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The Fall and Rise and Fall of a "Death to Meth" DA [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com. This is the 7th installment of Walker's series on prosecutorial misconduct in the war on drugs.

A Northern California attorney plunged into a full-blown methamphetamine addiction, then made a storybook recovery, running successfully for county prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform just a few years later. But now that attorney, Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander, is on the ropes again, and it's not the drug itself but a different aspect of his meth mania that's doing him in.

Alexander fought back like Rocky Balboa, only to be defeated by himself.
Inspired by a burning passion to fight the meth industry in the county and to help meth users who reminded him of himself, Alexander ran as a big underdog on a "Death to Meth" platform. On the road to victory with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" booming in the background, Alexander won strong support from law-abiding citizens, sheriff's deputies, judges, and even families of drug dealers and drug users that Alexander previously represented either as a solo defense attorney or public defender. And in a strange way many drug dealers he sent to prison as a former prosecutor threw their support behind him as well.

"With meth, it's personal to me. I've been there. I know meth is a horrendously powerful drug. I've been to hell and back," a triumphant Alexander declaimed after winning the prosecutor's job. A former New Jersey resident, Alexander graduated in 1987 from Western State University College of Law in Orange County, California.

Like a former smoker turned anti-smoking zealot, Alexander turned his personal campaign against meth into a crusade. For nearly three years, he participated in "Meth Elimination" raids carried out by the sheriff's office and hammered meth dealers as the DA.

But now, the 63-year-old lawyer's enthusiasm has gotten the best of him, and the Northern California DA finds himself in trouble with the law again. It just another turn of the page in the real-life legal thriller that is the career of Jon Alexander.

Back in April, the State Bar of California recommended that Alexander, who had previously been disciplined for prosecutorial misconduct, be disbarred for interfering in a drug case. Although the judge in the case issued an order recommending Alexander's "right to practice" law be transferred to involuntary inactive status, the final decision to disbar the DA is up to the California Supreme Court.

To add insult to injury, the "miracle comeback lawyer" was served with a letter from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors ordering him suspended without pay as a sheriff's sergeant unceremoniously escorted him from his office. He has been replaced temporarily by assistant prosecutor Katherine Micks as he exhausts his appeals.

Alexander went down over his interference in a meth case involving a female defendant, 24-year-old Michelle Taylor. Taylor met with Alexander in his office and told him that meth seized in a recent bust belonged to her and not her boyfriend, Damion Van Parks, who had been arrested with her and charged as a codefendant. The bar found that he had questioned her without her attorney present, that he failed to provide exculpatory evidence in a related case, and that he lied to his fellow prosecutors.

"Jon Alexander, reportedly the state's first sitting prosecutor to face removal from office, abused his prosecutorial power by communicating with Michelle Taylor, charged at the time, with methamphetamine possession," State Bar Court Judge Lucy Armendariz ruled. But there's more: "After Alexander learned from Taylor that she, not her co-defendant Van Parks, owned the illegal drugs, Alexander failed to disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defendant's lawyer."

And still more. Judge Armendariz found that Alexander had lied to Assistant DA Micks, who was in charge of prosecuting the case, by telling her he had not spoken with the female defendant. But it gets worse.

When the accusations against him emerged, Alexander fired back, claiming he recalled that Taylor's attorney had given him permission to speak to her about seeking drug treatment. But, unknown to Alexander, Taylor had been wearing a wire, and on the recording of their meeting, there is no mention of her going to rehab.

Judge Lucy Armendariz (tjsl.edu)
"Michelle Taylor was denied basic protections under the Sixth Amendment when Alexander elicited information from her without her counsel," Judge Armendariz found.

Taylor refused to testify at Alexander's October 2012 State Bar trial unless she was granted immunity in her pending meth case. That didn't happen. Instead, she was eventually convicted and sentenced to a year in prison while the case against Van Parks was dropped.

Alexander had support during his State Bar trial, with numerous members of Del Norte County legal and law enforcement communities testifying to his good reputation as an elected DA. While he may have had shortcoming and might have committed some errors, they said, none of his misdeeds warranted criminal actions. But not everyone rallied to Alexander's support.

"I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be DA because I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long-time meth use, even though he appears sober now," argued State Bar Deputy trial counselor Cydney Batchelor,

Although he has been recommended for disbarment by the State Bar for misconduct and at least temporarily removed from office, Alexander hasn't given up the fight. In addition to appealing the State Bar decision, he is also challenging the county Board of Supervisors' decision to suspend him without pay.

"I am the elected District Attorney of this county; I still believe I am," Alexander said in August.

He has hired Sacramento attorney Rudy Nolen, who has filed an appeal of the State Bar Court's decision to disbar him. Nolen is also challenging the county supervisors' decision to suspend Alexander, arguing that the board "acted out of its scope of jurisdiction on a number of grounds" when it suspended the befallen prosecutor, and violated his rights in the process.

"It did not have authority to fire Alexander because a sitting District Attorney is subject to removal only by Attorney General Office or by way of recall election or a grand jury accusation," Nolen argued. "The board did not provide Mr. Alexander with prior notice of planned actions and the board failed to provide Alexander with an open hearing or an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations."

"I continue to believe that the actions taken by the board were outside of their authority, which was, to me, an illegal attempt to remove Jon from his position," he told the Chronicle.

In his October 2012 lawsuit against the State Bar, Alexander's attorney claimed that "the accusations against him were not only politically motivated by fellow lawyers and DAs, whom he called enemies, but the accusations also were driven by incorrect factual allegations and bias against a former meth addict."

"My opponents are subjecting me to additional scrutiny and criticism because of my former drug addiction," Alexander argued.

It wasn't Alexander's recovery status, but his prosecutorial misconduct that did him in, though, Judge Armendariz held.

"Jon Alexander knew or should have known, as an experienced prosecutor, that there's no excuse for conversing with a defendant in the absence of retained counsel, regardless of whether she barged into his office and voluntarily made several incriminating statements during their conversation," she wrote in her decision to disbar him.

One disgruntled attorney is former Del Norte Prosecutor Michael Riese, who gave Alexander a chance to work as a prosecutor in his office based on his excellent skillls as a trial lawyer. Alexander was fired from the DA office by Riese for improper behavior. But Alexander later rebounded to defeat Riese for the top spot. Riese filed a lawsuit against Alexander in July 2012, accusing him of malicious prosecution for allegedly trying to frame him for child endangerment and DUI. Both charges against Riese were later dismissed.

The Downward Spiral

Before Alexander won election as Del Norte County District Attorney, his dalliance with methamphetamine almost killed him. Burdened with emotional strain over the declining health of his parents and running a busy law practice, Alexander first used cocaine and then switched to snorting meth.

"I was doing meth to keep my practice going. I did meth while cranking out a bunch of work, then did some more to stay up. Then after a couple of days straight I took Ambien to sleep," he recalled in an interview with California Lawyer magazine. "Around 2000, I graduated to smoking meth," Alexander recounted. "If you think snorting meth gets its claws in you, then smoking it completely puts your head in the dragon's throat."

After losing a beautiful oceanfront home in 2002, expensive sports car, a loving girlfriend, and a thriving law practice due to a long-term suspension over fees owed to a client, police threw him in jail for driving while his license was suspended. Out of jail, but now broke and homeless, Alexander continued to find solace in meth.

He lived out of his car or in shelters before eventually winding up crashing beneath the crawl space of a friend's house in Laguna Beach, where he slept on a stained, filthy mattress. In a sad reminder of his lost career, Alexander kept his Italian suits wrapped in garbage bags hanging from a rusty pipe in the crawl space. As the world around him spun out of control, Alexander became so despondent that he jammed a .32 pistol in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger to end his brutal dependency on meth.

"I can still remember the metallic taste of the gun in my mouth," Alexander said.

What stopped him from committing suicide was his mother's dog, Prince, whom he kept as companion. Slowly he put the gun down, feeling obligated to fulfill the promise he made to his ailing mother to take care of Prince.

Then Alexander had a close brush with death at the hands of others. On a mission to score more meth, he was attacked at a motel, struck in the head and knocked unconscious. Alexander suffered a broken neck, requiring a steel rod and transplanted disc to hold him together.

"I didn't have the good sense to die," Alexander told the Sacramento Bee.

This violent episode convinced Alexander to make a decision: live or die. Never a quitter, and with the heart of a prizefighter, Jon Alexander dusted himself off, prayed hard, and regained the right to practice law again in December 2004 -- after completing the State Bar substance abuse program. To stay sober and busy, Alexander sponsored a Little League Team, led a weekly 12-step drug program and served as keynote speaker at the County Drug Summit. Serving as mentor for recovering addicts at Jordan's Recovery Center in nearby Crescent City, the residents there adored him as the "comeback lawyer" and a true friend.

"When these guys come to Jon, no matter how beat down they are, he always finds a way to build them up," Sandra Morrison, the facility administrator, told California Law.

Bouncing Back, Breaking Bad

In January 2005, then Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese hired Alexander as Assistant DA to give the former meth addict another shot at redemption as a public servant. It wasn't long before Alexander got into hot water, though. In June 2005, Alexander wrote a personal letter to a judge urging him to give a stiff prison term to a meth dealer who, ironically, had been previously represented by Alexander when he worked as a public defender for the county. The judge reported Alexander's improper behavior not only to the defendant's lawyer, but also his boss, DA Riese.

"I'm guilty of bad judgment, arrogance and overstepping my bounds," a contrite Alexander wrote in a letter of apology to DA Riese.

Unimpressed, Riese fired Alexander, and he found himself suspended once again by the State Bar, this time for three months. Reinstated to practice after 90 days, like the Energizer bunny, Alexander bounced back with a vengeance, running against Riese for the DA's post in 2006. He lost the race, but not his mission.

In 2010, Alexander tried again, accusing Riese of corruption and investing his life savings of nearly $100,000 in his "Death to Meth" campaign. He won, by 196 votes out of 10,000 cast.

And now, thanks to his misconduct, he's out again, but he's still vowing war on meth.

"Meth is ravaging this country and I intend to fulfill and deliver on those campaign promises, and I look forward to returning to those duties," he said.

Joe Alexander, a former meth addict, turned his life around, becoming the county's top prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform. But while he managed to kick the drug, he hasn't been able to kick his need to bend the rules to go after it.

Although Alexander's saga appears to be winding to a close, it's not quite over yet. In July, Del Norte County rejected his petition to reinstate his salary while his appeals conclude. And next week, he has a hearing on his request that the State Bar consider reversing Judge Armendariz's recommendation that he be disbarred. But for the time being, at least, the "Death to Meth" prosecutor is on the outside looking in.

Crescent City, CA
United States

"Defelonization"--The Next Step in Winding Down the Drug War [FEATURE]

Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have already passed laws making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and the momentum appears to be growing. A bill in California to do something similar has passed the legislature and is currently sitting on the governor's desk, and efforts are afoot to push a defelonization measure through the Washington legislature next year.

An overcrowded California prison (supremecourtus.gov)
Such measures are designed to ease prison overcrowding, ease pressures on budgets, and help drug users by avoiding saddling them with felony convictions. They also reflect increasing frustration with decades of drug prohibition efforts that have failed to stop drug use, but have resulted in all sorts of collateral costs.

In California alone, even after Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) prison realignment scheme, more than 4,000 people remain in state prisons on simple drug possession charges. At $47,000 per inmate per year, that comes out to more than a $200 million annual bill to state taxpayers.

Under current California law, people convicted of a drug possession felony can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. More than 10,000 people are charged with drug possession felonies each year, although many of them receive probation if convicted.

California state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) moved to redress that situation with Senate Bill 649, which passed the legislature on the final day of the session. The bill is not a defelonization bill per se; instead, it makes drug possession a "wobbler," meaning it provides prosecutors with the flexibility to charge drug possession as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

"Our system is broken," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the bill. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities."

Even Republicans got on board with the bill, helping to get it through the Assembly earlier this year.

California state Sen. Mark Leno (wikipedia.org)
"I am proud that we got bipartisan support in the Assembly," Leno told the Chronicle.

The bill currently awaits Gov. Brown's signature, and although his signature is not required for it to become law, Leno said he believed the governor would act on it, and he urged supporters to let the governor know now that they want him to sign it.

"Anyone can go to the governor's web site and offer support through an email communication," Leno said. "I am always hopeful he will sign it."

While Californians wait for the governor to act (or not), activists and legislators in Washington are gearing up to place a defelonization bill before the legislature there next year. Sensible Washington, the activist group behind the effort, says it has lined up legislative sponsors for the bill and will pre-file in December for next year's legislative session.

State Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) will be the primary sponsor of this proposal in the House. Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver), Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle), and Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater) have all signed on as official cosponsors, with more to be announced soon. Sensible Washington hopes to have a companion bill filed simultaneously in the Senate.

Under current Washington law, the possession of any controlled substance (or over 40 grams of cannabis) is an automatic felony. Under this new proposal, the possession of a controlled substance -- when not intended for distribution -- would be reduced from a felony charge, to a misdemeanor (carrying a maximum sentence of 90 days, rather than five years). Laws regarding minors would not be affected.

"Removing felony charges for simple drug possession is a smart, pragmatic approach to reducing some of the harms associated with the war on drugs," said Anthony Martinelli, Sensible Washington's communications director. "The goal is to stop labeling people as felons, filling up our prisons and ruining their lives in the process, for possessing a small amount of an illegal substance."

He elaborated in a Tuesday interview with the Chronicle.

"We support full decriminalization, like the Portuguese model, but defelonization is a big step forward, and we feel that the public and lawmakers are ready for it," he said. "We have to find a way to deal with the dangers of the war on drugs. Another reason is the massive disparity in our cannabis law -- an ounce is legal, but an ounce and a half is a felony. This would remove felonies for cannabis possession, but we don't think anyone should be hit over the head with a felony for personal drug possession."

Martinelli said Sensible Washington and its allies would be spending the next few months preparing to push the bill through the legislature.

"We will be building public and legislative support, continuing to work on garnering media attention, activating our base, and getting more lawmakers on board," he said. "We're really trying to form a bipartisan coalition and get other organizations involved as well."

One of those groups is the ACLU of Washington. Sensible Washington and the ACLU of Washington were bitter foes in the fight over the state's successful I-502 marijuana legalization initiative -- Sensible Washington opposed it as a half-measure that endangered medical marijuana, a claim that ACLU and other advocates contested -- but appear to be on the same page when it comes to this sentencing reform.

"We support the decriminalization of drug use", said Alison Holcomb, criminal justice project director for the ACLU of Washington. "We're looking forward to working in collaboration with Sensible and its allies to achieve that goal."

Martinelli said he could now announce that the proposed bill has picked up its first Senate sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D), to add to its growing list of House sponsors. Missing from that list of House sponsors is one of the most prominent drug reformers in the House, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, but that's not because he opposes the idea, Goodman told the Chronicle Tuesday.

"As chair of the committee, it's important for me to be an honest broker to get legislation through," Goodman explained. "My position as chair is weakened if there is a potentially controversial issue and I'm seen as being on one side of it. It's not that I oppose it, and I certainly will hold a hearing on it and move it, but my role is more to facilitate negotiations on provisions of the bill without being an interested party," he said.

It is an idea that is certainly worth pursuing, he said.

"We need to reprioritize. The tough penalties we impose on people for merely possessing drugs is so arbitrary compared to the penalties for other offenses where there is direct physical harm perpetrated against others," Goodman said. "And by now, we all acknowledge that drug possession is not merely an indiscretion, but might be linked to behavioral health issues. Our approach should be to facilitate therapeutic interventions. We have deferred prosecution programs already, but only for alcohol. Those arrested for drug possession are not eligible because it's a felony. If we could make deferred prosecution available for drug cases, we could make much more headway on the problem," he said.

And doing so would only codify what is already often existing practices, he said.

"Many or most courts and prosecutors are already pleading down felony drug cases to misdemeanors because of budget constraints and space limitations in the jails," Goodman noted. "We can change the law to conform with that practice without an additional threat to public safety. Beyond that, we could remove the prejudicial effect of a felony conviction when it is so evident they hinder people from reintegrating into the community."

While Sensible Washington and its allies are moving full steam ahead, passing the bill could be a multi-year effort, Goodman warned.

"I anticipate prosecutors saying that if we set a certain possession threshold, drug dealers will make sure they possess no more than that amount and will play the system," he said. "We have to figure out a way to find a threshold or divide possession cases into degrees. I hear the concern, but I'm not sure what the solution is. But this is a next important phase of drug policy reform: cranking down the drug war yet one more notch and doing what's rational and fiscally responsible."

There is lots of work to be done, Goodman said.

"We'll see how this plays out in the legislature. It's probably going to need more lobbying and more background discussion among more legislators," he predicted. "So far, it's not a real prominent topic, so it might end up being a work in progress. But who knows? It might catch on fire, and we'll get a quick consensus."

Health Canada Approves Heroin Maintenance [FEATURE]

Last Friday, Health Canada used some creative rule-reading to approve a program that would provide prescription heroin to a small number of hard-core users, and the Conservative health minister isn't happy. But doctors, advocates, and the users themselves are quite pleased -- and once again, Canada stays on the cutting edge when it comes to dealing smartly with heroin use.

Health Canada approved access to prescription heroin for at least 15 people who are completing their participation in Vancouver's Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Dependence (SALOME), which is testing whether prescribing heroin was more effective than prescribing methadone for users who have proven resistant to conventional treatments. The move came after participants and advocates have been calling for an "exit strategy" for the 322 people in the study.

SALOME began at the end of 2011 and has been enrolling participants on a rolling basis for a year at a time. The final group of participants will finish up at the end of next year. It built on the success of the North American Opioid Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI), a study in Vancouver and Montreal from 2005 to 2008. That study found that using heroin is cheaper and more effective than using methadone to treat recalcitrant heroin users.

While the Conservative federal government has been a staunch opponent of heroin maintenance, not to mention also fighting a bitter losing battle to close down the Vancouver safe injection site, Health Canada bureaucrats were able to find a loophole that will allow doctors to prescribe heroin to graduating study participants under the ministry's Special Access Program (SAP).

That program is designed to provide drugs to Canadians with life-threatening illnesses on a "compassionate or emergency" basis. The SAP includes "pharmaceutical, biologic and radiopharmaceutical products that are not approved for sale in Canada." The program covers diseases including intractable depression, epilepsy, transplant rejection and hemophilia, but heroin addiction isn't mentioned.

"Health Canada made a wonderful decision," said Scott Bernstein, Health and Drug Policy Lawyer for the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Aid Society, which represents 22 SALOME participants and the BC Association of People on Methadone in order to advocate for their continued access to health care and the protection of their human rights. "The decision was one based on the evidence and not ideology. It means that those SALOME participants allowed access can live safer, more stable lives, lives free of crime and remaining under the care of doctors, not drug dealers."

But Health Minister Rona Ambrose appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the Health Canada decision. She issued a statement the same day decrying the move, saying that it contradicted the government's anti-drug stance.

Pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine AKA heroin (wikimedia.org)
"Our government takes seriously the harm caused by dangerous and addictive drugs," Ambrose said. "Earlier today, officials at Health Canada made the decision to approve an application under the Special Access Program's current regulations to give heroin to heroin users -- not to treat an underlying medical condition, but simply to allow them to continue to have access to heroin for their addiction even though other safe treatments for heroin addiction, such as methadone, are available."

The move is "in direct opposition to the government's anti-drug policy and violates the spirit and intent of the Special Access Program," Ambrose said, adding that she would take action to "protect the integrity of the (SAP) and ensure this does not happen again."

Ambrose's remarks prompted a Monday response from SNAP (the SALOME/NAOMI Patients Association), comprised of "the only patients in North America to be part of two heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) clinical trials" -- NAOMI and SALOME. SNAP noted that European heroin-assisted treatment trials had allowed participants to continue to be prescribed heroin on compassionate grounds after the trials ended and that "heroin-assisted therapy is an effective and safe treatment that improves physical and psychological health when the participants are receiving treatment."

"The Canadian NAOMI trial is the only heroin-assisted treatment study that failed to continue offering HAT to its participants when the trial ended in Vancouver," SNAP said. "We do not want to see the same outcome for the SALOME trial. Currently, SALOME patients are being offered oral hydromorphone when they exit the trial. However, there is currently no scientific evidence to support this treatment option for opiate addiction in the doses required; thus we urge you to reconsider your comments and to support Health Canada's decision to grant special access to heroin for patients exiting the SALOME trial. We also urge Canadians to support the immediate establishment of a permanent HAT program in Vancouver, BC."

Patients and their supporters weren't the only ones supporting the Health Canada move and criticizing Minister Ambrose for her opposition. New Democratic Party health critic Libby Davies also had some choice words for her.

Davies was "outraged" that Ambrose would "overrule her own experts," she said. "Medicalized heroin maintenance has been used very successfully in places like Europe. It's another example of the Conservative government ignoring sound public policy, instead making decisions based on political dogma."

Indeed, while Canada has been on the cutting edge of opiate maintenance in North America, being the scene of the hemisphere's only safe injection site and heroin-maintenance studies, similar moves have been afoot in Europe for some time. Prescription heroin programs have been established in several European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Now, it seems that Canada will join them, despite the health minister's dismay.

Vancouver
Canada

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

Hemp in the Time of New Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

It's not just medical and legal marijuana states that watched the Justice Department's announcement of its response to marijuana law reforms in the states with interest. Nine states have laws regulating the production of industrial hemp, and ten more have asked Congress to remove barriers to industrial hemp production.

Rep. Massie, Comm. Comer & Rep. Polis (Vote Hemp via youtube)
Hemp is also moving in the Congress. An amendment to the Farm Bill cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Jared Polis (D-CO) passed the House on a vote of 225-200 in July and will now go to a joint House-Senate conference committee. And the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (House Resolution 525 and Senate Bill 359) is pending in both chambers.

At a Tuesday Capitol Hill briefing organized by the industry group Vote Hemp (video embedded below), state and federal elected officials said they thought the Justice Department's policy directive on marijuana opened the door not just to regulated medical and legal marijuana, but also to industrial hemp production. Some states intend to move forward, they said.

"That Department of Justice ruling pertained to cannabis," said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner John Comer, "and hemp has always been banned because it's in the cannabis family. The Department of Justice ruling pertained to states with a regulatory framework for cannabis, and we feel that includes hemp as well. Our legislation set up a regulatory framework."

The legislation Comer is referring to is Kentucky Senate Bill 50, the Bluegrass State's industrial hemp bill, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support, gained endorsements by both of the state's Republican US senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and became law without the governor's signature in April. It establishes an Industrial Hemp Commission and sets up procedures for licensing farming and processing.

"We have a hemp commission meeting Thursday, and we are going to request that Rand Paul send a letter to the DEA telling them we intend to get going next year unless the Department of Justice tells us otherwise," Comer said. "We are taking a very proactive stance in Kentucky. We've been trying to replace tobacco, and hemp is an option not only for our farmers, but it could also create manufacturing jobs in our rural communities."

The commission did meet Thursday, and it voted unanimously to move forward with industrial hemp production, aiming at producing hemp next year.

"That's our first goal, to get the crop established. Then, once companies and industries see that we have a crop here established and growing, we believe industries will start coming here looking for it instead of importing it from other countries," said Brian Furnish, chairman of the Industrial Hemp Commission, after the Thursday vote.

According to Vote Hemp, Kentucky isn't the only state planning on moving forward with hemp next year. Vermont just released its Hemp Registration Form that allows farmers to apply for hemp permits and the Colorado Department of Agriculture is developing regulations to license hemp farmers in 2014. North Dakota has issued permits for several years now.

Imported hemp is now a $500 million a year industry, Vote Hemp's Eric Steenstra said.

Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), who also played an important role in passing the Kentucky bill and who is a cosponsor of the House hemp bill, said he was encouraged by the Justice Department policy directive, but that it was not enough.

"We need more than a Justice Department ruling," he told the press conference. "As a farmer and entrepreneur, I want some certainty. I want a legislative remedy for this, and that's why I continue to push hard for our bill, which would exclude hemp from definition as a controlled substance."

Vote Hemp's Eric Steenstra
But while the House hemp bill now has 47 cosponsors, it still has a long row to hoe. The hemp amendment to the Farm Bill, which would allow hemp production for university research purposes, has already passed the House and awaits action in conference committee.

"If you can attach an amendment to a spending bill, then you can get action," said Massie. "I have to give credit to Rep. Polis for doing this. This is a farm issue, not a drug issue. And while there was debate over whether it was wise to even have a vote, it passed. People decided spontaneously to vote for it as an amendment."

While the Senate has not passed a similar provision, Massie said he was hopeful that it would make it through conference committee.

"There is no equivalent in the Senate, there is no companion amendment, but we do have [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, who is all for it," he said. "I'm hopeful it will survive, and we'll continue to work on the standalone hemp bill."

"It was important to get the House language in the Farm Bill," said Polis. "Not only does it allow universities to do research that is needed, but it also symbolically moves forward with embracing the potential for industrial hemp production."

Polis said he was cheered by the Justice Department's policy directive when it came to hemp.

"They listed eight enforcement priorities, and industrial hemp isn't even on the enforcement radar," the Boulder congressman said. "We see no federal interest in going after states or hemp producers. The risk is minimal. But minimal isn't good enough for some folks, and that's why we want to continue to gather support for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. You don't want to have to depend on a federal prosecutor or the attorney general not getting up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning."

Industrial hemp may be an afterthought for Justice Department policy setters, but the recent guidance has emboldened hemp advocates to push forward faster than ever. Getting hemp research approved in the Farm Bill would be a good first step; passing the Industrial Hemp Act would be even better. But it doesn't look like some states are going to wait for Congress to act.

Washington, DC
United States

Senate Holds Hearing on State Marijuana Legalization [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon held a hearing on marijuana legalization and conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws. Led by committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the hearing featured testimony from the deputy attorney general who has set Justice Department policy, two officials in states that have legalized marijuana and one critic of marijuana legalization.

The hearing marked the first time Congress has grappled with the issue of responding to state-level marijuana legalization and was notable for its emphasis on making legalization work in states where it is legal. It was also notable in that of all the senators present, only one, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), bothered to dredge up the sort of anti-marijuana rhetoric that had in years and decades past been so typical on Capitol Hill.

"Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug," said Grassley, who turns 80 next week. "It's illegal under international law as well, and the treaty requires us to restrict its use to scientific and medical uses. These [legalization] laws flatly contradict our federal law. Some experts fear a Big Marijuana, a Starbucks of marijuana," he lamented.

Grassley's lonely stand reflects changing political realities around marijuana policy. The other senators who spoke up during the hearing -- Democrats Leahy, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island -- all represent states where voters have already expressed support for medical marijuana and a region where support for outright legalization is high. They were all more interested in removing obstacles to a workable legalization than in turning back the clock.

"Last November, the people of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, and these new laws are just the latest example of the growing tension between state and federal marijuana laws and the uncertainty about how such conflicts are resolved," Leahy said as he opened the hearing. "Marijuana use in this country is nothing new, but the way in which individual states deal with it continues to evolve. We all agree on the necessity of preventing distribution to minors, on preventing criminal enterprises from profiting, and on drugged driving. But I hope that there might also be agreement that we can't be satisfied with the status quo."

The first witness was Deputy Attorney General James Cole, author of last month's policy directive notifying state governments that the Justice Department would not seek to preempt their marijuana laws and instructing all federal prosecutors to leave legal marijuana alone -- with a number of exceptions. Sales to minors, the use of guns or violence, profiting by criminal groups, a marked increase in public health consequences like drugged driving, and distribution of marijuana into non-legal states are all among the factors that could excite a federal response, Cole's directive noted.

On Tuesday, Cole reiterated and went over the policy directive for senators, but the most striking part of his testimony was his admission that the federal government could not effectively put the genie back in the bottle.

"It would be very challenging to preempt decriminalization," Cole conceded in response to a question from Leahy. "We might have an easier time preempting the regulatory scheme, but then what do you have? Legal marijuana and no enforcement mechanism, which is probably not a good situation. You would also have money going to organized criminal enterprises instead of state coffers."

The three Democratic senators all prodded Cole and the Justice Department to do something about the legal marijuana (and medical marijuana) industry's problems with banks and financial services. Because of federal pressure, such institutions have refused to deal with marijuana, leaving those businesses drowning in cash. The senators also questioned reports that the DEA had been telling armored car companies not to do business with marijuana businesses.

"What about the banking industry?" asked Leahy. "A cash only business is a prescription for problems. We're hearing that DEA agents are instructing armored car companies to stop providing services to medical marijuana companies. It's almost as if they're saying 'let's see if we can have some robberies.' What is the department going to do to address those concerns?"

"The governors of Colorado and Washington raised this same issue," Cole acknowledged. "There is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around; there are guns associated with that. We're talking with FinCEN and bank regulators to find ways to deal with this in accordance with laws on the books today."

"There should be specific guidance to the financial services industry," a not-quite-mollified Leahy replied.

The committee then heard from King County (Seattle), Washington, Sheriff John Urquhart. "The war on drugs has been a failure," the sheriff said bluntly. "We have not reduced demand, but instead incarcerated a generation of individuals. The citizens decided to try something new. We, the government, failed the people, and they decided to try something new."

Urquhart saw no great tension between the federal government and legal marijuana states, and he, too, brought up the issue of banking services.

"The reality is we do have complementary goals and values," Urquhart said. "We all agree we don't want our children using marijuana. We all agree we don't want impaired drivers. We all agree we don't want to continue enriching criminals. I am simply asking that the federal government allow banks to work with legitimate marijuana businesses who are licensed under this new state law."

The committee also heard from Kevin Sabet of Project SAM (Smart About Marijuana), the voice of 21st Century neo-prohibitionism.

"In states like Colorado," he said, "we've seen medical marijuana cards handed out like candy, we've seen mass advertising. At the marijuana festival in Seattle we saw 50,000 people smoking marijuana publicly; it's the public use of marijuana that worries me. I don't see the evidence of trying to implement something robust, especially in the face of an industry that will be pushing back against every single provision. In a country with a First Amendment and alcohol and tobacco industries that profit off addiction, I worry that, inevitably, American-style legalization is commercialization, no matter the interests of state officials and regulators."

But nobody except Grassley seemed to be listening.

Marijuana legalization advocates and drug law reformers liked what they heard Tuesday.

"It feels like there's a paradigm shift underway in the Justice Department's interpretation of federal drug control law," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They seem to recognize that drug control should be first and foremost about protecting public health and safety, and that smart statewide regulatory systems of the sort that Colorado and Washington are proposing may advance those objectives better than knee-jerk enforcement of federal prohibitions."

"For years, the legalization movement has been gaining traction as people learn this is neither a fringe issue nor a partisan one, but one responsible for deep inequities in our justice system, the expansion of criminal gangs and the increase in unsolved violent crimes," said Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) board member and former Denver cop Tony Ryan. "There's a long road ahead, and this hearing leaves many questions unanswered, but this historic discussion means we are on our way to a more rational and effective drug policy."

"The Department of Justice is finally taking seriously the dangers that a lack of access to simple banking services poses to consumers, employees and business owners," said Aaron Smith, director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "We are encouraged that the growing consensus among essentially all stakeholders is that banking access must be available to legal businesses. It portends a quick reform to this dangerous and unnecessary situation."

"The era of robust state-based regulation is here," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Legalizing marijuana and shrinking the number of people behind bars in the US is an issue the left and right can join together on. Like the repeal of alcohol prohibition, the repeal of marijuana prohibition will save taxpayer money, put organized crime syndicates out of business, and protect the safety of young people."

But at a time when marijuana prohibition remains the federal law of the land, perhaps former Seattle police chief and LEAP member Norm Stamper had the most down-to-earth take.

"While I would have liked to have seen a substantive change in policy, what we were really listening to in that hearing was the sound of a changing political climate," said Stamper. "People who can't agree on any other political issue are coming together over this one, and politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore that at their own peril."

Washington, DC
United States

Administration Gives States Okay on Marijuana Legalization [FEATURE]

Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Colorado and Washington Thursday that the Justice Department would not -- at least for now -- block their states from implementing regimes to tax, regulate, and sell marijuana. The message was sent during a joint phone call early Thursday afternoon.

The Justice Department will take a "trust but verify" approach, a department official said. The department said it reserved the right to challenge the state legalization laws with a preemption lawsuit at a later date if necessary.

The go-ahead from Holder to the states was accompanied by a memorandum from Deputy US Attorney General James Cole to federal prosecutors laying out Justice Department concerns and priorities. If marijuana is going to be sold, the memo said, it must be tightly regulated.

"The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests," the memo said. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."

The memo listed a number of activities that could draw federal prosecutorial attention or result in a Justice Department reassessment, including sales to minors, profits going to criminal actors, diversion to pot prohibition states, marijuana sales as a cover for other drug sales, violence and the use of firearms, drugged driving and other "adverse public health consequences," and growing marijuana on public lands.

Attorney General Eric Holder (usdoj.gov)
That leaves some wiggle room for federal prosecutors, some of whom have shown a willingness to be quite aggressive in going after medical marijuana providers. But it also gives them a clear signal that legalization will, in general, be tolerated in states where voters have approved it.

In a first response from marijuana reform activists, Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority called the Justice Department's stance "a step in the right direction", but also blasted the administration for its aggressive enforcement activities against medical marijuana providers and warned that interpreting the new directive will be up to US attorneys.

"It's nice to hear that the Obama administration doesn't at this point intend to file a lawsuit to overturn the will of the voters in states that have opted to modernize their marijuana policies, but it remains to be seen how individual US attorneys will interpret the new guidance and whether they will continue their efforts to close down marijuana businesses that are operating in accordance with state law," Angell said.

"It's significant that US attorneys will no longer be able to use the size or profitability of a legal marijuana business to determine whether or not it should be a target for prosecution, but the guidelines seem to leave some leeway for the feds to continue making it hard for state-legal marijuana providers to do business," he continued.

Angell chided the administration for using cheap rhetoric about not busting pot smokers to obscure deeper issues of federal harassment of marijuana businesses.

"The administration's statement that it doesn't think busting individual users should be a priority remains meaningless, as it has never been a federal focus to go after people just for using small amounts of marijuana," he said. "The real question is whether the president will call off his federal agencies that have been on the attack and finally let legal marijuana businesses operate without harassment, or if he wants the DEA and prosecutors to keep intervening as they have throughout his presidency and thus continue forcing users to buy marijuana on the illegal market where much of the profits go to violent drug cartels and gangs."

The Marijuana Policy Project also reacted Thursday afternoon, saying it applauded the move.

"Today's announcement is a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition. The Department of Justice's decision to allow implementation of the laws in Colorado and Washington is a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies with respect to marijuana," said Dan Riffle, the group's director of federal policy.

"We applaud the Department of Justice and other federal agencies for its thoughtful approach and sensible decision," he added. "It is time for the federal government to start working with state officials to develop enforcement policies that respect state voters, as well as federal interests. The next step is for Congress to act. We need to fix our nation's broken marijuana laws and not just continue to work around them."

Washington, DC
United States

Senator Leahy Calls Judiciary Hearing on Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would hold a hearing next month on the Justice Department's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and legal medical marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The hearing is set for September 10.

Patrick Leahy (senate.gov)
Leahy has invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify before the committee and help clarify the conflicts between state and federal law, as well as the federal response. Cole is the author of the 2011 Cole memo giving federal prosecutors the green light to go after medical marijuana providers in states where it is not tightly regulated.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement Monday. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last November, Leahy sent a letter to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asking that the Obama administration make public its position on the matter. Although Holder said in February that a Justice Department response would be coming "relatively soon," it still hasn't appeared.

State officials in Colorado and Washington said last week that they thought the Justice Department had given them "tacit approval" to move forward with their plans to implement marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization. Leahy, who has said he supports the efforts in those two states, would like to get something more definitive from the Justice Department.

In the meantime, while the feds are silent on how they will deal with legalization, federal prosecutors and the DEA have kept up the pressure on medical marijuana producers and distributors. Since the Cole memo came out two years ago, hundreds of dispensaries have been raided and hundreds more subjected to federal "threat letters." While actual prosecutions have been more rare, the result has been a reduction in access to medical marijuana for patients in areas where dispensaries have been forced out of business.

Leahy isn't the only one in Congress who is interested in federal marijuana policy. At least seven bills have been filed, most with bipartisan sponsorship, addressing federal marijuana policy. They range from bills to legalize hemp and marijuana to bills that would prevent the use of the IRS to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Holder won kudos from many drug reformers earlier this month when he announced his support for further sentencing reforms, but medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocates were disappointed that he did not address the tension and contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies. Now, it appears that Leahy is going to force the issue, and marijuana reform advocates couldn't be more pleased.

"This is an important development for all sorts of reasons -- not least because the Senate has been so remarkably passive on marijuana issues even as twenty states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized it more broadly. I am delighted that Senator Leahy now seems ready to provide much needed leadership on this issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets," Nadelmann continued. "Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing. Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana."

"Two states have made marijuana legal for adult use and are establishing regulated systems of production and distribution. Twenty states plus our nation's capital have made it legal for medical use. By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that," Riffle continued. "It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws possible. We need to put the 'reefer madness' policies of the 1930s behind us and adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st Century."

"We're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, a policy that the attorney general has been saying is coming 'relatively soon' since December," said Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority. "If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way, it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference."

It ought to be an interesting, and perhaps, historic hearing. It's two weeks away.

Washington, DC
United States

Florida Medical Marijuana Initiative Moving Forward [FEATURE]

Could Florida be the first state in the South to approve medical marijuana? A bill that would have done that was stymied this year in the legislature, but its proponents have vowed to continue the fight next year. And in the meantime, a move to put a constitutional amendment that would allow medical marijuana on the November 2014 ballot is moving forward.

Florida initiative organizers face an uphill battle. To make next year's ballot, petitioners must come up with some 683,419 valid voter signatures by February 1. Last week, the initiative campaign, known as United for Care, passed its first hurdle, turning in more than 110,000 signatures to trigger a state Supreme Court review of its language. Only 68,000 valid signatures were needed, but organizers wanted a nice cushion to ensure that they have the necessary numbers.

While awaiting the Supreme Court's imprimatur, the paid signature gathering campaign is on hold, although volunteer efforts continue. Once the high court gives its okay, phase two of the signature gathering will get underway, with more than a half million needing to be gathered. Organizers are looking to turn in signatures by the end of the year, ensuring they are verified in time for the February 1 deadline.

The state, the nation's fourth most populous with nearly 20 million people, is not an easy place to run an initiative. Needing hundreds of thousands of signatures means an extensive paid signature gathering campaign, as well as volunteers, and that's just to make the ballot. The state's multiple media markets mean it will take millions of dollars more in late advertising to ensure that the initiative actually passes come election day.

Circulating under the ballot title "Use of Marijuana for Certain Conditions," the initiative would allow for the medicinal use of marijuana for a list of specified conditions as well as "any other conditions for which a physician believes that the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks for a patient."

It would set up a system of state-regulated marijuana cultivation and distribution centers and would provide ID cards to patients and caregivers. But it would not allow patients or caregivers to grow their own.

At this stage of the game, advocates are certain they will succeed and are chomping at the bit.

"We are absolutely going to make the 2014 ballot," vowed Kim Russell, founder of People United for Medical Marijuana (PUFMM), which is running the United for Care campaign. "And we're very confident the Supreme Court will approve the wording."

Russell has some reason for her confidence. The initiative was written by Florida constitutional attorney John Mills, one of the state's foremost experts on initiatives, and a man who has written more than a dozen initiatives that have passed Supreme Court muster.

"We've got the best, and I'm sure this is going to be approved," said Russell.

A Florida initiative won't be cheap. Russell estimated that it would take between $2 ½ million and $5 million just to make the ballot, and another $5 million in advertising in the run-up to the 2014 election. But the campaign has had an early boost with the presence of John Morgan, a major Democratic Party fundraiser, who is now chairman of the campaign's political action committee.

In addition to paid signature gatherers, the campaign is relying on an extensive network of volunteers to make the ballot and it is working with existing activist groups.

The Florida Cannabis Action Network (FL CAN) has been concentrating its efforts on getting a medical marijuana bill through the legislature. Despite intense lobbying, it didn't happen this year. FL CAN remains committed to getting a bill through next year, but is also organizing volunteers to gather signatures for the initiative.

"Getting the Cathy Jordan Medical Marijuana Act passed is our Plan A," said FL CAN director Jodie James, "but the initiative is Plan B. The initiative has licensed dispensaries, but no personal cultivation, but we're still putting our energy behind the amendment. Florida CAN will do whatever we need to ensure that patients in this state don't have to be afraid. If we don't succeed in the legislature, we want to make sure we have enough signatures to get on the ballot in 2014."

Cathy Jordan is perhaps Florida's most well-known medical marijuana patient. The Parrish resident is a long-time sufferer of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease), and she and her husband have been lobbying for years to win the ability to legally use marijuana to treat her symptoms.

It is her name that adorned this year's thwarted medical marijuana bill, and it was a February raid on her residence by local law enforcement after she went public with her lobbying that helped focus outrage on the state's last-century approach to the healing herb.

"It's not exactly what we would have done, and it leaves some things to be desired, such as not being able to grow your own, but I have to give John Morgan credit," said Jordan's husband Bob. "He brought a lot of interest and money to it, and while we may be on different paths, we're going toward the same destination."

"We're working with him because we all want basically the same thing," said Cathy Jordan, her voice barely understandable due to the effects of her disease. "We think our bill is a better and faster fix because they can work all this stuff out. The legislature says the bill is too big, too bulky, but they need to do their job. But with the bill and the initiative, we're all heading for the same place."

But while they're looking to the legislature, the Jordans are also working to help the initiative.

"We were out getting signatures here in Bradenton this weekend," Bob Jordan related. "I ran into an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who wants to use cannabis, but he can't. In states where it's legal, he could use it, but here, he's a criminal. This guy is ready to eat a bullet. This is definitely a vets' issue, too."

While both the Jordans and FL CAN grumbled about no personal cultivation, Russell said there was good reason not to include personal grows.

"We did a lot of polling before we wrote the initiative; we had to make sure this thing could not fail," she said. "We got 70% for medical marijuana, but when we asked about growing it, the approval rate dropped to 30%. If you're spending this much money, time, and effort, you can't take a chance on losing."

National reform groups are watching with interest.

"It's a daunting process down there, but it sounds like there is a lot of energy and potentially a lot of resources," said Tvert. "We hope they qualify, and we certainly hope they're successful. A whole lot of old people would find relief for their ailments."

Turning Florida medical marijuana green would be a big deal, Tvert said.

"It's the largest state in the South. If Florida passed this, the number of people living in medical marijuana states would increase dramatically. There is significant support for this initiative; we hope that support will be reflected in the months to come."

Pressure for medical marijuana has been building for years now, and it looks like 2014 is the year. Whether via the legislature or via the initiative process, Florida appears poised to join the ranks of the medical marijuana states.

FL
United States

Is There a Perfect Storm for Federal Sentencing Reform? [FEATURE]

After decades of ever-increasing resort to mass incarceration in the United States, we seem to be reaching the end of the line. Driven in large part by economic necessity, state prison populations have, in the past three years, begun to decline slightly. The federal prison system, however, continues to grow, but now, there are signs that even at the federal level, the winds of change are blowing, and the conditions are growing increasingly favorable for meaningful executive branch and congressional actions to reform draconian sentencing policies.

prison dorm
There are currently more than 100,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses, or nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners. The federal prison population has expanded an incredible eight-fold since President Ronald Reagan and a compliant Congress put the drug war in overdrive three decades ago, although recent federal prison population increases have been driven as much by immigration prosecutions as by drug offenses.

Earlier this week, the Chronicle reported on Attorney General Holder's speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, where he announced a comprehensive federal sentencing reform package with a strong emphasis on drug sentencing, especially a backing away from the routine use of mandatory minimum sentencing via charging decisions by federal prosecutors.

"A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities," Holder said Monday. "However, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it. Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation."

On drug sentencing, Holder said he would direct US attorneys across the country to develop specific guidelines about when to file federal charges in drug offenses. The heaviest charges should be reserved for serious, high-level, or violent offenders, the attorney general said.

But while Holder outlined actions that can be taken by the executive branch, he also signaled administration support for two pieces of bipartisan sentencing reform legislation moving in the Senate. Those two bills, the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619), introduced in the spring, and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410), introduced just last week, have better prospects of moving forward now than anything since the Fair Sentencing Act passed three years ago. .

Pat Leahy
That's because it's not just Democrats or liberals who are supporting them. The Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), has not only the usual suspects behind it, but also The New York Times, conservative taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and a group of 50 former prosecutors. And, somewhat surprisingly, that bane of liberals, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), just came out in with model legislation mirroring the act's provisions.The Justice Safety Valve Act would allow federal judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below the federal mandatory minimum sentence if a lower sentence is warranted.

The other bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, also has bipartisan support and was sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). It would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentences, make a modest expansion to the safety valve provision (though continuing to exclude anyone previously incarcerated in prison for more than 13 months in the past 10 years), and make the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act applicable to persons sentenced before its enactment, which would reduce sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine offenses.

The Justice Safety Valve Act has companion legislation in the House, again bipartisan, sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). And another House bill, the Public Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2656), cosponsored by Scott and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), would allow certain federal prisoners to be transferred from prison to community supervision earlier if they take rehabilitation classes, thus saving taxpayer money while improving public safety.

Only bolstering the case for further sentencing reform is the US Sentencing Commission's preliminary report on crack retroactive sentencing data, released late last month. That report found that some 7,300 federal crack defendants received an average 29-month reduction in their sentences, saving roughly half a billion dollars in imprisonment costs without an concomitant increase in crime rates.

"Taxpayers have received the same level of crime control but for a half- billion dollars cheaper," noted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "What’s not to love?"

Given the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act three years ago with conservative support, the proven budgetary benefits of reducing incarceration, and the current role of conservatives in pushing for reform, the chances are better than ever that something could pass this year, and even if it doesn't, the changes announced by Holder should ensure that at least some federal drug defendants will get some relief, observers said.

"The policies Holder described in his speech will probably help produce reduced drug sentences in some cases," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "But it is also important in a symbolic sense. The fact that the attorney general is leading this conversation may help to open up the political space where we can have a different discussion about crime policy. The discussion has been evolving significantly over recent years, and in some ways, his speech represents an affirmation that the climate has shifted, and that there is commitment from the top to moving forward on sentencing reform."

Rand Paul
"I think we're at a moment when bipartisan sentencing reform is possible," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got those bipartisan bills in Congress, we have that ALEC endorsement, we have Holder's speech, and more."

"Given how little bipartisan cooperation there is on anything, it's remarkable that we have two bills in the Senate addressing mandatory minimums," Mauer noted. "This bipartisan cosponsorship is very intriguing, and is contributing to the momentum. There has been no significant backlash to Holder's speech, and that suggest a pretty broad recognition that the time has come to move in this direction."

Not every reformer was as sanguine as Mauer. In California, marijuana reformers and industry players, many of whom have borne the brunt of a federal crackdown, were offended that Holder would give a speech in San Francisco and not address their issue. Harborside's Steve DeAngelo posted the following statement in reaction: "Eric Holder's speech advocating drug war changes rings hollow to those of in states that have already passed reform legislation, only to see it relentlessly attacked by Mr. Holder's very own US Attorneys," DeAngelo said. "We had hoped the Attorney General would clarify federal policy toward state cannabis laws, as he promised to do almost a year ago. But instead of concrete action to support state reform efforts, Holder offered more vague promises about future changes in federal policy."

Conversely, it wasn't just reformers seeing possible changes on the horizon.

"It is impressive that Holder has decided to stay with a lame duck president and emphasize this issue," said Phil Stinson, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University. "I think there is a consensus forming for reform, and I would not have thought that possible two years ago. If something is going to happen, I expect it to happen within the next 18 months."

Stinson made a telling, if seldom mentioned, point.

"This is largely driven by economics," he said, "but also by the fact that by now, almost everybody knows a family member or friend or friend's child who has been behind bars. It has taken awhile to get to this point, but now the issue is ripe, and the opportunity is there."

"It looks like there is a real opportunity in Congress," Piper argued. "The general consensus is that there are too many people in prison and too many tax dollars wasted. Even some of the most conservative offices we talk to want to talk about sentencing reform. Something is possible, even though this is Congress and the Obama administration we're talking about. The stars are aligning, but it will take a lot of work to get it done. There seems to be something real happening with sentencing reform based on the number of Republicans starting to talk about it, and I'm certainly more optimistic than I was a year ago."

"While things are moving in the Senate, the House is more difficult to predict," said Mauer. "But even if something does get through, the scale of the problem of mass incarceration is going to require a wholesale shift in approach and policy. The current proposals are steps in that direction, but it will require a much more substantial shift if we are to see significant reductions."

Or, as Nora Callahan of the November Coalition has long argued, reforms on the back end -- sentencing -- will have limited impact on people sent to prison for drug offenses, absent change on the front end -- ending drug prohibition and prohibition-driven policing.

Whether a perfect storm for sentencing reform is brewing remains to be scene, but there are winds blowing from unusual directions. The collision of Democratic social justice liberalism and Republican fiscal conservatism and libertarianism could on this occasion produce, if not a perfect storm, at least the first rumblings of a political earthquake.

[See our related story this issue, "As Pressure Mounts, Holder Acts on Sentencing Reform."]

Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School