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Senate Committee Votes to Keep DEA Out of Medical Marijuana States [FEATURE]

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

Just last week, in a series of successful amendments to the Justice Department appropriations bill, the House sent a clear message to the DEA and DOJ to stop interfering in medical marijuana states. Today, a similar message came from the Senate.

Congress doesn't want the DEA messing with medical marijuana where it's legal. (wikimedia.org)
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted two-to-one today in favor of an amendment from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that prohibits the Justice Department, including the DEA, from using federal funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws.

While the appropriations bill must still be approved by the Senate as a whole, both houses of Congress are now on record as telling the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states. The passage of identical amendments in both houses is a good indicator that they will be included in the spending bill when it gets to President Obama's desk.

While the House has passed similar amendments for the last two years, this is the first time it was offered in the Senate. It mirrors the provisions of the CARERS Act (HR 1538/S.683), introduced earlier this year, but because a ban in an appropriations bill expires at the end of the fiscal year, advocates are still calling for the CARERS Act to move.

The vote was an impressive 21-9, with the only Democrat voting against it being Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Republicans split right down the middle, with eight opposing and eight supporting.

California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, was the only Democrat to vote "no." (senate.gov)
Drug reform advocates were pleased.

"This is another resounding victory for medical marijuana patients, their families, and their care providers. Congress is making it clear that the Department of Justice and the DEA have no business interfering in state medical marijuana laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"The goal of this amendment is to provide deference to the states, making it strikingly similar to the operative provisions of the CARERS Act. Unfortunately, that bipartisan bill has languished for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee because Chairman Chuck Grassley has refused to hold hearings on it. The Senate spoke loudly and clearly today. Hopefully Sen. Grassley was listening," Riffle continued.

"With so many votes going our way these days, each new one gets less and less exciting. But that's a good problem to have," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "We're entering an era where marijuana reform is accepted as mainstream and not seen as controversial, and that's exactly where we want to be. With this vote, it's now clear that a growing bipartisan group of lawmakers in both chambers are ready to get the federal government out of the way of the effective implementation of state marijuana laws. These temporary funding restrictions certainly help us to demonstrate political momentum, but the next step should be passing legislation to permanently change federal law."

House Passes Seven Amendments to Rein in DEA [FEATURE]

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

In a series of votes yesterday, the House voted to end the DEA's controversial bulk data collection program and also passed three amendments cutting funding from the DEA and shifting it to other federal law enforcement priorities. In more votes today, it approved three amendments aimed at blocking DEA and Justice Department interference with industrial hemp, CBD cannabis oil, and medical marijuana in states where they are legal. A fourth amendment that would have barred interference in legal marijuana states was narrowly defeated.

The votes came as the House considers the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill.

Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) offered the amendment barring the DEA and the Justice Department from using taxpayer funds to do bulk collection of Americans' communications records. It passed on a voice vote yesterday.

"Congress dealt a major blow to the DEA by ending their invasive and offensive bulk data collection programs and by cutting their budget, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The more the DEA ignores commonsense drug policy, the more they will see their agency's power and budget come under deeper scrutiny."

Last night, members voted to slash $23 million from the DEA's budget and reallocate the money for more cost-effective programs. One amendment, from Rep. Ted Liew (D-CA) shifted $9 million from the agency's marijuana eradication program to youth programs; another, from Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) shifted $4 million from the DEA budget to rape test kits; while the third, from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) shifted $9 million from the DEA to a program to try to reduce police abuse by procuring body cameras for police officers.

In today's votes, an amendment offered by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Joe Heck (R-NV), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Don Young (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Dina Titus (D-NV) would bar the DEA and Justice from interfering in medical marijuana states. It passed 242-186. Similar legislation passed Congress last year, but was set to expire.

The House also passed an amendment from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) to protect state laws allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil. It passed 297-130. A third amendment, from Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), to protect state laws allowing industrial hemp also passed on a vote of 282-146.

But the most far-reaching amendment, which would have barred federal interference in states where marijuana is legal for either medical or general purposes, failed on a vote of 206-222. It was sponsored by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

"Votes in support of rolling back the federal government's war on medical marijuana are beginning to become routine. Last year, passing this amendment was unprecedented. This year, it was predictable. Medical marijuana has gone from 'controversial' to 'conventional' on Capitol Hill," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

But this is just the start, Riffle said.

"This is an important amendment because it addresses the tension between state and federal marijuana law," he noted. "We welcome it as a temporary fix, but what we really need is a comprehensive and more permanent solution. It's time for Congress to pass legislation that ends prohibition at the federal level and allows states to determine their own marijuana policies."

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority was singing the same tune.

"Now that the House has gone on record with strong bipartisan votes for two years in a row to oppose using federal funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, it's time for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to actually change federal law," he said. "That's what a growing majority of Americans wants, and these votes show that lawmakers are on board as well. Congress clearly wants to stop the Justice Department from spending money to impose failed marijuana prohibition policies onto states, so there's absolutely no reason those policies themselves should remain on the law books any longer."

"There's unprecedented support on both sides of the aisle for ending the federal war on marijuana and letting states set their own drug policies based on science, compassion, health, and human rights," said DPA's Piper.

Despite the narrow failure of that last amendment, the votes are just the latest indicator of rising congressional dissatisfaction with the scandal-plagued agency. Former Administrator Michele Leonhart was forced to resign earlier this year after a disastrous performance before congressional overseers over the agency's latest scandal, which involved DEA agents using taxpayer (and sometimes, drug baron) funds to consort with prostitutes in Colombia.

But the agency's problems with Congress go deeper than mere scandals -- of which there are plenty -- and reflect rising congressional concern that the DEA is not only ineffective, but downright obstinate, especially when it comes to marijuana policy. Leonhart herself epitomized the culture problem in the DEA when she was unable to bring herself to admit to Congress last year that marijuana is less dangerous than heroin.

The House has now shown it isn't very keen on the DEA's mass surveillance programs, either. Knowledge of their extent first appeared with a Reuters expose in 2013 that outlined collaboration between the DEA, NSA, CIA and other agencies to spy on Americans in the name of the drug war, including the creation of false investigative trails to disguise the fact they were getting information from secret surveillance programs. Then, this April, USA Today reported that the DEA and Justice Department have been keeping secret records of billions of international phone calls made by Americans for decades. The program, the first known US effort to gather bulk data on citizens, regardless of whether or not they were suspected of committing a crime, was the precursor of the post-9/11 spying programs.

"The DEA built the modern surveillance state," said Piper. "From spying on Americans to busting into people's homes the DEA doesn't fit in well in a free society and the time is now to reverse these harms."

DPA recently released a new report, The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know. The report and a comprehensive set of background resources about the campaign to rein in the DEA are available at www.drugpolicy.org/DEA.

"The DEA is a large, expensive, scandal-prone bureaucracy that has failed to reduce drug-related problems," said Piper. "There's a bipartisan consensus that drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue; with states legalizing marijuana and adopting other drug policy reforms it is time to ask if the agency is even needed anymore."

Washington, DC
United States

Senate Commitee Clears Way for Medical Marijuana for Veterans [FEATURE]

The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved an amendment that would allow doctors with Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to veterans suffering from PTSD, serious injuries, and other debilitating conditions. The amendment was approved on a vote of 18-12.

The vote marked the first time any Senate body has approved a marijuana reform measure.

The vote came on an amendment to the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. The amendment was offered by Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and would undo a 2009 directive barring VA doctors from recommending medical marijuana even in states where it is legal.

Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) specifically prohibits its medical providers from completing forms brought by their patients seeking recommendations or opinions regarding participation in a state medical marijuana program. The Daines/Merkley amendment authorizes VA physicians and other health care providers to provide recommendations and opinions regarding the use of medical marijuana to veterans who live in medical marijuana states.

The House narrowly defeated a similar amendment to its version of the appropriations bill. Now, the two versions of the bill must be reconciled.

Even if the move is killed in conference committee, a legislative version of the amendment is still alive in Congress. That is the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, sponsored by Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY).

The vote was lauded by drug reform advocates.

"Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor and use it if it's medically necessary," said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "They have served this country valiantly, so the least we can do is allow them to have full and open discussions with their doctors."

"A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers came together and passed broadly supported marijuana policy reform. This is exactly how most Americans want Congress to handle this issue. Hopefully we are reaching a point at which it is becoming the norm, rather than the exception. The pace at which support appears to be growing in the Senate is particularly encouraging," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

VA hospital, Durham, North Carolina.
"Doctors should never be prohibited from helping their patients obtain the best possible medical treatment. Many veterans are finding that medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for PTSD and other service-related medical conditions. Finally, Congress is working to remove barriers to accessing it rather than building them," Riffle continued.

"While we won five votes in a row on the House floor last year, this is the first time we've ever won a vote on a positive marijuana reform measure in the Senate," said Tom Angell, director of Marijuana Majority. "And with polls showing that a growing majority of voters supports ending prohibition, it's safe to say it won't be the last. Elected officials are finally starting to wake up to the fact that endorsing marijuana reform is good politics instead of the dangerous third-rail they've long viewed it as, and that means a lot more victories are on the way soon," he predicted.

The Surprising State That Could Be the Next to Legalize Weed [FEATURE]

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

It's looking more and more likely that voters in a key battleground state will be voting on marijuana legalization in November, and recent polling suggests it could win. That's this November, not November 2016.

The state is Ohio, where a controversial legalization initiative is already well on the way to qualifying for the ballot, and its backers -- or should we say investors? -- have the cash on hand to make sure it does.

There are marijuana legalization bills pending in any number of states, and early on, there were hopes this would be the year a state legislature would get around to legalizing it. New England states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont looked like the best bets, but it now doesn't seem like it's going to happen.

2016 promises to see a wave of legalization initiatives -- think Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts, for starters, with Arkansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio also likely to see serious efforts emerge.

But that's next year. The group ResponsibleOhio is well on the way to putting the issue before Buckeye State voters this year. They've already had their proposed constitutional amendment approved for signature gathering and, thanks to paid signature-gatherers, are cruising toward qualifying for the ballot.

To qualify in Ohio, initiatives need 305,000 valid voter signatures; ResponsibleOhio collected 180,000 raw signatures in its first three weeks and still has more than two months to gather the rest. And the campaign is still expanding.

Veteran initiative watchers will tell you campaigns want a cushion of excess signatures to account for ones that are thrown out, maybe 25% to 30% above the requirement at a bare minimum. In Ohio this year, that would be 400-450,000 raw signatures. The campaign says they are aiming for 700,000.

Given the progress so far, and the organization and money behind it (see below), ResponsibleOhio's legalization initiative looks like it will qualify for the ballot.

A New Legalization Model

This is not legalization like we've seen anywhere else. Yes, it allows adults 21 and over to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana and yes, it calls for a system of regulated and taxed marijuana production and sales. And it even has provisions for medical marijuana.

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

The Big O in his NBA heyday. (wikimedia.org)
The investors include a number of Ohio business interest-real estate developers, venture capital firms, philanthropists, with nary a Cheech or a Chong among them -- but also some home state big names that 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.

The ResponsibleOhio plan has raised a lot of hackles among movement veterans such as NORML founder Keith Stroup, who voices widely-held worries about the impact of big money in the movement and Ohio activists, some of whom have their own initiative plans, but they may not matter as much as suburban Columbus soccer moms when it comes to election day.

And while this written-in monopoly may seem strange to many, it's not going to seem that 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.

Can It Win?

Initiatives need to have money, momentum, and votes to win.

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 up to $20 million in a much smaller media market, and it doesn't have to go begging to donors.

The momentum is there. The entire country is riding a wave of increasing support for marijuana legalization, and Ohio is no exception. A 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.

The conventional wisdom is that initiatives should be polling 60% or more at the beginning of the campaign because they are bound to lose some support in the face of organized opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, these hardly seem like conventional times. National polls show an upward trend, and Ohio polls show an upward trend. Whether it can win at the polls in an off-off-year election remains to be seen (the casino initiative did), but it certainly looks like it's going to be on the ballot, and it's got a very good shot on Election Day.

Ohio isn't the West Coast or New England. It's a mid-sized Midwest swing state critical in presidential politics. If Ohio legalizes it this year, the politics of pot is going to get very, very interesting next year.

OH
United States

Head of Scandal-Plagued DEA to Resign [FEATURE]

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart is expected to resign soon, an unnamed "senior administration official" told CBS News this morning. The embattled DEA head has been under fire for years over her leadership of the scandal-ridden agency, but it was her performance at a Capitol Hill hearing last week that sealed her fate.

[It's now official: Attorney General Holder announced Leonhart's retirement in a statement late this afternoon.]

DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart is on her way out the door. (justice.gov/dea)
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee pronounced themselves agog over recent reports of DEA agents in Colombia partying with prostitutes, sometimes with taxpayer dollars, sometimes paid for by Colombian drug traffickers. Those revelations came in a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report issued last month.

Members were infuriated by the DEA's handling of the case, in which 10 DEA agents were accused of wrongdoing. Only seven of them were disciplined, and the punishment was extremely light: they were suspended for periods of one to 10 days. Leonhart drew the wrath of committee members when she claimed she was unable to discipline the agents more severely.

"What would it take to get fired at the DEA?" asked Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who said he was "stunned" that no one had been fired in the wake of the revelations. "What the hell do you have to do?"

Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) told Leonhart that as agency head she carried much of the responsibility for what he called "a cultural problem" at the agency stretching back years.

"You get called before this committee and say 'Oh, it's terrible, it's awful,'" Chaffetz said at the conclusion of the hearing. "But you personally have been responsible for this for more than a decade and you didn't do anything about it."

Immediately after last Tuesday's hearing, 22 members of the committee signed a joint statement saying they had "no confidence" in Leonhart's continued leadership.

And now word leaks from the White House that Leonhart is about to become history.

It's been a long time coming. The veteran DEA administrator and her agency have been embroiled in scandal throughout her tenure. And she and the DEA have been increasingly out of step with an administration that has shown an interest in rolling back drug war excesses, from major sentencing reforms to largely (if belatedly) adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward medical marijuana and even marijuana legalization in the states.

  • The Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General currently has six open into numerous DEA scandals, including the massacre of civilians in Honduras, the use of NSA data to both spy on virtually all Americans and to systematically fabricate evidence, and controversial uses of confidential informants.
  • A series of recent investigations by USA Today found that the DEA has been tracking billions of U.S. phone calls without warrants or even suspicion of wrong-doing, an operation copied by the NSA and other agencies after 9/11. The DEA built the modern surveillance state.
  • DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart herself has been at the center of several scandals, including the House of Death scandal in which the DEA may have turned a blind eye to torture and murder, and the Andrew Chambers scandal, in which the DEA rehired a confidential informant with a history of lying.
  • DEA conflicts with Obama administration policy. Last year, Leonhart publicly rebuked President Obama for admitting that marijuana is as safe as alcohol, told members of Congress that the DEA will continue to go after marijuana even in states where it is legal despite DOJ guidance stating otherwise, and spoke out against bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Congress that the Obama administration is supporting.
  • Last May, The DEA created a political firestorm this week when it seized seeds bound for a Kentucky hemp research program that was approved by Congress. Then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the incident "an outrage" and the Kentucky Agriculture Department sued the DEA.
  • The DEA's refusal to acknowledge science. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart has on several occasions ignored science and overruled the DEA's own administrative law judges on medical issues relating to marijuana. In a bizarre 2012 debate with members of Congress Leonhart refused repeatedly to acknowledge that marijuana is safer than cocaine and heroin.

Drug reform groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), both of which had been calling for Leonhart's head for some time, were elated, but urged the Obama administration to use this as an opportunity not to just put a new face in charge of DEA, but to change the agency's direction.

"Leonhart's DEA reflects an outdated, disastrous approach that President Obama claims he wants to leave behind,” said Bill Piper, DPA director of national affairs. "If she leaves, he has an opportunity to appoint someone who will overhaul the DEA and support drug policy reform. The DEA is a large, expensive, scandal-prone bureaucracy that has failed to reduce drug-related problems. Drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue; with states legalizing marijuana and adopting other drug policy reforms it is time to ask if the agency is even needed anymore," he said.

"Ms. Leonhart consistently and recklessly undermined President Obama's mandate that public policy be guided by science instead of ideology. Her resignation will allow the president to appoint an administrator who will rely on the facts rather than ignore them," said Dan Riffle, MPP director of federal policies.

"Most Americans, including President Obama, recognize the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Yet, Ms. Leonhart was unwilling to even acknowledge that marijuana poses less potential harm than heroin and methamphetamine," Riffle continued. "While most of the country has been progressing in its views on marijuana policy, Ms. Leonhart has maintained a mindset straight out of the 1930s. Hopefully her resignation will mark the end of the ‘Reefer Madness’ era at the DEA."

Key Congressional Committee Has "No Confidence" in DEA Head Leonhart [FEATURE]

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

Fed up with DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart over a long litany of scandals in the drug-fighting agency she heads, 22 members of the House Oversight and Government Reforms Committee issued a statement yesterday saying they had "no confidence" in her leadership.

Update: Leonhart is retiring.

DEA Michele Leonhart is losing favor on Capitol Hill. (justice.gov)
"After over a decade of serving in top leadership positions at DEA, Administrator Leonhart has been woefully unable to change or positively influence the pervasive 'good old boy' culture that exists throughout the agency," the statement said. "From her testimony, it is clear that she lacks the authority and will to make the tough decisions required to hold those accountable who compromise national security and bring disgrace to their position. Ms. Leonhart has lost the confidence of this Committee to initiate the necessary reforms to restore the reputation of a vital agency."

The statement came in the immediate wake of a committee hearing yesterday over a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General report on sexual misconduct by department employees that found DEA agents in Colombia had been partying with prostitutes, with the tab being picked up by US taxpayers -- or sometimes by drug cartels.

At the hearing, Leonhart was excoriated by members over her failure to adequately discipline the agents involved -- the most serious punishments were short-term suspensions -- and her insistence that agency personnel rules tied her hands.

But committee members were having none of it.

"Do you think you're the right person for this job?" asked Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the committee.

"You're protecting people who solicited prostitutes, who had 15 to 20 sex parties," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA). "This is a very serious issue and you've done nothing... I actually feel your system is protecting these people."

If the representatives' frustration was palpable, it was because they have been down this path of scandal too many times before with Leonhart at the helm. Here's just a selection of the controversies surrounding the agency since she took over in 2008, or which involve her own long history with the agency:

  • The Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General currently has six open investigations into numerous DEA scandals, including the massacre of civilians in Honduras, the use of NSA data to both spy on virtually all Americans and to systematically fabricate evidence, and controversial uses of confidential informants.
  • Leonhart herself has been at the center of several scandals, including the House of Death scandal in which the DEA may have turned a blind eye to torture and murder, and the Andrew Chambers scandal, in which the DEA rehired a confidential informant with a history of lying.
  • DEA conflicts with Obama administration policy. Last year, Leonhart publicly rebuked President Obama for admitting that marijuana is as safe as alcohol, told members of Congress that the DEA will continue to go after marijuana even in states where it is legal despite DOJ guidance stating otherwise, and spoke out against bipartisan drug sentencing reform in Congress that the Obama administration is supporting.
  • Last May, the DEA created a political firestorm when it seized seeds bound for a Kentucky hemp research program that was approved by Congress. Then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the incident "an outrage" and the Kentucky Agriculture Department sued the DEA.
  • The DEA's refusal to acknowledge science. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart has on several occasions ignored science and overruled the DEA's own administrative law judges on medical issues relating to marijuana.

Cartagena, Colombia, a playground for sex-starved DEA agents. (wikimedia.org)
]Drug reformers, who have long criticized Leonhart's last-century attitudes and approach to drug policy, were calling for her head.

"This ought to be the final nail in the Leonhart coffin," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "I cannot see how President Obama and AG Holder allow her to continue in her role. It's hard to think of a more incompetent and out of touch federal official than the current DEA chief. Her time is up. Leonhart has clashed with Republicans, Democrats, the White House, and civil society leaders. She reflects an outdated approach to the drug war that President Obama claims he wants to leave behind."

"There's simply no excuse for the outrageous behavior of the DEA's so-called leadership," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret'd.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a criminal justice group working to end the drug war. "Leonhart just helps us add to the list of reasons of why we need to rethink our entire approach to drug policy."

Will the scorching rebuke from Congress be enough to force Leonhart out the door or to convince her superiors to give her a nudge? Time will tell, but it appears her days are numbered.

To the Bitter End: The 9 States Where Marijuana Will Be Legalized Last [FEATURE]

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

Marijuana prohibition in the US is dying, but it isn't going to vanish in one fell swoop. Even if Congress were to repeal federal pot prohibition, state laws criminalizing the plant and its users would still be in effect -- at least in some states.

Meet the most bud-unfriendly states. (wikimedia.org)
And it's probably a pretty safe bet that Congress isn't going to act until a good number of states, maybe more than half, have already legalized it. That process is already underway and is likely to gather real momentum by the time election day 2016 is over.

Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, followed by Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, last year. California, where one out of every eight Americans lives, is very likely to go green in 2016 via the initiative process, and so are a handful of other states, including Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Longer shots next year (or even this year, in Ohio's case) are Arizona, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Rhode Islane.

But just as the end of federal alcohol prohibition in 1933 didn't mean the end of state-level prohibition -- Mississippi didn't end it until 1966, you couldn't drink in a bar in Kansas until 1987, and dry counties remain in a number of states -- ending federal marijuana prohibition isn't going to magically make it legal everywhere.

There are two critical factors to consider in assessing how likely a state is to get around to freeing the weed: public opinion and access to non-legislative (read: initiative and referendum) political remedies.

Opinion polls consistently show stronger support for legalization in the West and the Northeast than in the Midwest and the South. But barring access to the initiative process -- which only half the states have -- means that even in states where public opinion strongly favors legalization, residents are going to be beholden to the legislature to get it done. Note that so far, every state that has legalized it has done it through the initiative process. That could change this year, but it seems unlikely at this point.

But even having the initiative process isn't going to help if popular support is lacking. That's why some states make the list even though they have the initiative process. And even having public opinion on your side isn't going to guarantee victory in the legislature, especially if the Republicans are in control.

Here are the nine states least likely to legalize it anytime soon and, after that, a few brief notes on a handful of states:

  1. Alabama. This Heart of Dixie state still has several dry counties and about a third of the counties in the state are either partially dry or have localities that are dry. Although Democrats hold some local offices, Republicans dominate state elected offices and the state legislature. The state has no initiative process, and the legislature has so far failed to pass even medical marijuana legislation.
  2. Idaho. This heavily Mormon-influenced state has the initiative process, but so far even campaigners for medical marijuana haven't been able to qualify a measure for the ballot, so it's hard to see how they could get a legalization initiative on the ballot, let alone pass it. An Idaho Politics Weekly poll from February shows what an uphill battle it is. Only 33% of respondents favored legalization, with 64% opposed (and 53% "strongly" opposed). And the conservative Republican legislature is more concerned with fending off sharia law than legalizing pot, although it did manage to pass one of those no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil bills this eyar.
  3. Kansas. Another state dominated by Republicans, with no initiative process, and little popular support for legalization, anyway. An October 2014 poll showed only 31% in favor of legalization and, distressingly, an ever larger percentage (33%) saying marijuana possession should be a felony. While voters in Wichita this week approved a municipal initiative decriminalizing pot, the state attorney general has already asked the state Supreme Court to overturn it. Kansas is another one of those states where the legacy of alcohol prohibition lingers, too: Almost all of its counties are either dry or semi-dry. Be glad you're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
  4. Louisiana. The state has some of the country's harshest marijuana laws, including up to 20 years in prison for repeat possession offenders and up to life in prison for pot possession if the person has a previous felony. Efforts have been afoot in the state legislature for several years to fix those draconian laws, but have so far gone nowhere. An October 2014 poll showed roughly two-thirds supported fixing those laws, but that hasn't yet influenced Baton Rouge. Tellingly, the poll didn't even ask whether respondents supported legalization. And there is no initiative process, anyway. In Louisiana, not sending people to life for marijuana would be progress.
  5. North Dakota. At the top of that geographical tier of Great Plains states destined to be a bastion of reaction on marijuana legalization, the agricultural state has approved industrial hemp production (in part because North Dakota farmers can see their Canadian counterparts just across the border profiting from it), but is unwilling to move even on medical marijuana, let alone legalization. The legislature this year killed a bill to even study legalizing medical, and an effort last year to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot couldn't manage to qualify. An October 2014 poll found that even medical marijuana couldn't get majority support (47%), and the prospects for legalization were even grimmer. Only 24% supported legalization, with 68% opposed.
  6. Oklahoma. Good luck. The state government is dominated by Republicans and is one of the most conservative in the country. The state has the initiative process and state Sen. Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) is likely to try again to get it on the ballot next year, but even if it were to make the ballot, it would likely get creamed. A poll this month found only 31% for legalization. This is also one of those states where alcohol prohibition still lives on; about a third of the state's counties are completely dry.
  7. South Carolina. There is no initiative process here, so it will be up to the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. The legislature passed a no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil last year, and Republican lawmakers have introduced medical marijuana and decriminalization bills this year, but they have yet to pass. The Palmetto Politics Poll last July barely had majority support for medical marijuana (53%), and didn't even bother to ask about legalization.
  8. South Dakota. The state has the initiative process, but it also has the dubious distinction of being the only state to twice defeat medical marijuana at the polls. The Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly refused to act on medical marijuana bills and didn't even consider any marijuana reform bills this year. There is no recent polling on support for legalization, and given the performance of medical marijuana initiatives, even if a legalization initiative were to qualify for the ballot, it would get crushed.
  9. Utah. The Mormon heartland, another state where Republicans dominate the legislature and the executive branch, and another state where the only legislative concession to pot law reform has been the passage of a no-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil bill. A March poll found 72% of Utahns supported medical marijuana, but that didn't stop the legislature from quickly killing a medical marijuana bill this year. That poll didn't ask about legalization; the last one that did, from 2013, was not encouraging: It had 57% opposed to legalization. Utah has the initiative process, but that won't be much good until Utahns get on board with legalization.

Why Some States Didn't Make the Bottom 9

There are several states that some might have expected to see on this list, but who I think may surprise us and come around more quickly.

In the South and Mid-South, Mississippi and Arkansas would seem like good candidates to be among the last to legalize, but both states have the initiative process and some associated activism around it. They still have to get public opinion on their side, but they can circumvent sclerotic legislatures once they do. And there is hope that demographic trends will turn Georgia, of all the Deep South states, into a place where marijuana can be legalized at the state house before the bitter end.

On the Great Plains, Nebraska is the only state from Texas to Canada that didn't make the bottom nine. It's certainly as solidly conservative as the others and it just hates legalization next door in Colorado, but this is a state that decriminalized weed nearly 40 years ago. Perhaps one of these days, Cornhuskers will wake up and remember that.

In the Intermountain West, Montana and Wyoming share many of the same political and cultural characteristics as Idaho and Utah, but the influence of the Mormon Church isn't nearly as strong. Montana has the initiative process and has used it to approve medical marijuana, only to see that rolled back by Republicans and Christian conservatives. Wyoming also has the initiative process. In both states it will be a struggle between deeply rooted Western individualistic libertarian notions and equally deeply rooted Christian conservativism.

Alright, then. We'll have to check back in 2026 or so and see how prescient this was.

Here Comes Italy: The Next Country to Legalize Marijuana? [FEATURE]

An effort to legalize marijuana is getting underway in the Italian parliament, with some 60 lawmakers having signed onto a motion to do just that by the time it was rolled out three weeks ago. Now, the "all party" group is getting to work on the twin tasks of drafting an actual bill and getting it enacted into law.

The effort is being led by Sen. Benedetto Della Vedova, who is also Italy's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs. Della Vedova was a long-time member of the country's Nonviolent Radical Party, but was elected to parliament as a member of the centrist Scelta Civica.

The Radicals are a small but influential party that has called for drug legalization since the 1970s, including for marijuana, and Della Vedova's pot politics go back to the last century as well. He and other Radicals were arrested for publicly distributing hashish at an anti-prohibitionist rally in 1995.

They didn't get much political traction then, but times have changed. Della Vedova is a senator, not an agitator; there is support from within the governing coalition and even from within law enforcement; and the Italian public seems to be ready to relax the marijuana laws.

A little more than a year ago, the country's top court threw out a 2006 law that put marijuana in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine and swelled the country's prison population. That Berlusconi-era approach has been replaced by a sort of decriminalization, where users face misdemeanor charges, but only fines or administrative penalties, such as suspension of a driver's license. But people caught growing plants still face possible jail time.

That softening of the marijuana laws went largely unopposed and unremarked upon. A more remarkable indication of changing attitudes was the February release of the National Anti-Mafia Directorate's annual report. That report from Italy's top crime-fighting organization said frankly that marijuana prohibition had failed and that it was time to consider legalization.

Senator Benedetto Della Vedova (sceltacivica.it)
In view of "the failure of prohibition," the group will draft "a pragmatic, non-ideological bill" regulating marijuana, thus diverting profits from organized crime," Senator Della Vedova told reporters as he announced the measure. "Repressive action has totally failed."

The time has come, he said.

"This is a bipartisan proposition from members of the parliament of different political backgrounds," Della Vedova said. "This shows that even in Italy, a pragmatic approach, based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, is now increasingly popular in the political and cultural debate, not only outside but also inside the parliament."

The idea is picking up steam, Carmelo Palma, technical coordinator for the parliamentary working group, told Drug War Chronicle this week.

"The group has now reached more than a hundred members, and it's very rare that a group of concerned legislators get together during a session to attempt to co-draft a bill," he said. "This is more than just a nice beginning."

Most of the signatories are from the ruling center-left Democratic Party, although some members of right parties have signed on as well. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hasn't commented on the push, but has previously gone on record supporting the decriminalization of "soft drugs."

The parliamentary group met for the first time last Thursday to select a coordinator who will gather the various legalization proposals put forward, and there is a meeting to review the scientific evidence around marijuana that will take place in May or June. After that, said Palma, will come a public meeting before parliament recesses for the summer.

Radical Party UN representative Marco Perduca (flickr.com)
The process will take some time, but that's to be expected, said Radical Party United Nations representative Marco Perduca, who served in Italy's Senate from 2008 to 2013.

"Some sort of consensus legalization model needs to emerge," he told the Chronicle. "Being an 'all-party' group, there are different approaches, from the super-libertarian to the statist. I think what is clear is that all aspects will have to be regulated, from production to consumption through commercialization."

Perhaps a limited duration trial program would be the way to go, he suggested.

"In any case, personal cultivation should always be allowed at home, and commercial production should also be allowed with clear rules," Perduca offered. "As far as selling is concerned, both cannabis social clubs and coffee shops could be models to adopt."

Perduca was willing see limitations -- at least temporarily -- on quantities that could be purchased, but rejected restricting sales to citizens, as the Dutch have tried to do in a bid to head off "drug tourism."

Marijuana legalization is desirable for both moral and practical reasons, the Radical said.

"Isn't a freer world a good enough answer?" he asked. "Money spent to bust pot smokers has always been money wasted, and legalizing marijuana would allow us to not only invest in other public policies, but also promote a model of where the state doesn't tell you what to do, but allows you to make your own choices in an informed way."

It isn't going to happen this month, or probably even this year, but marijuana legalization seems to be on its way in Italy. If that's the case, Italy could lead the way for the rest of Europe. Pot is decriminalized in several countries, and Holland famously turns a blind eye to its famous cannabis coffee shops, but no European country has yet followed the lead of Uruguay and that small but growing number of US states that have freed the weed.

Italy

California Bill Seeks to Name Three Obscure Substances "Date Rape Drugs," Enhance Penalties [FEATURE]

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

Possession of so-called date rape drugs could become a felony under a California bill that marks the first effort to roll back parts of last year's voter-approved Proposition 47. That initiative is an effort to begin to reverse the state's prison-swelling war on drugs by making simple drug possession a misdemeanor.

the "date rape" drug ketamine (wikimedia.org)
The avowed goal of the new legislation -- seeking to prevent date rape -- is indeed laudable, but the politicians behind the move are either misinformed about who uses such drugs and why or they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

"Date rape drugs are tools in the hand of predators and they're not a recreational drug," said Rep. Tom Lackey(R-Antelope Valley), a former Highway Patrol sergeant and chief sponsor of Assembly Bill 46. A companion measure has been filed in the Senate.

The bills would break with Prop 47 by treating three specified drugs -- ketamine, Rohypnol, and GHB -- more severely than other drugs. Instead of charging people caught with personal amounts of these substances as misdemeanors, as is the case with cocaine, heroin, meth, and all other drugs, prosecutors would now have the option of charging them with a felony.

"We should not wait for women to be victimized before serious charges are available to prosecutors,” said Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), sponsor of the Senate version. "A person found in possession of these drugs is likely intending to use them to commit a sexual assault -- not for personal use. Law enforcement must be able to charge a person accordingly."

But not only are the legislators misrepresenting the vast majority of the users of these drugs, they are also missing the forest for the trees. If they really wanted to criminalize a drug to prevent date rape, that drug would be alcohol. According to a 2005 Justice Department study, the specified "date rape" drugs were present in only 4.2% of sexual assaults, while other drugs, including alcohol, were present in 61%. (That same study also listed 45 other substances that could be used to impair someone.)

Similarly, a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism implicated alcohol in 50% of all -- sexual assaults.

Experts on the topic tell similar stories.

"Quite honestly, alcohol is the No. 1 date rape drug," said Mike Lyttle, regional supervisor for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Nashville crime lab. "Roofies are very rarely -- if ever -- seen in real life," he told USA Today.

"We really don't know for sure what the actual numbers are," said Dr. Susan R.B. Weiss, associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. "But drugs that are sedating drugs or incapacitating drugs probably are not that common in sexual assault. We really don't know the true prevalence, but we know for sure alcohol is much more common than other drugs."

the most common date rape drug (wikimedia.org)
Still, substances targeted in these bills -- Rohypnol, ketamine, and GHB -- are only used as "date rape drugs" and that justifies their users getting harsher treatment, the legislators said.

But a quick glimpse at the -- Vaults of Erowid -- puts the lie to that claim. Erowid is a web site dedicated to "documenting the complex relationships between humans and psychoactives," and one of its most fascinating sections is its user reports. They consist of write-ups of thousands of experiences with a panoply of mind-melting substances submitted by the users themselves.

Erowid describes ketamine as "a disassociative psychedelic" that can, at higher doses, cause users to "find themselves completely removed from their surroundings and their bodies." People going down the K-hole, as it were, might experience "alternate planes of existence, a sense of movement through a space or landscape, a oneness with everything, past and future revelations, and strange fabrics or textures of all sorts," Erowid reports.

The Erowid Experience Vaults for ketamine has hundreds of user reports -- the good, the bad, and the truly weird -- some from people using Special K in lower doses, sniffing it like coke as a social party drug; many from avid and dedicated psychonauts, those explorers of the chemically-enhanced inner mind who blast themselves into some very strange inner places; even some from people attempting to use it therapeutically, self-medicating with it to address issues like depression, addiction, and anxiety.

Erowid describes GHB as "a sedative used both as a prescription sleep-aid and as a recreational intoxicant. It is known for its ability to induce a short (several hour) coma-like sleep at high doses."

Rohynpol, AKA "roofies" (wikimedia.org)
It's obvious from the description that GHB is used to party with, and the Erowid GHB vault, with more than 200 entries, backs that up. The drug is also described as a sedative, and like any sedative, it could be used to dose someone without her knowledge. On its GHB page, Erowid thoughtfully provided an admonitory primer on substance related sexual assault -- nearly 15 years ago.

Rohypnol ("roofies"), a trade name for flunitrazapam, is a strong sedative and hypnotic prescribed for chronic or intense insomnia, but not in the US. The drug has never been approved by the FDA for use here, and actually seems to have had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, until it was labeled a date rape drug.

It doesn't seem to be much of one now. That Justice Department study cited above found Rohypnol in only 0.5% of victims of drug-facilitated sexual assaults, and a 2006 British study found only 2% had any sedatives in their urine 12 hours after the assault. Similarly, a 2009 Australian study of 97 patients admitted to hospitals claiming their drinks had been spiked was unable to find a single case where the drinkers had actually been dosed with sedatives. They did find, however, that the mean blood alcohol level of the patients was 0.096%, well above what is legally considered too drunk to drive in the US.

Compared to the other drugs in question, Rohypnol doesn't appear to be of much interest to the Erowid set -- there are only 20-odd user reports in the flunitrazepam vault. They appear to be using for recreational or self-therapeutic reasons, and user report titles such as "My Mind Is A Blank," "Goofy Roofie," and "A Lot I Don't Remember" provide a hint of the experiences.

It seems clear that while ketamine, GHB, and Rohypnol, like many other drugs, including most prominently alcohol, can be used for nefarious purposes, those three substances are only a tiny part of the problem. It seems equally clear that substantial numbers of people who are not date rapists but recreational drug users are using these drugs. If these misinformed bills actually become law, the people who will be hit with harsher penalties are much more likely to be innocent partiers than deviant criminals.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Historic Federal Bill to Legalize Medical Marijuana Rolled Out Today [FEATURE]

A bipartisan trio of senators today introduced historic legislation to legalize medical marijuana at the federal level. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana and allow states to set their own policies.

Senatory Cory Booker (D-NJ) (Bbsrock/wikimedia.org)
"We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose-recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows," said Sen. Booker. "Doctors and patients deserve federal laws that are fair and compassionate, and states should be able to set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference. I am thankful to Senators Gillibrand and Paul as well as the Drug Policy Alliance for their hard work on this common-sense bill to make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it." 

The bill would reclassify marijuana for medical use, allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, overhaul banking laws to allow licensed medical marijuana businesses to use financial services, and open up more research possibilities for medical marijuana.

In addition to the Drug Policy Alliance, the senators also consulted with the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, and other voices for patients in drafting the bill. Although nearly half the states have passed medical marijuana laws (and a dozen more have passed limited CBD cannabis oil laws), marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That means patients and providers in medical marijuana states are still at risk of federal prosecution and families and patients in non-medical marijuana states must relocate or travel long distances to get treatment, facing the risk of prosecution in non-medical marijuana states along the way.

"I am so happy to support this bill. As the mother of a child with a severe seizure disorder, anxiously waiting to get access to a medication that is already helping thousands of others is unbearable," said Kate Hintz, a New York resident who has advocated for CBD to treat her daughter and others to treat epilepsy and seizures. "After persistent advocacy in my home state of New York, we finally saw a medical marijuana law passed last summer.  Yet individual state's laws, including New York's, will not succeed until we lift the current federal restrictions surrounding this plant," she added.

"I applaud Sens. Gillibrand, Booker and Paul for taking this bold step forward and insisting the federal government take action.  Let's end the fear and stigma associated with marijuana, and instead allow this bill to provide research, medicine, and long needed relief to so many. It cannot come fast enough, especially for my daughter," Hintz concluded.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (senate.gov)
"For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that would alleviate their chronic pain and suffering. I am proud today to stand with Sens. Gillibrand and Booker to introduce a bill that will fundamentally change our nation's drug policies and have a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and children," said Sen. Paul.

While the Obama administration has, in recent years, largely taken a laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana in states that have approved it, that approach is both uneven and dependent on the whim of the administration in power. Just last week, federal prosecutors in Washington state took a family of five medical marijuana patients--the Kettle Falls Five--to trial, threatening them with lengthy, mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing medical marijuana legally under state law (in a state where even recreational marijuana is legal!).

Fortunately for the Kettle Falls Five, a federal jury acquitted them of most charges, including the most serious ones. But under the current state of federal marijuana prohibition, such prosecutions could continue.

Similarly, the Obama administration's recent restraint on medical marijuana is derived from Justice Department guidance to federal prosecutors about which cases raise the level of federal concern high enough to warrant prosecution. That guidance was crafted by a deputy attorney general answerable to Attorney General Holder and the president. Absent protections provided by this bill or similar legislation, a new administration could easily return to the bad old days of DEA raids and patients and providers being hauled off to federal prison.  

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (senate.gov)
"As the parents of severely ill children who could be helped by medical cannabis, we are dedicated to advancing safe, legal and viable access," said Maria De Gregorio, a parent leader of the Kentucky-based Parents Coalition for Rescheduling Medical Cannabis. "Rescheduling efforts must also guarantee access to whole plant extracts that have proven therapeutic benefits. We feel it is crucial to support state rights in all current and future medical marijuana programs. Thus, we strongly endorse this bill as it is written."
 
"Almost half the states have legalized marijuana for medical use; it's long past time to end the federal ban," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bipartisan legislation allows states to set their own medical marijuana policies and ends the criminalization of patients, their families, and the caregivers and dispensary owners and employees who provide them their medicine."

"With studies showing that medical cannabis access decreases suicide and addiction rates, the CARERS Act is absolutely necessary to help fix a broken healthcare system for veterans, which deals with suicides and addiction at catastrophic rates," said TJ Thompson, a retired U.S. Navy Third Class Petty Officer. "Now, I'm considered a criminal because of the medication that helps me. I take it illegally to treat my PTSD."

"This comprehensive proposal would effectively end the war on medical marijuana and let states compassionately provide care for seriously ill people without the federal government standing in the way," said Tom Angell, director of Marijuana Majority. "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum. With polls showing an overwhelming majority of American voters backing marijuana reform, you’d think taking up this proposal would be a no-brainer for legislative leaders who want to show that Congress can still get things done." 

We shall see. The bill text is not yet available on the congressional website, and it has not yet been assigned to a committee. That's the next step in a long process. 

Washington, DC
United States

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