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In Trump and Sessions' Drug War, It's Bad Cop/Bad Cop [FEATURE]

The omens are not good. In a pair of speeches last week, the president and his attorney general made some very menacing comments about drug policy. While their last-century drug warrior rhetoric has not, for the most part, translated into regressive, repressive drug policy prescriptions -- yet -- it's probably not safe to assume that will continue to be the case.

Donald Trump, bad cop (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
At the same time, the Trump White House appears to be approaching key aspects of the country's opioid crisis, which contributed mightily to a record 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, with a mixture of indifference and incompetence.

Trump wants to drastically slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), his White House opioid response is laughably led by pollster and counselor -- not drug policy or addiction expert -- Kellyanne Conway, and his budget proposals are for spending substantially less -- not more -- money on treatment and prevention.

An Obama-era law that designated a billion dollars to help states fight opioids runs out of money this year, with no sign Trump intends to ask Congress to renew it, and Trump's 2018 budget request has a $400 million cut to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the lead federal agency for treatment.

Instead of proactive responses aimed at ameliorating the crisis, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are falling back on drug war rhetoric that would have been at home in Nixon's 1970s or Reagan's 1980s. (And the budget wouldn't even have flown under Nixon.)

Trump spent barely a minute talking about the opioid crisis in his State of the Union speech last week, and now he says he's focused on law enforcement, not treatment and prevention.

In a speech last week in Cincinnati, Trump said the opioid epidemic "has never been worse. People form blue ribbon committees. They do everything they can. And frankly, I have a different take on it. My take is you have to get really, really tough, really, really mean with the drug pushers and drug dealers."

Jeff Sessions, bad cop (senate.gov)
Attorney General Sessions, for his part, was on the same page this week. In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation for an event honoring Ronald Reagan's birthday, Sessions could have been channeling the Gipper himself, blaming the media, not enough drug war, and "permissive rhetoric" for problems with drug use in the US.

"We don't think illegal drug use is 'recreation,'' he said. "Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use. Don't start. That's what President Trump said to us the other day in a meeting. What did Nancy Reagan say? Just say no."

Sessions also reiterated his opposition to state-legal marijuana resorted to the discredited "gateway theory" to try to blame marijuana for the opioid epidemic.

"The DEA said that a huge percentage of heroin addictions starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number -- they had it as high as 80 percent -- we think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs," Sessions ventured.

"We are not going to pretend that there is not a law against marijuana. There is a federal law against marijuana," he said. "And we're not going to pretend that marijuana is good for you, either. I don't think it is."

bad cops
Drug war rhetoric is one thing; actual policy shifts is another. So far, despite the tough talk, about the only concrete action aimed at driving us back to the failed drug war policies of the past is Sessions' move last May to reverse an Obama-era policy of moving away from harsh mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. Other than that, there's been a lot of sound and fury, but little in the way of actual policy proposals. Still, the remarks this week from the president and his chief law enforcement officer ought to be setting off alarm bells.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has a better idea. The independent Vermont senator and 2016 Democratic presidential contender on Wednesday announced a petition calling on Congress to "end the failed war on drugs." "The criminal justice system is not the answer to drug abuse. Addiction is a health problem and we should start treating it that way," Sanders wrote. "While communities all across the country lack adequate resources for treatment or prevention, we are spending approximately $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. That's absurd. We need to get our priorities right."

Here is Sessions at the Heritage Foundation:

Chronicle AM: Trump Drug Budget, NH Marijuana Bill Hearing, OR Opioid Emergency, More... (2/13/18)

The proposed FY 2019 Trump budget features more drug war and cutting the drug czar's office, a legal marijuana bill gets a hearing in New Hampshire, Oregon's governor declares a public health emergency over opioids, and more.

The president's proposed budget has billions for more drug war. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Georgia Bills to Reduce Penalties Filed. A pair of bills filed in the legislature seek to reduce the criminalization of marijuana users. House Bill 865 would make possession of up to two ounces a misdemeanor. Under current law, possession of more than one ounce is a felony. Senate Bill 105 would decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce. Legalization bills were filed earlier in the session, but they are not expected to go anywhere.

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Gets Hearing Today. The House Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing on a limited legalization bill today. House Bill 656 would legalize the possession of up to a quarter ounce of weed and grow up to six plants, but would not set up a system of legal marijuana commerce.

Virginia Senate Approves Arrest Expungement Bill. The Senate voted 38-2 on Monday to approve Senate Bill 954, sponsored by Sen. Tommy Noment (R-James City). The bill would allow people charged with first-time possession to later pay $150 to have the charge expunged. The measure must now be approved by the House.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Poll Has Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Selzer & Company poll has 78% in favor of medical marijuana, with 19% opposed, figures that are roughly unchanged over the past couple of years. What has changed is support for recreational marijuana, now at 39%, up from 28% four years ago.

New Mexico Lawmakers Eye Marijuana in Fight Against Opioids. Lawmakers and supporters gathered at the state capitol in Santa Fe Monday to urge state officials to add opioid addiction to the list of disorders qualifying for medical marijuana. And advisory panel has twice considered petitions seeking to add medical marijuana as a tool against opioid abuse, the most recent last November, but the state Health Department has yet to act.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Oregon Governor Declares Addiction a Public Health Crisis. Gov. Kathleen Brown (D) on Tuesday released an executive order declaring opioid addiction to be a public health crisis in the state. She said she would soon set a deadline for the state Alcohol and Drugs Policy Commission to come up with a plan to fight the problem.

Drug Policy

Trump Budget Doubles Down on Drug War. The Trump administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget is heavy on drug war spending, with an additional $400 million for the DEA, $334 million in the law enforcement-oriented Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, $50 million for the once-discarded anti-drug media campaign, $43 million for drug courts, and a cut of $20 million in offender reentry programs. The budget includes $18 billion over two years for the Mexico border wall, which Trump justifies on both drugs and immigration grounds, which is more than the $13 billion the administration says it is allocating to fight opioid abuse.

Trump Budget Would Gut Drug Czar's Office. The Trump FY 2019 budget would also dramatically slash funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), primarily by moving two grant programs elsewhere. Under the proposal, the Drug Free Communities Support Program and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program would be moved into the Health and Human Services Department and Justice Department, respectively. The move is opposed by some lawmakers and a coalition of more than 150 advocacy organizations, but more radical critics on both the left and the right would like to see the agency go away altogether.

Sentencing

New Jersey Governor Revives Sentencing Commission. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is reviving the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which was created by the legislature in 2009 to examine racial disparities in sentencing, but remained dormant under former Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie never appointed any members to the commission. "We can and must do better," Murphy said in a statement. "A Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission can undertake the important review of our sentencing laws and recommend reforms necessary to ensure a stronger, fairer, and more just state." Murphy has already appointed two people to the commission's 13-member board, which must issue a report within a year of its first meeting.

Chronicle AM: DEA Emergency Ban on Fentanyl Analogs, Fox Legalization Poll, More... (2/7/18)

A Fox poll has support for legalization at an all-time high, Colorado's governor ponders freeing marijuana prisoners, the DEA emergency bans fentanyl analogues, New York's governor bans synthetic cannabinoids, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Fox News Poll Has Support for Marijuana Legalization at Record High. A new Fox News poll has the poll's highest numbers yet in support of freeing the weed. Some 59% said legalize it, up from 51% in 2015, 46% in 2013, and 26% in 2001. The Fox poll results are in line with other national polls, which are now typically showing support for legalization in the high 50s or low 60s.

Colorado Governor Ponders Freeing Marijuana Prisoners. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is considering releasing nearly 40 prison inmates serving time for nonviolent marijuana offenses. "Right now, we have not enough room left in our prisons. So if what these people are serving serious time for wasn't violent -- is no longer illegal -- maybe we should be looking at (whether) it safe to release them," he said in an interview with The Denver Post. "We are talking about going out and finding people who are still in prison, and saying, 'If you want to apply we think your application will have favor,'" Hickenlooper said.

Virginia Poll Has Strong Support for Decriminalization. A new poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University has support for decriminalization at 76%, with even 60% of Republicans in favor. The poll comes a week after Republicans in the state Senate killed a decriminalization bill.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Emergency Schedules All Illicit Fentanyl Analogs. The US Drug Enforcement Administration this week placed all illicit fentanyl analogues not already regulated by the Controlled Substances Act into Schedule I -- the category for substances with no currently accepted medical use -- for two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension. The action is intended to reduce these substances' flow into the country and slow the alarming increase in overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids, but time will tell.

Kratom

FDA Ramps Up Warnings on Kratom, Calls It "Opioid." The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday ramped up its warnings about kratom, saying that new research says the herb has "opioid properties" and is linked to 44 deaths. "We feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. New data has reinforced the agency concerns about kratom's "potential for abuse, addiction and serious health consequences, including death."

New Synthetic Substances

New York Governor Uses Temporary Budget Amendment to Ban Sales of Synthetic Cannabinoids. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Wednesday a 30-day budget amendment to add 36 different synthetic cannabinoids to the state's controlled substance list. While the substances are banned federally, only some New York counties had banned them. "As the manufacturers of this poison continue to evolve and find new and insidious ways to skirt the law, New York's statutes must continue to keep pace," Cuomo said. "With this action, we'll continue to identify and crack down on hazardous compounds that emerge in our communities, and give law enforcement the tools they need to end this public health threat."

International

Canada Legalization Rollout Could Be Delayed. Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Tuesday that recreational marijuana sales will only begin a few months after legalization later this year because the new legal sales system will take time to begin working properly. The Liberal government wants the new law in place by July 1, but if it takes until that date, legal sales could be pushed back to the fall.

Israel Prime Minister Blocks Medical Marijuana Exports, Calls for More Studies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended plans to allow Israeli medical marijuana growers to export their crops pending new reviews by the Health Ministry and the chairman of the National Economic Council. The move came after a Sunday meeting where Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan presented data on the diversion of medical marijuana into recreational markets.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Bank Plan, Israel Decrim Draft, No Drug Testing SD Lawmakers, More... (1/31/18)

California's treasurer wants to create a public bank for pot businesses, a New Jersey poll on legalization has mixed results, the Indiana House passes a CBD bill, Israel takes another step toward marijuana decriminalization, and more.

Marijuana decriminalization is coming to Israel.
Marijuana Policy

California Treasurers Lay Out Plan to Create Public Marijuana Bank. State Treasurer John Chiang on Tuesday laid out a plan to create a public bank for marijuana businesses, a defiant move in the face of the Trump administration's opposition to legal marijuana. "We are contending with the emergence of a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry that needs banking services, and a private banking industry that is stymied by federal law in meeting the needs of the new industry," said Chiang, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. "The current administration is out of step with the will of the people, not only those in California, but the 29 states that have legalized either or both medicinal and recreational-use cannabis."

New Jersey Pot Poll Has Mixed Results. A new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University has strong support for further marijuana law reforms in the state, but only a minority in favor of outright legalization. The poll found 42% said legalize it, 26% said only decriminalize it, and 27% said it should be legal only for medical purposes. The poll comes as Gov. Phil Murphy (D) champions the cause of legalization and with one legalization bill already filed in the Senate and another set to be filed in the House.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana House Approves CBD Bill. The House voted 93-0 Tuesday to approve House Bill 1214, which would allow anyone to buy and use CBD cannabis oil, provided it contains less than 0.3% THC. The bill also gets around federal controlled substance prohibitions by designating CBD oil as an exempt hemp product. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Drug Testing

Maine Employers Must Ignore Off-Work Marijuana Use, Cease Testing Applicants. As of Thursday, Maine becomes the first state to protect workers from adverse employer action because of their use of marijuana. The state Department of Labor has removed marijuana from the list of drugs for which employers can test in its model drug policy. The legalization initiative passed by voters bars employers from refusing to employ or otherwise penalizing any person age 21 or older based on that person"s "consuming marijuana outside the … employer's property. Employers can still discipline workers who are high on the job, but a positive drug test will not be deemed sufficient to conclude that a worker was under the influence at work.

South Dakota Lawmakers Reject Drug Testing Themselves. The House State Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to kill House Bill 1133, which would have required lawmakers to be drug tested within two weeks of taking office. The committee "deferred the bill to the 41st day," of the legislature's 40-day legislative session.

International

Israeli Ministry Releases Marijuana Decriminalization Draft Legislation. The Public Security Ministry on Tuesday published draft legislation to decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the proposal, being caught with pot would lead to a $265 fine on a first offense, a $530 fine on a second offense, and possible prosecution for a third offense. The draft language doesn't specify the amount of marijuana being decriminalized, but it will likely be up to 15 grams. The draft legislation will be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on February 18.

Chronicle AM: MedMJ Icon Dennis Peron Dies, ALEC Spurns Drug-Free Zone Laws, More... (1/29/18)

A pioneer of the medical marijuana movement is dead, the conservative group ALEC calls for reform of drug-free zone laws, the Trump administration is turning to private prisons, and more.

Dennis Peron, RIP (Pinterest)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Calls for Marijuana Legalization. "Legalize it. Tax it. Use the revenue to fix Florida's public schools and move us up from 29th in the nation to #1." That's what Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tweeted last week in response to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing 60% of Americans favor legalization. No other candidate supports legalization, but at least two have called for decriminalization. Although at least five Democrats are running, Gillum is one of the leading contenders.

Medical Marijuana

Dennis Peron, "The Father of Medical Marijuana," Dead at 72. A key player in California's groundbreaking embrace of medical marijuana has died. Dennis Peron, an AIDS activist whose partner, Jonathan West, died of the disease in 1990, argued for the benefits of medical marijuana for AIDS patients, opened the nation's first dispensary in San Francisco, and was a driving force behind the city's 1992 ordinance allowing medical marijuana. That was the first step toward the state's historic passage of Prop 215 four years later. Peron was 72. He died of lung cancer at a San Francisco hospital.

Asset Forfeiture

Kansas Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. The House Judiciary Committee has filed House Bill 2459, which would not eliminate civil asset forfeiture, but would create a process for people to file a claim on seized property and assets. The bill was the result of an effort by the Kansas Judicial Commission to draft reform recommendations after eight different reforms bills were offered last year. In a hearing last week, the bill won the support of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, although no vote was taken.

Drug Testing

South Dakota Bill to Allow Drug Testing of Infants Advances. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-1 last week to approve Senate Bill 105, which would allow doctors to drug test newborns for up to 28 days for evidence of prenatal drug exposure. The measure would absolve health care workers from any civil or criminal liability related to the test. Doctors would be required to report positive test results to the state. The bill now heads to a Senate floor vote.

Sentencing Reform

ALEC Calls on States to Reform "Drug-Free Zone" Laws. The conservative, pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model bills for state legislatures, passed a resolution last Friday calling on states to reform drug-free zone laws. Such laws impose stiffer penalties for drug offenses committed within such areas, typically around schools, churches, and parks. They have been criticized as unduly harsh and having a disproportionate racial impact. "Most Drug-Free Zone laws were established decades ago," the resolution says, "but have not been reformed despite evidence that Drug-Free Zones are arbitrary and often unnecessarily broad, are ineffective at deterring drug- related crime, and create significant unintended consequences, including unwarranted disparate impacts on minority defendants."

Trump Administration Seeks to Boost Use of Private Prisons.The Bureau of Prisons now has the goal of "increasing population levels in private contract facilities," a memo sent last week by the agency's Assistant Director for Correctional Programs Division Frank Lara said. The memo follows guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse an Obama-era policy to reduce reliance on private prisons. DOJ is also seeking to cut federal prison guard positions.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Tax Bonanza, Mexico Legal MJ for Tourists, Corruption and Violence in Central American Drug Trade, More... (1/26/18)

California looks set to make big bucks from legalizing weed, Mexico's tourism minister suggests legalizing it at some of the country's biggest tourist beach resorts, the new Honduran national police chief has some explaining to do, and more.

Legal green will make the Golden State a bit more golden. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Will Reap $643 Million in Pot Taxes Next Year, Governor Estimates. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) estimated Wednesday that the state will take in $643 million in marijuana taxes in Fiscal Year 2018-2019, more than 10 times the cost of issuing licenses and enforcing new rules. The estimate comes in the governor's budget proposal for the next fiscal year. This year, with only five months remaining in the fiscal year and with sales just getting underway, the budget estimates $175 million in pot taxes. The high tax proceeds estimates are leading to calls from some consumers and the California Growers Association to lower the taxes.

Virginia House Panel Kills Decriminalization Bill. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Courts and Justice voted 7-1 Wednesday to kill a decriminalization bill, House Bill 1063. A bill that would lessen penalties for a first marijuana offense remains alive.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho CBD Bill Filed. Conservative Republican state Rep. Dorothy Moon has filed a bill that would allow the CBD cannabis oil for medicinal purposes. House Bill 410 would limit cannabis oils to less than 0.3% THC. It is now before the House Health and Welfare Committee.

International

Mexico Tourism Minister Calls for Legal Marijuana at Major Beach Resorts. Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid said Thursday that Mexico should legalize marijuana at two of the country's major beach resorts, Cancun and Los Cabos, in a bid to reduce criminal violence. "It's absurd we're not taking this step as a country," he told reporters in Mexico City. "Even if there's work to be done in the whole of the country, I'd like to see that it might be done in Baja California and Quintana Roo," the states where Los Cabos and Cancun, respectively, are located.

Mexican Military on Patrol in Reynosa in Wake of Cartel Violence. The military is out in force, on the ground and in the air, in the Mexican border city of Reynosa after days of gun battles between rival factions of the Gulf Cartel left at least a dozen people dead. The military patrols will continue indefinitely, the governor of Tamaulipas state said.

Honduras National Police Chief Reportedly Helped Cartel Rescue Cocaine Load. The new chief of National Police, Jose David Aguilar Moran, promised to continue reforming an agency stained by corruption and complicity with drug cartels, but the Associated Press reports that he helped a cartel leader successfully retrieve and deliver nearly a ton of cocaine after lower-ranking police stopped the truck it which it was being transported. That report is based on confidential Honduran government security reports obtained by the AP.

Georgian Protesters Demand Drug Law Reforms. Hundreds of people gathered outside the parliament building in Tbilisi Thursday to reiterate their demand that the country liberalize its drug laws. The rally was sparked by the Monday sentencing of actor Giorgi Giorganashvili to eight years in prison on drug charges. The protestors representing 20 civil society groups said the sentence "once again legitimized the inhumane and repressive drug policy in Georgia." The action comes as the parliament is considering a bill that would decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of drugs.

Chronicle AM: RI MedMJ Expansion Proposed, Trump's Junior Drug Czar to Step Down, More... (1/25/18)

It's the time of year for marijuana to start popping up in state legislatures, Rhode Island's governor proposes expanding the state's medical marijuana system, Trump's wet-behind-the-ears deputy drug czar is stepping down, a new poll finds support for criminal justice reforms, and more.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) wants to quadruple the number of dispensaries in the state. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

US Senators and Reps Send Trump Letter Urging Respect for State Marijuana Laws. Some 54 US senators and representatives sent a letter Thursday to President Trump expressing their "urgent concern" about threats to legal marijuana states and urging him to uphold his campaign pledge to respect state marijuana laws.

Iowa Senate Subcommittee Advances Marijuana Sentencing Reform Bill. A Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee has approved Senate File 342, which would reduce possession of five grams of marijuana or less from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor. That would reduce possible jail time from a year to no more than 30 days and reduce fines from up to $1,000 to $65. The bill now goes before the committee as a whole.

New Mexico Marijuana Sentencing Reform Bill Filed. Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) has filed Senate Bill 141, which would reduce the penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the bill, people caught with less than an ounce would be subject to a fine of no more than $50 for a first offense and up to 15 days in jail. Possession would remain a misdemeanor. The Senate approved a similar bill last year, but it was never taken up in the House. Cervantes is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana House Calls for Study of Medical Marijuana. The House voted unanimously Thursday in support of a resolution calling for a legislative committee to study medical marijuana. If the Senate concurs, a special council comprised of lawmakers from both parties would do the study over the summer.

Kentucky House Calls for Feds to Remove Roadblocks to Marijuana Research. The House voted 73-5 Wednesday to approve a resolution calling on the DEA and the FDA to "expedite research on the safety and effectiveness of the use of marijuana for certain health purposes."

Rhode Island Governor Proposes Medical Marijuana Expansion. As part of her 2018-2019 budget plan, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is proposing quadrupling the number of dispensaries in the state from three to 12, adding "acute pain" to the list of qualifying conditions, and allowing Connecticut and Massachusetts cardholders to buy medical marijuana in the state.

Drug Policy

Trump's 24-Year-Old Deputy Drug Czar to Step Down. Taylor Weyeneth, the 24-year-old former Trump campaigner who was given a senior post in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), will step down at the end of this month. Weyeneth's high-ranking position without any apparent qualifications for it, as well as the revelation that he had a habit of not showing up for work at a law firm where has was previously employed, aroused controversy earlier this month.

Sentencing

Poll Finds Broad Support for Reforming Criminal Justice System. A new Public Opinion Strategies poll finds that fully three-quarters of the American public believe the criminal justice system needs "significant improvements," with strong majorities in both parties in agreement on the issue. Similarly, strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans don't want to spend money locking up nonviolent offenders and that the primary goal of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation. Mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders are "toxic with voters across the political spectrum," the poll found, with 87% strongly supporting replacing them with a system that allows more judicial discretion.

Chronicle AM: VT Legalizes Without Sales, Sentencing Commission Proposes Upped Fentanyl Penalties, More... (1/22/18)

Vermont becomes the 9th legal marijuana state, Illinois lawmakers take up legalization, the US Sentencing Commission proposing increasing fentanyl penalties, and more.

Vermont just turned New England a little greener. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Another National Poll Has a Strong Majority for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal has support for marijuana legalization at 60% nationwide, up from 55% the last time the media outlets asked the question, in 2014.

Illinois Lawmakers Hold Hearing on Marijuana Legalization. A joint legislative committee began a hearing on marijuana legalization Monday morning. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle told legislators she supported it: "Legalizing marijuana is an important step in right-sizing our criminal justice system, reducing racial disparities in prosecuting non-violent drug offenses, targeting our scarce resources on prosecuting violent crime and lessening the social dislocation we see in too many of our communities," Preckwinkle said. The only relevant bill currently before the legislator is Senate Bill 2275, which would authorize a non-binding statewide referendum on the topic of legalization.

Vermont Legalizes Marijuana; Becomes First State to Do So Via Legislative Process. With Gov. Phil Scott's (R) signature on House Bill 511 Monday, the state legalized the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, becoming the first state to free the weed via the legislature. The new law goes into effect July 1. The new law does not legalize the taxed and regulated commercial production and sale of marijuana. Instead, the bill calls for a task force appointed by the governor to study the issue and recommend "legislation on implementing and operating a comprehensive regulatory and revenue system for an adult marijuana market" by December 31. Then lawmakers would have to go to work again to get that passed.

Buffalo Campaigners Call for Police to Deprioritize Marijuana Possession Arrests. A nonprofit group called Open Buffalo has begun a petition campaign to urge Mayor Byron Brown to tell the police department to deprioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws. The group is close to its goal of 600 signatures; when it hits that goal, it will deliver the petition to the mayor.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission Proposes Stiffening Fentanyl Penalties. Last Friday, the Sentencing Commission announced it was proposing to increase penalties for fentanyl offenses by setting the offense level for fentanyl equal to the higher offense level currently assigned to fentanyl analogs. The commission is also proposing a sentencing guidelines enhancement for misrepresenting fentanyl or fentanyl analogs as another substance. The commission also proposed a class-based approach to synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids and established a single marijuana equivalency for each class. Public comment on the proposals is open until March 6, and the commission will hold public hearings in February and March. The commission is expected to vote on the proposals before May 1.

Federal Marijuana Justice Act Filed in House [FEATURE]

Attorney General Sessions' announcement last week that he was rescinding Obama-era guidance to federal prosecutors to generally leave law-abiding marijuana operations alone in states where it is legal has paradoxically had the effect of energizing the movement to legalize marijuana at the federal level. The latest evidence of the reaction came Wednesday, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) filed a legalization bill in the House.

Oakland's Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee (Wikimedia)
And it's not just any legalization bill. Their Marijuana Justice Act would help correct decades of injustice surrounding the discriminatory enforcement of marijuana criminalization laws in the United States.

"We intend to end this destructive war on drugs, and this legislation will do that," said Lee at press conference rolling out the bill. "It's a roadmap for ending the drug war, but it also begins to address mass incarceration and disinvestment in communities of color. It is an essential step to correcting the injustices of the failed war on drugs, namely racial disparities in arrests and incarceration."

In addition to ending federal marijuana prohibition by removing the drug from the DEA's list of controlled substances, the bill would allow anyone currently serving a sentence for drug possession to appeal for judicial review of his or her sentence. It would also use federal spending to incentivize states to reform their marijuana laws "if those laws were shown to have a disproportionate effect on low-income people and/or people of color."

That last provision is especially striking given that nearly every state disproportionately arrests and imprisons blacks for marijuana. With this language, the federal government could become an engine for state-level marijuana legalization instead of an impediment to it.

"This would force states with records of racial bias in arrests and sentencing to clean up their acts by cutting funds to the worst offenders," said Lee.

But even that would only begin to repair the damage done by the drug war, the Oakland congresswoman explained.

"It's not enough to just expunge records and end over-incarceration," Lee said. "Restorative justice is extremely important, and these victims of our failed policies deserve our support during the reentry process, too."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA)
For bill cosponsor Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), it's the economics, but not just in the traditional sense of increased economic activity and tax revenues. While he pointed to the potential economic gains of legalization, he also highlighted the opportunity costs of pot prohibition and underlined provisions in the bill that would spend federal funds to invest in communities ravaged by the drug war.

"The estimates are that legalization would lead to a $40 billion a year industry, with a million jobs and $7 billion tax revenues, which would more than offset the $500 million in the bill to help invest in communities of color. It's a net gain for government and for job creation," Khanna noted.

"But the economic impact is so much broader," he pointed out. "How many people of color got arrested at 19, 20, or 25? That represents hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic potential. With this bill, we're not just talking about legalization, but about giving people a second chance.

The Marijuana Justice Act is the House version of the bill introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Senate Bill 1689. Booker was at Wednesday's press conference for the House version.

"There is a rush of enthusiasm for legalization," he said, "but it seems like hypocrisy and injustice if you legalize it but don't ty to undo the damage of the war on drugs. You can't get a Pell grant or a business or professional license for doing something three out of our last four presidents have admitted doing. The war on drugs is one of the greatest assaults on people of color since Jim Crow, and that's why this is a very happy day for me. We're trying to make this nation live up to is promise of liberty and justice, not just for the privileged few, but for all.

Sen.Cory Booker (D-NJ) filed the Senate version of the bill last August.
"I think we are seeing momentum growing," Booker continued. "People who were skeptics are being converted. A lot of people are aware of how unjust this has been, and now there is more confidence from seeing early state like Colorado be so successful."

Indeed. One of the most politically striking moments since the Sessions announcement was Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner -- not a supporter of legalization -- taking to the Senate floor to excoriate Sessions over the move and vow to block Justice Department nominees until Sessions reverses himself.

"More than 30 states have passed marijuana reforms," said Lee. "The grassroots and democracy is working. You will see members of the House and Senate move forward because the public supports this. It can't be stopped."

"We are at a tipping point, with nearly two-thirds supporting marijuana legalization and an overwhelming 91% supporting medical marijuana, said Queen Adesuyi of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been working closely with Booker and Lee on the bills. "Eight states have already legalized it, with Vermont and New Hampshire on the cusp. Yet, Attorney General Sessions continues to threaten the states. It's time to legalize marijuana, protect patients, and end federal marijuana prohibition."

While momentum is building, the bills both face an uphill battle in their respective chambers. The Booker bill, introduced last August, still has only one cosponsor, Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden, and there is no indication it will get even a committee hearing this session. Lee and Khanna's House version of the bill already had a dozen cosponsors on day one, but again, it is unlikely to get a hearing under the House Republican leadership.

But the legalization bills could fare better next year if the Democrats manage to take back the House and/or the Senate. And Jeff Sessions' war on weed could help them to do just that.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, 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: Govs Seek Fed Help for Opioid Crisis, KY GOP Leader Files Legal MJ Bill, More... (1/18/18)

Governors call for more help with the opioid crisis from the federal government, a Kentucky GOP leader files a marijuana legalization bill, the ACLU of Montana warns an overzealous prosecutor, and more.

The nation's governors want Trump and the Congress to step up on dealing with the opioid crisis. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Congressmen Reintroduce Bill to Protect Marijuana from Civil Asset Forfeiture. Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) reintroduced the Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture Funding for Marijuana Suppression Act on Wednesday. The bill would block seized funds from being used to in the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression program. This year's version of the bill is not yet available on the congressional website, but the 2015 version is available here.

Kentucky Republican Leader Files Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale), a member of the Republican leadership team, filed a marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday. The bill would allow people 21 and over to legally use marijuana, and it would also legalize the production and sales of pot. The measure is Senate Bill 80.

New Jersey Legalization Bid Must Overcome Democratic Wavering. Newly seated Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy vowed to legalize marijuana in his first 100 days in office, but he's going to have to whip some Democratic senators into shape first. At least a half dozen Democratic senators say they plan to vote against any legalization bill. The state Senate has 40 seats; the Democrats hold 25 of them. If all six Democrats actually vote no, that means passage would depend on at least two Republicans voting yes. There are two GOP senators, Chris Brown of Atlantic and Dawn Addiego of Burlington, who have said they are leaning toward supporting the bill.

Wisconsin Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Would Pardon Marijuana Offenders. A leading contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, said Wednesday he would pardon all low-level, non-violent marijuana offenders if elected. Flynn has repeatedly called for marijuana legalization in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Voters Ready for Full-Fledged Medical Marijuana Program, Poll Finds. A new poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution finds that more than three-quarters of those surveyed want to see the state's limited medical marijuana program expanded. Some 77% said they want greater access to medical marijuana. The poll comes as the legislature considers a measure, House Bill 645, that would allow for medical marijuana dispensaries. The poll also found that support for recreational marijuana was at an all-time high in the state, with 50% saying legalize it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Governors Call on Trump, Congress to Do More to Solve Opioid Crisis. In its first coordinated response to the opioid crisis, the National Governors Association called Thursday for the administration and Congress to provide more money and coordination to fight against it. "While progress has been made, the consequences of opioid addiction continue reverberating throughout society, devastating families and overwhelming health care providers, law enforcement and social services," the governors said as they released a set of 22 recommendations. Among other suggestions, the governors are calling for increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, increased efforts to block illicit fentanyl shipments into the country, and a requirement that drug prescribers undergo substance abuse training and register to use state prescription monitoring databases.

Law Enforcement

Montana ACLU Vows to Challenge County DA's Crackdown on Pregnant Drug and Alcohol Users The ACLU of Montana said Wednesday it will fight any action by Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris to arrest or incarcerate pregnant women based on alleged harm to the fetus. Harris announced last week that he would seek protection orders barring pregnant women from using any non-prescribed drugs or alcohol and seek contempt orders and jail for any woman who violates them. The ACLU called Harris's move "an egregious abuse of power" and noted that a similar effort in Ravalli County in 2014 was killed in the courts. "If these reports are accurate, then Big Horn County's 'crackdown' on pregnant women is not only counterproductive, paternalistic and cruel, it is also illegal. If your office actively attempts to enforce such a policy, ACLU is prepared to challenge those actions in Court," the group said in a letter sent to Harris.

Sentencing

New Jersey Enacts Law to Examine Racial and Ethnic Impact of Sentencing Changes. On his last day in office, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed racial and ethnic impact statement legislation this week that will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to address the state's high rate of racial disparity in incarceration. Similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements, racial impact statements provide legislators with a statistical analysis of the projected impact of criminal justice policy changes prior to enactment. Armed with the data analysis, policymakers can make more informed decisions about public safety issues without aggravating existing racial disparities. Four other states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon -- have similar policies.

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