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Methamphetamine: Grassley, Feinstein Reintroduce Candy-Flavored Meth Bill, Despite Little Evidence the Stuff Even Exists

A year and a half ago, word started spreading from isolated law enforcement sources that candy-flavored methamphetamine was showing up in drug busts. Seeing a new, candy-flavored drug bogeyman just around the corner and an opportunity to look tough on drugs, Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) quickly responded with the Saving Kids From Dangerous Drugs Act, which would increase the penalties for dealers peddling flavored meth to any buyers to match those for dealers who actually sold drugs to kids.

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strawberry-flavored meth, or just colored meth?
That bill went nowhere in 2007 or last year, and the candy-flavored meth story was quickly debunked by, among others, Join Together's Bob Curley, who penned Meth Ado About Nothing? in June 2007, and the urban myth web site Snopes.com, which addressed the issue at about the same time. Both articles suggested authorities may have mistakenly attributed flavors to meth that was merely colored.

Despite horrified warnings from different law enforcement sources and hysterical reporting by various local media outlets around the country, nobody ever seemed able to actually come up with any candy-flavored meth, let alone any nefarious schemes to entice kids with sweetened drugs in an effort to crack the pre-pubescent meth market. Still, the threat of candy-flavored meth continues to surface periodically, although not for the past few months. Most recently, the (false) alarm was sounded in Florida in February and Southwest Virginia in March.

The lack of evidence for any real problem with candy-flavored meth hasn't stopped the drug-fightin' senatorial duo, though. In a Monday press release, Grassley announced that he and Feinstein were reintroducing the Saving Kids From Dangerous Drugs Act. It was as if the debunking of the myth had never occurred.

"The candy-flavored meth bill comes after reports detailing the growing trend of candy-flavored meth," the press release breathlessly, if belatedly, warned. "According to law enforcement officers and drug treatment officials, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs are being colored, packaged and flavored in ways designed to attract children and minors."

"It's disturbing that drug dealers are trying to lure teens and young kids by flavoring drugs to taste like candy. This latest craze needs to be dealt with before it's too late," Grassley said. "We've also got to make sure our law enforcement has the tools they need to adequately enforce the laws we pass. The legislation that Senator Feinstein and I have introduced should make drug dealers think twice about selling candy flavored drugs to our kids and help law enforcement keep the Combat Meth Act effective."

Under federal law, anyone who sells drugs to someone under 21 faces a mandatory minimum one-year prison sentence and a sentencing enhancement that doubles the sentence, or triples it for a repeat offense. Under the Feinstein-Grassley bill, the same penalty would also apply to anyone who "manufactures, creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute a controlled substance that is flavored, colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing to a person under 21 years of age, or who attempts or conspires to do so."

In addition to addressing a problem that doesn't exist, the bill is written so vaguely as to apply to all kinds of illicit drug packaging. Would an ecstasy tablet stamped with a cartoon image qualify? How about heroin packaged under cute names? How about marijuana in a baggie with a smiley face sticker? For answers, you will have to consult your local federal prosecutor. Or, if there is any sense in Washington, this bill will meet the same ignominious fate as its predecessor and be assigned to the dustbin of history.

Feature: DEA Rejects Yet Another Rescheduling Petition, But the End Game Lies Far Down the Road

The DEA has rejected yet another petition seeking to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), this one from Iowa-based marijuana reformer Carl Olsen. It is only the latest petition rejection by the agency in a glacially-paced struggle to reschedule marijuana that has been going on since 1972.

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marijuana plants
But Olsen and other advocates of the rescheduling tactic say that is to be expected, and the rejection is only the opening phase of this particular battle, not the end of the line. And while Olsen heads to federal court to challenge the DEA ruling, another petition to reschedule marijuana is still in process, as it has been for the past six years.

Richard Nixon was just beginning his second term in office when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) filed the first rescheduling petition. It took 22 years and numerous court challenges before the DEA finally rejected that petition. In the meantime, the DEA rescheduled marijuana's primary psychoactive ingredient, THC, as a Schedule II drug in 1985 and loosened controls over THC even further by rescheduling it to Schedule III in 1999. That allows doctors to prescribe Marinol, but not marijuana.

Another rescheduling petition, filed by Olsen in 1992, was rejected years later, as was a 1995 petition submitted by former NORML head, researcher, and professor of public policy Jon Gettman. In 2002, Gettman, in association with a long list of supporters, submitted yet another Cannabis Rescheduling Petition, which remains pending.

Under the CSA, he argues, substances must meet several criteria to be placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule. The substance must have a high potential for abuse, it must have "no currently accepted medical use" in the US, and there must be a lack of accepted safety for use of the substance. Both the Olsen petition that was rejected last month (although the decision was not published until this week) and the pending Gettman petition argue that marijuana no longer qualifies to be placed in Schedule I because it does have "currently accepted medical use" in the US, citing in particular the ever-growing number of states that have legalized its medicinal use.

But the two petitions differ in the way they seek to remedy the situation, and it is this difference that accounts for the vastly different pace at which they have been handled by the DEA. While the Gettman petition is still awaiting a ruling six years after it was filed, Olsen's petition was only filed this year. The Gettman petition seeks to reschedule marijuana through the administrative process, the Olsen petition argues that the issue is a matter of statutory law. Under the CSA, if marijuana is found to have "currently accepted medical use," it cannot be Schedule I.

"I filed in May, filed a federal lawsuit in September, and got a ruling December," said Olsen. "The DEA has never moved that fast on a petition in its history, and by denying the petition, it is avoiding the possibility of having to deal with it again because now it will instead go back to the court of appeals."

Olsen's petition was not a request, but a demand that DEA recognize the reality that marijuana cannot be a Schedule I drug, he said. "I didn't ask for anything; I demanded that they comply with the law. It's not a Schedule I drug, and they are breaking the law by keeping it there," he said. "The statute says it can't be a Schedule I drug if it has accepted medical use, and 13 states say it has accepted medical use. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Not according to the DEA it doesn't. "Your petition and notice rest on your contention that federal drug law gives states the authority to determine, for purposes of the CSA, whether a drug has a 'currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,' and that marijuana has such a currently accepted medical use because 12 states have passed laws relating to the use of marijuana for medical purposes," wrote DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart in denying the petition.

Leonhart cited the Raich medical marijuana case in arguing that marijuana has no "accepted medical use" because the federal government doesn't recognize it, and even quoted from the decision: "The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail," and "Congress expressly found that [marijuana] has no acceptable medical uses."

Leonhart also quickly disposed of additional arguments presented by Olsen, summarizing her position by finding that "the existence of state legislation is not relevant to a scheduling determination." Thus, "there is no statutory basis for DEA to grant your petition to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana. Nor is there any basis to initiate any action based on your August 5th notice. The Petitioner's request is denied."

Now, it will be up to the federal courts to decide who is right. "The court has to rule on my complaint to enjoin the DEA from enforcing Schedule I," said Olsen. "If they rule in my favor, the DEA cannot claim it is a Schedule I drug; it will have to remove it from Schedule I."

In either case, the losing side will appeal. Look for a resolution of the Olsen case some time in the not-so-near future.

That's just how Olsen planned it, said Gettman. "I wasn't surprised at the DEA decision, and I don't think Carl was either," he said. "The whole point of his petition was to get this into federal court, and to do that, he had to be rejected administratively. This is really the beginning of Carl's legal challenge rather than the end."

Gettman credited Olsen with breaking new ground with the petition and even for inspiring Gettman himself to get involved with rescheduling. "Carl's arguments greatly clarify and build on state-level recognition of medical use, and set the stage for greater attention to this matter," he said. "And I have to say that Carl's activity and pioneering efforts are one of the things that inspired me to file the 1995 petition in the first place."

Meanwhile, Gettman's petition is still pending, although it has already moved through several stages of a lengthy bureaucratic process involving the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). "The last time we got a status report from FDA, they were nearing the end of their review," Gettman reported.

He is no hurry right now, he said. "We have deliberately decided not to pressure the government to complete the review. We would prefer to deal with the next administration instead of the current one," he explained. "Regardless of how the election turned out, we would have new personnel overseeing the process, and we think a fresh perspective would be beneficial."

Even if the FDA were to come down with a favorable review, there are many steps between that and actually rescheduling marijuana, and even then, the fight over marijuana will still be underway, said Gettman. "Rescheduling will not make medical marijuana available right away and it is not the end of deciding marijuana's regulatory status, it's the beginning," he said. "But it would change the regulatory environment and make it easier for states to accelerate the pace of reform, as well as make it easier for human studies to get under way and for companies to develop marijuana as a medical substance. Schedule I status discourages companies from doing that."

NORML founder Keith Stroup, who was in on the original 1972 rescheduling effort applauds Gettman's and Olsen's efforts, but said he has lost faith in ever gaining redress through that process. "I just don't believe anymore that the rulemaking process is ever going to work in our favor," he said. "We've been trying since 1973, and I think we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way, through the legislative process or voter initiatives. I just don't think the people in those agencies have the principled courage to do the right thing," Stroup added.

"Still, I'm pleased that Carl and Jon continue to pursue these avenues," he said. "It's to our advantage to put pressure on the system wherever we can."

Whether it's a long-shot or not, the effort to change the marijuana laws through seeking rescheduling is not going away. And who knows? It might actually pay off big one of these years.

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- The Top 10 Drug Policy Stories of 2008

With 2008 now rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror, it's time to reflect on the year that was in drug policy. Drug War Chronicle published around 500 separate articles on all aspects of drug policy in 2008 -- national and international, state and local -- and while it's difficult to winnow it all down, below are the stories, processes, and themes we think make up the 10 most important drug reform stories of the year (in no particular order):

Massachusetts Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Marijuana Decriminalization

Marijuana legalization still appears a distant chimera, but three decades after the initial spurt of states decriminalizing marijuana, we may be seeing the beginnings of a new round of successful decriminalization moves. Nevada decriminalized, or defelonized, in 2001, becoming the first state to do so since the 1970s, and in November, Massachusetts approved a decrim initiative with 65% of the popular vote. It goes into effect today, making the Bay State the 12th state to make the possession of small amounts of pot an infraction, not a crime.

New Hampshire could have become the next decrim state last year after a decrim bill surprisingly passed in the House, but it was later killed in the Senate. Suburban Chicago Heights, Illinois, however, adopted decrim in December, and local initiatives making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority -- which would result in de facto decrim if law enforcement actually obeyed them -- passed in Hawaii County, Hawaii, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, adding them to a list that now includes Ann Arbor, Denver, Seattle, a half-dozen California communities, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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signs of life in Congress
Michigan Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana continues its long march across the states. The biggest victory this year came in Michigan, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative with 63% of the vote, making Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. That will undoubtedly help ongoing legislative efforts in states like Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. In Minnesota, a bill that had passed the Senate in 2007 stalled in the House in the face of veto threats, while in New York, the Assembly passed a medical marijuana bill only to have it see no action in the Senate. Kansas saw its first legislative hearing ever on a medical marijuana bill, although that bill died a few weeks later. Last month, a New Jersey medical marijuana bill won a Senate committee vote and is still alive.

NORA Goes Down to Defeat in California

If marijuana fared well in the November elections, the same thing can't be said for a massive sentencing reform initiative in California. The Non-Violent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA) would have broadened and deepened the Proposition 36 sentencing reforms passed in 2001, but, faced with powerful and deep-pocketed opponents, including drug czar John Walters, the California prison guards' union, and drug court professionals, NORA went down in defeat with only 39% of the vote.

There was more bad news, too: While rejecting NORA, voters approved the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, which blocks local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the cash-strapped state -- officials say they will begin issuing IOUs instead of cash payments as soon as March -- fully fund corrections to ensure no prisoners are released early. At least, voters rejected an even more onerous initiative, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, which, while aimed mainly at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, would also have increased sentences for meth offenses and provided for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. It looks like "tough on crime" still trumps "smart on crime" in the Golden State.

Signs of Life in Congress

After six years of Republican domination of both the executive and legislative branches in Washington, Democrats took back control of the Congress in the November 2006 elections, and by 2008, some small stirrings on drug reform were becoming evident. Not that we expect to see congressional Democrats end the drug war, but every little bit helps.

In February, efforts to finally begin to undo the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity got a boost when a House committee held hearings on it. The next month, the Senate passed the Second Chance Act, which had already been passed by the House and which will provide assistance to prisoners reentering society. President Bush signed that bill in April. Even the Republicans seem to have come around a little bit. Several of them supported bills that would address the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and Republican votes helped get the Second Chance Act over the top.

One bill that Bush would never sign -- it is unclear whether Obama would -- is Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) federal marijuana decriminalization bill, the first such bill introduced in decades. Don't hold your breath on this one, but even getting a bill filed in Congress represents progress. In another sign of changing times, in August, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) and 25 cosponsors introduced a bill to end the federal ban on needle exchange funding. A similar bill by Serrano lifted Congress's ban on the District of Columbia government spending its own resources on needle exchange.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) also played an increasingly prominent role in pushing for sentencing and drug policy reform. Using the Joint Economic Committee as his pulpit, he held a 2007 hearing on sentencing and followed that up with a June hearing on the economic and social costs of current drug policies. We sure didn't see anything like that during the years the GOP controlled the Congress.

Not that it's all good on the Hill. Congressional Democrats continued to play the politics of tough on crime and drugs, especially around the issue of funding federal grants to support those multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces. But from a drug policy perspective, 2008 was a much better year on the Hill than any in this decade. As for 2009, well, that's another article.

Salvia Divinorum and the Prohibitionist Impulse

Efforts to ban the hallucinogenic Mexican plant salvia divinorum picked up pace in 2008, a perfect expression of the reflex prohibitionist response to any new substance. Although the plant has been used by Masatec shamans for centuries, it is new on the recreational drug scene, and that's enough for cops and legislators to want to shut it town, even though the DEA, which has studied it for years, has not moved to do so. Given the scant -- at best -- evidence of any harm done by using it, the only justification for banning it is the idea that somebody somewhere is getting high and must be stopped.

In 2008, California made Salvia sales to minors a misdemeanor (effective yesterday, 1/1/09), while Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, and Virginia all banned it or its active ingredient, Salvinorin A. At this writing, a similar bill is on the desk of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Other states where salvia ban efforts were underway in 2008 include Nebraska, South Carolina, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Texas.

The six states that banned it in (or whose previously passed bans went into effect in) 2008 joined Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, which had all banned it since 2005. 2008 also won the dubious distinction of being the year of the first known arrests in the US for salvia charges. In North Dakota, Kenneth Rau was arrested after ordering $40 worth of salvia leaves on eBay and faced years in prison. It's not known what happened in his case. And in Nebraska, Lincoln shop owner Christian Firoz was arrested for selling salvia even though the plant is not illegal there. He was creatively charged under a law banning the sale of substances for the purpose of intoxication. His trial is pending.

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Salvia Divinorum Google ads continued to run on South Dakota news sites after Rau was busted.
Great Britain Embraces Reefer Madness, Moves Backward on Marijuana

Britain had taken a bold step forward when, heeding the recommendations of numerous advisory panels, it downgraded marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004. But in May, desperate to burnish its tough on drugs and crime credentials, a flailing Labor government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B. Labor was aided and abetted in turning public opinion against marijuana by a Reefer Madness-style tabloid campaign that would have made William Randolph Hearst blush. For weeks on end, credulous tabloid readers were treated to headlines along the lines of "Son twisted by skunk knifed father 23 times," "How cannabis made me a monster," "Escaped prisoner killed man while high on skunk cannabis," "Boys on skunk butchered a grandmother," and "Teen who butchered two friends was addicted to skunk cannabis" -- and that's just from one newspaper, the Daily Mail.

Since then, the Reefer Madness campaign has subsided somewhat, only to be replaced by a steady diet of "cannabis factory" bust stories, with grow ops being busted on a daily basis and their operators too often hustled off to gaol. The steady drumbeat of sensational press stories may help explain declining support for drug reform in recent polls. In any case, marijuana goes back to being a more serious offense at the end of this month, and Britain marches resolutely backward into the last century.

America Wages Ineffective War Against Poppies and Islamists in Afghanistan

2008 was the bloodiest year yet for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, where 155 American troops and 138 NATO troops were killed, along with uncounted thousands of Afghan rebels and civilians. While the country saw a slight reduction in opium cultivation and production, Afghanistan still produces more than 90% of the global opium supply, and that fact leaves the West with a terrible paradox: Try to eliminate the drug trade and face driving Afghan peasants into the waiting arms of the Taliban, or ignore the drug trade and let the Taliban profit to the tune of $100 million a year or more. That buys a lot of shiny new weapons to shoot at foreign troops and their Afghan government allies.

NATO and the US military want nothing to do with pissing off poppy-planting peasants, much to the dismay of the State Department and the drug warriors, but in October reluctantly agreed to enlist in the war on poppies by targeting drug traffickers associated with the Taliban -- but not those associated with the government in Kabul. Afghanistan is possibly the most serious foreign policy crisis facing the United States, the situation is deteriorating, and the drug war and drug prohibition were right in the middle of it.

America Gets High, Mexico Bleeds

Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and immediately sent in the army to battle that country's so-called cartels. It hasn't gone well: Since then, more than 7,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, with 2008's toll alone climbing above 5,000 as the multi-sided violence escalated. The Chronicle was there -- in person -- reporting on the military takeover of Reynosa in February, covering a conference on alternatives to the drug war in Sinaloa Cartel hometown Culiacán in May, and reporting on efforts to address military impunity for drug war human rights violations on that same trip.

Since then, matters have only deteriorated, with little sign of any improvement on the horizon. And the US is determined to make matters worse, with the Bush administration and the Congress approving a three-year, $1.4 billion "Plan Mérida" aid package to provide anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military. But with drug corruption scandals in law enforcement there occurring on an almost weekly basis, it is difficult to see how even a massive aid package is going to make much difference.

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marijuana legalization march, Mexico City
The continuing violence -- and its roots in American appetites for drugs and desires to prohibit them -- is having a perhaps not unexpected result: As the casualties mount and the costs increase, the Mexican public and Mexican politicians of all stripes have begun debating whether there might be a better path. In August, the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) said it was time to put legalization on the table, a move that won some favor with Mexicans in a poll the following month. A week later, President Calderón announced his party would consider decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs, and the following month, majority members of the Mexico City city council introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession and allow for cannabis coffee shops in the Mexican capital.

Mexico is living with the bloody results of drug prohibition that makes the violence of American cities pale by comparison. And that is provoking, finally, some outside the box thinking.

The Endless War Against Coca and Cocaine

There was little for American policymakers to applaud when it came to the Andean drug war last year. Nine years and $5 billion after Plan Colombia commenced, Andean coca production is essentially unchanged, and the GAO reported that it had not succeeded on its own terms. Still, Washington remains committed to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of its few friends remaining in the region, despite the ineffectiveness of eradication and interdiction and despite continuing human rights violations as denounced by Amnesty International in a November report.

Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales joined Washington bête noire Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in throwing out the DEA (Chavez did it in 2005, Morales in October), as relations between the Bolivarian allies and the US grew extremely chilly, especially after President Bush listed them as the only countries in the hemisphere to be decertified as not cooperating in US drug policy goals. Only part of the problems were directly related to drug issues, but Morales and Chávez proved adept at parlaying regional angst over America's drug war into a broader offensive against the colossus of the north. Now, Bolivia will go it alone on drug policy, leaving US desires behind.

In Peru, meanwhile, President Alan García's mid-year deployment of the military to coca growing zones in a twin bid to eradicate crops and weaken a resurgent Shining Path produced little more than unhappy results. Pressure on coca growers in the southern valleys produced coca grower incursions on indigenous lands, while the fight against the Shining Path produced only the highest military and police death toll since the bloody insurgency was defeated in the early 1990s. Now, largely stripped of its Maoist ideology, but equipped with shiny new weapons bought with the profits of prohibition, the Shining Path is reemerging.

The Prohibitionist Consensus Erodes in Latin America

2008 saw significant movement toward alternatives to prohibition and the drug war in Latin America, some of the most important ones coming from the courts. In April, an Argentine court threw out drug possession charges against two young men on the grounds they were unconstitutional, and five weeks later, a Brazilian appeals court ruled the same way. One week after that, another group of Argentine jurists threw out marijuana possession charges against a young man, saying criminalizing drug possession without demonstrating harm to others was unconstitutional. By July, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was calling for decriminalization of drug possession.

Meanwhile, in London in May, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos called for debating cocaine legalization, and at the end of July, Ecuadorian President Rafeal Correa pardoned hundreds of low-level drug mules, saying it was absurd to imprison them. In October, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya joined the growing chorus, saying that drug possession should be decriminalized and hinting at larger legalization.

And, as noted above, there are the legalization noises now coming from Mexico, as well as the disdain for US prohibitionist policies from Bolivia and Venezuela. While Washington has been distracted, it looks like a sea change is getting under way down south.

Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.

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gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from wikimedia.org)
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.

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What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.

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Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia
Mexico

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.

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Afghan opium
Afghanistan

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Fixing Our Criminal Justice System Isn’t Political Suicide. Stop Saying That.

Washington Post has a whole story on Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s thoroughly awesome ideas about criminal justice reform:

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

Sadly, one rarely hears a Washington lawmaker talk about our drug policy priorities in a way that makes any sense. So, fittingly, Washington Post dedicates plenty of space to the theory that Jim Webb’s gonna get massacred for his crazy blasphemous ideas:

"It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state."

"…as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds."

"…Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way."

"Some say Webb's go-it-alone approach could come back to haunt him."

No, it won’t. Just watch as that completely fails to happen. Recent polls show that democrats and republicans agree the drug war has failed and that is just a fact. Too bad it’s fact that completely eluded The Post throughout a lengthy article about the politics of criminal justice reform. They found room to postulate endlessly about the supposedly disastrous political consequences of saying anything bad about our policies, but they couldn’t find a single line to show what the public actually believes.

Of course, to include actual relevant polling data would refute a central point of the article: that there’s something really mavericky and even reckless about Webb’s ideas. There isn’t. Those same ideas didn’t stop Obama from winning Virginia, so this whole political-suicide-by-drug-policy-reform narrative is garbage. Stop trying to recycle it. Just put it where it belongs.

Latin America: This Years' Death Toll in Mexico's Prohibition Wars Passes 5,000

The number of people killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico this year has surpassed 5,000, more than double the number of people killed last year, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said Monday. The number is likely to grow even higher, he warned.

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poster of assassinated Mexican human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
Violence among drug trafficking organizations and between them and government forces has escalated dramatically since President Felipe Calderón unleashed an offensive against the narcos nearly two years ago. Calderón has sent as many as 40,000 Mexican army troops into the fray, where they've joined tens of thousands of federal, state, and local police fighting against -- and sometimes for -- the traffickers. And the trafficking groups themselves are engaged in a lethal and spectacularly gruesome internecine struggle to control the lucrative multi-billion dollar trade in drugs destined for the insatiable American market.

The death is comparable to that in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the independent monitoring group Iraq Body Count, some 8,000 people have been killed in simmering violence in Iraq this year. In Afghanistan, some 4,000 people have been killed in fighting this year. In Afghanistan, 273 US and NATO troops have been killed this year, according to the independent monitoring organization Icasulaties.org. That is little more than half the number of Mexican police and soldiers killed this year.

Medina Mora put the death toll through the end of November at 5,376, a whopping 117% increase over the 2,477 killed in 2007. Most of the killing took place in the border states of Baja California and Chihuahua, and Sinaloa, the home base of the Sinaloa Cartel, although the violence has spread throughout the country, extending even to the Mexico City door steps of high police commanders, another one of whom was gunned down this week.

"These criminal organizations don't have limits," said Medina-Mora. "They certainly have an enormous power of intimidation."

And the killing continues. At least 18 people were killed in prohibition-related violence in southern Mexico on Sunday, including two people whose heads were left outside the mansion of the governor of Guerrero in Chilpancingo. Ten narcos and one soldier died in a shoot-out the same day in Arcelia, Guerrero.

Four more bodies showed up Tuesday in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, just days after the city saw 36 people killed in a 48-hour period. Meanwhile, 17 people, including a senior police investigator, were killed just days earlier in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso.

As a result of the escalation of violence in Tijuana, police chief Alberto Capella Ibarra was fired. Last month, Capella Ibarra told the British newspaper The Observer: "This war will continue so long as drugs are illegal and command high prices in the United States. Legalize the drugs, then the Americans can get high and we can live in peace."

But the Americans would prefer instead to pour fuel on the flames. Last week, the US released $200 million in anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military, the first tranche in a $1.4 billion, three-year package designed to help the Mexicans crack down on the narcos.

Methamphetamine: Graphic Montana Scare Campaign May Not Work After All, Study Finds

The Montana Meth Project, an anti-methamphetamine campaign based around scary images of the perils of meth use, has been widely touted as a successful public health intervention. Its images showing the extreme consequences of using the popular stimulant "just once" have been touted by supporters as highly effective at deterring teen meth use, and it has even garnered state and federal funding and been adopted by other states based on those claims.

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methamphetamine crystals
Not so fast, said the authors of a new study released this week. In Drugs, Money, and Graphic Ads: A Critical Review of the Montana Meth Project, published this month in the journal Prevention Science, researchers found that the ad campaign produced a number of negative consequences and challenged its impact on meth use rates in the state.

According to the study, teens who had been exposed to six months of the project's graphic ads were three times as likely to say they did not believe meth use was a risky behavior and four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use. Half of the teens said the ads exaggerated the dangers of meth use.

The Montana Meth Campaign and its proponents overlooked such unflattering results when presenting findings to the media and policymakers, the researchers said. Instead, the campaign portrayed its results in the most positive light possible.

The researchers also scoffed at claims the program had reduced meth use. "Meth use had been declining for at least six years before the ad campaign commenced, which suggests that factors other than the graphic ads cause reductions in meth use. Another issue is that the launch of the ad campaign coincided with restrictions on the sale of cold and flu medicines commonly used in the production of meth. This means that drug use could be declining due to decreased production of meth, rather than being the result of the ad campaign," said review author David Erceg-Hurn in a Society for Prevention Research news release Thursday.

Ereceg-Hurn also attacked the theoretical underpinnings of the campaign. "The idea behind the ad campaign is that teenagers take meth because they believe it is socially acceptable, and not risky, and the ads are meant to alter these perceptions," he said. "However, this theory is flawed because the Meth Project's own data shows that 98% of teenagers strongly disapproved of meth use and 97% thought using meth was risky before the campaign started," Erceg-Hurn said.

Spending government funds on Meth Project-style campaigns is a waste of money, Erceg-Hurn concluded. Or, in more diplomatic terms: "Based on current evidence, continued public funding and rollout of Montana-style anti-methamphetamine graphic ad campaign programs is inadvisable."

Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.

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first evening gathering (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.

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Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.

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police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.

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Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.

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David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.


UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Feature: Obama's Appointees Raise Questions in the Drug Reform Community

Like other interest groups, the drug reform movement has the Obama transition under a microscope, searching for clues on the new administration's intentions as it scrutinizes those appointments for positions that are going to be key to advancing the cause. Some of the Obama transition team's early moves have some drug reformers sounding alarm bells, but other reformers -- not so much.

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Eric Holder -- not the reformer's dream pick
Drug reformers were not particularly enthralled with Obama's vice-president selection, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), who made a career authoring drug war legislation. Biden can rightfully claim to be the father of the drug czar's office, he was a big fan of harsh sentencing laws, he crafted the horrid RAVE Act. Never encountering a "drug problem" that couldn't be fixed with another federal criminal law, Biden most recently authored a bill that would criminalize being on board a home-made submarine carrying drugs.

While Biden may have begun to see the light in recent years -- he is author of one of the best bills seeking to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity (which he helped create) -- drug reformers remain deeply suspicious of a man who built a political power base on the shoulders of the assembled ranks of law enforcement.

Nor did the appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) as White House chief of staff alleviate concerns. While the sharp-elbowed political operative has not been a leading drug warrior, neither has he shied from using drug war discourse as a weapon against his political foes.

One oft-cited example of Emanuel's penchant for drug war rhetoric came a decade ago, when he defended the Clinton administration's unconstitutional effort to punish physicians who recommended medical marijuana to patients. "We are going to continue to find ways within the administration to fight legalization and the notion of legalization," he said in an interview. "We're against the message that [California's medical marijuana initiative] sends to children," Emanuel demagogued. (Emanuel, now a member of Congress, did vote for the pro-medical marijuana Hinchey amendment in July of last year.)

This week's announcement that former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder would be nominated for the Attorney General post did little to allay mounting fears that Obama was filling key positions for drug policy with Clinton-era drug war holdovers. Some were quick to point to Holder's time as US Attorney for the District of Columbia, when he pushed through changes in DC's marijuana laws that made sales a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

As the Washington Post reported:

In addition, US Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the DC Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana. "We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

Holder said he hopes to discourage some of that activity by being tougher on marijuana crimes. New guidelines should be in place by the end of the month, he said, noting that the District could learn from New York's "zero-tolerance" policy. There, crime plummeted when police aggressively enforced quality-of-life crimes, including panhandling and public drinking, which gave officers an opportunity to check for drugs, guns and outstanding warrants.

That same year, he told the Washington Times he was considering proposing a mandatory-minimum 18-month sentence for any marijuana sales. That, at least, didn't happen.

Drug reformers took some small solace, however, from Holder's comments on mandatory minimum sentencing in a 1999 interview. Responding to a question about whether it was time to review mandatory minimums, Holder said:

I do not think that we should ever foreclose the possibility that we take a look at how the laws that we have passed are working. I tend to think that mandatory minimum sentences that deal with people who commit violent crimes are almost always good things. I think the concerns are generally raised about mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. And I think there are some questions that we ought to ask.

I do not go into it with a presumption that they're necessarily bad, but we ought to look at the statistics and see, are we putting in prison, are we using our limited prison space for the kind of people that we want to have there? Are the sentences commensurate with the kind of conduct that puts people in jail for these mandatory minimum sentences?

Those are the kinds of questions I think that we ought to ask. And as thinking legislators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative, I would hope that we would ask those questions and then go into it with an open mind.

With drug war cheerleaders like Biden and Emanuel and professional drug warriors like Holder being invited to join the Obama team, drug reformers are understandably skittish. But most are taking a wait and see attitude, even as they bemoan some of Obama's choices.

"Some of the appointments, such as Holder, are certainly concerning," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "There is some problematic stuff in the past, yes, but people do change and learn. Who would have thought that a drug warrior like Bob Barr would end up as a Libertarian?" Mirken asked. "I don't think that because somebody said or did something we disagreed with a decade ago, he is necessarily bound to those same positions now, but we will be watching closely. If the time comes to freak out, we will, but it's premature to freak out now."

The reform community should not be freaking out, agreed Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Instead, it should be trying to flex its muscles.

"I think the reform community is way overreacting and, more importantly, not taking the initiative," he said "Reform leaders ought to be asking themselves what letters they've written to President-elect Obama, what letters to the editor they've penned, what op-eds they've submitted. Is the movement doing anything other than passively reacting?" he asked.

"Our movement has been under such assault for the past eight years that we're really out of practice in being effective political actors," Sterling argued. "I just contacted [the left-leaning magazine] In These Times suggesting an article about taxing marijuana as a way to prevent the lay-off of public employees. Our movement should be reaching out to people like the public employee unions, maybe buying ads saying 'No teacher should be fired until the legislature tells us how many legal marijuana could pay for.'"

"What you can say about Emanuel and these other people is that they are political and will respond to pressure," said Sterling. "If Emanuel thought our issues were good politics, he would be standing on the ramparts, but it's not good politics because we haven't made it good politics. It's not enough to mobilize the drug reform aficionados, we have to be working with much more powerful organizations and interest groups around issues they care about. The dire situation with the economy right now and the lack of revenues for state and local governments is a tremendous opportunity for us, exactly like 1933 in that sense. What did they do then? They ended Prohibition and taxed alcohol."

Marijuana does not enjoy the same cultural favor that alcohol did, Sterling noted, but that can be overcome. "We need to frame the issue in very stark economic terms. We need to be asking who is going to teach our kids? How are we going to pay for teachers? If the state taxing marijuana is the only way to pay for teachers, should we do it? That marijuana isn't going anywhere. It's still going to be smoked, whether we tax it or not. Why don't we benefit from it?"

"Drug policy reform has its work cut out for it," said Kevin Zeese, a long-time reformer who doubts either major party is ready for fundamental change. "The best we can hope for is a little benign neglect, and that they not continue to waste law enforcement resources on medical marijuana providers in states that allow it."

Given the plateful of problems facing the incoming administration and the state of the drug reform movement, a big push on drug policy on the federal level is unlikely, Zeese argued. "We should be working locally to continue to build momentum and a real movement," he said, suggesting that "benign neglect" could come into play. "If the reform movement continues to push state and local initiatives, I think the Obama administration will stay out of those conflicts. I don't think we'll see the drug czar flying off to different states to campaign against initiatives, and that would be a good thing."

A big push for drug reform is not only unlikely, it may be unwise at this time, Zeese suggested. "The caution Obama brings to the job, and Biden and Emanuel's histories present some room for us to maneuver, but it may be best not to poke the sleeping bear with a stick. We don't want to wake up the criminal justice advocates in the federal government. Benign neglect is better than abuse. Perhaps we should just work under the radar and allow their political caution to work for us, instead of against us."

While Zeese could tick off the bad drug policy stances of some of Obama's newly-forming inner circle, he suggested that those stances were based more on political calculations than ideological enthusiasm. "As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden aligned himself with police and prosecutors -- that is his criminal justice base, that's where the power and safety is. Emanuel was a clear architect of the crime control acts under Clinton that increased police numbers and lengthened sentences. But both these guys are essentially political animals and will take what looks like a hard line to neutralize an issue."

One area that could be an early indicator of the Obama administration's drug reform proclivities is the ongoing DEA raids against California medical marijuana providers. Obama vowed during the campaign to halt those raids. But the big news there could be that there is no news.

"We expect that Obama will keep his promise about ending the raids in California," said MPP's Mirken. "There are plenty of reasons for him to do so, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan -- all states that had gone Republican, but that he carried. Whatever else you think about Obama and his team, they can count, and it's hard for me to imagine that they think it is in their interest to continue a war against a quarter of the country, most of whom voted for him," he said.

"That doesn't have to happen in dramatic fashion, you don't have to hold a press conference, it could just be something that happens quietly," said Mirken. "It may be awhile before anyone really sees for sure that a change has occurred. And that's fine -- we don't need a press conference as long as he stops arresting patients and caregivers."

"Obama is no doubt already thinking about a second term and doesn't want to make drug policy reform an issue of conflict with Republicans," said Zeese. "He will play it safe, but there is some opportunity for us there, and I think ending the raids is one of the things he could make happen. He'd prefer not to have medical marijuana patients and advocates angry at him in places like California and Oregon."

"I think he will stop the raids," said Sterling. "I don't see how the raids are helpful to him unless the Republicans are able to gin up some anger about providers, so it would be wise to stay low-key and continue to work with state and local officials so it is not controversial at the local level. But if it becomes controversial, and the Republicans are able to make it an issue, then Obama will be against us. We need to stay under the radar on this right now."

While reformers watch to see what does and doesn't happen regarding the DEA raids -- will they just quietly vanish into that long good night? -- there is still plenty of work to do, said Sterling. "We have to build the movement. We keep seeing the same 300 people at the conferences, maybe 1,000 if you're talking about the harm reduction conferences. No one is going door to door in the black community talking about how the drug war is undermining public safety and its relationship with the police. No one is talking to the unions. We've done well on the education part of our issue, but we haven't done well in developing a political power base, and until we do that, we won't get reform."

Feature: Looking Forward -- The Prospects for Drug Reform in Obama's Washington

The political landscape in Washington, DC, is undergoing a dramatic shift as the Democratic tide rolls in, and, after eight years of drug war status quo under the Republicans, drug reformers are now hoping the change in administrations will lead to positive changes in federal drug policies. As with every other aspect of federal policy, groups interested in criminal justice and drug policy reform are coming out of the woodwork with their own recommendations for Obama and the Democratic Congress. This week, we will look at some of those proposals and attempt to assess the prospects for real change.

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The White House
One of the most comprehensive criminal justice reform proposals, of which drug-related reform is only a small part, comes from a nonpartisan consortium of organizations and individuals coordinated by the Constitution Project, including groups such as the Sentencing Project, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and the Open Society Policy Center. The set of proposals, Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress, includes the following recommendations:

  • Mandatory Minimum Reforms:
    Eliminate the crack cocaine sentencing disparity
    Improve and expand the federal "safety valve"
    Create a sunset provision on existing and new mandatory minimums
    Clarify that the 924(c) recidivism provisions apply only to true repeat offenders
  • Alternatives to Incarceration:
    Expand alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines
    Enact a deferred adjudication statute
    Support alternatives to incarceration through expansion of federal drug and other problem solving courts.
  • Incentives and Sentencing Management
    Expand the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP)
    Clarify good time credit
    Expand the amount of good time conduct credit prisoners may receive and ways they can receive it
    Enhance sentence reductions for extraordinary and compelling circumstances
    Expand elderly prisoners release program
    Revive executive clemency
  • Promoting Fairness and Addressing Disparity:
    Support racial impact statements as a means of reducing unwarranted sentencing disparities
    Support analysis of racial and ethnic disparity in the federal justice system
    Add a federal public defender as an ex officio member of the United States Sentencing Commission

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also issued a set of recommendations, Actions for Restoring America: How to Begin Repairing the Damage to Freedom in America Under Bush, which include some drug reform provisions:

  • Crack/Powder Sentencing: The attorney general should revise the US Attorneys' Manual to require that crack offenses are charged as "cocaine" and not "cocaine base," effectively resulting in elimination of the disparity.
  • Medical Marijuana: Halt the use of Justice Department funds to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana users in states with current laws permitting access to physician-supervised medical marijuana. In particular, the US Attorney general should update the US Attorneys' Manual to de-prioritize the arrest and prosecution of medical marijuana users in medical marijuana states. There is currently no regulation in place to be amended or repealed; there is, of course, a federal statutory scheme that prohibits marijuana use unless pursuant to approved research. But US Attorneys have broad charging discretion in determining what types of cases to prosecute, and with drugs, what threshold amounts that will trigger prosecution. The US Attorneys' Manual contains guidelines promulgated by the Attorney general and followed by US Attorneys and their assistants.
  • The DEA Administrator should grant Lyle Craker's application for a Schedule I license to produce research-grade medical marijuana for use in DEA- and FDA-approved studies. This would only require DEA to approve the current recommendation of its own Administrative Law Judge.
  • All relevant agencies should stop denying the existence of medical uses of marijuana -- as nearly one-third of states have done by enacting laws -- and therefore, under existing legal criteria, reclassify marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule V.
  • Issue an executive order stating that, "No veteran shall be denied care solely on the basis of using marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with state law." Although there are many known instances of veterans being denied care as a result of medical marijuana use, we have not been able to identify a specific regulation that mandates or authorizes this policy.
  • Federal Racial Profiling: Issue an executive order prohibiting racial profiling by federal officers and banning law enforcement practices that disproportionately target people for investigation and enforcement based on race, ethnicity, national origin, sex or religion. Include in the order a mandate that federal agencies collect data on hit rates for stops and searches, and that such data be disaggregated by group. DOJ should issue guidelines regarding the use of race by federal law enforcement agencies. The new guidelines should clarify that federal law enforcement officials may not use race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or sex to any degree, except that officers may rely on these factors in a specific suspect description as they would any noticeable characteristic of a subject.

Looking to the south, the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of nonprofit groups, has issued a petition urging Obama "to build a just policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean that unites us with our neighbors." Included in its proposals are:

  • Actively work for peace in Colombia. In a war that threatens to go on indefinitely, the immense suffering of the civilian population demands that the United States takes risks to achieve peace. If the United States is to actively support peace, it must stop endlessly bankrolling war and help bring an end to the hemisphere's worst humanitarian crisis.
  • Get serious -- and smart -- about drug policy. Our current drug policy isn't only expensive and ineffective, it's also inhumane. Instead of continuing a failed approach that brings soldiers into Latin America's streets and fields, we must invest in alternative development projects in the Andes and drug treatment and prevention here at home.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has some suggestions as well. As NORML's Paul Armentano wrote last week on Alternet:

  • President Obama must uphold his campaign promise to cease the federal arrest and prosecution of (state) law-abiding medical cannabis patients and dispensaries by appointing leaders at the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Department of Justice, and the US Attorney General's office who will respect the will of the voters in the thirteen states that have legalized the physician-supervised use of medicinal marijuana.
  • President Obama should use the power of the bully pulpit to reframe the drug policy debate from one of criminal policy to one of public health. Obama can stimulate this change by appointing directors to the Office of National Drug Control Policy who possess professional backgrounds in public health, addiction, and treatment rather than in law enforcement.
  • President Obama should follow up on statements he made earlier in his career in favor of marijuana decriminalization by establishing a bi-partisan presidential commission to review the budgetary, social, and health costs associated with federal marijuana prohibition, and to make progressive recommendations for future policy changes.

Clearly, the drug reform community and its allies see the change of administrations as an opportunity to advance the cause. The question is how receptive will the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress be to drug reform efforts.

"We've examined Obama's record and his statements, and 90% of it is good," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "But we don't know what he intends to do in office. There is an enormous amount of good he can do," Borden said, mentioning opening up funding for needle exchange programs, US Attorney appointments, and stopping DEA raids on medical marijuana providers. "Will Obama make some attempt to actualize the progressive drug reform positions he has taken? He has a lot on his plate, and drug policy reform has tended to be the first thing dropped by left-leaning politicians."

There will be some early indicators of administration interest in drug reform, said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We will be watching to see if he issues an executive order stopping the DEA raids; that would be a huge sign," he said. "He could also repeal the needle exchange funding ban. The congressional ban would still be in place, but that would show some great leadership. If they started taking on drug policy issues in the first 100 days, that would be a great sign, but I don't think people should expect that. There are many other issues, and it's going to take awhile just to clean up Bush's mess. I'm optimistic, but I don't expect big changes to come quickly."

"We are hoping to see a new direction," said Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice reform for the Open Society Policy Center. "We couldn't have a better scenario with the incoming vice president having sponsored the one-to-one crack/powder bill in the Senate and the incoming president being a sponsor. And we have a situation in Congress, and particularly in the Senate, where there is bipartisan interest in sentencing reform. Both sides of the aisle want some sort of movement on this, it's been studied and vetted, and now Congress needs to do the right thing. It's time to get smart on crime, and this is not a radical agenda. As far as I'm concerned, fixing the crack/powder disparity is the compromise, and elimination of mandatory minimums is what really needs to be on the agenda."

"With the Smart on Crime proposals, we tried to focus on what was feasible," said the Sentencing Project's Kara Gotsch. "These are items where we think we are likely to get support, where the community has demonstrated support, or where there has been legislation proposed to deal with these issues. It prioritizes the issues we think are most likely to move, and crack sentencing reform is on that list."

The marijuana reform groups are more narrowly focused, of course, but they, too are looking for positive change. "Obama has made it very clear on the campaign trail that he disagrees with the use of federal agencies to undo medical marijuana laws in states that have passed them," said Dan Bernath, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "He has vowed to stop that. Obama seems to be someone who values facts and reasoned decision-making. If he applies that to marijuana policy, that could be a good thing".

While the list of possible drug reforms is long and varied, it is also notable for what has not been included. Only NORML even mentions marijuana decriminalization, and no one is talking about ending the drug war -- only making it a bit kinder and gentler. The L-word remains unutterable.

"While we're optimistic about reducing the harms of prohibition, legalization is not something that I think they will take on," said Piper. "But any movement toward drug reform is good. If we can begin to shift to a more health-oriented approach, that will change how Americans think about this issue and create a space where regulation can be discussed in a a rational manner. Now, because of our moralist criminal justice framework, it is difficult to have a sane discussion about legalization."

"We didn't talk that much about legalization," said Gotsch in reference to the Smart on Crime proposals. "A lot of organizations involved have more ambitious goals, but that wouldn't get the kind of reaction we want. There just isn't the political support yet for legalization, even of marijuana."

"We should be talking about legalization, yes," said StoptheDrugWar.org's Borden, "but should we be talking about it in communications to the new president who has shown no sign of supporting it? Not necessarily. We must push the envelope, but if we push it too far in lobbying communications to national leadership, we risk losing their attention."

"I do think it would be a mistake to blend that kind of caution into ideological caution over what we are willing to talk about at all," Borden continued. "I think we should be talking about legalization, it's just a question of when and where," he argued.

Talking legalization is premature, said Eric Sterling, formerly counsel to the US House Judiciary Committee and now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "What we are not yet doing as a movement is building upon our successes," he said. "We just saw medical marijuana win overwhelmingly in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts, but the nation's commentariat has not picked up on it, and our movement has not been sufficiently aggressive in getting those votes translated into the political discourse. We haven't broken out of the making fun phase of marijuana policy yet."

Sterling pointed in particular to the medical marijuana issue. "Everyone recognizes that the state-federal conflict on medical marijuana is a major impediment, and we have 26 senators representing medical marijuana states, but not a single senator has introduced a medical marijuana bill," he said. "It's an obvious area for legislative activity in the Senate, but it hasn't happened. This suggests that we as a movement still lack the political muscle even on something as uncontroversial as the medical use of marijuana."

Even the apparent obvious targets for reform, such as the crack/powder sentencing disparity, are going to require a lot of work, said Sterling. "It will continue to be a struggle," he said. "The best crack bill was Biden's, cosponsored by Obama and Clinton, but I'm not sure who is going to pick that up this year. The sentencing reform community continues to struggle to frame the issue as effective law enforcement, and I think it's only on those terms that we can win."

Reformers also face the reality that the politics of crime continues to be a sensitive issue for the majority Democrats, Sterling said. "Crime is an issue members are frightened about, and it's an area where Republicans traditionally feel they have the upper ground. The Democrats are going to be reluctant to open themselves up to attack in areas where there is not a strong political upside. On many issues, Congress acts when there is a clear universe of allies who will benefit and who are pushing for action. I don't know if we are there yet."

Change is the mantra of the Obama administration, and change is what the drug reform community is hoping for. Now, the community must act to ensure that change happens, and that the right changes happen.

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