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Call-In: The National Criminal Justice Commission Act

Today is the National Call-In Day to pass a very important bill, Sen. Jim Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Read more about the NCJCA here.

Last year the Act passed the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, but despite having similar support in the Senate did not make the calendar. Please call the US Senate leadership today (or on the first possible business day when you see this) and ask them to prioritize and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, S. 306:

  • US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), 202-224-3542
  • US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 202-224-3135

When you are done, please use our web site to email your own US Representative and your two US Senators in support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. You can also use our web site to look up who your members of Congress are and their phone numbers. Please forward this email to spread the word too.

Following are some taking points to assist you with your call:

  • I am calling to ask the senator to support immediate Senate passage of S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.
  • The proposed commission would review the criminal justice system, identify programs and policies that promote public safety, and urge but not mandate reform of policies and practices that aren't working.
  • One policy that needs review is mandatory minimum sentencing. Thousands of offenders receive lengthy mandatory terms. These sentences have filled prisons across the country well beyond capacity.
  • The current incarceration rate comes at a high cost to taxpayers, families and communities.
  • Passage of S. 306 will lead to a more effective and just system. Please pass the bill.

Thank you for supporting this important effort -- send us an email to let us know you took action and how it went!

Montana to Feds: Let Our Medical Marijuana Patients Have Guns

Montana's attorney general has become the latest high-ranking political figure in Big Sky Country to blast the Obama administration and its Department of Justice over a September 21 memo from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) instructing federal licensed firearms dealers that medical marijuana patients are "addicts" or "Illegal drug users" who cannot be sold firearms or ammunition. [Editor's Note: See our September 28 feature article on the issue here.] Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) now joins the entire state congressional delegation in blasting the administration's position.

Montana, which legalized medical marijuana through a popular vote in 2004, has more than 24,000 registered medical marijuana patients. It also has more than 200,000 hunters and issued more than 580,000 hunting licenses last year.

In a letter sent Monday to US Attorney General Eric Holder, Bullock strongly objected to the ATF's "unilateral" approach to the issue and said he was willing to explore "reasonable solutions" to the problems created by the AFT letter. The goal would be to find an approach that works for the 16 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, he said.

"This would be much better than the type of unilateral proclamation represented by the ATF letter, which was issued without any advance notice or discussion with the elected officials who represent more than one-fourth of this nation's population and one-third of its states," Bullock wrote. "In the meantime, I respectfully request that the Department of Justice not pursue any criminal prosecutions against law-abiding citizens in Montana who exercise their constitutional rights to possess guns and enjoy hunting, or the licensees who are implicitly threatened by ATF's letter."

The ATF memo warns dealers they cannot sell guns or ammo to medical marijuana users "even if the person uses it in full compliance with state law that authorizes its use for medical purposes," Bullock complained. "The letter even takes it a step further by emphasizing that ATF is placing the responsibility on licensees to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe that the purchaser did not accurately fill out the ATF forms," he said.

While recognizing the supremacy clause in the US Constitution, Bullock added that the AFT memo raised constitutional issues around the right to bear arms, equal protection, and due process. "In our federal system of dual sovereignty, I respectfully suggest that the federal government should act in a careful manner when its laws and policies involve conflicts with those of the state," he said.

Bullock is just the latest high-ranking Montana elected official to come out swinging against the ATF memo. Last week, Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D) joined US Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) in criticizing the federal move.

In a letter last Wednesday to Holder and memo author Arthur Herbert, ATF assistant director for enforcement, Tester urged them to "immediately reconsider this misguided effort."

"These regulatory changes infringe upon the privacy and Second Amendment rights of Montanans while placing an unreasonable burden upon the small-business owners who sell firearms and ammunition," Tester said. "It is unacceptable that law-abiding citizens would be stripped of their Second Amendment rights simply because they hold a state-issued card authorizing the possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Tester's colleague Max Baucus also chimed in. "Our Second Amendment rights are a part of who we are as Montanans, and I’ve always fought hard to protect our right to bear arms," Baucus said. "I’m concerned to hear ATF may be impeding the rights of law-abiding folks. Individual gun rights must be protected and I’ll never stop fighting to make sure they stay intact."

A spokesman for Rep. Rehberg told the Billings Gazette that he, too, opposed the policy. "Between the ATF clamping down on gun rights and two new anti-gun Supreme Court justices, Montanans’ Second Amendment rights are once again under fire from Washington," spokesman Jed Link said Thursday. "Denny’s going to keep fighting to protect this critical right from Washington overreach, whether it is legislative, executive or judicial."

The criticisms from high-ranking elected officials come on the heels of angry reactions last week from medical marijuana advocates and gun rights advocates in Montana. In a fiercely divided state, the ATF memo has managed to unite Republicans and Democrats, at least on one issue.

MT
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

Washington, DC
United States

ALERT: Congress Must Pass Sentencing Reform

Twenty-five years ago Congress enacted severe mandatory minimum sentences, condemning thousands of mostly low-level, mostly nonviolent drug offenders to years, sometimes decades in prison. In part because of these and similar "sentencing guideline" penalties, the United States now suffers from an incarceration rate unprecedented in the history of our own country or any other.

Last year Congress took a modest step in the right direction, unanimously passing the Fair Sentencing Act -- raising the quantities of crack cocaine needed to trigger certain infamous five- and ten-year sentences, and eliminating mandatory minimums for crack possession. But much, much more is needed to address these unjust and exorbitantly expensive sentencing laws.

Please write Congress today to call for passage of the following important bills:

  • H.R. 2303, the "Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act," sponsored by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) -- eliminates mandatory minimums to reduce the incentive prosecutors have to go after large numbers of low-level offenders.
  • H.R. 2316 and H.R. 2242, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), bills to make last year's crack sentencing reforms retroactive; and to continue the reform by eliminating "cocaine base" from the federal code entirely, thereby reducing penalties further to reach the same level as powder cocaine offenses.

When you are done, please make a call, send a letter or pay a visit to your US Representative and your two US Senators to urge them to pass sentencing reform -- you can reach them via the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or look them up on our web site. Please use our tell-a-friend form to spread the word about this important legislation too.

Every day that passes without sentencing reform is a day that thousands of people who don't need to be in prison, who may have never deserved to go there, continue to languish needlessly behind bars, separated from their friends and families who want them back. Thank you for taking action.


Ongoing reporting on drug sentencing is available on our web site
here, or by RSS feed here.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy "Legalize It!" Party

Dear David,

Everyone in the nation's capital seems to be talking about marijuana policy. Well, here's your chance to join the conversation! On Wednesday, September 14th, Students for Sensible Drug Policy will be hosting our first annual Washington, DC reception to thank our students and allies for their amazing work and support for marijuana legalization.   

We're particularly excited to announce our special guests - Niambe Tosh, daughter of legendary musician Peter Tosh, The Wire's Tray 'Poot' Chaney, and the Honorable Jared Polis (D-CO)!  

  • Date: Wednesday, September 14th 
  • Time: 6-10pm
  • Location: K St. Lounge, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, DC 
  • Tickets & more info: legalizeit.eventbrite.com

Please invite all your friends by sending them this linklegalizeit.eventbrite.com

Can't wait to see you there!

Sincerely,

Irina Alexander
Chair, Board of Directors
Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Connect with SSDP

 

Date: 
Wed, 09/14/2011 - 6:00pm - 10:00pm
Location: 
1301 K St. NW
Washington, DC
United States

Please Support Our New Legislative Center

Dear drug policy reformer:

I am pleased to announce the new StoptheDrugWar.org Legislative Center. The Legislative Center can be accessed online here or by following the "Legislation" link from any page on our web site. The Legislative Center already includes:

  • Info on hundreds of drug policy and related bills in Congress and the state legislatures, organized by issue category.
  • An expanded set of federal action alerts. (State alerts coming next.)
  • Legislative vote tallies and legislator voting records.
  • Additional resources like a media outlet lookup, a basic how to guide for lobbying Congress and a voter registration tool.

Some of the highlights you'll find there:

  • Legalization and decriminalization bills from 18 states and Congress.
  • Zip code lookup of state legislators and US Representatives -- how they voted, their bios and histories, how to contact them.
  • Alerts to take action on marijuana legalization, medical marijuana, sentencing reform, stopping new drug prohibitions and a commission to revamp the criminal justice system.

Please visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate to support this new and expanded part of our online publishing. We need your support in these challenging economic times to afford the legislative tracking and advocacy system that makes it possible for us to do this, and to continue to take further steps to expand our advocacy programs. StoptheDrugWar.org offers a range of books, videos and other items in thanks for donations above specified levels.

We also need volunteers. There's a lot of information in our Legislative Center now, but there is more that can be done -- finding any bills we may have missed, spotting new bills as they come out, tracking the legislation we know about, more. Please use our contact form or reply to this email to let us know if you'd like to get involved.

Thank you for being a part of changing drug policy, for the better!


Sincerely,

David Borden signature

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

Presenting: The StoptheDrugWar.org Legislative Center

Dear drug policy reformer:

I am pleased to announce the new StoptheDrugWar.org Legislative Center. The Legislative Center can be accessed online here or by following the "Legislation" link from any page on our web site. The Legislative Center already includes:

  • Info on hundreds of drug policy and related bills in Congress and the state legislatures, organized by issue category.
  • An expanded set of federal action alerts. (State alerts coming next.)
  • Legislative vote tallies and legislator voting records.
  • Additional resources like a media outlet lookup, a basic how to guide for lobbying Congress and a voter registration tool.

Some of the highlights you'll find there:

  • Legalization and decriminalization bills from 18 states and Congress.
  • Zip code lookup of state legislators and US Representatives -- how they voted, their bios and histories, how to contact them.
  • Alerts to take action on marijuana legalization, medical marijuana, sentencing reform, stopping new drug prohibitions and a commission to revamp the criminal justice system.

Please visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate to support this new and expanded part of our online publishing. We need your support in these challenging economic times to afford the legislative tracking and advocacy system that makes it possible for us to do this, and to continue to take further steps to expand our advocacy programs. StoptheDrugWar.org offers a range of books, videos and other items in thanks for donations above specified levels.

We also need volunteers. There's a lot of information in our Legislative Center now, but there is more that can be done -- finding any bills we may have missed, spotting new bills as they come out, tracking the legislation we know about, more. Please use our contact form or reply to this email to let us know if you'd like to get involved.

Thank you for being a part of changing drug policy, for the better!


Sincerely,

David Borden signature

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

New Drugs Get Same Old Response on Capitol Hill [FEATURE]

Confronted with the rising popularity of new synthetic drugs, Congress is responding in a reflexive prohibitionist manner. Last month, bills aimed at banning the substances moved forward in Congress, despite the protests of advocates and businessmen that lawmakers are simply repeating the mistakes of drug prohibition.

Congress never met a new drug it didn't want to ban. (image via Wikimedia)
The bills are aimed at two distinct classes of designer drugs -- synthetic cannabinoids or fake marijuana sold under names such as Spice and K2, and the synthetic methcathinone derivatives mephedrone and MDVP commonly sold as "bath salts" under names such as Ivory Wave that produce a high likened to those of cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy.

A number of states have moved against fake weed or bath salts or both. In action earlier this year, the DEA imposed a temporary emergency ban on fake weed, but it has not moved yet against bath salts. Now, Congress is poised to get in on the action.

H.R. 1254
, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 and its Senate companion bill, S. 605 would make both fake marijuana and bath salts Schedule I controlled substances, like LSD, heroin, and marijuana. They also attempt to block new designer drugs by banning whole classes of similar chemical compounds. And they seek to expand the period for which the DEA can impose an emergency ban on a new drug, which the agency did earlier this year with synthetic cannabinoids. That bill was moving in House committees last week. 

Two other bills that would do essentially the same thing have also been filed in the Senate. They are S. 409, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and S. 839, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). These bills, though, are aimed only at bath salts. (An additional House bill, H.R. 1571, identified by the Library of Congress legislative tracking system as related to S. 409, has not moved out of committee.)

The bath salts drugs have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake weed has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers warned in May that it had seen a nine-fold increase in bath salts-related calls over the previous year, and that was with less than half the year gone. Last year, centers reported 302 calls; as of May of this year, they had received more than 2,200 calls.

That would clearly seem to suggest that use of bath salts is on the rise, but what it means beyond that is not so clear. Without a handle on actual use levels, it is difficult to determine how frequent such adverse reactions are, or how they compare to reported adverse events with other drugs.

Still, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said the substances are the worst he has seen in 20 years at the poison center. "These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others," he said.

Oddly enough, for drugs that are touted as being so horrible, evidence from Britain suggests that somebody likes them quite a bit. According to a report last month in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

"The legal status wasn't considered important," said Fiona Measham, a criminology lecturer who led the research. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."

"Ivory Wave" is one popular brand of mephedrone. (image via Wikimedia)
But Congress isn't paying attention to foreign researchers. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a hearing last week, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

"We are in a new era of drugs," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), as she prepared to deal with them with the same tired approach Congress has taken with other drugs -- by banning them.

There is a better way, said reform advocates and representative of trade groups.

"Lawmakers are poised to repeat mistakes from the past by creating ineffective laws that will criminalize more people and drive these substances into the illicit market," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. "History has clearly shown that prohibiting a drug makes it more dangerous, not less. Instead of more failed drug prohibition, Congress would be much more successful with an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls. To best reduce the harms of these drugs, Congress should instead support rigorous scientific study to better understand what is in these products, and establish a robust system of regulation and control of the synthetic drug market."

"This application of the law is irresponsible," said Daniel Francis, executive director of the Retail Compliance Association, which represents retail outlets that sell (or sold) K2 as he addressed HB 1264. "It is the most irresponsible thing a lawmaker can do, an act of prohibition. I hope they wear the responsibility of the consequences of these acts on their minds forever. This law will force even less understood compounds into the market."

"This legislation comes at a time when Washington is seeking to reduce federal spending. Yet, enforcing a federal ban on synthetic drugs isn't going to be cheap and we already know from marijuana prohibition that this approach won't work," said Smith. "The irony is that the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal. But passage of this legislation will only further escalate the war on drugs, send more people to jail, exacerbate health harms, and ignore four decades of comprehensive research and review that confirms the war on drugs approach has failed," he added.

"The bill covers some potential ingredients in herbal incense products, by no means all, and these ingredients are invisible, no one, no police officer, or retailer can tell what is in the product, if it is legal or not, and this law provides no direction whatsoever in how one is to determine this," pointed out Francis.

The Retail Compliance Association, which sent a letter of concern to Congress about the issue in April, expects that its efforts to block passage of HB 1264 this year will be in vain. But that doesn't mean it is rolling over and playing dead. Instead, the group said it is forming a coalition to file a legal challenge to the bill "immediately after it passes."

It has taken decades to get past the hysteria and fear-mongering surrounding traditional drugs, and that is a task that is by no means completed. It would be nice if we didn't have to go through the same sort of rigmarole with these new designer drugs, but we do. At least this time around, there are people around from the beginning who and willing to stand and fight.

Washington, DC
United States

ALERT: Support the End Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in Congress!

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The first Congressional bill to end marijuana prohibition is now in Congress -- please support it!

H.R. 2306, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and limit the federal government's role in marijuana enforcement to cross-border or interstate smuggling. States would be able to legalize and regulate marijuana, or to continue to prohibit it, as they individually choose.

Please use our web form to contact your US Representative and your two US Senators in support of this historic bill. Please follow-up by calling their offices too -- if you don't know their numbers (or aren't sure who they are), you can reach them by calling the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. And please use our tell-a-friend form to spread the word.

Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2011/jun/23/historic_bill_end_federal_mariju for more information on these bills, and sign up for our email list or paste http://stopthedrugwar.org/taxonomy/term/229 into your RSS reader to follow the news about marijuana policy.

Thank you for taking action!

Washington, DC
United States

Federal Crack Prisoners Will Get Sentence Cuts [FEATURE]

Thousands of inmates imprisoned on federal crack cocaine charges will be able to seek sentence reductions and early release after the US Sentencing Commission vote unanimously June 30 to make changes in federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenders it had approved earlier this year retroactive. About 85% of those crack prisoners are black.

Federal Correctional Institution Milan, Milan, Michigan. Soon there will be room at the inn. (Image: Wikimedia.org)
The changes in the sentencing guidelines came after Congress last year passed the Fair Sentencing Act reducing the notorious disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under drug laws passed amidst the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while people caught with powder cocaine had to be carrying 100 times as much of the drug to garner the same sentence.

The law passed last year reduced the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but did not eliminate it. After passage of the law, the Sentencing Commission proposed a permanent amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines to implement the new law, which would result in sentence reductions for newly convicted crack offenders. But that amendment provided no relief for those already serving harsh crack sentences -- until now.

With the Sentencing Commission's vote Thursday, retroactivity for current crack prisoners will go into effect the same date as the proposed amendment, November 1, unless Congress acts to undo it. But despite the grumblings of a few Republicans, that appears unlikely.

"In passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized the fundamental unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing policy and ameliorated it through bipartisan legislation," noted Commission chair, Judge Patti Saris. "Today's action by the Commission ensures that the longstanding injustice recognized by Congress is remedied, and that federal crack cocaine offenders who meet certain criteria established by the Commission and considered by the courts may have their sentences reduced to a level consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010."

While not every crack offender in the federal prison system will be eligible to seek a lower sentence, more than 12,000 will, and they will see an average sentence reduction of slightly more than three years. That should result in a cost savings of more than $200 million over the next five years, the Commission said.

But with an average crack sentence of about 13 ½ years, current crack prisoners will still serve a harsh average of about 10 ½ years. [Editor's Note: The original version of this article inadvertently understated those numbers.] And many future crack offenders will still be handed down mandatory minimum five- or 10-year sentences based on the amount of crack involved in their offenses.

While advocates lauded the commission's move, they noted that there was still more work to be done. Still, for many, some of whom have been working to redress the injustice for years, Thursday was a day of joy and relief.

"I am thrilled for our members and their families who suffered under a sentencing scheme that Congress admitted was fundamentally flawed, said Julie Stewart founder and director of Families against Mandatory Minimums. "I am also grateful to the members of the Sentencing Commission who responded to facts, not fear. The Commission once again has played its rightful role as the agency responsible for developing sound, evidence-based sentencing recommendations. In fact, if Congress had listened to the Commission fifteen long years ago when it first called for crack sentencing reform, today’s vote might not have been necessary," said Ms. Stewart.

But noting that Thursday's vote only applied retroactivity to relaxed sentencing guidelines and not to pre-Fair Sentencing Act mandatory minimums, Stewart called on Congress to make the act retroactive as well, bringing relief to those serving mandatory minimum sentences.

"The ball is now in Congress's court," Stewart said. "To finish the job, Congress must now make the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine retroactive."

While calling the commission's action "the right thing," ACLU Washington Legislative Office director Laura Murphy also said further reform was needed. "Making these new guidelines retroactive will offer relief to thousands of people s who received unfair sentences under the old crack cocaine law. However, despite today's victory, sizeable racial and sentencing disparities still exist, and it is time for our country to seriously rethink mandatory minimums and a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing. Based on little more than politics and urban myth, the sentencing gap between powder and crack cocaine has been devastating to our African-American communities."

The change has been a long time coming, said the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Since 1995, the US Sentencing Commission has, in four reports to Congress, requested that Congress raise the threshold quantities of crack that trigger mandatory minimums in order to ease the unconscionable racial disparities in sentencing," said Jasmine L. Tyler, DPA deputy director of national affairs. "This vote to provide retroactive relief to the thousands of defendants whose sentences the Commission has consistently condemned for the past seventeen years."

"The difference between crack and powder cocaine is cultural, not chemical," said Jim Lavine, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The Commission's own research indicates that over 80 percent of the nonviolent offenders who will benefit from the new guideline are African-American or Hispanic. We can't give back all the time that offenders served under the previous guidelines, but reducing prison time for those persons still incarcerated is a significant recognition of the unfairness of the old law," he said. "A civilized society doesn’t mete out punishment based on a defendant's culture or skin color."

Some Republican lawmakers had opposed retroactivity, arguing that early releases would pose a threat to the public safety, but the Sentencing Commission reported that prisoners released early had no higher rate of recidivism than those who served more time. It also sought to reassure nervous conservatives that each case would be carefully reviewed.

"The Commission is aware of concern that today’s actions may negatively impact public safety," said Judge Saris. "However, every potential offender must have his or her case considered by a federal district court judge in accordance with the Commission’s policy statement, and with careful thought given to the offender's potential risk to public safety. The average sentence for a federal crack cocaine offender will remain significant at about 127 months," she explained.

The Sentencing Commission's vote is a significant victory against prejudice and injustice and marks another milestone in the retreat from the "lock 'em up" mania that has dominated the officials response to illicit drug use and sales for decades. But the fact that the federal courts are still going to be sending people to prison for a decade for slinging some rocks, or even, in some cases, merely possessing them, shows how far we still have to go.

Washington, DC
United States

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