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Big News: House Subcommittee Approves Legislation Eliminating the Needle Exchange Funding Ban

popular needle exchange logoBIG NEWS: The infamous ban on use of federal AIDS grant funds to support needle exchange programs will soon be history, if the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services of the House Committee on Appropriations has its way. Led by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the subcommittee left the language which has imposed the ban these many years out of the new bill. According to Obey's office:
This bill deletes the prohibition on the use of funds for needle exchange programs. Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/AIV infections and do not promote drug use. The judgment we make is that it is time to lift this ban and let State and local jurisdictions determine if they want to pursue this approach.
The vote followed a protest at the US Capitol in which 26 AIDS activists chained themselves together in the Capitol Rotunda earlier in the day. President Obama pledged during his primary campaign to eliminate the ban. Legislation allows the president to do so if certain scientific findings are made, specifically that needle exchange programs do not increase community drug use levels, and do reduce the spread of HIV. These findings were made long ago, and the Clinton administration acknowledged them, but declined to eliminate the ban. Earlier this year the Obama administration punted the issue to Congress by including the ban in its budget proposal while verbally expressing support for needle exchange. Whether Obey's subcommittee took action because of administration support, or despite a lack of administration support, I don't know. Perhaps a greater savant than I will enlighten us. Now the bill heads to the full committee, after which it will go to the floor of the House of Representatives. Drug warriors may try to add the ban back at either stage. Victory also depends on what happens on the Senate side. Assuming the House and Senate do not approve exactly identical Labor and HHS budgets, it will go to a conference committee that includes both Reps and Senators. Elimination of the ban will neither increase nor decrease the amount of money the federal government spends on AIDS prevention, at least not directly. What it will do is allow state governments who receive federal AIDS grants to choose whether or not to spend some of that money on needle exchange. Those states which are in the habit of using scientific evidence to guide their policies will support needle exchange.

Latin American: Mexican Army Accused (Again) of Torture in Drug War

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón called on the armed forces to join the fight against violent drug trafficking organizations, observers have warned that involving the military in law enforcement is a recipe for human rights abuses. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported allegations from victims, families, political leaders, and human rights monitors that the army has carried out forced disappearances, illegal raids, and acts of torture as it wages war on the so-called drug cartels. It is by no means the first time such allegations have been made.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
The Post report shows a clear pattern of human rights abuses across Mexico. In a mountain village in Guerrero, residents told how soldiers stuck needles under the fingernails of a disabled farmer, stabbed his 13-year-old nephew, fired on a preacher, and stole food, milk, clothing, and medicine. In Tijuana, 24 police officers arrested on drug charges in March allege that they were beaten and tortured in order to extract confessions.

It is an old story. Earlier this year, after the Mexican army roared into the border town of Ciudad Juarez to put an end to a wave of killings, residents there reported similar abuses. Last year, the Chronicle reported on soldiers killing civilians in Sinaloa and Sinaloa human rights activist Mercedes Murillo's campaign to rein in the abuses. More than 2,000 other cases, with allegations ranging from theft and robbery to rape, torture, and murder, have been filed with local and national human rights monitors.

"What happens is the army takes [suspects] back to their bases -- and of course a military base is not a place to detain people suspected of a crime -- and they begin to ask questions," said Mauricio Ibarra, who oversees investigations for the national human rights commission. "And to help them remember or to get information, they use torture."

The US supports the Calderón offensive against the cartels through the $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative, but under that legislation, 15% of those funds must be withheld until the secretary of state reports that Mexico has made progress on human rights. That report is due to be delivered to Congress within weeks. It is going to be hard for the State Department to argue that the human rights situation in Mexico is improving, but with drug war politics at stake anything could happen.

Jim Webb's Quest to Reform the War on Drugs Gains Momentum

The Washington Post has a long and rather glowing examination of Virginia Senator Jim Webb's effort to reform U.S. drug policy and the criminal justice system:

"I am, at bottom, a writer," he says, invoking his default response. "I start with a theme, rather than a plot." Webb wants to shape a plotline that, with each turn of the page, draws America closer to reinventing its criminal justice system. Questioning why the United States locks up so many of its youths, why its prisons swell with disease and atrocities while fundamental social problems persist in its streets, has earned Webb lavish praise as a politician unafraid to be smeared as soft on crime. And when a law-and-order type as rock-ribbed as Webb expresses willingness to consider legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, excitement follows.  

Indeed it does. The whole article is worth reading, as it really captures the energy that's beginning to build behind Webb's efforts. There's nothing surprising about this to anyone who's been paying attention to the drug policy debate that has been escalating for years and erupting in recent months.

Still, even The Washington Post itself has been slow to grasp the potency of Webb's call for reform. Last December, The Post published a similarly lengthy account of Jim Webb's quest to reform criminal justice policies, but that article portrayed him as a crazy idealist stepping into political hot water:

"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."

And yet The Post is now reporting that Webb's efforts are gaining support, including "encouraging signals" from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and even President Obama. The Post's earlier suggestion that Webb's efforts could alienate him were based on the same "soft-on-crime" political theory that we've been hearing for two decades now. The second they got wind of Webb's criminal justice reform proposal, they interviewed a bunch of people about what a maverick he is and how his ideas are so unique. The whole thing reeked of the implication that only a strange politician would care about improving our criminal justice system.

To be fair, yes, Jim Webb is a bit of a maverick and clearly his plan is unique. I don't fault The Post for making Webb's personality part of the story. But it didn't make sense to frame criminal justice reform as a fringe idea and it's not at all surprising that The Post is now forced to concede Webb's political savvy. Obama spoke on the campaign trail about "shifting the model" in the war on drugs, and while that was hardly the defining issue of his candidacy, it was utterly uncontroversial throughout the campaign. It's a simple fact that criminal justice reform, including discussion of reexamining drug laws, is a perfectly legitimate and mainstream political topic that any politician can approach without inviting any consequential backlash.

One of the most immediate and intrinsically valuable aspects of Webb's effort is precisely that it serves as a mechanism for illustrating the importance of this discussion. I don't doubt that it will become controversial (if our drug policy truly faces due scrutiny as Webb intends), but by the time that happens, he will have firmly established the principle that debating criminal justice policies is a relevant and necessary exercise at this moment in American politics. If we can reach a point at which the media coverage is focused on the issue, rather than the personality quirks of Jim Webb himself, that's when we'll know his efforts are paying off.

Sentencing: Attorney General Calls for Elimination of Crack-Powder Cocaine Disparity

US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the gap in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses must go. Holder's remarks came as he addressed a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

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Eric Holder
Under federal sentencing laws in place since the mid-1980s, five grams of crack cocaine earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. This 100-to-1 disparity has hit black defendants the hardest. According to US government figures, 82% of federal crack offenders are black and only 9% white.

Pressure has been building for the past decade to reform those laws and reduce or eliminate that disparity. The notion has broad support even in Congress, but faces a perilous path among competing bills and competing notions about how the disparity should be addressed -- eliminate it completely, lower the ratio, or even increase powder penalties -- and how broadly the entire federal sentencing structure needs to be reformed.

Holder made it clear where the administration stands. "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy. This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

That's a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which fought hard to maintain the current cocaine sentencing structure despite opposition from the US Sentencing Commission, drug and criminal justice system reform advocates, an increasing number of prosecutors and judges, and an increasing number of legislators.

Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Decriminalization Bill

In a press release last Friday, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced he has introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession and not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana. It was the second marijuana bill of the week for Frank, who a couple of days earlier introduced the Medical Marijuana Protection Act.

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Barney Frank
Titled the Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act of 2009 (H.R. 2943), the bill would remove federal criminal penalties for the possession of less than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and for the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce. The bill would not change marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, would not change federal laws banning the growing, sale, and import and export of marijuana, and would not undo state laws prohibiting marijuana.

"I think John Stuart Mill had it right in the 1850s," said Congressman Frank, "when he argued that individuals should have the right to do what they want in private, so long as they don't hurt anyone else. It's a matter of personal liberty. Moreover, our courts are already stressed and our prisons are overcrowded. We don't need to spend our scarce resources prosecuting people who are doing no harm to others."

"Congressman Frank's bill represents a major step toward sanity in federal marijuana policy," said Marijuana Policy Project director of government relations Aaron Houston. "The decades-long federal war on marijuana protects no one and in fact has ruined countless lives. Most Americans do not believe that simple possession of a small amount of marijuana should be a criminal matter, and it's time Congress listened to the voters."

As of the middle of this week, the bill had five cosponsors: Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Ron Paul (R-TX), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. No word yet on any hearings.

Ten states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Those states are California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. In an eleventh, Alaska, the possession of up to an ounce in one's home is not just decriminalized, it's legal.

Press Release: Barney Frank Introduces Sweeping Reform of Federal Marijuana Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE   
JUNE 18, 2009

Barney Frank Introduces Sweeping Reform of Federal Marijuana Laws
Measure Comes as Growing Chorus Calls for End to Prohibition

CONTACT: Bruce Mirken, MPP director of communications ............... 415-585-6404 or 202-215-4205

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With criticism of marijuana prohibition rising, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation to end federal criminal penalties for possession or not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana.

     "Congressman Frank's bill represents a major step toward sanity in federal marijuana policy," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "Calls for rethinking our marijuana policies are coming from all quarters, and for good reason. Our decades-long war on marijuana has given us the worst of all possible worlds -- a drug that's widely used and universally available but produced and sold entirely by unregulated criminals who obey no rules and pay no taxes."

     Frank's bill would remove federal criminal penalties for possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana and the not-for-profit transfer of up to 1 ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana. It would not change marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act and would not change federal laws prohibiting the cultivation of marijuana, sale of marijuana for profit, or import or export of marijuana. It also would not affect any state or local marijuana laws or regulations.

     As recently as 2005, no national opinion survey had ever found a level of support for making marijuana a legal, regulated product above 36 percent. This year, a succession of major surveys have found levels of support for "legalization" ranging from 40 percent (Rasmussen) to 46 percent (ABC News/Washington Post) and even as high as 52 percent (Zogby). A June 12 report from CQ Researcher noted that opposition to legally regulated marijuana "appears to be weakening."

     With more than 27,000 members and 100,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit http://MarijuanaPolicy.org.

####

Marijuana bills introduced in Congress

Dear Friends:

Yesterday, Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to eliminate all federal penalties for marijuana possession. This came only one week after he also introduced a bill to protect medical marijuana patients.

Would you please take one minute to ask your U.S. representative to support these two bills? MPP's easy online action center makes it simple — just enter your name and contact info, and we'll do the rest.

The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2009 would eliminate the threat of federal arrest and prison for the possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana and the not-for-profit transfer of an ounce of marijuana — nationwide.

What's more, last week Congressman Frank introduced the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, which would allow states to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest and jail without federal interference, as well as allow pharmacies to dispense marijuana to patients with a doctor's recommendation. You can take action on this bill here.

MPP has worked closely with Congressman Frank's staff in past months, helping to craft both pieces of legislation and build political support for the proposals on Capitol Hill.

Now members of Congress need to hear from their constituents who want to see it passed — that means you! It takes only a minute or two to use MPP's online action system to send a quick note to your member of the House, so would you please send your letter right now?

Eliminate threat of federal arrest and prison for marijuana possession

Protect medical marijuana patients nationwide

Thank you so much for your help.

Sincerely,

Rob Kampia
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

Marijuana: US Congressman Mark Kirk Introduces Bill Targeting "Kush Super-Marijuana"

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) Monday introduced a bill that would dramatically increase prison sentences for marijuana trafficking offenses if the pot in question had THC levels over 15%. Warning Monday that "kush super-marijuana" had invaded the Chicago suburbs, Kirk is calling for prison sentences of up to 25 years for trafficking even small quantities of the kind bud.

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Mark Kirk
Under current federal law, the manufacture, distribution, import and export, and possession with intent to distribute fewer than 50 kilograms or 50 plants is punishable by up to five years in federal prison, a $250,000 individual fine and $1 million group fine. Kirk's bill, the High-Potency Marijuana Sentencing Enhancement Act (HR 2828) increases the maximum fines for high-potency pot to $1 million for an individual and $5 million for a group, as well as increasing the maximum prison sentence five-fold. A second offense would double the fines and increase the maximum sentence to 35 years.

In a press release announcing the bill, Kirk warned of "zombie-like" pot smokers stumbling around the Chicago suburbs. "According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 25 million individuals age 12 and older used marijuana in 2007 -- significantly more than any other drug," he said. "That's why Kush and other high-potency marijuana strains are so worrying. Local law enforcement reports that Kush users are 'zombie-like' because of the extreme THC levels. Drug dealers know they can make as much money selling Kush as cocaine but without the heavier sentences that accompany crack and cocaine trafficking. Higher fines and longer sentences aren't the total solution to our nation's drug problem. But our laws should keep pace with advances in the strength and cash-value of high-THC marijuana. If you can make as much money selling pot as cocaine, you should face the same penalties."

Rep. Kirk appears to have swallowed the assumption that higher-potency marijuana is somehow more harmful than lower-potency pot, an old bromide dating back to former drug czar John Walters' "it's not your father's marijuana." But marijuana users say they adjust dosages to achieve the desired effect by smoking smaller amounts of more potent varieties. A user might smoke an entire blunt of low-potency Mexican brick weed, but only a couple of tokes of more potent pot, just as an alcohol user might chug down a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, but only a few ounces of more potent distilled spirits.

Further, kush is only one of a number of different strains of high-potency marijuana now available on the market. Many of those strains will produce potency levels of 15% or higher, much to the pleasure of marijuana connoisseurs.

"I don't know what's more ridiculous about this," said Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, "Kirk's incredible scientific ignorance or the hypocrisy of a man who's taken thousands of dollars from the alcohol and tobacco industries going after marijuana."

By Wednesday afternoon, Kirk's bill had yet to pick up any cosponsors.

Medical Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Bill to Get DEA Out, Reschedule as Medicine

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced legislation Monday that would reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II drug and eliminate federal authority to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. Titled the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act (HR 2835), the bill currently has 16 sponsors and has been sent to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

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Barney Frank
Frank introduced similar legislation in the last two Congresses, but the bills never got a committee vote or even a hearing. Advocates hope that with a Democratically-controlled Congress and a president who has at least given lip service to medical marijuana, Congress this year will prove to be friendlier ground.

"We are encouraged by the federal government's willingness to address this issue and to bring about a more sensible and humane policy on medical marijuana," said Caren Woodson, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access. "It's time to recognize marijuana's medical efficacy, and to develop a comprehensive plan that will provide access to medical marijuana and protection for the hundreds of thousands of sick Americans that benefit from its use."

When it comes to reining in the feds, the bill would bar the use of the Controlled Substances Act or the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act for prohibiting or restricting doctors from prescribing marijuana and patients, caregivers, and co-ops or dispensaries from using, possessing, transporting or growing marijuana in accordance with state law.

The Obama administration has pledged to not use Justice Department resources to go after medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. Still, the DEA has continued to target medical marijuana providers, prosecutors continue to file drug charges against providers acting in accord with state laws, and federal judges continue to sentence medical marijuana providers who followed state laws, but were convicted under federal drug laws.

CBC Hosts "Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy" Symposium

The Congressional Black Caucus
 Community Re-Investment Taskforce and the
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice
at Harvard Law School
invite you to attend

"Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy"
25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act
 
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
  U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Ways and Means
1100 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C.

 

Program

Welcome and Opening Remarks by
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX)
 Rep. Danny Davis (IL)
Rep. Charles Rangel (NY)
 
Welcome and Introduction of Attorney General by
Rep. John Conyers (MI)
 
Remarks by
Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice
 
Introduction of Justice Breyer
Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. Executive Director, 
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice,
Harvard Law School
 
Hon. Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States
 
Kate Stith, Acting Dean
Yale Law School
 
Mandatory Minimums
 
Panel One: Rep Maxine Waters (CA)
History of Mandatory Minimums
 
Nancy Gertner, Judge, U.S. District Court for the
District of Massachusetts
Hon. J. Spencer Letts, Judge, U.S. District Court,
Central District of California
Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
 
Panel Two: Rep. Bobby Scott (VA)
The Need for Repeal, Including Legislative Update
 
A.J. Kramer, Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender of the
District of Columbia
Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Marc Mauer, Executive Director, The Sentencing Project
Margaret Love, Former Pardon Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice
 
Disparity Between Crack and Powder Cocaine
 
Panel Three: Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX)
 
Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Judge, U.S. District Court for the
District of Columbia
Hon. William Sessions, Vice Chairman, U.S. Sentencing Commission
Bruce Nicholson, Legislative Counsel, American Bar Association
David Kirby, Former United States Attorney for the
District of Vermont
 
Good Time, Community Corrections and Reentry
 
 Panel Four: Rep. Danny K. Davis (IL)
Hon. Ann Aiken, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court of the
District of Oregon
Loretta S. Martin, Chief Probation Officer for the Central
District of California
Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons
            Jane Browning, Executive Director, International Community Corrections Association
Kristen Mamer, Director Public Affairs, FedCure
Isaac Fulwood, Jr., Chairman, U.S. Parole Commission (Invited)
 

Contact: Bernard Moore, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow
Office of Congressman Danny K. Davis
202-360-7551
Bernard.moore@mail.house.gov

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

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