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Faith Leaders Issue Easter Statement on War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration [FEATURE]

A broad coalition of Christian leaders have taken the occasion of the holiest day on the Christian calendar to release an Easter statement calling for the end of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They said they chose the Easter season to release their statement because of the spirit of the Resurrection, which Easter commemorates and celebrates.

The Rev. Edwin Sanders (cannabisculture.com)
The statement calls for repealing laws that criminalize drug possession and replacing them with policies that expand access to effective health approaches to drug use, including evidence-based drug treatment.

It also calls for the elimination of policies that result in racially disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates and that that unjustly exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities.

The United States is the world leader in incarceration, accounting for 25% of the global prison population while only making up 5% of the planet's population. In state prisons, drug offenders typically make up 20-30% of all prisoners, although that proportion has begun declining as nearly half the states have undertaken sentencing reforms in recent years.

But while state prison population numbers have begun a slight decline, the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by the war on drugs. As of this month, there were more than 216,000 federal prisoners, with just more than half (50.1%) doing time for drug crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"The cross that faith leaders are imploring others to take up is this unjust and immoral war on drugs and mass incarceration of the poor. In particular, poor black and brown young adults whose futures are being ruined at the most critical point in their lives," said Reverend John E. Jackson of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.

"We are guided by our religious principles to serve those in need and give voice to those who have been marginalized and stigmatized by unjust policies. We cannot sit silently while a misguided war is waged on entire communities, ostensibly under the guise of combating the very real harms of drug abuse. The war on drugs has become a costly, ineffective and unjust failure," says Reverend Edwin Sanders, who is a Board Member of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Senior Servant for the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

More than 100,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in federal prisons (wikimedia/chris piner)
"We are called upon to follow Jesus's example in opposing the war on drugs, which has resulted in the United States becoming the world's biggest jailer," added Sanders.

"Resurrection reality commissions and commands us to change these policies, laws and systems that rob whole communities of their most precious resource, their young. These are the ones Jesus faced betrayal, denial and desertion for. These are the ones Jesus gave up everything for. These are the issues Jesus was raised from a 3 day grave to speak truth to power to through our voices, through our crying loud and sparing not and through our organized efforts," added Jackson.

The story of the prodigal son is appropriate to ponder, said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, Founder and Executive Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society, in Dothan, Alabama, himself a former drug war prisoner.

"The story of the prodigal son says he went out and lived a riotous life, like somebody who committed a crime or was on drugs or got incarcerated," said Glasgow. "The father of the prodigal son embraced him with open arms, but as a society, we don't do that. We incarcerate instead of trying to treat or restore. His father gave him shoes on his feet and a coat of many colors. These are things we're not doing when it comes to mass incarceration and the war on drugs."

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (theordinarypeoplesociety.org)
The struggle against the war on drugs is a fight for civil rights and democracy, said Glasgow.

"After they gave us civil rights, they came along with the drug war and took our voting rights back," he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands who have had voted rights restricted or denied after being convicted of drug offenses.

There are concrete steps to take, said several speakers.

"We want to repeal the laws that criminalize drug possession and replace them with effective approaches, and put an end to any policy that unjustly excludes people because they have a previous criminal conviction," said the Rev Michael McBride, Director of Urban Strategies, Lifelines to Healing, Berkeley, California.

"We are fighting a righteous fight and standing in solidarity in the Holy Week to call for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration," McBride added. "We are organizing hundreds of faith congregations across the country to build a faith and moral movement to address and redress these unjust policies. Holy Week reminds us that death does not have a final say, but that God is able to bring redemption for the worst things that happen in our lives. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our generation, and the faith community is in the forefront."

"For those of us who follow Jesus, this is the time to receive his grace, but also to receive his calling," said Bill Mefford, director of Civil and Human Rights for the United Methodist Church, which has been at the forefront of the faith community's challenge to the drug war. "It is time to proclaim relief for the captives and freedom for the oppressed. Unfortunately, because we are the world's leader in incarceration, we don't have to look far," he noted.

Mefford is the chairman of an interfaith coalition working on Capitol Hill to reform the criminal justice system. It represents 35 faith organizations with millions of members.

"There are steps we can take to rescue ourselves from our own captivity," Medford continued. "We can pass the Smarter Sentencing Act as an incremental step toward justice reform that will address costly overcrowding at the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses."

The Smarter Sentencing Act has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote. It has yet to move in the GOP-controlled House.

As Holy Week looms, it is indeed appropriate to ask that rhetorical question. When it comes to dealing with drug use and the drug trade, what would Jesus do?

New York City, NY
United States

DC Mayor Signs Decriminalization Bill! [FEATURE]

Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray Monday signed the marijuana decriminalization bill passed last month by the city council. It's not quite a done deal yet, though -- Congress has 60 working days to object, but to stop the bill, it must pass a resolution blocking it, and President Obama must sign it. So it appears likely that the nation's capital will have decriminalized pot possession by the time Congress leaves town for the August recess.

"DC lawmakers heard loud and clear the public's demand to end marijuana arrests and passed one of the strongest decriminalization laws in the whole country, said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. We don't expect members of Congress to object to saving taxpayer dollars and advancing racial justice here in the nation's capital."

The decriminalization bill, the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409) makes possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of only $25 (the cheapest of any decriminalization state). It also explicitly prohibits police from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for stopping and searching people.

The bill advanced through the DC political process on a wave of concern that marijuana laws in the nation's capital were being enforced in a racially discriminatory fashion and is seen by council members and advocates alike as a model for reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Last July, the American Civil Liberties Union released The War on Marijuana in Black and White, which found that black people in the District are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, and the Washington Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released Racial Disparities in Arrests in the District of Columbia, 2009-2011, which found that blacks accounted for nine out of 10 drug arrests in the District.

Those grim realities were at the forefront as a broad spectrum of DC faith, community, and advocacy groups praised Mayor Gray's signing of the bill.

DC Mayor Vincent Gray has signed the decrim bill. (mayor.dc.us)
"Passage of this law gets to the unspoken imbalances in our justice system for people of color and it is the voice of the people who ensured its passage," said Collective Power, a grassroots alliance of District residents concerned about the disproportionate criminalization and discrimination of communities of color. "The District of Columbia must be at the forefront of decriminalizing 'being black and brown' and this is the start."

"The passing of the decriminalization marijuana bill is the first step in the right direction to dismantling the immoral war on drugs that has devastated communities of color," said Rev. Kelly D. Wilkins with the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ.

"Although I do not advocate or condone the use of marijuana, I support this bill because far too many of our people have been targeted, locked up, thrown away and placed outside of our society due to a small amount of marijuana, said Reverend George C. Gilbert, Jr. with Holy Trinity United Baptist Church.

"This bill is one of the first measures to address racial profiling in drug arrests, both procedurally and substantively. We are confident that Congress shares the District's concerns about disparities in enforcement and the disturbing trends we are seeing nationwide," said Patrice Amandla Sulton with the NAACP DC Branch.

"This historic legislation exists because DC residents and their leaders decided to change an ugly reality: Black people are stopped, searched, and arrested under marijuana prohibition far more than whites, when both groups use the drug at similar rates," said Seema Sadanandan, Program Director at the ACLU of the Nation's Capital.

"I've talked to hundreds of people in the District's black and brown communities who have been stopped and searched because police officers claimed they smelled marijuana, only to find no evidence of the drug whatsoever," Sadanandan continued. "Children on their way home from school, parents on their way to work -- marijuana odor has become the flimsy excuse for treating people of color like criminals. With this decriminalization legislation, we will take a critical step toward ending the racial profiling of entire communities."

If and when the law goes into effect, DC will join 17 states that have already decriminalized small-time marijuana possession. But passage of the decriminalization bill into law is by no means the end to marijuana politics in the District -- in fact, it could be just a first step on a path toward outright legalization, either through the council or through the initiative process.

Before the council right now is a full-blown marijuana legalization bill, Council Bill 20-466, which has been sitting in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee since it was introduced last fall by Councilmember David Grosso.

And waiting in the wings is the DC Cannabis Campaign, whose marijuana legalization initiative has just been approved for signature-gathering.

"I congratulate Mayor Gray for signing this practical reform that should result in fewer people being burdened with a trip to the courthouse for small amounts of marijuana. More people than ever are hopeful the mayor will next support full legalization," said the campaign's chairman, Adam Eidinger.

Given time limitations, Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign can't sit around waiting for the city council to act or for a new mayor to be chosen. They need to start gathering signatures now if they are to try to qualify for the November ballot. They only have until July 7 to come up with 25,000 valid voter signatures, but if they do, the passage of the decriminalization bill may be a significant victory that ends up forgotten in the accelerating rush toward repealing pot prohibition.

Washington, DC
United States

"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War [FEATURE]

On Thursday, Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling and galvanizing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book's impact and where we go from here.

Michelle Alexander (wikimedia.org)
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world's largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men -- and now women -- making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.

It's now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed -- federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states -- but many others haven't. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn't, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we've been down and providing suggestions about new directions.

Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:

Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?

Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.

But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.

There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.

I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.

Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?

Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.

But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.

We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?"

Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?

Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.

But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.

If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.

Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.

Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?

Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.

I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.

I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.

I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.

With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.

Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

DC City Council Approves Marijuana Decriminalization [FEATURE]

The District of Columbia city council moved another step closer to decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation's capital Tuesday, approving a bill to do just that on an 11-1 vote. But it only acted after approving last-minute amendments that would make public pot-smoking a criminal offense and give police the right to conduct vehicle searches if they smell marijuana.

A final vote on the bill will come next month. It is expected to pass and already has the support of Mayor Vincent Gray.

While advocates greeted the council vote with praise, the accolades were tempered by concerns about the council's adoption of the late amendments. And looming over it all is the prospect of outright legalization in the District, either through a bill introduced by Councilmember David Grasso that is now before the council or through an initiative that is now awaiting language approval from District officials.

"This is a major victory for advancing the cause of racial justice in DC," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "The war on marijuana is largely a war on people of color and the DC council is saying enough is enough."

"As a former prosecuting attorney, I call this a step forward for the cause of promoting public safety," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Arresting and prosecuting adults for possessing a less harmful substance than alcohol is a waste of law enforcement and court resources. Police and prosecutors should focus their time and attention on addressing actual threats to public safety."

The "Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)" would eliminate the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it. But the amendments approved Tuesday criminalize public possession and allows those vehicle searches.

The bill was introduced after the publication of an ACLU report and a Washington Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report highlighting the disparate rate of arrests of blacks over whites for marijuana possession in the District. The reports found that blacks are arrested eight times as often as whites for the offense, even though rates of use among both races are thought to be relatively similar.

But advocates complained that the amendments adopted Tuesday would only serve to perpetuate racially biased marijuana law arrests, not end them. Some called for a solution to the problem by having the council pass the legalization bill.

"These last-minute amendments will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparities in marijuana enforcement," said MPP's Riffle. "We need to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol, and take it out of the hands of criminals and drug cartels. Marijuana should be sold by legitimate businesses in licensed, regulated stores, not by criminals on our street corners. The sooner the council takes up Councilmember Grosso's bill, the better."

The Drug Policy Alliance will be working to undo the amendments when the council takes a final vote on the bill next month, Smith told the Chronicle Tuesday night.

"There is one more opportunity to change the criminalization of public smoking when the council considers and votes one more time on the bill," he said. "We hope to work with Councilmember Tommy Wells and our community partners here in DC to pressure the council to reverse its decision to criminalize public consumption and treat public smoking as a civil offense instead."

Looming just behind the decriminalization fight is outright legalization. Public opinion in the District appears ready to make the leap. A Washington Post poll last year had support for legalization at a healthy 63%.

While some groups, like the Marijuana Policy Project, are working the council in an effort to move a bill, others favor the initiative process, especially if the council fails to act.

"As a DC resident, I'm proud the Council took an important step today to stop the expensive, time-consuming and racially discriminatory practice of putting people into handcuffs just for possessing marijuana," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority."But while this is clearly movement in the right direction, this legislation would unfortunately leave marijuana production and profits illegal and largely in the hands of street gangs and criminals. A clear majority of District voters supports legalizing marijuana, and that's why we're likely to approve a ballot initiative this November that would completely remove penalties for possession and allow residents to grow up to six plants. Hopefully such widespread voter support will spur the council to adopt more comprehensive legislation taxing and regulating the marijuana trade at some point soon."

Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign is the public face of the DC marijuana legalization initiative. The veteran District political gadfly had kind words for the decriminalization effort, but signaled it wouldn't make any difference to the initiative campaign.

"The compromise on the decrim bill wasn't that bad. The big deal is that it passed, and it passed with a veto-proof majority, and the mayor will sign it. We should be celebrating," he said, "But I'm on the war path. Decriminalization is a stepping stone toward ending the raging stream of marijuana arrests; it's a nice place to stand, but you don't want to live there, because you're going to fall in the water eventually. And I mean get arrested," he clarified.

"Look, decriminalization will get rid of a lot of arrests, but there will still be marijuana arrests and people engaging in illegal activity when they want to buy it," Eidinger continued. "And they're exposed to heroin and other hard drugs. You need to separate cannabis from all the hard drugs and create a legal cultivation and distribution system. That hurts the bulk hard drug dealers. If you care about reducing drug use and addiction, you create a massive harm reduction with marijuana legalization first. I don't have sympathy for the illicit market for heroin, but for the illicit cannabis market, it's not deadly."

The legalization initiative campaign continues to aim at the November ballot, Eidinger said, but still needs to secure funding if it's going to be successful. A key date for the initiative will be February 25, when the DC Board of Elections decides whether to approve the initiative language for signature-gathering.

"If the language is good, that's a big deal," Eidinger said. "I think some of the big money has been holding off until that happens. We're doing this on a shoe string and have raised $30,000 in six months, but we do have the money for signature-gathering locked in, thanks to Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. We will do paid and volunteer signature-gathering."

Marijuana law reform is coming to the District of Columbia. And the decriminalization bill is only the beginning.

Washington, DC
United States

The Specter of Municipal Marijuana Legalization Looms Over DC [FEATURE]

The District of Columbia city council this week took a preliminary step toward decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation's capital, with a bill to do just that winning a unanimous committee vote. But the council's belated response to decades of racially biased pot policing may end up just being a blip on the path to outright legalization.

That's because District activists, led by the indefatigable Adam Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign have filed a marijuana legalization initiative with DC officials and are determined to move forward with it.

According to the campaign, the Legalization of Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014 would "make it lawful for a person 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use; to grow no more than three mature cannabis plants within the person's principal residence; and to transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older; and to use or sell drug paraphernalia for use, growing or processing of marijuana or cannabis that is made legal by the Initiative."

The act does not address legal marijuana commerce because under District law, initiatives cannot deal with matters having to do with District government revenues. In the event the initiative passed, the council would have to come up with any regulatory and taxation scheme.

"Under DC law, voters can't interfere with the city's tax and spending authority," explained Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "And the courts have read that so broadly that they ruled that a ban on public smoking in bars would lead to less smoking, which would interfere with the city's revenue authority."

The time for a legalization push appears to be ripe. Public sentiment in the District, long a bastion of liberal politics, is swinging in favor of legalization, not least because of increased public awareness of the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition.In a June report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Washington, DC, had one of the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the country, second only to Iowa. In DC, blacks were 8.05 times more likely to face arrest for pot possession than whites. Numbers such as these are driving the reformist impulse in the District.

A Washington Post poll released Wednesday is a case in point. In that poll, 63% of DC residents favored legalizing small amounts of marijuana, up from only 46% in 2010. And among the District's black residents, support increased even more dramatically, from only 37% in 2010 to 58% now.

Adam Eidinger before the microphone (dcmj.org)
Not only does legalization appear to have public opinion on its side, the District is also easy pickings for initiatives. The number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot is relatively small, and, in advertising market terms, DC is only a medium-sized market, meaning that the cost of a campaign is also relatively small.

"We only need 25,000 valid signatures, although we're going for 30,000, just to be on the safe side," said Eidinger. "I think we can do that in four months," even though DC law gives them up to six months.

The veteran DC activist estimates that the campaign needs $500,000 to be successful.

"I think we need about $300,000 for signature gathering," he said. "We'll need about half a million to be also be able to fight off any counter-campaign that emerges."

Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign aren't there yet. He said the campaign had received a $100,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and an additional $10,000 in bitcoins (!). The drug reform community needs to step up, he said.

"If we don't raise at least $350,000, I don't know if we can move forward," he said. "That's the bare bones. And if we do get this on the ballot, the drug reform community here in Washington should come up with the money. This is the nation's capital," he exclaimed. "It's a twofer. If we can legalize it here, we can legalize it anywhere."

But drug reform organizations that serve as major funding conduits have yet to get on board, at least with their checkbooks.

"We don't have a position so far on the initiative," said Dan Riffle, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We generally support legalization, but it's a question of whether we want to put our resources into a campaign that would improve on a very good law."

Riffle was referring to the District's decriminalization bill, which he described as "the best decriminalization law in the country," with maximum $25 fines and no probable cause for a search based on smell alone.

DPA was similarly focused on the decriminalization bill and perhaps going even further with the council.

"Our first goal is eliminating the mass arrests of people of color in DC, which is why we're working with the council to support the decriminalization bill," said Piper. "And then we will support legalization, either through the initiative process or through the council or both," he said.

"We've had a lot of discussions with Adam," said Piper. "They're in the process of figuring out how much money they can raise to support this, while we're working with Councilmember Grosso and others on a tax and regulate bill."

That's all well and good, said Eidinger, but the initiative campaign needs money now.

"Early donations are the most important," he emphasized. "I think we can get the money to get this on the ballot, but we need money to defend it, and we need to hire good people early. People need to donate now!"

Marijuana reform is happening in the District of Columbia. The question now is how far it goes, and by what route. Decriminalization looks like a done deal, but having a legalization initiative hanging over the city council's head may prod it to take the next step as well.

"The council will for sure decriminalize in the next month," Piper prophesied. "But will they then take up legalization? Having an initiative on the ballot is a good way to force their hand. We're hopeful that the council will realize that they will either end up in a situation where marijuana is legal with no controls, or they can take action and adopt a regulatory approach."

The initiative now awaits approval by the Board of Elections of its language, which could take up to a month. Then, it's on to signature gathering. Then it's winning an election. And then, Congress would have to refrain from blocking it -- or be forced once again to contravene the democratically expressed will of the voters of the nation's capital.

"There are lots of hurdles, but now is the time to move forward with righteous indignation," Eidinger said. "Those people who were talking about decriminalization aren't talking about it now; instead, the goal now is legalization. This is the time for everyone to think big and win!"

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 10, 2013

African-American faith leaders observe International Human Rights Day by calling for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration, Texans are ready for criminal justice reform, and Mexico's prohibition-related violence continues apace. And more. Let's get to it:

African American faith leaders called Tuesday for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration. (sdpconference.info)
Medical Marijuana

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Pass House Committee. A pair of bills that would allow for the use of medical marijuana-infused products, as well as legalizing dispensaries for cannabis, passed the House Judiciary committee Tuesday morning on unanimous votes. A third bill, which would allow pharmacies to produce and sell medical marijuana, also passed, but on an 8-1 vote. With the legislature adjourning for the year Thursday, it's unlikely they will get final votes before then.

Law Enforcement

California Appeals Court Rules Only Prosecutors -- Not Police -- Can Initiate Asset Forfeiture Proceedings. California's 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno ruled last week that police agencies cannot initiate asset forfeiture proceedings, which must instead be undertaken by prosecutors. Police had seized $16,000 in cash from Adolfo Cuevas and a friend sitting in a car and moved to forfeit it when traces of methamphetamine were found on a $5 bill. Only prosecutors can make that call, the court held. The case is Cuevas v. Superior Court of Tulare County.

Pain Pills

American College of Physicians Calls for Pain Med Contracts, Database, Educational Programs. In a policy paper released Tuesday, Prescription Drug Abuse, the American College of Physicians set out 10 policy positions and recommendations aimed at reducing "the significant human and financial costs related to prescription drug abuse." They include supporting a national prescription drug monitoring program, more education and prevention efforts for doctors and patients, and considering the use of written agreements ("pain contracts") for doctors and patients when treating pain. [Ed: Patient advocates often regard databases and pain contracts with suspicion. We commonly receive reports about pain contracts in particular having a chilling effect on the availability of pain medication for patients who need it. It is not clear whether this paper fully considers the plight commonly suffered by pain patients because of the war on drugs.]

Sentencing

On International Human Rights Day, Black Leaders Call for End to Drug War, Mass Incarceration. The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a major grouping of African-American faith leaders, called for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration Tuesday, International Human Rights Day. The call came as the group released key findings from a series of community-based hearings on mass incarceration it has held around the nation. Click on the link for the recommendations.

Poll: Texans Ready to Reform Drug Punishments. A poll released Monday by the Texas Public Policy Foundation finds that nearly four out five (79%) Texans support drug treatment instead of prison for people caught possessing drugs. The poll also found overwhelming (84%) support for broader criminal justice reforms in the state.

International

Mexican Drug War Deaths Show No Decline. One year after Enrique Pena Nieto assumed office as president of Mexico, the deadly prohibition-related violence that has plagued the country for the past six years shows no sign of abating. According to Frontera NorteSur, citing Mexican press reports, there were 19,016 people killed in the drug violence in the first 11 months of Pena Nieto's term, compared to 18,161 during the last 11 months of Felipe Calderon's government. The violence also appears to have shifted geographically, from border states to states in the south and center of the country.

New York AG Report Slams NYPD Stop-and-Frisk

In a report issued late last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman analyzed the impact of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk search policies on the state's criminal justice system -- and on the people victimized by them. The results are illuminating, but not pretty.

NYPD practices stop-and-frisk techniques (nyc.gov/nypd)
The report, A Report on Arrests Arising from the New York City Police Department's Stop-and-Frisk Practices, analyzed nearly 2.4 million stops between 2009 and 2012 resulting in nearly 150,000 arrests. Of those arrests, nearly half led to guilty pleas or convictions at trial, but that is only 0.3% of all those stopped and frisked. Only 0.1% of all stop-and-frisks resulted in a conviction or guilty plea for a violent offense.

"My office's analysis of the city's stop and frisk practices has broad implications for law enforcement, both in New York City and across the state. It's our hope that this report -- the first of its kind -- will advance the discussion about how to fight crime without overburdening our institutions or violating equal justice under the law," said Schneiderman. "The vast amount of data we analyzed over four years should serve as a helpful guide to municipalities and law enforcement officials around the state, where stop and frisk practices are used to varying degrees. I want to thank the NYPD and the Office of Court Administration for providing the data for our report."

Schneiderman was being politic, but his report's numbers speak for themselves:

  • Close to half of all stop and frisk arrests resulted in no convictions because the arrestees were never prosecuted, their cases were dismissed, or they received an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (a dismissal of a charge if the defendant does not commit another crime within six months or a year);
  • Just one in 16 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.3 % of all stops -- led to a jail or prison sentence of more than 30 days;
  • Just one in 50 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.1 % of all stops -- led to a conviction for a violent crime;
  • Just one in 50 stop and frisk arrests -- or 0.1 % of all stops -- led to a conviction for possession of a weapon; and
  • Almost one quarter of stop-and-frisk arrests (24.7 %) were dismissed before arraignment or resulted in a non-criminal charge.

The report also highlighted the collateral consequences that arrests have for all individuals subject to stop and frisk, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, and the burdens that various aspects of the stop and frisk program place on institutional actors within the criminal justice system, including:

  • Threats of a possible loss of employment, housing, student loans, and immigration status, even for those charged with misdemeanors, and added incentive to plead guilty; and
  • A sharp uptick in litigation costs for New York City for lawsuits alleging constitutional violations by the NYPD. In 2009, for the first time in 30 years, the NYPD had the largest legal settlements of any city agency.

The NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies have drawn intense political fire and judicial scrutiny. Now, they are being subjected to scrutiny of their real world consequences as well. This is an issue where incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio can signal that he's no Bloomberg.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM -- November 19, 2013

Hmmm, on the same day the DEA warns that "marijuana availability seems to be on the increase," hundreds of people apply for licenses to sell pot in Washington state. Times are changing, and somebody needs to let the DEA know. And there's more news, too. Let's get to it:

Crackdowns on pain pills are leading the way to comeback for heroin. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Hundreds Apply for Pot Business Licenses in Washington State. Monday was the first day budding ganjapreneurs could apply for licenses to open marijuana cultivation, processing, and retail facilities, and interest was intense. By 2:00pm Monday, 299 applications had been submitted. The state envisions up to 334 marijuana retail shops opening next year; it is unclear how many production and processing facilities will be licensed, although regulators have said they want to limit cultivation to two million square feet statewide. Applications are being accepted through December 17.

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Another Marijuana Initiative. The Arkansas attorney general's office Monday rejected the proposed language of an initiative that would repeal the state's marijuana laws. The initiative isn't clear about what it seeks to achieve, the office said. The attorney general's office has been busy with initiatives this year; it has already approved two separate medical marijuana initiatives, and the author of this one can come back with new language if she wishes.

Drug Policy

DEA Releases 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment. The DEA Monday released the annual drug threat assessment, which includes looks at drug use and trafficking trends. The report identifies the illicit use of controlled prescription drugs as "the nation's fastest growing drug problem," warns that heroin use and supply is up, as is methamphetamine, but that cocaine use and supply is down. Also, "marijuana availability seems to be increasing," and synthetic drugs "have emerged as a serious problem in the United States."

New Yorkers to Map Out City Drug Policies on Saturday. New York City residents just elected a self-described progressive -- Bill de Blasio -- as mayor. Now, they will have a chance to let him know what direction they want the city to take on drug policy. As part of Talking Transition, "an open conversation about the future of New York City," hundreds of people are expected to attend a Saturday forum on "Ending the New Jim Crow: Mapping the Future of Drug Policy in New York City," then break into small groups to make recommendations on issues ranging from racially-biased marijuana arrests, lack of effective drug treatment, and overdose prevention strategies. Click on the main link for more details.

Heroin

Ohio Attorney General Declares War on Heroin. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine Monday announced he had created a new heroin unit within his office to fight back against what he called "an epidemic" of heroin use. The move comes as heroin overdose deaths have doubled in recent years, from 292 in 2010 to 606 last year. DeWine said his office will spend an additional $1 million a year on increased assistance to law enforcement, community outreach workers, and lab technicians. The rise in heroin use in Ohio comes after Gov. John Kasich cracked down on pain clinics in 2011, leaving illicit heroin as the last resort for people strung out on opioids.

International

China to Turn "Re-Education" Labor Camps into Drug Treatment Centers. At its recent Third Plenary meeting, the Chinese Communist Party announced it was abolishing its controversial "re-education" labor camps. Now, it turns out that the camps won't be closing, but will instead be converted into drug treatment and rehabilitation centers. "The new rehab centers will provide compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment for addicts, and help them find self-confidence again," one official explained. There are 1.8 million "officially registered" addicts in China, but the number of actual addicts could run as high as 12 million.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy Meets in Vancouver This Weekend. Canadian SSDP is holding its annual national conference this weekend in Vancouver. In addition to panels and speeches, there will be tours of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection facility, a Downtown Eastside Walking Tour, and rides on the Sensible BC bus. For more details, click the link.

Panel to Study California Marijuana Legalization

California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will lead a blue ribbon panel of expert to chart a path toward marijuana legalization, the ACLU of California announced Thursday. At the same time, the group released polling results showing that two-thirds of California voters are ready to support regulated legal marijuana commerce that contributes to state tax coffers.

Gavin Newsom announces panel formation. (Rebecca Farmer)
"The prohibition of marijuana has had an enormous human and financial cost in communities across this state," said Newsom, the highest ranking elected official in California to publicly endorse taxing and regulating marijuana for adults. "It is far past time for Californians take a serious look at smarter approaches to marijuana, and it is imperative that happen before any marijuana ballot initiative gets underway."

The panel will consist of academic, legal, and policy experts and "will engage in a two-year research effort," the ACLU said. That is a clear signal that organizers are aiming at 2016 -- not 2014 -- as the time to put the matter before voters, even though at least two separate 2014 marijuana legalization initiative efforts are already underway in the state.

"The panel's work will be designed to help voters and policy makers evaluate proposals for a strict tax and regulation system that will enable California to benefit from billions of dollars of new revenue while ensuring safe communities and protecting against underage use," the ACLU said.

Among those named to the panel are Keith Humphreys, a Stanford Health Policy Associate who was a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2009-2010; Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law; two past presidents of the California Society of Addiction Medicine; Dr. Seth Ammerman, a Stanford University professor and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith; and Sam Kamin, a Denver University law professor who has been appointed to the Colorado governor's task force for implementing that state's marijuana legalization initiative.

Also included are Alison Holcomb, campaign manager of Washington state's successful 2012 ballot initiative to tax and regulate marijuana; Tamar Todd, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance; Karen O'Keefe, staff attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project; and Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

In addition to enhancing state revenue streams, marijuana legalization would end the extreme racial disparities in marijuana arrests in California, the ACLU said.

"Marijuana prohibition has harmed communities and families by needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the overburdened criminal justice system, with people of color far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted," said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU of California. "California voters recognize that it's time for change and will overwhelmingly support reforming marijuana laws provided it can be done responsibly with adequate safeguards and assurances that tax revenues will go to fund public schools and other important social services."

CA
United States

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

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