to 30% of them would have been charged instead with misdemeanors. The exact number is unknown because the bill would have left those decisions up to prosecutors and judges. But in any case, the bill would have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice system savings, which would have provided local governments with more flexibility to invest in drug treatment and mental health services and focus law enforcement resources on more serious offenses, along with lightening up on some of the people caught up in the criminal justice system.

The bill, Senate Bill 649, was sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and passed the legislature with bipartisan support, but was opposed by law enforcement and some prosecutors. Leno and supporters had argued that the bill would save the state money on incarceration and related costs.

The bill was premature, given that a broader criminal justice system reform is in the works, Brown said in a veto message. "We are going to examine in detail California's criminal justice system, including the sentencing structure," he said. "We will do so with the full participation of all the necessary parties, including law enforcement, local government, courts, and treatment providers. That would be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws."

Even after the state's vaunted prison realignment, California prisons remain overcrowded, and the more than 4,100 people currently imprisoned on simple drug possession charges only add to that burden. The cost of imprisoning them comes to $207 million a year.

Under current California law, which will now stay in place, simple possession of drugs such as cocaine, meth, and heroin is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Leno's bill left that maximum sentence in place, but would have given either judges or prosecutors the discretion to punish possession as a misdemeanor, with a year in jail as a maximum sentence. Similarly, under the Leno bill, judges or prosecutors could have diverted drug users to treatment or community programs in a bid to reduce recidivism.

Charging drug possessors with misdemeanors instead of felonies would also have created criminal justice system savings with each lower-level prosecution. That's because felony charges require a preliminary hearing, while misdemeanor charges do not.

But law enforcement groups, including the California State Sheriffs Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the California District Attorneys Association all opposed the bill, labeling it a threat to public safety. They argued that the bill would reduce incentives for drug possessors to voluntarily seek drug treatment because they would only face jail time, and the jails are so full -- thanks to prison realignment -- that people sentenced to jail time do only a tiny fraction of that time.

Brown could have let the bill become law without his signature, Leno noted in an interview with the Chronicle earlier this month, and pronounced himself "surprised" at the veto.

"It's quite surprising that the governor would veto a modest attempt at sentencing reform in light of our prison overcrowding crisis," Leno said Saturday.

Bill supporters, including the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance lambasted Brown's decision to veto the bill.

Jerry Brown
"By vetoing SB 649, Gov. Brown has thwarted the will of the voters and their elected representatives by rejecting a modest reform that would have helped end mass incarceration in this state," said Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California.

"California voters and the legislature recognize the urgent need to reevaluate our sentencing laws and enact smart reforms, especially for low level, non-violent drug crimes," Horiuchi continued. "Doing so will allow California to reduce its reliance on incarceration and free up limited resources for the sorts of community-based treatment, education and job training programs proven to reduce crime and create safe and healthy communities. Despite this, Gov. Brown remains inexplicably opposed to meaningful sentencing reform."

"The governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The vast majority of voters agree with the experts -- locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive."

Despite the opposition of the law enforcement establishment, California public opinion wants to see sentencing reform. A 2012 Tulchin poll found that 75% of Californians preferred prevention and treatment as an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders and 62% agreed that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be a misdemeanor.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have such laws, and an effort to pass similar legislation is gearing up in Washington state. But in Sacramento, Gov. Brown was listening to the cops instead of the people.

"Our system is broken," said DPA's Lyman. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities."

Sacramento, CA
United States

North Carolina Governor Vetoes Welfare Drug Test Bill

North Carolina Gov. Robert McCrory (R) Thursday vetoed a welfare drug testing bill pushed through the legislature by his Republican colleagues. Drug testing welfare applicants or recipients was a "government overreach," he said.

The bill, House Bill 392, would have required people applying for the state's welfare and food stamp programs to undergo drug testing if social service workers determined there was reasonable suspicion they were using drugs. It would also have required county workers to ensure that applicants did not have outstanding felony warrants and were not violating probation.

"While I support the efforts to ensure that fugitive felons are not on public assistance roles, and to share information with law enforcement, other parts of the bill are unfair, fiscally irresponsible, and have potential operational problems," McCrory said in a veto statement. "Drug testing Work First applicants as directed in this bill could lead to inconsistent application across the state's 100 counties. That's a recipe for government overreach and unnecessary government intrusion," he said.

"This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse," McCrory continued. "Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction. It makes no sense to repeat those mistakes in North Carolina."

While vetoing the bill, McCrory did issue an executive order that would implement the bill's fugitive felon provision.

The veto won praise from civil liberties and civil rights advocates.

"Our state and federal constitutions protect the privacy and dignity of all North Carolinians against unreasonable searches, and all available evidence has shown that welfare applicants are no more likely to use drugs than the general public," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the ACLU in North Carolina said in a statement.

The ACLU and other groups had written McCrory on July 31 urging him to veto the bill.

Charlotte, NC
United States

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

Spending Cuts Hurting Cocaine Interdiction, Admiral Says

Spending cuts imposed by sequestration are devastating efforts to block the flow of cocaine into the US, the director of the Joint Interagency Task Force told the Defense Writers Group in Washington Wednesday. Some 38 metric tons of cocaine that otherwise would have been interdicted will make it to US shores, claimed Coast Guard Rear Admiral Charles Michel.

Some, including the analysts who wrote a major report on drug policy for the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, wonder if it even matters.

Joint Interagency Task Force South headquarters, Key West, Florida (jiatfs.southcom.mil)
Three South American nations -- Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru -- produce the world's coca and cocaine supply, creating about 1,200 metric tons a year of the marching powder. About 500 tons of that are estimated to head for the US.

Michel said the joint command interdicted or disrupted about a third of cocaine shipments to the US last year, but that he expected that figure to drop to between 20% and 25% this year. Both figures are unusually high; the heuristic is that interdiction normally accounts for about 10% of drug trafficking.

"It breaks my heart to see multi-metric-ton cocaine shipments go by that we know are there and we don't have a ship to target it," Michel said. "Once it gets on land, it becomes almost impossible to police up."

Michel blamed not only sequestration, but also a history of declining support within the Defense Department. The task force depends on the US Southern Command for support, and even though that has "always been an economy-of-force theater," more ships and aircraft were devoted to the mission in the past.

"With sequestration, as well as other Department of Defense cuts, those resources become scarcer," he said. At his interagency group based in Key West, Fla., resources have been on a "multi-, multiyear downward trend," Michel said,"particularly for aircraft and vessels. There is more intelligence out there on the movement of cocaine than there are surface vessels to interdict this product," Michel said.

The task force covers an areas 12 times the size of the continental US, but only has a handful of assets, Michel complained.

"Right now… on any given day, I’d estimate that for US capital ships I have about three or four" and a like number of major aircraft assets such as P-3 Orions, he said. "Go back 20 years and we would have multiple times the number of ships and aircraft. It is difficult to resource this mission set, and sequestration has been devastating to it," he said.

Not everyone sees interdiction as a panacea. In last week's OAS report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, while analysts noted that interdiction successfully stopped some drugs from making it to consumer markets, producer countries were more likely to want to use their limited resources elsewhere. They also scoffed at the resort to interdiction in general.

"Interdiction is a joke. At most it will net you 5% of the drug flows, and this is seen by the traffickers as just a cost of doing business," they say in an unattributed quote include in the scenarios section of the report. "They will find another route. It's like just stopping up one mouse hole -- there are not enough resources to stop all routes. "

Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credico has a remedy for that: Elect him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it's not just marijuana, Credico said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

New York City, NY
United States

Obama Comments Beg the Question on Marijuana Legalization

In an interview last Friday with ABC News' Barbara Walters, President Obama said going after marijuana smokers in states that have legalized it should not be a "top priority" of federal law enforcement, but he failed to address how the federal government would respond to efforts by state governments in Colorado and Washington to implement taxation and regulation schemes for legal marijuana commerce.

President Barack Obama (whitehouse.gov)
Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington were both approved by voters in last month's elections. Their provisions legalizing marijuana possession (and cultivation in Colorado) are already in effect, but officials in the two states are now charged with crafting those taxation and regulation rules.

The looming question is what the federal government will do about that. President Obama's comments Friday did not shed new light on that topic.

"We've got bigger fish to fry" than going after individual pot smokers in Colorado and Washington, Obama said. "It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it's legal."

That is in parallel with the administration's approach to medical marijuana. It has not gone after individual patients, but in the past two years, the Obama Justice Department has vigorously and aggressively targeted medical marijuana cultivators and dispensaries for raids, threats of asset forfeiture, and, more rarely, federal criminal prosecutions.

Obama also told Walters that he does not support marijuana legalization "at this point," but he added that shifting public opinion -- polls are now showing majorities in favor of legalization -- and questions about how to allocate limited government resources are good reasons to seek to find a middle ground on dealing with the weed.

The president also said he had asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to look into how to resolve the conflict between state and federal laws. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"I head up the executive branch; we're supposed to be carrying out laws. And so what we're going to need to have is a conversation about is how do you reconcile a federal law that still says marijuana is a federal offense and state laws that say that it's legal?" Obama said.

Holder said last Wednesday that he expected a Justice Department review to be completed "relatively soon."

While Obama notoriously partook of the weed in his youth, being a leading member of the "Choom Gang" of serious recreational puffers, according to biographer David Maraniss, he has downplayed his own use and not favored marijuana legalization. He told Walters Friday he had regrets over his youthful behavior.

"There are a bunch of things I did that I regret when I was a kid," Obama told Walters. "My attitude is, substance abuse generally is not good for our kids, not good for our society. "I want to discourage drug use," he added.

Washington, DC
United States

Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Hearings on Marijuana Policy

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement last Thursday that he intends to hold a hearing seeking information about how the Obama administration plans to respond to the successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Leahy said he expects to hold the hearing when Congress reconvenes early next year.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (leahy.senate.gov)
Leahy also released a letter he sent earlier this month to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) asking him what recommendations the agency will make to the Justice Department and how, given the fiscal constraints the administration faces, it intends to use federal resources in light of the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington. The veteran Vermont lawmaker also asked Kerlikowske what assurances the administration can give to state officials responsible for the licensing of marijuana retailers to ensure they will face no criminal penalties for carrying out their duties under those state laws.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has a significant interest in the effect of these developments on federal drug control policy," Leahy wrote. "Legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face. In order to give these options full consideration, the committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter."

The Obama administration has yet to formally respond to the legalization votes, but Attorney General Eric Holder said last Wednesday the Justice Department will announce "relatively soon" where it stands on federal enforcement of the pot laws in the two states.

"There is a tension between federal law and these state laws,” Holder said in response to questions after a speech in Boston. "I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon."

A series of public opinion polls this month have found little public support for federal interference with state marijuana laws in states where it is legal, with majorities calling for the feds to keep out of the way. Support for federal non-interference is strongest among key Obama constituencies, including Democrats, independents, and young voters.

Washington, DC
United States

Decriminalize Drug Possession, UK Experts Say

In a report six years in the making, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission, a non-governmental advisory body chaired by Dame Edith Runciman, has called for a reboot of British drug policy and for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The report, A Fresh Approach to Drugs, found that the UK is wasting much of the $4.8 billion a year it spends fighting illegal drugs, and that the annual cost to the country of hard drug use was about $20 billion. A smarter set of drug policies emphasizing prevention, diversion, and treatment would be a more effective use of public resources, the report found.

Some 42,000 people in the UK are convicted each year of drug possession offenses and another 160,000 given citations for marijuana possession. Arresting, citing, and jailing all those people "amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution, and courts," the report said.

"To address these costs, there is evidence to suggest that the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence. Criminal sanctions could be replaced with simple civil penalties, such as a fine, perhaps a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body, or if  there was a demonstrable need, to a drug treatment program. The evidence from other countries that have done this is that it would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use, while providing opportunities to address some of the harms associated with existing drug laws," the report recommended.

"Given its relatively low level of harm, its wide usage, and international developments, the obvious drug to focus on as a first step is cannabis, which is already subject to lesser sanctions than previously with the use of cannabis warnings. If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs," the report said.

But while the commission was ready to embrace decriminalization, it was not ready to go as far as legalizing drug sales.

"We do not believe that there is sufficient evidence at the moment to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offenses of most drugs," it said.

Still, policymakers might want to consider lowering the penalties for growing small numbers of marijuana plants to "undermine the commercialization of production, with the associated involvement of organized crime."

The report also called for a review of harsh sentences for drug offenses, a consistent framework for regulating all psychoactive substances -- from nicotine to heroin -- and for moving the policy prism through which drug policy is enacted from the criminal justice system to the public health system.

But the Home Office, which currently administers drug policy in Britain, wasn't having any of it. Things are going swimmingly already, a Home Office spokesperson said.

"While the government welcomes the UKDPC's contribution to the drugs debate, we remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs -- outlined in our drugs strategy -- is the right one," the spokesperson said. "Drug usage is at its lowest level since records began. Drug treatment completions are increasing and individuals are now significantly better placed to achieve recovery and live their lives free from drugs. "I want to take this opportunity to thank the UKDPC for its work in this area over the past six years."

United Kingdom

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School