Clemency and Pardon

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Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Boston's First MedMJ Shop Opens, More... (8/3/16)

Obama commutes more drug sentences, Boston gets its first dispensary, more signs of how horrid South Dakota is on marijuana, Utah SWAT deployment data, and more.

Utah SWAT is aimed mostly at drug offenders. (Wikipedia/Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon US Attorney Prosecuting Black Teen Over One Gram of Weed. In the first federal marijuana possession prosecution in the state in five years, teenager Devontre Thomas has been charged over a gram of pot found in another student's backpack at the federal Indian School they both attended. The other teen claimed he got the weed from Thomas, and that's enough for US Attorney Billy J. Williams to charge Thomas with "knowingly and intentionally possessing marijuana." Williams is getting blowback from many, including US Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who said "situations like this are best handled by the state."

South Dakota to Prosecute Consultants for Aborted Indian Tribe Pot Grow. Attorney General Marty Jackley announced Wednesday that two men who consulted with the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in its effort to grow marijuana have been indicted on a range of marijuana possession charges. The tribe began to grow after the federal government signaled that tribes could do so, but destroyed its crop after federal officials raided other tribes than had entered the business and after state officials threatened to arrest non-Indians who used marijuana there. One of the consultants was hit with felony possession and is looking at up to 7 ½ years in prison, while the other, who cooperated with authorities, only got a misdemeanor charge.

Medical Marijuana

Boston Gets Its First Dispensary. The Patriot Cares dispensary is open on Boston's Milk Street as of today. The company says it's ready for 150 patients a day and that 200 patients have already registered.

South Dakota Medical Marijuana Initiative Supporters Sue Over Signatures. The secretary of state's office said petitions from the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion came up short on signatures, blocking the measure from going to the voters, and now, the coalition has filed a complaint alleging that signatures were not properly counted. The coalition is seeking to have the secretary of state's decision thrown out and that a local judge will order the initiative placed on the November ballot.

Law Enforcement

Utah SWAT Used Overwhelmingly for Drug Crimes. Utah is the only state to currently require reporting on SWAT deployments, and the 2015 report has just been released. SWAT was deployed 457 times in 2015, including 281 forced entries into private residences. Three-quarters of those forced entries were drug raids. The data also showed that police were more likely to use "no-knock" search warrants against drug suspects than against violent crime suspects. Go figure.

Pardons and Clemency

Obama Frees More Federal Drug Prisoners, But Time is Running Out. Some 214 federal drug war prisoners saw their prison sentences commuted Wednesday as President Obama took another step toward fulfilling his administration's pledge to use his pardon power to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for non-violent drug crimes.Those whose sentences were commuted Wednesday will walk out of prison on December 1. With Wednesday's commutations, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That's more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

Obama Frees More Federal Drug War Prisoners, But Time is Running Out

Some 214 federal drug war prisoners saw their prison sentences commuted Wednesday as President Obama took another step toward fulfilling his administration's pledge to use his pardon power to cut draconian drug sentences and free prisoners serving decades-long stretches for nonviolent drug crimes.

"The power to grant pardons and commutations… embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws," the president said.

Those whose sentences were commuted Wednesday will walk out of prison on December 1.

With Wednesday's commutations, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 562 men and women sentenced under harsh federal drug laws, including 197 people doing life for drug offenses. That's more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.

But it's not close to the number whose sentences Obama could commute under a program announced in 2014 by then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole. They called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted at the time that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 562 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for nearly 9,000 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

That would undercut Obama's legacy of redressing drug war injustice. There are now only six months to go in his presidency, and nearly 18,000 prisoners who were told to seek clemency are now waiting for a response.

Here is President Obama addressing the commutation issue during an earlier series of sentence cuts:

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Majority for Legalization in New Poll, More... (6/6/16)

President Obama keeps chipping away at the federal drug prisoner population, Weldon Angelos finally goes free, yet another poll has a national majority for marijuana legalization, the new Filipino president encourages vigilante violence against drug dealers, and more.

President Obama has commuted another 42 drug sentences, including 20 lifers. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Another National Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization, Near Unanimous Support for Medical Marijuana. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday has support for marijuana legalization at 54%, with 41% opposed. That's in line with a bevy of polls in the past couple of years showing majority support for legalization. The new Quinnipiac poll also had support for medical marijuana at 89%, with only 9% opposed, and 87% support for allowed Veterans Administration doctors to recommend it to vets with PTSD.

Anti-Legalization Forces Seek Backing of Rightist Casino Billionaire. The anti-reform group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, led by Kevin Sabet, is seeking funding from Nevada casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who contributed millions of dollars to defeat a medical marijuana initiative in Florida in 2014. Adelson is also a major funder of Republican presidential candidates, having spent $15 million supporting Newt Gingrich in 2012.

Massachusetts Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Legalization Initiative. The high court is set to hear two challenges Wednesday to the legalization initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. One challenge alleges that organizers have misled voters about its ramifications and claims it would allow for the sale of GMO marijuana, while the other challenge says the words "marijuana legalization" in the initiative's title are misleading because it doesn't legalize it for people under 21.

Medical Marijuana

Montana Initiative Coming Up on Signature Deadline. Backers of Initiative 182, which seeks to restore the state's medical marijuana program demolished by the legislature in 2011, say they have some 30,000 raw signatures as a June 17 deadline draws near. They need 24,000 valid signatures to qualify. Initiative watchers generally assume as many as 30% of gathered signatures could be invalidated. If that were the case right now in Montana, the initiative would not make the ballot.

Drug Testing

Michigan Supreme Court to Hear Case of Mother Jailed for Refusing Drug Test in Son's Juvenile Case. The state's high court will hear the case of Kelly Michelle Dorsey, who was jailed for contempt of court in 2012 for refusing to take a drug test in a case involving her minor son, because the son was under the court's jurisdiction, not Dorsey. An appeals court held that forcing mothers to submit to drug tests in such cases was unconstitutional, but upheld a finding a contempt of court for her refusal. Now, the state Supreme Court is set to weigh in.

Sentencing

Obama Commutes Sentences for 42 More Drug Offenders, Including 20 Lifers. President Obama last Friday added another 42 names to the ever growing list of federal drug prisoners whose sentences he has commuted. That brings to 348 the number of commutations Obama has handed out, more than the last seven presidents combined. For a list of names of the newly commuted, go here.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Poster Child Weldon Angelos Freed After 12 Years. The Salt Lake City rap and hip hop label owner and small-time pot dealer was sentenced to 55 years in federal prison because he carried a pistol strapped to his ankle during marijuana deals. Now he is a free man after prosecutors moved to cut his sentence.

New Hampshire GOP Senator Wants to Jack Up Mandatory Minimums for Fentanyl. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is planning to offer an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act this week that would vastly increase mandatory minimums for fentanyl. Currently, it takes 100 grams of a mixture containing fentanyl to garner a five-year mandatory minimum; under Ayotte's proposal, it would only take half a gram. The Drug Policy Alliance and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are among those opposing the move.

International

Israeli Security Minister Opposes Marijuana Decriminalization. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Sunday he opposes such a move because it could increase traffic accidents and police have no way of preventing drugged drivers from getting behind the wheel. He also said that policies were already lax and the decriminalization would amount to legalization. Opposition from Erdan and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has delayed a vote on a decriminalization bill that was supposed to take place Sunday.

Philippines President Encourages People to Kill Drug Dealers. President Rodrigo Duterte used a televised speech Saturday night to encourage citizens to shoot and kill drug dealers who resist arrest. "Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have the gun -- you have my support," adding, "Shoot him and I'll give you a medal." He also threatened to kill drug addicts. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City, was reputed to have been involved with death squad killings. Apparently some Filipino voters wanted to hear that or didn't mind, since they just elected him president.

Obama's Effort to Free Drug War Prisoners Hits Bureaucratic Roadblocks [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

With the sentence commutations announced last week, President Barack Obama has now cut more than 300 harsh drug war prison sentences, more than the previous six presidents combined. Thousands more could be eligible for commutations, but bureaucratic obstacles inside the Justice Department mean the clock could run out before Obama gets a chance to free them.

Thousands could go free with sentence cuts this year -- if bottlenecks are fixed. (nacdp.org)
As part of the Obama administration's emphasis on criminal justice reform and reducing the federal prison population, then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder at the time. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

The mass clemency program is one of Eric Holder's sentencing reform legacies. (justice.gov)
Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 306 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for 9,115 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

The situation so infuriated Office of Pardons attorney Deborah Leff, who was hired to oversee the project, that she quit earlier this year. Her resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates made it clear why.

Despite her "intense efforts" to do her job, Justice had "not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary ffor my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president," she wrote. "The position in which my office has been placed, asking us to address the petitions of nearly 10,000 individuals with so few attorneys and support staff, means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

It wasn't just that Justice wasn't adequately staffing the pardons office -- it had a total of 10 staff attorneys -- but Yates was overturning the pardon attorneys' recommendations and blocking the office's traditional access to the White House, Leff complained.

"I have been deeply troubled by the decision to deny the Pardon Attorney all access to the Office of the White House Counsel, even to share the reasons for our determinations in the increasing number of cases where you have reversed our recommendations," Leff wrote in her resignation letter to Yates.

US Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in frustration.
"It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand," she wrote, implying that the Justice Department process was stalling justice.

The staffing problems had been apparent early on, which is why the Department turned to the Clemency Project to help out last year. But that effort, which involved some 4,000 attorneys from 30 law schools, 70 large law firms, and more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners doing pro bono work, has also been slow to get rolling.

Now, with the days slipping away and freedom for thousands in the balance, both the Justice Department and the Clemency Project are feeling the heat. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston told the Washington Post last week that many more petitions will be granted in Obama's final months and that the Justice Department has doubled the number of lawyers at the pardon office. And administration officials said that President Obama wants to see more petitions on his desk.

"The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he's granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations," White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement.

The Justice Department said it was working hard, too.

"The Justice Department has dedicated the maximum amount of resources allowed by Congress to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and we have requested additional funds from Congress for each year the initiative has been in place," spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement.

But it may be too little, too late for the thousands of men and women behind bars who could see freedom being waved in front of them only to vanish when the clock runs out, if things don't change quickly.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations, SC Town Pays Big for Killing Teen in Pot Bust, More... (3/30/16)

The president has commuted sentences for another 61 federal drug offenders, Maine legalizers are fighting to get their signatures validated and their initiative on the ballot, a South Carolina town pays out big for the death of a local teen in a small-time pot bust, and more.

Zach Hammond's family has settled a lawsuit over his death in a small-time pot sting operation gone bad. (Hammond family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Senate Approves Marijuana DUID Bill. The Senate voted 19-14 Wednesday to pass LD 1628, which establishes a blood level for THC over which the driver is presumed to be impaired. The bill sets the limit at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, the same as the states of Colorado and Washington. The bill now goes to the House.

Maine Legalization Campaign Gets Hearing On Invalidated Signatures. At a court hearing Wednesday, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol fought to get more than 17,000 invalidated signatures reinstated. The campaign accused Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of using an "unconstitutionally vague" interpretation of election laws to invalidate the signatures -- all of which were notarized by the same person. Dunlap said the notary's signature didn't match his on-file signature. By invalidating the 17,000 signatures, Dunlap ensured that the initiative campaign would not qualify for the November ballot. The court has until April 11 to render a decision.

Oregon Governor Signs Marijuana Edibles Bill. Gov. Kate Brown Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 1511, which allows people 21 and over to purchase edibles and extracts at dispensaries. The bill also allows recreational pot stores to sell medical marijuana tax-free to registered patients.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Patients Protest Proposed Medical Marijuana Tax. Protestors gathered at the State House Tuesday to just say no to Gov. Gina Raimondo's (D) plan to impose a tax on patient and caregiver growers. "We have pain, we have cancer, taxing us is not the answer," they chanted. Under her plan, caregivers would have to pay $350 per plant and patients who grow their own would have to pay $150. The protest took place just before the House Finance Committee took up the proposal.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Full Transcript of President Obama's Atlanta Remarks on Heroin and Pain Pills. The White House has released the full transcript of the discussion panel in which President Obama took part Tuesday as part of the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. Click the title link for the transcripts.

Law Enforcement

Family of Zach Hammond Settles Police Killing Lawsuit. The South Carolina teenager was shot and killed by police last summer as he sat in his pick-up truck. The teenage girl who was his passenger was the target of an attempted bust over the sale of a bag of weed, and police shot Hammond as he attempted to pull away from the scene. His family has settled the lawsuit for $2.1 million. State investigators last year concluded that the killing was justified, but the city has just paid up.

Sentencing

Obama Pardons More Drug Offenders. President Obama today granted clemency to 61 more federal drug offenders, more than a third of whom were serving life sentences. That brings to 248 the number of sentences commuted by Obama, more than the six previous presidents combined. He was also set to meet today with people whose sentences had been commuted by previous presidents to discuss their experiences with reentry and how the process can be strengthened. On Thursday, he will hold a Life After Clemency briefing at 2:00pm EDT, which can be viewed live at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

Bill Maher-Inspired Protest Will Smoke Out the White House

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Inspired by a warning from comedian Bill Maher that progress on marijuana reform could be rolled back after President Obama leaves office, advocates in the nation's capital have announced a bold protest next month to press Obama to move on marijuana while he still can.

While Obama has largely not interfered with marijuana legalization in states that have approved it, he has also signaled that he is not going to be proactive on the issue. A little more than a month ago, he said marijuana reform is not on his list of end-of-term priorities, and his press spokesperson, Josh Earnest, paraphrased his position thusly: "'If you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there is so much public support for what it is that you're advocating, then why don't you pass legislation about it and we'll see what happens.'"

Led by indomitable DC activist Adam Eidinger, the man behind the District's successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2014, the DC Cannabis Campaign is instead calling for supporters to gather in front of the White House to demand that Obama reschedule marijuana through executive action as he has the power to do, and that he pardon people jailed for marijuana crimes. Attendees will be encouraged to fire up in acts of civil disobedience.

In an interview with US News and World Report, Eidinger predicted at least a thousand people would show up, and maybe many, many more.

"There is a huge pent-up demand for this right now, we actually do have the support to do this," he said. "We're calling on the whole country to come. This is a national mobilization. Some of us may end up in jail, and that's fine. It's actually necessary at this point."

Eidinger said the DC Cannabis Campaign has polled its supporters on whether to organize the protest after Maher warned on his HBO show legalization in the states is at risk as long as federal pot prohibition remains. Maher toked up on air as he issued his warning. Maher will be invited to attend the protest, Eidinger said.

"We have to take action now, that's the idea," Eidinger explained. "If it's not going to happen under Obama, it's sure as hell not going to happen with Hillary."

Obama, who has said he considers marijuana no more harmful than alcohol, represents the best chance for rescheduling marijuana, and for emptying the prisons of pot offenders, Eidinger argued.

"He should pardon tens of thousands of marijuana growers in jail right now. And he should be pardoning them all," he says. "The war on drugs is a failure? Mass incarceration is a failure? Then do something about it."

Protestors are not anti-Obama, Eidinger said, they just want him to do the right thing.

"This is going to be an extremely personal protest with the president," Eidinger says. "It is not going to be Trump people out there. This is going to be his so-called base that thought he would do something for us essentially giving up. The only way to stop this protest is to start doing something. We threw the gauntlet down today, essentially."

See Maher's comments here:

Washington, DC
United States

The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2015 [FEATURE]

As the year winds down, we look back on the big stories in drug policy, from marijuana reform to climbing fatal overdose levels to sentencing reforms and beyond.

Marijuana remained a major story this year. (wikimedia.org)
The Sky Hasn't Fallen on Legal Marijuana States. The great social experiment with marijuana legalization appears to be going off without a serious hitch, and that's great news for people in states where it will likely be an issue next year. No outbreaks of reefer-induced mass criminality have taken place, no hordes of zombie school kids have appeared. In fact, very little at all seems to have happened, except that in Washington state, marijuana arrests are way down, tax revenues are flowing in, and, and ditto for Colorado, where legal pot has created 16,000 jobs (not to mention thousands more in weed-related industries) and, in Denver at least, a real estate boom is going on. Evaluating the impacts of a policy shift like ending state-level marijuana prohibition is a complicated and long-term affair, but so far it we're not seeing any signs of major social policy disaster.

The Marijuana Majority Solidifies. Marijuana legalization is now consistently winning majority support in national polls. An April CBS News poll (released on 4/20) reported support at "an all-time high" at 53%, while a Pew Research poll that some month also came in at 53%. An October Gallup poll had support at 58%, a November Morning Consult poll had it at 55%. This is really quite remarkable: Less than a decade ago, fewer than a third of people were ready to legalize it. Beginning in 2012 or 2013, public opinion reached the tipping point, and now we've clearly tipped.

Groundwork Well Laid for Marijuana Legalization Efforts Next Year. Efforts are well-advanced in a half-dozen states states to put legalization initiatives on the ballot next year. A Nevada initiative has already qualified for the November ballot and a Massachusetts initiative has also met its initial signature gathering hurdle (but must let the legislature have a chance to act before gathering a token amount of additional signatures to qualify for November). Initiative signature gathering campaigns are also well-advanced in Arizona, Maine, and Michigan, and while the California effort lags behind, an initiative backed by some deep-pocketed funders should qualify for November as well. State polls in those states show majorities for legalization, but support numbers only in the 50s suggests that victories are by no means inevitable. Those numbers tend to get pushed down in the course of an actual campaign, especially if there's well-funded opposition. And serious efforts are underway in two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, to pass legalization at the state house next year.

Monopoly Marijuana Gets Rejected in the Heartland. In a clear signal that marijuana legalization is not inevitable, a well-funded, but equally well-loathed legalization initiative went down in flames in November. The ResponsibleOhio initiative would have enshrined within the state constitution a "monopoly" under which pot would be legalized, but only 10 growers could produce commercial pot crops. The effort was opposed by the state's Republican political establishment, as well as the usual suspects in law enforcement, but also by most of the state's marijuana legalization activists. Concerns about the role of industry money in the movement are on the rise, but ResponsibleOhio wasn't even industry money -- it was just a set of wealth investors hoping to cash in with their privileged positions in a newly legal and high lucrative industry.

Black Lives Matter's Policing Critique Implicates the Drug War. The most energetic mass movement since 2011's Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is taking direct aim at policing abuses that have festered for a generation -- and the war on drugs is deeply implicated in them. BLM's Campaign Zero manifesto to end police violence includes numerous drug war-related reform targets. From the militarization of policing to mass incarceration, from stop-and-frisk to "policing for profit," the objects of BLM's ire are key components of the drug war, and the movement is raising the racial justice imperative in the loudest fashion possible.

Heroin overdoses are still on the increase. (New Jersey State Police)
Overdoses Kill Tens of Thousands, Harm Reduction Responses Emerge. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the US, claiming some 44,000 lives a year. Heroin is involved in more than 8,000 of those deaths, but prescription opiates are involved in twice that number. Deaths related to prescription opiates are actually leveling off in line with a decrease in prescribing beginning in 2012, but heroin deaths, which quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, are not, especially as people who once had access to pain pills resort to the black market. With the rising death toll -- and the changing demographics of users; younger, whiter, less "urban" -- has come a new openness toward harm reduction measures that can actually save lives, especially the wider availability of the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). Access to the drug is being increased around the country, thousands of lives are being saved, even the drug czar is for it. It's not like having supervised injection facilities, where users can inject under medical supervision, and which are proven to practically eliminate overdoses (Vancouver's InSite points to exactly zero fatal overdoses in nearly 16,000 injections), but it's a start.

Asset Forfeiture Reform Picks Up Steam. The use of asset forfeiture has been a favorite drug war tactic of police and prosecutors for years, and has grown to the point where federal law enforcement seized more from citizens than burglars did last year. It's been 15 years since the last round of federal asset forfeiture reform, and the pressure is building in Washington. The year started off with then Attorney General Holder abruptly limiting federal seizure sharing with state and local cops, which cut off a main conduit for local cops to get around state asset forfeiture laws (the federal equitable sharing program allowed seizing law enforcement agencies to keep 80% of seizures, while state laws often required seizures to go into general funds). That was followed by the filing of a Rand Paul bill to end federal civil asset forfeiture with a House panel signaling support. The practice is also under fire in the states, where more than a dozen took up bills this year. In two states, Maryland and Wyoming, bills passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican governors, but new asset forfeiture reform laws went into effect July 1 in Montana and New Mexico and passed in Michigan in the fall. Look for more asset forfeiture reform battles next year, both in Congress and at the statehouse.

Some 6,000 drug war prisoners got out in one fell swoop at the beginning of November. (nadcp.org)
6,000 Federal Drug War Prisoners Come Home. At the end of October, the largest prisoner release in recent US history took place, with some 6,000 prisoners set free after their drug sentences were cut thanks to policy changes by the US Sentencing Commission. Another 8,000 are set to be released the same time next year. Along with other sentencing reforms enacted in the past few years, the move has resulted in the federal prison population declining for the first time since Ronald Reagan unleashed the modern drug war in the early 1980s.

Obama Commutes Drug Sentences. President Obama commuted the sentences of 68 drug offenders earlier this year, and just last week he commuted the sentences of nearly a hundred more. Obama has now issued more commutations (which actually free people still behind bars, as opposed to pardons, which are granted after the fact) than the last five presidents combined, and with some 35,000 having petitioned for commutations at the invitation of the Justice Department, we could well see another big batch next year before he leaves office.

Drug Policy Becomes a Presidential Election Issue. In a good way. On the issue of marijuana policy, Bernie Sanders has become the first serious mainstream presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization, and, as this Marijuana Policy Project report card on the presidential candidates shows, many of the others -- from both parties -- support medical marijuana, decriminalization, and/or a states' rights approach to legalization. Not all of them do, of course, but supporting marijuana reform is now a thoroughly mainstream position in presidential politics. Similarly, the candidates have been addressing high rates of prescription opiate and heroin use, with even some GOP candidates talking about treating addiction as a health and public health issue, not a criminal justice one. Democratic contenders have also been addressing the problem as a public health issue, most recently in the New Hampshire Democratic debate. We've come a long way from competing to see who can be the "toughest" on drugs.

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

Chronicle AM: Obama to Free 93 Drug War Prisoners, Budget Deal Includes Drug Reforms, More (12/18/15)

The omnibus budget bill approved by Congress today includes several drug policy provisions, the president commutes the sentences of 93 drug war prisoners, Iranian parliamentarians move to end the death penalty for non-violent drug smuggling offenses, and more.

There will be a bit less overcrowding in federal prisons next spring. (nadcp.org)
Marijuana Policy

US Postal Service Doubles Down on Marijuana Advertising Mailing Ban. What started as a one-off letter to a small Washington state newspaper has now become official USPS policy nationwide. The agency's general counsel has penned a new letter directing postal carriers across the country to report marijuana ads to law enforcement, and now, Oregon federal representatives are trying to get to the bottom of it. "We are working as a delegation to quickly find the best option to address this agency's intransigence," said Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer in a statement. "We want federal authorities to respect decisions made by law-abiding Oregonians and small business owners in the state. Unfortunately, the outdated federal approach to marijuana as described in the response from the Postal Service undermines and threatens news publications that choose to accept advertising from legal marijuana business in Oregon and other states where voters have also freely decided to legalize marijuana."

Oregon Indian Tribe Votes to Approve Marijuana. Members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs overwhelmingly approved a referendum that would allow for the growing, processing, and selling of marijuana. The referendum passed with 86% of the vote.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Supreme Court Okays Medical Marijuana Initiative Language. The state's high court determined that the initiative is limited to a single subject and its ballot wording informs voters fairly. That means if supporters collect enough valid voter signatures, the measure will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Congress Passes Budget Bill That Bars DOJ From Interfering in Medical Marijuana States. The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning includes several drug reform provisions, although reformers didn't get everything they wanted. The bill includes language blocking the Justice Department and DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws or hemp research projects and it also lifts a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs. But Congress failed to approve amendments to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses or to allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, despite the Senate having approved both. And the Congress again included provisions that block Washington, DC, from taxing and regulating marijuana.

Hemp

Key Hemp Provision Added to the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016. The budget bill that passed Congress today protects the transportation, processing, and sale of hemp that is from Farm Bill-compliant pilot programs. The provision was added to the bill by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Harm Reduction

Congress Passes Budget Bill That Includes End to Ban on Federal Needle Exchange Funds. The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning lifts a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs. The ban had been put in place in the midst of drug war and AIDS hysteria in 1988 and was repealed in 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers, but reinstated by congressional Republicans after they regained control of the House in 2011.Since then, outbreaks of HIV and Hepatitis C in southwestern Indiana and the impact of rising heroin use in states like Kentucky and West Virginia have weakened Republican opposition to restoring the funding.

Sentencing

Obama Commutes Sentences for Nearly a Hundred Federal Drug Prisoners. President Obama today commuted the federal prison sentences of 95 men and women, all but two of them drug offenders serving draconian sentences. He also issued pardons for two people who have already served their sentences. This single step nearly doubles the number of sentence commutations the president has issued in his seven years in office, bringing the total to 184. While that is a tiny fraction of the hundred thousand drug offenders serving federal time, the number of commutations is more than the previous five presidents combined.

International

Move to End Death Penalty for Drug Smuggling in Iran. At least 70 members of the Iranian parliament are supporting an effort to end the death penalty in nonviolent drug smuggling cases. The country is most likely the world's leading drugs executioner, with one UN official estimating that it will hang a thousand people for drug crimes this year. Lawmakers are preparing a bill to present to the parliament.

President Obama Commutes Sentences of Nearly a Hundred Federal Drug Prisoners

President Obama today commuted the federal prison sentences of 95 men and women, all but two of them drug offenders serving draconian sentences. He also issued pardons for two people who have already served their sentences.

President Obama commutes drug sentences. (whitehouse.gov)
Many had been imprisoned since the 1990s. Some were doing life sentences for drug offenses. Most were cocaine offenders, but the commutations also included people doing time for marijuana, meth, and heroin.

This single step nearly doubles the number of sentence commutations the president has issued in his seven years in office, bringing the total to 184. While that is a tiny fraction of the hundred thousand drug offenders serving federal time, the number of commutations is more than the previous five presidents combined.

Recent Republican presidents have tended to be stingier with the commutation power than recent Democrats. Jimmy Carter commuted 29 sentences and Bill Clinton commuted 61, but Ronald Reagan only commuted 13 and the Bush father and son team only commuted 14 between them.

Commutations apply to prisoners who are still serving their sentences, while pardons apply to those who have already completed them. The prisoners whose sentences were commuted today are set to walk out of prison next April.

"Most of the commutations the President has granted have been to nonviolent offenders sentenced under those unjust -- and now outdated -- drug crime sentencing rules," the White House said as it announced the commutations today. "If these individuals had been convicted for the exact same crime under today's laws, nearly all of them would have already finished serving their time."

The president sent a personal letter to each of the 95 people receiving a commutation: "I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," he wrote. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change… But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so you will affect not only your life, but the lives of those around you. You will also influence, by your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their second chance in the future."

President Obama has taken other steps to address harsh drug war sentencing, including supporting and signing the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing; creating a task force on 21st Century policing, and launching the Smart on Crime initiative, which includes the Justice Department modifying its policies on mandatory minimum sentencing.

Last year, he signaled that he wanted to make broader use of the clemency power, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole laid out criteria for those who would qualify. Those include people who are nonviolent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large gangs or cartels who have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no other significant criminal history, have shown good conduct in prison, have no history of violence, and who would like have received a significantly lower sentence if sentenced today.

Since then, a consortium of lawyers calling itself Clemency Project 2014 has volunteered to handle and help process clemency requests. Tens of thousands of federal prisoners have responded. While President Obama has commuted more sentences than any recent president, there are thousands more that meet the criteria. He has one more year to exercise his commutation power.

Obama Calls for Greater Criminal Justice Reforms [FEATURE]

In a 45-minute speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, President Obama laid out a far-reaching roadmap for criminal justice reform, including calls for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of solitary confinement, and eliminating barriers to reentry for former prisoners.

c-span.org
The president has touched on many of the themes before, but the Philadelphia speech was the first time he tied them all together into a plan for action. The speech likely signals upcoming executive actions on criminal justice reform.

Obama recited the by now well-known statistics demonstrating American's over-reliance on incarceration: America is home to 5% of world's population but 25% of world's prisons; that African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of American inmates; that one out of three black men are now likely to serve time in prison, among others.

While the United States has 2 ½ million people behind bars, only about 200,000 of them are in the federal prison system that Obama has the ability to impact. Of those, 98,000 are doing time for drug offenses.

He used those stats to bolster his case for broad criminal justice reform, calling the criminal justice system an "injustice system."

"Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that's not a justice system, that's an injustice system," Obama said. "Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it's the presence of opportunity."

Washington has seen limited criminal justice reform during the Obama years, particularly with legislation partially undoing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and later actions making it retroactive. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder signaled to federal prosecutors that they should move away from mandatory minimums, and the Obama administration has asked federal drug prisoners to seek sentence commutations.

At the convention, Obama also touted initiatives including the Department of Justice's Smart on Crime program aimed at reducing the impact of our harsh laws, My Brother's Keeper, and the Clemency Project.

The president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders on Monday, and applications from some 30,000 more are in the pipeline.

Obama said the time was ripe for further reforms, citing bipartisan interest in the issue, and even mentioning the Koch Brothers and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul as allies in the fight. They made "strange bedfellows" with Democrats and the NAACP, he said, but that's what sometimes happens in politics.

"We're at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter. To make it work better and I'm determined to do my part, wherever I can," Obama said a day earlier in announcing the sentence commutations.

On Thursday, Obama will continue his criminal justice-themed week with a visit to the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma -- the first visit ever to a federal prison by a sitting president. He is expected to meet with inmates there, and he told the NAACP crowd he met with four former prisoners -- one white, one Latino, and two black -- before taking to the podium there.

Philadelphia, PA
United States

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