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In Bid to Defend Marijuana Arrests, NYC Mayor de Blasio Attacks Drug Reformers

Last month, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released a report noting that marijuana arrests under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to be marked by shocking racial disparities, much as they were under his predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Stung by the criticism, de Blasio is fighting back, but his response so far has consisted of attacking DPA as "legalizers" and comparing apples to oranges.

New York City still has a marijuana arrest problem under Mayor de Blasio. (Wikimedia)
The DPA report, Unjust and Unconstitutional: 60,000 Jim Crow Marijuana Arrests in Mayor de Blasio’s New York, noted that while marijuana possession arrests are down under de Blasio from the grotesque numbers achieved under Giuliani (more than 40,000 arrests in 2001) or Bloomberg (more than 50,000 arrests in 2011), NYPD still arrested made more than 18,000 of them last year. A whopping 86% of them were black or brown, maintaining the racial disparities so apparent in earlier administrations.

That's "a far cry from the Mayor's pledge to rein in NYPD's targeting of people of color," charged DPA New York State Director Kassandra Frederique in the report. That de Blasio had managed to bring pot arrests down to an average of only 20,000 a year during his tenure shouldn't be portrayed as progress, argued Frederique, instead describing it as "slower injustice, but slower injustice is still injustice delivered."

De Blasio struck back last Friday, releasing a statement that called the DPA report "misleading" and attacked DPA as "a group committed to legalization." De Blasio's statement emphasized that marijuana arrests had dropped significantly under his administration -- something DPA never disputed -- but failed to address the claim of continuing racial disparities in arrests. Instead, it merely noted that because arrests were down overall, arrests of black and brown people were down, too.

But the takeaway sentence in de Blasio's statement inadvertently makes DPA's case:

As a result of this new policy, arrests for marijuana possession are down 37%  -- from almost 29,000 in 2013 to approximately 18,000 in 2016. This has translated into approximately 9,600 fewer arrests of Black and Latino New Yorkers for marijuana possession in 2016 as compared to 2013.

In other words, a reduction of less than 11,000 total marijuana arrests between the two years resulted in about 9,600 people of color not being arrested. De Blasio's own data and arguments show that the city's minorities clearly take the brunt of marijuana law enforcement, his wriggling notwithstanding.

And now, DPA is returning fire at de Blasio.

"Mayor de Blasio is not disputing the data published in our report, he is trying to spin his poor record to look as though he has made some progress," Frederique said in a Friday press release. "In reality, New York City was the marijuana arrest capital of the world under Bloomberg and still holds that dubious title under de Blasio today. The 18,000 arrests in 2016 alone and outrageous racial disparities are a disgrace to the city and a blight on the mayor’s record. The unjust and racially-targeted arrests are devastating black and Latino communities across the city."

Frederique also applied some political ju-jitsu to de Blasio's "legalizer" attack.

"The mayor’s efforts to discredit the report and the Drug Policy Alliance by calling us legalizers, is a desperate attempt to distract the public from the facts of his abysmal record. Our report is based on data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Rather than attack his critics, the mayor should attack the problem of racially-targeted arrests," she said. "For the record, the Drug Policy Alliance is committed to marijuana legalization to increase access for patients and end targeted policing in communities of color. And we’re not alone; nearly 60% of Americans also support legalization."

Instead of attacking critics, the mayor should fix the problem, Frederique added.

"It’s time for the mayor to get out of the spin cycle and back to work," she prescribed. "The mayor must end the biased policing practices that have ruined the lives of so many young black and Latino New Yorkers now."

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Secret Safe Injection Site in US City, VT "Blue Ribbon" MJ Panel, More... (8/8/17)

The body representing state legislatures again calls for marijuana reforms, Vermont's governor is about to empanel on commission to study legalization issues, a safe injection site has been operating secretly in a US city for the past three years, and more.

The Vancouver safe injection site has a hidden counterpart somewhere in the US. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

National Conference of State Legislatures Urges De-Scheduling Marijuana. The National Conference of State Legislatures has approved a resolution calling for marijuana to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act. The resolution approved on Monday specifically references access to banking, saying such a move would result in "… enabling financial institutions the ability to provide banking services to cannabis related businesses." This marks the third year in a row the conference has passed a resolution on marijuana, going a bit further each time. In 2015, it resolved that federal laws should be amended to allow states to set their own pot policies, and last year, it resolved that marijuana should be down-scheduled.

Vermont Governor About to Convene "Blue Ribbon Commission" on Legalization. Gov. Phil Scott (R) says he will shortly convene a commission to study issues around marijuana legalization, but it looks like his emphasis will be on how to detect marijuana impairment in drivers rather than examining models for legalization. Earlier this year, Scott vetoed a legalization bill, citing concerns about driving and youth, and he says now that he will not sign a bill that doesn't have stringent standards on impaired driving.

Virginia Gubernatorial Candidates Split on Decriminalization. Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam sent a letter Monday to the State Crime Commission, which is studying decriminalization, in support of the notion. That position contrasts with Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, who says he opposes legalization or decriminalization, but is open to exploring reforms to ensure that penalties are commensurate with the offense committed. Polling shows a majority of Virginians favor decrim. Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra, meanwhile, says just tax and legalize it.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana Republican Will File Medical Marijuana Bill to Fight Opioid Overdoses. State Rep. Jim Lucas (R-Seymour) says he plans to file a medical marijuana bill in a bid to combat opioid abuse. He said he was acting after hearing from constituents. "People telling me their personal stories, how they've been helped by this product, how far behind Indiana is on this issue," he told the Indianapolis Star. "That right there, we have a responsibility to at least investigate it and determine the facts, and if there is something positive out there, we have to pursue that."

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Asset Forfeiture Reforms Go Into Effect Wednesday. A new law limiting civil asset forfeiture reform goes into effect Wednesday. House Bill 2477 does not end civil asset forfeiture, but raises the standard of proof necessary for seizures from "a preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence."

Harm Reduction

Underground Safe Injection Site Has Been Operating in a US City for Three Years. In a report released Tuesday, two researchers revealed that they've been studying an unpermitted safe injection site in operation since 2014. They reported that no one died while using drugs at the site and that two overdoses were reversed by staff members administering naloxone. The report comes as pressure to authorize such sites is mounting, with lawmakers in states like California and New York and cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Ithaca, New York, backing such efforts.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org"s lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: DEA to Cut Pain Pill Quotas Next Year, Sessions Eyes WA's Legal Pot, More...(8/4/17)

Attorney General Sessions is giving the hairy eyeball to Washington state's legal pot program, the DEA is moving to reduce prescription opioid production next year, the head of the Los Angeles city council wants the city to create a bank for the pot industry, and more.

The DEA is set to cut Schedule II opioid manufacturing by 20% next year.
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Criticizes Washington Legalization in Letter to State Officials. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter late last month to officials in Washington state challenging the way the state has implemented marijuana legalization and asking them to address concerns raised by a Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) report critical of legalization. That report, Sessions wrote, "raises serious questions about the efficacy of marijuana 'regulatory structures' in your state." He cited portions of the report focusing on the diversion of legal weed out of state, drugged driving, and use by minors, all of which are areas flagged by the Obama administration's Cole memo as possibly being grounds for federal intervention.

Los Angeles City Council President Proposes Pot Bank. LA City Council President Herb Wesson called in a speech late last month for the city to create a bank that would serve the marijuana industry, as well as other social needs in the city. Citing images of pot shop owners lugging around sacks of cash, he argued that city officials had a responsibility to figure out a way to make legalization work and that access to banking was a key part of it.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Panel Advises Expanding List of Qualifying Conditions. In a report issued last week, the state's Medicinal Marijuana Review Panel said it was ready to approve 43 more qualifying medical conditions for medical marijuana. Among them are chronic pain, migraines, anxiety, opiate-use disorder, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, autism, and Tourette syndrome. But it's not a done deal yet -- there's a two month public comment period now, and the state health commissioner makes the final decision, after that.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Proposes Cutting Amount of Opioids Manufactured Next Year. In a Federal Register notice dated August 7, but available for viewing now, the DEA is proposing reducing the amount of Schedule II opioid pain relievers manufactured in the US by 20% in 2018. "Demand for these opioid medicines has dropped," the DEA, citing prescription data. "Physicians, pharmacists, and patients must recognize the inherent risks of these powerful medications, especially for long-term use," said Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg in a statement. "More states are mandating use of prescription drug monitoring programs, which is good, and that has prompted a decrease in opioid prescriptions."

Asset Forfeiture

Las Vegas Civil Asset Forfeiture Happens Mainly in Poor, Minority Neighborhoods, Report Finds. A new report from the Nevada Policy Research Institute shows that civil asset forfeiture in the city happens mostly in poor and minority neighborhoods. The report found that two-thirds of all seizures were made in zip codes where the nonwhite population averages 42% and the poverty rate was 27%. The report also found that more than half of all seizures were for cash or assets valued at less than $1,000. Las Vegas Metro Police seized more than $2.1 million last year, the report found. In recent years, seizures ranged from a high of $515,000 in one case to a low of $74 in another.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A crooked police scandal is brewing in Baltimore, a crooked Chicago-area cop heads for federal prison, so does an Alabama prison guard, and more. Let's get to it:

In Baltimore, prosecutors threw out 34 drug cases last Friday as they investigate three officers accused of planting evidence at crime scenes. Body camera footage recently released appeared to show an officer planting drugs at a crime scene in January, and that has prompted the dismissals. Another 123 cases are under review.

In Putnamville, Indiana, a state prison guard was arrested last Thursday after being caught smuggling drugs into the Putnamville Prison. Guard Stephany Dawson went down after officers searched her car as she arrived at work and found meth, marijuana, and tobacco. She admitted bringing a large amount of drugs into the prison. It's unclear precisely what charges she faces.

In Louisville, a state prison guard was arrested last Friday after he was caught bringing drugs into the prison. Guard Danny Ford, 49, was arrested at the West Kentucky Correctional Complex after officers found him with a large quantity of suboxone. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance and promoting contraband.

In Chicago, a former Melrose Park police detective was sentenced last Wednesday to 11 years in federal prison for a career of corruption. Gregory Salvi had pleaded earlier this year to moonlighting as a drug dealer, including selling drugs he stole from the evidence room. Salvi was looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum on one count each of possession of drugs with intent to deliver and using a gun in a drug trafficking crime.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a former state prison guard was sentenced last Thursday to 54 months in federal prison for smuggling drugs into the prison. Johntarance Henriquis McCray, 23, went down after authorities were alerted he was trafficking into the prison and searched him. They found two bundles in his underwear containing crack cocaine, powder cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, Xanax, and Suboxone. Officers found a duffle bag containing additional drugs, a loaded 9-milimeter handgun and more than $400 in McCray's vehicle.

Chronicle AM: Wyden Wants DOJ to Release MJ Recs, Pressure on DHS Over Meth Death, More... (8/2/17)

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has asked Attorney General Sessions to release recommendations on possible changes in federal marijuana enforcement, congressmembers want changes at Customs and Border Protection after video of a Mexican teen's death after drinking meth in front of Customs agents went public, and more.

Puerto Rico is hoping medical marijuana will deliver an economic miracle. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Ron Wyden Asks Sessions to Release Crime Task Force Marijuana Recommendations. Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter to Attorney General Sessions Tuesday pressing him to reveal any possible changes to federal marijuana enforcement policies contained in recommendations presented to him last week by the Justice Department's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. "It is concerning to see this administration failing, once again, to be transparent and straightforward with the American people about the motivations behind its policy shifts," Wyden wrote. "I write to you today to ask that the recommendations of the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety immediately be made public."

Medical Marijuana

Puerto Rico Looks to Medical Marijuana as Economic Medicine. Economically ravaged Puerto Rico is counting on medical marijuana to boost its economy. The island's treasury secretary estimates the industry could generate up to $100 million a year and help reduce an unemployment rate currently around 12%. The US territory is in a fiscal crisis, facing billions in budgets cuts and a public debt load of $70 billion. David Quinones, operations director of Puerto Rico's largest medical marijuana producer, Natural Ventures, told the Washington Post: "Name one new industry in Puerto Rico capable of generating millions and billions in capital and improving an economy in a mega-crisis. There is none."

Law Enforcement

Oregon Drug Task Force Disbanding. The Lane County Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team is disbanding effective immediately, with Board Chairman Rick Lewis, the police chief in Springfield, citing budget and staffing issues. The task force, which was founded in 1987 to deal primarily with meth labs, has disbanded once before. In 2005, it was shut down for three years after budgeting shortfalls. Last year, the task force made 110 arrests and seized nearly 15 pounds of meth and $133,000 in cash.

After Death Of Teen Who Drank Liquid Meth At Checkpoint, Lawmakers Call For Action. Members of Congress are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to take steps to improve training after video of a Mexican teen drinking liquid methamphetamine in front of Customs agents and then dying became public last week. The boy, Cruz Velazquez Acevedo, died in 2013. "What happened to Cruz Velazquez was absolutely horrible, and we must guarantee that something like this never happens again," Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., said in an email Monday to KPBS. "I am requesting an immediate response from the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that proper training is put in place for Customs and Border Protection agents." The Department of Homeland Security has already paid a $1 million settlement with the teen's family.

Chronicle AM: Fed Bills Would Shrink CSA Reach, Slow Start to Sessions Drug War, More... (7/31/17)

New federal bills aim to remove state-legal marijuana and industrial hemp from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, Jeff Sessions' drug war is slow getting off the ground, an Indian minister comes out for medical marijuana, and more.

What's in your Ecstasy? British festivalgoers could find out. (erowid.org)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Bill to Make CSA Inapplicable to Marijuana in Legal Marijuana States Filed. US Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA) filed House Resolution 3534 on Friday. The bill would "make the Controlled Substances Act inapplicable with respect to marijuana in states that have legalized marijuana and have in effect a statewide regulatory regime to protect certain Federal interests."

Industrial Hemp

Federal Bill to Exempt Hemp from CSA Filed. Rep. James Comer (R-KY) filed House Resolution 3530 on Friday. The bill would "amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marihuana."

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions' Drug War Hasn't Taken Hold -- Yet. The attorney general has vowed to crack down on drugs, but data released last week show it isn't happening yet. Federal drug prosecutions are at historic lows, with experts pointing to a federal hiring freeze instituted by the Trump administration and the Senate's slow pace on appointing new US attorneys as potential causes. Without having key people in key positions, the Sessions Justice Department must rely on local investigators and prosecutors who may still be operating under Obama-era reforms.

International

Indian Minister Calls for Medical Marijuana Legalization. Indian Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi has come out in favor of legalizing medical marijuana. "Marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes, especially as it serves a purpose in [treating] cancer," she said during a ministerial discussion on India's National Drug Demand Reduction. Although cannabis has been part of Indian culture for more than 3,000 years, the country banned it in 1985 under US pressure.

British Festival Allowed Pill Testing. Attendees at the Kendal Calling music festival in Cumbria this past weekend were able to get their pills and powders tested for potency and adulteration without fear of arrest thanks to an on-site lab operated by an NGO. Testers reported finding malaria medication, insecticide and concrete in some of the substances tested. "We accept that some people will get drugs on site and some people will be planning to take them so what we're doing is trying to address any potential health problems," said Professor Fiona Measham, director of the NGO The Loop. "This is a focus on public health rather than on criminal justice."

Chronicle AM: Senate Keeps MedMj Language, Kansas SWAT Lawsuit Revived, More... (7/27/17)

A Senate panel has approved an amendment barring the DOJ from going after medical marijuana states, criminal justice reform groups want close scrutiny of US Attorney nominees, a federal appeals court reinstates a lawsuit over a SWAT raid that turned up only tomatoes and tea leaves, and more.

A Kansas SWAT team looking for a pot grow raided a couple who were only growing tomatoes. Now, their lawsuit can proceed.
Medical Marijuana

Senate Panel Approves Amendment Defunding DOJ Medical Marijuana Enforcement. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to approve an amendment that would block the Justice Department from spending any funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The amendment, which passed with strong Republican support, is a striking rebuke to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had personally requested that Congress kill the amendment. A House committee yesterday killed a similar amendment, but if the Senate amendment stays in the appropriations bill, it could be the basis for conference committee negotiations later.

Nevada Supreme Court Upholds Medical Marijuana Registry. In a Tuesday decision, the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the state's medical marijuana registry. The program had been challenged by a John Doe lawsuit, which complained that the registry and associated fees violated his due process rights. The lawsuit was rejected by lower state courts, and now the state's highest court has agreed.

Law Enforcement

Reform Groups Call on Senate to Closely Scrutinize Trump's US Attorney Nominees. A number of criminal justice reform groups on both the left and the right are calling on Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to have committee members actually question nominees, whether at hearings or in writing. The groups, which include Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Right on Crime, and the American Conservative Union, want nominees' positions on key issues such as asset forfeiture, sentencing policy, and respecting the authority of states to be made clear. "In view of the recent policies announced by the Department of Justice (DOJ), it is even more important that the Senate understand each nominee's views of the proper role government attorneys play in seeking justice rather than merely 'winning' the cases they bring," the groups wrote. The coalition made an initial request to Grassley in March, but got no response.

Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Lawsuit Against Kansas Cops Who Led SWAT Raid Against Couple Growing Tomatoes. In a blistering decision, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit filed by a suburban Kansas City couple after a SWAT-style raid based on the couple's visit to a garden supply shop and a faulty field drug test that said tea leaves in their trash were marijuana. There was no marijuana. The family sued the Johnson County Sheriff's Office after the 2012 raid. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2015, but now the 10th Circuit has overruled him.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's jail guards gone wild this week, with a trio of correctional officers looking to make something on the side. Let's get to it:

In Lawton, Oklahoma, a Lawton Correctional Facility guard was arrested last Saturday after being caught coming to work with a diaper filled with marijuana. Two of her coworkers ratted her out for smelling like pot, and the as yet unnamed guard said she'd been around people smoking weed, but during a pat down search, she handed the diaper and a bag with 55 grams of weed in it to officers. She was also carrying a cell phone, two prepaid credit cards, and notebook with credit card numbers in it. She is charged with bringing contraband into the jail.

In Round Rock, Texas, a Williamson County jail guard was arrested last Tuesday after a drug-sniffing dog alerted deputies to his vehicle in the jail parking garage. Richard Acuna, Jr. went down after deputies then found cocaine in his car. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance. It's unclear whether he was bringing drugs to the jail.

In Rustburg, Virginia, a former Campbell County Adult Detention Center guard was arrested last Wednesday for allegedly giving prescription drugs to prisoners. Benjamin Joel Rackley is charged with handing out pills over a six-month period ending in February. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to deliver drugs to prisoners, one count of delivery of drugs to prisoners, and two counts distribution of a controlled substance.

Chronicle AM: Ominous DOJ MJ Report, Indonesia Prez Says Shoot Dealers, More.... (7/24/17)

A key Justice Deparatment report is slated to drop this week, so is a federal hemp bill, Indonesia's leader seems to be following in Duterte's footsteps, and more.

What is Attorney General Sessions cooking up for pot policy? We should know this week. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Justice Department Report to Be Released This Week Could Include Crackdown on Marijuana. A Justice Department Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is set to release its report this, and reformers and industry insiders worry the report will try to link marijuana to violent crime, laying the basis for a crackdown on marijuana users and purveyors.

Massachusetts Local Control Compromise Could Face Legal Challenge. A legislative compromise that would let elected leaders in some communities ban marijuana businesses without a popular vote could be challenged as unconstitutional under state law. Under the compromise, if a majority of a local jurisdiction opposed the 2016 legalization initiative, local leaders could ban without a popular vote, but if the majority voted for the initiative, a ban would require a popular vote. The initiative itself called for no bans without a popular vote. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Essex) warned that the compromise language could be challenged on the basis it violates equal protection laws.

Medical Marijuana

Virgin Islands Medical Marijuana Bill Reintroduced. Territorial Sen. Positive Nelson has refiled his Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act. A similar bill died in committee last year, and Nelson wants to avoid a similar fate this year. "I'm requesting that this measure be heard by the committee of the whole, and not the Health Committee, whose chair has exhibited an obvious bias against cannabis legalization in any form," Nelson said.

Hemp

Federal Hemp Bill to Be Filed This Week. US Rep. James Comer (R-KY) is expected to introduce the Industrial Hemp Farming Act this week. The bill, versions of which have been introduced in each Congress since 2009, would remove industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act and would allow research on hemp with up to 0.6% THC -- up from 0.3% in earlier bills.

Immigration

Permanent Resident Set to Be Deported for Marijuana Wins in Federal Appeals Court. The US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has ruled in favor of permanent resident Ming Wei Chen, who had been ordered deported from the country after a marijuana conviction. The court ruled that the Board of Immigration Appeals misapplied Supreme Court rulings when it held his conviction constituted an "aggravated felony."

International

Indonesia's President Tells Police to Shoot Drug Dealers. President Joko Widodo has told police to shoot drug traffickers as part of his efforts to fight a "narcotics emergency" in the country. "Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now," Widodo said in a speech last Friday. The remarks drew comparisons with statements from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a drug crackdown that has left thousands dead there.

Amidst Violent Gun Battles, Mexico City Sees First Narco-Blockade. Mexican marines engaged in a gun battle with drug gangsters in the capital's Tlahuac neighborhood, leaving eight gunmen, including Tlahuac Cartel leader Jesus Perez Luna dead. During the shoot-out, dozens of people blocked streets in the area, setting on fire a truck and two stolen minibuses in a "narco-blockade" aimed at preventing the arrival of police and military reinforcements. That's a first for Mexico City.

Poland Legalizes Medical Marijuana. Polish President Andrzej Duda has signed a bill legalizing medical marijuana in the country. Patients will not be able to grow their own, but will be able to obtain imported marijuana products at pharmacies. The law allows people with severe illnesses to use medical marijuana if approved by a physician, but has no list of qualifying conditions. The law will go into effect in October.

Chronicle Interview: A Conversation With New DPA Head Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno [FEATURE]

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

Led by Ethan Nadelmann since its formation 17 years ago, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been the most influential drug reform organization in the country, with a hand in advancing the causes not only of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but of drug law reform more broadly, in all its manifestations and intersectionality.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno (Drug Policy Alliance)
Thanks in good part to Nadelmann's vision and the efforts of DPA -- and its campaign and lobbying arm, the Drug Policy Action Network -- in state houses and court houses, in Congress and the executive branch, in media outreach and educational campaigns, the drug laws in America have changed for the better. Pot has gone mainstream, the mass incarceration mania of the Reaganite drug war (abetted by too many Democrats) has broken, sensible and life-saving harm reduction measures are spreading.

But now Nadelmann is gone -- at least as director or staff -- and DPA and the drug reform community face a Trump administration apparently intent on reviving and revitalizing the worst of drug war practices from the last century. Nadelmann's successor not only has big shoes to fill, but also faces reactionary impulses in Washington.

That successor is Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, holder of a law degree from New York University School of Law and for the past 13 years Co-Director of the US Program for Human Rights Watch (HRW), where she picked up plenty of domestic drug policy experience. There, she managed a team that fights against racial discrimination in law enforcement, punitive sentencing, and deportation policies that tear families apart -- all issues inextricably intertwined with the war on drugs.

The bilingual McFarland Sánchez-Moreno grew up in Peru and spent her early years at HRW researching Colombia, where drug profits helped fuel a decades-long civil war and corroded governmental legitimacy through corruption. That sharpened her awareness of the need for social justice and drug policy reform. She also pushed for the group to more directly take on the war on drugs as a human rights issue, and as a result, HRW became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and global drug reform. [Ed: McFarland's help and advice made it possible for Human Rights Watch to endorse our UNGASS sign-on statement.]

She is regularly quoted and published in national and international media, has testified before Congress on multiple occasions and has extensive experience advocating with US congressional offices, the White House, and the Departments of State, Justice and Defense. She recently authored a non-fiction book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, which will be published by Nation Books in February 2018.

Now, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno turns to drug reform as her primary remit, at the head of an organization with a $15 million budget; offices in California, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC; a considerable cadre of experienced and talented professionals; and a well-earned reputation for being able to make drug reform actually happen. Drug War Chronicle spoke with McFarland Sánchez-Moreno on Friday about what lies ahead.

Drug War Chronicle: You're about to head the most powerful drug reform group on the planet. What is it about you and your experience that makes you the person for this job?

Mass incarceration is a drug policy issue. (nadcp.org)
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I don't know that I'm the right person to ask about that, but I will say I have been passionate about drug policy for a long time; it cuts across many of the social justice issues that I've been involved with throughout my career, starting in Colombia documenting atrocities committed by armed groups who were overwhelmingly financed by illicit drugs and for whom trafficking was their reason for existing. I came to realize that if you got rid of the illicit market, you could do serious damage to those groups.

And that continued in my work at HRW's US Program, covering issues like criminal justice and immigration, where you see so many vast problems in this country that are strongly linked to the war on drugs. From mass incarceration to large-scale deportations, a lot of it is people getting convicted of low-level drug offenses. And this also connects to a fundamental matter of justice: People shouldn't face prison time for choices about what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others.

Drug War Chronicle: Does your selection suggest that DPA is going to be even more internationally focused than it is now?

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's too early to say whether we will invest more internationally, but our main focus has to be domestic. We're a national organization with offices in many states, and we want to build on that strength. There's plenty of work to do right here, so we will remain focused on the US. While there is an argument to be made for the importance of international work, you don't need to worry about us shifting away from the home front.

Drug War Chronicle: What are some of the key global drug policy challenges? And where do you see opportunities for positive change?

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: Both domestically and internationally, there's real momentum around drug reform. After Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala called for an international discussion of drug policy, which led to last year's UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, the nature of the debate around drugs began to change, and we're seeing real openness to reform in many countries. At the same time, in places like the Philippines or Indonesia, you see serious backsliding, with large scale killings in the name of fighting the war on drugs in the former and use of the death penalty in the latter. And in places like Mexico and Central America, we're seeing very serious violence related to drug prohibition.

The international situation is complex: There are some openings, some room for progress -- and when you have countries like Portugal and Uruguay moving toward reform and potentially setting good examples, that's something to point to here at home -- but we still have very, very serious problems associated with the war on drugs that we need to monitor and speak up about.

Drug War Chronicle: Here in the U.S., it's sort of a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we have medical marijuana in 29 states, pot decriminalization in 13 or 14, and legalization in eight, with more likely to come in the next year or so. We have state legislatures enacting sentencing reforms and asset forfeiture reforms. At the same time, we have the Trump administration apparently leading federal drug policy down a retrograde prohibitionist path. How do you assess the overall situation?

The fight for legal marijuana will continue. (Creative Commons)
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's similar to the international situation in that there are enormous opportunities for progress around marijuana law reform and harm reduction measures in some places, but we have a federal Justice Department that seems to be intent on doubling down on the war on drugs and using the most draconian measures possible.

All the horrors we're seeing with overdoses is leading many people to do some serious soul-searching about what's the best way to address this problem, so we're seeing some progress on harm reduction measures like access to naloxone, for example. Now, there's room to have some conversations where there wasn't before, such as decriminalizing the possession of all drugs. A few years ago, that would have been a hard conversation to have, but HRW released a report last year calling for it and DPA has just released its own report echoing that call, and there is a real receptiveness in the public to talking about that. We're in a different place now and can make progress at the state and local level.

But that fairly heated rhetoric coming from the attorney general, appealing to people's worst fears and often distorting reality, is a real problem. It's not just about what Sessions says and what policies he adopts at Justice; it's also about that dark narrative starting to take hold, people in other parts of the government thinking its more acceptable to return to those failed policies. It's disturbing to see bills filed that are headed in the wrong direction, like Sen. John Cornyn's (R-TX) Back the Blue Act (Senate Bill 1134). A year ago, he was part of bipartisan sentencing reform. Why is he going the other way now?

And then there's Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act (Senate Bill 1237), which would give Sessions the power to schedule new synthetic drugs without any scientific basis. I think having someone who is so extreme in his views at the Department of Justice is a green light for people in other parts of the government to take us in the wrong direction. This is a major challenge for DPA and the drug reform movement in general, and we will be focusing on that right off the bat.

Drug War Chronicle: Let's talk about racial equity. How do we advance that? Whether it's participation in the legal marijuana industry or sentencing policy or consent decrees to rein in police departments, race is implicated.

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's all bound up with what's coming out of Washington and the broader policies we're talking about. It's hard to disentangle racial justice issues from some of these other issues. We've been working on drug reforms in New Jersey and New York, and one of our biggest concerns has been to ensure that new reforms have a strong focus on empowering the very communities most damaged by the war on drugs. Making sure drug reforms takes that perspective into account and creates new opportunities for those communities is a critical part of our work.

Sessions backing away from consent decrees, the demonization of Black Lives Matter, and all that is very clearly tied to rhetoric coming from the White House and the Justice Department that is designed to stigmatize groups and lump people who use drugs in with drug dealers, with communities of color, with immigrants. They use that demonizing combination to justify very harsh policies that will be devastating to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. We have to fight back against that; it's a big part of the story here.

And then there's the impact of the drug war on immigration policy. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch documented how a very large number of immigrants -- and not just undocumented ones -- ended up deported because they had a drug conviction, in many cases from many years back. They are torn apart from their families and often sent to places with which they have little connection, countries where they don't even speak the language. It's not just the deported -- their kids, parents, spouses, sibling, all of them suffer serious consequences. It's cruel and senseless.

It's very clear this administration has made immigration enforcement a top priority. Some very extreme portion of its base really views this as a priority. It's hard to talk to them, but most of the country favors immigration reform, and a very large and increasing number of people understand that using the criminal law when talking about drug use is harmful and makes no sense. If we can make progress on drug reform, we also make progress on immigration by reducing the number of people convicted and exposed to deportation. We have to talk about these issues together and work with immigration reform groups and take them on board in our joint fight.

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