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Missouri Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Filed

Twin initiatives that would regulate marijuana sales and production and legalize the possession of pot by adults were filed with the state Secretary of State's office Wednesday. The initiatives were filed by a new coalition called Show-Me Cannabis.

You could grow 100 square feet's worth of these if a Missouri initiative becomes law. (photo by the author)
One of the initiatives would amend the state constitution; the other would revise state statutes. The Secretary of State's office has a month to approve their language. Once one or both are approved, signature gathering aimed at putting the initiative on the November 2012 ballot could get underway.

The initiative would:

  • Remove marijuana from the state's schedule of controlled substances;
  • Legalize marijuana possession by adults over 21 (no amount specified);
  • Legalize the cultivation of up to 100 square feet of marijuana for personal use;
  • Allow for licensed commercial marijuana cultivation and sales;
  • Allow the legislature to enact a tax of up to $100 a pound on marijuana sold for personal use;
  • Allow for medical marijuana use with a doctor's recommendation and apply protections to doctors and patients;
  • Allow employers to fire workers who are impaired on the job;
  • Make no changes to impaired driving laws; and
  • Allow for the production of industrial hemp.

"The state presently spends millions of tax dollars incarcerating citizens who use cannabis, depriving those imprisoned of the ability to earn a living, pay taxes and care for their families," said initiative backer Fred Raines, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Washington University. "Meanwhile, the law of supply and demand continues to support an unending criminal enterprise. The social and economic costs of prohibition continue to far outweigh any benefits. It's time we acknowledge that and move forward."

Also backing the campaign are the Missouri affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML chapters in St. Louis, Kansas City, Joplin; the MU campus in Columbia, the MSSU campus in Joplin, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and the medical marijuana group Sensible Missouri.

Missouri is now at least the sixth state where efforts to get marijuana legalization on the November 2012 ballot are underway. The others are California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

Jefferson City, MO
United States

Historic Bill to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition Introduced [FEATURE]

Led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) a bipartisan group of US representatives last Thursday introduced the first bill ever to legalize marijuana at the federal level. The bill would leave it to the states to decide whether to legalize it at the state level. If the bill were to become law, marijuana would then be treated like alcohol, where states decide whether to ban it and/or what restrictions to place on it.

[Update: The bill has been slammed by a key Republican committee chair and the Obama administration. See the end of the article for more.]

For the first time, a bill to free the weed is before Congress. (image via Wikimedia.org)
Other cosponsors of the bill include Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). The legislation would limit the federal government's role in marijuana enforcement to cross-border or interstate smuggling, allowing people to legally grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal.

The bill does not reschedule marijuana, which is currently Schedule I, the most serious classification under the Controlled Substances Act; it removes it from the act altogether.

"We are introducing a bill today that is very straightforward," said sponsor Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) at a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday afternoon. "We do not believe the federal government ought to be involved in prosecuting adults for smoking marijuana. That is something the states can handle. We have this problem where those states that want to reform their marijuana laws are prevented from doing so by the federal government. Under this bill, the federal government will concentrate its prosecutorial resources on other things and respect any decision by a state to make marijuana legal," the veteran congressman said.

"We're very excited about promoting a new, sensible approach to marijuana," said Rep. Polis. "We can set up a proper regulatory system, as Colorado has done. It would be wonderful for the federal government to let states experiment. Our current failed drug policy hasn't worked -- marijuana is widely available. By regulating the market, we can protect minors and remove the criminal element so we can focus law enforcement resources on keeping people safe in their communities."

"This has long been an issue of freedom for me," Rep. Cohen told the press conference. "The people are way ahead of the legislators in knowing what the priorities of law enforcement ought to be. The federal government shouldn't be spending its time and money on marijuana, but on crack, meth, heroin, and cocaine. It ought to be up to the states and regulated like alcohol. It should be a matter of individual choice in a country that prides itself on its liberties and freedoms."

The timing for the introduction of the bill is exquisite. Just days earlier, people marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's declaration of the war on drugs with protests and vigils around the country. Earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released its report calling for a radical shift in how we deal with illegal drugs, including calling for the legal regulation of marijuana.

The introduction of the bill also comes as activists in at least four states -- California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- are working to put marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot for 2012. In the case of Washington, there are now two competing legalization initiatives, one aimed at 2011 and one at 2012.

And it comes as legalization becomes an increasingly hot topic in state legislatures. In the past year at least five state legislatures have considered legalizing marijuana, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington.

It also comes as the battle between the federal government and states with medical marijuana laws is heating up. Despite the famous Justice Department memo of October 2009, which directed US attorneys to not focus prosecutorial resources on producers and providers in compliance with state laws, the Obama administration is conducting raids at a higher rate than the Bush administration, and US attorneys have recently been on a threat offensive, warning state elected officials their employees could be at risk if they approve the regulation and distribution of medical marijuana.

But while the timing is good, Frank was quick to caution that the bill was unlikely to pass Congress this session. "I don't expect it to pass right away, but given this Congress, I don't expect much good legislation to pass at all," he said. "I think we're making good progress, and the public is ahead of the politicians on this. There is an educational process going on."

Still, that dose of political realism didn't stop advocates, some of whom have been working on the issue for decades, from feeling just a little bit giddy. After all, it is an historic occasion for reformers.

"Adults who use marijuana responsibly should not be treated like criminals," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "Marijuana smoking is relatively harmless, is not an act of moral turpitude, and should not be treated as a crime. As a marijuana consumer myself, I've never seen my responsible use of marijuana as a crime."

Noting some 22 million arrests of otherwise law-abiding pot smokers since the 1960s, St. Pierre called for the end of pot prohibition. "Policymakers should recognize the benefits of legally controlling and taxing marijuana," he said. "We need to stop arresting millions of people who use marijuana."

"We're so proud to be standing with these members of Congress in announcing this bill to treat alcohol similarly to marijuana," said Aaron Houston, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "A state-based approach to marijuana should be appealing to Republicans. Most people don't know that for decades after the repeal of Prohibition, many states continued to ban alcohol. With this bill, states could continue to ban marijuana, or they could regulate it if they like. This is also an issue that drives young people to the polls, and that's a huge opportunity for politicians."

"This bill is actually the ultimate bill we've been looking for at the federal level," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "If and when it passes, I expect to close our offices in DC and concentrate on working at the state level. This bill would address some of the stuff we've been hearing about from federal prosecutors threatening state governors and legislators about medical marijuana. If this passes, all the huffing and puffing form US attorneys will evaporate into thin air," he added. "And this bill will have a positive impact on ballot initiatives in California and Colorado in 2012. In the past, opponents said these initiatives wouldn't do anything because the federal government wouldn't touch the issue. Now, we can say the federal government is looking at the issue, and some of the most credible members of Congress are cosponsors."

"Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, so this is very timely, and it comes on the heels of the report by the Global Commission," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is a major step toward restoring some sanity and science to our nation's drug policies. There is a growth in recognition among both voters and elected officials that marijuana legalization is not a question of if, but when. The reality is that the war on marijuana is unsustainable -- we're heading toward a perfect storm for this."

Now, marijuana legalization is before Congress for the first time since it was outlawed in 1937. While passage this session is extremely unlikely, this is indeed a step forward.

Update:  After this article was first published Thursday afternoon, reaction from a key congressional committee chair and the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) made it clear that "extremely unlikely" was optimistic.

The bill would have to pass through the House Judiciary Committee, but committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith told the Associated Press there was no way that was going to happen.

"Marijuana use and distribution is prohibited under federal law because it has a high potential for abuse and does not have an accepted medical use in the US," Smith said. "The Food and Drug Administration has not approved smoked marijuana for any condition or disease."

Then he bizarrely claimed legalizing marijuana in the US would help Mexican drug cartels. "Decriminalizing marijuana will only lead to millions more Americans becoming addicted to drugs and greater profits for drug cartels who fund violence along the US-Mexico border. Allowing states to determine their own marijuana policy flies in the face of Supreme Court precedent," he threw in for good measure.

Echoing Smith, ONDCP told the Los Angeles Times legalizing weed was a non-starter. "Our concern with marijuana is not borne out of any culture war or drug war mentality, but out of what the science tells us about the drug's effects. The facts are that marijuana potency has tripled in the past 20 years and teens are using the drug at earlier ages," it said in a statement.

"The earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely they are to progress to more serious abuse and addiction --- reflecting the harmful, long-lasting effects drugs can have on the developing brain. Legalization remains a nonstarter in the Obama administration because research shows that marijuana use is associated with voluntary treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents and emergency room admissions," the statement said.

If not this year, maybe next year. If not this Congress, maybe the next one. If not this administration, maybe the next one. There are many obstacles on the path to legalization, but now we are at least on the path.

Washington, DC
United States

Rallies, Vigils Mark 40 Years of Failed Drug War [FEATURE]

It was 40 years ago Friday that President Richard Nixon (R) declared illegal drugs "public enemy No. 1" and ushered in the modern war on drugs. Four decades, millions of drug arrests, and a trillion dollars later, the sale and consumption of illicit drugs is as firmly ensconced in American society as ever, and a growing number of Americans are ready to end drug prohibition and embark on a more sane and sensible, not to mention less harmful, approach toward drugs.

Marching to the end the drug war in San Francisco (Image courtesy the author)
In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered Friday to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Their numbers were not overwhelming, but their voices are being heard, and the more hopeful among us can begin to see the faint outlines of a nascent mass movement for reform.

Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

In San Francisco, several hundred people from more than a dozen sponsoring organizations gathered at City Hall for a press conference and to demand that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the state legislature prioritize vital social services over spending on prisons. Then, accompanied by drummers from the Brass Liberation Orchestra, they marched through the city center to state office buildings before returning to City Hall.

"It is past time that we take real steps to make real changes to California’s totally inhumane prison system," said Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), one of 17 local groups organizing the march.

The Brass Liberation Band was beating the drums for an end to prohibition (Image courtesy the author)
"Spending on prisons has grown from five percent to ten percent of our General Fund spending, doubling just in the past decade," said Lisa Marie Alatorre of Critical Resistance, a CURB member organization. "Locking up too many people for too long does not contribute to public safety and is draining essential resources from education and health care -- programs that make a real difference to Californians."

"We call on the governor, California's mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs, and all Californians to join us in calling it a failure that should be stopped immediately," said Dr. Diana Sylvestre of Oasis Clinic and the Oakland-based United for Drug Policy Reform. "We will continue to organize to win our fight against this endless assault on sane drug policies."

In Chicago, hundreds gathered outside James R. Thompson Center in the Loop to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the drug war, while inside the center was a ceremony honoring Juneteenth, a remembrance of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1863. For those present, the connection between the struggle to win civil rights and the fight to end the drug war was easily made. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Father Michael Pfleger and other community leaders lent their voices to the rally.

Dancers joined the protest krewe in New Orleans (Image courtesy Pelican Post)
"There is not a war on drugs, there is a war on the poor and a war on people of color!" said Pfleger, whipping up the crowd.

"We all know that the war on drugs has failed to end drug use. Instead, it's resulted in the incarceration of millions of people around the country, and 100,000 here in Cook County on an annual basis," said Preckwinkle, the only elected official to address the crowd. "Drugs and the failed war on the drugs have devastated lives, families and communities. For too long we've treated drug use as a criminal justice issue, rather than a public issue, which is what it is."

In Honolulu, the ACLU of Hawaii and other drug reform advocates marked the occasion with a rally and speeches. Access to medical marijuana was a big issue for attendees there, although the main focus was on ending the drug war.

"It has cost a trillion dollars. It has perpetrated massive racial injustice. It has made the United States the largest jailer," said Scott Michaelman. "Treatment over incarceration is a core part of our message. Low level nonviolent users should not be a part of the criminal justice system," he added.

Braving the heat to beat prohibition in the Big Easy (Image courtesy Pelican Post)
In steamy New Orleans, several dozen protesters led by Women with a Vision and including dance groups and local anarchists braved temperatures in the 90s to hold a bouncy second-line parade through Central City and then a community forum to call for an end to racial profiling, lengthy sentences, and unfair drug policies.

"You get to see the people coming together. It's a unity thing," Keyondria Mitchell, a supporter who led one of the dancing groups, told the Pelican Post.  She said the event's varied attendees were testament to a changing public perception of the drug war. "That's what you want, awareness."

Women with a Vision director Deon Haywood said that 40 years on, the drug war had failed to make us safer despite all the money down the drain. "It hasn't curbed the use of illegal drugs, but what it has done is incarcerate many people," said Haywood. "We have only two licensed addiction counselors serving three parishes: Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard. Why can't that money be put into treatment?"

In San Diego, dozens gathered at Pioneer Park in Mission Hills to hear, among others, former California Assemblymember Lori Saldana call for complete repeal of drug prohibition; in Denver, the Drug Policy Alliance sponsored a well-attended debate; and in Portland, Oregon, the Lewis & Clark chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy organized a candlelight vigil at Pioneer Square attended by around 100 people. Events also occurred in other cities, including Ann Arbor, Miami Beach, and Washington, DC.

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

Maine House Rejects Marijuana Legalization Bill

The Maine House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to reject a bill that would have brought the state closer to legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The bill failed on a vote of 107-39.

The Maine state capitol. There is no joy for pot fans in Augusta this week. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
Introduced by Sen. Diane Russell (D-Portland), the bill, LD 1453, would have legalized the possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use and placed a 7% tax on pot sales. But the bill was amended in committee to propose a statewide voter referendum on the issue and to add a caveat that it would not take effect until marijuana was legal under federal law.

Even that watered down version of the bill was too much for opponents.

"I don’t believe the time has come yet for this," said Rep. Michael Celli (R-Brewer) during debate. "We have to let the federal government make the first move."

Supporters of the measure argued in vain that Maine was wasting $26 million a year enforcing the pot laws and that citizens should at least be given the chance to decide the issue. They also disputed statements by opponents that pot is a "gateway drug."

"It is time to stop turning law-abiding people into criminals," Russell said.

Not all Republicans opposed the bill. Libertarian-leaning Rep. Aaron Libby (R-Waterloo) said the federal government is trampling on states' rights and the constitution.

"We should follow the constitution and stop trying to police moralities," Libby said.

That's not going to happen this year, though. The same day the House rejected the bill, it went to the Senate, which concurred with the House vote. The bill is now dead for the session.

Augusta, ME
United States

Cops Say Forty Years of War on Drugs is Enough [FEATURE]

This week marks the 40th anniversary of America's contemporary war on drugs, and the country's largest anti-prohibitionist law enforcement organization is commemorating -- not celebrating -- the occasion with the release of report detailing the damage done. Members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) hand-delivered a copy of the report, Ending the Drug War: A Dream Deferred, to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office) Tuesday after holding a press conference in Washington, DC.

LEAP members pass by the White House as they deliver their report to the drug czar's office.
[Editor's Note: This is merely the first commemoration of 40 years of drug war. The Drug Policy Alliance is sponsoring dozens of rallies and memorials in cities across the country on Friday, June 17. Look for our reporting on those events as they happen.]

On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon (R) declared "war on drugs," and thousands of deaths, millions of arrests, and billions of tax dollars later, drug prohibition remains in place -- the Obama administration's declaration two years ago that it had ended the drug war in favor of a public health-centered approach notwithstanding. Ending the Drug War details how the war on drugs continues unabated, despite the recent administrations' less warlike rhetoric, and the ways it has hurt rather than helped drug users and society at large.

"When President Nixon declared the 'drug war' in 1971, we arrested fewer than half a million people for drug offenses that year. Today, the number has skyrocketed to almost two million drug arrests a year," said former Baltimore narcotics officer and LEAP executive director Neill Franklin. "We jail more of our own citizens than any other country in the world does, including those run by the worst dictators and totalitarian regimes. Is this how President Obama thinks we can 'win the future'?"

The report shows that despite the drug czar's nice talk about ending the drug war, Obama administration spending priorities remain highly skewed toward law enforcement and interdiction -- and it's getting worse, not better. In 2004, the federal drug budget was 55% for supply reduction (policing) and 45% for demand reduction (treatment, prevention). In the 2012 Obama budget, supply reduction has increased to 60%, while demand reduction has shrunk to 40%.

The report also demonstrates through arrest figures that on the street level, the drug war continues to be vigorously waged. In 2001, there were almost 1.6 million drug arrests; a decade later, there were slightly more than 1.6 million. Granted, there is a slight decline from the all-time high of nearly 1.9 million in 2006, but the drug war juggernaut continues chugging away.

"I was a police officer for 34 years, the last six as chief of police in Seattle," retired law enforcement veteran Norm Stamper told the press conference. "At one point in my career, I had an epiphany. I came to the appreciation that police officers could be doing better things with their time and that we were causing more harm than good with this drug war. My position is that we need to end prohibition, which is the organizing mechanism behind the drug war. We need to replace that system guaranteed to invite violence and corruption and replace it with a regulatory model," he said.

Nixon made Elvis an honorary narc in 1970. Nixon and Elvis are both dead, but Nixon's drug war lives on.
LEAP slams the Obama administration for its forked-tongue approach to medical marijuana as well in the report. The administration has talked a good game on medical marijuana, but its actions speak louder than its words. While Attorney General Holder's famous 2009 memo advised federal prosecutors not to pick on medical marijuana providers in compliance with state laws, federal medical marijuana raids have not only continued, but they are happening at a faster rate than during the Bush administration. There were some 200 federal medical marijuana raids during eight years of Bush, while there have been about 100 under 2 1/2 years of Obama, LEAP noted.

And LEAP points to the horrendous prohibition-related violence in Mexico as yet another example of the damage the drug war has done. The harder Mexico and the US fight the Mexican drug war, the higher the death toll, with no apparent impact on the flow of drugs north or the flow of guns and cash south, the report points out.

Sean Dunagan, a recently retired, 13-year DEA veteran with postings in Guatemala City and Monterrey, Mexico, told the press conference his experiences south of the border had brought him around to LEAP's view.

"It became increasingly apparent that the prohibitionist model just made things worse by turning a multi-billion dollar industry over to criminal organizations," he said. "There is such a profit motive with the trade in illegal drugs that it is funding a de facto civil war in Mexico. Prohibition has demonstrably failed and it is time to look at policy alternatives that address the problem of addiction without destroying our societies the way the drug war has done."

Ending drug prohibition would not make Mexico's feared cartels magically vanish, LEAP members conceded under questioning, but it would certainly help reduce their power.

"Those of us who advocate ending prohibition are not proposing some sort of nirvana with no police and no crime, but a strategy based in reality that recognizes what police can accomplish in cooperation with the rest of society," said former House Judiciary Crime subcommittee counsel Eric Sterling. "The post-prohibition environment will require enforcement as in every legal industry. The enormous power that the criminal organizations have will diminish, but those groups are not going to simply walk away. The difference between us and the prohibitionists is that we are not making empty promises like a drug-free America or proposing thoughtless approaches like zero tolerance," he told the press conference.

Drug prohibition has also generated crime and gang problems in the US, the report charged, along with unnecessary confrontations between police and citizens leading to the deaths of drug users, police, and innocent bystanders alike. The report notes that while Mexico can provide a count of its drug war deaths, the US cannot -- except this year, with the Drug War Chronicle's running tally of 2011 deaths due to US domestic drug law enforcement operations, which the report cited. As of this week, the toll stands at four law enforcement officers and 26 civilians killed.

It was the needless deaths of police officers that inspired retired Maryland State Police captain and University of Maryland law professor Leigh Maddox to switch sides in the drug war debate, she said.

LEAP's Leigh Maddox addresses the Washington, DC, press conference Tuesday.
"My journey to my current position came over many years and after seeing many friends killed in the line of duty because of our failed drug policies," she told the Washington press conference. "This is an abomination and needs to change."

While the report was largely critical of the Obama administration's approach to drug policy, it also saluted the administration for heading in the right direction on a number of fronts. It cited the reduction in the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses and the lifting of the federal ban on needle exchange funding as areas where the administration deserves kudos.

Forty years of drug prohibition is more than enough. Police are getting this. When will politicians figure it out?

Washington, DC
United States

Connecticut Legislature Passes Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

The Connecticut Senate Saturday narrowly approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote was an 18-18 tie until Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman (D), in her position as president of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote to put the measure over the top.

Connecticut is about to join the ranks of the decrim states. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
On Tuesday, it passed the House. It is supported by Gov. Dan Malloy (D), who Saturday urged the House to pass it.

Under current law, the possession of "any usable amount" of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000. The fine jumps to $3,000 for subsequent offenses.

The bill, Senate Bill 1014, would make possession of less than a half-ounce of pot a civil infraction punishable by a maximum fine of $150. Fines jump to from $200 to $500 for subsequent violations. People under 21 would see their drivers' licenses suspended for 60 days, similar to the punishment for minors in possession of alcohol. Under an amendment by marijuana foe Rep. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) and accepted by Democrats, anyone thrice cited for small-time possession would be required to seek drug treatment.

Supporters of the bill argued that slapping people with a criminal record for small-time pot possession unfairly burdened them and the criminal justice system, but opponents said it sent the wrong message.

"It puts into jeopardy the future endeavors of such young people," said Sen. Eric Coleman (D-Bloomfield) co-chairman of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee. "Decriminalizing the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana is a better course and in the best interest of young people whose judgment may not be fully matured."

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven) stressed that lawmakers were not legalizing marijuana. "We are not enforcing the use of illegal drugs. We strongly disapprove of their use, but we're trying to realign their punishment that is more appropriate," he said, adding that the state should be focusing its scarce criminal justice resources on dangerous offenders.

But Boucher had dire warnings for Connecticut if the bill passed. "When we do this, and it has been shown in other states that have gone down this path, there is both an increase in use and an increase in crime," said Boucher, who also opposes another bill that would fully legalize the medical use of marijuana.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (R-Fairfield) used a version of the discredited gateway theory to bolster his opposition. He told solons his old sister had started with marijuana, then went on to become addicted to cocaine and other drugs before getting clean after treatment.

"For me, a policy that lessens the severity of drug use is a bad one," he said. "I don't believe we should just give up."

After the bill passed the Senate, Gov. Malloy urged the House to approve "a commonsense" criminal justice reform. The state is "doing more harm than good when we prosecute people who are caught using marijuana -- needlessly stigmatizing them in a way they would not if they were caught drinking underage," he said.

Now, the legislature has done as the governor asked. Expect Malloy to sign the bill shortly.

Hartford, CT
United States

ACLU Sues Florida Governor on State Employee Drug Tests [FEATURE]

The ACLU of Florida Tuesday filed suit in federal court in Miami to block Gov. Rick Scott's (R) executive order mandating random, suspicionless drug testing of state employees. The lawsuit contends the drug testing amounts to an unlawful and unreasonable search and seizure, violating state employees' Fourth Amendment rights, and seeks an immediate halt to the practice.

Florida state workers, be prepared to submit one of these if Gov. Scott has his way. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
"We are taking this action to prevent Gov. Scott from trampling on your rights in Florida," said ACLU of Florida head Howard Simon during a Wednesday afternoon press call. "We don't have a system of government run only by the executive and the legislative branch. It's time for the courts to step up and defend the rights of Floridians. This is an abuse of government power."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 79, which represents 50,000 state employees and an additional 200,000 county and municipal employees in Florida. Also joining the lawsuit is Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research scientist Richard Flamm.

"AFSCME has for decades supported drug-free workplace policies while preserving the fundamental right of public servants to be free of extreme governmental intrusions," said Alma Gonzales, general counsel for AFSCME Council 79. "We negotiated objective standards for drug testing for reasonable suspicion or if there is a safety risk, but at no point has the governor's office ever contacted us to negotiate over this. We're talking about taking their bodily fluids without probable cause or consent," she pointed out. "It's surprising and disappointing that the chief executive of Florida is unaware or doesn't care that this is the law of the land."

"I've been a state employee for almost 18 years," said Flamm. "There is absolutely no suspicion based on my behavior at work that I am a drug user. I joined as a plaintiff in this lawsuit because I find this extremely costly and wasteful. There is no threat to society. As a Florida taxpayer, I find it outrageous that given our current economic climate, with the loss of services and public jobs, that we would be wasting millions with unnecessary drug tests. As a citizen of the United States, I find this executive order an egregious attack on the Constitution. I'm surprised more people haven't stepped up," the research scientist said.

Scott signed the executive order on March 22, and it called for state agencies to have devised drug testing regimes by May 21, but it is unclear whether any state employees have been subjected to drug testing at this point.

The US Supreme Court has held that suspicionless drug testing by the government is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. The only exceptions allowed by the high court are "special circumstances," such as employees who work in jobs where there is "concrete danger of real harm."

"This executive order is profoundly un-American," said Simon. "This is a governor who masquerades as a conservative, but who is a radical. We had a revolution in this country that led to the enactment of the Fourth Amendment and the bill of rights, and that was a reaction to warrantless searches by the troops of King George."

"When we were asked to look at this and represent AFSCME, we did a painstaking analysis of constitutional law precedents dealing with employee drug testing," said Peter Walsh, an ACLU of Florida attorney working on the case. "This isn't a case of a governor arguably acting within the bounds of the US Constitution or even pushing the envelope to test the limits; the governor has ripped the envelope apart and jumped way over the line of what is permissible. He has violated the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure clause and done so in a big way."

There is also precedent from the Sunshine State itself. The city of Hollywood, Florida, enacted a municipal employee drug testing law little more than a decade ago, only to have it thrown out by the Florida courts in 2000. Four years later, the state Department of Juvenile Justice's effort to conduct suspicionless drug tests on employees was also thrown out. The department is a state agency covered by the governor's executive order.

"I'm not surprised but a little bit shocked that the governor would go ahead with issuing an executive order when this is about as close to settled law as possible," said Simon. "Federal judges have struck such programs down as searches without probable cause and without reasonable suspicion."

"Employee drug testing by urinalysis is particularly destructive of privacy, offensive to personal dignity, demeaning and an affront to dignity," said Walsh. "Those are the words of Justice Antonin Scalia from his dissenting opinion in a seminal case on employee drug testing."

In that case, the high court upheld suspicionless drug testing by private employers. US law provides few worker protections from employer drug testing. But drug testing by the government is a different matter, and constitutional protections unavailable to private sector workers come into play.

"People say this is so widespread in the private sector that what's the big deal," said Simon. "But just because it's widespread doesn't make it right. Public sector employees are protected by the Fourth Amendment; they have more protection of their rights to privacy. We are proud to be filing this lawsuit on their behalf."

Simon also hinted strongly that the ACLU of Florida would soon be filing another lawsuit, this one aimed at the welfare drug testing bill Gov. Scott signed this week. Like state worker drug testing, the courts have frowned on the suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. The last state to try to implement such a plan, Michigan, had its law thrown out as unconstitutional by a US district court in 2003.

Gov. Scott ran on a platform of reducing needless spending in the public sector. But he's about to spend big bucks on defending an executive order that is constitutionally indefensible and likely to spend even more defending the welfare drug testing law that is just as constitutionally indefensible.

Miami, FL
United States

Drugs Prohibition War Ignites Mexican Fury at U.S. Indifference

Location: 
Mexico
The United States has spent over $1 trillion promoting democracy in far-flung Iraq and Afghanistan while friendly neighbor Mexico gets a fraction of that in its prohibitionist fight against drug trafficking organizations. Mexico's frustration with Washington's priorities has plunged ties between the two allies to their lowest ebb in years. Last year alone, the U.S.-backed campaign claimed the lives of over 15,000 people in Mexico -- that is more than double the combined civilian deaths reported in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has spent over $1.2 trillion in the past decade.
Publication/Source: 
Reuters
URL: 
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/29/us-mexico-usa-idUSTRE73S3TY20110429

Californians Favor Lessening Drug Possession Penalties [FEATURE]

California voters strongly approve of reducing penalties for simple drug possession, according to a poll released Monday by number of groups seeking drug law reforms. Nearly three-quarters (72%) surveyed favored reducing the penalties for drug possession, including strong majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (72%), and Republicans (66%).

Californians appear ready to reduce drug possession to misdemeanor. (Image courtesy Aaron Logan via Wikimedia.org)
The poll was conducted by Lake Research and can be viewed here. There is also an accompanying press release. It was commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of Northern California and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. It surveyed 800 likely voters in the 2012 general election between March 21 and March 24. The margin of error is +/- 3.5%.

Possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin is a felony in California and is punishable by up to three years in state prison. The state's overcrowded prison system currently holds 9,000 drug possession offenders at a cost of $4.5 million dollars a year. The state faces a budget deficit of more than $20 billion.

The polling results will help lay the groundwork for an effort to move legislation that would drop drug possession from a misdemeanor to a felony, advocates said during a Monday teleconference.

Not only did respondents want to see penalties for drug possession lowered, a majority wanted to see them dramatically lowered, if not removed altogether. Some 51% said either that drug possession sentences should not exceed three months (27%) or that drug possession should not be punished with jail time at all (24%).

A majority (56%) said California sends too many people to prison, and three-quarters said the state should instead use the millions spent to imprison drug users for schools, law enforcement, and health care.

Support for drastically reducing sentences for drug possession cut across all demographic, regional, and ethnic lines. And that support would translate into votes during an election, the poll found. More than 40% said they would be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor, while only 15% said they would be less likely.

"We found a widely, and intensely, held belief among voters that California imprisons too many people and can no longer afford to spend billions on prisons amid massive cuts to education and social services," said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research. "This is a voting issue now. Politicians stand in the way of this popular reform at their own risk."

Support for cutting drug possession sentences held up even after respondents were treated to opposing messages, Gotoff said. "It holds up under attack, and voters don't need to be argued into this," he said. "There is a strongly held perception that the state imprisons too many people and that current penalties are too harsh. The voters are pretty solid on this."

"Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses all the partisan, regional, and demographic lines that normally divide California voters," said Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California. "Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents from every corner of the state overwhelmingly agree that it’s time for a new approach. We need to stop wasting precious tax dollars on unnecessary, expensive jail and prison sentences."

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill that would "realign" the state's overburdened corrections system by diverting nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to county jails. But that measure has yet to be funded, and it does not reduce sentences, but instead merely shuffles inmates from the state to county lock-ups.

"Sacramento's plan to keep people convicted of personal drug possession at the county level doesn't address the belief of a majority of Californians that drug possession shouldn't be a felony and that people shouldn't be locked up for longer than three months for this offense," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Californians aren't just interested in saving money. They're also interested in seeing people contribute to their families and communities," said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "California voters want to see that people are not burdened with a life-long felony record for drug possession that makes it tough to find a job or support a family. Current penalties work against individual, family and community well-being and public safety."


Also addressing the teleconference was Maria Alexander of the Center for Living and Learning, a reentry services provider. "Many people we serve have successfully overcome drug problems, but now they can't find jobs because they have felony convictions," she said. "The fact that some people can overcome this barrier is a testament to their dedication and hard work, but we don't have to make it so hard. Giving these people felony records is counterproductive and anti-recovery."

"Californians clearly and strongly reject the state's misplaced priorities that have pushed funding toward jails and prisons and away from schools," said Alice Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP. "The California NAACP urges the state legislature and the governor to listen to voters and reduce the penalty for drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor."

This poll suggests strong public support for de-felonizing drug possession in California and lesser, but still substantial support for decriminalizing it. Now, it's time to lean on the legislature to bring it into line with enlightened public sentiment.

CA
United States

California Corrections "Realignment" Not Nearly Enough [FEATURE]

Faced with a staggering budget deficit and a prison overcrowding crisis, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the state legislature have approved legislation that would shift responsibility for low-level, nonviolent offenders and parole violators from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to the state's counties. But sentencing and drug reform advocates say the measure merely shifts the burden of the state's corrections overcrowding from the state to the counties, fails to fund crime prevention services like drug treatment, and fails to include real sentencing reforms.

California Gov. Jerry Brown takes a tiny step toward corrections reform.
On Monday, Gov. Brown signed  Assembly Bill 109, the law shifting responsibility for many low-level offenders to the counties.  The law is designed to stop the "revolving door" of low-level offenders cycling and recycling through the prison system, Brown said in a signing statement.

"For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months -- often before they are even transferred out of a reception center," Brown said. "Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision."

But the law will not go into effect unless and until the legislature approves and funds a community corrections grant program, something Republicans in the legislature have opposed.

"I will not sign any legislation that would seek to implement this legislation without the necessary funding," Brown said. "In the coming weeks, and for as long as it takes, I will vigorously pursue my plan to balance the state's budget and prevent reductions to public safety through a constitutional guarantee."

The cost of corrections in California is staggering. Gov. Brown's proposed Fiscal Year 2011-2012 budget funds the prison system to the tune of $9.19 billion, nearly 7.2% of the entire state budget. And the war on drugs is responsible for a hefty portion of it.

The state prison system holds a whopping 144,000 inmates, including more than 28,000 drug offenders and more than 1,500 marijuana offenders. Of those 28,000 drug offenders, 9,000 are there for simple drug possession at a cost of $450 million a year, or about $4.5 billion over the past decade. That figure doesn't include the cost of re-incarcerating parole violators who have been returned to prison for administrative violations, such as failing drug tests, so the actual cost of drug law enforcement to the prison system is even higher.

Not only does the prison system face a budgetary crisis, it also faces a looming US Supreme Court decision that, by most predictions, will result in the state being ordered to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is still about 30,000 over official capacity. The lawsuit before the Supreme Court alleges that California does not provide adequate medical and mental health services to its prisoners.

Gov. Brown's and the legislature's plan to shift low-level offenders out of CDCR and into county facilities does not address the core of the problem, advocates said.

"This plan is a shell game that would simply shift corrections costs from the state to the counties without addressing the real problem: California is locking up too many people for low-level offenses for too long," said Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California. "The cost of mass incarceration is robbing the people of California of vitally needed services, including education and healthcare. What we need is real sentencing reform, such as shortening the sentences for simple possession drug crimes. It's time for California to stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars incarcerating people who pose no threat to public safety."

"This plan would allow people to be locked up in local jails for up to three years, triple the current limit. Research consistently shows that longer sentences do not produce better outcomes. In fact, shorter sentences coupled with re-entry and prevention tactics are both more effective and more cost-effective," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We're talking about people convicted of low-level offenses, like drug possession, prostitution and petty theft, often related to a drug problem. But the plan doesn't include a dime for drug treatment or mental health care. In fact, the governor has proposed reducing funds for those services."

"Any California corrections reform must include sentencing reform," said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "A felony conviction is a life-long sentence that should not be applied to low-level offenses. No matter how old the conviction, people with a felony on their record will face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans, food stamps and other public assistance. This works against individual, family and community well-being and public safety."

San Quentin Prison -- no room at the inn. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The bill signed into law by Gov. Brown is not sentencing reform, but sentencing reform is what is needed, said Dooley-Sammuli. Decriminalization of drug possession is the goal, but legislators aren't ready to embrace that yet, she said. In the meantime, there are other options.

"We want the legislature to reduce the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor," she said. "We don't think the legislators are at the point where they understand the real harms that come to drug users, their families, and their communities because of the criminal penalties for drug use, but we think they do understand there is no reason why the penalties should be as severe as they are. The common ground is that they cost too much money and they do damage because of the burden of a felony conviction."

Advocates are continuing to push for real sentencing reform in California, said Dooley-Sammuli. "This would be a very good year for it," she said. "The critical thing is for the legislature to understand that there are additional cost savings to be had by reducing these low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors, with no threat to public safety, but with positive advantages for reentry success. They think that this realignment solves the problem, but this is not sentencing reform. Incarcerating people in county jails instead of state prisons is not sentencing reform."

But even as reformers continue to fight for sentencing reform, Gov. Brown and the legislature still have to figure out how to pay for the shift from state prisons to county jails. Brown has been pushing for a special election in June to give voters the chance to approve tax increase extensions, but he needs support from Republicans, and that doesn’t appear to be there. If that doesn't happen, it may appear on the November ballot as an initiative, but the tax extensions expire July 1, and a November vote would require voters to increase taxes, not a popular notion these days.

"Funding is not imminent," said Dooley-Sammuli. "But the deal has been struck. If they can get the Republicans or the voters to agree to tax extensions, this is the plan Democrats want for realignment.

And speaking of funding not being imminent, Gov. Brown has proposed zero increases for community-based drug treatment and actual cuts to drug treatment programs within the CDCR. That would affect treatment for both prisoners and parolees.

"He is talking about reducing access to services even as we face a major shift in how corrections works in this state," said Dooley-Sammuli. "That's really stupid."

It has become increasingly evident that California can't afford its drug war. Gov. Brown and the legislature have attempted to craft a fix, but the fix will leave the system just as broken as ever. Now, the state's political elite has to understand that half-measures won't solve the problem. If they're not ready for decriminalization or legalization, it is at least time for de-felonization.

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