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IN Democrats Call for Marijuana Legalization, PA ACLU Opposes Parental Drug Screening Bill, More... (11/15/21)

Renewed clashes between prison gangs linked to rival drug cartels left at least 68 more dead over the weekend, an Oklahoma marijuana legalization initiative gets hit with a nuisance lawsuit, and more.

The Pennsylvania ACLU says a proposed parental drug screening bill is unconstitutional. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Indiana Democratic Party Calls for Marijuana Legalization. The Indiana Democratic Party, has announced its full support for marijuana legalization and called on the General Assembly to get the job done. They also called on Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) to rescind his opposition to legalization. Bills to legalize marijuana have so far gone nowhere in the GOP-dominated legislature, but the Democrats said legalization "would provide the opportunity to create an additional revenue stream for the state, create good-paying jobs, develop a long-term cash crop for Indiana's ag and business communities, provide medicinal opportunities for people like the state's veterans and seniors, and could start the process of expunging records for simple possession across the state."

Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiative Hit with Legal Challenge. A marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action is being challenged in court by an incarcerated person, Paul Tay. Tay's lawsuit raises numerous claims about the constitutionality of the initiative, including challenging the validity of signatures gathered in Indian County. "We believe that we have a really strong case," ORCA Director Jed Green said. "[The man filing this challenge] wants attention… this is the second time that he's done this." Green called the lawsuit "a shotgun challenge," going after multiple points and seeing if any of them stick. Green says the challenge is what he calls a shotgun challenge, going after multiple points and seeing if any of them stick. "We don't believe that a lot of it is really pertinent," he said. There will be a hearing on the challenge on December 14.

Drug Testing

Pennsylvania ACLU Opposes Bill to Compel Parental Drug Screening in Abuse and Neglect Cases. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has come out against HB 1737, which would allow county children and youth services (CYS) agencies to obtain court orders to compel parents to undergo drug and alcohol testing during child welfare investigations if there is evidence that impairment due to drug or alcohol use is a contributing cause of alleged abuse or neglect. "Because drug testing is considered a search, both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions require the government to show that it has probable cause before it can compel an individual to undergo a drug test," the group said. "HB 1737 would permit unconstitutional intrusions on parents' privacy rights because it does not contain a requirement that a CYS agency have probable cause to believe that an act of child abuse or neglect has occurred and that drug testing the parent will reveal evidence relating to such abuse." The bill passed the House last week.

International

Ecuador Prison Clash Leaves at Least 68 Dead. In the latest outbreak of fighting among prison gangs linked to international drug trafficking groups, at least 68 prisoners were killed in an hours-long gun battle Saturday inside the Litoral Penitentiary, the country's largest prison. This is the second major outbreak of violence at Litoral in less than two months. In September, 119 prisoners were killed in gang-related clashes there. Another 79 prisoners were killed in clashes last February. So far this year, more than 300 prisoners have died in the violence. The prison violence comes amid a national state of emergency decreed by President Guillermo Lasso in October that empowers security forces to fight drug trafficking and other crimes. The country's prisons hold some 40,000 inmates, including 15,000 jailed awaiting trial, and are filled way above capacity.

HUD to Continue Evicting Residents for Marijuana Use, Singapore Drug Execution Delayed, More... (11/9/21)

Another poll has a solid national majority for marijuana legalization, an Ohio judge gets punished for jailing a court spectator for refusing a drug test, and more.

You still can't do this in public housing--even in states where marijuana is legal. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Rasmussen Poll Has Solid Majority Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Rasmussen poll has support for marijuana legalization at 62 percent, with only 23 percent opposed. The poll comes just days after a Gallup poll reported support for marijuana legalization holding steady at 68 percent. Even 54 percent of Republicans support legalization, along with 68 percent of Democrats and 62 percent among independents. When respondents were asked if legalization should be done at the local, state, or federal level, 47 percent said the federal government should be in charge, 32 favored the states, and 11 percent wanted local action.

Infrastructure Bill Includes Provision Allowing Research with Marijuana from Pot Shops. The massive infrastructure spending bill approved by the House last Friday includes a provision that will eventually allow researchers access to the marijuana actually being consumed by users instead of relying only on government-grown marijuana from its farm in Mississippi. That provision will require the transportation secretary to work with the attorney general and the secretary of Health and Human Services to create a report within two years with recommendations on allowing scientists access to storefront marijuana to study impaired driving.

Federal Housing Authority to Continue Taking Punitive Actions Against Marijuana Consumers. In response to a request for clarification from to Rep. Elizabeth Holmes-Norton (D-DC), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has reaffirmed its longstanding policy of banning marijuana users from federally-subsidized housing, even in states where it is legal. In a letter to Holmes-Norton, the agency says that it will continue to enforce policies that involve the "termination of the tenancy of any household" in instances where a tenant is found to have engaged in the use of a controlled substance while on the premises — "including [the use of] state legalized medical marijuana." Because marijuana remains classified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance, "HUD prohibits the admission of users of marijuana to HUD assisted housing, including those who use medical marijuana," the letter reads.

South Dakota Activists Miss Initiative Signature Deadline but Look to Federal Court Decision for More Time. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws announced Sunday that they would not turn in signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative by a Monday deadline, but are hoping that a federal court ruling will give them until next May to qualify for the November 2022 ballot. In August, the federal district court in the state ruled that the state's election law requiring signatures be handed in a year before the election was unconstitutional, pushing the deadline to the May before the election and enjoined officials from enforcing that provision. The administration of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is appealing the decision, but the activists argue that "the May 3 deadline is the law in South Dakota and we feel confident that we can rely on that extension." Voters in the state approved a marijuana legalization initiative in 2020, but it has been blocked by lower courts and a final decision is still pending at the state Supreme Court.

Drug Testing

Ohio Judge Suspended for Jailing Spectator over Drug Test Refusal. The state Supreme Court has suspended a Seneca County judge for a year without pay for ordering a courtroom spectator to undergo a drug test and then holding that person in contempt and jailing her for refusing to do so. In the unanimous opinion, the court held that Judge Mark Repp violated rules of professional conduct for judges in the state, including a failure to perform all his judicial duties fairly and impartially. The woman, who was the girlfriend of the defendant before the court "suffered great personal indignities and emotional distress as the result of the security and medical screenings she had to endure during her incarceration, on top of the anxiety regarding the care and well-being of her two young children." The boyfriend was a drug court participant, and the Supreme Court held tat Repp's behavior toward him and his girlfriend was "undignified, improper, and discourteous."

International

Malaysia Okays Use of Medical Marijuana. Heath Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has formally acknowledged that marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes. The acknowledgement came in response to a question from parliament. Jamaluddin said the medicinal use of marijuana complies with Malaysian drug laws, but that imports and the wholesale trade must be licensed. Medical marijuana should be sold by a registered medical practitioner or pharmacist. "Therefore, if there are parties who have sufficient scientific evidence to use cannabis (hemp) for any medicinal purpose by taking into account the aspects of quality, safety and effectiveness, then the application to register cannabis products for medicinal purposes can be submitted to DCA [Drug Control Authority]] to be evaluated and registered under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1984 in order to be marketed in Malaysia," Khairy said in a written reply to the enquiry.

Singapore Delays Appeal Hearing on Man Set to Be Executed for 1.5 Ounces of Heroin. The nation's top court has postponed an appeal hearing for Malaysian national Nagenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was sentenced to death for trying to smuggle 1.5 grams of heroin into the country. Dharmalingam, who his attorneys say is intellectually disabled, was set to be executed Monday, but was delayed amidst an international campaign by human rights groups when the high court accepted an appeal. The hearing was originally set for Tuesday, with Dharmalingam set to be executed Wednesday if he lost on appeal. The appeals court noted that Dharmalingam had tested positive for COVID-19 and sent him away from the courtroom Tuesday, saying, "We have to issue a stay of the execution until all proceedings are concluded. That is the proper order of things."

GOP Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Coming, Mexico Blames US Guns for Bolstering Cartels, More... (11/8/21)

A Malaysian man set to be hanged in Singapore over 43 grams of heroin has won a temporary reprieve, our supply chain woes include 72,000 truckers felled by drug testing, and more.

Drug testing---especially for marijuana--is costing the economy tens of thousands fo truck drivers. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Republican Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Coming. US Rep. Nancy Mace (R-NC) has drafted a "compromise" marijuana legalization bill that aims for a happy middle between merely rescheduling marijuana, as proposed by some other Republican lawmakers, and the comprehensive bill that Democrats are championing. The proposed bill, known as the States Reform Act, now in preliminary draft form, would deschedule marijuana, impose a 3.75 percent excise tax on weed sales, limit the FDAs regulatory authority to medical marijuana, make the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau the lead regulatory agency, and make certain marijuana convictions expungable. The bill has dim prospects in the current Democratically-controlled Congress, but could open the way for similar legislation if Republicans take control after next year's elections.

Drug Testing

Supply Chain Woes Include 72,000 Truckers Taken Off the Road by Failed Drug Tests, Mostly for Marijuana. The American Trucking Association says the industry has a driver shortfall of 80,000, which is contributing to the economy's supply chain woes, but at the same time, some 72,000 truckers have been forced off the roads in the past two years by tough federal drug testing restrictions. The Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, a registry designed to increase safety on the highways, went into effect in January 2020. "It’s a staggering number of drivers we have lost" because of the new drug-testing rules, said Jeremy Reymer, chief executive of industry recruiter DriverReach. The majority (56 percent were sidelined because of testing positive for marijuana. "There needs to be the ability to test for real-time impairment and not just recent or long-term past use of marijuana," said Scott Duvall, director of safety and compliance for TransForce Group, which runs truck driving schools and rents out drivers.

Foreign Policy

Mexico Calls on US Government, Courts for Help Stemming Flow of American Guns to Drug Cartels. Mexican officials say illegal guns are flowing into the country from the US and are contributing to rising homicide rates and empowering the drug cartels responsible for most of the killings. "We estimate that half a million weapons are trafficked from the U.S. to Mexico every year. The problem is that all this weaponry is getting to the criminal organizations, giving them very strong firepower to commit all kinds of crimes," said Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon, Mexico’s consul general in El Paso. The Mexican government has now filed a lawsuit to try to block the flow. We have never meddled with the Second Amendment. This is not against the rights of the people of the United States to buy and own a gun," Ibarra said. "We (sued) gun manufacturers and distributors we believe are engaging in negligent commercial practices because they know the weaponry they produce is being trafficked to Mexico and is being used in criminal activity."

International

Singapore Temporarily Halts Execution of Malaysian Man Over 1 ½ Ounces of Heroin. Malaysian citizen Nagaenthran K.Dharmalingam, sentenced to death for smuggling 43 grams of heroin into the country, has won at least a temporary reprieve an international human rights campaign to spare the man, who supporters say is intellectually disabled. The execution is now halted until the constitutional appeal is heard on Tuesday, alongside a separate appeal for psychiatrists to assess Dharmalingam. If both appeals are unsuccessful, he will be hanged as scheduled on Wednesday.

Senate Democrats Move to Allow Legal DC Marijuana Sales, Ecuador State of Emergency for Drugs, More... (10/20/21)

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is confronting drug policy issues as he visits Latin America this week, New York tells employers it can't test workers for marijuana use, and more.

Colombian peasants don't wand to be sprayed with coca-killing herbicides. (DEA Museum)
Marijuana Policy

Senate Democrats Move to Let DC Legalize Marijuana Sales. In a package of spending bills unveiled Monday, Senate Democrats have removed a long-standing rider that has blocked the city of Washington, DC, from implemented legal marijuana sales for the past six years. The House took similar action earlier this summer, even though President Biden kept the rider in his budget proposal to Congress. It is not quite a done deal yet, though: Congress must still pass the budget, which is expected to happen in December. The move won plaudits from the marijuana advocacy group NORML, which said: "The omission of the D.C. rider acknowledges the local will of the residents of the District, who overwhelmingly favor retail marijuana sales. The only reason the District is unable to defy the federal government’s marijuana prohibition policies in the same way that other states have is that it lacks statehood and is under direct oversight from Congress."

New York Employers Cannot Test Workers for Marijuana, State Says. The state Labor Department issued new guidance for employers Tuesday that bans them from testing workers for marijuana—unless the employee appears visibly impaired on the job. "Observable signs of use that do not indicate impairment on their own cannot be cited as an articulable symptom of impairment," the guidance states. The new guidance does not apply to workers, such as commercial vehicle drivers, who are subject to drug testing under state or federal law.

Foreign Policy

Human Rights Watch Letter Urges State Department to Support Human Rights, Oppose Coca Spraying in Colombia. In a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken ahead of his meeting Wednesday in Bogota with Colombian President Ivan Duque, Human Rights Watch called on the US government to support human rights, noting that "President Duque’s administration has pursued several misguided and dysfunctional polices, including on drug policy, and there has been an increase in abuses by armed groups." The group called for "a strong public and private response by the Biden administration" to curb violence by armed groups, police abuses against protestors, and oppose plans to reinstate the fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate. On coca eradication, Human Rights Watch called for the US to "unequivocally oppose plans to reinstate fumigation of coca crops with glyphosate," fully fund crop substitution programs and ensure protection for people involved in them, and "assess US drug and security policies in Colombia to ensure that they help address the root causes of violence by strengthening the presence of civilian state institutions."

International

Ecuador President Declares State of Emergency to Fight Drugs on Eve on US Secretary of State Visit. Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso on Monday declared a 60-day state of emergency to confront drug trafficking and a rising number of killings. Under the emergency decree, the military will join drug and arms confiscation operations in nine of the country's 24 provinces, including Guayas, the home of Guayaquil, the country's primary port and largest city. The crackdown will also see increased police patrols and is "oriented towards and focused on guaranteeing citizens... protection from crime and violence." At a Tuesday press conference, visiting US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he understood that countries must sometimes take such measures but added that democratic norms must be upheld.

Philippines Says It Will Review Thousands of Drug War Killing. Faced with a looming formal investigation into drug war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Philippines Justice Minister Menardo Guevarra said his Justice Department will enlarge its review of more than 6,000 drug killings for which Philippines police have taken responsibility (Human rights groups put the actual number of killings at more than 30,000, many of them conducted by shadowy death squads.) "Time and resources permitting, the DOJ will review these thousands of other cases, too," Guevarra said in an apparent shift from the Duterte government's unyielding defense of its policies but also in an apparent effort to blunt the ICC's investigation. The Duterte government argues that it does not need to cooperate with the ICC because its own justice system is capable of dealing with police huma rights abuses. Guevarra's remarks came as the Justice Department released details of 52 drug war killings.

CDC Reports Record Drug Overdose Toll, UN Report on Arbitrary Detention in War on Drugs, More... (10/15/21)

Baltimore drug arrests are down dramatically thanks to a policy shift by the local prosecutor, Virginia has sealed the records of more than 64,000 small-time pot-dealing charges, and more.

More than 90,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the period ending in March 2021. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Seals 64,000 Marijuana Distribution Charges. The state has sealed records of more than 64,000 misdemeanor marijuana distribution charges, the legislature's Cannabis Oversight Commission heard Thursday. They have been scrubbed from the state's criminal records database, which is used by employers to screen job applicants. Another 333,000 simple possession convictions have also been sealed. The state was ordered to expunge the records as part of the marijuana legalization bill passed earlier this year.

Drug Policy

CDC Reports Record Drug Overdose Toll. Drug overdose deaths, primarily but not exclusively around opioid use, hit an all-time high in the year ending in March 2021, with 96,779 overdose deaths reported. That's an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous 12-month period, but the number could go even higher because the numbers are only provisional, and the CDC has estimated predicted overdose deaths during this period would total more than 99,000. The big jump in fatal drug overdoses came as the country was in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic and as fentanyl pervades ever more illicit drug markets—including being used as a cut in non-opioids, such as meth and cocaine—but also reflects a two-decade old trend of rising overdose deaths.

Baltimore Drug Possession Arrests Are Just About Extinct. Baltimore Police on Thursday released data showing that both felony and misdemeanor drug arrests are down, with the latter down dramatically. So far this year, police have arrested 796 people on drug felonies, down 19 percent from the 978 arrests during the same period last year. But when it comes to drug misdemeanors, police have arrested only 38 people so far this year, down a whopping 91 percent from the 445 during the same period last year. The declines are a direct result of a policy decision made last year by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to stop prosecuting certain drug offenses, including drug possession. Conservative local media is criticizing the policy, saying that it has allowed open-air drug dealing to flourish, but the police, the mayor's office, and Mosby's office all say open-air drug markets remain a priority.  

Recent UN Report on Arbitrary Detention and Drug Policies Underscores Urgent Need for Reform, Includes Call for Drug Decriminalization. A recent United Nations human rights report details the widespread use of arbitrary detention in the drug war in countries around the world. The report from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) finds that arbitrary detention in drug cases is swelling jail and prison populations precisely as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic highlights the need to reduce prison overcrowding. Arbitrary detention can include people arrested without a proper warrant or detained in ways that do not respect procedural rights. The report notes that states are required to uphold human rights obligations under international law, but that relying on harsh drug war policies creates sustained violations of those policies. "People who use drugs are particularly at risk of arbitrary detention," the report said, pointing to countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru, where people arrested on drug charges are automatically jailed pending trial, but also cited the use of torture, particularly in Mexico. The report ends with 17 recommendations, starting with a call to UN members to "decriminalize the use, possession, acquisition or cultivation of drugs for personal use, including the possession of associated paraphernalia." Other recommendations include calling for an end to drug courts, ending the participation of the military in drug enforcement operations, and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples to cultivate and use plants traditionally grown for spiritual, medicinal, and cultural purposes.

Chronicle Book Review: The Dope [FEATURE]

The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade by Benjamin T. Smith (2021, W.W. Norton, 462 pp, $30 HB)

This past weekend, top-level American officials were in Mexico City meeting with their Mexican counterparts to discuss rebuilding cooperation in the endless struggle against Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The meeting comes nearly 15 years after then-President George W. Bush and then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon initiated the Merida Initiative to fight drugs, crime, and violence. In 2007, when the Merida Initiative began, there were about 2,300 drug-related deaths in Mexico. Fifteen years and $1.6 billion in US security assistance later, the annual Mexican death toll is north of 30,000, American overdose deaths largely linked to Mexican-supplied fentanyl are at an all-time high, and despite killing or capturing dozens of "kingpins," the so-called "cartels" are more powerful than ever.

In The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Mexico historian Benjamin T. Smith relates the story of another meeting between American and Mexican officials more than 80 years ago. It was at the League of Nations in 1939, and Mexican diplomat Manuel Tello was trying to sell the assembled narcotics experts on a novel approach to opioid addiction: Post-revolutionary Mexico had just passed a new drug law that allowed for state-run morphine dispensaries. Doing that could treat addiction and allow users to get their fix without resorting to a black market, he argued.

That proposal, one much in vogue in harm reduction and public health circles these days, was shot down by none other than Harry Anslinger, head of the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics and self-appointed dope cop to the world. He made it clear to the Mexicans, who had also irked him by challenging his Reefer Madness propaganda, that no such nonsense would be tolerated. That encounter, Smith's narrative makes clear, is emblematic of the US-Mexico relationship when it comes to drugs. The US, with its insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, has for decades leaned on Mexico to repress the trade its citizens demand, and the results have for decades been dire.

As Smith shows, US pressure on Mexico to ramp up its anti-drug efforts, particularly in the 1940s and 1970s, produced temporary results but also long-term pathologies. Where Mexican authorities had been happy to manage the trade rather than repress it, Washington demanded strict enforcement and aggressive action. Harsher enforcement, including the resort to torture and murder (with the knowledge, encouragement, and sometimes the participation of DEA agents), produced a meaner criminal underworld. Smith especially notes the American insistence on a broad strategy of relying on informants as an aggravating factor in escalating trafficker violence, as traffickers turned on each other for revenge or to protect themselves from potential rats.

Smith also clarifies that the drug trade has always been seen not just as a scourge but as a resource by elements of the Mexican state. Early on, a post-revolutionary governor in Sinaloa taxed the opium traffickers and used the proceeds for public works. Governors in border states like Baja California and Chihuahua followed suit, taxing the trade, protecting favored traffickers and making exemplary busts of those without favored status to please the Americans. Although, as he notes, the politicians increasingly tended to forget the public works and just pocket the money themselves.

Smith described the structure of the relationship between the Mexican state and the drug traffickers as more a "protection racket" than an adversarial one Prior to the 1970s, the racket was carried out at the state level, with the governors and the state police forces providing the protection. Levels of violence were generally low, but likely to spike when a change of administration meant a new set of players in the racket and a new set of favored and disfavored traffickers. The favored traffickers could get rich; the unfavored ones could get jailed or killed as sacrificial lambs to appease the Americans.

In the 1970s, though, both the repression and the protection racket went national, with the mandate to fight the drug trade (and the license to manage it) going to the dreaded federales and their masters in the Ministry of Justice and the presidential palace. The levels of violence increasingly dramatically as the federales and the armed forces pleased the Americans by arresting, torturing, and killing marijuana- and opium-growing peasants as well as traffickers. Traffickers who could once accommodate themselves to the occasional exemplary short prison sentence now fought back when faced with death or years behind bars.

But in this century, thanks largely to fabulous profits from the cocaine trade, the drug traffickers have flipped the script. They no longer work for the cops; the cops now work for them. It's a process Smith refers to as "state capture," even if the state function that is being captured is illicit. Now, cops and politicians who don/t understand who is charge end up in unmarked graves or starring in horrid torture/murder videos.

The Dope is a fascinating and sobering tale, full of colorful characters like Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, the crusading post-revolutionary physician who argued that marijuana was harmless and whose government office was behind the morphine dispensary plan, and La Nacha, Ignacia Jasso, the dope queen of Ciudad Juarez for decades, along with a veritable rogue's gallery of traffickers, cops, spooks, and politicians, all of whom vie for control of the trade and its incredible profits.

It also reveals some broad findings. First, economics is the driving force of the drug trade, and the economic opportunity it has provided (and continues to provide) to millions of Mexicans means it is not going away, Second, as noted above, authorities have sought to harness income from the drug trade, with the result that they are now harnessed to it. Third, aggressive anti-drug policies are driven more by moral panics, the need for bureaucratic fundraising, and scapegoating, and "are rarely implemented for their effectiveness." Nor do they work, even on their own terms, as our current overdose death numbers shout out. Fourth, the causes of violence originate "not from inside the drug trade, but inside the state," particularly with the churning of protection rackets with the arrival of new political leadership. "The other principal cause of violence has been the war on drugs itself."

There is an extensive mythology around the Mexican drug trade. Benjamin T. Smith has gone a long way toward dispelling those myths by providing an accurate, in-depth, well-sourced history of the trade and the domestic and international politics around it. To understand today's fearsome Mexican drug cartels, start here.

SD Activists Begin 2022 Marijuana Legalization Initiative Drive, Report on Racial Disparities in State Prisons, More... (10/13/21)

A pair of GOP Ohio lawmakers prepares a marijuana legalization bill, the Sentencing Project releases a new report on differential racial incarceration rates in the states, and more.

A new Sentencing Project report finds Blacks are imprisoned in state prisons at a rate five times that of Whites. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio GOP Lawmakers Announce Marijuana Legalization Bill. In a sign of changing times, a pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers announced Tuesday they were preparing a marijuana legalization bill. For years, Democrats have led the fight for marijuana legalization, but in recent days, first Pennsylvania and now Ohio are seeing signs of Republican interest in moving forward on legalization. Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) rolled out a bill that would allow people 21 and over to buy and possess marijuana, with limited home cultivation allowed. The bill also envisages a 10 percent tax on retail marijuana sales, with half going to the state's general fund and half going to law enforcement and mental health and addiction treatment and recovery services. Callender and Ferguson are circulating a cosponsorship memo to build support for the forthcoming legislation and are aiming to formally file the bill within the next six weeks or so.

South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Ballot Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Although state voters already approved a marijuana legalization initiative last year, it was challenged in court by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) and two law enforcement officials, and the state Supreme Court has yet to rule on its constitutionality. The people behind the successful initiative, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, is not waiting on—or counting on—a favorable Supreme Court ruling and is moving ahead with plans for a 2022 initiative designed to get around the issue that has the 2020 initiative stuck in the courts: the claim that it unconstitutionally encompasses more than one subject. This new initiative simply legalizes marijuana possession and cultivation for people 21 and over. The secretary of state on Tuesday gave the go-ahead for signature gathering to begin. Campaigners have until May 8, 2022 to come up with 16,691 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2022 ballot.

Sentencing Policy

New Sentencing Project Report Finds Blacks Imprisoned in State Prisons at Rate Five Times of Whites. Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of Whites, and Latino Americans are 1.3 times as likely to be incarcerated than non-Latino whites, according to a new report by The Sentencing Project, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.The report, authored by Senior Research Analyst Ashley Nellis, documents the rates of incarceration for white, Black, and Latinx Americans for each state. Although Black Americans are not a majority of the general population in any of the 50 states, they make up more than half of the prison population in a dozen states: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. New Jersey tops the nation in terms of disparity in its incarceration rates, with a Black/white ratio of more than 12 to 1. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut follow closely behind, incarcerating Black Americans at about 10 times the rate of white people. Latino individuals are incarcerated nationally in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the rate for non-Latino whites, but at a much higher rate in Massachusetts (4.1), Connecticut (3.7), New York (3.0), and North Dakota (2.4). In raw numbers, Latino incarceration is highest in border and southwestern states. The report makes several policy recommendations: eliminate all mandatory minimums, enact racial impact statements that require crime bills to be accompanied by an estimate of the policy’s impact on demographic groups, and discontinue arrest and prosecution for low-level drug offenses that often lead to accumulation of prior convictions

Booker & Warren Call on DOJ to Deschedule Marijuana; US & Mexico Meet to Forge New Relations on Crime & Drugs, More... (10/12/21)

California's governor vetoes a "contingency management" drug treatment bill, a pair of progressive senators call on the Justice Department to deschedule marijuana, and more.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) send letter to DOJ seeking marijuana descheduling. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Booker, Warren Call on DOJ to Decriminalize Cannabis. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sent a letter last Wednesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to decriminalize cannabis by removing the drug from the Federal controlled substances list. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA), the Attorney General can remove a substance from the CSA's list, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), based on the finding that it does not have the potential for abuse. Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level via this descheduling process would allow states to regulate cannabis as they see fit, begin to remedy the harm caused by decades of racial disparities in enforcement of cannabis laws, and facilitate valuable medical research.

"While Congress works to pass comprehensive cannabis reform, you can act now to decriminalize cannabis," wrote Booker and Warren. "We urge the DOJ to initiate the process to decriminalize cannabis. Doing so would be an important first step in the broader tasks of remedying the harmful racial impact of our nation's enforcement of cannabis laws and ensuring that states can effectively regulate the growing cannabis industry, including by assisting small business owners and those most harmed by our historical enforcement of cannabis laws."

Drug Treatment

California Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Have Paid People to Stay Off Drugs. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) has vetoed a bill that would have made California the first state to embrace "contingency management," the drug treatment program in which users are paid money to stay sober, receiving increasing payments for each drug test passed. Such a program has been underway with military veterans for years, with research showing it is an effective way to get people off stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, for which there are no pharmaceutical treatments available. Newsom had asked the federal government to allow the state to use federal tax dollars to pay for it through Medicaid, but still rejected Senate Bill 110 without explanation.

Foreign Policy

US, Mexico Meet to Restore Cross-Border Cooperation on Drugs, Crime. Leading Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland met with their Mexican counterparts in Mexico City Saturday to try to create a new framework for cooperation on drugs, crime, and border issues. The high-profile meeting comes after months of quiet talks to rebuild relations that grew especially fraught after DEA agents arrested a retired former senior Mexican military officer for alleged links to drug traffickers. That prompted the Mexicans to demand -- and obtain -- his release and to pass a law limiting the involvement of the DEA inside Mexico. The new framework appears to signal a break with Plan Merida, the more than decade-old security agreement under which billions of dollars in US security assistance went to help Mexico fight drug traffickers, but which also saw drug-related killings rise to record levels.

Seattle Psychedelic Decriminalization, OH Towns to Vote on Marijuana Decrim, More... (10/5/21)

The Philippine government tries to look like it is doing something about human rights abuses in its drug war, Bolivian coca grower factions continue to clash, Seattle decriminalizes natural psychedelics and more.

Not only the cultivation and possession but also the sharing of natural psychedelics is decriminalized in Seattle. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Towns Will Vote on Marijuana Decriminalization Ballot Measures Next Month. Activists with NORML Appalachia of Ohio and the Sensible Marijuana Coalition have qualified marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives for next month's ballot in more than a dozen municipalities, even as efforts to qualify in more communities continue. Voters in Brookside, Dillonvale, Laurelville, Martins Ferry, McArthur, Morristown, Mount Pleasant, Murray City, New Lexington, New Straitsville, Powhatan Point, Rayland, Tiltonsville, and Yorkville will have the chance to vote on the initiatives. Some of the 14 local measures read simply: "Shall [jurisdiction] adopt the Sensible Marihuana Ordinance, which lowers the penalty for misdemeanor marijuana offenses to the lowest penalty allowed by State Law?" Others are longer and more specific, but all aim to further undermine marijuana prohibition in the Buckeye State.

Psychedelics

Seattle Becomes Largest City to Decriminalize Psychedelics. The city council on Monday approved a resolution to decriminalize not just the cultivation and possession but also the noncommercial sharing of a wide range of psychedelic substances, including psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and non-peyote derived mescaline. The non-inclusion of peyote is a nod to concerns voiced by the indigenous community, where members of the Native American Church consume the cactus as a sacrament. Seattle police already have a policy of not arresting or prosecuting people for drug possession, but this ordinance extends that protection to people growing and sharing psychedelic plants and fungi for open-ended "religious, spiritual, healing, or personal growth practices." The ordinance passed on a unanimous vote.

Law Enforcement

DEA Agent Killed in Drug Sweep of Amtrak Train in Tucson. A DEA agent and a person on an Amtrak train stopped in Tucson were killed in an outburst of gunfire that broke out Monday morning as members of a joint drug task force conducted a drug sweep of the train. Another DEA agent was critically wounded, while a city police officer was also shot and is in stable condition. Two people on board the train reacted to the police presence, with one opening fire. "They were checking for illegal guns, money, drugs," Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus said. "This is something they do, as I said, routinely at pretty much all transit hubs." Magnus said he did not know whether any guns or drugs were found by officers. One person is now in custody.

International

Bolivian Anti-Government Coca Growers Storm La Paz Coca Market. Following more violent clashes with security forces, thousands of anti-government coca growers stormed the Adepcoca market in La Paz on Monday. For more than a week, pro- and anti-government coca grower factions have clashed over control of the market, through which 90 percent of the country's legal coca passes, after pro-government coca unions ousted an opposition leader to take control of it. The anti-government faction is centered in the Yungas region, which is the traditional center of Bolivian coca production. Yungas growers have been upset with the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party since 2017, when then-President Evo Morales ended the Yungas monopoly on coca growing by legalizing coca production in his region of Cochabamba.

In Bid to Blunt International Criminal Court Investigation, Philippines Says 154 Police Could Be Liable for Drug War Conduct. Faced with a formal International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into rampant human rights abuses -- including thousands of killings -- during President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs, Filipino Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra announced Sunday that 154 police officers could be criminally liable for their conduct in the drug war, including 52 cases of killings. The Philippine government is refusing to cooperate with the ICC probe, arguing that it is capable of policing itself, but the 154 officers who are listed as facing potential criminal liability represent only a tiny fraction of the killings that have taken place, of which the government officially acknowledges more than 6,000. Human rights groups have put the figure north of 30,000.

House Votes to End Federal Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity [FEATURE]

In an effort to undo one the gravest examples of racially biased drug war injustice, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. HR 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans.

Amidst racially tinged and "tough on drugs" political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, accompanied by significant media distortions and oversimplications, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence.

While race neutral on its face, the law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African-Americans. Although similarly small percentages of both Blacks and Whites used crack, and there were more White crack users than Black ones, Blacks were seven times more likely to be imprisoned for crack offenses than Whites between 1991 and 2016. Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Blacks were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack. And even last year, the US Sentencing Commission reported that Black people made up 77 percent of federal crack prosecutions.

After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of drug reform, racial justice, human rights, religious and civic groups, passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act took a partial step toward reducing those disparities. The FSA increased the threshold quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger certain mandatory minimums -- instead of 100 times as much powder cocaine than crack cocaine needed, it changed to 18 times as much. The 2018 FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. And now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight.

Reform advocates praised the bill's passage in the House.

"After the murder of George Floyd, it was obvious that we as a country needed to work harder to stamp out racial discrimination in our justice system," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said in a statement after the vote. "Eliminating the crack-powder disparity, which has disproportionately and unfairly harmed Black families, was an obvious target. Today's huge bipartisan vote reflects the overwhelming public support for eliminating the crack disparity. We hope the Senate acts quickly to remove this 35-year-old mistake from the criminal code."

"For 35 years, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, based on neither evidence nor science, has resulted in higher sentences that are disproportionately borne by Black families and communities. We applaud the House for passing the EQUAL Act, which will finally end that disparity, including for thousands of people still serving sentences under the unjust disparity who would now have the opportunity to petition courts for a reduced sentence," ACLU senior policy counsel Aamra Ahmad said in a statement.

"Congress should continue to work to end the war on drugs, including ending mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately impact communities of color while failing to make us safer. Now that the House has taken this important action on the EQUAL Act, the Senate must quickly follow suit and finally end this racially unjust policy," she added.

The Senate version of the bill is S. 79, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrat Dick Durbin (IL) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving.

"Today, House Republicans and Democrats joined together in passing the EQUAL Act, legislation that will once and for all eliminate the unjust federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity," the bipartisan group said in a joint statement. "Enjoying broad support from faith groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and people of all political backgrounds, this commonsense bill will help reform our criminal justice system so that it better lives up to the ideals of true justice and equality under the law. We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation."

The bill has the support of President Biden, who endorsed it June, but faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, as it needs at least ten Republican votes to not fall victim to a filibuster. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has shepherded sentencing reform bills through previously as Judiciary Committee chairman and is still the committee's top Republican, has spoken discouragely about the prospects. Still, the cause of criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where bipartisan deals are possible in Washington these days, and the current Congress is a long way from over.

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