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While Trump Moves Backward on Drug Sentencing, California Heads for More Reforms

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

The Trump Justice Department under prohibitionist Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving some of the drug war's worst sentencing practices -- mandatory minimum sentences, charging low-level defendants with the harshest statutes -- but that doesn't mean the states have to follow suit.

Harsh drug sentences are overcrowding California jails. (supremecourt.gov)
And, as has been the case with climate change, environmental protection, trade, and the protection of undocumented residents, California is charting its own progressive path in the face of the reactionaries in Washington.

The latest evidence comes from Sacramento, where the state Assembly passed a bill to stop sentencing drug offenders to extra time because they have previous drug convictions. The measure, Senate Bill 180, also known as the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act, passed the state Senate in June and now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

The bill would end a three-year sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions, including petty drug sales and possession of drugs for sales. Under current law, sale of even the tiniest amounts of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine can earn up to five years in prison, and each previous conviction for sales or possession with intent add three more.

State sheriffs complain that the drug sentencing enhancement is the leading cause of 10-year-plus sentences being served in their county jails, which now shoulder more of the burden of housing drug war prisoners after earlier reforms aimed at reducing prison overcrowding shifted them to local lock-ups. As of 2014, there were more than 1,500 people in California jails sentenced to more than five years and the leading cause of these long sentences was non-violent drug sales offenses.

"People are realizing that it is time to reform the criminal justice system so that there's more emphasis on justice and rehabilitation," Mitchell said after the final vote on SB 180, which is supported by nearly 200 business, community, legal and public-service groups. "By repealing sentencing enhancements for people who have already served their time, California can instead make greater investments in our communities. Let's focus on putting 'justice' in our criminal-justice system."

"This sentencing enhancement has been on the books for 35 years and failed to reduce the availability or sales of drugs within our communities," said Eunisses Hernandez of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the bill. "These extreme and punitive polices of the war on drugs break up families and don't make our communities any safer."

The bill is part of a set of bills known as the #EquityAndJustice package aimed at reducing inequities in the system. Authored by state Sens. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), the package also includes Senate Bill 190, which would end unreasonable fees on the families of incarcerated children and also sits on the governor's desk, as well as Senate Bill 355, which will end the requirement that innocent defendants reimburse the counties for the cost of appointed counsel. Brown has already signed that into law. "Harsh sentencing laws have condemned a generation of men of color, and with SB 180 and other bills in the Equity and Justice package we are on our way to restoring the values of rehabilitation to the criminal justice system," Lara said.

When Washington is in the hands of authoritarian, law-and-order politicians like Trump, Sessions, and the Republican Congress, it's time for the states to step up. California is showing how it's done.

Chronicle AM: Ontario Goes With State-Owned Pot Shops, DEA Agent's Sordid Affair, More... (9/11/17)

Canada's most populous province is going with a state monopoly on legal marijuana sales, the CARERS Act is back, last week's surprise budget deal preserves protections for legal medical marijuana states for a few more months, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Congressional Budget Deal Preserves Medical Marijuana Protections -- For Now. The budget deal agreed to last week between President Trump and congressional leaders extends federal protections to state-legal medical marijuana programs through December 8. This provides an opportunity for House GOP leaders to rectify their decision last week not to allow a vote on the amendment that for the past four years has blocked the Justice Department from spending federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Reintroduce CARERS Act. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rand Paul (R-KY) refiled the CARERS Act (Senate Bill 1764) last Wednesday. The bill aims to "extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana."

Iowa Attorney General Cites Fed Fears to Block CBD from Out of State Dispensaries. The attorney general's office has advised the Department of Public Health not to implement a part of the state's CBD medical marijuana law that would have licensed two dispensaries from bordering states to supply CBD to Iowa patients. "It is possible that state's program may come under increased scrutiny from the federal government," a spokesman told the Des Moines Register, adding that the halt would remain "until the federal government provides further guidance regarding state medical marijuana programs."

Drug Policy

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi Joins Trump's Drug Task Force. A Republican and Trump supporter, Bondi has been appointed to the Presidential Commission on Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, her office announced last Friday. The other commission members are chairman and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), North Carolina Roy Cooper (D), former US Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-MA), and Harvard professor Dr. Bertha Madras. The commission is supposed to issue a final report by October 1.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New York Congressman Files Bill to Broaden Medication Assisted Treatment. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) has filed House Resolution 3692 to "amend the Controlled Substances Act to provide additional flexibility with respect to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders."

Law Enforcement

DEA Agent's Scandalous Affair Unveiled. A Justice Department inspector general's report released last Thursday revealed one bit of juicy scandal: A DEA agent carried on a wild affair with a convicted drug criminal for five years, and let her listen to active wiretaps, roam the evidence room unattended, and had sex with her in his office and official vehicle. The whole thing unraveled when she got pregnant, he reacted unfavorably, and she ratted him out to superiors. The unnamed agent was originally only suspended for 45 days, but was eventually fired.

International

Ontario Will Only Allow Legal Pot Sales in Government Monopoly Shops. Canada's most populous province announced last Friday that it will open 150 standalone pot shops operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), as well as eventually allowing an online order service. Dispensaries that have sprouted up in the province are out of luck: "Illicit cannabis dispensaries are not and will not be legal retailers," the province explained in a news release. "The province will pursue a coordinated and proactive enforcement strategy, working with municipalities, local police services, the OPP and the federal government to help shut down these illegal operations."

Canadian Prime Minister Just Says No to Drug Decriminalization. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rejected calls from British Columbia public health and political figures to embrace drug decriminalization as part of a solution to the country's opioid crisis. "We are making headway on this and indeed the crisis continues and indeed spreads across the country but we are not looking at legalizing any other drugs than marijuana for the time being," Trudeau told a news conference in BC last Thursday.

German Poll Finds Solid Majority for Marijuana Legalization. A Mafo Market Research Institute poll has found signs of a rapid shift in support for freeing the weed in Germany. Polls going back to 2001 have had support hovering around 19%, but things began to change around 2014. That year, a poll had 30% supporting legalization. In November 2015, another poll had support at 42%. The new Mafo poll has support at 57.5%.

Chronicle AM: Fed MJ Amendments Coming, Trump to Name Marino as Drug Czar, More... (9/5/17)

Trump nominates a drug czar, federal drug prosecutions are down, Obama's clemency program barely scratched the surface, British nitrous oxide prosecutions get laughed out of court, and more.

Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) is Trump's pick for job czar. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Representatives File Marijuana Banking Amendments. Congressional supporters of legal marijuana have filed two amendments to the House Treasury appropriations bill. One would prohibit Treasury from spending money to punish banks that service the legal marijuana sector; the other bars Treasury from altering FinCEN's guidance to banking institutions. If passed, the bills would allow marijuana businesses in compliance with state laws to have access to the banking system.

Rep. Ted Lieu Files Amendment to Cut DEA Eradication Funding. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) has reintroduced an amendment to slash funding for the DEA's marijuana eradication program by half. Last year, the budget for eradication was $18 million, spent mainly on uprooting low-THC feral hemp in the Midwest. The program "is a ridiculous waste of precious federal resources, especially when multiple states and jurisdictions have already legalized marijuana… it is time for the federal government to stop making marijuana use or possession a federal crime," Lieu said.

California Regulation Bills Die As Legislature Gets Out of the Way. The Senate Appropriations Committee last Friday bottled up ten bills aimed at regulating legal marijuana commerce, leaving the way clear for the state's new Bureau of Cannabis Control to finish its own rulemaking process before lawmakers come back with additional restrictions. "Legislative leaders are working with the administration on a budget trailer bill to resolve cannabis-related issues. It makes sense to take a comprehensive approach," Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) chairman of the committee, told the Marin Journal.

Colorado Lawsuit Claims DOJ Using IRS to Do Criminal Investigations of Pot Businesses. The owners of a medical marijuana business in the town of Silt have filed a lawsuit challenging IRS subpoenas to the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division that seek information about how much marijuana the businesses have grown, who they sold it to, and when. The lawsuit alleges that the information is being sought for possible use in criminal investigations by the Justice Department. The IRS says it is simply trying to verify financial records.

Delaware Task Force on Marijuana Legalization Will Meet Wednesday. A state legislative task force charged with studying how marijuana might be legalized and making recommendations on doing so will meet for the first time on Wednesday. The task force was created by legislative resolution after a bill to legalize marijuana failed earlier this year.

Drug Policy

Trump to Name Pennsylvania Republican Congressman as Drug Czar. The White House announced Friday that President Trump will nominate Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). Marino had been mentioned as a possible drug czar earlier, but withdrew from consideration in May, citing family illness.

Law Enforcement

Federal Drug Prosecutions Fall Under Trump. Despite all the tough talk about cracking down on crime coming from the White House and the Justice Department, the latest data from the department show that overall criminal conviction and drug conviction are both down during the first 10 months of Fiscal Year 2017. Overall criminal convictions were down 12.3% over last year and are now lower than at any time since 2008. Federal drug convictions were also down by 4.0%, reaching their lowest level since 1997. Of all DOJ prosecutions, immigration offenses accounted for 53.1%, followed by drug conviction at 18.6%.

Sentencing

Report on Obama's Clemency Initiative Finds Only a Small Percentage of Those Eligible Actually Got Clemency. The US Sentencing Commission has released an analysis of the implementation of the Obama administration's 2014 clemency initiative, which encouraged long-serving, nonviolent drug offenders to apply for sentence cuts. The report found that while President Obama granted more commutations than any other president (1,928) and that most of them (1,696) were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative, the initiative only saw sentence cuts for only 3.4% of all federally imprisoned drug trafficking offenders who appeared to meet all the clemency criteria. On the other hand, those who did get sentence cuts saw an average reduction of nearly 12 years.

International

Philippines Drug War Has Nation's Jails Creaking Under the Pressure. While the horrid killings of thousands of suspected drug users and dealers had grabbed the world's attention, President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war has also seen nearly 100,000 people arrested on drug charges, with almost all (94%) of them still in jail awaiting trial. As a result, the country's jails are now tremendously overcrowded, with one prison with an official capacity of 262 inmates now holding 2,975 -- three-fourths of them for drug offenses. It's not just the jails that are feeling the pinch; the Public Attorney's Office, which defends the cases, reports a backlog of 303,000 drug cases, nearly 2 ½ times the backlog when Duterte took office.

British Courts Throw Out Laughing Gas Prosecutions. In the past few days, two cases in which the government attempted to prosecute people for supplying nitrous oxide (laughing gas) have collapsed, with courts ruling that that the stuff is a medicine and thus exempt from last year's Psychoactive Substances Act. This is no surprise to drug experts, including the government's own drug advisors, who warned the law was overly broad and unworkable.

Chronicle AM: MA Gov Wants Harsh Sentences for Drug Deaths, More... (8/31/17)

Connecticut continues to grapple with opioids, the Massachusetts governor and cops want mandatory minimums and a possible life sentence for dealers whose clients die, and more.

MA Gov. Baker prefers 20th Century drug war mistakes over 21st century solutions. (mass.gov)
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Fentanyl Overdoses Now Exceed Heroin Overdoses in Connecticut. The state saw 539 opioid overdose deaths in the first half of this year, and for the first time, more people died using fentanyl than heroin. While 257 people died of heroin overdoses, 322 died of fentanyl overdoses. The state medical examiner's office projects overdose deaths this year will reach 1,100, a 20% increase over last year.

Connecticut Governor Signs Opioid Bill. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Thursday signed into law a bill aimed at slowing the state's opioid epidemic. The bill increases monitoring of opioid prescriptions and requires health insurers to cover inpatient detoxification. The bill passed the legislature unanimously. This is the third year in a row the state has passed bills aimed at the opioid epidemic.

Drug Policy

Massachusetts Governor Wants Harsher Penalties for Drug Deals That Lead to Death. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has sent a letter to the legislature proposing a bill that would increase sentences for dealers who sold drugs to people who overdosed and died -- up to life in prison. "When illegal drug distribution causes a death, laws that were designed to punish the act are inadequate to recognize the seriousness of the resulting harm," Baker wrote, according to MassLive. "This legislation would provide for a penalty of up to life in prison and, like the offense of manslaughter while driving drunk, would also require a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years," he added. The bill has the support of law enforcement.

Santa Fe Mayor to Introduce Resolution to Establish A Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force. Javier Gonzalez, the mayor of New Mexico's fourth largest city, will on Thursday introduce a resolution establishing a Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force charged with recommending innovative public health and safety approaches to problematic drug use in the city. "This isn't a problem we can solve by simply declaring a new, top-down policy. It has to be something we take on together, and the strategy has to come from the community. From harm reduction, to law enforcement, to prevention, to treatment, there is a huge range of expertise already developing in Santa Fe, and to find success we will need every one of those voices at the table," said Mayor Gonzales. He added, "So we're doing what we often can do best -- bringing people together."

Chronicle AM: OR Defelonizes Drug Possession, Iran Could Cut Drug Executions, More... (8/16/17)

Oregon is the latest state to decriminalize drug possession, Iran moves to reduce drug trafficking executions, Philippines President Duterte cheers on cops killing drug suspects, and more.

We could see less of this if a bill in Iran's parliament wins final approval. (handsoffcain.net)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legal Pot Sales Won't Meet February Deadline. The legislative committee tasked with implementing marijuana legalization finished its preliminary work Tuesday, but with the committee's recommendations still having to be turned into a draft bill to be debated by legislators, the agencies that will oversee the recreational market will not be able to meet a February deadline for opening pot shops, committee co-chair Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta) said.

Michigan Legalization Signature Gathering Campaign Passes Halfway Mark. MI Legalize, the folks behind the 2018 marijuana legalization initiative, announced Wednesday that they will pass the 200,000 mark on raw signatures next week. The campaign has set a goal of collecting 366,000 raw signatures to meet a state requirement of 252,523 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaign needs to gather its signatures within a six-month window and appears to be easily on track to do so.

Drug Policy

Oregon Becomes Latest State to Defelonize Drug Possession. Governor Kate Brown (D) signed into law on Tuesday a bill that defelonizes the possession of personal amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Possession of small amounts will now be a misdemeanor. The new law takes effect immediately. [Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the law as decriminalizing drug possession.]

International

Iran Parliament Moves to Reduce Drug Executions. The Majlis on Sunday passed a long-discussed amendment to the country's drug laws that would limit imposition of the death penalty in drug trafficking cases to those involving more than 110 pounds of opium or more than 4.4 pounds of heroin, morphine, or cocaine. Iran carried out more than 500 executions last year, most of them for drug offenses, making it one of the world's leading executioners. An estimated 5,000 people are on death row for drug offenses in Iran, and the new law would save many of them from the gallows. But it's not a done deal yet: The measure still needs another parliamentary vote and then must be approved by the council of clerics.

Philippines Police Kill 32 in Drug Raids, Earn Praise from Duterte. In one of the bloodiest operations of a very bloody war on drug users, police killed 32 people on Monday in raids in Bulacan province. Police were doing a heck of a job, Duterte said in remarks reported by France 24 TV: "The ones who died recently in Bulacan, 32, in a massive raid, that was good," Duterte said. "If we could kill another 32 everyday, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country."

Belize Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Set for Parliament. An amendment to the country's Misuse of Drugs Act that would decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is set to be filed in parliament on Friday, according to committee members and Solicitor General Nigel Hawke. The proposal has been in the works since 2015, when legal drafting got underway.

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.

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.

Chronicle AM: Uruguay Marijuana Pharmacy Sales Begin, DPA Names New Chief, More... (7/19/17)

All New England states have now either decriminalized or legalized marijuana, the Drug Policy Alliance names a new head, Uruguay begins legal pot sales at pharmacies, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legalization Implementation Bill Could Go to Governor This Week. Legislative leaders defended their compromise pot bill, House Bill 3818, Wednesday, and votes on the bill could come at any time. The measure is expected to pass the legislature and then head to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who is expected to sign it. The bill increases taxes from 12% to up to 20%, and would allow authorities in localities that didn't vote in favor of the legalization initiative to ban pot businesses without a popular vote.

New Hampshire Governor Signs Decriminalization Bill. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has signed into law House Bill 640, which eliminates criminal penalties for the possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. Instead of jail time, violators will face a $100 fine for a first offense, $200 for a second, and $350 for a third offense within three years of the original offense. With the state now adopting decriminalization, all of New England has now either legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Names New Executive Director. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation's most powerful drug reform organization, has selected a replacement for founder and long-time executive director Ethan Nadelmann, who stepped down earlier this year.The DPA board of directors announced Tuesday it had voted unanimously to appoint Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno as Nadelmann's successor. McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is moving over from Human Rights Watch, where for the past 13 years she served as Co-Director of the US Program, where she picked up plenty of domestic and international drug policy experience. She also pushed for the group to more directly take on the war on drugs as a human rights issue, and as a result, Human Rights Watch became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and global drug reform.

International

Uruguay Legal Marijuana Sales in Pharmacies Get Underway. Pharmacists in Uruguay began selling marijuana to customers Wednesday, the last step in a pioneering national legalization process that began more than three years ago. Uruguay is the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana for recreational use. Canada is set to be next.

Chronicle AM: CT Ends Civil Forfeiture, Sessions Calls for More Drug War (Again), More... (7/12/17)

Connecticut has become the 14th state to end civil asset forfeiture, Nevada's state government is moving to ease a potential marijuana shortage, Jeff Sessions gives another drug war speech, and more.

Attorney General Sessions showed up at DARE to slam Obama-era drug reforms. (senate.gov).
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Governor Says Deal on Legalization Close. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said Thursday lawmakers are close to reaching a deal on a bill that will regulate legal marijuana in the state. The House had favored a 28% tax and allowing localities to ban pot businesses without a popular vote, while the Senate held to the 12% tax included in the voter-approved legalization initiative and wouldn't allow pot shop bans without a popular vote. "I'm told there are only a couple minor things that are outstanding. I hope they get them done because if they don't get them done, I think at some point, we're going to have to go forward with the law as it was written," said Baker.

Nevada Regulators Set to Approve Emergency Regs to Avoid Pot Shortage.State tax officials are set to vote Thursday on an emergency regulation that they hope will allow marijuana stores to avoid running out of supply. The regulation would allow the state to issue distribution licenses that are currently being held up by a legal challenge from liquor distributors, who want a cut of the action. Because of heavy demand since legal sales started July 1, some shops are "running on fumes," said Nevada Dispensary Association President Andrew Jolley.

Asset Forfeiture

Connecticut Governor Signs Bill Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Monday signed into law House Bill 7146, which ends property or cash seizures in the state without a criminal conviction. Connecticut becomes the 14th state to require a criminal conviction in most or all forfeiture cases.

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions Again Attacks Drug, Sentencing Reforms. In a speech at the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) training conference in Dallas on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the country's drug problem "unprecedented" and generally blamed it on Obama-era sentencing reforms that led prosecutors "not to charge the most serious offenses." Sessions said a new Justice Department police directing prosecutors to seek mandatory minimum sentences was the way to go. "We are going to trust our prosecutors again," Sessions said Tuesday. "This policy empowers trust in professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate."

Chronicle AM: MI Init Signatures Coming Fast, OR Decriminalizes Drug Possession, More... (7/11/17)

Michigan legalizers are fast off the mark in their initiative signature-gathering campaign, the Drug Policy Alliance and 30 groups call for drug decriminalization, Oregon is set to defelonize drug possession, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Michigan Initiative Campaign Already Has 100,000 Raw Signatures. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which wants to put a legalization initiative on the November 2018 ballot, announced Monday that signature gathering was ahead of schedule and that the group had already passed the 100,000 mark. To qualify for the ballot, the group must collect 252,523 valid voter signatures within a six-month period. They began signature gathering in late May.

DC Public Use Marijuana Arrests Tripled Last Year. More than 400 people were arrested in the nation's capital last year for publicly using marijuana, a nearly three-fold jump over the 142 arrested in 2015. And this year so far the pace of arrests remains steady. Some advocates criticized the increase in arrests, with Adam Eidinger, the man behind DC's legalization law, saying the right to smoke marijuana in the District is effectively reserved for "those who own private property," with renters, residents of public housing, and visitors out of luck. "A lot of it is people not realizing they can't smoke in public," he said of the increase in arrests. "A lot of it is people who have no place else to go."

Medical Marijuana

Puerto Rico Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Ricardo Rosello, a former biomedical engineer, on Sunday signed into law a bill that legalizes and regulates medical marijuana in the US territory. The move comes after Rossello criticized an earlier executive order allowing medical marijuana as insufficient. "As a scientist, I know firsthand the impact that medicinal cannabis has had on patients with various diseases," he said. "The time has come for Puerto Rico to join the flow of countries and states that have created similar legislation."

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Report Calls for US Drug Decriminalization. In a new report endorsed by more than 30 organizations, the Drug Policy Alliance is calling for the end of arresting people simply for using or possessing drugs. "Our current laws have branded tens of millions of people with a lifelong criminal record that makes it hard to get a job or an apartment," said Art Way, senior director of national criminal justice strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The experience of the last few decades shows that criminalization has been utterly ineffective in reducing problematic drug use."

Sentencing

Oregon Defelonizes Drug Possession. The state legislature has approved House Bill 2355, which makes simple possession of drugs such as heroin, MDMA, and meth a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail. Under current law, drug possession is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The bill also includes a provision aimed at reducing racial profiling by police. The legislature also approved House Bill 3079, which reduces penalties for property crimes often related to problematic drug use. Gov. Kate Brown (D) is expected to sign the bills into law shortly.

Drug War Issues

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