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2016 Marijuana Legalization Initiatives: An Overview [FEATURE]

Marijuana is going to be part of the political conversation between now and Election Day 2016. Support for legalization is now consistently polling above 50% nationwide, four states and DC have already voted to legalize it, and activists at least ten states are doing their best to make it an issue this time around.

In those states, they're working to take marijuana legalization directly to the voters in the form of initiatives. Not all of those efforts will actually make the ballot -- mass signature-gathering campaigns require not only enthusiasm but cold, hard cash to succeed -- and not all of those that qualify will necessarily win, but in a handful of states, including the nation's most populous, the prospects for passing legalization next year look quite good.

Presidential contenders are already finding the question of marijuana legalization unavoidable. They're mostly finding the topic uncomfortable, with none -- not even Rand Paul -- embracing full-on legalization, most staking out middling positions, and some Republicans looking for traction by fervently opposing it. Just this week, Chris Christie vowed to undo legalization where it already exists if he is elected president.

It's worth noting that it is the initiative process that is enabling the process of ending marijuana prohibition. Only half the states have it -- mostly west of the Mississippi -- but it is the use of citizen initiatives that led the way, first for medical marijuana and now with outright legalization.

In the face of overwhelming support for medical marijuana, state legislators proved remarkably recalcitrant. It took five years after California voters made it the first medical marijuana state for Hawaii to become the first state to pass it through the legislature. Even now, with nearly half the states having approved some form of medical marijuana, getting such bills through legislatures is excruciatingly difficult, and results in overly restrictive and ineffective state programs.

It's been the same with legalization. Voters approved legalization via initiatives in Colorado and Washington in 2012 and Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia last year. But even in states with majorities or pluralities in favor of legalization, legalization bills haven't gotten passed.

Efforts are afoot at a number of statehouses, and one of them will eventually be the first to legislate legalization, maybe even next year -- it's not outside the realm of possibility. But for now, if legalization is going to continue to expand, it's going to come thanks to the initiative states. In fact, marijuana policy reform is an issue on which elected officials have been so tin-eared and unresponsive to the will of the voters that their failure is an advertisement for the utility of direct democracy.

By the time the polls close on Election Day 2016, we could see the number of legalization states double and the number of Americans living free of pot prohibition quadruple to more than 60 million -- or more. Attitudes on marijuana are shifting fast, and by this time next year, the prospects of even more states actually approving legalization could be even higher.

But right now, we have five states where the prospects of getting on the ballot and winning look good, three states where it looks iffy but could surprise, and two states where it looks like a long-shot next year.

Looking Good for Legalization:

Arizona

A June Rocky Mountain Poll from the Behavioral Research Center has support for legalization at 53%, and Arizonans could find themselves having to decide which competing legalization proposal they like best.

The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds or five grams of concentrates, as well as allow for home grows of up to six plants per person, with a cap of 12 plants per household. The initiative also envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a tax of 15%. Localities could bar marijuana businesses or even home growing, but only upon a popular vote.

The second initiative, from Arizonans for Mindful Regulation, would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds or concentrates, as well as allow for home grows of up to 12 plants -- and home growers could keep the fruits of their harvests. The initiative envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a 10% tax on retail sales. It would allow localities to regulate -- but not ban -- marijuana businesses.

Both campaigns are in the signature-gathering process. They will need 150,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot and they have until next July to get them.

Will the Buckeye State do it this year or next?
California

A May PPIC poll had support for legalization at 54%, and Californians have a variety of initiatives to choose from. At least six legalization initiatives have already been cleared for signature-gathering by state officials, but everybody is still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That would be the much anticipated initiative from the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, which represents many of the major players in the state, as well as deep-pocketed outside players from all the major drug reform groups. The coalition's initiative was delayed while it waited for the release of a report from Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, led by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). That report came out last week, and the coalition says it expects to have its initiative ready within a few weeks.

The delays in getting the initiative out and the signature-gathering campaign underway are going to put pressure on the campaign. To qualify for the ballot, initiatives must come up with some 366,000 valid voter signatures, and that takes time, as well as money. Most of the other initiatives don't have the money to make a serious run at signatures, but the coalition does. For all of the California legalization initiatives, the real hard deadline for signatures is February 4.

Maine

The most recent polling, a Public Policy Polling survey from 2013, had only a plurality (48% to 39%) favoring legalization, but that's nearly two years old, and if Maine is following national trends, support should only have increased since then. Maine is winnable.

This is another state where a Marijuana Policy Project-backed initiative has competition from local activists. The MPP-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would legalize possession of up to an ounce of buds and allow for six-plant home grows. It would also create a system of regulated marijuana commerce with a 10% tax above and beyond the state sales tax, and it would allow for marijuana social clubs as well as retail stores.

The competing initiative, from Legalize Maine, is a bit looser on possession and home grows, allowing up to 2.5 ounces and six mature and 12 immature plants. Unlike the MPP initiative, which would have the Alcohol Bureau regulate marijuana, this one would leave it to the Department of Agriculture. It would also allow for marijuana social clubs as well as pot shops and would impose a 10% flat sales tax.

Initiatives need 61,126 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaigns have until next spring to get them in.

Massachusetts

A Suffolk/Boston Herald poll from February has support for legalization at 53% in the Bay State, where activists have since the turn of the century been laying the groundwork for legalization with a series of successful non-binding policy questions demonstrating public support, not to mention voting to approve decriminalization in 2008 and medical marijuana in 2012.

Like Arizona and Maine, Massachusetts is another state where a Marijuana Policy Project-backed initiative is being contested by local activists. The MPP-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is still in the initiative-drafting process and details of its initiative remain unknown.

Meanwhile, local activists organized as Bay State Repeal have come up with a very liberal initiative that would legalize possession and cultivation -- without limits -- allow for marijuana farmers' markets and social clubs. This initiative would also create a system of licensed, regulated, and taxed marijuana commerce.

Neither Massachusetts initiative has been approved for signature-gathering yet. The state has a two-phase signature-gathering process, with a first phase for nine weeks between September and December. Then, if sufficient signatures are gathered, the legislature must act on the measure before next May. If it fails to approve the measure, a second, eight-week signature-gathering process commences. Initiatives will need 64,750 valid voter signatures for the first phase, and an additional 10,000 signatures for the second phase. 

Nevada

A Moore Information poll from 2013 had support for legalization at 54%, and legalization supporters will most definitely have a chance to put those numbers to the test next year because the Marijuana Policy Project-backed Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative has already qualified for the ballot. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of buds and an eighth-ounce of concentrates, and it would allow for the home growing of six pot plants per adult, with a household limit of 12. Home growers could keep the fruits of their harvest. The initiative would also create a legal marijuana commerce system with a 15% excise tax.

There's a Decent Chance:

Michigan

An April Michigan Poll had support for legalization at 51%, which doesn't leave much margin for error. Nonetheless, at least two groups are embarked on legalization initiative campaigns. (A third appears to have gone dormant.)

The more grassroots Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Initiative Committee would legalize the possession of up to 2 ½ ounces by adults and allow home grows of 12 mature plants and an unlimited number of immature ones. Home growers could possess the fruits of all their harvest. The non-commercial transfer of up to 2 ½ ounces would also be legal. A system of regulated marijuana commerce is included and would feature a 10% tax.

The competing Michigan Cannabis Coalition initiative appears to have no personal possession limits, but would only allow for home grows of two plants. It provides an option for localities to ban home grows, or to raise the limit to four plants. It envisions a system of regulated marijuana commerce, with taxes to be set by the legislature.

Michigan only rates the "decent chance" category because of its razor-thin support for legalization and because of its history of marijuana legalization initiatives failing to qualify for the ballot. Initiatives will need more than 250,000 voter signatures to qualify, and they have until next June 1 to do so. Both campaigns have just gotten underway with signature-gathering.

Missouri

A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll from February showed only 45% in favor of marijuana legalization, but Missouri activists organized as Show-Me Cannabis have been waging a serious, hard fought campaign to educate Missourians on the issue, and it could pay off next year.

Their initiative would legalize up to 12 ounces of buds, one ounce of concentrates, a pound of edibles, and 20 ounces of cannabis liquids, as well as allow for home growing of up to six plants. It would also create a medical marijuana program and a legal, regulated marijuana commerce.

Since it is a constitutional amendment, the initiative will need at least 157,788 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. Organizers will have until next May to get them.

Ohio

Ohio is a special case. By the time you read these words, the ResponsibleOhio initiative either will or will not have qualified for the ballot. [Editor's Note: As of August 3, we're still waiting to see.] If it qualifies, the state could well be the next one to legalize marijuana, since it would go to a vote this November. An April Quinnipiac University poll had support for legalization at 52%.

If it doesn't qualify, others are lined up to take another shot. Responsible Ohioans for Cannabis have a constitutional amendment initiative with no specified possession limits for people 18 and over. It also allows home grows of 24 plants per person, with a limit of 96 plants per household.

Another effort, Legalize Marijuana and Hemp in Ohio, is mainly a medical marijuana initiative, but does allow for the possession of up to an ounce by adults.

Constitutional amendments need 385,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot; initiated statutes only need 115,000. Like Michigan, however, Ohio is a state with a history of initiatives failing to make the ballot.

Not Likely Next Year:

In the states below, activists are undertaking efforts to get on the ballot next year, but the odds are against them, either because of poor (or no) polling, or lack of funds and organization, or both.

Mississippi

The Mississippi Alliance for Cannabis is sponsoring Proposition 48, a constitutional amendment initiative which "would legalize the use, cultivation and sale of cannabis and industrial hemp. Cannabis related crimes would be punished in a manner similar to, or to a lesser degree, than alcohol related crimes. Cannabis sales would be taxed 7%. Cannabis sold for medical purposes and industrial hemp would be exempt from taxation. The Governor would be required to pardon persons convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes against the State of Mississippi."

There is no recent polling on attitudes toward legalization in the state, but it is one of the most conservative in the country. To get on the ballot, supporters need to gather 107,216 valid voter signatures by December 17, one year after they started seeking them.

Montana

Ballot Issue 7, which would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults, but not create legal marijuana commerce, is the brainchild of a Glendive man who says he plans to bicycle across the state to gather support and signatures.

Prospects for 2016:

Five states are well-positioned to legalize marijuana via initiatives next year, another three could possibly do it, and that would be further evidence that the apparent ongoing sea change in marijuana policy is no aberration. Five, six, or seven would be a good year for marijuana, eight or more would be evidence of a seismic shift. It's going to be interesting.

Santa Muerte Goes to Court: The Curious Case of the Narco Saint's Prayer [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Does praying to a "narco saint" constitute evidence that someone is a drug trafficker? In an unusual case out of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the court said "no." In overturning the conviction of the woman doing the praying, the court both acted to protect First Amendment freedoms and opened a window into Santa Muerte, the unofficial Saint Death venerated by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of poor Mexicans, some of whom are members of the criminal underworld.

Santa Muerte shrine, Nuevo Laredo (wikipedia/not home)
The case,US v. Medina-Copete and Goxcon-Chagal, unfolded on June 28 2011, when New Mexico State Police Sergeant Arsenio Chavez pulled over a truck with Nevada plates on I-40 in Albuquerque for failing to maintain adequate distance from the vehicle ahead of it. According to court testimony, Chavez felt suspicious when he noticed the occupants appeared nervous, and the woman riding on the passenger side could be heard reciting a handwritten prayer she held in her hands.

In the truck were Tulsa residents Rafael Goxcon-Chagal and Maria Medina-Copete. Also in the truck, stashed in a secret compartment, were two pounds of 90% pure methamphetamine. The couple, who had borrowed the truck, denied any knowledge of the drugs, but they were nonetheless charged with trafficking meth. They were convicted in August 2012 for conspiracy to distribute more than 50 pounds of meth and firearms possession. They were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

The prayer the woman was reciting was to Santa Muerte, and the fact the she directed her adorations toward the Mexican "narco saint" helped convict her of drug trafficking.

Who is Santa Muerte?

For years, religious experts and law enforcement authorities have called Santa Muerte a "narco saint," worshipped by drug traffickers and who believe she has the power to protect them from their enemies -- who range from other traffickers to the police.

Santa Muerte is typically portrayed as a skeletal woman, wearing robes or a bridal gown, and holding a scythe -- a sort of Grim Reaper figure. For the millions that venerate her, she is a figure of compassion, protection, and unconditional love who will protect her devotees from evil. She is the saint of the marginalized, as well as the criminal.

For the Catholic Church, worship of Santa Muerte is blasphemy. Still, her popularity continues to grow, and each November, thousands of worshippers gather at her main shrine, in the rough and tumble Tepito district of Mexico City to get her blessings and bestow gifts -- both humbly modest and gaudily golden -- on her statue.

She is estimated to have 10 to 12 million devotees, not just in Mexico, but, increasingly, in the US and other Latin American counties as well.

Muerte, the Skeleton Saint."

While it began among the lumpenproletariat of Mexico City and has always been associated with criminals and narcos, the experts concede that Santa Muerte is worshipped by many who are simply poor and on society's fringes.

"Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases," Chesnut explained. "But she is not just a narco-saint, and many of her devotees aren't involved in criminal behavior. Some drug traffickers pray to Saint Jude, a recognized Catholic Saint, but that deity is rarely brought up in criminal cases," he pointed out.

Chesnut called the appeals court's ruling in the case "a landmark decision," adding that it marked the first time to his knowledge "that a conviction has been overturned because a folk saint was used in trial."

Challenging the "Expert Testimony"

Goxcon-Chagal andMedina-Copete appealed their convictions, with their attorneys arguing that federal prosecutors and the district court judge had subjected them to harmful error by allowing an expert on religious iconography to testify that Santa Muerte was so intimately connected to drug trafficking that Medina-Copete's invocation was evidence the pair knew illegal drugs were secreted in their vehicle.

The expert was US Marshal Robert Almonte, producer of the documentary, Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld. Almonte is also the author of two books, "Evolution of Narcotic Investigation" and "Managing Covert Operations."

The appellate attorneys also argued that Almonte's testimony about Santa Muerte 's association with narcotics severely undermined the defendants' defense that they had no knowledge of the drugs because the truck had been borrowed from one of Goxcon-Chagal's friend. They argued that the admission of Almonte's testimony violated federal rules of evidence.

Federal prosecutors retorted that the testimony was admissible under rules about evidence relating to "tools of the trade" of the drug business.

The 10th Circuit disagreed. In their ruling last year, the court found that prosecutors had indeed violated the rules of evidence by using Almonte's testimony, which the panel likened to "psychobabble."

The district court had erred in allowing the testimony because "it applied our 'tool of the trade' jurisprudence to Almonte's purported area of expertise without considering whether a prayer could qualify as a 'tool of the drug trade,' " wrote Judge Carlos Lucero for the majority. He is the first Hispanic judge to sit on the circuit.

US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carlos Lucero (law.pace.edu)
The lower court also erred because 'it allowed Almonte to testify as an expert based on his experience without considering the relevance or breadth of that experience, thereby eliding the 'facts or data' requirements found under [the rules of evidence], " Lucero continued.

It was a double whammy: The prosecution did not show Almonte knew what he was talking about, and the lower court misinterpreted the rules of evidence to allow religious beliefs to be considered tools of the drug trade.

As a result, Judge Lucero noted, "Almonte's expert testimony characterizing the mere presence of the prayer as a very good indicator of possible criminal activity influenced the outcome of the trial in a prejudicial manner."

Lucero didn't hold back with what he thought of Almonte's testimony, either.

"He essentially painted the defendants in this case as heretics, holding beliefs not recognized by the Catholic Church either in Mexico or the United States. A criminal trial is not a place for a theological disputation on sainthood and the power of prayer. We urge the government to be cautious about appearing to take sides in theological debates," he wrote.

Out of the Frying Pan

While the 10th Circuit's decision reversed Goxcon-Chagel and Medina-Copete's convictions, it didn't free them. Instead they were transferred from federal prison to a federal detention center for retrial.

Things didn't look good for the pair. They had, after all, been caught with the meth, and the appeals court allowed to stand trial testimony from a DEA agent about the unlikelihood of drug traffickers sending loads of drugs with unknowing couriers.

Defense attorneys explored both the circumstances of the traffic stop and any investigations that might have preceded it, but were unable to find wriggle room there.

"Part of the problem is the standard permitting 'pretext stops,'" Goxcon-Chagel attorney Katherine Converse told the Chronicle. "Another problem is the difficulty of learning whether there was any NSA involvement in the stop," she added, referring to recent revelations of NSA intelligence being fed to DEA officers and on to local law enforcement agencies to launch drug investigations against potential suspects.

After lengthy negotiations with federal prosecutors, and without much in the way of a defense to the drug charges, Converse and Media-Copete's attorney advised their clients to take a plea. In February, Goxcon-Chagel copped to the charges and got 7 ½ years; Medina-Cotete, the praying woman, got four. Because of time already served, she's already been released.

And she probably sent a prayer of thanks to Santa Muerte.

Here is the complete hand-written prayer to Santa Muerte recited by and recovered from Maria Medina-Copete:

For protection during a trip
Holy Spirit of Death, I invoke your Holy Name to ask you to help me in this venture.
Make my way over the mountains valleys and paths an easy one,
never stop bestowing upon me your good fortune
weave the destiny so that bad instincts vanish before me because of your powerful protection.
Prevent, Santa Muerte, problems from growing and embracing my heart, my
Lady, keep any illness from embracing my wings (Illegible)
Glorious Santa Muerte be my protector and light my path. Be my
advocate before the redeemer. Be my truth in times of darkness
Grant me the strength and faith to invoke your name
and to thank you now
and forever for all your favors
Amen
Oh miraculous Santa Muerte, Niña Blanca of my heart and right arm of god
our lord. Today I come to you with infinite devotion to implore you for
health, fortune and luck
Remove from my path (illegible) that hurts me, envy and misfortune; don't
allow my enemy's slander reach and harm my spirit
may no one prevent me from receiving the prosperity that I am asking of you today
my powerful lady bless the money that will reach my hands and multiply it
so that my family lacks for nothing
and I can outreach my hand to the needy that crosses my path
keep tragedy pain and shortage away from me
this votive candle I will light so that the radiance of your eyes forms an
invisible wall around me
grant me prudence and patience holy lady, Santa Reina de las Tinieblas
("Holy Queen of Darkness") strength, power and wisdom tell the elements
not to unleash their fury wherever they cross paths with me take care of my
happy surroundings and that I want to adorn decorate
in my Santa Muerte
amen

Interview with "The Cartel" Author Don Winslow [FEATURE]

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

Internationally acclaimed novelist Don Winslow's The Cartel, a hard-hitting and gut-wrenching tale of the Mexican drug wars, hit the stands late last month and is currently #17 on the New York Times best seller list. A sequel to his best-selling novel of the cartels, The Power of the Dog, Winslow's latest effort is a true-to-life, ripped-from-the-headlines story of power, greed, corruption, brutality, revenge, and justice set in the past decade of spiraling prohibition-related violence in Mexico.

Roughly 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since 2006, and another 20,000 or so have simply vanished. That blood-drenched history is the spindle from which Winslow unspools his story, featuring a veteran DEA agent locked in a decades-long feud with the head of the world's most powerful cartel. It's a grim, nail-biting crime thriller.

But Winslow, who also authored 2012's Savages, another fictional treatment of the cartels turned into an Oliver Stone movie, isn't just writing for the sake of selling books. He has used the publication of The Cartel to pen op-eds calling the war on drugs a counterproductive failure and publish a full-page ad in the Washington Post telling Congress and the president "It's Time to Legalize Drugs."

On Friday, Winslow traveled to Houston to sit down for an interview with Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network for the network's Cultural Baggage radio program. Here's the interview:

DEAN BECKER: Hello, dear listeners, this is Dean Becker and I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Well folks, I've been enjoying this new book, it's a powerful indictment of this war on drugs, it's written by the author Don Winslow, the name of the book is The Cartel, and we have him with us today. Mr. Winslow, your book is a powerful indictment of the futility of this drug war, and first off, I just want to thank you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, sir, for that kind comment, and I appreciate it.

DEAN BECKER: Now, with the release of this book you also took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post decrying that futility and calling for the powers that be to take another look at the results of this drug war, and once again, I commend you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you. You know, I felt it was important to do something like that. At the end of the day, I'm a novelist and I write fiction, and I'm an entertainer, at the same time we're dealing with obviously serious issues that have had serious consequences on so many people in the United States, but of course particularly in Mexico. And so I just thought that I should try to do something.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, The Cartel, this new book, it's a follow-up to The Power of the Dog, and I think much of your similar or previous writings, and it continues the story of Agent Keller and a couple of others from that first book, but it's more, it's much more, and would you please just kind of give us a summary of your new book, The Cartel.

DON WINSLOW: Well, yes, thank you. The Cartel as you said is a follow-up to a book I did ten years ago called The Power of the Dog, which follows a DEA agent named Art Keller, who arrives in Mexico in the 70s full of idealism, and is over the years sort of schooled out of that by reality. But, he ends up in a vendetta with a drug lord, if you will, named Adan Barrera. And, so The Cartel continues that story. But, you know, it's not a book I really wanted to write, Dean. I really fought against writing it for a long time, but as things spiraled out of control in Mexico, you know, far beyond our worst nightmares, really, and I thought, well, I'll try a in fictional sense, you know, to crime readers, to try to explain what was going on down there.

DEAN BECKER: Well, a few years back I took a one-day junket into Ciudad Juarez, and the machine gun nests in the city park, cops on every street corner -- I didn't see the violence myself, but it was palpable, it was, it was, just -- scary, for lack of a better word. Your thoughts, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, the estimates vary of course, but during this era something like 100,000 Mexican people were killed, 22,000 missing. Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana, and the Frontera Chica, and the Texas border -- you know, all became battlegrounds in a multi-fronted war, cartel versus cartel. The military versus the cartels, the military versus the police, certain police forces versus other forces, and of course, you know, many, too many, innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, you state in your acknowledgements that The Cartel draws deeply on real events, and I see many of them, I've been following the war in Mexico for several years, and it just seems that, you know, it made it more compelling to be based on a true story, so to speak.

DON WINSLOW:I'm an historian by training and inclination, and so I usually like to keep my stories pretty, pretty close to the bone. But I think that in a way, novelists can do things that journalists aren't allowed to. You know, we're allowed to imagine the inner life of characters, we're allowed to make up dialogue that perhaps brings out some of these events in a maybe more visceral way to readers who might not, you know, pick up a piece of journalism on this subject. And so, I like that combination between fiction and reality, and as long as I sort of keep their thoughts and their emotions fairly realistic, I think the novel can work well for that.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, back in 2012, with my group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, I rode across the country with Javier Sicilia and about a hundred family members of those butchered in Mexico on the Caravan for Peace, and most of them were women who had these horrible stories that made me cry every night, I'll be honest with you. And your book includes the stories of some of these women, and the pain and misery they endure as well.

DON WINSLOW: As you know when you deal with this topic, it's all too easy to lose your faith in humanity. But, in researching the stories and writing the stories about some of these women, it's awe-inspiring. You know? There's no other word for it. The courage and the moral fortitude, and I think in the video I saw of the Caravan, the word grace is used, and I think that that might be absolutely the perfect word to describe these women, who have lost so much and have moved ahead and have moved on and tragically, you know, too often at the cost of their own lives.

DEAN BECKER: It seems that media everywhere is starting to recognize this futility of the drug war, and is starting to expose it for what it is, and that is hopeless.

DON WINSLOW: We've been doing the same thing for coming on now 45 years, and not only is it not working, it's made things worse. Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, cheaper than ever, and again, it's had a hideous effect on American society in terms of the number of people we imprison, in terms of the alienation of our police forces with our inner city communities. I think the militarization of police really began with the war on drugs, and of course, it's had the worst effect on the people of Central America, particularly Mexico. So, if something after 45 years has not improved a situation, but made things worse, then I think it's time that we looked at different solutions.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed.

DON WINSLOW: And I think that that's pretty obvious, really.

The face of the cartels. Has anyone seen El Chapo?
DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. If you will allow me, I want to read just a paragraph here from your book, this is from Alvarado. He states: "You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You're experienced enough to know that we're not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we're given the choice of taking the money or dying. We've been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? The country was falling apart, violence getting worse every day. The only way to end the chaos was to pick the most likely winner and help him win, and you North Americans despise us for it. At the same time you send the billions of dollars and the weapons that fuel the violence. You blame us for selling the product that you buy. It's absurd, John."

DON WINSLOW: I don't know how to respond to my own writing. I think it's the truth. Couple of thoughts: You know, we're very good up here at wagging the finger of corruption at Mexico. Is there corruption in Mexico? Of course, and I write a lot about it. I'm not alone in that. But as that passage indicated, what we don't understand is that police and journalists and average citizens are not offered the choice: take the money or leave it. They're offered the choice: take the money or we kill you. And very often, or we kill your family.And you know, the so-called Mexican drug war is one of the most tragic misnomers of the last half century. It's not the Mexican drug problem; it's the American drug problem. We're, we're the buyers, and it's the simultaneous appetite, American appetite for drugs and prohibition of them that creates the power of the cartels and that shields this violence. And, if I were on the other side of the border looking north, I'd talk about corruption, I would ask what kind of corruption exists in American society that makes you Americans the largest drug market in the world? At a rate of five times your population.

DEAN BECKER: And the world's leading jailer.

DON WINSLOW: The world's leading jailer. Not only the world's leading jailer, Dean. In the history of the world we have the largest prison population.

DEAN BECKER: Kind of tied in with your action to do that full-page ad in the Washington Post, I tried last summer to wake up our nation's leaders with release of my book. We hand-delivered a copy of my book to the president, his cabinet, every senator, representative, all nine Supreme justices, and we mailed a copy to all fifty governors, to pretty much little avail. And I'm hoping that your book lights a bigger bonfire on their conscience.

Waiting to cross from Mexico into the US (wikimedia.org)
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, I hope so too. You know, I deliberately put that ad in the Washington Post in order to do it in Congress's home town, hoping that that paper would arrive on their desks with their coffee. I think that ad was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, I don't remember, it's been a little bit of a blur, you know, I'm out on a book tour. But, I've not heard from a single politician. Who I have heard from? Cops.

DEAN BECKER: What was their response?

DON WINSLOW: Agreeing with it.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's good to hear. I mean, it puzzles me that the evidence is so glaring, we can cut down on death, disease, crime, and addiction were to legalize and control it for adults, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not at the presidential level.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, I think, Dean, for so many years it's been the fourth rail of American politics. You know, you start talking about a sane drug policy and your opponent then starts talking about you being soft on crime, and, you know, oh he wants our kids to have access to dope. Which of course they do now, because it's not working. What I would like is some politician to stand up and talk back with the facts. The numbers are there, the solid data are there. If you want to talk about being soft on crime, I would say that the fact that 60 percent of rapes and 40 percent of murders now go unsolved, because we're so focused on busting drugs. To me, that's soft on crime. And I think police want to go back to doing real police work.

DEAN BECKER: I'm with you, sir. Now, it seems like every week I see another headline about another bust of a quote top narco-trafficker, but the fact is, it's just a chance for another corn farmer to get down off the tractor and attempt to become a billionaire, isn't it?

DON WINSLOW: Listen, it's never worked. We have tried to attack the drug organization pyramid from the bottom, the street-level kids selling crack on the corner, to the middle, the traffickers coming across the border, to the top, going after these top drug lords. None of these strategies work because the amount of money they can make is so great that there is always someone willing to step into any of those roles. So, you know, there was great celebration when for instance Chapo Guzman was captured. That's fine, I have no tears for Chapo Guzman, I'm glad he's in prison, I have no tears for any of these drug lords who've been killed by the police. However, it makes no difference. Nothing was disrupted, nothing was even slowed down. The drugs just keep coming. The strategy does not work. And as long as we approach this as a law enforcement problem or god help us a military problem, we're, the same thing is going to on and on and on.

DEAN BECKER: You know, a couple of portions of the book touched me deeply. One was about the old farmer, Don Pedro, and his battle for his ranch with the Zetas. That one made me cry, I'm an old man, I'm sorry, and it just made me think of, you know, these bandits, these rapscallions, what they're up to, the Zetas. Would you talk about that situation?

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, that is based on a real incident. It was impossible to resist writing about it, but, you know, I think there are two parts to your question, so let me take the first one first. Back in, you know, 2010, '11, and '12, various cartels were forcing people off their land because either it was strategically located along the border or just because they could. The Zetas that you mentioned were looking for land for training camps and secret bases, and they were all-powerful, or so they thought, and they could just go tell people, get out. In northern Chihuahua, along the Texas border, the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting the Juarez Cartel, and they were literally colonizing the area. They were telling, you know, people in that area, in the Juarez Valley that had been there for generations, to get out, and moving Sinaloans in, almost like colonists, in order to secure that area. Who's on first now? Without a doubt the Sinaloa Cartel. They're the dominant cartel in Mexico now. They basically won the war. There's a sort of an upstart cartel, the new generation Jalisco Cartel, and we're in a bit of a lull, but that's about to collapse. You know, over the past month or so violence has drastically increased again in the Tijuana area. So, stay tuned.

DEAN BECKER: Your book references some of the videos that get circulated by the cartels, showing their commitment to outdoing each other in the way they torture and kill members of the opposite cartel. I saw one of those that, where one cartel had grabbed the wives and girlfriends of another cartel. They pulled out axes and chainsaws, and built piles of arms...

DON WINSLOW: That sounds familiar, that video.

DEAN BECKER: Oh god. And, my Spanish was not good enough to understand all they said, but it was a strong message, for sure.

DON WINSLOW: You know, lately we've been as a nation very absorbed with ISIS, and those videos, and they took that page out of the cartel playbook. What you're looking at is basically terrorism in Mexico. And, you know, the cartels are in the territory business, they need to control territory, and to do that, they need to control the population. And they do it through a variety of methods, but one of them is terror. And, and when they put out videos like that, they are really saying to the people, you don't want this to be you. The Spanish that is being spoken in many of these videos is to get these people to confess their roles in the rival cartel, sometimes to confess their crimes because these videos are also a means of propaganda, and a means of the cartels justifying, or attempting to justify, the horrors that they commit, in a very similar way to the ISIS videos. The really sad aspect, or more tragic aspect of these videos, is that they're used as tools of recruitment. Particularly young people, both men and women, see these videos, and see them as demonstrations of power. And I think that there are few things more seductive to people who see themselves as powerless than to see power, and just as the ISIS sadistic videos have been great recruiting tools for ISIS, the videos that you alluded to have been recruiting tools to the cartels.

DEAN BECKER: The hundred thousand dead, approximately, the 20,000 missing, the tens of thousands of children without parents -- it's just so enormous, and yet somehow it's ignored. That doesn't count in the US's drug war equation.

DON WINSLOW: The modern day Mexican drug war, the contemporary period that we're looking at, coincides almost exactly with the post-911 era. And I think that the United States has been, and it's understandable, Dean, because of 911, because of the lives lost, because we've had people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our soldiers dying and wounded, we have been obsessed with, and most of our attention has gone to the Middle East. That, that's understandable, I think. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's good, but I think that, that people can only absorb so much violence and sorrow and tragedy. I think though that the other part of the equation is that, that we don't want to look at it down there. It's something we don't want to see because I think on some level we are aware of the role that we play in it, and our own responsibility for it, and I think that that can be a hard mirror to look into. And sometimes people, and particularly our politicians, frankly, would rather look away.

DEAN BECKER: It kind of draws a parallel with the cops busting somebody and accusing them of being the cause of the problem here in the US -- if they weren't buying drugs then these other situations would not occur. But the same could be said about the US and as you stated earlier, our addiction to these drugs coming through Mexico.

DON WINSLOW: I think we are addicted to the drugs. Now obviously, we have a population in the United States that is literally addicted to drugs. The percentage of that never changes very much over the years. There are some spikes with certain drugs at certain times, but the level of drug addicts remains about the same, that's sort of one topic. The other topic is recreational drug users, and they need to look at their responsibility. I can't understand for instance why a person who would be so concerned about buying free trade coffee or fair trade coffee would then think nothing of buying marijuana that has blood all over it. You know? I don't understand people who go out and protest against big business but then will come back and buy a product that's been shipped to them by a cartel that tortures and slaughters and rapes. This makes no kind of moral sense to me. So, in my perfect world, all drugs would be legal and no one would use them. But certainly, in the time until the United States straightens out its drug laws, until we've stopped forcing the hands of these sadistic criminals, I'd love to see a movement where particularly young people in America boycotted these drugs, the way they boycott other products.

DEAN BECKER: The book was a follow-up to Power of the Dog, and it seems that there may be, as you mentioned earlier, a need for another book in this series, if Los Pinos and the White House continue to believe this drug war to be necessary.

DON WINSLOW: It's my fondest hope and prayer that there's no need for a third book. I would love it if Los Pinos and the White House took me out of this business. I don't have plans to write another drug book, you know, next or for a few years, but then I'm really hoping at that point when I look around this landscape that we have come to some sort of sanity, and some sort of wiser policy, and that there's no need for a third book.

DEAN BECKER: Well, me too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and deep prayer in that regard. Well, Don, here's hoping we can continue this discussion again soon and that just maybe, the politicians will read your book and pull their heads out soon. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you'd like to share with the listeners, Mr. Don Winslow?

DON WINSLOW: I have a website, DonWinslow.com, and, you know, always happy to hear from anybody. I have been very encouraged over the past two weeks by the number of police officers and DEA people that have contacted me. And I think there is a little momentum right now. You know, yesterday the United Methodist Church came out calling for war, an end to the war on drugs, addressing Congress. So I think that there might be a little bit of a groundswell, and I'm going to choose to go with that optimism.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, I want to thank Don Winslow, author of The Cartel.

Ohio Marijuana Monopoly Madness: ResponsibleOhio and Its Foes [FEATURE]

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

Ohio may about to legalize marijuana, but not the way other states have done it. A constitutional amendment that would go before voters in November would create a virtual monopoly on commercial marijuana grows for the entire state. That's not sitting well with a number of Ohioans, including the Republican state legislature and a good number of Buckeye State legalization and medical marijuana activists. It's also leaving major national drug reform organizations deeply ambivalent.

The ResponsibleOhio initiative is almost certain to qualify for the ballot any day now. Its well-financed campaign has handed in more than 700,000 signatures to state officials, nearly twice the 305,000 valid voter signatures needed. Those officials have until later this week to verify the signatures. [Update: Monday, state officials said the initiative was 29,000 signatures short, but ResponsibleOhio has another 10 days to make up the shortfall and it says it will challenge the disqualified signatures at the state Supreme Court.]

ResponsibleOhio

The initiative allows adults 21 and over to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana and calls for a system of regulated and taxed marijuana production and sales. It even has provisions for medical marijuana. None of that is controversial.

But under ResponsibleOhio's initiative, commercial marijuana production can only take place at 10 sites in the state. The sites have already been allocated to 10 sets of investors, who have kicked in $1.7 million for the campaign so far and are prepared to spend $20 million or more convincing the public to vote for it.

The investors include a number of Ohio business interests -- real estate developers, venture capital firms, philanthropists, with nary a Cheech or a Chong among them -- as well as some home state big names who could sway public opinion. These include NBA legend Oscar "Big O" Robertson, Cincinnati-based fashion designer Nanette Lepore, and former Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker (now with the Arizona Cardinals).

In return for their hoped-for voter-granted monopoly, the investor groups would pay a $100,000 fee and a 15% tax on their gross revenues, as well as other commercial fees. Critics have charged that the plan freezes out all but the initial investor groups, but ResponsibleOhio counters that there will be plenty of commercial opportunities in making and selling marijuana products.

While this written-in monopoly may seem strange to many, it's not going to seem so strange to Ohio voters. In 2009, they legalized gambling by approving a constitutional amendment that specified sites for four casinos owned by the companies backing the amendment.

ResponsibleOhio looks to have deep enough pockets to put on a full-scale, multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. Estimates are that to win in California next year, legalizers will have to spend $10 million or so in advertising, but ResponsibleOhio is talking about spending $20 million in a much smaller media market, and it doesn't have to go begging for donors.

The momentum is there. The entire country is riding a wave of increasing support for marijuana legalization, and Ohio is no exception. An April Quinnipiac University poll last month had support at 53% (it also had narrow majorities for legalization in swing states Florida and Pennsylvania), up two points from the same poll a year earlier.

Strange Bedfellows

But ResponsibleOhio is facing a head-on challenge from the legislature, attacks from legalizers left out in the cold, and a more general discomfort with constitutionally-mandated monopolies.

Late last month, the legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar any addition to the state constitution that created "a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel" to distribute a federally controlled substance. The proposed amendment specifies that if it passes, any initiative that conflicted with it -- i.e. the ResponsibleOhio initiative -- "shall not take effect."

If both initiatives passed, rest assured that lengthy legal battles would ensue, but in the meantime, marijuana legalization in Ohio would be dead in the water. While legislative leaders paid lip service to concerns about anti-competitiveness, the amendment is clearly designed to stop legalization and is the instrument of a body that has steadfastly refused to consider legalization for nearly 20 years.

That didn't stop some legalization supporters -- and ResponsibleOhio foes -- from applauding the move, and even encouraging it.

"We don't support the ResponsibleOhio initiative because we don't believe it achieves the goals of legalization, said Sri Kavuru, president of Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP), which is campaigning to get its own legalization initiative on the 2016 ballot. "I testified in favor of the anti-monopoly amendment, and I believe it will pass and get more votes than ResponsibleOhio," he told AlterNet.

The forthrightly named Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio doesn't mind siding with the Republican legislature, either, said the group's leader, Aaron Weaver.

"It is very interesting that all these different parties have come together with the same purpose in mind, to stop the hijacking of our constitution by private interests," Weaver said. "It's very strange indeed, but the collaboration of different groups for a mutually beneficial and moral purpose, I think, is a good thing."

"The current system is actually better than their plan. It gives them a monopoly where only these 10 groups get the right to cultivate commercially, and that's bad policy for the state," Kavuru argued. "It creates an environment that allows a black market to thrive, and it doesn't eliminate arrests. The purpose of legalization is supposed to be to get rid of criminal arrests."

The ResponsibleOhio initiative would increase penalties on some cultivators and would leave people under 21 subject to arrest, Kavuru charged. He also attacked its medical marijuana provisions.

"It doesn't actually give any protection for patients and only says a commission 'may' implement a medical program," he said. Everything for recreational is 'shall.'"

Ohio Families CANN is also not satisfied with ResponsibleOhio's initiative, said Nicole Scholten, a spokesperson for the group, which seeks access to marijuana to treat sick children.

"We are wary of ResponsibleOhio's approach," she said. "We are not convinced it would yield the type and volume of medical cannabis that would be effective for our children. Legalization does not equal sustainable medicine. The medicine that would help our kids requires specific strains of cannabis and vast quantities. ResponsibleOhio's plan to have only ten grow sites is problematic. There is no guarantee these businesses would devote the grow space to the kind and volume of cannabis we need."

But another patient-activist organization that has tried unsuccessfully for years to get an initiative on the ballot, the Ohio Rights Group, is less negative. Its executive director, Jack Pardee, noted that the legislature has refused for nearly 20 years to even discuss marijuana legalization bills.

"We've been having a debate in our community about the merits of what the legislature is trying to do with this thing and, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with protecting Ohioans from economic forces," Pardee said. "ResponsibleOhio isn't perfect, but it has a lot of the pieces that ending prohibition needs to be successful."

National Drug Reform Groups Ambivalent

The divisions among Ohio activists are somewhat reflected by the national groups that have so far been the big players in marijuana legalization. None of them are directly involved with ResponsibleOhio -- it certainly doesn't need their fundraising abilities -- but they are watching with great interest and concern.

"It doesn't resemble our initiatives," said Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Mason Tvert. "We have not proposed such laws in the past, and it's not the type of law we would draft," he told AlterNet.

"It's up to Ohio voters to decide if this is the kind of system they want to replace marijuana prohibition with," said Tvert. "It would get the job done, but we think marijuana should be treated like alcohol, and there should be a system where there can be a lot of competition and different businesses out there producing this product."

And he had a word of advice to Ohio activists opposing ResponsibleOhio.

"If they want to end marijuana prohibition, they need to weigh their opposition to this initiative against the possibility of having to wait longer for a better initiative," Tvert said.

"A lot of legalizers, we feel like the movement has been hijacked by the money people," said Keith Stroup, founder and currently counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But the bottom line for NORML is that we want to legalize marijuana," he told AlterNet.

"While we'd have a preference for the little or medium-sized guy, we're not that concerned about who gets rich off it," the movement veteran said. "We're about not treating marijuana users like criminals, and we can speed that process along by three or four or five years because some rich investors run their own initiative, if it actually legalizes pot smoking and dispensaries where they can buy, if they qualify for the ballot, we will support it even if it's not perfect."

Stroup took great umbrage with the legislature's move to block the initiative.

"That's a bad faith move by the legislature," he growled. "The reason we have the initiative process is because legislatures were not responsive to the will of the people, and now we have a case where the people are going around the legislature, and the legislature is going to try to go around the people."

Stroup prophesied high-stakes litigation if ResponsibleOhio wins at the ballot box, but its victory is nullified by passage of the legislature's initiative.

"That undermines the basic purpose of initiatives, and we have at least one legal opinion that nothing in that resolution would in any way affect the initiative if it were to pass," he said. "I hope the courts act in that case."

"We've fought for a long time to end marijuana prohibition for civil rights, social justice, public health, and public safety reasons, and to create a legal market," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, "But to then have some folks come along trying to create a constitutionally-mandated oligopoly kind of sticks in everybody's craw."

DPA has worked and is working on legalization in a number of states, and was consulted in the drafting of the ResponsibleOhio initiative, but is not endorsing it. Nadelmann's ambivalence was indicative of the mixed feelings the measure is arousing among activists.

"The fact is, we have investors putting up $20 or $30 million to win this thing in a state that will be the center of national political attention next year -- no one else is going to do it in Ohio. There is a possibility the oligopoly provision could get knocked out. The best outcome would be for this initiative to win, and then get that knocked out," he said.

"Aside from the oligopoly provision, it's actually pretty good," Nadelmann continued. And after criticism of an earlier draft, "they were actually pretty solicitous, they added home grow, medical marijuana protections, and the distribution model is pretty good."

Who Will Be in the Driver's Seat?

But the ResponsibleOhio move also signals the emergence of monied interests whose deep pockets could leave activists and the drug reform movement on the sidelines -- and who may not share the same interests dear to the hearts of reformers.

"There's something similar going on in Michigan," Nadelmann noted, referring to an as-yet-to-filed initiative from the Michigan Responsibility Council, one of three groups planning legalization initiatives in the state right now. "And look at Arizona, there's a lot of industry funding there, and there's been hard negotiations between MPP and those guys."

"The influence of DPA, MPP, and other activists is going to diminish rapidly," he predicted. "This is going to be increasingly driven by industry, and a lot of competing interests within the industry. And as this evolves into legislative processes, other forces are going to come into play and certain players will be able to make their demands felt. Social justice concerns could get knocked out."

If Not ResponsibleOhio, Who, and When?

The unhappy Ohio legalization activists and other ResponsibleOhio critics say that if and when it is defeated, they can move forward with their own legalization plans. Given the legislature's recalcitrance, that means they would have to run their own initiative campaign.

They haven't been able to do that so far, and while some, such as OTEP's Kavuru, say they can do it now, others aren't so sure.

"We have access to a lot of money," Kavuru said. "And we have a real solid political team. We're in negotiations right now for significant funding, and it's much easier to raise money for a recreational initiative than a medical one, because people are also looking at it as an investment."

But ResponsibleOhio is here and now, and if it goes down, it remains to be seen if anyone else can actually get on the ballot.

"If this is defeated this year, I doubt any major funders would step in to play a role in 2016," said NORML's Stroup. "I understand. The people in Ohio feel they were doing a great grassroots effort and hear these rich guys came along and bought the space. But the Ohio activists so far haven't shown they can get the funding to do good surveys, let alone pay for signatures or a professional campaign. This year may be our chance to take a conservative state like Ohio and leapfrog it ahead on legalization. I'm not real comfortable with ResponsibleOhio, but I just want it legalized."

The fun is just beginning in Ohio.

Obama Calls for Greater Criminal Justice Reforms [FEATURE]

In a 45-minute speech at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia Tuesday, President Obama laid out a far-reaching roadmap for criminal justice reform, including calls for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of solitary confinement, and eliminating barriers to reentry for former prisoners.

c-span.org
The president has touched on many of the themes before, but the Philadelphia speech was the first time he tied them all together into a plan for action. The speech likely signals upcoming executive actions on criminal justice reform.

Obama recited the by now well-known statistics demonstrating American's over-reliance on incarceration: America is home to 5% of world's population but 25% of world's prisons; that African Americans and Latinos make up 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of American inmates; that one out of three black men are now likely to serve time in prison, among others.

While the United States has 2 ½ million people behind bars, only about 200,000 of them are in the federal prison system that Obama has the ability to impact. Of those, 98,000 are doing time for drug offenses.

He used those stats to bolster his case for broad criminal justice reform, calling the criminal justice system an "injustice system."

"Any system that allows us to turn a blind-eye to hopelessness and despair, that's not a justice system, that's an injustice system," Obama said. "Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it's the presence of opportunity."

Washington has seen limited criminal justice reform during the Obama years, particularly with legislation partially undoing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity and later actions making it retroactive. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder signaled to federal prosecutors that they should move away from mandatory minimums, and the Obama administration has asked federal drug prisoners to seek sentence commutations.

At the convention, Obama also touted initiatives including the Department of Justice's Smart on Crime program aimed at reducing the impact of our harsh laws, My Brother's Keeper, and the Clemency Project.

The president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders on Monday, and applications from some 30,000 more are in the pipeline.

Obama said the time was ripe for further reforms, citing bipartisan interest in the issue, and even mentioning the Koch Brothers and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul as allies in the fight. They made "strange bedfellows" with Democrats and the NAACP, he said, but that's what sometimes happens in politics.

"We're at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and folks all across the country are coming together around ideas to make the system work smarter. To make it work better and I'm determined to do my part, wherever I can," Obama said a day earlier in announcing the sentence commutations.

On Thursday, Obama will continue his criminal justice-themed week with a visit to the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma -- the first visit ever to a federal prison by a sitting president. He is expected to meet with inmates there, and he told the NAACP crowd he met with four former prisoners -- one white, one Latino, and two black -- before taking to the podium there.

Philadelphia, PA
United States

Obama Commutes Sentences for 46 Drug Offenders [FEATURE]

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

President Obama announced today he has granted clemency to dozens of federal inmates, the vast majority of them sentenced under draconian crack cocaine laws. More than 30,000 federal prisoners have applied for clemency since the Obama administration issued a call for them to do so last year.

President Obama (whitehouse.gov)
The remaining clemency applications are still being processed, but many more could be released before Obama's term expires in January 2017. The Justice Department says it prioritizes applications from low-level, nonviolent offenders who have already serve at least 10 years behind bars and who would have been sentenced to much less time if convicted for those same offenses today.

"We spend over $80 billion incarcerating people, often times who've only been engaged in nonviolent drug offenses," Obama said in his announcement of the commutations. "I'm commuting the sentences of 46 prisoners who were convicted many years or in some cases decades ago. These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses so their punishments didn't fit the crime. I believe there's a lot more we can do to restore the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system and to make sure our tax dollars are well spent even as we are keeping our streets safe."

Drug offenders account for nearly half of the more than 200,000 doing time in federal prisons. That is a more than 20-fold increase in the number of federal drug prisoners in 1980, just before the start of the Reagan-era war on drugs.

The federal prison at Butner, North Carolina, (bop.gov)
Today's commutations of 46 sentences bring to 90 the number of people to whom Obama has granted clemency during his administration. While more are expected, administration spokesmen made clear that merely wielding the clemency power is not enough.

"While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies," said White House counsel Neil Eggleston.

This is just the beginning of a week heavy on criminal justice issues for the president. Tomorrow, Obama is expected to make a major speech on criminal justice reform before the NAACP, and on Thursday, he is scheduled to visit a federal prison, which would make him the first president to ever do so.

"I am elated that President Obama continues to use his executive powers to grant freedom to those drug offenders who have served draconian sentences," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. "I hope this sends a message to governors of states that have the power to grant clemencies to those who deserve a chance to be reunited with their families."

The United States remains the world leader in incarceration. (nadcp.org)
The president sent a letter to the prisoners whose sentences he commuted: "I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," he wrote. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances."

He urged the soon-to-be-freed prisoners to lead by example.

"Remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better."

Washington, DC
United States

The Report Card: Grading the Presidential Candidates on Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

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

Marijuana is already legal in Alaska, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon (as of Wednesday), and Washington. With legalization initiatives looming this year and next in states as diverse as Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, and Arizona, marijuana policy is most definitely on the agenda in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Candidates and presumed candidates from both parties have staked out a wide array of positions on the issue (although none have taken the bold step of actually advocating for legalization). Now, thanks to the Marijuana Policy Project, we have a scorecard to keep them all straight.

The pro-legalization advocacy group has released its Voters Guide to the 2016 Presidential Race, detailing the candidates' positions on marijuana policy and assigning them grades based on where they stand. The candidates were graded on actions they have taken and statements they have made indicating their support for ending pot prohibition, allowing legal access to medical marijuana and defending states' rights to set their own marijuana policies.

"Most Americans recognize that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and they think it should be made legal for adults," said MPP spokesperson Mason Tvert. "Voters should know which candidates support rolling back prohibition and which ones are fighting to maintain it. People are becoming increasingly wary of the federal government's role in our nation's marijuana policies."

Protecting the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies will be increasingly important in coming years, Tvert said, adding that, "Several states are likely to adopt new approaches to marijuana policy between now and when our next president takes office. She or he should be willing to work with Congress to ease the tension between state and federal marijuana laws. If states are to be our nation's laboratories of democracy, our next president needs to respect their right to experiment. They should also be committed to basing marijuana laws on science and evidence instead of ideology and politics."

While Democratic candidates found themselves in the middle of the road (with grades ranging from B to D), Republicans were all over the letter-grade spectrum, with Rand Paul pulling down an A- (it seems you'd have to actually support legalization to get an A grade from MPP), and two GOP candidates, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum getting flunked with Fs.

"Some of these guys who tout states' rights, fiscal responsibility, and getting the government out of people's private lives want to use federal tax dollars to punish adults for using marijuana in states that have made it legal," Tvert said. "They say using marijuana is immoral or just too dangerous to allow, but serve alcohol, a more dangerous substance, at their fundraisers. The hypocrisy is astonishing."

Here are the candidates, by party and grade.

Democrats

Lincoln Chafee, Grade: B+

The former Rhode Island governor signed a decriminalization bill into law in 2013 and has expressed a willingness to explore the potential benefits of regulating and taxing marijuana, but he wants to wait and see what happens in states that have adopted such laws.

Chafee on marijuana and drug policy:

"We'll see what comes out of the legislature. We're just still putting in the medical marijuana component and we'll certainly see what's happening in Colorado… Certainly the revenue is enticing for all governors. Somebody was saying to me back with the bad weather we've had back home, and all the potholes, we should have the revenue go to infrastructure. 'Pot for potholes.'" -- Huffington Post, Feb. 24, 2014

"I think it should be an international discussion over our drug policy, whether its winning or losing the war on drugs, and the destabilizing effect the illicit drug trade has […] It should be an international discussion: is this working?" -- YouTube, April 2013

Jim Webb, Grade: B+

The former Virginia senator and Reagan-era secretary of the Navy has come out for marijuana decriminalization and is an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs. As a senator, he introduced legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Webb on marijuana and drug policy:

[In response to a question about whether marijuana legalization would be part of his criminal justice reform efforts:] "I think everything should be on the table, and we specifically say that we want recommendations on how to deal with drug policy in our country. And we'll get it to the people who have the credibility and the expertise and see what they come up with. [Asked specifically about regulating marijuana:] I think they should do a very careful examination of all aspects of drug policy. I've done a couple of very extensive hearings on this, so we'll wait to see what they say about that." -- Huffington Post, April 27, 2009

"He also shied away from supporting or opposing marijuana legalization, calling state laws 'an interesting national experiment' that should be allowed to play out further." -- Washington Post, March 10, 2015

Bernie Sanders, Grade: B

The insurgent Vermont senator has been a longtime critic of the war on drugs and supports medical marijuana, but has so far shied away from supporting pot legalization because of his concerns about other illegal drugs.

Sanders on marijuana and drug policy:

"I have real concerns about implications of the war on drugs. We have been engaged in it for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities."

"I'm going to look at the issue. It's not that I support it or don't support it. To me it is not one of the major issues facing this country. I'll look at it. I think it has a lot of support and I'll be talking to young people and others about the issues. But there are two sides to a story." -- TIME, March 4, 2015

"The state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do. Colorado has led the effort toward legalizing marijuana and I'm going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done. I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months." -- Reddit AMA, May 19, 2015

Hillary Clinton, Grade: B-

The Democratic favorite says she is open to more research on medical marijuana and that she supports Colorado and Washington's rights to set their own marijuana policies. She says she is interested in seeing the results of their experiment before taking a position for or against legalization.

Clinton on marijuana policy: "I don't think we've done enough research yet although I think for people who are in extreme medical conditions and have anecdotal evidence that it works, there should be availability under appropriate circumstances."

"States are laboratories of democracy. I want to wait and see what the evidence is." -- CNN, June 2014

Martin O'Malley, Grade: C+

The former Maryland governor has repeatedly spoken out against using marijuana for any reason, including medical, but he also signed into law in 2014 bills that decriminalized possession and established a medical marijuana program.

O'Malley on marijuana and marijuana policy:

"I'm not much in favor of it. We've seen what drug addiction has done to the people of our state, to the people of our city. This drug, its use and its abuse can be a gateway." -- Mark Steiner radio show, Jan. 7, 2014

"As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety. I now think that [it] is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health." -- Washington Post, April 7, 2014

Joe Biden, Grade: D

The vice president has not formally announced, but is still considered a potential contender. Throughout his career, Biden has been a hardline drug warrior, spearheading legislation that created the drug czar's office and sponsoring the RAVE Act, as well as backing bills to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for federal marijuana offenses. He continues to oppose the legalization of marijuana, but has spoken in favor of reducing enforcement of federal marijuana policies.

Biden on marijuana and drug policy:

"I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources. That's different than [legalization]. Our policy for our administration is still not legalization, and that is [and] continues to be our policy."

"I am not only the guy who did the crime bill and the drug czar, but I'm also the guy who spent years when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee], trying to change drug policy relative to cocaine, for example, crack and powder." -- TIME, Feb. 6, 2014

"I still believe it's a gateway drug. I've spent a lot of my life as chairman of the Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize." -- ABC News, Dec. 2010

Republicans

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) gets the highest grade. (senate.gov)
Rand Paul, Grade: A-

The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky has been a vocal supporter of states' rights to set their own marijuana policies, as well as decriminalizing small-time pot possession. He is also a sponsor of a bill that would let states set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference, a bill that would let marijuana businesses gain access to the banking system, and a bill seeking drug sentencing reforms.

Paul on marijuana policy:

"I'm not for having the federal government get involved. I really haven't taken a stand on… the actual legalization. I haven't really taken a stand on that, but I'm against the federal government telling them they can't." -- Roll Call, Nov. 4, 2014

"If your kid was caught selling marijuana or growing enough that it's a felony conviction, they could be in jail for an extended period of time, they also lose their ability to be employable. So I want to change all of that. I want to lessen the criminal penalties on it."

Rick Perry, Grade: B

The former Texas governor opposes marijuana legalization, but supports states' rights to set their own marijuana policies and has voiced support for reducing penalties for pot possession.

Perry on marijuana and drug policy:

"After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can't change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that's what we've done over the last decade." -- Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2014

"I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment. States should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, then people will decide where they want to live." … [S]tates should be allowed [to decide whether to legalize marijuana]." -- U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 23, 2014

Ted Cruz, Grade: C+

The junior senator from Texas opposes marijuana legalization, but believes states should have the right to set their own marijuana policies.

Cruz on marijuana and drug policy:

"I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the laboratories of democracy. If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative. I don't agree with it, but that's their right." -- CPAC, Feb. 26, 2015

"I don't support drug legalization, but I do support the Constitution. I think individual states can choose to adopt it. So if Texas had it on the ballot, I'd vote against it, but I respect the authority of states to follow different policies." -- Texas Tribune, March 24, 2015

"That's a legitimate question for the states to make a determination. And the citizens of Colorado and Washington State have come to a different conclusion. They've decided that they want to legalize it. I think it is appropriate for the federal government to recognize that the citizens of those states have made that decision. One of the benefits of it… is we can now watch and see what happens in Colorado and Washington State." -- Hugh Hewitt Show, April 16, 2015

Carly Fiorina, Grade: C+

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO does not favor legalizing medical marijuana for any purpose, including medical use, but has recently supported decriminalization and the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies.

Fiorina on marijuana and drug policy:

"I remember when I had cancer and my doctor said, 'Do you have any interest in medicinal marijuana?'; I did not. And they said, good, because marijuana today is such a complex compound, we don't really know what's in it, we don't really know how it interacts with other substances or other medicines." -- Slate, Feb. 2015

"I'm opposed to Prop 19 and the legalization of marijuana. Sending billions of dollars in new tax revenues to Sacramento is exactly the problem… because Sacramento has a spending problem and will continue to spend the money we send them." -- 10 Questions, October 2010

"Drug addiction shouldn't be criminalized. We need to treat it appropriately." -- Washington Post, May 4, 2015

"I don't support legalized marijuana for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that this is a very complex chemical substance, and when we tell young people it is just like drinking a beer, we are not telling them the truth. But I think Colorado voters made a choice. I don't support their choice, but I do support their right to make that choice." -- The Hill, June 9, 2015

George Pataki, Grade: C

The former New York governor does not support legalization for any reason, including medical, but has come out for the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies.

Pataki on marijuana policy: "I am not in favor of legalizing marijuana, but having said that I am a great believer that states are the laboratory of democracy." -- Bloomberg, Jan. 14, 2014

"So I would be very strongly inclined to change the federal law to give states, when they've had a referendum, the opportunity with respect to marijuana to decriminalize it, except for two factors. One is we have to know that neighboring states or the rest of the country are not being subjected to illegal marijuana because of the free selling of it and marketing in those states, and second with respect to young people." -- HughHewitt.com, April 23, 2015

How many GOP contenders still view marijuana users.
Donald Trump, Grade: C

The businessman and television personality supported legalizing all drugs in 1990, but has since changed his tune. He opposes marijuana legalization, but supports access to medical marijuana and has suggested support for letting states decide their own pot policies.

Trump on marijuana and drug policy:

"I'd say [regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it's bad and I feel strongly about that. [In response to states' rights argument] If they vote for it, they vote for it. But, you know, they've got a lot of problems going on in Colorado right now. Big problems. But I think, medical marijuana, 100%." -- C-SPAN, Feb. 27, 2015

"We're losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars." -- Miami Herald, April 14, 1990

Lindsey Graham, Grade: C

The South Carolina senator opposes marijuana legalization, but supports legal access to medical marijuana. Graham has not taken a strong position on states' rights to set their own pot policies, and he voted against a bill designed to block the Justice Department from interfering in medical marijuana states (though he later tried unsuccessfully to switch his vote).

Graham on marijuana policy:

When asked whether he supports letting states decide or keeping marijuana illegal federally: "I don't see a real need to change the law up here [in DC]. If marijuana is half as bad as alcohol, that's probably enough reason to keep it illegal." -- Just Say Now, Aug. 10, 2010

"I'm against legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. But when it comes to medical marijuana and this [CBD] oil, I think politicians should embrace what makes sense. When it comes to issues like this, I don't want to be academic in thought. This is about people. This is about families with sick children. Why should someone in my position get in the way of helping a child, if you can reasonably and logically do it?" WBTV, Feb. 24, 2014

Bobby Jindal, Grade: C

The Louisiana governor has offered limited support for medical marijuana, but opposes legalization and does not support states' rights to set their own policies. Just last week, he refused clemency for a black man sentenced to 13 years in prison for possessing two joints, saying he hadn't served at least 10 years. As a member of Congress, he voted against measures trying to block federal interference in medical marijuana states in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Jindal on marijuana policy:

"I don't think anyone should be legalizing marijuana, I think that's a mistake. When it comes to the issue of medical marijuana, I've said as long as it's done under tight restrictions, I can be okay with that." -- ABC News, Feb. 26, 2015

[When asked if he would "bring down the hammer" on pot stores in states with legalization laws] "I don't think you can ignore federal law. Federal law is still the law of the land. It still needs to be enforced." -- Washington Times, April 1, 2015

John Kasich, Grade: C

The sitting Ohio governor is "totally opposed" to marijuana legalization, including for medical purposes, but would allow states to set their own marijuana policies.

"In my state and across this country, if I happened to be president, I would lead a significant campaign down at the grassroots level to stomp these drugs out of our country." -- HughHewitt.com, April 21, 2015

"[The] answer is, no, I am not in favor of [medical marijuana]." -- WLWT, March 19, 2014

"On medical marijuana, doctors that I know tell me we don't need that, there are other ways to [treat pain]." -- OhioCapitalBlog, March 30, 2012

Jeb Bush, Grade: D

The former Florida governor is a long-time drug warrior who sits on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation, a radical anti-pot group. He opposes marijuana legalization for any purposes, but has suggested states have the right to set their own pot policies.

Bush on marijuana policy: "I thought [legalizing marijuana in Colorado] was a bad idea, but states ought to have that right to do it. I would have voted 'no' if I was in Colorado." -- C-SPAN, Feb. 27, 2015

Mike Huckabee, Grade: D

The former Arkansas governor and Fox News host opposes marijuana legalization for any purpose, including medical use.

Huckabee on marijuana policy:

"You know, I don't support the idea of legalizing marijuana, so I want to be honest about that. I don't think that there are as many wonderful things to come from it as there are some dangers to come from it. You know, if they're targeting people [who use marijuana for medical purposes], I don't know if that makes good sense. But I wouldn't go and say, 'You shouldn't follow the law.'" [He is then asked whether he would stop the federal government's raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, to which he responds:] "Probably not." -- C-SPAN, January 2008

"I think the question is would I favor the legalization [of medical marijuana] at a federal level. And until there's some stronger scientific evidence I'm unlikely to do that. I don't support the idea of legalizing marijuana." -- NH Marijuana Policy Initiative, October 2007

"Those who argued that legalizing marijuana would result in a boom in tax revenues have some preliminary proof… But at what cost? The money is earmarked for youth prevention services, substance abuse treatment and public health. But what is a young person supposed to think when the state says, 'Don't do drugs… even though everyone around you is… and the same authority figures who tell you it's bad not only condone it, but are also making a big profit off it'?" -- Facebook post, March 13, 2014

Ben Carson, Grade: D

The author and retired neurosurgeon, a hero of social conservatives, rejects marijuana legalization and cites the discredited "gateway theory" for doing so, but has expressed some openness toward medical marijuana.

Carson on marijuana policy:

"I think medical use of marijuana in compassionate cases certainly has been proven to be useful. But recognize that marijuana is what's known as a gateway drug. It tends to be a starter drug for people who move onto heavier duty drugs -- sometimes legal, sometimes illegal -- and I don't think this is something that we really want for our society. You know, we're gradually just removing all the barriers to hedonistic activity and you know, it's just, we're changing so rapidly to a different type of society and nobody is getting a chance to discuss it because, you know, it's taboo. It's politically incorrect. You're not supposed to talk about these things." Fox News, Jan. 2, 2014

Marco Rubio, Grade: D

The young Florida senator staunchly opposes marijuana legalization, but has expressed some support for medicinal use of non-psychoactive forms of medical marijuana (CBD cannabis oil). He has wobbled on the states' rights issue.

Rubio on marijuana policy:

"If there are medicinal uses of marijuana that don't have the elements that are mind-altering or create the high but do alleviate whatever condition it may be they are trying to alleviate, that is something I would be open to." -- Tampa Bay Times, July 30, 2014

"Marijuana is illegal under federal law. That should be enforced." -- ABC News, May 15, 2014

"The bottom line is, I believe that adding yet another mind-altering substance to something that's legal is not good for the country, I understand there are people that have different views on it, but I feel strongly about that." -- Yahoo! News, May 19, 2014

[Spokesman]: "Senator Rubio believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea, and that the states that are doing it may well come to regret it. Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders." -- Politico, Jan. 31, 2015

"I'm against the legalization of marijuana." -- C-SPAN, Feb. 27, 2015

[When asked if he would enforce federal law and shut down regulation in Colorado:] "Yes. Yes, I think, well, I think we need to enforce our federal laws. Now do states have a right to do what they want? They don't agree with it, but they have their rights. But they don't have a right to write federal policy as well. It is, I don't believe we should be in the business of legalizing additional intoxicants in this country for the primary reason that when you legalize something, what you're sending a message to young people is it can't be that bad, because if it was that bad, it wouldn't be legal." -- Hugh Hewitt Radio Show, April 14, 2015

Scott Walker, Grade: D

The Wisconsin governor opposes either decriminalization or legalization because marijuana is a "gateway" drug, but did sign a limited bill allowing for the use of non-psychoactive CBD cannabis oil by children.

Walker on marijuana policy:

"Now there are people who abuse (alcohol), no doubt about it, but I think it's a big jump between someone having a beer and smoking marijuana." -- Huffington Post, Feb. 13, 2014

"From my standpoint, I still have concerns about making it legal. I understand from the libertarian standpoint, the argument out there. I still have concerns. I'm not, unlike the President, I still have difficulty visualizing marijuana and alcohol in the same vein." -- CNN, Jan. 30, 2014

[Discussing a Wisconsin county sheriff who shares his position on marijuana legalization:] "Even there, the Democrat sheriff said to me last year when this issue came up, 'Whatever you do, please do not sign the legalization of marijuana.' This was a guy who spent his whole career in law enforcement. He was liberal on a whole lot of other issues. But he said it's a gateway drug." -- Wisconsin State Journal, March 31, 2015

Chris Christie, Grade: F

The New Jersey governor not only opposes marijuana legalization, but has spoken out repeatedly against states that have legalized it. He opposed the New Jersey medical marijuana law, which was passed before he became governor, and has hampered its effectiveness with strict limitations he has imposed.

Christie on marijuana policy:

"[Marijuana legalization]'s not gonna come while I'm here… See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there's head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high. To me, it's just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey and there's no tax revenue that's worth that." -- International Business Times, July 25, 2014

[In response to the question,"If you were president, how would you treat states that have legalized marijuana?"] "Probably not well. Not well, but we'll see. We'll have to see what happens." -- Huffington Post, June 20, 2014

[When asked if he would enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized and regulated marijuana:] "Absolutely, I will crack down and not permit it." …

"States should not be permitted to sell it and profit [from legalizing marijuana]." -- Huffington Post, April 14, 2015

Rick Santorum, Grade: F

The former US senator from Pennsylvania rejects marijuana legalization for any purpose, does not believe states have the right to set their own pot policies, and supports enforcing federal drug laws even in states that have voted to legalize it.

Santorum on marijuana and drug policy:

"I think Colorado is violating the federal law. And if we have controlled substances, they're controlled substances for a reason. The federal law is there for a reason, and the states shouldn't have the option to violate federal law. As Abraham Lincoln said, you know, states don't have the right to wrong." -- HughHewitt.com, April 16, 2015

"The federal government does have a role in making sure that drug use -- that states don't go out and legalize drugs. That there are drugs that are hazardous to people, that do cause great harm to the individual as well as society to the whole. And the federal government has a role in making sure those drugs are not in this country and not available and that people who use them illegally are held accountable. Ideally states should enforce these laws but the federal government has a role because it is a public health issue for the country." -- Santorum campaign event, Jan. 9, 2012

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

On the UN's Global Anti-Drug Day, Civil Society Fights Back [FEATURE]

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today released its 2015 World Drug Report as the organization marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, but civil society groups around the world used the occasion to take to the streets to demand an end to the global drug prohibition regime.

The report itself was relatively anodyne by UNODC standards, noting that illicit drug was "stable," with around 250 million people having used illegal drugs in the previous year. There was "little change in the overall global situation regarding the production, use and health consequences of illicit drugs," the UNODC noted.

The annual report did make note of deleterious consequences related to drug prohibition -- including high overdose death rates and health consequences, as well strengthening terrorist and organized crime networks -- but failed to acknowledge the role of prohibition in creating and aggravating the very problems it claims to address.

Global civil society took it upon itself to rectify that omission. Led by the International Drug Policy Consortium, dozens of groups mobilizing thousands of people marched or otherwise took action in at least 150 cities worldwide as part of the Support, Don't Punish global advocacy campaign. Support has more than tripled since 2013, when 41 cities participated.

"On the 26th June, thousands of people in over 150 cities will take part in a global day of action for the Support. Don’t Punish campaign. The campaign is a global show of force to say enough is enough – it’s time to end the wasteful and damaging war on drugs," said Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

"Governments need to wake up," declared Idrissa Ba, Executive Director of the Association Sénégalaise pour la Réduction des Risques Infectieux chez les Groupes Vulnerables (ASRDR) and member of the West African Commission on Drugs. "In the last year we’ve spent another $100 billion on fighting the drug war, and yet again we’ve seen no change, but the human cost in terms of lives lost, new HIV infections or the forced detention of people who use drugs is immeasurable. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, isn’t that the definition of madness?” 

In New York City, people from groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Harm Reduction Coalition, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Espolea, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, and Transform met an UN headquarters to demand reforms in the broken global drug prohibition system.

In Washington, DC, another march went from the State Department to the White House to demand that the Obama administration take stronger steps to bring about an end to global drug prohibition and the human rights abuses committed in its name, including the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses.  

"The purpose of 'Support, Don't Punish' is not only to spread global awareness about the failures of prohibition, but to demand that world leaders place human rights at the forefront of any conversation around global drug trafficking," said Jake Agliata, regional outreach coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization with chapters on hundreds of campuses worldwide and which coordinated the DC march. "Executing people for nonviolent drug offenses is not acceptable, and the State Department should take steps to ensure that our tax dollars never contribute to this archaic practice."

"The World Drug Report has dutifully laid out what some of the key harms of the current system are. But the report fails to note that the system itself is a cause of those harms, not a solution for them," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, cosponsor of the DC march. "Prohibiting drugs sends both use and the trade in drugs into a criminal underground, generating untold profits for drug lords and causing terrible harms to many users. We were at the State Department today because we think the US should get behind efforts to reform the UN drug conventions. It doesn't make sense to maintain a treaty structure that is based on prohibition while the U.S. and other countries are taking steps toward legalization."

The death penalty for drugs is under attack. Here, Iran executes drug offenders. (handsoffcain.info)
The day of action is intended to help frame the debate in advance of a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drug scheduled for next April, where countries have the opportunity to revise international treaties that threaten to stand in the way of reforms such as marijuana legalization and harm reduction measures like syringe exchange.

Last month, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, released a sign-on letter calling on nations to begin the process of revising the drug control treaties. The letter is online here

A full list of events from Friday's global day of action is available here. Actions were set to to take place in Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the USA – as well as in Argentina, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, The Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Moldova, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Serbia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

It's Full Speed Ahead for CA Marijuana Legalization Next Year [FEATURE]

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

On June 14, more than 200 people gathered at the Sebastopol Grange for a fundraiser and organizing meeting of local pot growers, the Sonoma County Growers Association. They were being mentored by their northern neighbors from Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, the Emerald Growers Association, which already has lobbyists in Sacramento and is in the middle of the effort to legalize weed in California next year. The Emerald Triangle is the largest marijuana growing area in the country's largest marijuana producing state.

Two days later, more than a hundred people met in a conference room at the Oakland Marriot City Center to plot the intricacies of producing a statewide marijuana legalization initiative. For several hours, attendees -- dispensary operators and employees, small growers, not-so-small growers, patients, consumers, interested citizens, even a nun -- offered their input on a rapid-fire but seemingly endless array of issues related to legalization and how it should occur:

Who can grow it? How much? Where? Who can grow it commercially? Should there be tiered licensing to ensure small operators have a chance? Who can sell it? Can cities and counties opt out? Who should regulate it? How should it be taxed and how much? Where should the revenues go? Should there be amnesties or expungements of records? Should employees be protected from being fired for smoking on their own time? Should there be protections from child welfare services or family courts? Does impaired driving need to be addressed? What about medical marijuana? Should existing businesses get a priority?

The complexities of knitting together a legalization initiative that will satisfy the community's already well-developed interest groups become apparent. But the process is nearing its end, and, it is hoped, a repeat of the movement infighting that accompanied 2010's failed Prop 19 effort can be avoided.

The Bay area events are nothing unusual in California this year. Pot politics is in the air. There is a lot at stake for the existing medical marijuana system as the legislature tries again to agree on a statewide regulation scheme, but beyond that, there's the whole issue of outright legalization, and that's going to come to a head in the months leading up to November 2016.

That's because Californians are extremely likely to have a chance to vote directly to approve legalization then and quite likely to do so. Polls this year are coming in with support for legalization above 50%, although not enough above for anyone to think it's going to be a slam dunk. Four legalization initiatives are already at the state attorney general's office awaiting circulating titles and summaries, while a fifth, and the one most likely to actually qualify for the ballot, is set to drop sometime this summer.

Four states and the District of Columbia have already beaten California in the race to Promised Land of legal weed (much to the chagrin of California activists), but if and when the state goes green, that could be the death knell for pot prohibition. In one fell swoop, 15% of the entire country will have legalized it--and that's not even counting other states also likely to legalize it the same day, including Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. When the nation's most populous state does something, the rest of us take notice.

ReformCA activists are beating the bushes. (reformca.com)
Enforcing marijuana prohibition constitutes about half of all the resources--state, local, and federal--devoted to the war on drugs. When a state as large as California rejects pot prohibition, that begins to call into question the entire drug war model, and the resources devoted to it. Legalizing in California will have ramification far beyond the state's borders.

The initiative everyone is waiting on is from the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the group that organized the Oakland meeting -- and 13 others just like it among stakeholders in every corner of the state. The coalition, also known by its web address, ReformCA, is working with a number of state and national organizations to get a broadly-backed legalization initiative on the ballot.

ReformCA's state supporters include California NORML, the California Cannabis Industry Association, the Emerald Growers Association, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, Oaksterdam University, and the state chapter of the NAACP. Its national allies include such deep-pocketed groups as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project, as well as Americans for Safe Access, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and the United Food & Commercial Workers.

"We're definitely working in coalition with a lot of organizations, including criminal justice and public health organizations," said Amanda Reiman, DPA's manager for marijuana law and policy. "They agree that legalization is the right step; that we need to regulate it. There seems to be a fair amount of unity there."

The ReformCA public forums were a deliberate way to "hear from the marijuana base," said Reiman. "They have ideas, and those come back to the coalition, but that is only a small piece of the puzzle. We've also been meeting with people who don’t come at it from a consumer or industry perspective -- medical, law enforcement, public health. They have an interest in this, too; we all have a vested interest in a sound regulatory structure."

North Bay cannabis defense attorney Omar Figueroa has a hand in a couple of other initiatives that have already been filed, the California Craft Cannabis Initiative and the Marijuana Control, Legalization, and Revenue Act of 2016. Based in Sonoma County, just south of the Emerald Triangle, he's attuned to the interests of small growers, and both initiatives reflect that.

Both have provisions for marijuana cultivation licensing schemes that would leave room for the area's traditionally family-sized operations, designated "craft growers" in one and "artisan cultivators" in the other. Small-scale operations would be able to buy cultivation license for far less than operations large enough to be designated "commercial."

Whether the initiative campaigns end up folding themselves into the ReformCA campaign remains to be seen.

"The craft cannabis initiative is there for discussion purposes; I'm releasing the meme into the wild," said Figueroa. "But the other one actually has some funding behind it. It'll probably end up unifying with what ReformCA comes up with -- if it's palatable."

Figueroa has his druthers and he has his bottom line.

"I'd prefer that medical marijuana be untaxed or less taxed, and I'd prefer that regulation be done by a transparent elected body like a cannabis commission," he said. "And it would be nice if existing growers got priority licensing or some sort of head start, but at a minimum would be recognizing appellations. California has world famous cannabis appellations. No one's ever heard of Denver or Boulder bud; it doesn't have that branding that Humboldt or Mendocino does.

But in the end, he's looking for an initiative that is "create no new crimes and legalizes personal cultivation."

ReformCA and the other initiative proponents aren't even the only game in town when it comes to marijuana policy reform. Their efforts are going on parallel to the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Cannabis Policy, led by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the ACLU of Northern California, which will issue a much-anticipated report on July 7.

While not explicitly pro-legalization itself, the commission was formed out of the expectation that legalization is coming and in an effort to and is identifying policy issues and solutions related to dealing with it. Its membership consists of policymakers, public health experts, and academics, and its report will include input from important groups not necessarily friendly to change, such as the California Police Chiefs Association.

Waiting for the commission report is one of two things slowing the completion of the ReformCA initiative, sound Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML, as well as a spokesman for the coalition.

"The biggest one is whether the legislature will implement a comprehensive medical marijuana regulation system this year or not, and what it would look like," he said. "But it looks like they will pass Assembly Bill 266, which is basically a multi-agency approach. I think we now have a good idea of where the legislature is headed and a solution to the problem of regulation."

The other thing is the Blue Ribbon Commission report.

"I suspect we'll see a draft shortly thereafter, but I can't guarantee that. It may take another four to six weeks of working out," Gieringer said. "Several drafts have been circulated, and we're waiting for something from the Drug Policy Alliance, with the advice of a bunch of other people who've been consulted. But nothing has been finalized."

The clock is ticking, but the only real hard deadline facing initiatives is, ironically enough, April 20. That's when signatures have to be in if they want to make the 2016 ballot.

Still, the sooner the better. Initiatives need 585,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, which means they better have a minimum of 800,000 or even more to account for the inevitable disqualified signatures. It also means initiatives don't manage to get on the ballot without a paid signature-gathering campaign, and the less time they have, the more they have to pay. Budget $1 or $2 million just to get those signatures.

"We could file as late as November or December," said Gieringer. "It just costs more. If we were ready now or even next month, that would give us maximum time to do everything, but it looks like it's going to be a rush."

Funding will appear, supporters said, but they are going to need a lot. The 2010 Prop 19 initiative campaign raised and spent $5 million for advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, and that wasn't enough. California is a huge and expensive series of media markets, and organizers are thinkng they will need to spend somewhere between $10 and $20 million to ensure victory.

The traditional deep pocketed sources of drug reform funding -- the Drug Policy Alliance and its PACs, the Marijuana Policy Project and its PACs, the Peter Lewis estate -- have not yet committed serious money, but they are watching with great interest.

DPA's Reiman would say little about funding, except that "the money is out there, and we're just going to have to see. Right now, we're doing our due diligence."

"I'm confident we can get the money, there are large pledges sitting on the sidelines ready to get in once signature collection starts," Gieringer said. "And there are some promising leads, although the industry itself has been very disappointing. They're quick to suggest things to make it more profitable, but not so quick to put up the money."

One exception is Weedmaps, the dispensary-locater app. The Orange Count company announced in April that it had donated $1 million to a campaign committee called Californians for Sensible Reform, which will support what it thinks is the strongest legalization measure on the ballot. Weedmaps is also throwing another million bucks into a PAC of the same name that will spend it supporting weed-friendly candidates.

California is a large, complicated state. Even its marijuana movement is large and complicated, not to mention factoring in the interests of the much, much larger non-marijuana community. Whether all the moving parts can fit together in a measure that can win at the ballot box next year is an unanswered question, but Reiman sounds confident.

"Coming up with the details is where the difficulty is, and there's always something to disagree about, but we're coming at this with such strong support, we've got the Blue Ribbon Commission, that's more academic and political weight behind this than ever before," she said. C

CA
United States

The US Is Deporting Hundreds of Thousands for Drug Offenses, Many Minor [FEATURE]

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

The US government wants to throw Marsha Austin out of the country. The 67-year-old grandmother came from Jamaica to New York as a lawful resident in 1985, and has lived here ever since with her husband, seven children (two more are in Jamaica), grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All are legal residents or US citizens.

Marsha Austin and her family in the Bronx (hrw.org)
By her own admission, she had problems with drugs. "I live in a drug-infested area," she said of her neighborhood in the Bronx, and she succumbed to the lure of crack cocaine in the wake of her mother's death. Jones racked up several minor convictions before getting popped for making a $5 purchase for an undercover officer in 1995.

That was "attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree," to which she pleaded guilty on her public defender's advice. The attorney failed to tell her the conviction could lead to deportation.

Her convictions led to little or no jail time, but in 2010, as her husband's health faltered, she violated probation by drinking alcohol. She did 90 days in jail, but instead of walking out, she was seized by immigration authorities at the end of her sentence and spent the next 2 ½ years in immigration jail awaiting deportation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly opposed her release, claiming she was under mandatory detention for her drug offenses, but then released her unexpectedly in 2013. She's been in treatment since then and now proudly reports that she's been "clean as a whistle" for the past five years. Now, her husband's health is failing, as is the health of her daughter, who suffered a breakdown after her own daughter suffered a serious illness.

"My kids and my grandkids, that's what I'm living for now," she said.

But she remains in limbo. The US government still wants to send her back to Jamaica, arguing that she is subject to deportation for the "aggravated felony" of buying $5 worth of crack for a narc.

She's not alone. Beginning late in the George W. Bush years and continuing through the Obama administration, the US has been deporting and trying to deport immigrants for drug offenses at a record clip. According to a just released report from Human Rights Watch, more than 260,000 non-citizens -- legal residents and illegal immigrants alike -- were deported for drug offenses between 2007 and 2012. Shockingly, 34,000 people were deported for marijuana possession offenses alone.

The trend is upward. The number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug crime was up 22% over that period, while the number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug possession offense was up even more, at 43%.

Tens of thousands more have been or are being detained indefinitely in immigration jails fighting pending deportation orders. Such extended imprisonments wreak havoc on the families who husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, are caught up behind bars.

The sweeping action against non-citizens comes as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on "criminal aliens," but seems disproportionately harsh when applied to low-level drug offenders, especially people who have lived all or most of their lives here and have strong family and community roots in this country. It is also at odds with the trends toward drug decriminalization and even legalization now at play in the country.

The Human Rights Watch report, "A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses," documents how the US government is routinely breaking up families by initiating deportation proceedings for drug offenses, often ones decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. Researchers interviewed more than 130 affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, and incorporated new data obtained from ICE.

Here are some of the cases examined in the report:

"Raul Valdez, a permanent resident from Mexico who had grown up in the Chicago area from the age of one, was deported in 2014 because of a 2003 conviction for possession of cannabis with intent to deliver, for which he had been sentenced to 60 days in jail.

Ricardo Fuenzalida, a permanent resident from Chile now living in New Jersey, was held without bond for months fighting deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.

Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants, despite having successfully completed a California diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.

Abdulhakim Haji-Eda, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the US at the age of 13, has been ordered deported as a drug trafficker for a teenage drug sale in Seattle. Now 26 years old, he has no other convictions, and is married to a US citizen with two US citizen children and another on the way.

"Antonio S.," who came to the US from Mexico when he was 12 and was eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a "DREAMer" under the executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was detained for over a year in Colorado and deported after a conviction for possession of marijuana, a municipal violation to which he pleaded guilty without an attorney.

"Alice M.," a 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, [was barred] from living in the US with her US citizen fiancé because of a single 1992 conviction for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned long ago in Canada.

"Mr. V.," a refugee and permanent resident from Vietnam, was ordered deported in 2008 for a 1999 conviction for possession of crack cocaine. Although he has since been granted a full and unconditional pardon from the state of South Carolina, Mr. V. remains under a deportation order and only remains in the US because of restrictions on the repatriation of certain Vietnamese nationals."

"Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses," said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses."

The report notes that the Obama administration has been sensitive to the injustices of the war on drugs and urges it to be as sensitive to the harsh effects of its deportation policies related to drug offenses. But it is not just the federal government that can act to improve the situation. Here are the group's recommendations:

"To the United States Congress

Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple possession of drugs.

Ensure that all non-citizens in deportation proceedings, including those with convictions for drug offenses, have access to an individualized hearing where the immigration judge can weigh evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, and other equities against a criminal conviction.

Ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with convictions for sale, distribution, or production of drugs are only considered to have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" through case-by-case determination that takes into account the seriousness of the crime and whether the non-citizen is a threat to public safety.

Ensure that non-citizens who are barred from entering the US and/or gaining lawful resident status because of a criminal conviction, including for drug offenses, are eligible to apply for individualized consideration, i.e., a waiver of the bar, based on such factors as the above mentioned.

Eliminate mandatory detention and ensure all non-citizens are given an opportunity for an individualized bond hearing.

Redefine "conviction" in immigration law to exclude convictions that have been expunged, pardoned, vacated, or are otherwise not recognized by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.

To the Department of Homeland Security

Provide clear guidance to immigration officials that a positive exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be appropriate even in cases involving non-citizens with criminal convictions, with particular consideration for lawful permanent residents and non-citizens whose most serious convictions are for nonviolent offenses, including drug convictions, that occurred five or more years ago.

Provide all non-citizens who have been in detention for six months or more with a bond hearing.

To State and Local Governments

Ensure drug courts and diversion programs do not require a guilty plea from defendants that would constitute a conviction that triggers deportation, mandatory detention, and other immigration consequences even upon successful completion of the program.

Remove barriers to post-conviction relief for non-citizens convicted of nonviolent drug offenses through legal error, including through guilty pleas obtained without adequate advice from defense counsel on the potential immigration consequences of the plea.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use."

To be comprehensive and thorough, drug reform must encompass immigration law reform, too.

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