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Attorney General Sessions Won't Rule Out Using Mafia Law to Go After Legal Marijuana

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

On conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt's program Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions continued to bad mouth marijuana and suggested he might use laws enacted to go after the Mafia against the legal marijuana industry.

"I think it's a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don#39;t think we're going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store," the attorney general told Hewitt.

The conservative talker then helpfully suggested that one way Washington could go after legal pot was by bringing racketeering charges against marijuana businesses.

"One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?" Hewitt asked Sessions.

Sessions didn't exactly jump on the idea, but neither did he reject it.

"We will um… marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws," Sessions said in response. "So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It's not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that's legalized it."

But Hewitt was not done chewing on that bone, asking Sessions if he couldn't just make an example out of somebody.

"I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you're going to send it?" he asked.

Sessions had to clue in Hewitt about the difficulty of reining in the burgeoning the legal marijuana industry.

"Well, we'll be evaluating how we want to handle that," he said. "I think it's a little more complicated than one RICO case, I've got to tell you. This, places like Colorado, it's just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it's also being moved interstate, not just in the home state," he added.

Sessions has been a staunch foe of marijuana legalization, and the industry has been on tenterhooks since he was nominated as the nation's highest law enforcement officer. He attempted to soft-shoe his views during his confirmation hearings, suggesting that he wasn't going to aggressively go after the legal pot industry, but his comments with Hewitt may suggest otherwise.

Taken together with a memo on violent crime Sessions sent to federal prosecutors Wednesday in which he hinted at at rolling back Obama Justice Department policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences, his comments to Hewitt Thursday suggest that the Trump administration is about to head resolutely backwards on drug policy in general and marijuana policy in particular.

Listen to the Hewitt interview below:

Chronicle AM: Ominous Sessions Hint on Sentencing, RI AG Anti-Pot Campaign, More... (3/9/17)

Attorney General Sessions hints at a return to tough federal drug sentencing, Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin announces a campaign to fend off marijuana legalization, Bolivia's president signs a law nearly doubling legal coca cultivation, and more.

It looks like the new attorney general is going old school with harsher drug sentencing. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Decriminalization Bills Filed. A pair of Democratic lawmakers has filed identical decriminalization bills in the House and Senate. State Rep Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) filed House Bill 1403, while state Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) filed Senate Bill 1662. The bills would make possession of up to an ounce a civil violation punishable by a fine of no more than $100. Under current Florida law, small time marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Rhode Island Attorney General Gins Up Anti-Legalization Campaign. State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (D) launched a campaign against marijuana legalization Thursday. Kilmartin said he was mobilizing lawmakers, business leaders, and others concerned about public health and public safety issues to fight ongoing efforts in the legislature to legalize it. He's joining forces with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, among others.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Florida Bills Would Have Dealers Facing Manslaughter Charges for Opioid Overdose Deaths. A pair of Republican state lawmakers has filed identical bills that would allow prosecutors to bring manslaughter charges against people who sold opioids to people who overdosed and died on them. Sen. Gregg Steube (R-Sarasota) filed Senate Bill 150 Tuesday, while Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) filed House Bill 477.

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions Signals He Could Reverse Obama Policy of Seeking Less Serious Charges in Drug Cases. Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors Wednesday calling on them to crack down on violent crime, and in that memo, he hinted at rolling back Obama administration policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences by leaving drug quantities out of charging documents. "I encourage you to employ the full complement of federal law to address the problem of violent crime in your district," Sessions wrote. "Further guidance and support in executing this priority -- including an updated memo on charging for all criminal cases -- will be forthcoming."

International

Bolivian President Signs Law Nearly Doubling Amount of Legal Coca Grown. President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, signed into law Wednesday a bill that will increase the amount of coca that can be legally planted from 30,000 acres to 55,000 acres. "We want to guarantee coca supplies for life," he said.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Vows Drug Crackdown, State Forfeiture Bills Advance, More... (2/28/17)

Ominous noises from AG Sessions on marijuana and drug policy, asset forfeiture reform advances in three states, the feds threaten to shut down the Las Vegas Cannabis Cup, and more.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has more than just weed on his mind. (theleafonline.org)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Makes Ominous Noises on Marijuana Policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions restated his opposition to marijuana use Monday and warned that marijuana legalization efforts could open states to "violence" and a response from the federal government. "I don't think America is going to be a better place when people of all ages, and particularly young people, are smoking pot," Sessions said to reporters Monday at the Department of Justice. "I believe it's an unhealthy practice, and current levels of THC in marijuana are very high compared to what they were a few years ago, and we're seeing real violence around that." He had more disturbing things to say Tuesday. See below.

Feds Threaten to Shut Down Las Vegas Cannabis Cup. Nevada US Attorney Daniel Bogden has sent a letter to the Moapa Paiute tribe warning that the Cannabis Cup trade show set for tribal lands next weekend would violate federal marijuana prohibition laws. "I am informed that the tribal council is moving forward with the planned marijuana event referred to as the 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup because it is under the impression that the so-called 'Cole Memorandum' and subsequent memoranda from the Department of Justice permit marijuana use, possession and distribution on tribal lands when the state law also permits it. Unfortunately, this is an incorrect interpretation of the Department's position on this issue," Bogden wrote in a February 16 letter.

New Mexico Legalization Bill Killed. An effort to legalize marijuana died Monday in the House Business and Industry Committee after members voted 9-1 to kill it. House Bill 89 went down at least in part because of uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration's posture toward legal marijuana. It would have created a 15% tax on marijuana sales from licensed shops, with revenues earmarked for schools, the judiciary, and drug treatment programs.

Asset Forfeiture

Idaho Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. A bill to require police to demonstrate an actual connection between drugs and seized property before seizing it and to clarify that possession of cash alone is not grounds for seizure has passed the House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 202 now heads for a House floor vote.

Indiana Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. A bill that would end asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction and would bar prosecutors from circumventing state law by passing cases off to the feds has passed the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law. Senate Bill 8 now heads for a Senate floor vote.

New Mexico Senate Passes Bill to Close Asset Forfeiture Loophole Used By Cities. The Senate has approved Senate Bill 202 on a unanimous vote. The state ended civil asset forfeiture in 2015, but police in Albuquerque and other cities claimed the law did not apply to their municipal asset forfeiture programs. This bill clarifies that it does. It is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Drug Policy

Sessions Says DOJ Will Prioritize Drugs, Violent Crime. In remarks before the National Association of Attorneys General Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged that crime was at historically low levels, but vowed to pursue gun and drug offenses. "[I]llegal drugs flood across our southern border and into cities and towns across our country, bringing violence, addiction and misery. In particular, we've seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs,"Sessions said. "As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire,"he continued. "In recent years, we've also seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting gun and drug offenders at the federal level. While numbers don't tell the whole story, I still find the following statistics troubling: at the end of 2015 there were more than 7 percent fewer federal gun prosecutions than five years before. In that same five-year period, federal drug prosecutions declined by 18 percent. "Under my leadership at the Department of Justice, this trend will end,"he said.

Sentencing

West Virginia Bill Would Create Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Adults Who Make or Transport Drugs Around Minors. The House of Delegates' Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse has approved House Bill 2648, which would set a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for any adult found guilty of transporting or manufacturing drugs in front of a minor. The bill now heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

International

Poll Has Four of Five Danes Favoring Medical Marijuana. A new survey from Analyse Denmark has support for medical marijuana at 80%, "with the remainder saying they did not have an opinion." The poll comes as the country awaits a medical marijuana pilot project set to begin on January 1. The poll also asked about marijuana legalization, but only 36% were in favor, with 45% opposed.

Chronicle AM: AL Bill Has Mandatory Life w/o Parole for Possessing Ounce of Fentanyl, More... (2/17/17)

The Alabama legislature ponders harsh drug sentences not seen since the last century, decriminalization is picking up some support in Texas, China announces scheduling controls on fentanyl, and more.

An Alabama bill would make possession of as little as an ounce of fentanyl a mandatory life sentence without parole.
Marijuana Policy

Cannabis, Drug Policy Reform Advocates Commend Congressional Members on Formation of Congressional Cannabis Caucus. In a joint statement Thursday, major marijuana and drug reform groups commended congress members for forming the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Don Young (R-AK). After commending the representatives, the joint statement noted that "the establishment of a Cannabis Caucus will allow members from both parties, who represent diverse constituencies from around the country, to join together for the purpose of advancing sensible cannabis policy reform. It will also facilitate efforts to ease the tension between federal prohibition laws and state laws that regulate cannabis for medical and adult use."

Texas Decriminalization Bill Picks Up Some Support. Law enforcement officials joined House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Joe Moody (D-El Paso) at the capitol Thursday to express support for a measure to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of weed, House Bill 81. The bill is currently before the committee. Harris County, the state's most populous, just announced plans to institute decriminalization there.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, But Advocates Say It's a Step Backwards. The Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 16, but advocates said it was a retreat because it lowers the amount of allowable THC in cannabis oil from 7% to 3%. Some senators wanted to reduce it to 1%. The bill now goes to the House, where Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who wrote the original CBD bill, said he hopes to rewrite it to restore the 7% figure.

Utah Medical Marijuana Research Bill Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted Thursday to approve House Bill130, which would allow universities in the state to do research on the medicinal effects of marijuana. The bill has already passed the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.

Hemp

Arizona Industrial Hemp Bill Advances. A bill that would legalize the production and processing of industrial hemp has passed two key committees. Senate Bill 1337 passed the Public Safety Committee on a 6-1 vote Monday and the Appropriations Committee Tuesday on a 10-0 vote. It still needs to go before the Senate Rules Committee before it heads for a floor vote.

Asset Forfeiture

North Dakota Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. The House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 1170 on an 11-4 vote Thursday. The bill would require a criminal conviction before property could be seized in most situations and bans prosecutors from circumventing state law by handing cases off to the federal government. The measure now heads for a House floor vote.

Sentencing

Alabama Bills Would Increase Heroin, Fentanyl Sentences. Under bills currently before the state legislature, prison sentences would go up for people who possess or sell heroin and fentanyl. Under one bill, anyone convicted of their possession would face mandatory prison sentences, and under another, Senate Bill 154, people possessing as little as one ounce of fentanyl would face a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The state instituted sentencing reforms several years back; some legislators worry these bills would undo those efforts.

International

China Announces Scheduling Controls of Carfentanil and other Fentanyl Compounds. China announced Thursday that it will begin scheduling controls of four fentanyl-class substances -- carfentanil, furanyl fentanyl, valeryl fentanyl, and acryl fentanyl -- beginning March 1. Chinese pharmaceutical factories have been identified as major producers of the synthetic opioids, which are linked to thousands of drug overdose deaths in the US.

Chronicle AM: NM Senate on MedMJ & Harm Reduction; Iowa Students Win Speech Case, More... (2/14/17)

Medical marijuana and harm reduction measures advance in New Mexico, a police drug field test kit maker is being sued by a Florida man busted for the glaze on his Krispy Kreme donuts, Idaho considers ending mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and more.

The New Mexico Senate has approved a pair of measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Calls for Decriminalization. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northum (D) called Monday for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement is costly and aimed disproportionately at African-Americans. The move comes weeks after Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) requested that the Virginia Crime Commission study the issue. That move froze pending decriminalization legislation sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Washington State Bill Would Repeal Legalization. Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kenniwick) has filed House Bill 2096, which would repeal "all laws legalizing the use, possession, sale, or production of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.

Wyoming Senate Committee Scales Back Marijuana Sentencing Reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to amend House Bill 197, weakening proposed sentencing reforms by doubling the period during which previous convictions would result in a longer sentence from five years to 10 years. More importantly, the amendment removes the plant form of marijuana from the bill completely, meaning the new tiered sentencing system would apply only to edibles.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 29-11 Monday to approve Senate Bill 177, which would expand the state's program by increasing the amount of marijuana patients may possess to five ounces and increasing the number of plants commercial providers can grow. The bill now goes to the House.

Drug Policy

Idaho Bills Would Alter State's Drug Laws. The House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted Monday to introduce a package of three bills that would reform the state's harsh drug laws. One bill would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and another would bar the seizure of vehicles for simple drug possession and require that property found near drugs be seized only if it is meaningfully connected to the crime. The third bill, however, is a step in the opposite direction -- it would allow heroin sellers to be charged with murder in the event of fatal overdoses.

Drug Testing

Florida Field Drug Test Kit Company Sued By Man Jailed for Possessing Donut Glaze. A Florida man is suing the police field drug test kit manufacturer Safariland LLC after an Orlando police officer using one of its field kits charged him with possessing methamphetamine although the substance being tested was actually the glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. The drug test is either ineffective or unreliable, Daniel Rushing charges in his lawsuit, twice registering a positive result for meth and resulting in his false arrest and imprisonment before felony charges were dropped.

First Amendment

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Student Drug Legalization Group's Free Speech Rights. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university's logo and mascot on t-shirts calling for the legalization of marijuana. Iowa State NORML had sued in 2014 after the university first gave its okay, but then refused permission after pressure from high-ranking state officials, including the governor's office. Instead, the university suddenly changed its guidelines, with new rules prohibiting designs "that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products." Last year a federal district court filed an injunction prohibiting the school from using its new policy to block NORML from printing new t-shirts, and now the appeals court has upheld that permanent injunction.

Harm Reduction

New Mexico Senate Approves Pair of Harm Reduction Bills. The state Senate Monday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state. Senate Bill 47 would improve the state's 911 Good Samaritan law to include alcohol overdoses and eliminate the prospect of criminal liability for violating drug laws while seeking medical assistance for an overdose. Senate Bill 16 would require health care providers to counsel patients on the risk of overdose and to offer prescriptions for the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bills now go to the House.

International

Trump Administration Accuses Venezuela VP of Drug Smuggling. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Treasury said that El Aissimi facilitated drug trafficking in his previous post of Aragua state. The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for "specially designated narcotics traffickers," part of what's known as the Kingpin Act.

Trump Goes Full Nixon on Law-and-Order, Vows 'Ruthless' War on Drugs and Crime [FEATURE]

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

In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump last week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America."

"We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in," Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last Wednesday. "We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence."

Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one of its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed "record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins," Trump complained.

And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for "the most serious" drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on "shipping loopholes" he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the US from other countries.

In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday's speech.

Last Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America," but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.

The first, which Trump said would "reduce crime and restore public safety," orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime," propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.

The second, regarding "transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking," directs various federal law enforcement agencies to "increase intelligence sharing" and orders an already existing interagency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, "along with any recommended actions for dismantling them."

"I'm directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people," Trump said Thursday.

The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.

Trump was breathing law-and-order brimstone last week. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
"It's a shame what's been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That's going to stop as of today."

The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.

In a report released last Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The report was coauthored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.

"Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today's crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety," the report said.

The president's crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on "antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses" and Trump's plan would "repeat this mistake," the officials wrote. "We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics."

Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.

"This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest," said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country's mass incarceration crisis."

Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.

"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing," the authors conclude.

Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, the rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn't be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it's not just what's being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what's being imported, too.

"For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, 'OK, the problem with drugs -- that it's creating so much violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico -- is because there's demand for drugs in the US,''" Videgaray said. "We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it's just the other way around," he said, adding that both countries need to get past "the blame game."

And if the US is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels "business model," it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.

"We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico," Videgaray said. "We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns -- and we're not talking small guns, we're talking heavy weapons -- they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels."

Will progress on reducing mass incarceration come to a halt? (nadcp.org)
Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a "dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk," by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. "There is no 'dangerous permanent trend' in violent or non-violent crime," it pointed out.

And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.

"Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work," said Amnesty's Noor Mir. "Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.

There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.

"This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the US criminal justice system," he said. "Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians."

The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more -- not less -- distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.

Chronicle Book Review: This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, by Anthony Papa

After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.

We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.

That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.

In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.

But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.

That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.

Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.

In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.

And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.

Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.

Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.

This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.

His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?

Will Trump's Dead Alcoholic Brother Haunt His Drug Policy? [FEATURE]

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

As incoming president, Donald Trump will be, among other things, the man in charge of the nation's drug policy. Whether he takes a hand-on, direct approach to policy-making or whether he delegates decision-making authority on drug matters to subordinates -- think Attorney General Jeff Sessions and shudder -- the buck ultimately stops with Donald.

Booze did in older brother Freddy, Jr. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
What a Trump administration will do with states that have legalized marijuana is a huge burning question, but the drug policy horizon extends well beyond weed. The Obama administration has championed federal drug sentencing reform, and the president is now commuting the sentences of dozens of drug offenders each week as the clock ticks down on his tenure. Will Trump reverse course?

There's also a huge cry for drug treatment in response to increasing heroin and prescription opioid use. Will a Trump administration be sympathetic? And what about harm reduction -- needle exchanges, supervised consumption sites, and the like? Do such programs have a future under Trump?

The short answer is: Who knows? Trump is proving day by day that how he governs will not necessarily have much correlation with anything he said on the campaign trail. And, as with his approach to many policy areas, what he has said about drugs, both during the campaign and in his earlier life, sounds both spur-of-the-moment and self-contradictory.

But Trump is not just a rather unpredictable president-elect. He's also a person with his own personal and family history, and that history includes a close encounter with substance abuse that sheds some light on his attitudes towards drugs and may influence his drug policy decision-making.

Donald Trump's older brother, and his overbearing father's namesake, "Freddy, Jr." was a full-blown alcoholic by his mid-20s (and Donald's teens) and drank himself into an early grave at the age of 43 in 1981. Freddy wasn't ready to take over the family business and instead became a fun-loving airline pilot, but his descent into the bottle had a traumatic -- and lasting -- impact on his little brother.

Trump says Freddy's alcoholism turned him into teetotaler. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
"I learned a lot from my brother Fred's death," Trump told Esquire in a 2004 interview. "He was a great-looking guy. He had the best personality. He had everything. But he had a problem with alcohol and cigarettes. He knew he had the problem, and it's a tough problem to have. He was ten years older than me, and he would always tell me not to drink or smoke. And to this day I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a glass of alcohol. I won't even drink a cup of coffee. I just stay away from those things because he had such a tremendous problem. Fred did me a great favor. It's one of the greatest favors anyone's ever done for me," he recalled.

Trump's experience with his brother turned him into a teetotaler, although he does swill Diet Coke instead. And he admits to one other "vice" in revealing terms. In a 2007 video, he said that hot women are his "alcoholism," especially "beautiful" teens.

"I never understood why people don't go after the alcohol companies like they did the tobacco companies," he continued in the Esquire interview. "Alcohol is a much worse problem than cigarettes."

Still, the free-wheeling marketeer wasn't ready to reinstate Prohibition because of Freddy, and that attitude extended to drugs. In the early 1990s, Trump reportedly talked about drug legalization, calling drug law enforcement "a joke" and saying "You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profits away from these drug czars."

But Trump was singing a different tune on the campaign trail, especially in New Hampshire, which has been hit hard by the opioid wave. In a November 2015 interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz, Trump backtracked.

"Well, I did not think about it," he confessed. "I said it's something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied. But it's not something I'd be willing to do right now. I think it's something that I've always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don't want to build walls. We don't want to do anything. And if you're not going to want to do the policing, you're going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it's not something that I would want to do."

Will this be Trump's solution to the nation's drug problems? (nadcp.org)
That suggests that he thinks if we just enforce drug laws more vigorously, we could solve the problem. But it also suggests that he hasn't really been paying attention to the last 40 years of the war on drugs. Still, he has also said that marijuana legalization "should be a state issue, state by state," suggesting that he will not try to roll back pot legalization in the eight states that have now voted to free the weed.

And in an October 15 speech in New Hampshire, where he made his most coherent remarks about drug policy, he was mainly about building the wall on the Mexican border to stop the flow of heroin from Mexico. But in that speech, he at least sketched the outlines of response that included increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, increased reliance on drug courts, and increased access to the silver bullet of drug addiction, "abuse-deterring drugs." But he didn't say anything about how much he would be willing to spend on treatment and recovery (Hillary Clinton rolled out a $10 billion plan), nor how he would pay for it.

As with many policy areas, Trump's positions on drug policy are murky, seemingly only half-developed, and full of potential contradictions. Will having a teetotaler with a dead alcoholic brother in the White House make for better drug policies or an administration more understanding of the travails of addiction? As with many things Trump, we shall have to wait for his actions. Nominating drug war hardliners like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to head the Justice Department and giving Vice President-elect Mike Pence props for enacting mandatory minimum drug sentences aren't good omens, though.

Clinton's and Trump's Drug Policies [FEATURE]

(This article was written prior to the election.)

One means of judging the competing presidential candidates is to examine their actual policy prescriptions for dealing with serious issues facing the country. When it comes to drug policy, the contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn't be more telling.

Donald Trump talks drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
The country is in the midst of what can fairly be called an opioid crisis, with the CDC reporting 78 Americans dying every day from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses. Both candidates have addressed the problem on the campaign trail, but, as is the case in so many other policy areas, one candidate has detailed proposals, while the other offers demagogic sloganeering.

Guess which is which.

Hillary Clinton has offered a detailed $10 billion plan to deal with what she called the "quiet epidemic" of opioid addiction. Donald Trump's plan consists largely of "build the wall."

That was the centerpiece of his October 15 speech in New Hampshire where he offered his clearest drug policy prescriptions yet (though it was overshadowed by his weird demand that Hillary Clinton undergo a drug test).  To be fair, since then, Trump has also called for expanding law enforcement and treatment programs, but he has offered no specifics or cost estimates.

And the centerpiece of his approach remains interdiction, which dovetails nicely with his nativist immigration positions.

Donald Trump wants a wall here to stop drugs and immigrants. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
"A Trump administration will secure and defend our borders," he said in that speech. "A wall will not only keep out dangerous cartels and criminals, but it will also keep out the drugs and heroin poisoning our youth."

Trump did not address the failure of 40 years of ever-increasing border security and interdiction policies to stop the flow of drugs up until now, nor did he explain what would prevent a 50-foot wall from being met with a 51-foot ladder.

Trump's drug policy also takes aim at a favorite target of conservatives: so-called sanctuary cities, where local officials refuse to cooperate in harsh federal deportation policies.

"We are also going to put an end to sanctuary cities, which refuse to turn over illegal immigrant drug traffickers for deportation," he said. "We will dismantle the illegal immigrant cartels and violent gangs, and we will send them swiftly out of our country."

In contrast, Clinton's detailed proposal calls for increased federal spending for prevention, treatment and recovery, first responders, prescribers, and criminal justice reform. The Clinton plan would send $7.5 billion to the states over 10 years, matching every dollar they spend on such programs with four federal dollars. Another $2.5 billion would be designated for the federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program.

Hillary Clinton has a detailed drug policy position. (state.gov)
While Trump advocates increased border and law enforcement, including a return to now widely discredited mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, Clinton does not include funding for drug enforcement and interdiction efforts in her proposal. Such funding would presumably come through normal appropriations channels.

Instead of a criminal justice crackdown, Clinton vows that her attorney general will issue guidance to the states urging them to emphasize treatment over incarceration for low-level drug offenders. She also supports alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts (as does Trump). But unlike Trump, Clinton makes no call for increased penalties for drug offenders.

Trump provides lip service to prevention, treatment and recovery, but his rhetorical emphasis illuminates his drug policy priorities: more walls, more law enforcement, more drug war prisoners.

There is one area of drug policy where both candidates are largely in agreement, and that is marijuana policy. Both Clinton and Trump have embraced medical marijuana, both say they are inclined to let the states experiment with legalization, but neither has called for marijuana legalization or the repeal of federal pot prohibition.

If Clinton's drug policies can be said to be a continuation of Obama's, Trump's drug policies are more similar to a return to Nixon's. 

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org"s lobbying arm, the 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.)

Flailing Trump Pivots to Drug Policy, Demands Hillary Drug Test, Pivots Away Again [FEATURE]

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

Reeling from allegation after allegation of sexual misconduct, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump tried to go on the offensive on drug policy over the weekend, but in a manner typical of his campaign, he touched only briefly on the topic before flying off on new tangents, and he began his drug policy interlude with a bizarre attack on Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump talks drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
At a speech at a Toyota dealership in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Saturday, the GOP candidate claimed that Clinton was on performance-enhancing drugs before their last debate and suggested drug tests were in order.

"Why don't we do that?" he demanded, adding that Clinton was likely "getting pumped up" as the prepared for that debate.

"We should take a drug test prior cause I don't know what's going on with her. But at the beginning of last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning and at the end it was like, oh take me down. She could barely reach her car," he claimed.

The claim didn't come out of nowhere. Trump was echoing an ad from two weeks ago from the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Number 1 that showed Clinton coughing and then stumbling to her van on the morning of September 11. The super PAC is bankrolled by Trump backer and big time conservative donor Robert Mercer, who dropped $2 million on the PAC in July.

The unfounded allegation of Clinton pre-debate drug use and the demand for a drug test grabbed media attention, but if Trump was attempting to turn a corner and shift the campaign's focus away from his peccadillos, his strange accusation against Clinton only served to raise more questions about his temperament and suitability for the nation's highest office.

Trump wanted Hillary Clinton to submit to a pre-debate drug test. (Wikimedia)
And it virtually smothered any discussion of actual drug policy proposals Trump made during the speech. While Trump has obliquely addressed the heroin and prescription opioid problem in the past, Saturday's speech was the first time he tried to put any flesh on his proposals for dealing with it.

If anyone were paying attention to the policy details amidst all the racket about the drug test challenge, they would have heard drug policy proposals rooted squarely in the failed drug war strategies of the last century.

Trump would, he said, block drugs from coming into the US by -- you guessed it -- building the wall on the Mexican border. He would also seek to tighten restrictions on the prescribing of opioids. And he would reinstitute mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

"We have 5 percent of the world's population but use 80 percent of the prescription opioids," Trump said, eerily echoing former rival Jeb Bush, who used the same language while campaigning in the state earlier this year.

That statistic is aimed at showing that the US is over-prescribing narcotic pain killers, but according to the World Health Organization, the actuality is that in much of the rest of the world, they are underprescribing them. In fact, the WHO said that in more than 150 countries with 83 percent of the global population, there is virtually no access to prescription opioids for relief of pain.

And the under-treatment of chronic pain isn't just a problem in India or China or Africa. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 50 million Americans suffer significant chronic or severe pain. An opioid policy that focuses only on reducing prescriptions without addressing the need for access to pain killing opioids for actual pain is only half a policy.

When it comes to the border, Trump correctly asserts that Mexico is the source of most of the heroin in the US (it produces 45% itself and another 51% comes from Latin America, mostly Colombia and Guatemala, often through Mexico), but relies on a hyper-interdiction policy ("build the wall") to thwart it. Interdiction -- blocking the flow of drugs into the country -- has been a pillar of US drug policy for decades, but despite massive border build ups and the doubling of the number of Customs and Border Patrol agents in the past 15 years, the drugs still flow.

Long after their popularity wanes, Trump calls for new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. (nadcp.org)
Interdiction hasn't done the trick so far, and there is no indication that even a Trumpian wall would make a difference. The creativity of drug smugglers is legendary, and the economic incentives under drug prohibition are great. As the saying goes, "Build a 50-foot wall, and they'll bring a 51-foot ladder" (or a tunnel).

The third component of his drug policy is a Reaganesque "lock 'em up." In his New Hampshire speech, he saluted running mate Mike Pence for increasing mandatory minimums for drug offenders as governor of Indiana.

"We must make similar efforts a priority for the nation," Trump said.

That position flies in the face of a growing bipartisan consensus that the use of mandatory minimums for drug offenses is draconian, ineffective, and harms mainly minority populations. During the Obama administration, mandatory minimum sentences have been reduced with congressional assent, and Obama himself has granted commutations to hundreds of drug war prisoners serving those draconian sentences, with little dissent.

Trump's drug policy is but a sketch, but even its vague outlines reflect outdated approaches to the issue and a quickness to resort to cheap demagoguery on the issue. Still, while there is plenty of room for discussion of his approach, Trump has apparently already left the issue behind, barely mentioning it since Saturday as he tilts at other windmills.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the 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.)

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