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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.


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


Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) gets the highest grade. (
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." --, 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." --, 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." --, 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'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, 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. (
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. (
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

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 (
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.

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. (
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." (
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

"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. (
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.

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. (
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. (
"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. (
]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.

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