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Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Hearings on Marijuana Policy

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in a statement last Thursday that he intends to hold a hearing seeking information about how the Obama administration plans to respond to the successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Leahy said he expects to hold the hearing when Congress reconvenes early next year.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (leahy.senate.gov)
Leahy also released a letter he sent earlier this month to Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) asking him what recommendations the agency will make to the Justice Department and how, given the fiscal constraints the administration faces, it intends to use federal resources in light of the legalization votes in Colorado and Washington. The veteran Vermont lawmaker also asked Kerlikowske what assurances the administration can give to state officials responsible for the licensing of marijuana retailers to ensure they will face no criminal penalties for carrying out their duties under those state laws.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has a significant interest in the effect of these developments on federal drug control policy," Leahy wrote. "Legislative options exist to resolve the differences between federal and state law in this area and end the uncertainty that residents of Colorado and Washington now face. In order to give these options full consideration, the committee needs to understand how the administration intends to respond to the decision of the voters in Colorado and Washington.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter."

The Obama administration has yet to formally respond to the legalization votes, but Attorney General Eric Holder said last Wednesday the Justice Department will announce "relatively soon" where it stands on federal enforcement of the pot laws in the two states.

"There is a tension between federal law and these state laws,” Holder said in response to questions after a speech in Boston. "I would expect the policy pronouncement that we’re going to make will be done relatively soon."

A series of public opinion polls this month have found little public support for federal interference with state marijuana laws in states where it is legal, with majorities calling for the feds to keep out of the way. Support for federal non-interference is strongest among key Obama constituencies, including Democrats, independents, and young voters.

Washington, DC
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Senate Judiciary Committee to Take Up Legalization Next Year

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/pat-leahy.jpg
Pat Leahy
Huge news this morning: Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has sent a letter to the drug czar about the Washington and Colorado initiatives, Benjy Sarlin at Talking Points Memo noted today:

Leahy wants information:

How does the Office of National Drug Control Policy intend to prioritize Federal resources, and what recommendations are you making to the Department of Justice and other agencies in light of the choice by citizens of Colorado and Washington to legalize personal use of small amounts of marijuana? What assurance can and will the administration give to state officials involved in the licensing of marijuana retailers that they will not face Federal criminal penalties for carrying out duties assigned to them under state law?
 

But it's even bigger than that. Leahy is planning committee hearings on marijuana legalization, to include consideration of legislative options, including "amend[ing] the Federal Controlled Substances Act to allow possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, at least in jurisdictions where it is legal under state law."

I am wondering just how huge this may be. Leahy has good views, but he's also a careful senator who would not care to be at odds with his fellow Democratic committee members or the president. He's also a former prosecutor who dislikes uncertainty or disorder in the law and its implementation.

On the other side of the aisle are Tea Party and other Republicans who may or may not like legalization, mostly don't want to say so if they do, but have campaigned on states' rights. One Colorado Republican, Mike Coffman, has cosponsored a recent bill to allow for state marijuana legalization, despite having voted against the Colorado initiative himself. Word is that at least a couple more Republicans are likely ready to join the group. And recent polls have found that more Americans favor letting states decide about legalization than even support legalization. Micah Cohen at the FiveThirtyEight blog noted the CBS poll found 49% of people who oppose legalization favor letting states decide.

In any case things are further along in Congress than before. The Frank-Paul bill to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306, got a few Republicans, but the hard-line House Judiciary chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) would not allow hearings. (Smith was the only member of Congress to oppose crack sentencing reform -- our Judiciary Committee chair!) Incoming chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is said to be reasonable on some issues, but not particularly positive on ours. Still, given what happened last month and what is happening now, it may just look a little too bad for Goodlatte to disallow even hearings, as Republicans struggle to redefine their profile in the wake of a tough election for them.

Colorado US Representatives Move to Support Legal Marijuana

In the wake of this month's vote in Colorado to legalize marijuana, which won with 55% of the vote, a bipartisan group from the state's congressional delegation is stepping up in support of the voters' choice. Last Thursday, three Colorado members of the House (as well as 15 other representatives) sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to respect the state's new marijuana law. The following day, one of the same members of the Colorado delegation filed a bill that would ensure that the federal government does not override the vote in Colorado and in Washington, where a similar measure also passed.

The Obama administration should "take no action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate access to marijuana," the letter penned by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said. "The voters of these states chose, by a substantial margin, to forge a new and effective policy with respect to marijuana. The tide of public opinion is changing, both at the ballot box and in state legislatures across the country. We believe that the collective judgment of voters and state lawmakers must be respected."

Urging the administration to have a light touch is one thing; legislation requiring it to do so is another, and that's what Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) has introduced. Her bill, the Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act, filed with bipartisan support, would exempt states that have passed marijuana legalization from the marijuana provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"Today I am proud to join with colleagues from both sides of the aisle on the 'Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act' to protect states' rights and immediately resolve any conflict with the federal government. In Colorado we've witnessed the aggressive policies of the federal government in their treatment of legal medicinal marijuana providers. My constituents have spoken, and I don't want the federal government denying money to Colorado or taking other punitive steps that would undermine the will of our citizens," DeGette, of Denver, said in a statement.

"I strongly oppose the legalization of marijuana, but I also have an obligation to respect the will of the voters given the passage of this initiative, and so I feel obligated to support this legislation," said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO).

The bill has support from outside of Colorado and Washington, too.

"Residents of Colorado and Washington have made it clear that the public is ahead of the federal government in terms of marijuana legalization," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). "It’s time for Congress to pass legislation -- such as the 'Respect States' and Citizens' Rights Act' -- that allows states to implement their own laws in this area without fear of federal interference."

"All across the country, states are choosing to reform their marijuana laws. As Justice Brandeis observed, states are the 'laboratories of democracy' and they should be given the opportunity to go forward with this social experiment," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). "I'm proud to cosponsor this important bill, which will ensure that the federal government respects the people's judgment."

Washington, DC
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Law Enforcement Call on DOJ to Respect State Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

Tuesday morning, former Baltimore narcotics officer Neill Franklin delivered a letter signed by 73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents to Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department in downtown Washington , DC, urging him not to ignore the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington state who voted to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.

LEAP leader Neill Franklin delivers letters to the Justice Department. (leap.cc)
Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supported Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington. Both measures won with 55% of the vote in this month's elections.

"As fellow law enforcement and criminal justice professionals we respectfully call upon you to respect and abide by the democratically enacted laws to regulate marijuana in Colorado and Washington," the letter said. "This is not a challenge to you, but an invitation -- an invitation to help return our profession to the principles that made us enter law enforcement in the first place."

The Obama administration's response to the legalization votes could help define its place in the history books, LEAP warned.

"One day the decision you are about to make about whether or not to respect the people's will may well come to be the one for which you are known. The war on marijuana has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths both here and south of the border, it has empowered and expanded criminal networks and it has destroyed the mutual feeling of respect once enjoyed between citizens and police. It has not, however, reduced the supply or the demand of the drug and has only served to further alienate -- through arrest and imprisonment -- those who consume it," the letter said.

"At every crucial moment in history, there comes a time when those who derive their power from the public trust forge a new path by disavowing their expected function in the name of the greater good. This is your moment. As fellow officers who have seen the destruction the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, on our police forces, on our lives, we hope that you will join us in seeking a better world," the letter concluded.

The LEAP letter is only the latest manifestation of efforts by legalization supporters to persuade the federal government to stand back and not interfere with state-level attempts to craft schemes to tax and regulate marijuana commerce. Members of the Colorado congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would give the states freedom to act, while other members of Congress, notably Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), have called on the Obama administration to "respect the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington." Frank and Paul are cosponsors of a pending federal legalization bill.

"We have sponsored legislation at the federal level to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana because of our belief in individual freedom," Frank and Paul wrote in a letter to President Obama last week. "We recognize that this has not yet become national policy, but we believe there are many strong reasons for your administration to allow the states of Colorado and Washington to set the policies they believe appropriate in this regard, without the federal government overriding the choices made by the voters of these states."

"We seem to be at a turning point in how our society deals with marijuana," said Franklin Tuesday. "The war on marijuana has funded the expansion of drug cartels, it has destroyed community-police relations and it has fostered teenage use by creating an unregulated market where anyone has easy access. Prohibition has failed. Pretty much everyone knows it, especially those of us who dedicated our lives to enforcing it. The election results show that the people are ready to try something different. The opportunity clearly exists for President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do the right thing and respect the will of the voters."

"During his first term, President Obama really disappointed those of us who hoped he might follow through on his campaign pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws," continued Franklin. "Still, I'm hopeful that in his second term he'll realize the political opportunity that exists to do the right thing. Polls show 80% support for medical marijuana, and in Colorado marijuana legalization got more votes than the president did in this most recent election."

"From a public safety perspective, it's crucial that the Obama administration let Colorado and Washington fully implement the marijuana regulation laws that voters approved on Election Day," added LEAP member Tony Ryan, a retired 36-year Denver Police veteran. "There's nothing the federal government can do to force these states to arrest people for marijuana possession, but if it tries and succeeds in stopping the states from regulating and taxing marijuana sales, cartels and gangs will continue to make money selling marijuana to people on the illegal market. Plus, the states won't be able to take in any new tax revenue to fund schools."

At a Tuesday noon press conference, Franklin and other LEAP members hammered home the point.

"LEAP members have spent the majority of their careers on the front line of the war on drugs and have seen the failure of prohibition," he said. "We call now to end prohibition and embrace a new drug policy based on science, facts, and the medical field."

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper told the press conference the war on marijuana was essentially a war on youth, especially minority youth, that sours police-community relations.

"I have come to believe that the war on marijuana has made enemies of many law-abiding Americans, especially many young, black, Latino, and poor Americans," Stamper said. "The law and the mass incarceration behind it have set up a real barrier between police and the community, particularly ethnic communities."

Legalization and regulation will help change that negative dynamic, Stamper said.

"This frees up police to concentrate on violent, predatory crimes, those crimes that really scare people, drive property values down, and diminish the quality of our lives," he said. "We're convinced that by working with the community, including those victimized by these laws, we can build an authentic partnership between police and the community and create true community policing, which demands respect for local law enforcement. By legalizing we have a chance to significantly reduce race and class discrimination. Watch what we do, we will use these states as a laboratory, and the sky will not fall."

"I joined this movement when I was made aware the war on drugs was a war on our community," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "Instead of being protected, we were being targeted. We don't feel like the police are protecting us; instead, they have declared war on our young men and women. The amount of resources being used in this war to divide the community is why we have so many incidents between law enforcement and our community. We know that come Friday and Saturday night there will be a ring of law enforcement personnel ringing our community looking to make those low-level drug arrests."

"I believe the regulation and legalization of marijuana is not only long overdue, but will make our communities safer," Huffman continued. "I am very hopeful that our president, who has some experience of his own with marijuana use, which didn't prevent him from becoming a strong leader, will see the light and get rid of these approaches that do nothing but condemn our people to a life of crime because they have felonies and are no longer employable. Instead of treating them like criminals, maybe we can treat them like people with health problems."

The Obama administration has yet to respond substantively to this month's victories for marijuana legalization. Nothing it says or does will stop marijuana from becoming legal to possess (and to grow in Colorado) by next month in Washington and by early January at the latest in Colorado, but it could attempt to block state-level attempts to tax and regulate commercial cultivation and distribution, and it has some months to decide whether to do so. Tuesday's letter and press conference were part of the ongoing effort to influence the administration to, as Franklin put it, "do the right thing."

Washington, DC
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Medical Marijuana Stock Prices Soar Following Legalization Votes

The Medical Marijuana Business Daily reports that several publicly traded companies serving the medical cannabis industry have soared in the stock market since the election:

Investors pumped money into the sector after Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis for recreational use and Massachusetts passed medical marijuana legislation. In some cases, MMJ-related stocks hit new highs and saw record trading activity, with millions of shares changing hands vs. tens of thousands on a typical day. That’s particularly impressive given that the overall stock market plunged after the election.
 

Yahoo finance chart for one of the medical marijuana companies
The Daily notes the stocks have dropped somewhat since then, and that not every cannabis business saw its stocks rise with the election. Nevertheless, "the increased investor interest in cannabis bodes well for the future of the industry," they write, "which could grow by leaps and bounds over the next year."

Are the buyers who drove stock prices up last week right to be optimistic? Looking at the market to predict the future of drug policy is kind of like using Intrade to predict a presidential election -- only time will tell at this point. But investors are doubtless thinking about a lot of the same things that we are right now: Will the passage of initiatives to legalize marijuana create political pressure on federal officials to ease up on the medical marijuana industry, or on Congress? How will the feds respond to the legalization votes? They must also wonder, if legalization systems do get established in these states, how will that affect the people (many of them our friends) who've risked much to build a medical marijuana industry serving patients there -- will they be winners or losers in that new business environment?

In the long run, I believe the answer to the first question at least is "yes" -- states enacting marijuana legalization will ultimately put pressure on all the branches of government to do something to accommodate it, while giving an advantage to our allies in government in their efforts to change things. More states will certainly do this, given where public opinion seems headed -- the questions for investors in marijuana are how long that will take, and whether their businesses will survive until then. For advocates, the question is how many lives will be needlessly ruined (again, many of them of our friends) by prohibition in the meanwhile.

Colorado Dems to Seek Federal Exemption from Marijuana Prohibition

All three Democratic members of Colorado's Congressional delegation are planning legislation for next year that would exempt states enacting legalization systems for marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. According to the Colorado Independent:

Congressional staffers told the Independent that Colorado Reps Diana DeGette (CD1), Ed Perlmutter (CD7) and Jared Polis (CD2) are working independently and together on bills that would exempt states where pot has been legalized from the Controlled Substances Act.
 

DeGette Chief of Staff Lisa Cohen told the Independent that proposals the representatives are working on would alter section 903 of the act to allow states to establish their own marijuana laws free from federal preemption.

Winning has consequences. Of the three of them, it was only Polis from Colorado who had previously signed on to H.R. 2306, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. DeGette and Perlmutter did cosponsor legislation to protect medical marijuana dispensaries' ability to do banking. But now all three of them seem not only willing to take on prohibition, but eager.

H.R. 2306 has garnered 21 cosponsors, including 19 Democrats and two Republicans. Some of those are leaving Congress at the end of their current terms -- Ron Paul (R-TX) is retiring, as is the legislation's sponsor, Barney Frank (D-MA). Pete Stark (D-CA) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) lost their seats after redistricting forced them to run against other Democrats.

Paul and Frank in particular were particularly active champions of drug reform, but Stark and Kucinich were among our champions too. Polis is certainly eager to take the lead on these issues; another H.R. 2306, Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) posted on his Facebook page last Thursday, "We must be rational about its medical use, then move to legalize it." Hopefully we'll find enough support in the new Congress to move reform forward

A final note on H.R. 2306: One of the things we heard from activists was that they were too discouraged to work on passing the bill, because it wasn't going anywhere -- hardline Judiciary chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) wasn't going to allow hearings, and passing it after hearings didn't seem likely. I hope that people will reconsider that. Think about how long people worked before it became possible to pass these initiatives on the ballot. It just takes awhile to move legislation in Congress too, but that doesn't mean that progress isn't being made.

In fact it's the opposite -- when members of Congress see their constituents working for something, lobby them, building coalitions and so forth, and when they see other members of Congress supporting them, over time more of them become willing to sign on to bills or to expend political capital moving them forward. Eventually a bill moves, or more likely, its language or something like it gets included in a larger piece of legislation, when it's introduced or through an amendment. In the meanwhile, we have to do as much as we can to build that support and awareness on the part of members of Congress, so they'll think of us and our issues when there's a new chairman or some other window of opportunity is opened.

One small way to do that is to use our web site to email your representatives in Congress asking them to support H.R. 2306. Some of them will not be returning to Congress in January, when a new version of the bill will have to be offered, but many of them will be. Of course sending an email is just the bare beginning -- we will be organizing a second teleconference in the near future to talk about more.

November 6: An Election to Stop the Drug War [FEATURE]

We are now only five days away from Election Day, and it's starting to look very much like at least one state will vote to legalize marijuana, possibly two, and, if the gods are really smiling down, three. It's also looking like there will soon be at least one more medical marijuana state, and like California will finally reform its three strikes sentencing law.

Amendment 64 billboard (regulatemarijuana.org)
There are also local initiatives on the ballot in California, Massachusetts, and Michigan, including a Detroit initiative that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce at home by adults. And there are races for elected office that merit watching, the most interesting of which is probably former El Paso city councilmember and legalization supporter Beto O'Rourke, who is running for Congress. O'Rourke already knocked off Democratic incumbent drug warrior Sylvestre Reyes in the primary and appears ready to cruise to victory Tuesday.

The Chronicle will be in Denver election night for what we hope is the making of history. On Tuesday night and into the wee hours Wednesday morning, we will be posting relevant election results as fast as we can get our hands on them. In the meantime, here's what we'll be watching:

Marijuana Legalization Initiatives

Colorado -- Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana or six marijuana plants, three of which could be mature. It would create a system of state-licensed cultivation, manufacturing, and testing facilities and state-licensed retail stores. Local governments would have the option of regulating or prohibiting such facilities. The amendment would also require the state legislature to enact legislation governing industrial hemp cultivation, processing, and sale, and to create an excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales. The first $40 million of that annual revenue would be dedicated to building public schools.

Amendment 64 has been hovering right around 50% in recent polls, but was at 53% with only 5% undecided in the most recent poll. The final push is on. The Chronicle will be reporting from Denver Tuesday night.

Oregon -- Measure 80, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA), would create an Oregon Cannabis Commission to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, but not industrial hemp, which would be allowed, but not regulated by the commission. The commission would grant licenses to cultivate marijuana for sale to it by "all qualified applicants" and would sell marijuana at state retail stores at prices it determines. Medical marijuana patients would have their medicine provided at cost. OCTA would supersede all state and local laws regarding marijuana, except for impaired driving laws, leaving personal possession and cultivation by adults unregulated.

Measure 80, which came late to the ballot and which has been chronically underfunded since making the ballot, has trailed consistently in the polls. The most recent poll had it losing 42% to 49%, but the campaign bravely says the polls are undercounting supporter and it can still win.

Washington -- Initiative 502 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over, but does not allow for personal cultivation, except by or for medical marijuana patients. It would license marijuana cultivation and retail and wholesale sales, with restrictions on advertising. Regulation would be the remit of the state liquor control board, which would have to come up with rules by December 2013. The measure would create a 25% excise tax on marijuana sales, with 40% of revenues dedicated to the general fund and 60% dedicated to substance abuse prevention, research, and healthcare. It would create a per se driving under the influence standard of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

The I-502 campaign has raised more than $5 million and assembled an all-star cast of establishment law enforcement and political endorsers. Polling almost universally at more than 50%, this looks like an even better shot for legalization to pass than Colorado.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas -- The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act would allow patients suffering from specified diseases or medical conditions to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It envisions a system of state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries, and would allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own only if they are not within five miles of a dispensary. In that case, patients could grow up to six flowering plants. Patients could possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana.

Known as Issue 5 on the ballot, the Arkansas initiative is the first one in the South, and if it wins, it would be the first southern state to embrace medical marijuana. But the most recent polls have rising opposition. Issue 5 was in a virtual dead heat with a 47% to 46% lead in late July, but last week, the same pollster had it trailing 38% to 54%.

Massachusetts -- Question 3 would allow people suffering from a debilitating medical condition to use medical marijuana upon the recommendation of a doctor with whom they have a bona fide relationship. Patients could possess up to a 60-day supply -- what constitutes that supply will be determined by the Department of Health. The initiative would also set up a system of nonprofit medical marijuana cultivation and distribution centers.

While vocal opposition has arisen in the final weeks of the campaign, Question 3 has enjoyed a commanding lead throughout and appears well-placed to join the ranks of Northeastern medical marijuana states on Tuesday.

Montana -- Initiative Referendum 124 would undo the gutting of the state's medical marijuana program through the passage last year of Senate Bill 423. That bill replaced the voter-approved medical marijuana program, which allowed for dispensary sales, with a new scheme that limited providers to serving only three patients, prohibited providers from accepting anything of value in exchange for products or services, granted local governments the power to regulate providers, tightened standards for demonstrating chronic pain, and demanded reviews of doctors who certified more than 25 patients in a one-year period.

The campaigners behind IR-124 are in the unique position of hoping it loses. That's because a "yes" vote endorses the legislature's gutting of the state's medical marijuana law last year, while a "no" vote rejects it and restores the voter-approved 2004 law. Polling has been scarce, but one recent poll had IR-124 losing (and more access to medical marijuana winning) with 44% of the vote.

Sentencing

California -- Proposition 36 would reform the state's three strikes law, which allows a life sentence for a third felony conviction. The measure would allow life sentences only if the new felony conviction is "serious or violent," authorize re-sentencing for lifers if their third conviction was not "serious or violent" and if a judge determines their release would not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety, allow life sentences if the third conviction was for "certain non-serious, non-violent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession," and keep the life sentence for felons whose previous convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation. If approved by voters, some 3,000 three strikes lifers could seek reductions.

This stealth initiative has gone almost unnoticed amidst a plethora of other state-level initiatives, but appears poised to win. Of four recent polls, three had it at 63% or higher, while the only poll in which it wasn't over 50% had it leading 44% to 22%, with a huge 34% undecided.

Local Initiatives

California -- A number of towns, mostly in the San Diego area, will vote on local initiatives to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. Those include Del Mar, Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove, and Solana Beach, as well as Palo Alto. The town of Dunsmuir will vote on whether to loosen cultivation regulations.

Colorado -- Fort Collins will be voting on whether to overturn the ban on dispensaries voted in last November, and Berthoud will be voting on whether to allow dispensaries.

Massachusetts -- In a continuation of work done in the past six election cycles, voters in a number of legislative districts will be asked a non-binding public policy question. In the First Essex and Middlesex Senate District, the Eighth Essex House District, and the Twenty-Second Essex House District voters will be asked whether they support repeal of the "federal prohibition of marijuana, as the 21st Amendment repealed national prohibition of alcohol, so that states may regulate it as they choose?" Voters in the Second Middlesex Senate District, the Middlesex and Suffolk Senate District, and the Second Berkshire House District will answer a similar question.

Michigan -- Voters in Detroit and Flint will vote on marijuana legalization initiatives, voters in Grand Rapids will vote on decriminalization, Kalamazoo will vote on an initiative to allow dispensaries, and Ypsilanti will vote on a lowest law enforcement priority initiative.

Drug Policy and the Presidential Election

Drug policy has pretty much been a non-issue in the presidential campaign. The one place where marijuana policy positions could influence the statewide electoral outcome is Colorado. Marijuana is a big issue in the state, not only because Amendment 64 is on the ballot, but also because of the ongoing war of attrition waged against dispensaries there by the DEA and the US Attorney. (The Colorado Patient Voters Project tracks federal activity against medical marijuana in the state, as does our own Medical Marijuana Update series, accessible with other relevant reporting in our medical marijuana archive section.)

And it's a tight race where one third party candidate in particular, Gary Johnson, is making a strong run and exploiting his popular legalization position on marijuana. While the Real Clear Politics average of Colorado polls has Obama up 48.2% to Romney's 47.7%, the race tightens up when Johnson is included in the polls, even though who he hurts more varies from poll to poll.

If Obama loses Colorado, be prepared for the argument that he did so at least in part because of his poor positions on marijuana.

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

At NORML, A Sharp Focus on the Marijuana Initiatives [FEATURE]

The 41st National NORML conference took place at a downtown Los Angeles hotel over the weekend under the theme of "The Final Days of Prohibition." With marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two others, the several hundred attendees could almost smell the scent of victory come election day -- or at least a historic first win for legalization.

Rick Steves, Keith Stroup, Ethan Nadelmann, Brian Vicente for OR Amendment 64, Roy Kaufman for OR Measure 80 (radicalruss.com)
"This is a great movement, not because it's about marijuana, but because it's a movement about truth and freedom, the freedom to live our private lives as we wish," NORML board chairman Paul Kuhn told the crowd in his conference-opening remarks. "A White House that serves liquor, a president who smoked a lot of marijuana, and a speaker of the house who is addicted to nicotine -- they have no business demonizing us because we prefer a substance less dangerous than liquor or alcohol."

For Kuhn, as for many others at the conference, supporting the legalization initiatives was front and center. (While grumbling and gnashing of teeth was heard among some attendees, particularly over the Washington initiative's drugged driving provision, no initiative opponents were seen on any of the panels or presentations.)

"We're beyond the concept of legalization. Now, we're supporting real laws, and no law will satisfy everybody in this movement," Kuhn continued, implicitly acknowledging the dissension around the Washington initiative. "We have our differences, sometimes heated, and this is healthy and necessary if we are to evolve and craft the best laws and regulations, the best form of legalization. All of us in this movement are allies, we're friends, we share the same goals of truth and freedom and legal marijuana. We have worked too hard for too many years to let our opponents divide us, or worse, divide ourselves."

"These are the final days of prohibition. The data is clear," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, pointing not only to public opinion polls but also to the political reality of the initiatives and the progress the movement has made in Congress and the states. "We have a cannabis caucus in our Congress and in the state houses, and we helped get them elected. There are 15 or 20 members of Congress who are genuine supporters of ending prohibition, most of them are Democrats. In the states, we now have sitting governors and representatives calling us and saying 'we want your support, your endorsement, your money.'"

 With the initiatives looming, much of the conference was devoted to the minutiae and arcana of legalization, regulation, and taxation models. Thursday afternoon saw extended discussions in panels on "Cannabis Legalization and Regulation: What it Might Look Like" and "Cannabis and the 'Demo' Gap: Who Doesn't Support Legalization and What We Can Do about It."

"How do we win the hearts and minds of non-smokers?" asked Patrick Oglesby of the Center for New Revenue. "The revenue card is one we can play. That gives people something to vote for. Every state in the union legalizes and taxes alcohol and tobacco. Revenue from marijuana isn't going to fix our economic problems, but let's start with the easy stuff, let's fix this and get some revenues."

"At least one state will tip in November, and others will follow," predicted Pepperdine University researcher and Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know coauthor Angela Hawken. "Parents will wake up and realize their children didn't turn into zombies."

Parents -- and mothers in particular -- are a key demographic that must be won over if marijuana legalization is to advance, and the way to win them over is to address their fears, panelists said.

"Women are more safety conscious and they tend to believe authority," noted NORML Women's Alliance coordinator Sabrina Fendrick. "They just need to be educated. Proposition 19 failed in large part because of women and seniors. Many were concerned over the driving issue and children being on the road with stoned drivers. The way to bring support up is to educate them about the difference between use and abuse, and to make women who support legalization feel safe about coming out."

The NORML Women's Alliance is working on that, and on increasing the number of female activists in a movement that has been male-dominated from the outset.

Law enforcement is another key bastion of opposition to legalization, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) representative Steven Downing told the audience the key to swaying law enforcement was not in the rank and file, but at the pinnacle of the command structure.

"We have to influence change at the top," he said. "When that comes, the young officers on the street will do as they're told. Many of them already agree with legalizing marijuana. Don't treat the police as the enemy, but as people who can benefit from the education you can give them. Do it in a way that they're not defensive, then refer them to LEAP," the former LAPD officer suggested. "Tell them that if they support the war on drugs, they're not supporting public safety."

On Friday, longtime Seattle marijuana activist-turned-journalist Dominic Holden gave a spirited defense of Washington's I-502 initiative and ripped into its movement critics, including calling out NORML board member and Seattle defense attorney Jeff Steinborn, who has been a vocal foe of the initiative despite a unanimous board vote to support it.

"Who is opposing 502?" Holden asked. "The law enforcement opposition has been quiet and halfhearted. It's Steve Sarich, who runs CannaCare, it's cannabis doc Gil Mobley, and a whole passel of pot activists along with them. The ones opposing pot legalization right now are the ones making money hand over fist with prohibition. If they're profiting off it, I don't give a rat's ass what they think," he said.

"They don't like the DUID provision and its per se standard. They say that someone who uses marijuana regularly will test positive, but there is not a single scientific study to back them up. Their argument is fundamentally flawed because it is a lie," Holden countered, mincing no words.

"There is also concern that if we pass it, the federal government will challenge us on legalizing pot. That's the damned point!" he thundered.

"But marijuana is going to be taxed, they complain. Shut up, Teabaggers!" Holden jeered. "What planet do you live on where they're not going to tax a huge agricultural commodity?"

He pointed out that Steinborn and Sensible Washington, who are opposing I-502, had tried unsuccessfully to mount an initiative of their own.

"If you want to run a winning campaign, you need a bunch of money, credible spokespeople, campaign professionals, and the polling on your side," he said. "Part of that is compromise. You don't always get what you want, you don't always get the initiative of your dreams. What you want is a bill that can win."

"This is poll driven," said travel writer, TV host, and I-502 proponent Rick Steves. "It isn't a utopian fix. We need to win this. This doesn't feel pro-pot, but anti-prohibition."

"Regulate marijuana like alcohol is our message," said Sensible Colorado head and Amendment 80 proponent Brian Vicente. "We don't talk about legalization, but regulation. We've built support for this through two avenues, medical marijuana, where we've worked hard to make our state a model for how it can be taxed and regulated, but also through consistent earned media pushes and ballot initiatives to introduce the public to the idea that this isn’t the demon weed. We're consistently ahead five to ten points in the polls. We think this will be a damned close election."

When Vicente noted that the Colorado initiative had no drugged driving provision, he was met with loud applause. 

Drug Policy Alliance
head Ethan Nadelmann provided a primer on what major donors look for when it comes to supporting initiatives.

"We don't pick out a state in advance," he explained. "We want to know at the get-go if there is already a serious majority in favor of legalization. To think you can use a campaign to move the public is not true; the role of the ballot process is to transform majoritarian public opinion into law when the state legislature is unable or unwilling to do so. You want to go in with 57% or 58% on your side. Anything short of that, you're going to lose."

And watch out for October, he warned.

"In the final weeks, the opposition mobilizes," Nadelmann said. "You get the cops, the politicians, the feds speaking out and scaring people -- that's why these are hard to win, and that's why I'm still really nervous."

Still, the Drug Policy Alliance is deeply involved in Colorado and has put a lot of money into Washington, Nadelmann said, while noting that the Marijuana Policy Project had also put big bucks into Colorado.

"We have to win this year so we can figure out how to win a bunch more in 2016," Nadelmann said, adding that he was looking toward California. "We're going to try to put together the best and most winnable legalization initiative in California in 2016.

NORML 2012 wasn't all about the initiatives -- there were also panels on advances in medical marijuana, advances in the Northeast, and the role of women in the movement, among others, and a rousing speech from long-time anti-war activist Tom Hayden and a new-born movement star in Ann Lee, the mother of Richard Lee -- but with the marijuana legalization movement looking like it's about to step foot in the Promised Land after decades in the political wilderness, next month's elections dominated. The prospect of imminent victory really focuses the mind.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Drug Sentences Driving Federal Prison Population Growth, Government Report Finds

In a report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that growth in the federal prison population is outstripping the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) rated capacity to house prisoners and that the bulge in federal prisoners is largely attributable to drug prisoners and longer sentences for them. That growing inmate overcrowding negatively affects inmates, staff, and BOP infrastructure, the GAO said.

The federal prison population increased 9.5% from Fiscal Year 2006 through FY 2011, exceeding a 7% increase in rated capacity. Although BOP increased the number of available beds by 8,300 during that period by opening five new facilities (and closing four minimum security camps), the number of prisons where overcrowding is occurring increased from 36% to 39%, with BOP forecasting overcrowding increasing to encompass 45% of prisons through 2018.

The drug war and harsh federal drug sentencing are the main drivers of the swelling federal prison population. The GAO reported that 48% of federal prisoners were drug offenders last year, and that the average sentence length for federal drug prisoners is now 2 ½ times longer than before federal anti-drug legislation passed in the mid-1980s.There are also now more than 100,000 federal drug prisoners, more than the total number of federal prisoners as recently as 20 years ago.

The negative effects of federal prison overcrowding include "increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios," the report found. All of those "contribute to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and staff." The report also noted that "BOP officials and union representatives voiced concerns about a serious incident [read: riot] occurring."

For this report, the GAO also examined prison populations in five states and actions those states have taken to reduce populations. It found that the states "have modified criminal statutes and sentencing, relocated inmates to local facilities, and provided inmates with additional opportunities for early release."

Noting that the BOP does not have the authority to modify sentences or sentencing, it nevertheless identified possible means for Congress to address federal prison overcrowding. It could reduce inmate populations by reforming sentencing laws or it could increase capacity by building more prisons, or some combination of the two.

Or it could remove drug control from the ambit of criminal justice altogether and treat the use and distribution of currently illegal drugs as a public health problem.

Washington, DC
United States

The GOP Platform on Crime and Drugs

With Republican delegates now gone home after their national convention in Tampa, this is as good a time as any to examine their official position on crime and drugs. The 2012 GOP Platform lays it out, and reformers may find a few things to be pleasantly surprised about, at least if elected Republicans actually adhere to their party's official positions.

What may be most significant is what isn't in the platform: Four years ago, the GOP platform had a whole section devoted to the war on drugs. That has vanished this time around.

But reformers still won't find too much to make them smile. In the platform section titled "Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform," after the boilerplate language about how "strong families and caring communities supported by excellent law enforcement" are the most effective forces in reducing crime, the Republicans get to it:

"Our national experience over the last several decades has shown that citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims’ rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the streets," the platform reads. "Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: Criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder... We oppose parole for dangerous or repeat felons…"

But even the GOP, and, more broadly, conservatives are coming to understand that being "tough on crime" is not enough, as evidenced by the formation of the conservative Smart on Crime Coalition, some of whose positions appear to have been incorporated into the platform:

"While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization," the platform states.

It goes on to endorse state and local initiatives, such as "accountability courts," or the drug court model, and calls for government to work with faith-based institutions to try to divert first-time, nonviolent offenders -- although it doesn't say it wants to divert them from the criminal justice system, just from "criminal careers." The platform does, however, call for supporting state and local initiatives "trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

The platform of the party of small government and states' rights also laments that federal law enforcement has "been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses," noting that the number of federal offenses has increased by almost 50% since the 1980s.

"Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property -- and leave the rest to the states," the platform says. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created 'tens of thousands' of criminal offenses... In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the state or local level."

There it is, the official platform of the Republican Party this year. One mention of drug dealers, one mention of drug users, no mentions of medical marijuana or marijuana legalization, but some hints that the GOP could live with some experimentation in the states and a smaller federal enforcement arm.

Tampa, FL
United States

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