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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

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

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