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Jim Sensenbrenner

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Chronicle AM -- August 4, 2014

Sentencing reform bills look to be picking up steam in Congress, Massachusetts is expanding drug courts, Tennessee's welfare drug test law generates unimpressive results, drug reform conferences are coming in Latin America, and more. Let's get to it:

Oregon drug court (co.washington.oregon.us)
Marijuana Policy

Toledo, Ohio, Decriminalization Initiative Campaign Hands in Signatures. Backers of a Toledo municipal decriminalization initiative handed in some 13,000 signatures Monday. They need 6,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The campaign is being led by Northwest Ohio NORML.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act Picks Up Cosponsors. The bill, House Resolution 5226, would exclude low-THC therapeutic cannabis oil from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. It was filed with three cosponsors, and picked up seven more late last week. There are five Democrats and five Republicans now sponsoring it.

Sentencing

Senate Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up New Cosponsor. The bill, Senate Bill 1410, would allow federal judges to sentence below mandatory minimums in some cases, apply adjusted crack cocaine sentences to people after the passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, as well as other sentencing reform provisions. The latest cosponsor is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The bill now has 31 cosponsors -- 23 Democrats, two independents, and six Republicans.

House Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up New Cosponsor. The bill, House Resolution 3382, is identical to the Senate version above. The latest cosponsor is Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). The bill now has 49 cosponsors -- 35 Democrats and 14 Republicans.

House Second Chance Reauthorization Act Picks Up New Cosponsor. The bill, House Resolution 3465, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), amends the Second Chance Act of 2007 to allow for funding for grants for family-based drug treatment and for drug treatment and criminal justice collaboration for people leaving prison. The latest cosponsor is Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX). The bill now has 40 cosponsors -- 33 Democrats and seven Republicans.

Drug Testing

Tennessee Welfare Drug Testing Law Screens 800 Applicants; One Fails Drug Test. In the first month that the new welfare drug screening and testing law went into effect, 812 applicants were asked to submit to screening for evidence of possible drug use. Four refused the initial screening, a series of questions about drug use. After initial screening, only six people were asked to submit to drug tests in order to receive benefits. Five out of the six passed. One failed the drug test.

Asset Forfeiture

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act Picks Up Cosponsor. The bill, House Resolution 5212, was introduced late last week by. Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R-MI). It would raise the standard of proof necessary for the government to seize property and reinstate due process so the government is required to prove a property owner's involvement in criminal activity. It now has a cosponsor, Rep. Renee Elmers (R-NC).

Law Enforcement

Massachusetts to Expand Drug Courts. Faced with an increase in heroin overdoses and opiate addiction, the state will add five drug courts to the 21 it currently has. Drug reformers criticize drug courts as not the answer for dealing with people whose only "crime" is their drug habit.

International

Mexican State Moves to Limit Coverage of Violent Crime. The state of Sinaloa, home to -- you guessed it -- the Sinaloa Cartel, has barred reporters from covering the violence there. The state congress last Thursday approved a law that restricts journalists to official government press releases for crime information and bans them from inspecting the scene, taking any photos or videos, or recording audio on-site.

Uruguay Solicits Bids for Marijuana Growers. Would-be marijuana growers in Uruguay have until August 18 to submit bids for licenses to grow pot at government-run fields and then sell it to consumers. The government there will license up to five growers.

Colombia Drug Reform Conference Later This Month. A drug reform conference will be held in Bogota on August 14 and 15. The conference is "Drug Policy 25 Years After the Death of Luis Carlos Galan: How Much Have We Advanced?" The Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann and Dr. Carl Hart will be there, as will numerous Colombian and other Latin American presenters and participants. Click the title link for more details.

Fifth Annual Latin American Drug Reform Conference in Costa Rica Next Month. The hemispheric conference will be held in San Jose on September 3 and 4. The conference will also include the First Annual Central American Drug Reform Conference. Click on the title link for lots more information.

Denmark's Liberal Alliance Calls for Drug Decriminalization. The opposition Liberal Alliance called at its summer meeting Sunday for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs, increasing the use of medical marijuana in the national health sector, and continuing the safe injection site initiative. "We know that it doesn't help to punish people for being in possession of drugs," said party leader Anders Samuelson. "We are not talking about a total liberalization of drug dealing. It should still be illegal to sell drugs, but not to be in possession of them." The proposal is not winning support from other political parties.

Congress Forms "Over-Criminalization" Task Force

Ten members of the House Judiciary Committee have agreed to form an Over-Criminalization Task Force to review the expansion of the federal criminal code and make recommendations for paring it down. There are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the law books, with new ones being added at a rate of about 50 a year.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) is one of 10 task force members.
This proposed review of federal criminal laws is the first since the 1980s, when the number of federal crimes on the books was about half what it is now. The task force will conduct hearings and investigate issues around over-criminalization and will have the opportunity to issue reports to the Justice Committee on its findings and policy recommendations.

Task force members include Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), Karen Bass (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), George Holding (R-NC), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Jerold Nadler (D-NY), Bobby Scott (D-VA), and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The group contains both prominent drug law reformers, such as Cohen and Scott, and prominent drug warriors, such as Gohmert and Sensenbrenner.

Among possible topics for the task force are federal drug laws and sentences in general and federal marijuana prohibition in particular. The group could also explore the issue of mens rea, or criminal intent, particularly in relation to the expansion of the use of conspiracy laws since the late 1980s. The use of those laws has led to low-level offenders, including some who were not even part of a drug trafficking enterprise, being sentenced to years or decades in federal prison -- sentences that were supposed to be reserved for high-level offenders.

"As former chairman and long-serving member of the Judiciary Committee, I've seen first-hand just how muddled the criminal code is," said Sensenbrenner. "It's time to scrub it clean. The Over-Criminalization Task Force will review federal laws in Title 18, and laws outside of Title 18 that have not gone through the Judiciary Committee, to modernize our criminal code. In addition, I reintroduced the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act [not posted as of Tuesday] today, which would reform Title 18 of the US Code, reduce the existing criminal code by more than one-third, and update the code to make it more comprehensible."

"Unduly expansive criminal provisions in our law unnecessarily drive up incarceration rates," said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the committee's ranking Democrat. "Almost one-quarter of the world's inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only five percent of the world population. In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue."

"Although crime is primarily a matter for states and localities to handle, over the last 40 or so years Congress has increasingly sought to address societal problems by adding criminal provisions to the federal code," said Scott. "There are now over 4,000 federal criminal provisions, plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations which impose criminal penalties, often without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt. As a result, we are hearing many complaints of overuse and abusive uses of federal criminal laws from a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Today, we are establishing a bipartisan task force on over-criminalization to assess issues and make recommendations for improvements to the federal criminal system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this worthy endeavor."

"This Task Force is a step in the right direction and could propose recommendations to significantly alleviate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the federal system," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The establishment of this Task Force is long overdue for the drug policy reform movement. It is past time for Congress to re-examine marijuana laws, conspiracy laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the appropriate role and use of the federal government’s resources."

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Czars Past and Present Oppose Prop 19 Marijuana Init

In an absolutely unsurprising turn of events, current head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske and five former drug czars have come out against Proposition 19, California's marijuana legalization initiative. The six bureaucratic drug warriors all signed on to an op-ed, Why California Should Just Say No to Prop 19, published in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
Joining Kerlikowske in the broadside against legalization were former drug czars John Walters, Barry McCaffrey, Lee Brown, Bob Martinez, and William Bennett.

The drug czars claim that Prop 19 supporters will "rely on two main arguments: that legalizing and taxing marijuana would generate much-needed revenue, and that legalization would allow law enforcement to focus on other crimes." Then they attempt to refute those claims.

Noting that marijuana is easy and cheap to cultivate, the drug czars predict that, unlike the case with alcohol and tobacco, many would grow their own and avoid taxes. "Why would people volunteer to pay high taxes on marijuana if it were legalized?" they asked. "The answer is that many would not, and the underground market, adapting to undercut any new taxes, would barely diminish at all."

Ignoring the more than 800,000 people arrested for simple marijuana possession each year, including the 70,000 Californians forced to go to court for marijuana possession misdemeanors (maximum fine $100), the drug czars claim that "law enforcement officers do not currently focus much effort on arresting adults whose only crime is possessing small amounts of marijuana."

They then complain that Prop 19 would impose new burdens on police by making them enforce laws against smoking marijuana where minors are present. Those laws already exist; Prop 19 does not create them.

The drug czars warn that if Prop 19 passes, "marijuana use would increase" and "increased use brings increased social costs." But they don't bother to spell out just what those increased costs would be or why.

The drug czars' screed has picked up a number of instant critiques, including those of Douglas Berman at the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Jacob Sullum at Reason Online, and Jon Walker at Firedoglake.

We're waiting for a drug czar to come out for pot legalization, not oppose it. Now, that would be real news.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

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