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Mitch McConnell Endorses Kentucky Hemp Bill

In a statement last Thursday, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the minority leader in the US Senate, endorsed pending legislation in his home state that seeks to reintroduce industrial hemp cultivation there. The bill already has the support of the state's other US senator, Rand Paul, and Agricultural Commissioner James Comer, who were instrumental in bringing McConnell on board.

Is it sunrise for industrial hemp in Kentucky? (votehemp.org)
"After long discussions with Senator Rand Paul and Commissioner James Comer on the economic benefits of industrialized hemp, I am convinced that allowing its production will be a positive development for Kentucky's farm families and economy," McConnell said. "The utilization of hemp to produce everything from clothing to paper is real, and if there is a capacity to center a new domestic industry in Kentucky that will create jobs in these difficult economic times, that sounds like a good thing to me."

But McConnell first had to be reassured that industrial hemp wouldn't somehow turn into recreational marijuana. Comer apparently managed the trick.

"Commissioner Comer has assured me that his office is committed to pursuing industrialized hemp production in a way that does not compromise Kentucky law enforcement's marijuana eradication efforts or in any way promote illegal drug use," McConnell said.

In a statement of his own last Thursday, Comer expressed enormous gratitude for McConnell's support.

"When the most powerful Republican in the country calls to discuss your issue, that's a good day on the job," Comer said. "Leader McConnell's support adds immeasurable strength to our efforts to bring good jobs to Kentucky."

The hemp bill, Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville), would direct the state Agriculture Department to create a program for licensing industrial hemp producers, but would not go into effect until there is a change in federal law, which bans the production -- but not the importation -- of industrial hemp.

In addition to both US senators, the bill has also garnered the support of two of the state's six US representatives, US Reps. John Yarmuth (D) and Thomas Massie (R). The two congressmen, Sen. Paul, and Commissioner Comer will all testify in favor of the bill.

"Our federal delegation is showing tremendous leadership," Comer said. "They recognize this is not a partisan issue. It's about jobs. And we will continue to push forward to make sure Kentucky is first in line for them."

State legislative leaders are also firmly backing the bill. Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) joined Sen. Hornback in convincing the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to endorse the bill. It did so Wednesday.

The bill gets a hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee on February 11.

Frankfort, KY
United States

DC Appeals Court Denies Marijuana Rescheduling [FEATURE]

In a ruling Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit denied a petition seeking to reschedule marijuana. The court held that while petitioners had presented some evidence of marijuana's medical efficacy, there was not enough to override the federal government's decision to place marijuana on Schedule I, the most restrictive classification.

E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse and William B. Bryant Annex
Schedule I drugs, which also include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, are those that are considered to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Marijuana was placed in Schedule I when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, and the DEA and FDA have consistently refused efforts to reschedule it.

The ruling came in Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration. It comes more than 10 years after the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, led by Jon Gettman, originally filed its petition in October 2002 and 40 years after NORML first filed a petition seeking to reschedule the herb. The Coalition petition was denied in 2011, after ASA sued the Obama administration for delaying its response. The current appeal was the first time in two decades that a federal court has reviewed the issue of whether there exists adequate scientific evidence to reschedule marijuana.

The first challenge for petitioners was that of standing to sue. The presence of disabled Air Force veteran and Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access member Michael Krawitz among the petitioners provided that standing. Krawitz, who has tussled with the Department of Veterans Affairs over his use of medical marijuana, "has suffered injury-in-fact because he must shoulder a financial cost for services he would otherwise obtain for free of charge from the VA" and thus has standing to sue, the court held.

But that was just the threshold question. On the substantive issue of rescheduling marijuana, the court came down squarely on the side of the federal government.

"The question before the court is not whether marijuana could have some medical benefits," wrote Senior Circuit Court Judge Harry Edwards for the majority. "Rather, the limited question that we address is whether the DEA’s decision declining to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under the CSA was arbitrary and capricious… On the record before us, we hold that the DEA’s denial of the rescheduling petition survives review under the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard. The petition asks the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III, IV, or V drug, which, under the terms of the CSA, requires a 'currently accepted medical use.' The DEA's regulations… define 'currently accepted medical use' to require, inter alia, 'adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy.' … We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist."

"The court says the DEA didn't act arbitrarily and capriciously, but if that wasn't arbitrary and capricious, I'm going back to the dictionary," said a frustrated Krawitz. "This is an issue with 70% supporting change, yet nothing happens. We have a handful of champions in Congress, but where is one person in the federal government who represents us? How can there be so little integrity at the National Institutes for Health and the FDA, where they are supposed to be there to protect our interests?"

"We're stuck in a Catch-22 -- the DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While there is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana's safety and efficacy, the specific clinical trials necessary to gain FDA approval have long been obstructed by the federal government itself."

"It's more of the same from the federal courts. I'm disappointed, but not surprised," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "There has been a long line of court decisions affirming the federal government's dictatorial power to make arbitrary decisions about drugs. Ironically, this decision comes on the same day as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Women in this country have the right to terminate the live of their fetuses, but not to smoke a joint."

"To deny that sufficient evidence is lacking on the medical efficacy of marijuana is to ignore a mountain of well-documented studies that conclude otherwise," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which appealed the denial of the rescheduling petition in January of last year. "The Court has unfortunately agreed with the Obama Administration's unreasonably raised bar on what qualifies as an 'adequate and well-controlled' study, thereby continuing their game of 'Gotcha.'"

ASA said it will seek an en banc review of the decision by the full DC Circuit and will go to the Supreme Court if necessary. The group said it will argue that the Obama administration has acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" by shifting its definition of what constitutes "medical efficacy." The administration now argues that Stage II and III clinical trials are necessary to show efficacy, while ASA contends that the more than 200 peer-reviewed studies it cited in legal briefs in the case meet the standard.

"The Obama Administration's legal efforts will keep marijuana out of reach for millions of qualified patients who would benefit from its use," said Elford. "It's time for President Obama to change his harmful policy with regard to medical marijuana and treat this as a public health issue, something entirely within the capability and authority of the executive office."

While ASA pursues its appeals in the courts, it is also trying to turn up the heat on Congress and the administration. With rescheduling through the courts blocked -- at least pending a favorable ruling on appeal -- that is where the action will be.

"I'm not optimistic that the courts are going to change their position," said Gieringer. "That means we will have to put pressure on the administration or Congress to do it."

But it's important to see that rescheduling is not an end in itself, but a means, said Gieringer.

"Rescheduling in itself would accomplish very little in the real world," he pointed out. "It would not end the federal-state conflict on marijuana, and even if it were rescheduled, there is still no FDA-approved supply. All of the marijuana out there today would still be an illegal controlled substance without FDA approval."

Marijuana policy reform is not just about real world effects; it is also about perceptions, and rescheduling marijuana would have been something of a game changer, as Gieringer noted.

"Symbolically, of course, it would have been huge," he said. "It would open the way for prescriptions and help unblock research -- the controls on Schedule II drugs are not nearly as fearsome. Still, rescheduling would have been a baby step, but a lot of other stuff has to happen, and that requires an act of Congress, and I haven't seen any sign of that."

But the federal courts have so far made clear that they will defer to Congress and the executive branch on these issues. That means that's where the battle will have to be won.

Washington, DC
United States

Is It Time for Another DC Marijuana Initiative? [FEATURE]

In the wake of the legalization victories in Colorado and Washington last November, and medical marijuana in Massachusetts, activists are talking about where the next marijuana reform campaigns should be waged and what they should attempt to do. One document that has gotten some discussion is from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), listing seven states where it would be working to legalize marijuana next. The list includes possible tax and regulate initiatives in Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Oregon.

DC's partial diamond (map from census.gov)
Absent from the list is one jurisdiction that would also appear ripe for a legalization initiative: Washington, DC. The nation's capital has several things going for it.

DC has the initiative process, and activists used it to great effect in passing medical marijuana with 69% of the vote in 1998 (even if, thanks to Congressional action and the glacial pace of the DC government it has taken 15 years to implement it). The District is also overwhelmingly liberal; Obama won with 91% of the vote in November.

Unlike large states like California, the District is small in size and population and would not require a huge expenditure of resources to gather enough signatures to make the ballot. Similarly, it is a relatively small media market, meaning TV advertising would be in reach of all but the most ill-funded campaign.

Last, but not least, it is the nation's capital. A successful initiative in Washington, DC, would reverberate not only around the country, but around the world, particularly an initiative that enacted legalization..

MPP may not have included the District in its "to do" list, but that doesn't mean the organization isn't watching, said the organization's director of governmental relations, Steve Fox.

"[DC] is being discussed," said Fox. "When you look at the places where an initiative would be possible, the District stands out. One reason we didn't mention it is that it’s a jurisdiction where we're not necessarily looking at tax and regulate, but there are options to do less, such as a decriminalization initiative."

The problem of congressional interference is cause for concern, though, Fox said.

"DC certainly is ripe for some kind of reform, but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that it is unique in that it has congressional oversight," Fox said. "With the medical marijuana system finally getting off the ground, we don't necessarily want to ruffle any feathers by attempting to do anything too bold. When the medical marijuana initiative passed in 1998 and Congress wanted to mess with it, they ended up having a provision something along the lines of DC not being able to spend any funds to lower or reduce penalties related to any schedule I or II substances. If Congress thought DC was going too far too fast, it could block DC from spending any money for reforms of Schedule I substances."

Doing DC would be tempting, said Fox, but again worried about moving too fast for Congress.

"There would certainly be value in passing something in the District," he mused. "You would be making a statement that a strongly Democratic-leaning jurisdiction thinks marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, but that might not be big news to a lot of people. The real impact and real value would be to actually have a regulated market in operation, and members of Congress could see that the sky isn't falling. We've waited 15 years to show Congress you can have medical marijuana dispensaries up and running and serving patients and the public good, and we want to make sure Congress has a chance to absorb that reality."

"As a longtime DC resident, I've always thought of the District as low-hanging fruit," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, who expressed interest in an initiative. "The media market is limited, and there is an overwhelmingly liberal population. But we don't even have a NORML chapter here, and I see little impetus in the reform community."

But things are happening in the District, according to long-time activist Adam Eidinger, co-owner of the Capitol Hemp Emporium until it was forced to close under law enforcement pressure last year. Eidinger told the Chronicle that both legalization and medical marijuana activists were meeting to plot potential courses of action, including either a legalization initiative or an initiative to expand medical marijuana rights.

"We're thinking 2014," said Eidinger, "but while I think this is a no-brainer, it has to be poll tested. We're not going to go for it if it polls less than 65%. "We will poll medical as well as legalization and see what the difference is. I know some of our friends wouldn't support legalization, but would support a patients' rights initiative that would give them the right to grow limited amounts, more rights to use outside the home, and more flexibility on dispensaries. This isn't California; DC is super strict on medical marijuana, and the patients here are going to be AIDS patients and cancer sufferers."

Test polling will happen soon, he said.

Eidinger, who also runs a media consulting firm, also saw the potential for a media coup. "This is a great place to do it for the public relations value," he said.

MPP's Fox said the group was looking for a few good people.

"As MPP did in Colorado and with medical marijuana in Arkansas, what we look for are committed and competent people on the ground who are able to do this kind of work," Fox said. "We're looking to support good people. I coordinate ballot initiatives, and I'm in DC, and so are other activists. I would be happy to work with local activists to craft something."

"The symbolism alone would probably be worth it," said St. Pierre. "It probably wouldn't cost more than $15,000 or $20,000 to get it done. This is a low cost project with a huge potential upside."

If recent comments from DC elected officials are any indication, further marijuana law reform is only going to come through the initiative process. While one city council candidate, Paul Zuckerberg, is running on a platform that includes decriminalization, the mayor and other top officials have made clear they are not interested in going further.

"I'm not prepared at this stage to support the decriminalization of any drugs at this point," Mayor Vincent Gray said earlier this month. "Look at the most abused substance in our society, and it's probably alcohol. People do abuse, irrespective of whether it's legal or not."

Police Chief Cathy Lanier also expressed unease, although her comments did suggest she drew a line between marijuana and other drugs.

"I know the legalization of marijuana is in large debate around the country, whether it be medical marijuana or just straight-out legalization of marijuana. That's one issue," Lanier said. "But I think when you talk about some of these other drugs that are extremely dangerous -- PCP, for example -- to say that we should decriminalize that and just allow people to have that without any penalty in the community would just be devastating."

With the DC council unlikely to advance reform, that leaves the field open to potential initiative campaigns. The District is most likely ripe for the picking, if anyone decides to go that route.

Washington, DC
United States

Senate Judiciary Chair Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), the powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the end of mandatory minimum sentencing at both the state and federal levels in comments made last Wednesday. He also said he hoped the federal government would not spend "a great deal of resources" on enforcing marijuana laws in states where it is legal. 

Sen. Leahy addresses law students at Georgetown University (leahy.senate.gov)
While Leahy said his highest priority in the new Congress that begins next month would be overhauling immigration laws, along with renewing the Violence Against Women Act and taking some action on gun policy, he diverted from his prepared remarks to Georgetown University law students to condemn mandatory minimum sentencing, calling the practice "a great mistake" that harms youth and minorities.

"I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done," he said. "The idea that we protect society by one size fits all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer -- it just does not work in the real world."

Leahy, who has previously said he would hold hearings on the federal response to successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, did not bring up the topic in his prepared remarks, but did respond to questions from students on the issue. He reiterated that he will seek clarification from the administration on how it will enforce federal marijuana laws there and suggested that he hoped it would not be a high priority.

"My own predilection is, I hate to see a great deal of law enforcement resources spent on things like the possession, use of marijuana when we have murder cases, armed robbery cases, things like that that go unsolved," he said.

Leahy is the longest serving Democrat in Congress. He could have been appointed to the chairmanship of the budget-controlling Senate Appropriations Committee, but instead chose to stay on as head of the Judiciary Committee, where he has the power to call hearings and move legislation on criminal justice issues.

Washington, DC
United States

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Hearings on Marijuana Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leahy wants information:

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

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

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

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

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

Colorado US Representatives Move to Support Legal Marijuana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Stock Prices Soar Following Legalization Votes

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

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

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

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

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

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