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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.

House Passes Bill to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, Bolivia Coca Growers Clash, More... (9/29/21)

Grand Rapids, Michigan, endorses a symbolic psychedelic reform, the House votes to end the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and more. 

A crack cocaine user. Harsh federal crack penalties fell disproportionately on the Black community. (Creative Commons)
Psychedelics

Grand Rapids is Latest Michigan City to Endorse Psychedelic Decriminalization. The Grand Rapids City Commission on Tuesday approved a resolution calling for the decriminalization of natural psychedelics, such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. The resolution says "those seeking to improve their health and well-being through the use of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi should have the freedom to explore these healing methods without risk of arrest and prosecution." It passed 5-2, but activists were disappointed because the resolution merely expresses support for future reforms and does not make psychedelics a lowest law enforcement priority. Still, Grand Rapids joins a growing number of Michigan communities that have endorsed psychedelic reform, including Ann Arbor, and Detroit voters will have a chance to endorse psychedelic decriminalization with a measure that will appear on the ballot in November.

Sentencing Policy

House Passes Bill to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. The House on Tuesday passed HR 1693,  the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act of 2021or the EQUAL Act of 2021. The bill seeks to redress one of the gravest injustices of the drug war by eliminating the federal sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The vote was 361-66, with all 66 "no" votes coming from Republicans. Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, signed into law by Ronald Reagan, 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. The overwhelming majority of people federally prosecuted under the crack provision were Black, even though crack use was enjoyed by people from all races. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced that disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and a 2018 criminal justice reform bill signed by Donald Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. The bill now goes to the Senate, where the Senate version, S. 79, will need the support of at least 10 Republicans to pass. It currently has three GOP cosponsors: Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). Look for our feature article on the bill later today.

International

Bolivia Coca Growers Conflict Turns Violent. A power struggle among coca grower factions in La Paz has seen street fighting, volleys of tear gas and slingshot, clashes among grower factions and between growers and police. On Monday, a building near the central coca market in La Paz, control over which is being contested by the factions, went up in flames amid the clashes. Last week, several police vehicles were burned during similar protests. One grower faction, led by Arnold Alanes, the head of the coca management agency Adepcoca, is aligned with the governing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, while the other faction, led by government critic Armin Lluta, says MAS and former President Evo Morales are trying to seize greater control of the trade. But Alanes says he is being attacked because he is trying to eradicate corruption.

CA Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year, Drug Czar's Office Seeks Input on Harms of Drug Policies, More... (7/7/21)

The punishment of Olypmic athlete Sha'carri Richardson for testing positive for marijuana draws intense interest and criticism, New Mexico drug dogs are getting laid off in the wake of legal pot, and more.

New Mexico drug dogs are being forced into retirement by marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Drug Dogs Face Retirement in Wake of Marijuana Legalization. Drug-sniffing police dogs in the state are being forced into retirement because they have been trained to alert on any drug, including marijuana, and cannot be retrained. As the Tucumcari Police Department noted as it announced the retirement of its drug dog, Aries: "With the legalization of recreational marijuana, K9 Aries is unable to continue his function as a narcotics detection dog." Other cities and towns are doing the same thing, and so is the State Police, which will be retiring all nine of its current drug dogs. "Once the new canines are trained, the handlers will have the option of retiring their current assigned canine to their home, or we will look at other options to the likes of donating them to other law enforcement entities outside of the state of New Mexico who have yet to legalize marijuana," the State Police said.

Drug Policy

Drug Czar's Office Seeks Comment on How Drug Policies Create Systemic Barriers for Underserved Communities. In a notice published in the Federal Register Wednesday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) said it is seeking comment on whether existing federal drug control policies create "systemic barriers to opportunities for underserved communities" and to better promote equity in future programs. Although the agency has embraced some progressive drug policy positions, such as pushing for broader access to buprenorpine, this level of acknowledgment of harms caused by drug policy marks a change of direction.

The agency didn't take the action independently. Rather, it is part of a broader executive order requiring agencies to seek feedback and "assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all," ONDCP explained. Comments on how ONDCP can better achieve equity are being accepted at [email protected] through August 6.

Drug Testing

Sha'Carri Richardson Out of Olympics After Positive Marijuana Test. Star athlete Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified last week from the Tokyo Olympics' women's 100 meter race after testing positive for marijuana after the qualifying run, and now will completely miss the games after being left off the team chose for the women's relay race. Her disqualification has caused howls of outrage, with some commentators calling it racist, and even President Biden, who initially responded with "the rules are the rules," suggesting the rules need to change. Richardson said she smoked marijuana to cope with the death of her biological mother and did so in Oregon, where it is legal, but she took responsibility for her actions: "I know what I did," Richardson said. "I know what I'm supposed to do... and I still made that decision."

Harm Reduction

California Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year. The Assembly Health Committee has informed Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) that his bill to allow a safe injection site pilot program, Senate Bill 57, which is billed as an "overdose prevention program," will not get a hearing until January. The state is in the first year of its two-year legislative session, so the bill is not dead, just delayed. "While I'm extremely disappointed that we are experiencing another delay in passing this life-saving legislation -- which has passed both the Senate and Assembly twice in different forms over the past five years -- I continue to be optimistic that we'll pass SB 57 and get it signed into law," said Weiner. "San Francisco and other California cities are experiencing record overdose deaths, and safe consumption sites are a proven strategy to save lives and help people into recovery. I am deeply committed to this legislation -- as is our broad coalition -- and I look forward to moving SB 57 forward in January." The bill has already passed the Senate.

Marijuana Equity Advocates Propose Changes in MORE Act, CT Governor Ready To Sign Legal Pot Law, More... (6/18/21)

Legislation to make it easier for scientists to get access to marijuana for research purposes is moving in Congress, marijuana equity advocates suggest changes in the MORE Act, and more.

Marijuana was on the agenda at the US Capitol this week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Equity Advocates Propose Changes in MORE Act. Activists who want stronger equity protections and to avoid corporate control over the legal marijuana markets have submitted a pair of potential amendments to the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, HR 3617. The proposals are coming from the Parabola Center, a new group fighting for social justice-centered reforms. One would switch federal authority for marijuana permitting from the Treasury Department to the MORE Act-envisioned Office of Cannabis Justice to "regulate interstate commerce and enforce anti-cartel restrictions, preventing the creation of a national oligopoly similar to the state-level oligopolies that current exist," according to a summary, while the other would end the federal criminalization of marijuana possession, cultivation, and sharing under the Controlled Substances Act, but would not formally deschedule marijuana in order to "protect individual cannabis consumers from federal arrest and prosectution while allowing states to continue to experiment with different typse of equitable cannabis markets."

Marijuana Research Expansion Legislation Moves in Congress. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved an omnibus bill that includes language that would allow scientists greater access to marijuana for research purposes on Wednesday. The measure would allow researchers in legal marijuana states to use marijuana from dispensaries. A House panel last week approved a transportation bill that includes similar provisions. The legislation comes after decades of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) blocking access to research marijuana and then using the lack of research to oppose rescheduling it

Connecticut Governor Ready to Sign Marijuana Legalization Bill into Law. Marijuana could be legal in the state as early as July 1 after the legislature approved Senate Bill 1201. The bill awaits the signature of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), and Lamont has signaled he will do exactly that: "It’s fitting that the bill legalizing the adult use of cannabis and addressing the injustices caused by the war of drugs received final passage today, on the 50-year anniversary of President Nixon declaring the war," Lamont said in a statement. "The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety." The bill legalizes the possession of up to one and a half ounces by people 21 and over, as well as setting up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce with strong social equity provisions. 

 

 



CT Senate Votes to Legalize Marijuana, VT Governor Signs Marijuana Social Equity Bill, More... (6/8/21)

Louisiana is one signature away from marijuana decriminalization, Colorado's governor signs a bill tightening up medical marijuana regulations, and more.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) has just signed a bill designed to bring social equity to the state's retail pot sector. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Senate Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Senate early Tuesday approved a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 1118. The House is set to take up the bill Wednesday, the end-of-session deadline. The bill is the product of weeks of negotiations between Gov. Ned Lamont (D) and legislative leaders, and final language was only introduced on Saturday.

Louisiana Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Goes to Governor's Desk. With a final vote in the Senate Monday, a bill to decriminalize the possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana, House Bill 652, is now headed for the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

Nevada Governor Signs Bill Legalizing Marijuana Consumption Lounges. Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) last Friday signed into law a bill that paves the way for marijuana consumption laws in the state, Assembly Bill 341. It creates two new licensing categories for marijuana businesses, "retail cannabis consumption lounge" and "independent cannabis consumption lounge."

Vermont Governor Signs Marijuana Social Equity Bill. Gov. Phil Scott (R) has signed into law Senate Bill 25, which will establish a fund to help people of color and others affected by past marijuana laws open businesses in the new marijuana market. Retail marijuana sales are set to begin in October 2022 after a bill allowing them passed last year.

Medical Marijuana

Colorado Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Restrictions Bill. Gov. Jared Polis (D) on Monday signed into law House Bill 1317, which includes added medical and mental health reviews during patient applications, an expanded medical marijuana tracking system, and a required dosage amount.

Pennsylvania House Approves Making Medical Marijuana Pandemic Revisions Permanent. The House on Monday approved a bill which would make permanent changes temporarily put in place during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the bill, patients could continue to pick up their medicine outside a dispensary instead of coming into the building and could purchase a three-month supply instead of a one-month supply. The measure now heads to the Senate.

The Push to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition This Year Is Now Underway [FEATURE]

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) took to the House floor last Friday to begin the push to end federal pot prohibition this year with the introduction of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act.

Can marijuana legalization get through Congress this year? And would Biden sign it? (Creative Commons)
"For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of as a matter of personal choice and public health. Whatever one's views are on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, the policy of arrests, prosecution, and incarceration at the federal level has proven unwise and unjust," Nadler said as he addressed his colleagues. "In my view, applying criminal penalties, with their attendant collateral consequences for marijuana offenses is unjust and harmful to our society. The MORE Act comprehensively addresses this injustice, and I urge all of my colleagues to support this legislation."

The bill's initial cosponsors are Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY. A similar version of the MORE Act passed the House last year, only to die from inaction in the Republican-controlled Senate. But this year, the Democrats are in control, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has said he is preparing to file a bill in the upper chamber soon.

"Last year, we saw more progress toward cannabis legalization than ever before. This has been driven by unprecedented reforms at the state level. Now, Congress must deal with the problems created by the failed federal policy of prohibition," said Rep. Blumenauer, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus in a press release. "With a strong base of support in the House and in the Senate, the table is set. It's past time that we stop federal interference with cannabis banking and research, as well as the terrible pattern of selective enforcement that has devastated communities of color. The MORE Act will help address all of these problems and more."

The MORE Act has three main provisions:

  • It removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, making it legal at the federal level and clearing the way for states to legalize it at home.
  • It mandates that federal courts must expunge past marijuana convictions and allows them to hold resentencing hearings for those still behind bars or under non-custodial supervision.
  • It makes an effort to redress drug war wrongs and racially disparate enforcement by assessing a 5 percent sales tax on marijuana and pot products, which will be used fund three different grant programs for drug war victims, loans to small businesses "owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals," and to eliminate licensing and employment barriers for people "most adversely impacted" by drug prohibition.

The bill would also make legal marijuana businesses eligible for Small Business Administration funding, bar discrimination against people who use or possess marijuana (such as in federal housing) and require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to collect data on industry demographics to monitor how much poor people and minorities are actually participating in the industry.

"The MORE Act would not only decriminalize marijuana federally, but also take steps to address the harmful impacts of federal prohibition, particularly on communities of color," said Rep. Jackson Lee, Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. "We need to pass the MORE Act as an important component of a broader effort to reform our drug laws, which disproportionately harm racial minorities and fuel mass incarceration. That is why I am also working to advance additional legislation to achieve comprehensive reform of our criminal justice system."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is part of a broad coalition of civil rights, criminal justice, drug policy, and immigration groups (155 organizations in all) that are backing the bill. It worked closely with Rep. Nadler on the original language of the bill last year and has been closely involved ever since.

"It is clear, by the overwhelming extent to which they passed the MORE Act last session, that the House understands this for the urgent racial and social justice issue it is," DPA Director of the Office of National Affairs Maritza Perez said in a statement. "Our communities that have borne the brunt of marijuana prohibition have waited long enough for justice. We urge House leadership to move swiftly to bring the bill back to the floor this session, so that we can continue the momentum and move a marijuana justice bill in the Senate as well."

Unsurprisingly, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is also onboard.

"It's clear that Americans overwhelmingly support ending cannabis prohibition. Reintroducing the MORE Act is a powerful way to reorient negotiations around legalization that gives our entire nation the power to choose cannabis for medical and adult use, strengthens a blossoming industry that is creating jobs and fueling economic growth, and begins to rectify the harms of the racially motivated war on cannabis and its disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities through criminal justice reform and social equity initiatives, MPP Executive Director Steve Hawkins said in a statement. "We endorse this bill and urge Congress to pass it."

But the leader of the loudest anti-marijuana reform group in the country, Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also unsurprisingly, thinks it's a bad idea.

"As we have said since the initial introduction of this short-sighted bill two years ago, the MORE Act is a complete non-starter and the wrong approach we need when it comes to federal drug policy," he said in a statement warning of Big Pot. "This bill would fully legalize marijuana; it will not simply decriminalize the drug -- which would only remove criminal penalties for possession. Rather, it's nothing less than the wide-scale commercialization and normalization of a drug that does not resemble the old marijuana of the 1970s."

It's pretty lonesome where Sabet is, though. The most recent Gallup poll had more than two-thirds (68 percent) favoring legalization and still trending up. Now, if somebody will just tell the Senate. And the president, who is so far standing firm not for legalization but for decriminalization. The question is: What will Biden do if he MORE Act lands on his desk?

Biden FDA Set to Ban Menthol Cigarettes, Louisiana MJ Legalization Advances, More... (4/28/21)

A Montana bill to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization heads to the governor's desk, the South Dakota Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a case challenging voter-approved marijuana legalization there, and more.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/menthol-cigarettes.jpg
menthol cigarettes
Marijuana Policy

Louisiana Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill to legalize marijuana, House Bill 524, was approved Tuesday by the House Criminal Justice Committee. The bill advanced on a 7-5 vote, with three Republicans joining their Democratic colleagues to approve it. A second bill, House Bill 24, which would decriminalize marijuana possession, was also approved by the committee.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Implementation Bill Goes to Governor. A bill to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization, House Bill 701, has passed out of the legislature and is now on the desk of Governor Greg Gianforte (R). Republicans had balked at directing some marijuana revenues to conservation projects but voted for the bill after being reminded that if the legislature didn't pass it, the marijuana legalization initiative would go into effect without its input.

South Dakota Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments on Governor's Challenge to Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization. The state Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a lawsuit sponsored by Gov. Kristi Noem (R) challenging the constitutionality of the voter-approved Amendment A marijuana legalization initiative. The measure passed with 54% of the vote, but at the governor's direction, a county sheriff and the head of the state Highway Patrol filed the lawsuit, arguing the initiative was too broad. A circuit court judge in Pierre earlier ruled against the initiative. A decision in the case is not expected for weeks or months.

Medical Marijuana

Alabama District Attorneys Urge Lawmakers to Reject Medical Marijuana. Twenty-three of the state's 42 district attorneys have sent a letter to the legislature urging lawmakers to oppose a pending medical marijuana bill. In language right out of the last century, they called marijuana a "gateway drug" and "a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Tobacco

Biden Administration Set to Ban Menthol Cigarettes. The administration is expected to announce this week that it will move to ban menthol cigarettes. The move is supported by tobacco foes and some civil rights groups, who say that Blacks have been disproportionately harmed by the marketing of menthol cigarettes to their communities. But some drug reformers worry the move could lead to a new prohibition. The FDA faces a Thursday deadline to respond to a 2013 petition seeking a menthol cigarette ban and could announce the move then.

Virginia Legislature Votes to Legalize Marijuana, But Not Everybody is Happy [FEATURE]

Last Saturday, the Virginia House and Senate approved a pair of bills to legalize marijuana -- but not for three years and with significant portions of the package required to be approved again next year, which could prove difficult if Democrats lose control of the legislature. The bills now go to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has previously voiced support for marijuana legalization, but some unhappy advocates are calling on him to amend them to address what they see as serious failings.

Virginia House chamber
The bills, SB 1406 HB 2312 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce beginning on July 1, 2024. They also allow for the home cultivation of up to four plants, two mature and two immature. And they mandate the shielding of records for past marijuana convictions from employers, landlords, insurance companies, and educational institutions.

But according to a bill summary from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the bills also create new criminal offenses for public consumption ($25 fine), minor in possession ($25 fine and substance abuse education program), possession on school grounds (up to six months in jail), consumption in a moving motor vehicle (fine-only misdemeanor), and importing marijuana into the state (up to a year in jail). In addition, while possession of more than an ounce but less than a pound would be a $25 fine, possession of more than a pound can earn up to 10 years in prison.

The bills attempts to redress racial inequities and discrimination by providing licenses preferences and fee waivers to "social equity applicants," which MPP describes as "having 66% or more owners who: have a prior cannabis conviction, have a close relative with a cannabis conviction, live either in an area with disproportionate cannabis arrests or that is economically distressed, or graduated from a Virginia HBCU." The bills also create a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to help people and communities disparately harmed by pot prohibition and Cannabis Business Equity and Diversity Support Team to encourage minority involvement and develop criteria for plans to emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"It was a lot of work to get there, but we're on the path to an equitable law allowing for responsible adults to not be penalized for using cannabis," cosponsor Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said after the vote.

"Virginia legislators are proving that it is possible to work swiftly to pass legislation that would not only legalize cannabis, but also address the disproportionate harm caused by decades of prohibition," MPP executive director Steve Hawkins," said in a press release lauding the vote. "Virginia is on the brink of becoming the 16th state to end cannabis prohibition and replace it with sensible legalization and regulation for adults 21 and over. MPP is proud to have played an important role in all three states where legislatures have voted to legalize cannabis -- Vermont, Illinois, and now, Virginia."

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) also pronounced itself pleased.

"The advancement of this legislation is another historic step for cannabis justice in Virginia," NORML Development Director and Virginia NORML executive director Michelle Pedini said in a statement greeting the vote. "Stakeholders, the administration, and the legislature have dedicated hundreds of hours to craft legislation that is just and equitable, and that will replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians' public health and safety."

But the marijuana consumers' group also signaled that it didn't consider the legislation perfect.

"This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over," Pedini noted. "NORML is dedicated to continuing our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market. In particular, we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis."

But some Democratic legislators were less than satisfied.

"The final bill, as we saw it, did not have really have the criminal justice reforms as quickly as we would like them to be," said Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke). "We also want to make sure we do everything we can from a safety perspective, from an educational perspective."

"Let us be clear, this bill is not legalization and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization," said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) during Saturday's floor debate. "It's not worse than the status quo. Could it be better, yes."

Some other interested parties, though, including the ACLU of Virginia, Justice Forward Virginia, Marijuana Justice, and RISE for Youth, were not so sure the final package was an improvement. The activist groups had laid out their position -- end marijuana prohibition now, don't criminalize youth, strong expungement, racial justice -- in a February 9 open letter to the administration and legislators, and they unhappily reiterated their commitment to that position after the vote.

In a statement the same day, the ACLU of Virginia blasted the final result as "worse than the status quo" in terms of racial justice. "The bill creates new crimes that include permitting searches for having marijuana in a vehicle and possession under the age of 21," the group charged. "The bill also adds new pretexts like 'transportation' and offering or consuming marijuana in a public place, all of which will be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians."

The ACLU of Virginia called the legislation little more than "an aspirational policy statement" given that many aspects of it will have to be voted on again next. Its bottom line was blunt: "This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia. It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color. The bill is a failure."

It's now up to Gov. Northam to sign or veto the legislation, or amend it and send it back to the legislature for changes to be considered. Virginia has legalized marijuana, but that battle over what that really means is still underay and undoubtedly just beginning.

With Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill, Canada Seeks an Off-Ramp from the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

On February 16, Canada's governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms to criminal justice by introducing a sweeping new bill that would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

Canadian parliament building, Ottawa (Creative Commons)
The government's move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia especially hard-hit. Last year, the provincial Coroners Service reported, BC saw a whopping 1,716 drug overdose deaths, up a startling 74 percent over 2019. The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, BC formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country's drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn't just coming from British Columbia, it's coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for drug decriminalization, recommending the "current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system." The following month, the federal prosecution service issued a directive permitting prosecution of drug cases only in the most serious cases.

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country's opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as last summer's massive protests in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice here, so they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country's criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day.

Indigenous people make up 5% of the Canadian population but accounted for 25% of all federal prisoners in 2019. Similarly, Black Canadians accounted for about 3% of the population but more than 7% of prisoners that year. As the Justice Ministry noted in a 2017 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, non-white inmates are more likely to sent to maximum security prisons, have forced used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, "An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," Justice Minister David Lametti made clear that not just public health but also racial justice was on its mind.

Trudeau had asked him to "address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system," he told a press conference. "We are turning the page on a failed Conservative criminal justice policy," he added. "It was an approach that did not make our communities safer. It did not deter criminals. It did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out statements of principle for dealing with drug offenses, including "problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue," state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and not consistent with public health practice.

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, police would be granted the discretion to "consider whether it would be preferable... to take no further action, or warn the individual, or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual."

Similarly, the bill mandates the prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternate measures are "not appropriate, and a prosecution in appropriate in the circumstances." And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

C-22 looks as if it were designed to cut off inputs to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto's Beaches-East York riding (district) since 2015 and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member's bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is that latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

"I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help," he told the Chronicle. "Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges."

"My goal was to call for full decriminalization, with a second bill to show the government if they weren't inclined to favor decriminalization, here's an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction," he said. "It doesn't go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions."

Donald Macpherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

"The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the Harper government had implemented," he told the Chronicle. "But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It's too little, too late."

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

"Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress, getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law," McPherson conceded. "But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won't do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be 'at the discretion of' and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs."

Still, passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, Macpherson said.

"It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to," he said. "We saw this with cannabis -- at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We're now at that point with drug decriminalization."

Long-time Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, cofounder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently executive project coordinator for the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more jaundiced view than Macpherson, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

"I'm glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don't do us any more favors," she told the Chronicle. "And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation -- many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments."

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren't enough, she said.

"Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply," she argued. "We have to have clear demands and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it."

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

Canada

Biden AG Nominee Addresses Marijuana & Mandatory Minimums, El Chapo's Wife Busted at Dulles, More... (2/23/21)

Republcan legislators continue to try to wreak havoc with voter-approved marijuana initiatives, Judge Merrick Garland speaks out on marijuana and sentencing policy at his confirmation hearing, and more.

Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland, here chatting with Sen. Chuck Schumer. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Biden Attorney General Nominee Sets Gentler Line on Marijuana, Cites Discriminatory Enforcement. Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden's pick as attorney general, said Monday that prosecuting people complying with state marijuana laws is not "a useful use of limited resources" and that there is "a question of prioritization about resources and discretion" around the issue. Garland was responding to a question from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also said during the hearing that the enforcement of marijuana prohibition is a "perfect example" of how the criminal justice system is racially biased and imposes disproportionate impacts on communities of color.

Montana GOP Bill Would Delay Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization. Saying the voters' decision to legalize marijuana with a quick timeline "doesn't make any sense," State Representative Bill Mercer (R) has filed a bill that would push back the October 1 deadline until sometime in 2023. The bill is set to be heard this week in the House Business and Labor Committee.

Medicial Marijuana

South Dakota Medical Marijuana Supporters Float Compromise to Forestall GOP Effort to Delay Implementation. Supporters of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law are seeking to scale back Republican efforts to delay the implementation of the medical marijuana program. Lawmakers are considering House Bill 1100, which would form an interim committee to essentially rewrite the voter-approved law. The proposal moves back the deadline for implementing much of the measure to next January during the 2022 legislative session.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Illinois Bill Would Give Protection to Overdose Victims. Representative Janet Yang Rohr (D-Napierville) has filed House Bill 3445, which would mandate that people seeking assistance for a drug overdose would not be criminally charged or prosecuted if they make a good faith effort to seek drug treatment. It also includes language protecting parolees from having their status revoked in case of an overdose. The bill would expand a Good Samaritan law passed in 2012 to include the person who is actually overdosing.

Law Enforcement

El Chapo's Wife Busted on Drug Trafficking Charges at DC Airport. Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of imprisoned Mexican drug trafficking kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested Monday night after flying into Dulles International Airport. She faces federal charges of conspiring to help distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana in the US. She is accused of helping El Chapo continue to run his enterprise while behind bars. She is a joint US and Mexican citizen.

Sentencing

Biden Attorney General Nominee Endorses Ending Mandatory Minimums. Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden's nominee for attorney general, said Monday that he agrees with a Biden administration policy of ending the use of mandatory minimum sentences. His comments came in response to a question from Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and can be heard at the 28-minute mark of the linked video.

Drug War Issues

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