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Broad Coalition Calls for Serious Criminal Justice Reforms in Congress [FEATURE]

(This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)

The current Congress is already seeing a flurry of bills aimed at reforming various aspects of the federal criminal justice system, and now, a broad coalition of faith, criminal justice reform, and civil and human rights groups is calling for the passage of legislation that will dramatically reduce the size of the federal prison system.

The groups, which include the United Methodist Church, the NAACP, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Drug Policy Alliance, and dozens of other organizations, last week sent a letter to the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees setting out a statement of principles on what meaningful federal-level criminal justice reform should include.

"We urge you to support and advance criminal justice legislative reforms aimed at meaningfully addressing the primary drivers of dangerous overcrowding, unsustainable costs, and unwarranted racial disparities in the federal prison system," the letter said.

The letter called for Congress to:

  • restore proportionality to drug sentencing;
  • promote and adequately fund recidivism reduction and reentry programming;
  • make sentencing reductions retroactive;
  • expand BOP's Compassionate Release Program; and
  • expand time credits for good behavior.

The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold since the launch of the Reagan-era war on drugs three decades ago. In 1980, there were 22,000 federal prisoners; now, there are 210,000. And the war on drugs is one of the largest drivers of the increase. The number of federal drug prisoners has risen at twice the rate of the overall federal prison population; from fewer than 5,000 in 1980 to just under 100,000 now.

Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in 34 years, thanks in part to already enacted sentencing reforms, but the decline is marginal. More substantive reforms will be required to make bigger reductions in the carceral state.

The call comes as the Obama administration and members of both parties have all shown increasing signs of willingness to take on the federal criminal justice behemoth. Attorney General Holder has called repeatedly for a rollback of mandatory minimum sentencing and other harsh sentencing policies, while even House and Senate Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Reps. Jason Chafetz (R-UT) and Raul Labrador (R-ID) are sponsoring reform bills.

That Republican openness to sentencing reforms even extends to grumpy hard-liners like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the octogenarian chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I've expressed in the committee, maybe even on the floor, concern about inequitable sentencing," he said earlier this year. "White-collar crime has been treated less harshly than blue-collar crime, and it seems to me there's an opportunity maybe to take care of that inequity."

"It's encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats engaged in seeking constructive solutions to excessive incarceration," said Jeremy Haile, Federal Advocacy Counsel at The Sentencing Project. "To reduce federal prison populations and racial disparities, Congress should take an all-of-the-above approach, addressing excessive sentencing, limitations on programming in federal prisons, and barriers that prevent successful reentry."

"It's clear that there is a path forward for criminal justice reform in the House and Senate, but lawmakers should ensure that any final bill gets at the root causes of mass incarceration," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "It's important that legislation doesn't just paper over the cracks."

Maybe there is something after all where Democrats and Republicans can work together. We shall see as the year progresses.

Medical Marijuana Update

The Veterans Administration hints at coming changes around medical marijuana, California and Washington see state-wide regulation bills filed, both houses in Virginia have passed similar CBD bills, and more. Let's get to it:

National

On Wednesday, the VA told a House committee it is actively exploring medical marijuana for veterans. A top Department of Veterans Affairs official told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs today "there are active discussions going on now" about how to deal with the growing number of vets seeking to use medical marijuana for their ailments. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA's interim under secretary for health, told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Wednesday "there's an incredible opportunity for us to learn from some of those experiences, but I think that we have to be careful given the variation in legal issues."

California

Last Thursday, Santa Ana held a lottery for dispensary owners to obtain permits. More than 600 people had paid a $1,690 application fee for a chance to be chosen. Now, the lottery winners must pay $12,086 for the next stage of permitting. Dispensaries will only be allowed in two areas zoned for industrial use.

Last Friday, a federal judge temporarily blocked a forfeiture action against the Berkeley Patients Group. The federal government had sought to shut down the landmark dispensary in May 2013, but the dispensary, its landlord, and the city of Berkeley fought back. The city was struck from the lawsuit for lack of standing, but appealed. It then sought to stay the forfeiture action until its appeal was resolved. Last Friday, US District Judge Jon Tigar agreed.

On Monday, a medical marijuana regulation bill supported by cops and cities was introduced. Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) filed Assembly Bill 266 with the backing of the California League of Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association. The bill seeks to impose state-wide regulation on the Golden State's medical marijuana scene, but California NORML says it has some objectionable features, including too stringent transportation regulations, inadequate provision for the licensing of current growers, and a prohibition on licenses for people with prior drug offenses.

Florida

On Tuesday, a second state medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) has filed House Bill 683, which would only allow people with eight specified medical conditions to use it and which bars the used of smoked marijuana. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) earlier filed another, less restrictive medical marijuana bill. "The big differences are, it doesn't allow for smokeable marijuana," Steube said Tuesday of his bill and Brandes' bill. "Brandes, in his bill, says a doctor could prescribe (medical marijuana) if you had severe and persistent pain. That was taken out. We kept it to specific diseases."

Virginia

Last Thursday, a CBD medical marijuana bill passed the Senate. The Senate approved Senate Bill 1235, which would allow for the use of high-CBD cannabis oil. A similar bill is before the House of Delegates.

On Tuesday, a CBD medical marijuana bill passed the House. The House of Delegates approved House Bill 1445 on a vote of 98-1. Similar legislation has already passed the Senate. The bills would allow for the use of cannabis oil for children suffering medical conditions that bring on life-threatening seizures.

Washington

On Monday, a statewide medical marijuana regulation bill was introduced. Reps. Luis Moscoso (D-Kirkland) and Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) have introduced House Bill 2058 to create a licensed and regulated medical marijuana system for the state. The bill is identical to legislation that passed both the House and Senate in 2011 only to be vetoed by then Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) over fears of federal intervention.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: IA MJ Penalty Bill Moves, NM Hemp Bill Moves, MD Heroin OD Homicide Bill Filed, More (2/11/15)

Missouri's marijuana lifer may get a shot at freedom, Colorado is raking in the tax dollars from pot, the VA is pondering how to deal with medical marijuana for veterans, medical marijuana regulation bills pop up in California and Washington, and more. Let's get to it:

Dealers who sell dope that someone ODs on could be charged with murder under a Maryland bill. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Took in $76 Million in Marijuana Taxes and Fees Last Year. The state collected $44 million in recreational marijuana taxes and another $12 million in recreational pot fees last year. Taxes and fees on medical marijuana added another $19 million, bringing the total revenues to $76 million. The recreational pot tax bonanza is less than what was estimated before legalization, but is still a hefty chunk of change.

Iowa Bill to Cut Marijuana Penalties Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved Senate Study Bill 1121, which would make possession of less than five grams a simple misdemeanor with a maximum 30-day jail term. Currently, possession is punishable by up to six months in jail. Senators who approved the bill said it was an effort to address racial disparities in the state's criminal justice system. Iowa has one of the highest rates of racial disparity in pot busts of any state.

Missouri Governor Will Take "Hard Look" at Pardoning Marijuana Lifer. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said Tuesday he will review the case of Jezz Mizanskey, 61, who is serving life in state prison for a marijuana conviction. Mizanskey has been behind bars for 21 years already after being convicted of a third nonviolent pot offense. "It's a very serious amount of time," Nixon said. "If the laws change after someone is sentenced, then you want to give those things a close look." An online petition seeking Mizanskey's release has more than 386,000 signatures.

Medical Marijuana

VA Tells House Committee It is Actively Exploring Medical Marijuana for Veterans. A top Department of Veterans Affairs official told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs today "there are active discussions going on now" about how to deal with the growing number of vets seeking to use medical marijuana for their ailments. Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA's interim under secretary for health, told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Wednesday "there's an incredible opportunity for us to learn from some of those experiences, but I think that we have to be careful given the variation in legal issues."

California Regulation Bill Supported by Cops and Cities Introduced. Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) Monday filed Assembly Bill 266 with the backing of the California League of Cities and the California Police Chiefs Association. The bill seeks to impose state-wide regulation on the Golden State's medical marijuana scene, but California NORML says it has some objectionable features, including too stringent transportation regulations, inadequate provision for the licensing of current growers, and a prohibition on licenses for people with prior drug offenses.

Florida Medical Marijuana Bill Filed; Would Not Allow Smoking It. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota) has filed House Bill 683, which would only allow people with eight specified medical conditions to use it and which bars the used of smoked marijuana. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) earlier filed another, less restrictive medical marijuana bill. "The big differences are, it doesn't allow for smokeable marijuana," Steube said Tuesday of his bill and Brandes' bill. "Brandes, in his bill, says a doctor could prescribe (medical marijuana) if you had severe and persistent pain. That was taken out. We kept it to specific diseases."

Washington State Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Introduced. Reps. Luis Moscoso (D-Kirkland) and Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) have introduced House Bill 2058 to create a licensed and regulated medical marijuana system for the state. The bill is identical to legislation that passed both the House and Senate in 2011 only to be vetoed by then Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) over fears of federal intervention.

Hemp

New Mexico Hemp Bill Advances. The Senate Conservation Committee Tuesday voted 9-0 to approve the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (Senate Bill 94). Sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque), the measure would allocate $100,000 for the regents of New Mexico State University, the state's land grant university, to establish a seed bank and seed certification program for hemp. An additional $50,000 would be appropriated under the bill for the state Department of Public Safety to train officers to identify industrial hemp. A similar bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Moe Maestas (D-Albuquerque).

Heroin

Maryland Bill Would Allow Heroin Dealers to Be Charged With Murder in ODs. Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery County) Tuesday filed House Bill 222, which would allow prosecutors to seek homicide charges in heroin or fentanyl overdose deaths that can be linked to a specific dealer. The maximum sentence would be 30 years in prison. The bill had a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee the same day.

Harm Reduction

North Carolina Heroin Summit Tomorrow. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) is hosting a summit on heroin in Raleigh tomorrow. "Together with law enforcement, members of the NC medical and public health community, NC legislators, and people who have used or been impacted by heroin, we will engage in a series of panel events focused on discussing legislative solutions to heroin use and heroin-related overdose in the state," the group says. Click on the title link for event details.

Maine Governor Won't Support Expanding Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Gov. Paul LePage (R) said Tuesday that he would oppose efforts to expand access naloxone. Rep. Henry Beck (D-Waterville) has introduced HP 98, which would allow friends of drug users to carry the overdose reversal drug and has a Good Samaritan provision. A similar bill last year allowed family members and law enforcement to carry the drug, but the friends and Good Samaritan provisions were stripped out at LePage's insistence. Now, legislators will try again.

International

Transnational Institute Brief on Reforming Drug Law Enforcement in Latin America. The Institute has made available "Fixing a Broken System: Modernizing Drug Law Enforcement in Latin America," the latest of its series on legislative reform of drug policies. It argues that drug prohibition has mostly failed to reduce supply and demand while creating new problems and creating vast collateral damage. It has a number of recommendations; click on the link to read them.

Chronicle AM: Drug Czar Confirmed; ME, OH Pot Initiatives Get Going; WY Asset Forfeiture Reform, More (2/10/15)

2016 marijuana legalization initiative efforts are taking first steps in Maine and Ohio, Alaska lawmakers try to deal with implementing legalization there, Wyoming passes a bill ending civil asset forfeiture reform, CBD medical marijuana bills are moving in Virginia, we have a new drug czar, and more. Let's get to it:

Michael Botticelli (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Lawmakers Continue to Struggle With Implementing Legalization. The Senate Judiciary Committee is now considering a new version of its bill to implement marijuana legalization after an earlier version was criticized for only providing a defense in court for marijuana possession instead of legalizing it outright, as voters envisioned when they passed the legalization initiative last fall. The new version simply removes marijuana, hash, and hash oil from the state's controlled substances laws. Use of marijuana would still be illegal in some circumstances, including while driving and on ski lifts. The committee was set to take up the bill today.

Maine Group Submits Legalization Initiative for 2016. One of the groups interested in putting a legalization initiative on the 2016 ballot has filed its initiative with the secretary of state's office. Legalize Maine is first off the blocks in the state and claims it will make Maine "the first state with a home grown group leading the charge to have local people and small farmers benefit from legalizing marijuana." Legalize Maine's initiative would allow adults 21 and older to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana outside of their homes, require that 40% of cultivation licenses go to small-scale farmers, and allow marijuana social clubs, where people could buy and use the drug. It would also tax marijuana sales at 10%, a higher rate than the one that applies to prepared food, lodging and liquor. The Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project is also looking at a legalization initiative in the state. Initiatives will need some 61,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Ohio Legalization Group in First Phase of Initiative Signature-Gathering. Responsible Ohio has released summary petition language for its proposed 2016 legalization initiative. The group now needs to file 1,000 valid voter signatures with the attorney general's office for this first phase of the initiative process. The group's plan is for 10 sites in the state to be allowed to grow marijuana commercially. The marijuana would then be quality-tested and distributed to state-regulated dispensaries (for patients) and retail marijuana stores. Marijuana would be taxed at 15%. There appears to be no provision for home cultivation. If approved for general circulation, the petition would need 305,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2016 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Virginia House Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The House of Delegates today approved House Bill 1445 on a vote of 98-1. Similar legislation has already passed the Senate. The bills would allow for the use of cannabis oil for children suffering medical conditions that bring on life-threatening seizures.

Hemp

Southern Oregon Farmer Gets First Hemp License. Edgar Winter, an Eagle Point farmer, has obtained the state's first license to produce industrial hemp and says he and a nonprofit group intend to plant 25 acres in hemp this spring. That's if they can get the seeds, which requires the approval of the DEA. Stay tuned.

Asset Forfeiture

Wyoming House Passes Bill Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. A bill requiring that an individual be convicted of a drug felony before his property could be seized passed the House yesterday. Senate File 14 passed the Senate earlier in the session. It's the first bill to make it through the state legislature this year. No word yet on if the governor plans to sign or veto it.

Harm Reduction

Lives Saved By Miracle Drug Naloxone Pass 300 in North Carolina. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition has received a report of the 300th state drug overdose reversed by the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone. In the past year and a half, the coalition has distributed more than 7,300 naloxone kits through a network of staff, consultants, and volunteers. The coalition has also been instrumental in getting law enforcement on board with naloxone. Nine departments in the state currently carry naloxone.

Law Enforcement

Missouri Activists File Lawsuits Against Drug Task Forces. Show Me Cannabis has filed lawsuits against three Missouri drug task forces, accusing them of failing to comply with the state's Sunshine Law. "Missouri's drug task forces, who are trusted to enforce the law, routinely act as though they are themselves above it," plaintiff Aaron Malin said. "The citizens of Missouri have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing on their behalf, and that is why the Sunshine Law was enacted. Missouri's drug task forces have repeatedly ignored their legal obligations, and today we are taking them to court to force them to follow the law." Read the complaint and related documents here.

Drug Policy

Michael Botticelli Confirmed as Drug Czar. The Senate last night confirmed acting drug czar Michael Botticelli as the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He had served as the office's deputy director and before that, he spent nearly two decades overseeing substance abuse programs for the state of Massachusetts. "Michael Botticelli represents, in many ways, a significant improvement on all his predecessors as drug czar," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's not just that he comes from a public health background but that he seems truly committed to advancing more science-based and compassionate drug policies where the politics allow. What he most needs to do now is shed the political blinders that impel him both to defend marijuana prohibition and close his eyes to highly successful harm reduction measures abroad."

International

British Parliamentary Conference Will Discuss Drug Policy Alternatives. A conference next month hosted by the parliament's House of Commons Home Affairs Committee will discuss alternatives to Britain's much criticized drug laws and how to influence the looming international debate on drugs. It will feature a leading Liberal Democrat, officials from Mexico's foreign ministry, and harsh critics of the drug war status quo, including Danny Kushlick of Transform, and former Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs head Prof. David Nutt.

Chronicle AM: Jamaica Decrim a Step Closer, DC Legalization Battles, Pot and Driving, More (2/9/15)

The fight over legalization continues in DC, Jamaica is now one vote away from decriminalizing ganja, the NHTSA has a study out saying there is no evidence pot use increases the risk of crashes, and more. Let's get to it:

On Bob Marley's birthday, the Jamaican Senate passed decriminalization. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Drug Czar Nominee Says DC Should Be Able to Legalize Marijuana. Acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) Michael Botticelli has said that the District of Columbia should be able to determine its own marijuana policy. "As a resident of the District I might not agree about legalization," Botticelli said, "but I do agree with our own ability to spend our own money the way that we want to do that." Federal law requires the drug czar to oppose marijuana legalization, but that didn't stop Botticelli from endorsing home rule for the District even if that meant legalization.

DC Council Cancels Hearing on Taxation and Regulation Bill in Face of Legal Threats. The DC council was supposed to hold hearing on a taxation and regulation bill today, but abandoned those plans after the District attorney general warned lawmakers they and their staffs could face fines or even jail time if they went ahead. Incoming DC Attorney General Karl Racine warned the council in a letter late last week that holding the hearing would violate a congressionally imposed spending restriction prohibiting the city from moving forward on legalization and regulation. Council members and invited witnesses, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to testify, instead held an informal roundtable discussion on the topic to avoid the risk of being found in contempt of Congress.

Idahoans Not Ready to Legalize Marijuana, Poll Finds. An Idaho Politics Weekly poll found that only 33% supported legalization, with 64% opposed -- and they mean it. More than half (53%) of respondents were "strongly opposed," while another 11% were "somewhat opposed." Only 17% said they "strongly supported" legalization, with another 16% "somewhat supporting" it.

Sentencing Policy

Kansas Bill Would Cut Marijuana Sentences. The Kansas Sentencing Commission is pushing a bill through the legislature that would end prison sentences for the first two marijuana possession offenses and allow for increased use of good-time sentence reductions. The bill has been endorsed by the Department of Corrections and many legislators and has passed out of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee.

Drug Testing

Montana Food Stamp Drug Testing Bill Passes House. The House last Friday approved House Bill 200, which would require applicants for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to be screened for possible drug use. Those deemed to be suspected of drug use after screening would be subjected to drug tests.

Tennessee Welfare Drug Testing Scheme Yields Few Positives. Six months after the state rolled out its controversial law to drug test some people applying for public benefits, the first results are in, and they're not very impressive. Some 16,017 people applied for the Families First cash assistance program; only 279 were deemed to have provided reasonable suspicion that they were drug users, and only 37 of them tested positive for drugs. Eight people were disqualified for refusing to answer the drug questionnaire; another 81 were denied benefits after dropping out of the application process.

Driving

NHTSA Says No Evidence Marijuana Use Increases Crash Risk. A study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released last Friday found no evidence marijuana use increases the risk of getting in a traffic accident. While pot smokers are 25% more likely to be involved in a crash than non-users, NHTSA attributed that to factors other than marijuana use itself -- particularly that younger men are more likely to get in crashes. "Other factors, such as age and gender, appear to account for the increased crash risk among marijuana users," the study found. The study is the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use By Drivers.

Law Enforcement

Utah Town Pays Big for 2012 Drug War Killing of Danielle Willard. The city of West Valley City, Utah, will pay $1.425 million to the family of Danielle Willard to settle their wrongful death lawsuit against the city and two police officers. Willard was shot and killed by Det. Shaun Cowley as she sat in her car in an apartment complex parking lot. When detectives approached her vehicle, she began to back up. Two opened fire, but only Cowley was on target, hitting her in the head and killing her. Salt Lake County DA Sim Gill found the shooting unjustified, but a district court judge threw out charges against Cowley. Cowley was later fired for mishandling evidence and dereliction of duty, and the West Valley Vice Narcotics Unit was disbanded. It has just been reconstituted.

Missouri Activists Issue Report on Drug Task Force Misconduct. Show Me Cannabis has released a comprehensive report on misconduct in the state's anti-drug task forces. The report is "Drug Task Forces in Missouri: Secret, Dangerous, and Unaccountable; A Thorough Exploration of Patterns of Gross Misconduct."

International

Jamaican Senate Approves Ganja Decriminalization. The Senate approved marijuana decriminalization last Friday after five hours of debate. Up to two ounces will be decriminalized, Rastafarians will be able to grow their own, and the country will begin to move toward setting up a legal marijuana industry. The measure must still pass the lower House, but is expected to do so.

Vancouver Looks to Regulate Marijuana Dispensaries. Even though they are illegal under Canadian law, at least 60 dispensaries operate in Vancouver, and the municipal government is now moving to come up with a way to regulate them -- not shut them down. Click on the link for more details.

Chronicle AM: NM MJ Legalization Bill Dead, Fed Crackdown on Drug Courts, More (2/6/15)

State legislatures are keeping us busy with lots of drug-related bills, New York's attorney general gets a deal on naloxone pricing, the feds will crack down on drug courts that don't allow opiate maintenance, and more. Let's get to it:

Drug courts will have to get on board with opiate maintenance if they want to keep their federal funding. (henrico.us)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Legalization Bill Killed. The House Agriculture and Wildlife Committee voted 7-1 to table House Bill 160, which would have legalized marijuana and allowed for regulated and taxed sales. Opponents said it would lead to more drug use on the job and impair public safety.

Medical Marijuana

Virginia CBD Bill Passes Senate. The Senate voted Thursday to approve Senate Bill 1235, which would allow patients with epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil to control their seizures. The measure passed 37-1. A similar bill has already passed out of committee in the House and awaits a floor vote.

Hemp

Federal Industrial Hemp Act Picks Up New Sponsors. The bill, HR 525, would remove hemp from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. The bill now has 52 cosponsors -- 34 Democrats and 18 Republicans. The newest are Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC).

New Synthetics

New Hampshire Bill to Ban Synthetic Drugs Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 106, which would restrict the sale and possession of all synthetic drugs. The bill would give the Department of Health and Human Services the ability to "add, delete, or otherwise revise" the list of substances included in the law and set a $500 fine for businesses caught distributing the drugs.

Asset Forfeiture

House Subcommittee to Hold Hearing on Federal Asset Forfeiture Next Week. The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations will hold a hearing on federal asset forfeiture uses and reforms. The hearing is set for next Wednesday at 10:00am.

Colorado Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Vote Stalled. A bill that would require a criminal conviction before asset forfeiture could take place has been stalled. Senate Bill 6 was supposed to have a committee hearing this week, but the hearing has been delayed, with no make-up date announced.

Harm Reduction

New York Attorney General Gets Deal to Reduce Price of Overdose Reversal Drug. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has reached an agreement with Amphastar Pharmaceuticals that will result in cheaper prices for the company's formulation of naloxone, which can reverse opiate overdoses. The company nearly doubled the price of the drug last fall as demand rose, giving rise to a chorus of complaints. The deal would give New York state naloxone buyers a $6 per dose rebate. But the company had increased the price of the drug by about $20 per dose.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Narrows Public Benefits Drug Testing Proposal. Gov. Scott Walker (R) no longer plans to require drug screening and possible drug testing for all public benefits recipients; instead, now only childless adults will face the screening.

Law Enforcement

Feds to Crack Down on Drug Courts That Don't Allow Opiate Maintenance. Acting drug czar Michael Botticelli said during confirmation hearings Thursday that drug courts receiving federal funds will no longer be allowed to deny opiate addicts access to opiate maintenance treatments such as suboxone. Click on the link for more details.

International

New Cartel Violence in Matamoros Sends Newspaper Editor Fleeing to Texas. At least 15 people have been killed in the past week in confrontations between drug trafficking factions in Tamaulipas state, across the border from South Texas. And a newspaper editor from Matamoros has fled to Texas after being threatened upon publishing reports of a shootout that left nine people dead. Enrique Juarez Torres, editor of El Manana, said he had been kidnapped, beaten, and threatened with death for his reporting. The Thursday edition of the newspaper carried no news of his kidnapping or any other reports on cartel activity.

Laos Vows Crackdown on Drugs; Will Target Addicts as Well as Traffickers. Laotian security officials say they will be going after important drug rings and street dealers, but also drug users. "We're targeting the buyers, sellers, and consumers," a security official said. Laos has already ratcheted up drug law enforcement, with drug arrests up five-fold in 2014 over 2013. The moves come as opium production continues in the country and next door in Myanmar.

Medical Marijuana Update

Busy, busy. A federal medical marijuana bill is filed, and so are many more in the states. Also, the Surgeon General has something to say, Oregon bars patients from being caregivers, Maine says medical marijuana can make parents unfit, and more. Let's get to it:

Federal

On Monday, a federal appeals court questioned attempts to shut down an Oakland dispensary. A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco today challenged federal prosecutors over their attempt to shut down Oakland's Harborside dispensary. The judges wanted to know why the effort was continuing given recent policy pronouncements from the Justice Department that it would not go after dispensaries where they are legal.

On Tuesday, a bill to allow VA docs to to recommend medical marijuana was filed. US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and 16 bipartisan cosponsors have introduced a bill that would allow Veterans Affairs (VA) physicians to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to their patients, a right enjoyed by physicians outside of the VA system. The Veterans Equal Access Act is not yet available on the congressional web site.

On Wednesday, the US Surgeon General said medical marijuana can help some patients. In an interview on "CBS This Morning," US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said the medical effectiveness of marijuana had to be shown scientifically and much more information about it was coming. "We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, marijuana can be helpful," said Murthy. "I think we have to use that data to drive policymaking, and I'm very interested to see where that data takes us."

California

Last Thursday, San Diego's first permitted dispensary won final approval. The A Green Alternative dispensary won a final okay from the Planning Commission. It will become the first permitted dispensary to operate in the city since the state passed Prop 215 in 1996. Three other dispensaries are expected to be approved in March.

On Wednesday, a federal judge upheld most patient claims in a lawsuit against Lake County. Patients filed suit after plant seizures last year. The county argued that officers could enter a property without a warrant to cut down plants because they use a lot of water and the state is in a drought, but the court rejected that argument.

On Tuesday, a lawsuit challenging Butte County cultivation restrictions was filed. The county's Measure A, which was approved by voters in November, restricts the size of gardens but not the number of plants. Plaintiffs argue that it prevents them from growing the marijuana necessary to treat their conditions.

On Tuesday, the Anaheim city council toughened its prohibition on dispensaries. The council passed a revised ordinance that now threatens landlords who rent to dispensaries with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 a day fine.

Colorado

On Tuesday, a bill to allow a continued medical marijuana system passed the state Senate. The bill would allow residents with medical marijuana cards to continue to use dispensaries until at least 2019. That means people with cards could continue to buy marijuana for a lower price than in the adult retail market because medical marijuana has lower taxes. The bill is Senate Bill 115, sponsored by Sen. Owen Hill (R- Colorado Springs).

Connecticut

On Monday, a state commissioner agreed to expand the list of qualifying ailments. Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris said this morning that he will follow the recommendation of the program's Board of Physicians and is drafting new regulations to include sickle cell disease, post-surgical back pain with a condition called chronic radiculopathy, and severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis to the list of qualifying conditions. But that's not the end of it. Now, the proposal must be approved by the state attorney general and then by the General Assembly's Regulation Review Committee. A vote there could come by spring.

Florida

On Saturday, Florida sheriffs objected to a pending medical marijuana billl. The Florida Sheriffs Association has come out against Senate Bill 528 while meeting at their winter conference in Tallahassee. The sheriffs, with all their medical expertise, say that "smoked marijuana is not medicine" and list the medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be used. They have other demands, too; click on the link to read their press release.

On Tuesday, a new poll had medical marijuana doing well. A new Gravis Insights poll has support for medical marijuana at 64% in the Sunshine State. The poll comes as the legislature prepares to take up a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 528, and with the prospect of another initiative in 2016 looming. Last year's medical marijuana initiative won 57% of the vote, but was defeated because, as a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% of the vote to pass.

Illinois

On Monday, the state issued medical marijuana licenses. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) Monday issued medical marijuana licenses and permits to qualifying growers and sellers. The move came after former Gov. Pat Quinn (D) failed to act on the permits before his term expired. See the full list of licenses and permits here.

Maine

Last Friday, the state's high court ruled that using medical marijuana can make parents unfit. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled in a child custody case that even though medical marijuana is legal in the state, its use can make a person an unfit parent. "Determining what is in the best interest of the child necessarily involves considering whether a parent's ability to care for his or her child is impaired, including by his or her marijuana use. As with any medication or substance, the question of whether a parent's ingestion of marijuana is legal is only part of the equation. The more important question is whether that ingestion negatively affects, limits or impairs a parent's capacity to parent his or her child," Chief Justice Leigh Saufley wrote in the eight-page decision. The case is Daggett v. Sternick.

Mississippi

On Monday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. State Sen. Deborah Dawkins (D-District 48) has filed Senate Bill 2318, which would allow patients with specified conditions to use medical marijuana. The bill doesn't envision dispensaries, but would allow patients to grow their own with a physician's recommendation.

Missouri

On Monday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. Dave Hinson (R-St. Clair) has filed a full-fledged medical marijuana bill. The bill would allow patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces and would require that the medicine be grown in the state. The measure is House Bill 800.

North Dakota

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. Pamela Anderson (D-Fargo) has introduced House Bill 1430, which would allow patients with qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana. But there is a big loophole. Patients could also qualify if they suffer "any persistent or chronic illness or condition... if the illness or condition may be improved by the use of marijuana."

Ohio

On Tuesday, a CBD medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. Wes Retherford (R-Hamilton) has filed House Bill 33, which would allow doctors to prescribe high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil to treat seizure disorders. The bill would make the oil available at a limited number of hospitals in the state.

Oregon

Last Friday, the state barred medical marijuana patients from being child care providers. The state Early Learning Council has voted to bar patients from being child care providers. The decision follows a six-month temporary rule that was issued last August and gave patients an ultimatum: your patient card or your child care business.

Tennessee

On Monday, a low-THC cannabis oil bill was filed. State Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-District 11) today introduced House Bill 197, which would allow the use of cannabis oil with less than 0.9% THC for medical purposes.

Virginia

On Monday, a CBD medical marijuana bill won a committee vote. A bill that would allow epilepsy patients to use low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana won a committee vote Monday. Senate Bill 1235 passed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on an 11-2 vote.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org].

Chronicle AM: Fed Sentencing Reform Bill Refiled, CT Governor Calls for Drug Defelonization, More (2/4/15)

There's Florida medical marijuana news, the federal Justice Safety Valve Act is reintroduced, Connecticut's governor wants to defelonize drug possession, an Oregon bill would let localities opt out of legal marijuana commerce, and more. Let's get to it:

At both the federal and the state level, efforts to reduce the prison population are underway. (nadcp.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Bill That Would Let Localities Ban Pot Businesses Filed. A bill that would repeal parts of the Measure 91 legalization initiative to give local governments the power to regulate or prohibit marijuana businesses was filed Monday. The bill is Senate Bill 542. It is part of a package of bills before the Senate Implementing Measure 91 Committee.

Medical Marijuana

Colorado Bill to Allow Continued Medical Marijuana System Passes Senate. The bill would allow residents with medical marijuana cards to continue to use dispensaries until at least 2019. That means people with cards could continue to buy marijuana for a lower price than in the adult retail market because medical marijuana has lower taxes. The bill is Senate Bill 115, sponsored by Sen. Owen Hill (R- Colorado Springs).

Florida Poll Has Medical Marijuana Doing Well. A new Gravis Insights poll has support for medical marijuana at 64% in the Sunshine State. The poll comes as the legislature prepares to take up a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 528, and with the prospect of another initiative in 2016 looming. Last year's medical marijuana initiative won 57% of the vote, but was defeated because, as a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% of the vote to pass.

Florida Sheriffs Object to Medical Marijuana Bill. The Florida Sheriffs Association has come out against Senate Bill 528 while meeting at their winter conference in Tallahassee. The sheriffs, with all their medical expertise, say that "smoked marijuana is not medicine" and list the medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be used. They have other demands, too; click on the link to read their press release.

Ohio CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Rep. Wes Retherford (R-Hamilton) has filed House Bill 33, which would allow doctors to prescribe high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil to treat seizure disorders. The bill would make the oil available at a limited number of hospitals in the state.

New Synthetics

Indiana Bill Seeks to Punish New Synthetics Like Other Drugs. After the Court of Appeals threw out the state's law banning synthetic drugs as overly broad and too complicated to be unconstitutional, lawmakers are responding by filing a bill that would increase the penalties for "dealing in a counterfeit substance if the person represents the substance to be cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD or a schedule I or II narcotic drug." The bill is Senate Bill 278, sponsored by state Sens. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) and Randall Head (R-Logansport).

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Makes it Official -- He Wants to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients. Gov. Scott Walker (R) unveiled his budget proposal Tuesday, and it includes plans to require drug testing for those seeking a variety of public benefits. Walker would drug test not only people seeking food stamps, but also people seeking unemployment payments and people seeking Medicaid.

Sentencing

Federal Justice Safety Valve Act Reintroduced. A bipartisan group of legislators has reintroduced Senate Bill 353 (the House version is HR 706), the Justice Safety Valve Act. The Senate bill was filed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); the House version was filed by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

Federal Drug Manufacturing Sentencing Enhancement Bill Filed. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) Tuesday filed Senate Bill 348, which would "impose enhanced penalties for conduct relating to unlawful production of a controlled substance on Federal property or... while intentionally trespassing on the property of another that causes environmental damage." That language is from the bill summary; the actual text is not yet available.

Connecticut Governor Calls for Drug Defelonization. Gov. Dannell Malloy Tuesday proposed rewriting the state's criminal law to make all simple drug possession arrests misdemeanors. Possession with intent to distribute would not be included. He would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the state's pardon system. Under current state law, all drug possession arrests except for small amounts of marijuana are felonies, with sentences of up to seven years.

International

Senior British Cop Says Give Addicts Free Heroin. Mike Barton, chief constable for Durham, has called for an end to arresting heroin addicts and said it would be better to supply addicts with pharmaceutical heroin in a controlled setting. Targeting drug users is counterproductive, he said. "Their entrapment in criminal justice is a waste of police time and the state's money and dissuades addicts from revealing themselves for treatment for fear of criminal consequences," Barton said.

Chronicle AM: More Decrim & MedMJ Bills, Obama Budget Lets DC Legalize, WI Drug Test Opposition, More (2/3/15)

The president's budget adds one word that allows DC to move ahead with legalization, the marijuana and medical marijuana bills keep coming, hemp is coming to Oregon (get your permits now!), opposition is mounting to public aid benefits drug testing in Wisconsin, and more. Let's get to it:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's plan to impose drug testing on public aid benificiaries is drawing opposition. (wi.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Obama Budget Leaves DC Free to Legalize. Tucked inside the president's just-released 2016 budget proposal is a subtle language change that would let DC legalize and regulate marijuana sales any way it sees fit. It does so by adding a single word. The Obama budget bars the use of any federal funds, while the congressional budget language bars the use of funds. By adding the word "federal," the Obama budget language leaves DC free to use its own funds to implement the legalization measure approved by voters in November.

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) has introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana, with violators paying a fine of no more than $100. The measure is House Bill 218.

Maryland Paraphernalia Decriminalization Bill Filed. Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore) has filed legislation that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia. Maryland decriminalized pot -- but not paraphernalia -- last year, and this bill seeks to rectify that oversight. The bill is House Bill 105.

Wyoming Marijuana Study Bill No Longer Blocks Consideration of Other Pot Bills. The House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would study marijuana legalization in other states, but not before amending it to remove language that would have blocked consideration of other marijuana-related bills. The measure is House Bill 187.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Appeals Court Questions Attempt to Shut Down Oakland Dispensary. A three-judge panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco today challenged federal prosecutors over their attempt to shut down Oakland's Harborside dispensary. The judges wanted to know why the effort was continuing given recent policy pronouncements from the Justice Department that it would not go after dispensaries where they are legal.

Federal Bill to Allow VA Docs to Recommend Medical Marijuana Filed. US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and 16 bipartisan cosponsors have introduced a bill that would allow Veterans Affairs (VA) physicians to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to their patients, a right enjoyed by physicians outside of the VA system. The Veterans Equal Access Act is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Illinois Issues Medical Marijuana Licenses. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) Monday issued medical marijuana licenses and permits to qualifying growers and sellers. The move came after former Gov. Pat Quinn (D) failed to act on the permits before his term expired. See the full list of licenses and permits here.

Missouri Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Rep. Dave Hinson (R-St. Clair) has filed a full-fledged medical marijuana bill. The bill would allow patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces and would require that the medicine be grown in the state. The measure is House Bill 800.

Virginia CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Moves. A bill that would allow epilepsy patients to use low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana won a committee vote Monday. Senate Bill 1235 passed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on an 11-2 vote.

Hemp

Oregon Now Accepting Industrial Hemp Applications. The state Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for licenses and permits for industrial hemp. Click here for license and permit applications.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor's Public Aid Drug Testing Scheme Will Be Opposed By Dane County. Dane County (Madison) executive Joe Parisi (D) said Monday he might sue Gov. Scott Walker over his plans to drug test recipients of public aid benefits. "People who fall on hard times should not be treated like criminals; they should be treated like people who have fallen on hard times: with dignity and respect. Requiring someone who has just been laid off from their job to pee in a cup is not treating people in a dignified manner; it is degrading and insulting," Parisi said in a statement.

Wisconsin Governor's Public Aid Drug Testing Scheme Challenged by Coalition. A coalition of 15 groups are challenging Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to require applicants for and recipients of public assistance and unemployment insurance to pass drug tests. The groups all signed onto a letter criticizing the plan. The coalition includes advocates for Wisconsin's poor and women, members of the state's faith community, organized labor, and more.

International

Indonesia Set to Execute Eight More Drug Offenders, Including Seven Foreigners. A spokesman for the Indonesian attorney general's office said today that the country is preparing to execute eight drug smugglers, including citizens of Australia, Brazil, France, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Philippines. It executed six others just two weeks ago, despite international condemnation.

The President's Budget: Drug War on Cruise Control [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

President Obama (whitehouse.gov)
President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal today, and when it comes to the drug war budget, it's largely more of the same old same old. Despite the growing realization that the war on drugs is failed policy and despite the wave of marijuana legalization beginning to sweep through the states, there is no sign of anything new here.

Budget documents describe the drug war spending as "a 21st Century approach to drug policy that outlines innovative policies and programs and recognizes that substance use disorders are not just a criminal justice issue, but also a major public health concern" and calls for "an evidence-based plan for real drug policy reform, spanning the spectrum of prevention, early intervention, treatment, recovery support, criminal justice reform, effective law enforcement, and international cooperation."

But the rhetoric doesn't match up with the spending proposals. Instead, the decades old, roughly 60:40 split in favor of law enforcement over prevention and treatment continues. While the Department of Health and Human Services would get more than $10 billion for treatment and prevention programs (more than $6 billion of it for Medicaid and Medicare), drug law enforcement spending in the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the drug czar's office would total more than $14.5 billion.

Justice Department drug war spending would increase from $7.79 billion this fiscal year to $8.14 billion next year under the president's proposal. That includes nearly $3.7 billion for the Bureau of Prisons (up $187 million), $2.46 billion for the DEA (up $90 million), $519 million for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (up $12 million), and $293 million for the Office of Justice Programs (up $50 million).

That last line item -- the Office of Justice Programs -- is where the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which typically fund multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, are found. It would see a rather substantial 20% funding increase despite congressional efforts in recent years to cut it back. That means more drug task forces, more drug busts, and more back-end costs associated with them (see the Bureau of Prisons line item).

While the overall federal drug budget is up to $27.57 billion (from $26.34 billion last year), there are decreases in some line items. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) would be cut from $375 million this year to $307 million next year, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program would be cut from $245 million to $193 million, and Defense Department drug war spending would be cut from $1.307 billion to $1.267 billion.

There are no huge increases in the drug war budget, but neither are there significant decreases. This is very much a drug war budget on cruise control. And this is, of course, only the president's proposed budget. What the Congress will do with it remains to be seen.

If everyone agrees the drug war is a failure, someone forgot to tell the president.

Washington, DC
United States

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