A lot went on in the realm of drug policy reform in 2010. Here is our summation of what we think are the biggest stories of the year.
California's tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 19, ultimately failed to get over the top on Election Day, but it garnered 46.5% of the vote, the highest ever for a legalization initiative, and generated reams of media coverage, making it the most watched initiative of any in the land this year. The battle for Prop 19 also yielded the broadest coalition yet behind marijuana legalization, as unions, dissident law enforcement groups, and Latino and African-American groups got on the legalization bandwagon in a big way for the first time. Launched with over a million dollars of funding from Oakland cannabis entrepreneur Richard Lee, the initiative garnered significant additional support during the campaign's final months, including a late $1 million donation from George Soros, but too little and too late to make a difference in the nation's largest and most expensive media market. The coalition that came together around Prop 19 is vowing to stay together and work to place another initiative on the ballot, most likely in 2012.
If California has legalization on the ballot in 2012, activists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all took steps this year to ensure that it won't be alone. Ill-funded and controversial legalization initiatives missed making the ballot in Oregon and Washington this year, but organizers in both states have vowed to try again, and Sensible Washington, the folks behind this year's effort there, already have a pro-legalization billboard up on I-5 in the Seattle area. In Colorado, organizers bided their time this year amidst the medical marijuana explosion there, but are busy laying the groundwork for a legalization initiative there.
This year also saw a legalization bill pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in January, a first in the US. While that bill died later in the session, sponsor Tom Ammiano (D-SF), reintroduced it in March and it awaits further consideration in Sacramento. In New Hampshire, a decriminalization bill passed the House in March, only to be killed in a Senate committee in April, while in Washington state, legalization and decriminalization bills got a January hearing before dying in committee later that same month. In Rhode Island, a decriminalization bill was introduced in February and a state legislative commission endorsed it in March, but the bill went nowhere so far. Later in the year, the California legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a decriminalization bill there. And in November, a marijuana legalization bill passed the House in the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands, marking the first time a legalization bill has passed a legislative chamber anywhere in the US. It was later defeated in the Senate. No legalization or decriminalization bills passed this year, but the day is drawing near.
A plethora of public opinion polls this year suggest why, as support for pot legalization is now hovering just under 50%. In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had support at 46%; in April, a Pew poll had it at 41%. By July, an Angus-Reid poll had support at 52%, while Rasmussen showed it at 43%. In November, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 46%, its highest level ever and a 15 percentage point increase over just a decade ago. Some of these polls showed majority support for legalization in the West, which will be put to the test in 2012.
Medical Marijuana -- the Ongoing Battle
The acceptance of medical marijuana continued in 2010, as two states, New Jersey and Arizona, along with the District of Columbia, became the latest to legalize the medicinal use of the herb. It's worth noting, however, that medical marijuana is not yet being produced or consumed in any of those places, even though the New Jersey legislation was signed into law in January and the DC medical marijuana initiative was actually revived last year. To be fair, voters only approved the Arizona initiative in November, and regulators there have three more months to come up with enabling regulations.
But the acceptance is by no means complete, and resistance from recalcitrant law enforcement and local governments continues apace. A medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota and an Oregon initiative to create a system of state-licensed, nonprofit dispensaries both failed in November. And despite efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through numerous state legislatures, none beside New Jersey came to fruition this year. Bills have stalled in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, even as they are continually pared back to be ever more restrictive in a bid to appease opponents.
Medical marijuana states that have less loosely written laws -- all via the initiative process, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana -- proved to be highly contested terrain in 2010. The blossoming of hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado this year led to the passage of regulatory legislation this summer, while a similar, if more limited outbreak of envelope-pushing in Montana has legislators there vowing to rein in the industry when they reconvene next year. In Michigan, law enforcement in some locales has arrested people in apparent compliance with the state law. In all three states, battles have also broken out at the city or county level, especially over efforts to ban medical marijuana operations. These fights will continue.
California is a world of its own when it comes to medical marijuana. The most wide open of the medical marijuana states, which, thanks to the language of Proposition 215, allows for medical marijuana to be recommended for virtually anything, it is also the state where legal and political conflict over medical marijuana is most entrenched. Despite more than a decade of litigation, the legality of selling medical marijuana remains unclear, and depending on the attitude of local authorities, dispensaries can be -- and are -- subject to raids and prosecution. The medical marijuana community dodged a bullet in November when Kamala Harris defeated dispensary arch-foe Steve Cooley, the Republican Los Angeles County prosecutor. Meanwhile, in communities across the state, battles rage over banning dispensaries, or, in happier circumstances, over how to permit and tax them. And medical marijuana is increasingly recognized for the big business it is. A growing number of California towns and cities this year voted to tax medical marijuana, and Oakland gave the go-ahead for massive medical marijuana mega-farms, although it may now retreat in the face of rumblings from the Justice Department. None of this got resolved this year, and the fight over medical marijuana in the Golden State is unlikely to wind down any time soon.
The DEA Continues to Misbehave
And then there's the DEA. It was in October 2009 that the Justice Department released its famous memo telling the DEA to butt out if medical marijuana operations in states that had approved them where not violating state law. While DEA raids have certainly declined from their thuggish heyday in the Bush administration, they have not gone away. After a Colorado medical marijuana grower had the temerity to appear on a local TV news program showing off his garden, the DEA raided him in February. The DEA also hit Michigan medical marijuana operations at least twice, in July and again early this month. The DEA has also raided numerous California medical marijuana operations this year, including the first collective to apply for the Mendocino County sheriff's cultivation permit program and a number of beleaguered San Diego area dispensaries. In most cases, the DEA is relying on the cooperation of sympathetic local law enforcement and prosecutors. Making the DEA live up to the Holder memo is a battle that is yet to be won.
The Obama administration's nomination of acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is not a good omen. Despite a horrendous record at the DEA, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles during the height of the Bush administration raids on medical marijuana facilities, and in St. Louis during the Andrew Chambers "supersnitch" perjury scandal, Leonhart's nomination has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to be approved by the Senate as a whole once she takes some actions to improve access to pain medications for seniors in nursing homes -- an issue on which Sen. Herb Kohl was said will cause him to place a hold on a floor vote until she and the agency address it.
Drug War Juggernaut Continues Rolling
While support for marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization continues to grow, and while a number of states have enacted sentencing reforms in response to fiscal pressures, the drug war juggernaut keeps rolling along, chewing up lives like so much chaff. US law enforcement made more than 1.6 million arrests on drug charges last year, more than half of them for marijuana offenses, marking the first year pot busts made up more than half of all drug arrests. The number is actually down slightly from the previous year, but only marginally so, as drug law enforcement keeps humming along. But in the current economic crunch, such a high level of enforcement and punishment may no longer be sustainable. A Pew report found that state prison populations had declined for the first time since the 1970s, if only by 0.4%, although the federal prison population, more than 60% of which consists of drug offenders, increased by 3.4%. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported than US jail populations had decreased for the first time in decades, dropping by 2.3% over the previous year. The tiny turnarounds are a good thing, but there is a long, long way to go.
Rolling Back the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity
For the first time in the modern drug war era, Congress this year rolled back a harsh drug sentencing law. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses had been under the gun for more than decade as it became increasingly evident that the laws were having a racially disproportionate impact. Under the old law, five grams of crack would earn you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. Although a majority of crack users are white, blacks accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions. A bill to reduce, but not eliminate, the sentencing disparity passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and the Senate as a whole weeks later. The House Judiciary Committee had already passed a similar measure that would completely eliminate the disparity, but the House leadership chose to go along with the Senate, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but not completely eliminating it when it voted to approve the bill in July. President Obama signed the bill into law days later. While passage of the bill is a milestone, it leaves work undone. The sentencing disparity, while reduced, still exists, and thousands of prisoners sentenced under the harsh old law remain in prison because the new law lacks retroactivity.
Demands for Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients, the Unemployed, and Even Politicians
The impulse to score cheap political points by unleashing moralistic wrath on the poor and the unfortunate remained alive in 2010. As in years past, efforts to demand drug testing of unemployment recipients or people receiving welfare benefits went nowhere, but not for lack of trying. In fact, the year was bookended by such efforts, starting with a Missouri bill that would have mandated drug testing for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients upon "reasonable cause." That bill passed a Senate committee and the House in February, but died in the Senate after a Democratic filibuster. Similarly, drug testing bills in Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia all died, as did a silly Louisiana bill that would have allowed Louisiana elected officials to submit to a voluntary drug test and post the results on the Internet. Later in the year, successful Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, a call he has vowed to carry out as governor.
Attack of (on) the Synthetic Cannabinoids
Synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense under names like Spice and K-2 first showed up on the national radar last year, and by early 2010 the prohibitionist impulse began rearing its ugly head in state legislatures across the land. Containing synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, synthesized by a university researcher in the 1990s, the stuff was available at head shops, smoke shops, and corner gas stations everywhere, as well as on the Internet. Although no overdose deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported, there have been reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers by people under its influence. But it wasn't the alleged dangers as much as the fear that someone, somewhere could be getting high without getting into legal trouble that impelled a series of statewide and municipal bans. In March, Kansas became the first state to ban synthetic cannabinoids, followed by Alabama in April, Georgia in May and Missouri in July. Also banning the compounds this year were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Similar legislation was also proposed in several more states, including Florida, Ilinois, and New York. Then, in November, the DEA announced an emergency nationwide ban to go into effect in 30 days, meaning you have until Christmas to use the compounds legally. After that, you're a federal criminal.
SWAT Raids and Drug War Killings
It's not just the massive extent of the drug war that generates criticism, but the law enforcement violence and overkill that too often accompanies it. This year, the now infamous SWAT team raid in Columbia, Missouri, in February that left a dog dead and a family traumatized in a raid over marijuana went got national attention when a video of the raid went viral on the Internet at mid-year. Another SWAT raid in Detroit in May generated outrage when it resulted in the death of 7-year-old girl shot by a raider, and that same month, a Georgia grandmother suffered a heart attack when her home was mistakenly hit by the local SWAT team and DEA agents. And then there was the case of Trevon Cole, a 21-year-old black man killed as he knelt in his own bathroom as the apartment he shared with his pregnant girlfriend was raided over small-time pot sales. The police shooter, of course, was found innocent of any wrongdoing in a coroner's inquest, and now Cole's family is suing. So is the family in the Columbia SWAT raid.
Sentencing Reforms Continue in the States
In a bid to reduce corrections spending, a number of states in the last decade have moved to implement sentencing reforms, and 2010 saw the trend continue. In May, Colorado passed reforms that will reduce some drug use and possession sentences, allow greater judicial flexibility in sentencing, and keep some technical parole violators from being sent back to prison. But the package also increases some drug sales and manufacturing sentences. In June, South Carolina passed reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In August, Massachusetts passed reforms that will eliminate some mandatory minimums in a bill that was watered down from an earlier Senate version. In all three cases, it was not bleeding hearts but bleeding wallets that was the impetus for reform.
A Congressional Drug Warrior Goes Down in Flames
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. This year is also notable for the spectacular May end to the career of inveterate congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The doughy cultural conservative crusader from the heartland resigned from Congress after admitting at a press conference to having an affair with a female staffer with whom he had once made abstinence videos. Souder is best known to drug reformers as the author of the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision of the Higher Education Act, and thus deserves credit for almost singlehandedly causing the formation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. But his enthusiasm for the war on drugs also led him to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources from 2001 to 2007, where he used his position to support harsh drug policies. He was, for instance, a staunch foe of medical marijuana and a loud voice against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendments, which would, if passed, have stopped federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. To be fair, Souder did offer committee legislation in 2006 to restrict the reach of his student aid penalty, and he was also a key Republican supporter of the recent "Second Chance" prisoner reentry funding legislation. Still, reformers are happy that one of the staunchest and most active drug warriors is out of Congress now, struck down by his own hypocrisy.