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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

NYC Comptroller Says Legalize and Tax Marijuana in New Report

New York City Comptroller John Liu Wednesday released a report calling for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana. Doing so would reduce the harms generated by marijuana prohibition and generate more than $400 million a year in taxes to pay for higher education, Liu said.

New York City Comptroller John Liu (wikipedia.org)
The comptroller is the chief fiscal officer and financial officer for the city. Liu, who has served one four-year term, is not seeking reelection.

"New York City's misguided war on marijuana has failed, and its enforcement has damaged far too many lives, especially in minority communities," said Comptroller Liu. "It's time for us to implement a responsible alternative. Regulating marijuana would keep thousands of New Yorkers out of the criminal justice system, offer relief to those suffering from a wide range of painful medical conditions, and make our streets safer by sapping the dangerous underground market that targets our children. As if that weren't enough, it would also boost our bottom line."

Liu estimated the size of the city's marijuana market at $1.65 billion a year and proposed using tax revenues from the legalized trade to cut tuition at the City University of New York (CUNY) by up to 50%.

"In this way, we'll invest in young people's futures, instead of ruining them," he said. "By regulating marijuana like alcohol, New York City can minimize teens' access to marijuana, while at the same time reducing their exposure to more dangerous drugs and taking sales out of the hands of criminals."

Under Liu's proposal, adults age 21 and over could possess up to one ounce of marijuana, which would be grown, processed, and sold by government-licensed businesses for recreational or medicinal purposes. A strict driving under the influence enforcement policy would be implemented concurrently, and marijuana use in public would be prohibited.

The report comes just days after a federal judge slammed the city for its stop-and-frisk policing tactics, which have played a key role in making the Big Apple the world leader in marijuana possession arrests. The street searches are racially biased, the judge found, ordering reforms.

"New Yorkers, like people elsewhere around the country, are questioning our broken polices related to marijuana," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Comptroller Liu's report offers another important opportunity for New Yorkers to examine the issues and discuss the range of options for fixing these laws. An increasing number of elected officials in the City and state agree that our marijuana policies are broken -- resulting in racial disparities, Constitutional violations, fiscal waste and needless suffering. While there may not be widespread agreement about how to fix these problems, it's critical that we have an open and vigorous debate about the issue."

New York City, NY
United States

Federal Judge Finds NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk Practices Unconstitutional

A federal judge Monday found that the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk search tactics violated the constitutional rights of racial minorities in the city and ordered a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms in the department. Federal District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin did not find stop-and-frisks unconstitutional in themselves, but ruled that NYPD's policy on them amounted to "indirect racial profiling."

NYPD practices stop-and-frisk techniques (nyc.gov/nypd)
The ruling came in Floyd v. the City of New York, in which plaintiffs represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights challenged the massive program, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of street searches each year (4.43 million between 2004 and 2012, according to trial evidence), the vast majority aimed at young black and brown people, and the vast majority of which resulted in no findings of drugs or weapons.

The stop-and-frisk program did, however, contribute to the arrest and temporary jailing of tens of thousands of New Yorkers caught with small amounts of marijuana. Possession of small amounts was decriminalized in New York in 1978, but the NYPD effectively invalidated decriminalization by intimidating people into removing baggies of weed from their pockets and then charging them with public possession, a misdemeanor. Such tactics helped make New York City the world leader in marijuana arrests.

In her ruling Monday, Judge Scheindlin argued that the city's stop-and-frisk policies showed disregard for both the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. She said the evidence showed that police systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.

Scheindlin didn't limit her criticism to the actions of police officers, but also held high NYPD and city officials responsible for what she called a "checkpoint-style" policing tactic.

"I also conclude that the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner," she wrote. "Blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites," she noted.

While Scheindlin wrote that she was "not ordering an end to practice" of stop-and-frisk searches, she said that the racially disparate manner in which searches were carried out demanded reforms that "protect the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection."

In addition to the outside monitor, Scheindlin ordered other remedies, including a pilot program in which officers in five precincts will be equipped with body-worn cameras to record street encounters and a "joint remedial process" where the public will be invited to provide input on how to reform stop-and-frisk. 

While Scheindlin noted NYPD's expressed purpose in the widespread searches was to reduce the prevalence of guns on the street, she said police went too far in their zeal, stretching the bounds of the Constitution as they did so.

 "The outline of a commonly carried object such as a wallet or cellphone does not justify a stop or frisk, nor does feeling such an object during a frisk justify a search,” she ruled.

And, after hearing more than two months of sometimes wrenching testimony from stop-and-frisk victims, Scheindlin deplored what she called "the human toll of unconstitutional stops," calling them "a demeaning and humiliating experience."

"No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life," she wrote. And it wasn't just fear of being stopped. Racial minorities in the city "were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband."

The city and the NYPD had argued that the targeting of young people of color was justified because they were more likely to commit crimes, but Scheindlin wasn't buying, especially since the searches usually came up empty.

"This might be a valid comparison if the people stopped were criminals," she wrote. "But to the contrary, nearly 90% of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest." The city had a "policy of targeting expressly identified racial groups for stops in general," she noted. "Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates bedrock principles of equality," she ruled.

The ruling didn't sit well with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended and championed stop-and-frisk as an effective crime fighting measure. In remarks after the verdict, Bloomberg lashed out at the judge and the ruling.

"This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge who I don’t think understands how policing works," Bloomberg said."The judge clearly telegraphed her intentions, and she conveyed a disturbing disregard for the intentions of our police officers, who form the most diverse police department in the nation. We didn’t believe we got a fair trial," he complained.

“Our crime strategies and tools -- including stop, question, frisk -- have made New York the safest big city in America," Bloomberg said. "We go to where the reports of crime are," he added. "Those, unfortunately, happen to be poor neighborhoods, or minority neighborhoods.... There are always people that are afraid of police ... some of them come from cultures where police are the enemy. Here, the police department are our friends."

And the police know best, he added. "The public are not experts at policing," Bloomberg said. "Personally, I would rather have [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly decide how to keep my family safe, rather than having somebody on the street who says, 'Oh, I don’t like this.'"

But the Center for Constitutional Rights suggested that the mayor should grow up and do what's right.

"The NYPD is finally being held to account for its longstanding illegal and discriminatory policing practices," the group said in a statement Monday. "The City must now stop denying the problem and partner with the community to create a police department that protects the safety and respects the rights of all New Yorkers."

New York, NY
United States

Obama Discusses Race and Justice System in Trayvon Martin Remarks

Pres. Obama's remarks on the Trayvon Martin case dealt extensively with issues of racial bias in the criminal justice system (starting at about 4:30). Drug laws are briefly touched on (4:38). Obama discusses his work in Illinois's legislature passing racial profiling legislation (9:30).
 
Media have focused on Obama's past involvement in the racial profiling issue in recent days. An Associated Press article yesterday detailed his efforts in the the Illinois legislature to address the issue. In a piece on Salon.com this morning, Edward McClelland posted audio of an interview with the president last year, including a recording Obama played of a 2000 campaign ad highlighting racial profiling (at about 40:20).
 
Video of the speech and interview follow:
 
 
 

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