Collateral Sanctions

RSS Feed for this category

This Year's Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories

A lot went on in the realm of drug policy reform in 2010. Here is our summation of what we think are the biggest stories of the year.

fire truck lent by Dr. Bronner's for SSDP/Prop 19 campus tour
Marijuana on the Verge -- Prop 19, Public Opinion, and the Looming Sea Change

California's tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 19, ultimately failed to get over the top on Election Day, but it garnered 46.5% of the vote, the highest ever for a legalization initiative, and generated reams of media coverage, making it the most watched initiative of any in the land this year. The battle for Prop 19 also yielded the broadest coalition yet behind marijuana legalization, as unions, dissident law enforcement groups, and Latino and African-American groups got on the legalization bandwagon in a big way for the first time. Launched with over a million dollars of funding from Oakland cannabis entrepreneur Richard Lee, the initiative garnered significant additional support during the campaign's final months, including a late $1 million donation from George Soros, but too little and too late to make a difference in the nation's largest and most expensive media market. The coalition that came together around Prop 19 is vowing to stay together and work to place another initiative on the ballot, most likely in 2012.

If California has legalization on the ballot in 2012, activists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all took steps this year to ensure that it won't be alone. Ill-funded and controversial legalization initiatives missed making the ballot in Oregon and Washington this year, but organizers in both states have vowed to try again, and Sensible Washington, the folks behind this year's effort there, already have a pro-legalization billboard up on I-5 in the Seattle area. In Colorado, organizers bided their time this year amidst the medical marijuana explosion there, but are busy laying the groundwork for a legalization initiative there.

This year also saw a legalization bill pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in January, a first in the US. While that bill died later in the session, sponsor Tom Ammiano (D-SF), reintroduced it in March and it awaits further consideration in Sacramento. In New Hampshire, a decriminalization bill passed the House in March, only to be killed in a Senate committee in April, while in Washington state, legalization and decriminalization bills got a January hearing before dying in committee later that same month. In Rhode Island, a decriminalization bill was introduced in February and a state legislative commission endorsed it in March, but the bill went nowhere so far. Later in the year, the California legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a decriminalization bill there. And in November, a marijuana legalization bill passed the House in the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands, marking the first time a legalization bill has passed a legislative chamber anywhere in the US. It was later defeated in the Senate. No legalization or decriminalization bills passed this year, but the day is drawing near.

A plethora of public opinion polls this year suggest why, as support for pot legalization is now hovering just under 50%. In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had support at 46%; in April, a Pew poll had it at 41%. By July, an Angus-Reid poll had support at 52%, while Rasmussen showed it at 43%. In November, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 46%, its highest level ever and a 15 percentage point increase over just a decade ago. Some of these polls showed majority support for legalization in the West, which will be put to the test in 2012.

Medical Marijuana -- the Ongoing Battle

The acceptance of medical marijuana continued in 2010, as two states, New Jersey and Arizona, along with the District of Columbia, became the latest to legalize the medicinal use of the herb. It's worth noting, however, that medical marijuana is not yet being produced or consumed in any of those places, even though the New Jersey legislation was signed into law in January and the DC medical marijuana initiative was actually revived last year. To be fair, voters only approved the Arizona initiative in November, and regulators there have three more months to come up with enabling regulations.

But the acceptance is by no means complete, and resistance from recalcitrant law enforcement and local governments continues apace. A medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota and an Oregon initiative to create a system of state-licensed, nonprofit dispensaries both failed in November. And despite efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through numerous state legislatures, none beside New Jersey came to fruition this year. Bills have stalled in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, even as they are continually pared back to be ever more restrictive in a bid to appease opponents.

Medical marijuana states that have less loosely written laws -- all via the initiative process, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana -- proved to be highly contested terrain in 2010. The blossoming of hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado this year led to the passage of regulatory legislation this summer, while a similar, if more limited outbreak of envelope-pushing in Montana has legislators there vowing to rein in the industry when they reconvene next year. In Michigan, law enforcement in some locales has arrested people in apparent compliance with the state law. In all three states, battles have also broken out at the city or county level, especially over efforts to ban medical marijuana operations. These fights will continue.

California is a world of its own when it comes to medical marijuana. The most wide open of the medical marijuana states, which, thanks to the language of Proposition 215, allows for medical marijuana to be recommended for virtually anything, it is also the state where legal and political conflict over medical marijuana is most entrenched. Despite more than a decade of litigation, the legality of selling medical marijuana remains unclear, and depending on the attitude of local authorities, dispensaries can be -- and are -- subject to raids and prosecution. The medical marijuana community dodged a bullet in November when Kamala Harris defeated dispensary arch-foe Steve Cooley, the Republican Los Angeles County prosecutor. Meanwhile, in communities across the state, battles rage over banning dispensaries, or, in happier circumstances, over how to permit and tax them. And medical marijuana is increasingly recognized for the big business it is. A growing number of California towns and cities this year voted to tax medical marijuana, and Oakland gave the go-ahead for massive medical marijuana mega-farms, although it may now retreat in the face of rumblings from the Justice Department. None of this got resolved this year, and the fight over medical marijuana in the Golden State is unlikely to wind down any time soon.

The DEA Continues to Misbehave

And then there's the DEA. It was in October 2009 that the Justice Department released its famous memo telling the DEA to butt out if medical marijuana operations in states that had approved them where not violating state law. While DEA raids have certainly declined from their thuggish heyday in the Bush administration, they have not gone away. After a Colorado medical marijuana grower had the temerity to appear on a local TV news program showing off his garden, the DEA raided him in February. The DEA also hit Michigan medical marijuana operations at least twice, in July and again early this month. The DEA has also raided numerous California medical marijuana operations this year, including the first collective to apply for the Mendocino County sheriff's cultivation permit program and a number of beleaguered San Diego area dispensaries. In most cases, the DEA is relying on the cooperation of sympathetic local law enforcement and prosecutors. Making the DEA live up to the Holder memo is a battle that is yet to be won.

The Obama administration's nomination of acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is not a good omen. Despite a horrendous record at the DEA, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles during the height of the Bush administration raids on medical marijuana facilities, and in St. Louis during the Andrew Chambers "supersnitch" perjury scandal, Leonhart's nomination has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to be approved by the Senate as a whole once she takes some actions to improve access to pain medications for seniors in nursing homes -- an issue on which Sen. Herb Kohl was said will cause him to place a hold on a floor vote until she and the agency address it.

Drug War Juggernaut Continues Rolling

While support for marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization continues to grow, and while a number of states have enacted sentencing reforms in response to fiscal pressures, the drug war juggernaut keeps rolling along, chewing up lives like so much chaff. US law enforcement made more than 1.6 million arrests on drug charges last year, more than half of them for marijuana offenses, marking the first year pot busts made up more than half of all drug arrests. The number is actually down slightly from the previous year, but only marginally so, as drug law enforcement keeps humming along. But in the current economic crunch, such a high level of enforcement and punishment may no longer be sustainable. A Pew report found that state prison populations had declined for the first time since the 1970s, if only by 0.4%, although the federal prison population, more than 60% of which consists of drug offenders, increased by 3.4%. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported than US jail populations had decreased for the first time in decades, dropping by 2.3% over the previous year. The tiny turnarounds are a good thing, but there is a long, long way to go.

Rolling Back the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


For the first time in the modern drug war era, Congress this year rolled back a harsh drug sentencing law. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses had been under the gun for more than decade as it became increasingly evident that the laws were having a racially disproportionate impact. Under the old law, five grams of crack would earn you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. Although a majority of crack users are white, blacks accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions. A bill to reduce, but not eliminate, the sentencing disparity passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and the Senate as a whole weeks later. The House Judiciary Committee had already passed a similar measure that would completely eliminate the disparity, but the House leadership chose to go along with the Senate, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but not completely eliminating it when it voted to approve the bill in July. President Obama signed the bill into law days later. While passage of the bill is a milestone, it leaves work undone. The sentencing disparity, while reduced, still exists, and thousands of prisoners sentenced under the harsh old law remain in prison because the new law lacks retroactivity.

Demands for Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients, the Unemployed, and Even Politicians

The impulse to score cheap political points by unleashing moralistic wrath on the poor and the unfortunate remained alive in 2010. As in years past, efforts to demand drug testing of unemployment recipients or people receiving welfare benefits went nowhere, but not for lack of trying. In fact, the year was bookended by such efforts, starting with a Missouri bill that would have mandated drug testing for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients upon "reasonable cause." That bill passed a Senate committee and the House in February, but died in the Senate after a Democratic filibuster. Similarly, drug testing bills in Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia all died, as did a silly Louisiana bill that would have allowed Louisiana elected officials to submit to a voluntary drug test and post the results on the Internet. Later in the year, successful Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, a call he has vowed to carry out as governor.

Attack of (on) the Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense under names like Spice and K-2 first showed up on the national radar last year, and by early 2010 the prohibitionist impulse began rearing its ugly head in state legislatures across the land. Containing synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, synthesized by a university researcher in the 1990s, the stuff was available at head shops, smoke shops, and corner gas stations everywhere, as well as on the Internet. Although no overdose deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported, there have been reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers by people under its influence. But it wasn't the alleged dangers as much as the fear that someone, somewhere could be getting high without getting into legal trouble that impelled a series of statewide and municipal bans. In March, Kansas became the first state to ban synthetic cannabinoids, followed by Alabama in April, Georgia in May and Missouri in July. Also banning the compounds this year were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Similar legislation was also proposed in several more states, including Florida, Ilinois, and New York. Then, in November, the DEA announced an emergency nationwide ban to go into effect in 30 days, meaning you have until Christmas to use the compounds legally. After that, you're a federal criminal.

SWAT Raids and Drug War Killings

It's not just the massive extent of the drug war that generates criticism, but the law enforcement violence and overkill that too often accompanies it. This year, the now infamous SWAT team raid in Columbia, Missouri, in February that left a dog dead and a family traumatized in a raid over marijuana went got national attention when a video of the raid went viral on the Internet at mid-year. Another SWAT raid in Detroit in May generated outrage when it resulted in the death of 7-year-old girl shot by a raider, and that same month, a Georgia grandmother suffered a heart attack when her home was mistakenly hit by the local SWAT team and DEA agents. And then there was the case of Trevon Cole, a 21-year-old black man killed as he knelt in his own bathroom as the apartment he shared with his pregnant girlfriend was raided over small-time pot sales. The police shooter, of course, was found innocent of any wrongdoing in a coroner's inquest, and now Cole's family is suing. So is the family in the Columbia SWAT raid.

Sentencing Reforms Continue in the States

In a bid to reduce corrections spending, a number of states in the last decade have moved to implement sentencing reforms, and 2010 saw the trend continue. In May, Colorado passed reforms that will reduce some drug use and possession sentences, allow greater judicial flexibility in sentencing, and keep some technical parole violators from being sent back to prison. But the package also increases some drug sales and manufacturing sentences. In June, South Carolina passed reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In August, Massachusetts passed reforms that will eliminate some mandatory minimums in a bill that was watered down from an earlier Senate version.  In all three cases, it was not bleeding hearts but bleeding wallets that was the impetus for reform.

A Congressional Drug Warrior Goes Down in Flames

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. This year is also notable for the spectacular May end to the career of inveterate congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The doughy cultural conservative crusader from the heartland resigned from Congress after admitting at a press conference to having an affair with a female staffer with whom he had once made abstinence videos. Souder is best known to drug reformers as the author of the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision of the Higher Education Act, and thus deserves credit for almost singlehandedly causing the formation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. But his enthusiasm for the war on drugs also led him to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources from 2001 to 2007, where he used his position to support harsh drug policies. He was, for instance, a staunch foe of medical marijuana and a loud voice against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendments, which would, if passed, have stopped federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. To be fair, Souder did offer committee legislation in 2006 to restrict the reach of his student aid penalty, and he was also a key Republican supporter of the recent "Second Chance" prisoner reentry funding legislation. Still, reformers are happy that one of the staunchest and most active drug warriors is out of Congress now, struck down by his own hypocrisy.

The Republican House and Drug Reform: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [FEATURE]

Last week, a resurgent Republican Party retook control of the US House of Representatives, giving the Democrats a drubbing the likes of which has not been seen for decades. The Democrats lost 61 seats, seeing their side sink to 189 seats to the Republicans' 240. They needed 218 to take over again.

The change in control of the House has some serious drug policy implications. There's bad news, but maybe also some good news.

Reform measures passed in the current Congress, such as repealing the bans on federal funding of needle exchange programs and implementation of the Washington, DC, medical marijuana program, could see attempts to roll them back. And pending reforms efforts, such as the battle to repeal the HEA student loan provision, are probably dead. Reform friendly Democratic committee chairs, who wield considerable power, have been replaced by hostile Republicans.

But the incoming Republicans made slashing the deficit and cutting the federal budget a winning campaign issue for themselves, and will be looking for programs they can cut or eliminate. That could open the door to hacking away at programs that support the ongoing prosecution of the drug war, but it could also open the door for cuts in prevention and treatment programs.

As the Chronicle noted here earlier this week, it's not just Tea Party types who want to wield the budget ax. The mainstream conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report just before election day laying out a whopping $434 billion in federal budget cuts, including eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug task force-funding Justice Assistance Grant (JAG, formerly the Byrne grant program) program, and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities state grant program.

"Budgetary issues is where I'm most optimistic," said Bill Piper, veteran national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Given the fiscal climate, there could be real cuts in the federal budget. Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity to de-fund the federal drug war. These new Republicans are a different breed—anti-government, anti-spending, pro-states' rights, and some are proven to be prone to bucking the leadership. If the Republican leadership votes to preserve the drug war, they may rebel," he said.

"We can go after the Byrne grant program," Piper enthused. "That's a very important deal. If we can cut off drug war funding to the states, the states won't be able to afford their punitive policies anymore. During the recession in the Bush administration, when the administration was cutting money to the states, a lot of states passed reform measures because they couldn't afford to lock people up. This time, the federal government has been bailing out state criminal justice systems, but if we can cut or eliminate Byrne grants, the states won't have money for their drug task forces and imprisoning people. Then they will have to consider reforms like cutting sentences and making marijuana possession an infraction."

"Sentencing reform on budgetary grounds is possible," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. "From our perspective, that is a way to reduce government spending. If you want to reduce drug war spending, you reduce costs by investing in prevention and substance abuse programs. That will be part of our talking points, but the reality is, to be successful they're going to have to be bipartisan."

Eric Sterling, former House Judiciary Committee counsel and current head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation was less sanguine than either Piper or Gotsch about the urge to cut the deficit leading to progress in drug reform. "The prospect of saving money leading to criminal justice and drug policy reform is remote," said Sterling. "In state legislatures where they have to balance the budget, everyone recognizes what has to happen. But in Congress, they know there is still going to be a deficit."

Sterling also questioned just how different the Republican freshman class will be from traditional Republicans. "That's a big question mark," he said. "They are younger and bring with them different experiences about drug policy or marijuana in particular, but most of these men and women won by using traditional themes that most incumbent Republicans used, too. I think for them, cracking down on drugs and crime will have more value than trying to save money by funding diversion or correctional programs that aren't about harsh punishment."

But Piper remained upbeat. "Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity for the movement to defund the drug war. The stars are aligning. A lot of tax groups are already on record for cutting some of these programs," he noted. "Given the fiscal climate, we could see considerable cuts in the federal budget. The type of Republicans coming into office, as well as Obama's own need to show he can practice fiscal discipline, means a real chance to cut or eliminate some of those programs," he said. "The down side is that funding for prevention and treatment is likely to come under fire, too."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) -- no friend of drug reform.
While budget battles will be fought in appropriations committees, criminal justice issues are a different matter. One of the most striking changes  comes in the House Judiciary Committee, where pro-drug reform Democrats like chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) are being replaced by the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who will head the Judiciary Committee. Smith, a conservative old school drug warrior, was the only congressman to speak up against passage of the bill to reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also authored a bill this fall that would have made it a federal offense for US citizens to plan to commit acts outside the US that would violate US drug laws. While that bill was allegedly aimed at large drug trafficking organizations, it could have made federal criminals out of college students making plans to visit the coffee shops of Amsterdam. He took to Fox News last month to lambaste the Obama administration as insufficiently tough on marijuana law enforcement, a clip he displays on his web site (scroll over the small video screens; the title will pop up).

"The fact that Rep. Smith is going to be the chair will definitely have an impact," said Gotsch. "He was the only vocal opposition to the crack cocaine sentencing reform, and the fact that he is now going to be chair is discouraging. It indicates that he won't be thoughtful about sentencing reforms for low level drug offenders."

"The Democratic committee chairs were good on drug policy and unlikely to advance bad drug war bills," said Piper. "Now, with Conyers and Scott gone and Lamar Smith in charge, we can expect stuff like Smith's foreign drug conspiracy bill to come out of that committee."

"You couldn’t find bigger champions for reform than Scott and Conyers," said Gotsch. "We won't have them as chairs now; that's probably the biggest disappointment to our community."

"Smith has been quite out there in his attacks over the drug issue," said Sterling. "My hunch is that we will take advantage of the political attractiveness of the drug issue to try to have both oversight hearings and legislation that would be embarrassing to Democrats."

And don't expect too much from the Democrats, either, he added. "The Democratic caucus is going to be more reluctant to deal with the drug issue in a progressive way than it has been," said Sterling. "They see it as a distraction from the heart of the message they need to bring to retake power in 2012."

With people like Smith holding key House committee positions, the drug reform agenda is likely to stall in the next Congress. Instead, reformers will be fighting to avoid reversing earlier gains.

"In terms of passing good things, there probably wasn’t a lot more that was going to happen with Democrats before 2012," said Piper. "The important low hanging fruit of overturning the syringe ban, the DC medical marijuana ban, and the crack sentencing bill had already gotten through. We might have been able to achieve repeal of the HEA drug provision, but probably not now."

The drug reform movement's job now will be not only blocking bad legislation, but also fighting to prevent a rollback of drug reform victories in the current Congress, such as the repeal of the bans on syringe exchange funding and implementing the Washington, DC, medical marijuana law, said Piper. 

"They're unlikely to go backwards on crack, but the syringe ban and the DC medical marijuana ban were both repealed with some, but not a lot, of Republican support," he said. "The syringe ban repeal barely passed, and that was in a Congress dominated by Democrats. Will they try to restore the syringe funding ban and overturn DC's medical marijuana program? That's our big fear. Hopefully, we can scrape up enough votes to defeat in the House, or stop it on the Senate side," he said.

Piper also dared to dream of an emerging Republican anti-drug war caucus. "We don't know who these new Republicans all are, but some have probably been influenced by Ron Paul (R-TX)," he said. "If only 10 of them stand up against the drug war, that's a huge opportunity to raise hell in the Republican caucus. Almost a third of Republican voters want to legalize marijuana, and that's an opportunity for us, too. Maybe there will be Republicans we can work with and create a truly bipartisan anti-drug war coalition in Congress. That's a foothold."

For Piper, the future looks stormy and cloudy, but "the silver lining is in appropriations fights and opportunities to organize an anti-drug war movement in the Republican caucus. We just have to play defense on a bunch of stuff," he said. 

"The activist community is going to have to figure out what the recipe for our lemonade is," advised Sterling. "That requires first a redoubled effort at organizing, using themes such as the wise stewardship of the scarce resources we have, and what works and what is effective," he said.

"It also requires mobilizing people not involved in this issue before, whether it's the business community or people who see their rice bowls been broken by the Republican approach," Sterling continued. "Teachers, nurses, people asking how come the part of the public work force this is protected is the police and the police guards. Drug policy reform activists have to think about what are the alliances they can make in this time of public resource scarcity."

Washington, DC
United States

California Chamber of Commerce in Anti-Prop 19 Radio Attack Ad Campaign

The California Chamber of Commerce has begun a $250,000 radio ad campaign against Proposition 19, the tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative. The first ads hit the airwaves last Friday, the business group announced in a statement.

Here is the Prop 19 language that has the Chamber so bestirred: "No person shall be punished, fined, discriminated against, or be denied any right or privilege for lawfully engaging in any conduct permitted by this Act or authorized pursuant to Section 11301 of this Act. Provided however, that the existing right of an employer to address consumption that actually impairs job performance by an employee shall not be affected."

The Chamber wants employers to continue to be able to fire workers for failing a drug test for marijuana, even though such test do not measure actual impairment, but only the presence of metabolites in the body. Those metabolites can remain for days or even weeks after the psychoactive effects of marijuana have worn off.

"Imagine coming out of surgery and the nurse caring for you was high or having to work harder on your job because a co-worker shows up high on pot," intones a woman's voice in the ad. "It could happen in California if Proposition 19 passes. Prop 19 would do more than simply legalize marijuana.  Prop 19 is worded so broadly is would hurt California's economy, raise business costs and make it harder to create jobs."

The Chamber has prepared a legal analysis that argues that Prop 19 would create a "protected class" of pot-smoking workers, and "expose workers to increased risk of injury, jeopardize federally funded projects and jobs, and add more liabilities and costs to already overburdened employers." 

"The employer impacts and workplace safety concerns highlighted in CalChamber’s legal analysis have been prominently featured in the many statewide editorials opposing Proposition 19," said Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce. "We want to be sure we reinforce the facts with voters so they understand that this measure will undermine the ability of employers to ensure a safe work environment and create higher costs for those who provide and create jobs."

In addition to the Reefer Madness-style fear-mongering already cited, the Chamber ad falsely claims that "employees would be able to come to work high, and employers wouldn’t be able to punish an employee for being high until after a workplace accident," when the initiative clearly states they can sanction actual impairment.

It's the final stretch in the campaign, and big business has begun the mud-slinging.

CA
United States

2,772 People Could Be Eligible for 'Crack Tax' Refunds in TN

Location: 
TN
United States
Tennesseans, in a slow trickle, have requested and gotten refunds from the state since the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down the so-called crack tax law in 2009. The state Department of Revenue has refunded $3.7 million to 161 people, but 2,772 people who paid the tax have not gotten any money back. "Most of them just don't know, and the state doesn't have any intention of letting them know, that they're eligible for a full refund," said Columbia attorney John Colley, who is leading a class-action lawsuit that would allow attorneys to identify and notify all people who paid the tax while it was still on the books.
Publication/Source: 
The Tennessean (TN)
URL: 
http://www.tennessean.com/article/20100928/NEWS03/9280351/2+772+people+could+be+eligible+for++crack+tax++refunds+in+TN

Drug Legalization Could Reduce Government Costs and Raise Tax Revenues

In a forthcoming study for the Cato Institute, Jeffrey A. Miron, senior lecturer on economics at Harvard University and a senior fellow at Cato, and Katherine Waldock, professor of economics at New York University, estimate that legalizing drugs would save the government approximately $41.3 billion annually on expenditures related to the enforcement of prohibition. Just as important, drug legalization would translate into higher tax revenues generated by the sale of these newly-legalized products in the open commercial marketplace. Drug legalization would yield tax revenues of $46.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, they said.
Publication/Source: 
International Business Times (NY)
URL: 
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/61369/20100910/marijuana-drug-legalization.htm

Despite Decrim, California Marijuana Possession Busts Abound [FEATURE]

According to figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, more than 550,000 people were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in the Golden State between 1999 and 2009. Last year, 61,164 people were charged with pot possession, down slightly from 2008's record 61,388.

The number of small-time pot arrests hovered at around 50,000 a year for most of the decade. But in 2007, it jumped to just under 60,000, and crossed that threshold in 2008.

That could change this year, though. A bill, SB 1449, approved by the state legislature last week would change the misdemeanor to a civil infraction. It awaits action on Gov. Schwarzenegger's desk. The Proposition 19 marijuana legalization initiative would allow people 21 or over to possess up to an ounce without fear of arrest and grow up to 25 square feet. It goes before the voters on November 2.

That wouldn't be a minute too soon, for some.  "It's morally offensive that in a state like California, where a majority of Californians favor outright legalization and where as far back as 1977 they thought they had it decriminalized, the law enforcement community continues to ignore the will of the citizens of the state," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"This is just another example of why we need to end marijuana prohibition and why we hope California voters will pass Proposition 19 this November," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We're criminalizing people and turning their lives upside down simply for using a substance that's safer than alcohol. It's also a huge misallocation of law enforcement resources. Even if they're not going to jail, these busts are still taking up police officers' time and clogging up the court system. This is all the more reason I hope voters really flock to the polls in November."

Under California law, possession of up to an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable only by a maximum $100 fine for a first offense. But because it is a misdemeanor -- not a civil infraction -- you can be arrested, and each offense requires a court appearance, leading to costs for the criminal justice system, as well as costs and a criminal record -- at least temporarily -- for the arrestee.

"People are usually cited and released, but they could be arrested," said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol-based marijuana defense attorney. "The law says they can be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession, and they will be if they don't have satisfactory proof of ID or if they ask to go before a judge."

It varies from locality to locality, Figueroa said. "In Berkeley, they try to process them in traffic court, even though it's technically a misdemeanor. A lot depends on the cop's discretion."

People charged with a misdemeanor have the right to counsel and the right to a jury trial. Ironically, both Figueroa and Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML, said that exercising that right to trial could result in the charges being dropped.

"Some people have demanded jury trials," noted Gieringer, "and when you do that, you almost always find the charges getting dropped, because when the worst outcome is a $100 fine, it just isn't worth it."

"With the maximum sentence being a $100 fine, the system doesn't want to put out that much energy in picking a jury," said Figueroa, but don't count on it. "My first jury trial was pot possession misdemeanor in Los Angeles County. But if you're in San Francisco or Alameda County and you insist on your right to a jury trial, it will probably be dismissed."

Pleading guilty means a criminal record and all that entails, including collateral consequences like loss of access to public housing, but only for two years. Then, if you've managed to stay out of trouble, the conviction is expunged. But some judges push minor pot offenders into treatment, said Gieringer.

"Many judges railroad the defendants into not taking the misdemeanor plea, but instead doing a drug program, the advantage of which is that you have no conviction at all, but it's very expensive and time consuming," he said. 

Even having to show up for a court appearance can be burdensome, Gieringer said. "I know one UCLA student who had to go to Arcata [600 miles away] for a court appearance. It's also an inconvenience for the court. It's got to cost well over $100 for the state to assemble all the manpower for a pot misdemeanor hearing, and with 60,000 cases, that's $6 million wasted right there."

"It would be good to see that decrim bill signed into law or Prop 19 pass," said Stroup. "Or both," he laughed.

"Back when we did the decrim bill in the 1976, the district attorneys said it had to remain a criminal offense," said Gieringer. "The bill now pending would abolish that status. If Schwarzenegger can't sign this current decrim bill, there is something really sick in California politics." Gieringer laughed ruefully, adding, "Of course, we know there is something really sick in California politics."

"This same decriminalization proposal was defeated here three times in the past," said Gieringer. "I think its passage this year is an indication that you can get lawmakers to reduce penalties as a cost-cutting measure. The reason it passed this time was the budget crisis -- even the prosecutors and the courts supported the bill on the grounds of cutting costs."

That's just misdemeanor pot possession. An additional 135,000 people have been arrested on felony marijuana cultivation or distribution charges in the past decade. For all drug felonies, that figure rises to 1.4 million over the past decade.

An additional 850,000 arrests were made for non-marijuana drug misdemeanors. These are typically possession of personal use amounts of hashish, non-opiate prescription medications, and similar drugs on Schedules III, IV, and V of the state drug law, which can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. Figueroa called such charges "wobblers," since they can be charged either way.

While last year's 78,514 marijuana arrests (felonies and misdemeanors) is an all-time high, arrests for other drug offenses are declining. Narcotics (heroin and cocaine) felony arrests peaked at more than 56,000 in 2007, but declined to just under 44,000 last year, while dangerous drug felony arrests have declined by half since peaking at nearly 93,000 in 2005.

The huge number of drug arrests in general and marijuana arrests in particular come as the state is experiencing its lowest crime levels in three decades and a skyrocketing criminal justice system budget. In 1968, total criminal justice system (law enforcement, corrections, courts, prosecutors, public defenders) were at about $100 million, by 1984, when crime rates had already begun falling, the criminal justice budget was at about $5 billion. Last year, it was about $33 billion, mostly for police ($17 billion) and prisons ($15 billion).

Passage of Prop 19 or the signing of the decriminalization bill could begin to rein in the California criminal justice juggernaut, but that would just be a start. Still, you have to start somewhere. Real decrim would be good, but if California votes for legalization, it will be a political earthquake.

CA
United States

Drug Offenses 1/3 of US Criminal Deportations, DHS Says

Update: When published, this article incorrectly reported that aliens in the US face deportation for even a single marijuana possession misdemeanor. No, it takes two misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses to do that. We have modified the article accordingly. 

The United States last year deported more than 128,000 foreigners for committing crimes in the US, with people convicted of drug offenses making up nearly one-third of the total, according to a Department of Homeland Security report released last week. Some 37,000 foreign nationals were deported for drug offenses in fiscal year 2009, the report found, or 29.6% of all those deported under the criminal alien removal program.

Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) photo
Under US immigration laws non-citizens can be deported for any drug offense, except the simple possession of marijuana--although a second pot possession offense qualifies as deportable. The report supplies no breakdown of how many people were deported for which drug offenses.

The number of people deported for drug offenses was nearly double the second and third place offense categories. More than 20,000 people were deported for traffic violations and more than 19,000 were deported for immigration offenses.

Persons convicted of what are commonly considered serious crimes (assault, larceny, burglary, robbery, fraud, sexual assault) made up only 20.7% of those deported. "Family offenses" accounted for another 2%, while the category "other" included 16.5%.

Overall deportations are down from last year, with 290,000 people being removed by July 22, the agency reported. At the same time last year, 322,000 had been deported. But the percentage of people deported for committing crimes is up to nearly 50% this year, compared to 30% for the same period last year.

The Obama administration's push against criminal immigrants has been criticized both by advocates of tougher immigration policies, who applaud the crackdown on criminals but want to see it extended to non-criminal aliens, and by immigration rights activists for deporting more people than the Bush administration and deporting people, including some who have spent their entire lives here, for minor criminal offenses.

Washington, DC
United States

ACLU: Flint Can't Require Drug Tests for Subsidized Tenants

Location: 
Flint, MI
United States
The executive director of the Flint Housing Commission wants drug testing to be a lease condition for people who rent subsidized housing, but the ACLU says that would be unconstitutional and is threatening a class action lawsuit if they enact a drug testing policy.
Publication/Source: 
Michigan Radio (MI)
URL: 
http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/news.newsmain/article/1/0/1687523/Michigan.News/ACLU.Flint.can%27t.require.drug.tests.for.subsidized.tenants

Medical Marijuana: ACLU Sues Wal-Mart for Firing Patient

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against retail giant Wal-Mart for firing an employee who used medical marijuana. The lawsuit argues that firing an employee for lawfully using medical marijuana violates the provisions of the 2009 Michigan Medical Marijuana Act.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/walmart.jpg
Joseph Casias, 30, is a cancer patient who began using medical marijuana on his oncologist's recommendation. Although he had been named Associate of the Year at the Battle Creek Wal-Mart in 2008 and had an exemplary employment record with the store, Casias was fired after taking a company-required drug test when he injured his knee at work.

"Wal-Mart made him pay a stiff and unfair price for his medicine," said Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. It isn't fair that any "patient should have to choose between adequate pain relief and gainful employment," he said. "And no employer should be allowed to intrude upon private medical choices made by employees in consultation with their doctors."

Wal-Mart officials said it defers to federal standards in cases where the law is unclear. Michigan is an at-will employment state, meaning employers can fire an employee for any reason except those barred by federal law, such as discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. The ACLU will argue that Casias' firing amounts to medical discrimination.

More than 20,000 Michigan residents are registered medical marijuana patients. The case could have broad implications, not only in Michigan, but in other medical marijuana states that are grappling with the issue.

Immigration Law: Supreme Court Rules Immigrants Need Not Be Automatically Deported for Minor Drug Offenses

Immigrants who are in the US legally need not be automatically deported for minor drug offenses, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a unanimous decision. The case, Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, involved a Texas man who was a permanent resident of the US, having lived here since he was five years old, who was ordered deported after a second minor drug conviction.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/supremecourt1.jpg
US Supreme Court
Jose Angel Carachuri-Rosendo was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Texas in 2004 and served 20 days in jail. The following year, he was arrested again, this time for possessing a single Xanax tablet without a prescription, and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

That too was a misdemeanor offense. But federal prosecutors argued that Carachuri-Rosendo's Xanax bust amounted to an "aggravated felony" under federal immigration law, making his deportation mandatory. Under federal immigration law and a previous Supreme Court ruling, federal prosecutors can charge a second drug offense as an "aggravated felony," a policy that has led to near life-long residents of the US being deported to countries they never knew over small-time drug busts, even petty marijuana busts.

Although, the prosecution theory prevailed in the lower courts, the Supreme Court shot it down this week. Complaining that the interaction of various state and federal laws created "a maze of statutory cross-references," Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for seven justices, displayed the sort of common sense too often missing in recent Supreme Court decisions.

"We do not usually think of a 10-day sentence for the unauthorized possession of a trivial amount of a prescription drug as an 'aggravated felony.' A 'felony,' we have come to understand, is a 'serious crime usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death,'" Justice White wrote. "While it is true that a defendant's criminal history might be seen to make an offense 'worse' by virtue thereof, it is nevertheless unorthodox to classify this type of petty simple possession recidivism as an 'aggravated felony.'"

The ruling does not mean Carachuri-Rosendo is home free. He is still eligible for deportation, but under the ruling, he may now seek a discretionary waiver of deportation from the Attorney General.

Drug War Issues

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