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Fight Is On to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor in California [FEATURE]

At the end of February, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would make drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor in California. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have taken the cost-saving and rehabilitation-aiding step of not making felons out of mere drug users.

California needs to reduce prison and jail overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
The measure, Senate Bill 1506, would make the possession of any controlled substance -- except up to an ounce of marijuana, which is already decriminalized -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. Under current law, possession of controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, is a felony punishable by either up to 16 months in county jail or two to three years in state prison.

A felony conviction doesn't just mean jail or prison time. It becomes a permanent barrier to reentry into society, making access to education, employment, and housing more difficult, as well as barring people with such convictions from obtaining professional licenses and subjecting them to various other obstacles.

The bill is backed by an array of drug policy, civil liberties, and human rights groups, including early supporters the American Civil Liberties Union, the California State NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Budget-conscious California voters have shown an interest in drug sentencing reform in the past. In 2000, they passed Proposition 36 to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment by a margin of 61%. Since then, the state's economic situation has only gotten worse, and pressure to do something about its gargantuan $9.3 billion corrections budget is on the rise.

A Lake Research Partners poll released last April found that 72% of respondents favored changing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with 40% saying small-time drug possession for person use should be considered an infraction, with no jail time. Strong support for such a reform cuts across party lines, with support among Democrats at 79%, among independents at 72%, and among Republicans at 66%.

"Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use," said Sen. Leno. "In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders," he said.

"This bill merely revises the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor," Leno told the Chronicle Tuesday. "It will save the counties about $160 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the state another $65 million. Thirteen states have already done this, and they have higher rates of treatment and lower rates of drug use and property and violent crime."

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford," said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. "California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans."

Drug possession would be a misdemeanor in California rather than a felony if SB 1506 passes (wikimedia.org)
"The goal is to make the penalty closer to what people think it should be," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy analyst for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "People think a felony charge is too harsh, and there is pretty universal support for treating drug use more as a health issue and prioritizing law enforcement resources for people convicted of serious offenses," she told the Chronicle.

The push for the bill is picking up steam, Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We have quite a broad coalition, and the list of groups coming out in support is long and getting longer by the day," she said. "We have faith, treatment, and housing groups; we have job placement organizations; we have family members and other folks who realize the this penalty is just too harsh. We've just added two more: California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense attorneys' group, and the William Velasquez Institute, a group that will bring Latino communities into the process of helping to shape policies that impact them."

While an impressive coalition is budding to support the bill, and while polls suggest strong public support for such a measure, not everybody is on board, particularly law enforcement. 

"We're opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons," said John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney who is a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "We don't think it's appropriate to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors because of severe unintended consequences. No one in California is being incarcerated for a first or second drug possession offense; instead, they are sent to a Proposition 36 drug treatment program," Lovell told the Chronicle.

"We believe this will create a disincentive for people to participate in a Prop 36 treatment program, and that is not a good thing," the lobbyist continued. "To the extent we can have a successful treatment result, that is one less person in a cycle of drug addiction."

"Oh, please!" exclaimed Dooley-Sammuli. "Lovell said the same kinds of things when Prop 36 passed. They were saying the sky would fall, that nobody would be in treatment and there would be crime in the streets, but the crime rate continues to go down."

Given the current fiscal constraints on the state criminal justice system, the "real world" result of downgrading drug possession to a misdemeanor would be that drug offenders essentially walk free, Lovell said.

"Say a person is convicted of meth possession," he said. "He is told he has a choice of Prop 36 treatment or going to the county jail, but the jails are all filled to capacity, and nobody does any time for a misdemeanor offense. An attorney representing such as person is ethically bound to say 'If you refuse treatment, there is no real sanction at all,'" Lovell maintained. "These will be misdemeanants, not felons, not under supervision and not breaking the cycle of addiction, which means the crimes they commit to purchase their dope will continue," he said. "It's not like you get a scholarship to pay for the cost of your meth."

But the bill provides for up to three years probation -- five years in some cases -- and would allow judges to order drug treatment as a condition for probation.

Saying that the state will benefit from saving money on not prosecuting drug users as felons is "a hackneyed argument," Lovell said. "If you say it will save money because these people aren't being supervised, yes, it will save that money, but if they're not being supervised they're more likely to go out and commit the economic crimes addicts commit. It's not so much a savings as a cost shift," he argued.

"We do not see this bill as yielding any positive public policy results," Lovell summed up.

"None of California's existing programs to make treatment available will be affected by this," countered Dooley-Sammuli, "and counties will have the freedom to use these dollars more wisely to make treatment more available. Compared to five years ago, treatment dollars have absolutely been gutted, and we're really working to identify ways to preserve funding so we can protect treatment. It's really disingenuous for our opponents to talk about this getting in the way of access to treatment. If Jerry Lovell is worried about access to treatment, we call on him to support this bill."

Leno responded more tersely to Lovell's arguments. "He's a dogmatic extremist. If you think drug use is a bad thing, the states that have actually lowered drug use are not felony states," the San Francisco Democrat said. "By making these offenses misdemeanors, we can remove barriers to housing, education, and employment -- the very things a felony conviction makes it more difficult to obtain, those unintended consequences of a felony conviction."

Now, it's up to the measure's supporters to get it moving. The bill will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee next month. For it to pass this year, it has to get out of committee, win approval in the Senate, and then go through the same process in the Assembly. And it has to happen by August, when the session ends.

"It's a very tight time-frame," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We're still educating people about this bill, but this is a serious effort, and we believe we can get that support with the right coalition partners and more education. Sen. Leno doesn't introduce bills just to make a statement, but because he thinks they have a political chance."

"We're looking for support anywhere and everywhere," Leno said. "We are talking to law enforcement agencies to educate them that there is no data showing that felony convictions reduce drug use."

There's clearly some work to be done on that score. But more important is getting actual legislators to vote for the bill.

"I believe there will be significant, and hopefully sufficient, Democratic support for the bill," said Leno, "and I'm also hoping Republican colleagues will see we can't waste the money and must invest in evidence-based programming."

California has the chance to pass a smart, cost-effective, and humane drug sentencing reform bill, but the clock is ticking.

The other states that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor are Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Oregon Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Moving [FEATURE]

The clock is ticking on marijuana legalization initiatives in Oregon. There are currently four different initiative campaigns underway, but at this point, four months away from when signatures must be handed in, only two look like they have any chance of success this year, and both of them are still tens of thousands of signatures from getting on the November ballot.

view of Mount Hood from Portland (photo from usgs.gov)
If one or both of them makes the ballot, the Pacific Northwest could be a real hotbed of marijuana reform activity this fall. An initiative to tax and regulate marijuana is already on the ballot next door in Washington, and nearby, sparsely populated Montana is also the site of an active initiative signature-gathering campaign for legalization with at least decent prospects of making the ballot.

The two best positioned Oregon initiatives are the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act of 2012 (OCTA) and the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative (OMPI), which are well into their signature-gathering campaigns. Essentially serving as placemarkers for the next electoral cycle are the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Cannabis Act (CRTC), which was just approved for a draft title, and an initiative from Sensible Oregon, which has yet to be approved for a draft title.

The initiative currently furthest down the path toward the ballot box is the OCTA (Initiative Petition #9), sponsored by veteran activist and medical marijuana entrepreneur Paul Stanford. It would allow adult Oregonians to possess and grow their own marijuana. It would allow Oregon farmers to grow hemp. And it would license Oregon farmers to grow marijuana to be sold at state-licensed pot stores. An earlier version of OCTA failed to make the ballot last in 2010.

OCTA campaign spokespersons said it had so far collected more than 50,000 signatures. It needs some 87,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot, so OCTA's goal is to gather about 130,000 to have a comfortable cushion to account for invalid signatures.

Also well-placed is the OMPI, a constitutional amendment (Initiative Petition #24) to repeal the state's marijuana laws. It is supported by numerous in-state groups. "Except for actions that endanger minors or public safety, neither the criminal offenses and sanctions nor the laws of civil seizure and forfeiture of this state shall apply to the private personal use, possession or production of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older," the amendment says. "The State may enact laws and regulations consistent with this amendment to reasonably define, limit and regulate the use, possession, production, sale or taxation of marijuana under state law."

The OMPI campaign, operating as Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, reported 46,200 signatures handed in as of Sunday. But because it is a constitutional amendment, OMPI must meet a higher signature threshold than other initiatives. It needs 117,000 valid signatures to make the ballot, and the campaign is aiming at turning in 185,000.

The CRTC (Initiative #44) would remove marijuana from the state controlled substances act and give the legislature the ability to enact laws to control, regulate, and tax commerce in marijuana and industrial hemp.

The Sensible Oregon initiative "would remove existing civil and criminal penalties for adults twenty one years of age, who cultivate, possess, transport, exchange or use marijuana" and require the legislature to come up with a regulatory scheme.

The Sensible Oregon initiative has gathered 746 of the initial 1,000 signatures needed to win a ballot title. Activists are gathering them on a volunteer basis.

Doug McVay, a long-time activist now (again) working for Voter Power, the group behind Oregon's successful 1998 medical marijuana initiative, said Voter Power supports any and all of the initiatives, but is concentrating its limited resources on the OMPI and a second initiative that would create a state-regulated medical marijuana dispensary system.

"It's a tough row to hoe to get enough signatures for a constitutional amendment, but we're still working closely with the campaign, and they're well on track to get there," said McVay. "And OCTA, well, God bless them, removing all criminal penalties would be good, and it would be wonderful if they can get it done."

Time is running out on Sensible Oregon, said McVay.

"When they finally turn in their 1,000 signatures to the Secretary of State, it's going to take a minimum of 50 business days before they can start signature-gathering, and that's if there are no challenges," he explained. "They wouldn't be able to start until mid-May at the earliest, and they only have until July 6. They need to fish or cut bait."

"Unfortunately, our effort is suffering from a lack of resources. We don't have strong outreach," said Oregon NORML's Madeline Martinez, wearing her Sensible Oregon hat. "We feel strongly that it has the best language for a draft title, and our years dealing with the legislature and lobbying lead us to believe people will be less likely to vote for a constitutional amendment for marijuana," she said.

But the Sensible Oregon initiative is struggling even to get those first 1,000 signatures. "We would like to at least get those signatures so we can get a draft title and poll on that," Martinez said, "but the chances for this year are pretty slim unless we get that draft title and poll well and people start throwing money at us."

Similarly, Anthony Johnson, proponent for the CRTC, which is just getting its draft title, was setting his sights down the road. "We'll get and improve on our ballot title and do some polling," he said. "We're playing for 2014 and 2016. It looks like the OMPI has the best chance of qualifying and passing, but even if it did pass, there would still be a need to reform the law."

OCTA proponents did not respond to requests for comment this week, but in a recent communication to activists, Stanford said the campaign had 15 paid signature-gatherers and was in the process of hiring 20 more, as well as more than 900 volunteers. He said he had polls that showed OCTA could win with 60%, but copies of those polls were not available.

"We have the money in the bank to pay to put OCTA on the ballot this year and we will do it," he vowed.

But OMPI is also making a big and well-organized push in the final months.

"I have 220 circulators on the street and we're hiring continuously," said OMPI proponent Robert Wolfe. "We have money in the bank or pledges to make it all the way. I think I-24 is a lock for the ballot."

Wolfe said OMPI had polling numbers, but declined to share the actual poll results or crosstabs.

"We see a standard response that every quasi- or full legalization question gets, in the mid-50s, but we are heartened by crosstabs that show we have strong support among youth and the middle aged voters," he said. "Our polling also tells us that a couple of messages resonate. The statement 'We shouldn't be wasting valuable police time and resources arresting marijuana users' polls over 70%, while the statement 'Individuals shouldn't go to jail for growing plants for personal use polls at 68%."

While the OMPI still needs to gather more than 100,000 signatures, it is confident enough to be looking beyond making the ballot to the actual campaign itself. The effort is looking to tie itself to the strong progressive elements that permeate Oregon politics.

"We are hopeful that we are going to gain the support of the progressive infrastructure here, including labor and the Democratic Party," said campaign strategist Adam Smith. "We feel that our ability to motivate and turn out young voters will be a very valuable part of the progressive campaign here in Oregon. Close to 70% of Democrats here already support legalizing marijuana and a majority of voters overall. This is not a radical idea here; it's not going to be a huge political step for people to get behind it," he said.

They have a fundraising strategy for the general campaign, Smith said.

"We're reaching out to the business community. Like all the states, Oregon is short on resources, and we're spending tens of millions of dollars enforcing low-level marijuana violations," he noted. "Everyone understands that money could be better spent actually protecting people. We think people here in the state will step up. Everyone understands we have a real chance to win," he said.

"We're also hoping that the general momentum of having for the first time multiple states ending marijuana prohibition will get the attention of folks around the country who care about the issue, and they can make donations on our web site or Facebook page. Those small donations are key, because the large donors look to see that we have a lot of individual people behind us."

Factionalism and infighting has been the bane of the marijuana movement in Oregon, as in so many other places, but this time around, there is hope that once the dust settles, people will buckle down and support an initiative even if it was the one they supported in the beginning.

"I believe that as it becomes clear we're making the ballot and the others don't have the resources, they will in the end coalesce behind us," OMPI's Wolfe predicted. "The old style of marijuana politicking has not worked for some time in Oregon; it's time to view this as an important social justice issue like gay rights, equal opportunity, and unions. We're modernizing and mainstreaming this. We will not be having smoke-ins, but we will be putting on ties."

"I'm supporting whatever makes the ballot and I think can win," Martinez said. "I'm on that bus; I don't care who's driving. I just don't want to lose again at the ballot box. Every time they see us lose, it chips away at our credibility."

But first, one or more of the initiatives has to qualify for the ballot. It is by no means a done deal, but it is looking doable.

OR
United States

Colorado to Vote on Regulating Rather Than Prohibiting Marijuana

And then there were two. Voters in Colorado will join voters in Washington in deciding whether to legalize marijuana after Colorado election officials Monday said the Colorado initiative had qualified for the ballot.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/breckenridge.jpg
the ski town Breckenridge, Colorado (which voted for legalization in 2009)
According to the Colorado Secretary of State's office, the initiative to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol handed in 90,466 valid voter signatures; it needed 86,105 to qualify. The initiative campaign had earlier handed in more than 160,000, but fell about 2,400 short after election officials examined them. Under Colorado law, the initiative campaign had two weeks for a final push to make the ballot, and it gathered an additional 14,000 signatures then.

The initiative would amend the state constitution to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and six plants by persons 21 or older. It would also direct the state Department of Revenue to come up with regulations for legal marijuana commerce by July 2013. It would also direct the General Assembly to set taxation rates, which could be no higher than 15%.

Driving while impaired by marijuana would remain illegal, as would possession by or sales to people under 21.

The initiative will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 64.

"This could be a watershed year in the decades-long struggle to end marijuana prohibition in this country," said Art Way, Colorado manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana prohibition is counterproductive to the health and public safety of our communities. It fuels a massive, increasingly brutal underground economy, wastes billions of dollars in scarce law enforcement resources, and makes criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens."

"Supporters of rational marijuana policies everywhere should congratulate the residents of Colorado for placing this initiative on the ballot," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Regulating marijuana like alcohol will create jobs, allow police to focus on more serious crimes, provide much-needed tax revenue, and will do a far better job of keeping marijuana away from children than the current system does. A majority of Americans recognize that the government's war on marijuana is an expensive failure and think that marijuana should be legal for adults. This November, Coloradans will get a chance to lead the nation by becoming the first state to end marijuana prohibition."

But perhaps just by a couple of hours. As noted above, a similar measure to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce is on the ballot in Washington. Signature-gathering campaigns for legalization initiatives are also underway in California, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Oregon.

"Never before has support for legalizing marijuana been so widespread or so out in the open. It is truly exciting that voters in both Washington and Colorado have a chance to make history this year," DPA head Ethan Nadelmann. "I'm confident Colorado can lead the way in ending the follies of marijuana prohibition in favor of a responsible framework of regulation and taxation."

Denver, CO
United States

Meet Obama's Proposed 2013 Federal Drug Budget [FEATURE]

The Obama administration this week released its Fiscal Year 2013 National Drug Control Budget, and it wants to spend nearly $26 billion on federal anti-drug programs. Despite all the talk about the staggering federal debt problem and current budget deficits, the administration found nothing to cut here. Instead, the proposed budget increases federal anti-drug funding by 1.6% over fiscal year 2012.

Drug War Autopilot and Co-Autopilot: ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
The proposed budget is remarkable for how closely it hews to previous years, especially in regard to the allocation of resources for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) versus those for supply reduction (domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction). The roughly 40:60 ratio that has been in place for years has shifted, but only incrementally. The 2013 budget allocates 41.2% for treatment and prevention and 58.2% for law enforcement.

"This is very much the same drug budget we've been seeing for years," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The Obama drug budget is the Bush drug budget, which was the Clinton drug budget. Little has changed."

"It's really just more of the same," said Sean Dunagan, a former DEA intelligence analyst whose last assignment in northeastern Mexico between 2008 and 2010, a when prohibition-related violence there was soaring, helped change his perspective. Dunagan quit the DEA and is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"There are very minor adjustments in how the drug spending is allocated and bit more money for treatment, but there's a significant increase in interdiction, as well as a $61 million increase for domestic law enforcement," Dunagan noted. "They're trying to argue that they're abandoning the drug war and shifting the focus, but the numbers don't really back that up."

The proposed budget also demonstrates the breadth of the federal drug spending largesse among the bureaucratic fiefdoms in Washington. Departments that catch a ride on the drug war gravy train include Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, and Veterans' Affairs, as well as the federal judiciary, District of Columbia courts, the Small Business Administration, and, of course, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

"It's just the same old programs being funded through the same old stove-pipes," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "In a way, it's ironic. When Congress passed the legislation creating the drug czar's office in 1988, the idea was for the drug czar to look at all the federal anti-drug spending and come in and say he was going to take the funds from one program and shift them to a more effective program. I think many in Congress hoped he would shift resources from law enforcement to treatment and prevention because there was evidence that those sorts of programs were more effective and a better use of resources. That didn't happen," he said.

"The people who run the bureaucratic fiefdoms at Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, State and Treasury have outmuscled the drug czar, and now the drug czar's budget announcements are reduced to public relations and spin," Sterling continued. "They take some $15 or $20 million program and bullet-point it as significant, but that's almost nothing when it comes to federal drug dollars."

The Justice Department alone would get $7.85 billion, up almost $400 million from FY 2012, with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the DEA among those Justice components seeing funding increases. BOP spending would increase by about 8%, while the DEA budget would increase from $2.35 billion to $2.38 billion. On the other hand, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which lost its congressional patron with the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), has been zeroed out.
 

"The hundreds of millions of dollar increases in funding requested for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is particularly outrageous," said Sterling. "There are too many people doing too much time they don't need to be doing. Obama has the power to save hundreds of millions of dollars by commuting excessively long sentences. He could reduce the deficit and increase the amount of justice in America.

"He could tell the BOP he was ordering a cap on the federal prison population that now has a sentenced population of 198,000, Sterling continued, on a roll. "He could order them that whenever a new prisoner arrives, they have to send him the names of prisoners who may have served enough time for their crimes for him to consider for immediate release from prison. He could ask all the federal judges to send him the names of people they have sentenced to longer terms than they think are just. If he had the heart to reach out to those prisoners who are serving decades for minor roles and their suffering families, if he had the brains to put in place the means to achieve those cost-serving measures, and if he had the guts to actually use the constitutional power he has to do it, that would be great."

"That increase in incarceration spending really jumps out at me, too" said Dunagan. "To make their claim that they're not going to be locking up small-time dealers and users is pretty disingenuous."

Pentagon spending on interdiction and other anti-drug activities would decline somewhat, with the budget proposing $1.725 billion for 2013, a decline of $200 million from the 2012 budget. But interdiction spending goes up elsewhere, as Dunagan noted.

And State Department drug spending would take a hit. Spending would decline by just more than $100 million to $687 million, but most of that decrease would come from reduced funding for alternative development assistance, while State's other drug-related program, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), would see only a $6 million decrease.

While funding for prevention and treatment would increase by 4.6% under the proposed budget, some treatment and grant programs are seeing cuts, while criminal justice system-based approaches are getting more money.

"I'm concerned that the budget seems to be emphasizing drug courts and criminal justice-based drug treatment," said Piper. "They're cutting SAMHSA, which funds a lot of treatment, but increasing spending for prison-based treatment."

The $364 million earmarked for SAMHSA's treatment programs is a $61 million reduction from FY 2012, while drug courts saw a $17 million increase to $52 million and BOP drug treatment programs saw a $16 million increase to $109 million.

The new drug budget also resurrects the drug czar's widely criticized National Youth Media Campaign, dropped last year when Congress failed to fund it.

"I'm also disappointed that they put back in funding for the drug czar's failed youth media campaign, which Congress eliminated last year," said Piper. "It's only $20 million, and you can hardly do a national media campaign with that, but still."

This is only the administration's budget proposal, of course, and Congress will have plenty of opportunities to try to cut (or increase) portions of it. Still, the proposed budget is a window on the thinking of administration that has talked the talk about how we are no longer in a war on drugs, but has taken only stumblingly tiny steps toward walking the walk. And drug reformers aren't liking what they're seeing.

"LEAP thinks this is misguided," said Dunagan. "The only thing that's different is the rhetoric used to spin it, and even that is a sort of tacit acknowledgment by the administration that people don't really like the drug war, but substantively, there's very little different from the past."

"Between the drug budgets and his war on medical marijuana, we're very disappointed in Obama," said DPA's Piper.

"We should be disappointed in the Obama administration," said Sterling. "There was supposed to be change. This was the University of Chicago law professor, the Harvard-trained lawyer, who was going to bring in his own people and make real change. I'm very disappointed in his drug policies and criminal justice policies. My disappointment with his policy failures don't have anything to do with the economic crisis or the geostrategic situation he inherited.

Washington, DC
United States

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.

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

Washington, DC
United States

Oklahoma Bill Would End Life Without Parole Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

Despite some recent sentencing reforms, Oklahoma still has some of the harshest drug laws in the country, including life without parole for some drug offenses. One Oklahoma legislator says it is time for life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses to go.

Sen. Constance Johnson
State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) last Wednesday introduced Senate Bill 986 (no link yet available), which would end life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses and require the state Pardon and Parole Board to review all existing life without parole sentences for those offenses. The measure also addresses punishment enhancements for felony offenses.

"Numerous studies have shown that these sentences do not reduce drug use, but rather result in lengthy prison terms that contribute to overcrowding and increased costs," Johnson said, citing research from the The Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based research and advocacy group. "We must develop more reasonable and cost effective policies to address drug crimes rather than locking up offenders for life, something that financially hurts the state as well as the families of these individuals."

Although Johnson had scheduled a press conference Wednesday to announce the introduction of the bill, the announcement was delayed for a day because she wanted to attend a Pardon and Parole Board hearing for one of the victims of the life without parole law, 61-year-old Larry Yarbrough, who is 17 years into his life sentence for possession of an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes after having previous felony convictions, including distribution of marijuana and distribution of LSD in the 1980s.

Yarbrough, a model prisoner whose case has garnered national media attention, had been recommended for a commutation to 20 years by the parole board in 2002, but that recommendation was vetoed by then Gov. Frank Keating (R). He had better luck Wednesday, with the board commuting his sentence to 42 years, meaning he will be eligible for release sometime next year if Gov. Mary Fallin (R) agrees.

At the parole board hearing were more than two dozen supporters, including members of Yarbrough's family, his attorney, Sen. Johnson, and one of the jurors in the case that got him sentenced to life. That juror, Dennis Will of Hennessey, sent a letter to the board last week urging the board to release Yarbrough. In the letter, Will said he did not vote for a life sentence for Yarbrough and believes "he was set up and railroaded by the Kingfisher County judicial system."

Yarbrough, who is imprisoned at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, testified via electronic link. He told the board he had undergone numerous drug treatment programs and had acted as a mentor for newly arriving prisoners sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses. There are currently 48 drug lifers in the Oklahoma prison system.

"This is a victory," Yarbrough's attorney, Debra Hampton, told the Associated Press after the board commuted his sentence.

"We have murderers, rapists and child molesters getting paroled, but here is a husband, father, grandfather, businessowner and community servant who could spend half his life in prison costing the state millions of dollars," said Johnson.  "We have people serving less time for greater amounts of drugs than what Mr. Yarbrough was convicted of -- an ounce of cocaine and three marijuana cigarettes. Surely 17 years is a long enough punishment for his crime.  In the name of justice and common sense, I urge Gov. Fallin to accept the board's recommendations," she added.

"Wednesday's hearing was timely with regard to a statewide advocacy push to achieve this and other measures that evidence shows will reduce the costs of incarceration to our state," Sen. Johnson continued. "Fortunately, other state and local officials are beginning to see that the current system has filled our prisons to near capacity, cost the state millions in tax dollars, and still isn't working."

Johnson was referring to the passage in May of House Bill 2131, a sentencing reform bill sponsored by the Republican legislative leadership. That bill, now the law of the land, removes the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenses, expands community sentencing eligibility, and provides for GPS monitoring of nonviolent offenders.

"We took a step in the right direction in the legislature this past session passing major reforms for our state's correction system under HB 2131, which will save our state millions of dollars, and still protect the public from the state's most dangerous, violent offenders. These were great first steps but we have even more to do this coming session and beyond.  We need to ensure that offenders' sentences fairly match their crimes, both as a matter of human decency and fiscal responsibility," said Johnson.

Johnson introduced legislation to eliminate life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses in 2010, but that bill was bottled up in committee and went nowhere. Let's hope that the legislature's passage of sentencing reform this year and the parole board's commutation of Yarbrough's sentence are indicators of changed attitudes in the state this year and beyond.

Oklahoma City, OK
United States

NAACP Calls for End to War on Drugs

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has now officially broken with the war on drugs. At its 102nd annual convention in Los Angeles Tuesday, the nation's oldest and largest black advocacy group passed an historic resolution calling for an end to the drug war.

screening of "10 Rules for Dealing with Police," NAACP national conference, July 2010
The title of the resolution pretty much says it all: "A Call to End the War on Drugs, Allocate Funding to Investigate Substance Abuse Treatment, Education, and Opportunities in Communities of Color for A Better Tomorrow."

"Today the NAACP has taken a major step towards equity, justice and effective law enforcement," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.  "These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America."

The resolution noted that the US spends over $40 billion a year to battle against drugs and locks up hundreds of thousands of low-level drug offenders, mostly from communities of color. Blacks are 13 times as likely to be imprisoned for low-level drug offenses as whites, despite using drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, the group noted.

"Studies show that all racial groups abuse drugs at similar rates, but the numbers also show that African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison for drug-related charges at a much higher rate," said Alice Huffman, President of the California State Conference of the NAACP, which last year endorsed California's Prop 19 marijuana legalization initiative. "This dual system of drug law enforcement that serves to keep African-Americans and other minorities under lock and key and in prison must be exposed and eradicated."

Instead of choking the US criminal justice system with drug offenders, the resolution called for an investment in treatment and prevention programs, including methadone clinics and treatment programs proven effective.

"We know that the war on drugs has been a complete failure because in the forty years that we’ve been waging this war, drug use and abuse has not gone down," said Robert Rooks, director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. "The only thing we've accomplished is becoming the world's largest incarcerator, sending people with mental health and addiction issues to prison, and creating a system of racial disparities that rivals Jim Crow policies of the 1960's."

Neill Franklin, an African American former narcotics cop from Baltimore and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, made a presentation about ending the war on drugs to the conference Monday, and had more to say Tuesday.   

"The NAACP has been on the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and social justice in this country for over a century. The fact that these leaders are joining others like the National Black Police Association in calling for an end to the 'war on drugs' should be a wake up call to those politicians - including and especially President Obama - who still have not come to terms with the devastation that the 'drug war' causes in our society and especially in communities of color."

Although passed by delegates to the convention, the resolution must be ratified by the NAACP board of directors in October. Once that happens, the NAACP's 1,200 active units across the country will mobilize to conduct campaigns advocating for the end of the war on drugs.

The African-American community has long suffered the brunt of drug law enforcement in this country, but has proven remarkably resistant to calls to reform our drug policies, in part because it has also suffered the effects of drug abuse. That the nation's leading African-American organization has taken a stand against the drug war is a big deal.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Canada Marijuana Arrests Jump Dramatically

New numbers from Statistics Canada show marijuana arrests jumped dramatically last year. According to its annual crime report, pot possession arrests increased 14% last year, and accounted for more than half (54%) of all drug arrests in Canada. That has advocates crying foul.

Some 58,000 Canadians were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, and another 18,000 were arrested for marijuana trafficking, also up significantly with a 10% increase over 2009.

Cocaine possession and trafficking arrests actually declined, down 6% and 4%, respectively, but arrests for all other drugs also increased. Arrests for drug possession were up 10% and for drug trafficking up 5%.

The increase in drug arrests comes amidst a decline in arrests for most other criminal offenses. Almost every category of violent crime dropped, with overall violent crime down 3%, while a similar portrait emerged with property crime. Every category of property crimes decreased, with overall property crime down 6%.

The marijuana arrest figures got under the skin of the Vancouver-based Beyond Prohibition Foundation, which laid into the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper over the uptick, as well as over its medical marijuana policies and its efforts to impose mandatory minimum sentences for cultivating as few as six pot plants.

"What we are seeing is a coordinated effort led by the Conservative government to crack down on simple marijuana possession as part of a multi-billion dollar increase in the war on drugs. At a time when almost every country in the world is recognizing the total and abject failure of the war on drugs, this Conservative government is increasing spending by billions of dollars" said Kirk Tousaw, executive director of the Beyond Prohibition Foundation.

"Mr. Harper continues to talk about how government spending needs to be reduced, and how we can't afford social programs, yet he is pouring billions into the failed drug war," Tousaw continued. "Why? Why did 58,000 Canadians need to be arrested over a plant that more Canadians want legalized than voted for Conservative candidates? Why is Mr. Harper spending billions to arrest Canadians for simple marijuana possession?"

"It's become clear what this government's priorities are," said Jacob Hunter, the foundation's policy director. "A crackdown on simple marijuana possession, mandatory minimum sentences for growing even one marijuana plant, and a dismantling of the medical marijuana program. This is nothing less than a total war on marijuana" said Jacob Hunter, the foundation's policy director.

Canadian marijuana activists, who seemed so close to freeing the weed just a few years ago, have their work cut out for them.

Canada

Hawaii Teachers Fend Off Random Drug Testing

There will be no random drug testing of Hawaii public school teachers. A battle that began in 2007 came to a quiet end earlier this month, when the state government imposed its "last, best, and final" offer to the teachers union -- an offer that does not include random drug testing.

Hawaii teachers won't have to provide these to keep their jobs. (image via wikimedia.org)
The controversy began when the state Board of Education inserted language into the union contract saying the union and the board "shall establish a reasonable suspicion and random drug and alcohol testing procedure for teachers." The language came in the wake of a handful of widely publicized drug busts of teachers in Hawaii in previous years.

Hawaii State Teachers Association members voted to ratify the contract, but soon, teachers and the HSTA, along with civil libertarians, raised concerns about random drug testing and balked at going along with that contract provision. Gov. Linda Lingle (R) accused teachers of not acting in good faith, and the provision was stalled by challenges at the Hawaii Labor Relations Board and in state court.

The random testing provision ran into another obstacle when the Board of Education in 2008 refused to pay for the tests. The board argued that the nearly half million dollar cost could be better spent in the classroom.

Neither the board nor the union have commented publicly on the demise of the random drug testing provision, but, unsurprisingly, the ACLU is quite happy.

"The ACLU is pleased that none of Hawaii's educators has been subjected to unconstitutional random drug testing," said Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Hawaii. "I'm fairly confident it's not going to come up again," he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

While random drug testing is gone, the board and the union agreed to continue a "reasonable suspicion" drug and alcohol testing policy. Under that policy, teachers who test positive face suspensions of from five to thirty days and will be asked to resign after a third positive test result. Teachers who admit to being impaired or on drugs prior to being tested will not be suspended, but will be required to submit to drug testing for up to a year.

The dropping of the random drug testing provision is one of the few bright spots for Hawaii teachers in the new contract. They may not have to pee in a cup for no good reason, but they will have to endure wage cuts and higher health care premiums.

HI
United States

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