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DC Marijuana Initiative Hands in Plenty of Signatures [FEATURE]

It now looks extremely likely that the residents of the nation's capitol will vote in November on whether to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. Representatives of the DC Cannabis Campaign legalization initiative handed in some 58,000 signatures Monday morning, and they only need some 25,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

outside DC election headquarters (drugpolicy.org)
Signature-gathering experts generally expect to see something between 20% and 30% of signatures handed in deemed invalid. For the DC initiative to fail to qualify, the invalidation rate would have to be above 50%.

The measure will be known as Initiative 71 once it officially qualifies for the ballot.

The District of Columbia isn't the only locale where marijuana legalization is almost definitely going to be on the ballot this fall. An Alaska legalization initiative has already qualified, and organizers of an Oregon legalization initiative just last week handed in more than 145,000 signatures, nearly twice the 88,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify.

Colorado and Washington led the way on marijuana legalization, with voters in both states passing legalization initiatives in 2012. DC, Alaska, and Oregon all appear poised to join them in November.

In DC, campaigners will emphasize the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition. In 2010, black people accounted for 91% of marijuana arrests, even though they now account for less than half the city's population. The District is also currently saddled with the highest per capita marijuana arrest rates in the nation.

The DC initiative is not a full-blown legalize, tax, and regulate measure. It would allow people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate six plants at home. But District law prevents initiatives from addressing budgetary issues, which precludes the initiative addressing the tax and regulate/marijuana commerce aspect of legalization. But the DC city council currently is considering a tax and regulate bill to cover that.

boxes of signature petitions ready to go (drugpolicy.org)
The city council passed a decriminalization bill that goes into effect shortly, but advocates argued based on other decrim laws in the states that alone is not enough to change police practices. They noted that in Colorado and Washington, where actual legalization is in effect, marijuana arrest rates have dropped dramatically. Those declines not only save millions in tax dollars; they also save thousands of people from the legal and collateral consequences of a pot bust.

After handing in signatures this morning, key players in the initiative gathered for a noon tele-conference.

"In just a few weeks, DC's groundbreaking decriminalization law goes into effect," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which is supporting the initiative. "But decriminalization is just the first step. Today, the DC Cannabis Campaign turned in enough signatures to put Initiative 71 on the ballot."

"Last week, the US celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act," noted Dr. Malik Burnett, recently brought in as DC policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Drug policy reform is the civil rights issue of this century. Prohibition isn't working, and it is leading to poor outcomes, especially in communities of color. We definitely applaud the city council for getting decriminalization done, but in other jurisdictions with decriminalization, we continue to see a large number of racially biased arrests. If we look at jurisdictions that have legalized, arrest rates for small amounts of marijuana are down 75%."

"Today is a big day in this effort," said Councilmember David Grosso, sponsor of the Tax and Regulate Marijuana Act of 2014. "It looks like it will be on the ballot this fall, and I'm confident that people here in DC will vote to legalize marijuana. The people have been in the forefront of this for a long time, starting with medical marijuana back in 1998."

Grosso said he sponsored the tax and regulate bill because of the failures of prohibition.

"I'm a strong believer that the war on drugs has been a failure," he said. "We need to move beyond putting people in jail for marijuana and non-violent offenses. But once we legalize it, it's important to regulate it in a way that is responsible for the District, which is why I introduced the tax and regulate bill. It has to go through a couple of committees, but we're a full-time legislature and could have it done by the end of the year. If not, I will reintroduce it next year."

"This initiative is very different from the other efforts," said DC Cannabis Campaign chair and long-time DC political gadfly Adam Eidinger. "It's very focused on the consumer, how we can keep them out of jail and give them a supply without creating a marketplace. This is looking at the rights of the individual and letting them produce their own at home. This by itself isn't full legalization -- Grosso's bill is the complete picture, but we can't put that on the ballot, so we did the next best thing to enshrine the rights of the consumer," he explained.

"We already passed home cultivation for medical marijuana in 1998, and many us were demanding from the city council that we actually get home cultivation as part of medical," Eidinger noted. "Their failure to do so has fueled the interest in pushing this forward. Medical marijuana is not the destination for every user, nor is decriminalization. The goal is to stop the bleeding, to stop arresting four or five thousand people here every year. My goal is take marijuana arrests down to zero," he said.

DC election workers start validating signatures. (drugpolicy.org)
"I want to note that I am also the social action director for Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a major backer which provided money to get this off the ground," said Eidinger. "We've raised and spent at least $150,000 and we hope to raise another $100,000 between now and election day. A lot of these initiative campaigns are fueled by business interests, but we're not offering a retail outlet as the end result of the initiative. It's a little more difficult to raise money when it's about civil rights -- not making some business person rich."

Even if the initiative makes the ballot and passes, there is still an outside chance that congressional conservatives will seek to block it. That's what happened with the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which Congress didn't allow to go into effect for more than a decade.

Similar moves are already afoot over the District's yet-to-go-into-effect decriminalization law. A Maryland congressmen and physician, Rep. Andy Harris (R), has already persuaded the House Appropriations Committee to approve a rider to the DC appropriations bill that would block implementation of the decrim law. But that measure still has to be approved by the House as a whole, and then by the Senate.

If that were to happen, it wouldn't be without a fight.

"The Drug Policy Alliance and the DC Cannabis Campaign look forward to working with members of the city council to expand on Initiative 71 to develop tax and regulate centered around the idea of racial justice," said Dr. Burnett. "The first step is passing 71 to show the will of the people, followed by legislation from the city council. That combination will show Congress that DC residents are serious about reforming their drug policies, and Congress will respect DC home rule."

Dr. Burnett also had some advice for Dr. Harris, the Republican congressman trying to block DC marijuana reforms.

"I would encourage Dr. Harris to take a continuing medical education class on cannabis and to see the reports from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse that teen marijuana use is flat and to understand that the health outcomes associated with incarceration are much worse than those associated with cannabis use," he said.

According to recent polls, support for legalizing marijuana in the District is around 60%. If the initiative actually makes the ballot, it has a very good chance to win in November. And if it wins in November, congressional conservatives will have to explain why DC residents aren't good enough for direct democracy, or get out of the way. And the following spring could see a thousand flowers bloom in the nation's capital.

Washington, DC
United States

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki Talks Drug Reform [FEATURE]

In a conference call Monday morning, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki discussed the impact of his award-winning drug war documentary The House I Live In and where we go from here in the fight to end the drug war and mass incarceration.

Eugene Jarcecki (wikimedia.org)
The call was the second in a series of discussions planned and organized by the Drug Policy Alliance as part of its campaign to deepen and broaden the drug reform movement. The first discussion featured Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Hear that conversation here.

Jarecki won the Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize for The House I Live In in 2012. The film made a shattering case against the drug war. Since its release, it has been used as a primer in faith institutions, schools and community-based organizations across the nation.

The drug reform landscape has been undergoing tectonic shifts in the two years since The House I Live In was released. It is possible, Jarecki said, that his film has played a role in shifting public opinion.

"One of the great lies that pervades the public imagination is the Hollywood lie that its movies don't shape the violence in this country," he said. "For Hollywood to pretend that movies have no role in shaping behavior is laughable. There are books that start revolutions. While Hollywood should bristle at the notion that movies create violence -- the violence comes in a society where we don't have health service and the roots of unwantedness can lead to violent behavior -- movies do shape public activity," he said.

"My movie is shaping public activity, and I am reminded by friends that this matters," the filmmaker continued. "A lot of young people will look at Michelle Alexander and say 'I want to be like that,' and that kind of example is extremely precious."

The recognition that the film would be an instrument of social change even influenced the title, Jarecki said.

"The making and handling of the film as a tool for public change and discussion" was important, he said. "We called it House over sexier titles, such as Kill the Poor or just Ghetto. I couldn't get it in a church or prison with a title like Kill the Poor. We had to choose a softer title; we weren't just thinking about the most poetic title, but really, how do we make sure this thing has legs where people all across the country can use it? We didn't want to alienate groups on the ground, and I wanted to make sure there were many groups on the ground doing this important work."

It worked. The film is now standard viewing in all the prisons in at least 11 states, and in New York, a viewing serves as an alternate punishment for juvenile offenders. And, Jarecki said, churches have been a key partner in getting the message out.

"We've found churches very welcoming, in large part because of our partnership with the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference," he said. "They've helped get churches across the country seeing the film, and it stretches far beyond the black church community. It's been very useful and robust. We also live stream the showings themselves to other churches. When we broadcast out of Shiloh Baptist Church, 180 other congregations also watched it."

But while Jarecki intended the film to serve polemic purposes, even he was surprised at the rapidity of the changes coming in the drug policy realm.

"The most significant surprise has been seeing the entire climate of the war on drugs change in the public imagination," he said. "When we started out, it was impossible to imagine any systemic shifts from the top. We see that the entrenched bureaucracies and corrupt interests are never open to negotiation, but the combination of the moral bankruptcy of the war on drugs and its economic bankruptcy -- 45 million drug arrests over 40 years, and what do we have to show for it? -- the catastrophic cycle of waste without achieving goals, unifies the left and the right like no other issue. The left sees a monster that preys on human rights for profit, and the right sees a bloated government program."

The policies of the war on drugs are now vulnerable, Jarecki said.

"Community groups see how it brings unfairness to communities and ravages society, so now, Washington is trying to appeal to the public by being more sensible," he argued. "This policy is vulnerable. While we've joined forces with the Drug Policy Alliance and other organizations to fight at the ground level, we're also seeing shreds of leadership from Obama, Holder, and Rand Paul. This is a moment of enormous vitality for us."

With a few exceptions, as mentioned just above, "the political class is isolated and orphaned as supporting something that doesn't make any sense," Jarecki said. "I thought I was choosing a very tough enemy, but it doesn't seem like much of a worthy adversary. The gross expenditures are hard to defend, they don't have the national security card to play anymore, the drug war has worn itself thin. 'Just Say No' and 'This is Your Brain on Drugs' hasn't worked. Instead, people just see family members with damaged lives."

It's not just in the realm of marijuana policy that the landscape is shifting in a favorable direction. The issue of the racial disparity in the drug war is also gaining traction.

"The condition of understanding the black American crisis of the drug war has moved light years in the last two years," Jarecki said. "Black folks are bizarrely and disproportionately targeted by the drug war, and that's become a common discussion. It's not a rare thing."

Still shot from The House I Live In
That understanding is extending to an acknowledgement that the war on drugs has been a brutal attack on the gains of the civil rights era, Jarecki argued.

"In the black American story, there is an argument to be made that the new Jim Crow established with the war on drugs was the final nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement," he said. "Black people are worse off economically than before the civil rights movement, and this critical viewpoint has become more widely understood."

But it's not just race. The unspeakable word in American political discourse -- class -- plays a role as well, Jarecki suggested.

"We've seen a shift from a drug war that could be described as predominantly racist to one that also has elements of class in it," he argued. "Poor whites, Latinos, women -- those are the growth areas for the war on drugs now. But let's not forget that black America is still essentially the leading link. We haven't shifted the drug war from race to class; it has diversified, it preserves its racism, but has seized market share by broadening into other class populations."

Racism and the war on drugs are only a part of a much larger problem, the filmmaker argued.

"We have to invite the country to begin seriously asking itself what kind of country it wants to be," he said. "What we are really looking at is a society that has bought into the notion that we can entrust the public good to private gain. We have industrial complexes that grip American policymaking in almost every sphere of public life, and the prison industrial complex is one of them. It is simply a crass illustration that you can feed a human being into the machine, and out comes dollar signs. This is a country without compassion, a town without pity."

And while change will come from the top, it will be impelled only by pressure from the bottom up, he said.

"Change comes from groups working together, and you start going down that road by getting out and starting walking," Jarecki advised. "It's an illusion to think we're supposed to be rescued by the government."

We have to do it ourselves.

ATF's Operation Gideon Raises Questions of Fairness, Justice, and Race [FEATURE]

Special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part I of a series on the ATF's Operation Gideon, targeting inner city "bad guys" with drug house robbery stings

Early in May, a panel of judges from California's 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals denied petitions for an "en banc" hearing that would have allowed the full court to consider overturning long prison sentences for four would-be robbers seduced by an informant into believing they were about to rip-off a stash house loaded with drugs.

The stash house was fictional, those drugs never existed, and the brains behind the plot were not criminals, but federal agents.

The denial of the petition was not a unanimous decision, and it revealed deep fissures on the appeals court. Dissenting judges argued that the practice of enticing poor young men into robbing stash houses raised questions not only of fair play, but also of constitutionality. The dissenters were particularly concerned that federal agents targeted primarily minority neighborhoods filled with desperate, unemployed young men tempted by the lure of fast cash.

"The sting poses questions of whether the government intentionally targets poor minority neighborhoods, and thus, seeks to tempt their residents to commit crimes that might well result in their escape from poverty," Justice Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a blistering dissent. He also called it "a profoundly disturbing use of government power that directly imperils some of our most fundamental constitutional values."

The case involved four Phoenix men -- Cordae Black, Kemford Alexander, Angel Mahon and Terrance Timmons -- who were convicted in 2010 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than five pounds of cocaine, as well as federal firearms charges, for a fake drug rip scheme set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). All four are now serving prison sentences of 13 to 15 years.

Even though federal appeals court judges have joined defense attorneys in calling the ATF drug rip schemes "outrageous conduct," they are not an anomaly, but are instead part and parcel of ATF's Operation Gideon, a nationwide program. The ATF, federal prosecutors, and the Phoenix police said a press release announcing a pilot sweep that rolled up 70 people, including Cordae Black and his crew, that Gideon "involved the deployment of some of ATF's most experienced undercover operatives to team with local agents and police investigators by conducting sting investigations involving violent home invasion crews."

According to a USA Today investigative report, as of last year, the feds had already locked up more than a thousand people who its agents had enticed into conspiracies to rob fake drug stash houses. And it's not just the AFT. The DEA often uses the fake drug rip-off schemes, as well.

US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt
The argument at the 9th Circuit in the Phoenix case centered on entrapment and whether ATF agents illegally enticed the defendants into the crime through "outrageous government conduct" beyond that allowed by entrapment doctrine.

Relying on the US Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in US v. Russell, where the court upheld such schemes if the defendant showed a predisposition to commit the offense, 9th Circuit Judges Susan Graeber and Raymond Fisher rejected claims of entrapment and outrageous conduct by the agents, and argued that the reverse sting was within legal boundaries of law enforcement tactics, which includes officers working undercover to infiltrate criminal organizations.

Fisher and Graeber said the agents' actions were reasonable when they offered the men the opportunity to make money by committing a drug robbery. The pair also held the defendants failed to show they lacked "predisposition to commit the offense."

That provoked a sharp retort from a second dissenter as well, Judge John T. Noonan.

"Today our court gives approval to the government tempting people in the population at large currently engaged in innocent activity, and leading them into the commission of a crime, which the government will then prosecute," he wrote.

It's not just the 9th Circuit. Fake drug stash operations that only target inner-cities have ignited a firestorm of controversy, including other caustic remarks from the federal bench.

"There is a strong showing of potential bias in the robbery stings," US District Court Judge Rueben Castillo wrote in an order last year. Castillo noted that since 2011, federal agents have used such stings to lock up at least 26 people in the Chicago area -- and that all of them were either black or Hispanic.

Federal officials retort that they are not engaging in selective prosecution based on race, but are going where known felons often commit violent home invasion-type drug robberies.

But defense attorneys argue that the operations target people who weren't doing anything, entice them with visions of easy wealth, set them up, and then throw the book at them.

"What the ATF is doing is basically targeting low-level criminals for high-level crimes," said attorney Tara Loveland, who is representing Cordae Black on appeal.

The case against Black and his codefendants raises serious questions about racial profiling. According to evidence introduced at the original trial -- and subsequently heard again at the re-hearing (via the appellate brief) -- ATF Agent Richard Zayas had a paid informant travel from Miami to Arizona to find "bad guys" in a "bad part of town."

That prompted Judge Reinhardt to say that Zavas' instructions obviously meant the informant should recruit people from minority communities. The targeting of the fake drug house robbery scheme was a practice "that creates the appearance of selective prosecution based on race and wealth inequality," he said.

"It is a tragedy when ATF has to drum up a crime that didn't exist," attorney Eugene Marquez, who represented Cordae Black at trial, told the Chronicle.

Chicago Operation Gideon suspect William Alexander just before his arrest (atf.gov)
Defense attorneys who represented the defendants on appeal argued that "fake drug stings initiated by ATF amount to entrapment because there were no drugs -- and none of the defendants would have agreed to participate had it not been for a paid snitch and the ATF's scheme of enticing the men to arm themselves with weapons to rip-off a large quantity of drugs that automatically brings severe mandatory prison sentences."

"Our defense was outrageous conduct and sentencing entrapment," Marquez explained.

But 9th Circuit majorities weren't listening to the defense attorneys. In a separate ruling, they reiterated their original decision denying defense counsel's motion to overturn the original convictions.

"There is no bright line dictating when laws enforcement conduct crosses the line between acceptable and outrageous," Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote for the majority. Outrageous government conduct can only occur when government agents engineer and direct a "criminal enterprise from start to finish -- or creating new crimes merely for the sake of pressing criminal charges," he argued.

Judge Reinhardt again dissented.

"In this era of mass incarceration, in which we already lock up more of our population than any other nation on earth, it is especially curious that the government feels compelled to invent fake crimes and imprison people for long periods of time for agreeing to participate in them -- people who but for the government's scheme might not have ever entered the world of major felonies," Reinhardt wrote.

If getting set up and convicted in a sting weren't bad enough, the defendants also got hit with longer sentences based on the imaginary amounts of drugs that were going to rob. Marquez explained that his client, Cordae Black, was hit a 10-year mandatory minimum because the ATF pretended the imaginary drug house had more than five kilos of cocaine in it.

But while jurists and defense attorneys grumbled, the ATF was pleased with its handiwork.

Arizona ATF agent Thomas Mangan welcomed the convictions of Black and his partners, as well as appeals court rulings upholding them. The stings had resulted in over 70 Arizona arrests, and the crew had "ample opportunity to back out, but had remained committed to carry out the robbery until they were arrested," he said in the Operation Gideon press release.

While court-approved enticement has a lengthy pedigree in this country, so does "outrageous government conduct" that can take it over the line into entrapment. A classic case is that of legendary automaker John Delorean, who was acquitted of cocaine conspiracy charges in 1984, even though prosecutors had Delorean on videotape wisecracking and saying that the cocaine stuffed inside a suitcase was "good as gold."

But Delorean's attorney was able to convince the jury that the FBI had leaned on a convicted drug smuggler, James Hoffman, to draw Delorean into a trap, complete with thinly-veiled threats if Delorean backed out of the sting.

"Without the government there would be no crime," Delorean's attorney told the jury.

Taking Down the Phoenix Crew

Putting together a fake drug robbery stings is like assembling the cast of a gritty crime drama. The Phoenix reverse sting worked against Cordae Black and his eager crew in typical take-down fashion. ATF agent Richard Zayas recruited a paid informant to frequent seedy bars and diffferent places in the "bad part" of town -- to find receptive players to rip-off a drug house. Zayas's informant met Shaver "Bullet" Simpson, a big-talking guy ready to play.

Zayas's informant duped Simpson into believing he had a friend with information on a stash house filled with drugs worth thousands of dollars. Simpson boasted he could find some tough-ass homies to do the job. Agent Zayas reminded Simpson that everyone involved with the plot must keep their mouths shut, and not talk about what goes down.

"My people straight," Simpson replied. "I hate snitchers."

Following the informant's meeting with Shaver Simpson, he introduced "Bullet" to undercover ATF Agent Richard Zayas, who fronted himself off as a disgruntled drug courier interested in having someone rob a dope house owned by Zayas's supposed cartel's connections. Zayas informed Simpson that Simpson's homeboys would need the "balls to do it because this ain't no easy lick."

Simpson then posed a question to Zayas: "My goons want to know whether they need to kill the people in the house."

Zayas responded nonchalantly that he "didn't care what they did as long as they took care of business."

Hooked like a fish, Simpson swallowed the bait, "Don't worry Daddy," he told Zavas. You got a real Jamaican (expletive), that's my family business; it's where I worked; I got this shit down to a science, man."

The beat goes on. Press conference announcing latest round of Operation Gideon busts, Stockton, CA, 2014 (atf.gov)
The trap was set. Shaver Simpson, the braggart, strangely, didn't show up for the showdown. But the work crew did. Once Cordae Black, Terrence Timmons, Kemford Alexander and Angel Mahon showed up at the designated meeting spot, the ATF agents and local police took the hapless crew down with guns drawn. A search of their vehicles produced four loaded weapons (which, according to the appellate brief, Zava insisted the crew have with them).

Despite Simpson's bravado about not being a snitch and hating such creatures, he pounced on the first opportunity to become one by testifying against his four homies. Still, at trial, Simpson accused ATF agent Richard Zayas of pressuring him to quickly find as many guys he could find to pull off the robbery.

Same Sorts of Cases, Different Results

In another Operation Gideon case, Chicago native William Alexander, a street-level crack dealer and beauty school dropout, got stung in a fake drug robbery on February 23 2011, along with his cohorts Hugh Midderhoff and David Saunders. All three were convicted of possession with intent to deliver five or more kilos of cocaine, along with firearms charges. To win a new trial, Alexander's lawyer argued on appeal that ATF's systematic strategy of sending informants into "bad parts of town" to recruit "bad people" meant that racial profiling played a vital role in Alexander's case.

His appeal brief noted that in the 17 stash house robbery stings prosecuted in the Northern Illinois Federal District since 2004, blacks were disproportionately represented. Of the 57 defendants, 42 were black, eight Hispanic, and seven white.

His appeal was denied -- because he couldn't show that the ATF and prosecutors intended racially disparate outcomes.

"To establish discriminatory intent, Alexander failed to show the decision makers in (his) case acted with discriminatory purposes -- and that the Attorney General and US Attorneys has broad discretion to enforce federal criminal laws," the appeals court held.

Antuan Dunlap and his heavily-armed posse-mates, Cedrick Hudson and Joseph Cornell Whitfield, had better luck. They were released from jail in an ATF drug house rip-off scheme when California US District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled the ATF crossed the line into entrapment.

Prosecutors had argued that Dunlap "manifested his propensity to commit robberies" by claiming to have engaged in similar activities in the past, and thus, "the defendant's words justified the reverse sting."

But in a 24-page stinging rebuke, the angry judge said the ATF engaged in "outrageous conduct" by enlisting people in "made-up crime" just so they could bust eager volunteers in drug stings. "Society does not win when the government stoops to the same level as the defendants it seeks to prosecute -- especially when the government has acted solely to achieve a conviction for a 'made-up' crime, Wright wrote. He also noted that such tactics "haven't brought down the crime rate nor taken drugs off the streets."

But the ATF and DEA fake drug rip-off schemes remain in full-swing across the nation despite the brewing controversy over tactics some defense attorneys and jurists regard with loathing. If the Justice Department will investigate whether the stings are aimed disproportionately at minority communities remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Phoenix crew sits in federal prison, while their attorneys plan an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Next in the series: ATF's Deadly Takedown in Fake Drug Robberies.

California's Latinos Are Ready for Sentencing Reform, Poll Finds [FEATURE]

A bill that would significantly reform California's drug sentencing laws is poised for approval in the state Senate, and a new poll showing strong support for sentencing reform among Latino voters could help push it over the top.

California's prisons are still overcrowded. (supremecourt.gov)
Senate Bill 1010, the Fair Sentencing Act, would equalize the penalties for sale of crack and powder cocaine. Under current California law, crack offenses are treated more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. The bill would also equalize probation requirements and asset forfeiture rules for offenses involving the two forms of the same drug.

Sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee last month and the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It now heads for the Senate floor. It needs to pass in its chamber of origin this month or it dies.

The bill is supported by dozens of community, religious, civil liberty, civil rights, drug reform, and other groups. It is opposed by the California Narcotics Officers Association and the California Police Chiefs Association.

Among Latino groups supporting the bill are the National Council of La Raza, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Homies Unidos, the Latino Voters League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Presente.

The poll results released today by Latino Decisions help explain why these groups are supporting sentencing reform efforts and may even encourage them to redouble their efforts. They show strong support for sentencing reform among California's Latino electorate. The poll only sampled registered voters.

When asked if the state should minimize penalties for drug possession, but continue to hold drug sellers accountable, a whopping 69% said yes. The lowest level of support among any Hispanic demographic was 59% among 40-to-59-year-olds.

When asked if racial disparities in law enforcement were a serious or very serious problem, an even more overwhelming 82% said yes. Even among Latino Republicans, the demographic least likely to be concerned, the figure was at 57%.

A third question asked whether respondents favored penalties for personal drug possession of drug treatment, case by case referrals, or zero tolerance. Again Latino voters overwhelmingly supported treatment or case by case (79% combined) over zero tolerance (16%).

"We're very excited to see the results of this poll," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente, during a teleconference announcing and analyzing the results. "It's very clear that the poll findings reaffirm that Latinos want drug sentencing reform and a fix to our broken justice system. If politicians want to mobilize the Latino vote, they need to support these issues. Over the coming weeks and months, Latinos and allied groups will be working to support common sense reforms like this bill."

That only makes sense, Carmona said.

another drug arrest in California. (wikimedia.org)
"These issues are having a significant impact on our society, our state, and increasingly, the Latino community," he argued. "The US imprisons more people than any nation in the world, mostly due to the war on drugs, and blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized than whites. When you add in the federal detention center population, Latinos now make up the largest federal prison population in the country."

Dr. Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, emphasized that the poll was of registered Latino voters.

"These are folks who are part of the political process," he said. "These are the Latinos who will be voting and helping to shape our politics. And among them, we have a rejection of war on drugs strategies and incarceration, with large majorities across the board supporting sentencing reform for drug possession and use."

"It's evident that the Latino community is in a state of crisis," said Armando Gudino, a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the community most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and unprecedented levels of incarceration. Latinos are fully aware of this, and we've begun to shift toward more responsible policies seeking to remove or reduce criminal penalties."

The poll demonstrates that attitudes are changing in the Hispanic community, Gudino said.

"Latinos have traditionally been deemed a conservative group, but we see shifting attitudes, and we could well see support we haven't seen in the past," he noted. "The older generation is more conservative, but the community isn't homogenous, and the same can't be said about other groups within the community, who have already shifted toward favoring issues like decriminalization, medical marijuana, and the efforts around taxing and regulating marijuana. This poll demonstrates that the Latino community is increasingly involved, informed, and willing to make changes."

"Latinos are now a majority in California, we have a seat at the table, and it's critical we're part of this conversation," said Mike De La Rocha, director of strategic partnerships for Californians for Safety and Justice. "Latinos are poised to have a voice in how we address crime and public safety. We understand our approach to crime isn't working, and we're finding our voice in these criminal justice debates."

Chronicle AM -- May 19, 2014

The feds will still arrest you for marijuana possession on their property in DC even though the city has decriminalized, Chicago cops will still arrest you for possession even though they could just give you a ticket, decrim initiatives are coming to Kansas cities, Minnesota becomes the 22nd medical marijuana state, Mexico doesn't want to legalize it, and more. Let's get to it:

The Taliban's Pakistani cousins are financing operations by taxing the drug trade, a new report says. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

DC US Attorney Will Still Prosecute Marijuana Possession on Federal Property. No matter that the District of Columbia has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The office of the US Attorney for the District says anyone caught with pot on federal property could still be prosecuted under federal law, but that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. "Individuals arrested for merely possessing, but not using, less than one ounce of marijuana on federal property would be presented to our office for potential prosecution under federal law," said William Miller, public information officer for the DC US attorney. "We will assess each case on an individualized basis, weighing all available information and evidence, consistent with Justice Department enforcement priorities and the need to use our limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to address the most significant threats to public safety. We rely heavily on diversion programs in our local marijuana prosecutions, and would likely do the same with respect to federal offenses."

Despite Ticketing Ordinance, Chicago Cops Still Arresting People for Pot Possession. A 2012 Chicago ordinance allows police to ticket small-time marijuana possession offenders instead of arresting them, but the cops keep arresting people anyway, according to a study released today by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. The study, "Patchwork Policy: An Evaluation of Arrests and Tickets for Marijuana Misdemeanors in Illinois," is available here. In Chicago, 93% of small-time pot possession violations resulted in arrest, not tickets, the study found. That's worse than other Illinois localities that have adopted similar measures. But the Chicago Police say implementing the new ordinance is slow and that the number of people arrested for misdemeanor possession dropped by 5,000 between 2011 and 2013.

Marco Rubio Says No Responsible Way to Smoke Pot. In an interview airing today, junior Florida senator and possible Republican 2016 presidential candidate Marco Rubio refused to say whether he had ever used marijuana, came down in opposition to decriminalization, and said there was no "responsible" way to smoke pot. "I don't want my kids to smoke marijuana. And I don't want other people's kids to smoke marijuana. I don't think there is a responsible way to recreationally use marijuana," he said. "The bottom line is, I believe that adding yet another mind-altering substance to something that's legal is not good for the country," he said. "I understand there are people that have different views on it, but I feel strongly about that."

Decriminalization Initiative Campaigns Underway in Wichita, Other Kansas Cities. Kansas for Change, a group that seeks to legalize marijuana in the Jayhawk State, is taking aim this year at the state's largest city, among others. The group is now gathering signatures to put a decriminalization initiative before the Wichita city council. If the group can gather 4,300 signatures, the council must either approve the measure or put it before the voters. Similar petition drives are also ongoing in Emporia, Lawrence, Salina, Topeka, and Wyandotte County (Kansas City, KS).

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Legislature Passes Compromise Medical Marijuana bill, Governor Will Sign It. Minnesota is set to become the 22nd medical marijuana state after the state House and Senate gave final approval Friday to compromise legislation that will provide some patients access to medical marijuana, but not allow them to smoke it. Patients are allowed to use it in the form of liquids, pills, and oils, including those produced from whole plant extracts, as well as through vaporization, but cannot use it in its standard form of buds. Two marijuana product manufacturers will be registered by the state, with eight distribution centers, and only pharmacists will be allowed to dispense it.

Drug Policy

The Incredible Whiteness of Drug Policy Reform. Celebrity Stoner's Steve Bloom has held up a mirror to the face of the American drug reform movement and is blinded by the white. Responding to a critique of marijuana reform groups from Drug Policy Alliance board member Dr. Carl Hart that "their rank and file to their advisory boards consists almost exclusively of white, privileged and devoted marijuana smokers," Bloom decided to take a look. He surveyed seven major reform groups and found that of 325 staff and board members, only 19 were black, 12 were Latino, and nine were Asian. The movement does a bit better on gender, with 101 women. Click on the link for all the details.

International

Mexico Poll Finds Little Support for Marijuana Legalization. A poll commissioned by the Mexican congress's lower house as it ponders marijuana reform legislation has found little popular support for it. The survey carried out by the chambers Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion found that 70% opposed legalization, with only 20% in favor. And nearly 62% said legalizing marijuana would have no or little impact on drug trafficking and associated crime and violence. Click on the link for more details.

Jamaica Religious Figure Gives Blessing to Marijuana Sector. The Rev. Rennard White, president of the Missionary Church Association and vice-president of the Jamaica Evangelical Alliance, has said that marijuana can be a panacea for Jamaica's economic problems. "I hope the ganja industry will come of age and be properly treated with so we can reap the maximum benefit with minimum loss," White told congregants at the Covenant Moravian Church Sunday. His remarks were greeted "with thunderous applause."

US Says it Welcomes Progress in Colombia Peace Talks. After the Colombian government and the guerrillas of the FARC announced agreement on drug issues Friday, the State Department has now responded. "The United States welcomes the announcement of further progress in efforts to achieve the peace the Colombian people deserve through negotiations," Secretary of State Kerry said in a statement. "Resolving the question of narcotics production and trafficking is central to achieving that peace. We congratulate president Santos and the Colombian government for this advance," he added. Kerry went on to say that "Colombian government officials underlined the importance of maintaining both manual and aerial eradication capabilities," although the joint communique from the FARC and the Colombian government says that aerial eradication will only be a last resort conducted in conjunction with the wishes of local communities.

Pakistani Report Says Militants Being Financed By Taxing Drug Trade. A report prepared by Pakistani security services says militant groups based in the Kyhber Agency, the Frontier Region, and Peshawar are depending on a number of criminal activities, including taxing the drug trade from bordering Afghanistan, to finance their activities. One group even organizes a "hash fair" thrice a week in Orazkai Agency, the report said. But other than that, the groups rely on taxation and not direct involvement in the drug trade.

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!"

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