Breaking News:Statement of ICC Prosecutor on Opening Preliminary Investigations in the Philippines and in Venezuela

Spending Priorities

RSS Feed for this category

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.


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.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Top Ten US Drug Policy Stories of 2017 [FEATURE]

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Tens of thousands die of drug overdoses, hundreds of thousands get arrested for drugs, yet marijuana is seeing boom times. As we bid adieu to 2017, here are the year's drug policy highlights:

Drug overdoses killed record numbers of Americans in 2017. (Wikimedia)
1.The Opioid Crisis Deepens, With Overdose Deaths at an All-Time High

The country's opioid crisis showed no signs of abating in 2017, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating 66,000 overdose deaths this year, up from 63,000 in 2016. To be clear, only about two-thirds of fatal drug overdoses are linked to heroin and prescription opioids, but opioid overdoses surged in 2016 by 28%. It's too early for final data on 2017 overdoses, but there is little reason to doubt that opioids were driving the increase this year. The high levels of overdose deaths have led to a fall in US life expectancy for the past two years, only the third time that has happened in the past century. Policy efforts to curtail the problem have sometimes included regressive moves to up drug sentences, and have generally given only limited consideration to the needs many patients have to access these substances. But public health measures like naloxone distribution and "Good Samaritan" non-prosecution policies have also advanced.

2. Fentanyl is Killing More and More People

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and its analogs are implicated in an increasingly large number of opioid overdose deaths. While deaths involving prescription opioids are decreasing, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by an average of 88% a year since 2013. Illicitly imported fentanyl from labs in China or Mexico is mixed with heroin with lethal results: Half of the increase in heroin-related overdose deaths is attributable to heroin cut with fentanyl, the CDC reported in September. There were nearly 20,000 deaths attributable to fentanyl and other illicit opioids in 2016; the 2017 numbers are likely to be even worse.

3. Key Federal Drug Policy Positions Remain Unfilled, and Kellyanne is In Charge

The Trump administration has not nominated anyone to head the DEA, and the agency is currently being led by Acting Administrator Robert Patterson after Chuck Rosenberg, the acting administrator when Trump took office, resigned in September, saying he didn't want to work with the administration any longer. Similarly, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) is without a permanent head after Trump's nominee, Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino went down in flames in October in the wake of reports he steered a bill through Congress that impeded the DEA from going after pharmaceutical drug distributors. Neither the White House nor anyone else seems very interested in filling the position, in part, perhaps, because earlier in the year, Trump floated the notion of cutting ONDCP's budget by nearly 95%. But not to worry: Trump pollster, counselor, and apologist Kellyanne Conway is now leading the administration's fight against opioids -- even though she has no public health experience whatsoever.

So far, Attorney General Sessions' bark is worse than his bite when it comes to marijuana policy. (
4. Attorney General Sessions Revives the Federal War on Drugs…

Under President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder presided over a ratcheting down of harsh federal drug prosecutions and sentences, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to undo those reforms. In May, Sessions announced that he had directed federal prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties possible in drug cases, including mandatory minimum sentences.

5. …But Fails to Implement a War on Weed, So Far

For all the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and dire predictions of a Sessions war on weed, it hasn't happened yet. The attorney general has made no secret of his dislike for the demon weed, but that has yet to translate into any firm policy positions or federal crackdowns on marijuana in states where it is legal, for either medical or recreational use. Congressional action continues to bar the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana, although the future of that law after January 22nd remains in doubt. But there was no bar on going after state-legal recreational marijuana, yet it didn't happen. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November that the Obama-era Cole memo remains in effect. That memo directs prosecutors to pretty much leave state-legal marijuana alone except for specified concerns, such as the involvement of youth, violence, or diversion. Later in November, Sessions said the Justice Department was still examining the Cole memo, so all is not safe, but today legal marijuana is still standing.

6. Legal Marijuana's $10 Billion Dollar Year

In December, marijuana market watchers Arcview Market Research estimated that retail marijuana sales would hit $10 billion in 2017, up 33% over 2016. But that's just the beginning, Arcview said. With huge recreational markets such as California (pop. 39 million) and Canada (pop. 36 million) coming online next year, the group expects North American sales to top $24.5 billion by 2021. It's hard even for a pot-hating attorney general to get in front of that economic juggernaut.

7. Pot is More Popular than Ever

Just ask Gallup. The venerable polling firm has been tracking support for marijuana legalization since 1969, when it was at just 12%. In its latest poll, from October, Gallup now has support for marijuana legalization at 64%. What is really impressive is the rapid increase in support in the past 20 years: In 1996, support was at 25%; by 2012, it had doubled to 50%; and it's gained another 14 points in the five years since. Other pollsters are reporting similar current levels of support for marijuana legalization. And this could be another reason the attorney general hesitates to crack down on weed.

8. No State Legalized Weed, But 2018 Should Be Different

After 2016 saw marijuana legalization initiatives win in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada -- losing only in Arizona, closely -- anticipation was high that 2017 would see more states come aboard. It didn't happen. There are two explanations for this: First, it was an off-off election year and no initiatives were on the ballot, and second, it's hard to move controversial legislation though the state house. Still, the Vermont legislature actually passed a legalization bill, only to see it vetoed by a Republican governor, and that governor now says he is ready to sign a legalization bill. That could happen as early as next month. Likewise, a number of other states saw legalization bills make serious progress, and we could see those efforts come to fruition in places like Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And 2018 will most likely see at least one legalization initiative. Activists in Michigan have already handed in signatures and should have enough of a cushion to qualify for the ballot.

9. Safe Injection Sites in the US Draw Ever Nearer

The harm reduction intervention has been proven to save lives, increase public health and public safety, and get hardcore drug users in touch with medical and social service help, and the message is finally on the verge of getting though in the US. At least two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are advancing plans to open such facilities -- although not without staunch opposition -- and, under the progressive leadership of young Mayor Svante Myrick, Ithaca, New York, is making similar plans.

10. The War on Drugs Rolls On

Despite the legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana in various states, despite various sentencing reforms at the state and federal level, despite the growing recognition that "we can't arrest our way out of this problem," the drug war just keeps on going. The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report in November, and while the numbers are from 2016, this year's numbers are unlikely to be any better. More than 600,000 people got arrested for marijuana offenses in 2016, down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015. It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

Looking Back: The Biggest Domestic Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

As Drug War Chronicle marks the publication of its 1,000th issue (with yours truly having authored 863 of them going back to 2000), we reflect on what has changed and what hasn't in the past couple of decades. This piece recounts our domestic drug policy evolution in the US; a companion piece looks at the international picture.

A lot has happened. We've broken the back of marijuana prohibition, even if we haven't killed it dead yet; we've seen medical marijuana gain near universal public acceptance, we've seen harm reduction begin to take hold, we've fought long and hard battles for sentencing reform -- and even won some of them.

But it hasn't all been good. Since the Chronicle began life as The Week Online With DRCNet back in 1997, more than 30 million people have been arrested for drugs, with all the deleterious consequences a drug bust can bring, and despite all the advances, the drug war keeps on rolling. There's been serious progress made, but there's plenty of work left to do. 

Here are the biggest big picture drug stories and trends of the past 20 years:

1. Medical Marijuana

It was November, 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, five years after San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a medical marijuana measure, thanks in large part to the efforts of activists who mobilized to make its use possible for AIDS patients. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington came on board, and three years after that, Hawaii became the first state to allow it though the legislative process. Now, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for the use of medical marijuana, and public support for medical marijuana reaches stratospheric levels in polls.

But the battle isn't over. The federal government still refuses to officially recognize medical marijuana, potentially endangering the progress made so far, especially under the current administration, efforts to reschedule marijuana to reflect its medical uses remain thwarted, some of the more recent states to legalize medical marijuana have become perversely more restrictive, and in some of the more conservative states, lawmakers attempt to appease demands for medical marijuana legalization by passing extremely limited CBD-only laws.

2. Marijuana Legalization: In the War on Weed, Weed is Winning

Twenty years ago, pot wasn't legal anywhere, and Gallup had public support for legalization at a measly 25%. A lot has changed since then. It took repeated tries, but beginning in 2012, states started voting to free the weed, with Colorado and Washington leading the way, Alaska and DC coming on board in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining the ranks last year. Now, about a fifth of the country has legalized weed, with more states lining up to do so next year, including most likely contenders Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Now, Gallup has support for legalization at 64% nationwide, with even a slight majority (51%) of Republicans on board. The only demographic group still opposed to pot legalization is seniors, and they will be leaving the scene soon enough. Again, the battle is by no means over. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and congressional efforts to change that have gone nowhere so far. But it seems like marijuana has won the cultural war, and the rest is just cleaning up what's left of the pot prohibition mess.

3. Marijuana, Inc.: The Rise of an Industry

State-legal marijuana is already a $10 billion dollar a year industry, and that's before California goes on line next month. It's gone from outlaws and hippie farmers in the redwoods to sharp-eyed business hustlers, circling venture capitalists, would-be monopolists, and assorted hangers on, from accountants, lawyers, and publicists to security and systems mavens, market analysts, and the ever-expanding industry press.

These people all have direct pecuniary interests in legal marijuana, and, thanks to profits from the golden weed, the means to protect them. Marijuana money is starting to flow into political campaigns and marijuana business interests organize to make sure they will continue to be able to profit from pot.

Having a legal industry with the wherewithal to throw its weight around a bit is generally -- but not entirely -- a good thing. To the degree that the marijuana industry is able to act like a normal industry, it will act like a normal industry, and that means sometimes the interests of industry sectors may diverge from the interests of marijuana consumers. The industry or some parts of it may complain, for instance, of the regulatory burden of contaminant testing, while consumers have an interest in knowing the pot they smoke isn't poisoned.

And getting rich off weed is a long way from the justice-based demand that people not be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for using it. Cannabis as capitalist commodity loses some of that outlaw cachet, some ineffable sense of hipster cool. But, hey, you're not going to jail for it anymore (at least in those legal states).

4. The Power of the People: The Key Role of the Initiative Process

The initiative and referendum process, which lets activists bypass state legislatures and put issues to a direct popular vote, has been criticized as anti-democratic because it allows special interests to use an apathetic public to advance their interests, as both car insurers and tobacco companies have attempted in California. It also gets criticized for writing laws without legislative input.

But like any political tool, it can be used for good or ill, and when it comes to drug reform, it has been absolutely critical. When legislatures refuse to lead -- or even follow -- as has been the case with many aspects of drug policy, the initiative process becomes the only effective recourse for making the political change we want. It was through the initiative process that California and other early states approved medical marijuana; it was five years later that Hawaii became the first state where the legislature acted. Similarly with recreational marijuana legalization, every state that has legalized it so far has done it through the initiative process; in no state has it yet made its way through the legislature, although we're hoping that will change next year.

And it's not just marijuana. The initiative process has also been used successfully to pass sentencing reforms in California, and now activists are opening the next frontier, with initiatives being bruited in California and Oregon that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

The bad news: Only 24 states have the initiative process. The good news: The ones that do lead the way, setting an example for the others.

Drug prohibition can't be separated from the larger struggle for racial and social justice. (Creative Commons)
5. The Glaring Centrality of Race

It took Michelle Alexander's 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to put a fine point on it, but the centrality of race in the prosecution of the war on drugs has been painfully evident since at least the crack hysteria of the 1980s, if not going back even further to the Nixonian law-and-order demagoguery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We've heard the numbers often enough: Blacks make up about 13% of the population and about 13% of drug users, but 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of those doing state prison time for drugs. And this racial disparity in drug law enforcement doesn't seem to be going away.

Neither is the horrendous impact racially-biased drug law enforcement has on communities of color. Each father or mother behind bars leaves a family exploded and usually impoverished, and each heavy-handed police action leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The drug war conveyor belt, feeding an endless number of black men and women into the half-life of prison, is clearly a key part of a system of racially oppressive policing that has led to eruptions from Ferguson to Baltimore. If we are going to begin to try to fix race relations in this country, the war on drugs is one of the key battlefronts. Thanks in part to Alexander's bestseller, civil rights organizations from the traditional to newer movements like Black Lives Matter have devoted increasing focus to criminal justice, including drug policy reform.

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

We don't think teenagers should be having sex, but we know they're going to, anyway, so we make condoms available to them so they won't get pregnant or STDs. That's harm reduction. So is providing clean needles to injection drug users to avoid the spread of disease, making opioid overdose drugs like naloxone widely available so a dosing error doesn't turn fatal, passing 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage and OD victims' friends to call for help instead of run away, and providing a clean, well-lit place where drug users can shoot or smoke or snort their drugs under medical supervision and with access to social service referrals.

Two decades ago, the only harm reduction work going on was a handful of pioneering needle exchanges, thanks to folks like Dave Purchase at the North American Syringe Exchange Network (founded in 1988), and early activists faced harassment and persecution from local authorities. But it was the creation of the Harm Reduction Coalition in 1993 that really began to put the movement on the map.

In this century, harm reduction practices have gained ground steadily. Now, 33 states and DC allow needle exchange programs to operate, 40 states and DC have some form of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and every state in the county has now modified its laws to allow greater access to naloxone.

The next frontier for American drug war harm reduction is safe injection sites, and on the far horizon, opiate-assisted maintenance. There is not yet a single officially sanctioned operating safe injection in the country, but we are coming close in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. And let's not forget drug decriminalization as a form of harm reduction. It should be the first step, but that's not the world we live in -- yet.

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

Beginning in the Reagan years and continuing for decades, the number of prisoners in America rose sharply and steadily, driven in large part by the war on drugs. The phenomenon gained America infamy as the world's biggest jailer, whether in raw numbers or per capita.

But by early in the century, the fever had broken. After gradually slowing rates of increases for several years, the number of state and federal prisoners peaked around 2007 and 2008 at just over 1.6 million. At the end of 2015, the last year for which data is available, the number of prisoners was 1.527 million, down 2% from the previous year. And even the federal prison system, which had continued to increase in size, saw a 14% decline in population that year.

But most drug war prisoners are state prisoners, and that's where sentencing reform have really begun to make a difference. States from California to Minnesota to Texas, among others, enacted a variety of measures to cut the prison population, in some cases because of more enlightened attitudes, but in other cases because it just cost too damned much money for fiscal conservatives.

Current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like very much to reverse this trend and is in a position to do some damage, for instance, by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue tough sentences and mandatory minimums in drug cases. But he is hampered by federal sentencing reforms passed in the Obama era. Sessions may be able to bump up the number of people behind bars only slightly; the greater danger is that his policies serve as an inspiration for similarly inclined conservatives in the states to try to roll back reforms there.

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin to the market. The powerful new pain reliever was pitched to doctors as not highly addictive by a high pressure company sales force and became a tremendous market success, generating billions for the Sackler family, the owners of the company. Opioid prescriptions became more common.

For many patients, that was a good thing. Purdue Pharma's marketing push coincided with a push by chronic pain advocates -- patients, doctors and others -- to ease prescribing restrictions that had kept many patients in feasibly treatable pain. And which in many cases still do: A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply . . . [tlwenty-nine percent of primary care physicians and 16 percent of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions." As the report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them."

While it's popular to blame doctors and Big Pharma for getting a bunch of pain patients addicted to opioids, that explanation is a bit too facile. Many of the people strung out today were never patients, but instead obtained their pain pills on the black market. Through a perverse system of incentives, people on Medicaid could obtain the pills by prescription for next to nothing, then resell them for $40 or $60 apiece to people who wanted them. Some pain management practices were on the cutting edge of relieving pain for patients who needed the help. But others were little more than shady pill mills, popping up in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida -- places that would become the epicenter of an opioid epidemic within a few years.

When the inevitable crackdowns on pain pill prescribing came, legitimate prescribers of course got caught in the crossfire sometimes, especially those who served the poor or the patients who in the worst chronic pain. Their being targeted, or others reining in their prescribing practices, left many patients in the lurch again. And the closure of pill mills left addicted people in the lurch. But there was plenty of heroin to make up for the missing pills the addicted used to take. Mexican farmers have been happy to grow opium poppies for the American market for decades, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations know how to get it to market.

The whole thing has been worsened by the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than pure heroin, which seems to be coming mostly from rogue Chinese pharmaceutical labs (although the Mexicans appear to be getting in on the act now, too).

And now we have a drug overdose crisis like the country has never seen before, with around 60,000 people estimated to die from overdoses this year, most of them from opioids (by themselves or in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs). The crisis is inspiring both admirable harm reduction efforts and an execrable turn to harsher punishments, while making things harder again for many pain patients. While many argue that the gentle side of the response to this epidemic is because the victims are mainly white, I would suggest that argument pays short shrift to all the years of hard work advocates and activists of all ethnicities have put in to creating more enlightened drug policies.

9. Policing for Profit: The Never Ending Fight to Rein in Asset Forfeiture

Twenty years ago, pressure was mounting in Washington over abuses of the federal civil asset forfeiture program, just as it is now. Back then, passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000 marked an important early victory in the fight to rein in what has tartly described as "policing for profit." It was shepherded though the house by then Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican.

How times have changed. Now, with federal agents seizing billions of dollars each year though civil forfeiture proceedings and scandalous abuse after scandalous abuse pumping up the pressure for federal reform, the Republican attorney general is calling for more asset forfeiture. And Jeff Sessions isn't just calling for it; he has undone late Obama administration reforms aimed at reining in one of the sleaziest aspects of federal forfeiture, the Equitable Sharing program, although he is having problems getting Congress to go along.

In the years since CAFRA, a number of states have passed similar laws restricting civil asset forfeiture and directing that seized funds go into the general fund or other designated funds, such as education, but state and local police have been able to evade those laws via Equitable Sharing. Under that program, instead of seizing money under state law, they instead turn it over to the federal government, which then returns 80% of it to the law enforcement agency -- not the general fund and not the schools.

This current setup, with its perverse incentives for police to evade state laws and pursue cash over crime, makes asset forfeiture reform a continuing battlefield at both the state and the federal levels. A number of reform bills are alive in the Congress, and year by year, more and more states pass laws limiting civil asset forfeiture or, even better, eliminating it and requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed. Fourteen states have now done that, with the most recent being Connecticut, New Mexico and Nebraska. That leaves 36 to go.

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

We have seen tremendous progress in drug policy in the past 20 years, from the advent of the age of legal marijuana to the breaking of sentencing fever to the spread of harm reduction and the kinder, gentler treatment of the current wave of opioid users, but still, the drug war grinds on.

Pot may be legal in eight states, but that means it isn't in 42 others, and more than 600,000 people got arrested for it last year -- down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015.

It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

There are more options for treatment or diversion out of jail or prison, but people are still getting arrested. Sentencing reforms mean some people won't do as much time as they did in the past, but people are still getting arrested. And the drug war industrial complex, with all its institutional inertia and self-interest, rolls on. If we want to actually end the drug war, we're going to have to stop arresting people for drugs. That would be a real paradigm shift.

Chronicle AM: DEA Gets Slapped in Congress, 2nd ME MJ Init in Circulation, More (6/3/15)

The DEA gets its budget cut and its activities restricted in the House, but is still wiretapping like crazy, a Delaware decrim bill advances, so does a CBD cannabis oil bill there, and more.

DEA was in the crosshairs on Capitol Hill this week. (
Marijuana Policy

Delaware House Approves Decriminalization Bill. The House Tuesday passed decriminalization 24-14 with no Republican "yes" votes. The measure now goes to the Senate. Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he supports it.

Second Maine Legalization Initiative Gets Go-Ahead for Signature-Gathering. A legalization initiative sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project can begin collecting signatures, state officials said Tuesday. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will need at least 61,123 qualified voter signatures to make the ballot. Another legalization initiative from Legalize Maine is already in the signature-gathering process.

Milwaukee Common Council Votes to Shrink Pot Fines. The council voted Tuesday night to reduce the maximum fine for possessing 25 grams or less from $500 to $50. Mayor Tom Barrett must approve the measure before it can go into effect.

Medical Marijuana

Delaware Senate Passes CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The state Senate approved Senate Bill 90 w/ SA2, known as "Rylie's Law," after a Rehoboth Beach girl who suffers from epileptic seizures. The measure now heads for the House.

Law Enforcement

DEA Slapped Down in Series of Congressional Budget Votes. In a series of votes yesterday, the House voted to end the DEA's controversial bulk data collection program and also passed three amendments cutting funding from the DEA and shifting it to other federal law enforcement priorities. In more votes today, it approved three amendments aimed at blocking DEA and Justice Department interference with industrial hemp, CBD cannabis oil, and medical marijuana in states where they are legal. A fourth amendment that would have barred interference in legal marijuana states was narrowly defeated. The votes came as the House considers the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill. Click on the link for full coverage.

DEA Wiretaps Triple in Nine Years. The DEA conducted 11,681 wiretaps in 2014, up from 3,394 in 2005, according to USA Today. Over that period, the agency has increasingly resorted to state court judges to get wiretap warrants in a bid to get around more rigorous federal requirements. "Federal law requires approval from a senior Justice Department official before agents can even ask a federal court for permission to conduct one," the newspaper explained. "The law imposes no such restriction on state court wiretaps, even when they are sought by federal agents."

House Passes Seven Amendments to Rein in DEA [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

In a series of votes yesterday, the House voted to end the DEA's controversial bulk data collection program and also passed three amendments cutting funding from the DEA and shifting it to other federal law enforcement priorities. In more votes today, it approved three amendments aimed at blocking DEA and Justice Department interference with industrial hemp, CBD cannabis oil, and medical marijuana in states where they are legal. A fourth amendment that would have barred interference in legal marijuana states was narrowly defeated.

The votes came as the House considers the FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill.

Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Morgan Griffith (R-VA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) offered the amendment barring the DEA and the Justice Department from using taxpayer funds to do bulk collection of Americans' communications records. It passed on a voice vote yesterday.

"Congress dealt a major blow to the DEA by ending their invasive and offensive bulk data collection programs and by cutting their budget, said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The more the DEA ignores commonsense drug policy, the more they will see their agency's power and budget come under deeper scrutiny."

Last night, members voted to slash $23 million from the DEA's budget and reallocate the money for more cost-effective programs. One amendment, from Rep. Ted Liew (D-CA) shifted $9 million from the agency's marijuana eradication program to youth programs; another, from Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) shifted $4 million from the DEA budget to rape test kits; while the third, from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) shifted $9 million from the DEA to a program to try to reduce police abuse by procuring body cameras for police officers.

In today's votes, an amendment offered by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Joe Heck (R-NV), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Don Young (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Dina Titus (D-NV) would bar the DEA and Justice from interfering in medical marijuana states. It passed 242-186. Similar legislation passed Congress last year, but was set to expire.

The House also passed an amendment from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) to protect state laws allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil. It passed 297-130. A third amendment, from Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), to protect state laws allowing industrial hemp also passed on a vote of 282-146.

But the most far-reaching amendment, which would have barred federal interference in states where marijuana is legal for either medical or general purposes, failed on a vote of 206-222. It was sponsored by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Don Young (R-AK), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

"Votes in support of rolling back the federal government's war on medical marijuana are beginning to become routine. Last year, passing this amendment was unprecedented. This year, it was predictable. Medical marijuana has gone from 'controversial' to 'conventional' on Capitol Hill," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

But this is just the start, Riffle said.

"This is an important amendment because it addresses the tension between state and federal marijuana law," he noted. "We welcome it as a temporary fix, but what we really need is a comprehensive and more permanent solution. It's time for Congress to pass legislation that ends prohibition at the federal level and allows states to determine their own marijuana policies."

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority was singing the same tune.

"Now that the House has gone on record with strong bipartisan votes for two years in a row to oppose using federal funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, it's time for Congress to take up comprehensive legislation to actually change federal law," he said. "That's what a growing majority of Americans wants, and these votes show that lawmakers are on board as well. Congress clearly wants to stop the Justice Department from spending money to impose failed marijuana prohibition policies onto states, so there's absolutely no reason those policies themselves should remain on the law books any longer."

"There's unprecedented support on both sides of the aisle for ending the federal war on marijuana and letting states set their own drug policies based on science, compassion, health, and human rights," said DPA's Piper.

Despite the narrow failure of that last amendment, the votes are just the latest indicator of rising congressional dissatisfaction with the scandal-plagued agency. Former Administrator Michele Leonhart was forced to resign earlier this year after a disastrous performance before congressional overseers over the agency's latest scandal, which involved DEA agents using taxpayer (and sometimes, drug baron) funds to consort with prostitutes in Colombia.

But the agency's problems with Congress go deeper than mere scandals -- of which there are plenty -- and reflect rising congressional concern that the DEA is not only ineffective, but downright obstinate, especially when it comes to marijuana policy. Leonhart herself epitomized the culture problem in the DEA when she was unable to bring herself to admit to Congress last year that marijuana is less dangerous than heroin.

The House has now shown it isn't very keen on the DEA's mass surveillance programs, either. Knowledge of their extent first appeared with a Reuters expose in 2013 that outlined collaboration between the DEA, NSA, CIA and other agencies to spy on Americans in the name of the drug war, including the creation of false investigative trails to disguise the fact they were getting information from secret surveillance programs. Then, this April, USA Today reported that the DEA and Justice Department have been keeping secret records of billions of international phone calls made by Americans for decades. The program, the first known US effort to gather bulk data on citizens, regardless of whether or not they were suspected of committing a crime, was the precursor of the post-9/11 spying programs.

"The DEA built the modern surveillance state," said Piper. "From spying on Americans to busting into people's homes the DEA doesn't fit in well in a free society and the time is now to reverse these harms."

DPA recently released a new report, The Scandal-Ridden DEA: Everything You Need to Know. The report and a comprehensive set of background resources about the campaign to rein in the DEA are available at

"The DEA is a large, expensive, scandal-prone bureaucracy that has failed to reduce drug-related problems," said Piper. "There's a bipartisan consensus that drug use should be treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue; with states legalizing marijuana and adopting other drug policy reforms it is time to ask if the agency is even needed anymore."

Washington, DC
United States

House Passes Historic Medical Marijuana Amendment

Late Thursday night, the House of Representatives told the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states by approving a budget amendment barring the use of taxpayer funds to do so.

Not with our tax dollars anymore--if the Senate gets on board (
Wow, things are changing fast. Efforts to pass similar amendments have never come close in previous years--the previous best was 165 yea votes in 2007--but the amendment passed by 30 votes tonight.

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority is liking what he's seeing:

"This historic vote shows just how quickly marijuana reform has become a mainstream issue," he said. "The last time a similar amendment came up it didn't come very close to passing but, since then, more states have passed medical marijuana laws and a couple have even legalized marijuana for all adults. More states are on this way later this year and in 2016, and it's clear that more politicians are beginning to realize that the American people want the federal government to stop standing in the way. If any political observers weren't aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out."

It ain't a done deal just yet, though. If the Senate version of the bill doesn't contain similar language, it will be up to the House leadership to fight for the amendment (or not) in conference committee.

Still, this is historic. I like it when we make history like this. And it seems to be happening more often these days.

Angell also makes another astute point. While we can grumble about the spate of what I call "limited CBD medical marijuana bills," and how they are so extremely restrictive, they have also spread the medical marijuana meme to places where it hadn't thrived before, like the Deep South. And that could be paying off in congressional votes like this one.

"This year's huge vote increase can largely be attributed to the fact that lawmakers only recently began hearing the moving stories of the many children whose severe seizures are only relieved by marijuana. Being able to list these CBD states in the amendment text meant that more members of Congress that represent these states voted yes than otherwise would have. Counting these states, 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in a place where state law disagrees with federal law."

Washington, DC
United States

There's More to Colorado Than Marijuana [FEATURE]

Colorado has certainly garnered a lot of attention since voters there decided to legalize marijuana in the 2012 election, but when it comes to drug reform, there's a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.

Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature's race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.

The bill didn't come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn't work.

"There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention," said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. "People were asking 'How come half your people are going back to prison?' Well, we didn't have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn't have any money, there wasn't any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage."

But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.

"When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn't going to let anything happen," said Clifton. "But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process."

And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.

"That was the landmark legislation that really changes things," said Clifton. "This was the whole state -- prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us -- coming together and agreeing it was the right approach."

The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state -- and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.

Even the prisons are scenic in Colorado, although it is hoped that fewer prisoners will be forced to enjoy the view soon. (CDOC)
"It's too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have," said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It's not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons."

And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.

"The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path," said Way. "The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They've been at the forefront here."

Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.

Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state's drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.

"We've been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins," said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. "Every time we go to the capitol, we've been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction."

After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.

"Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly," said Clifton. "And things are really tricky in Colorado now," she added. "Elections are coming up, and everyone's concerned about what color we're going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now."

Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.

Harm reduction measures in place in Colorado include needle exchanges and overdose reversal drug access. (
"This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol," she said. "We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn't, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws."

But that doesn't mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.

"Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization," said Raville. "We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won't ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used."

Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.

"Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn't want to get pricked," she said. "That's inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board."

"We have an overdose issue here in Colorado," Raville noted. "ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we've had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We're trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state."

While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.

"Stopping that bill was our top concern this year," said Way. "We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn't a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill," he said.

"The bill's fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail," he noted. "There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row."

The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn't ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act's provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.

"We've convened a stakeholder group from around the state -- health care and criminal justice people -- to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We're teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it," she said.

And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven't, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.

"The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped," said Raville. "We legalized it and the sky didn't fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it's been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters."

"Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach," said Way. "We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature."

But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.

United States

Chronicle AM -- May 27, 2014

Chuck Schumer wants $100 million to fight heroin in New York, a congressional vote to stop the DEA from attacking medical marijuana in states where it is legal is coming soon, the New York Assembly is voting today on a medical marijuana bill, an Oklahoma prescription drug bill dies, and more. Let's get to it:

Will another $100 million stop heroin in New YorK? (
Marijuana Policy

Decriminalization Initiatives Planned for Albuquerque and Santa Fe. ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Action, a 501(c)4 that's affiliated with Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, are planning municipal decriminalization initiatives for the November election in New Mexico's two largest cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The initiatives envision decriminalizing up to an ounce, with a maximum $25 fine. Backers filed a petition with the Santa Fe city clerk this week; Albuquerque efforts should be coming soon.

Medical Marijuana

Congress to Vote Soon on Banning DEA, Justice Department From Interfering in Medical Marijuana States. The House could vote as early as this week on the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which would ban the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using federal taxpayer funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The time to contact your representatives is now. Click on the link for more information.

New York Assembly to Vote Today on Compassionate Care Act. The Assembly is set to vote today on the Compassionate Care Act (Assembly Bill 6357), a comprehensive medical marijuana bill for the Empire State. Patients and supporters from all over the state are heading to Albany for a day of last-minute lobbying and to watch the Assembly debate and vote on the bill. The Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 4406, has already passed the Senate Health Committee and now awaits consideration in the Senate Finance Committee.

North Carolina Lawmaker to File CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. State Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret County) has announced that she will file a bill allowing for the use of high-CBD cannabis oil to reduce seizures in epileptic children. It's not a medical marijuana bill, she said, rather "this is only a medicine for these children so they can develop motor skills."

Drug Policy

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act Gets Marked Up Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will be marking up House Resolution 4640, "to establish the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission" Thursday. "Mark up" means subcommittee members will debate, amend, and rewrite the bill.

Prescription Drugs

Oklahoma Prescription Drug Crackdown Bill Dies. A bill that was the centerpiece of Gov. Mary Fallin's (R) effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse is dead after being defeated in committee last Friday. The bill, Senate Bill 1820, would have required doctors to check the state's existing Prescription Monitoring Program registry every time they wrote or refilled a prescription for a Schedule II or III controlled substance. Those schedules include opiate pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrodocone, as well as many non-opiates, including hormone supplements. The bill was opposed by doctors.

Law Enforcement

Chuck Schumer Wants $100 Million to Fight Heroin in New York. US Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is seeking $100 million in taxpayer dollars "to fight the scourge of heroin." He wants the money to go to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. He said he would seek the funding in a pending appropriations bill.

In Licking County, West Virginia, the Drug War Dominates the Court Docket. The most recent felony indictments in Licking County Common Pleas Court show that more than half (60%) are for drug offenses. Seven of the 12 indictments were for drug offenses, and six of those were for either "aggravated drug possession" or "abusing harmful intoxicants."

In Mendocino County, California, Marijuana Dominates the Court Docket. Busy, busy. Mendocino County jail bookings for May 11-15 show 22 people taken to the slammer. Fifteen of them were marijuana sales and/or transport and one was for "possessing proceeds from drug transactions." Marijuana offenses accounted for more than two-thirds of all bookings. There were also two arrests each for assault with a deadly weapon and DUI, and one each for indecent exposure, battery, and embezzlement.


California Bill to End Mandatory Jail Sentences for Drug Use Killed. California law requires a mandatory 90-day jail sentence for anyone convicted of using or being under the influence of drugs (not including marijuana). A bill that would have ended the mandatory sentences, Assembly Bill 2515, has now died in the Assembly. It needed 41 votes for passage, but only got 34 because many members didn't vote. There were only 16 votes against it.


Jamaica Marijuana Conference Calls for Road Map to Decriminalization within Four Months. The first Jamaica Cannabis Conference took place over the weekend and ended with a call from participants for the government to create a pathway to decriminalization within four months. The conference also called for recognition of Rastafarians' sacramental rights to use ganja, a sustained drug education program in the schools, and a properly regulated medical marijuana industry.

Barcelona Now a Stop on the Marijuana Tourism Trail. Spain has decriminalized marijuana possession, people can grow their own in small amounts, and cannabis clubs are offering the chance to join by phone or email and purchase marijuana. As a result, marijuana tourism is up in Barcelona, and local authorities are beginning to think about ways to regulate it all. Click on the link to read more.

Zambia's Green Party to Continue Campaigning for Marijuana Legalization. Zambia's Green Party will continue to campaign for marijuana legalization, its leader, Peter Sinkamba said last Friday. "As the Green Party, we have a task to sell the Green agenda by not joining any politics on the constitution-making process, but ensure that marijuana is legalized," he said. "This is the only way we can create employment for the people and make medicine available for every citizen. You know marijuana is used for many things including the provision of medicines, hence the need for it to be legalized and get the benefits that will help the country make its own medicines." The Greens are not represented in the Zambian parliament.

US Sentencing Commission Votes to Cut Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

The US Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted unanimously Thursday to reduce sentences for most federal drug trafficking defendants. The move comes as the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by drug offenders, even as prison populations in the states are on the decline.

In the past decade, in many states, the harsh Reagan-era war on drugs approach to drug use and trafficking has given way to smarter approaches geared toward diversion and treatment of drug offenders, but when it comes to reforms, the federal system has lagged behind.

Passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders, was a step in the right direction. And passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act (House Resolution 3382/Senate Bill 1410), which has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is pending in the House, would be another.

That bill, which is supported by the administration, would direct federal judges to not sentence some drug offenders to mandatory minimum sentences, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for other drug offenders, and apply the more lenient crack cocaine sentencing scheme under the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders sentenced before it was passed. It also calls on USSC to amend its sentencing guidelines and policy statements for drug offenders to minimize federal prison overcrowding and reduce and prevent racial disparities in sentencing.

But in the meantime, USSC has now, with the administration's support, acted on its own. The commission voted to reduce sentences by amending the federal sentencing guidelines to lower the base offense guidelines in the Drug Quantity Table across various drug types.

The quantity tables place specific quantities of each controlled substance in corresponding sentencing "levels," which in turn contain a range of recommended sentences based on a defendant's criminal history. For instance, under the current guidelines, a drug offense involving at least 10 grams of methamphetamine, but not more than 20 grams, is in sentencing level 18, where the recommended sentence range for an offender with one or no criminal history points is 27-33 months. Under the new guidelines, the same quantity of methamphetamine will be a level 16 offense, which means the recommended sentence range for a first-time offense will be 21-27 months.

The example above is on the low end for federal drug sentences. USSC said the changes would affect about 70% of federal drug trafficking defendants and would result in an average sentence decrease of 11 months. That means the average federal drug trafficking sentence will drop from just over five years to just over four years.

The USSC move could cut the federal prison population by 6,500 over five years. (
This commission has concentrated this year of addressing federal prison costs and capacity. It estimates that the changes it approved Thursday will reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over the next five years and have an even greater impact over the long run.

"This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner," said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the commission. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991."

There are currently more than 216,000 federal prisoners, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Slightly more than half (50.1%) are doing time for drug offenses.

Attorney General Holder welcomed the move, calling it "a milestone" in reshaping the way the system deals with drug offenders. He called for Congress to take the next steps.

"It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system," Holder said. "Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety. I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on these types of common-sense reforms."

Attorney General Holder approves -- and wants more. (
Civil liberties and sentencing reform advocates also pronounced themselves pleased at a step in the right direction.

"We commend the Sentencing Commission for taking this important step toward reforming federal drug sentences," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "This change will save taxpayers money, help to rein in federal prison spending, and bolster the spirits of tens of thousands of federal defendants who are facing impractical and disproportionately long sentences."

"Our country is slowly but steadily reversing the damage done by the failed, racially biased war on drugs," said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The actions taken by the Sentencing Commission today are another positive move toward reducing unnecessarily long sentences that have led to bloated, overcrowded prisons. Our criminal justice system is smarter, fairer, and more humane than it was a year ago, and we need to make sure momentum continues in the right direction."

"This is a terrific, if modest, first step toward genuine sentencing reform for drug offenders," said Mary Price, legal counsel for FAMM and an expert on the Sentencing Commission. "The next step is for Congress to pick up where the Commission left off by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act."

But first, Congress must allow the USSC recommendations to become law. The drug quantity table amendment, along with others approved by the commission, will go to Congress in May. Barring legislative objections, the new guidelines will become law on November 1, 2014.

Unless USSC votes to make the new guidelines retroactive, they will impact only those defendants sentenced after November 1. The commission voted Thursday to conduct a prison impact study before voting on retroactivity.

Chronicle AM -- March 12, 2014

Medical marijuana is keeping state legislators busy, Maine's governor has a 20th Century approach to drug problems, New Mexico's governor cuts funds to a diversion program, Indonesia shifts its stance on drug users, and more. Let's get to it:

Responding to new synthetic drugs by banning them is still a favored response in state legislatures. (
Medical Marijuana

DEA, LAPD Raid Dispensaries. DEA agents assisted by LAPD officers raided and closed several Los Angeles dispensaries Tuesday. They hit the Black Rose dispensary in Fairfax, Downtown Medical Caregivers off Main Street, Washington and Western Medical Group in Harvard Heights, Herbman in Exposition Park and two homes in Beverly Hills. The same person allegedly owns all four dispensaries.

Vermont Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. A bill that lifts the 1,000-patient cap on the state's dispensaries and authorizes two more dispensaries passed the Senate with little debate Tuesday. Senate Bill 247 now heads to the House.

Revised Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A CBD medical marijuana bill revised by its sponsors so that the University of Alabama-Birmingham would conduct a research study passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Tuesday night. Senate Bill 174 now moves to the House.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A bill that would allow compassionate use of non-intoxicating cannabis oil by Utahns with untreatable epilepsy passed the Senate Tuesday by a wide margin, despite reservations some senators have about the oil's safety and long term benefits. House Bill 105 now goes back to the House, which had already passed it, but now must sign off on changes in the Senate version.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing. Two bills that would legalize the manufacture and sale of medical marijuana-infused products such as brownies and oils and permit communities to allow and regulate marijuana dispensaries got a hearing in the Senate Government Operations Committee hearing Tuesday, but no vote. Committee chair and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) is not expected to schedule another hearing for at least a couple of weeks. The bills are House Bill 5104 and House Bill 4271.

California Bill to Tighten Location Restrictions on Dispensaries Killed in Committee. A bill that would have widened "dispensary free" zone around schools from 600 feet to 1,000 feet has been blocked in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said Tuesday. Conway is the author of the bill in question, Assembly Bill 1588.

American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Releases Study on Marijuana and Epilepsy. The medical research group American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) issued a new scientific review Tuesday, Cannabis in the Treatment of Epilepsy, which compiles much of the leading and historical research on epilepsy and cannabis (medical marijuana) for use by scientists, physicians, patients, and parents, as well as those producing and manufacturing it for treatment. Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) will host a Google Hangout today, March 12th at 8:00pm EDT, featuring AHP director Roy Upton, ASA scientific advisory board member Dr. Sunil Aggarwal and others.

Law Enforcement

Maine Governor Wants More Drug War. Confronted by increasing levels of opiate drug use, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) responded Tuesday by proposing to beef up drug war spending. The conservative governor wants to add 22 new state positions including 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors for the Office of the Maine Attorney General as well as four new district court judges to bolster the state's four drug courts in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland. He also criticized methadone, saying the drug should be provided in a clinical setting only. He said he intended to focus equally on the addiction side of the drug equation but did not offer any details.

New Mexico Governor Vetoes Funding for Drug Diversion Pilot Program. Gov. Susana Martinez (R) vetoed spending $140,000 for a Santa Fe program to divert some drug offenders to treatment Tuesday. The city's pre-booking diversion program, otherwise known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), will begin late this month. If successful, this model could become a model for other New Mexico communities, saving both the criminal justice and health systems tens of millions of dollars each year.

Salvia Divinorum

Rhode Island Bill to Ban Salvia, Jimson Weed Has Hearing Today. A bill that would ban the use of salvia divinorum and Jimson weed was scheduled for committee action today. House Bill 7191, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), gets a vote before the House Judiciary Committee. It's not clear what prompted the bill.

New Synthetic Drugs

Minnesota Synthetic Drug Ban Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would give the state pharmacy board the authority to use its emergency powers to classify new synthetic drugs as banned substances is advancing in the House. House File 2446, introduced by Rep. Erik Simonson (D-Duluth) passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Tuesday with few questions and a unanimous vote.


LEAHN Releases Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement. The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) has released the Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement, developed at the International Conference on Drug Policy and Policing last November in Frankfurt. The principles are designed to make law enforcement an effective partner in a harm reduction approach to drug use and related illness.

TDPF Releases Report on Dutch Coffee Shop Policy. Prompted by "misreports and misunderstandings that have led many to believe the Netherlands is retreating from its pragmatic policy of allowing cannabis to be sold via 'coffee shop,'" the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation has released a new report to set things straight. The report is Cannabis policy in the Netherlands: Moving forward, not backwards.

Ghana Anti-Drug Head Calls for Marijuana Legalization Debate. The executive secretary of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Akrasi Sarpong, has called for a national debate on legalization of marijuana in the country. "Ordinary people can say don't legalize it but that will be vocalizing the ostrich hiding its head in the sand, because there is a virtual legalization on the ground," Sarpong said. Many people believe "what you are fighting is not crime," he added. "Reports say cannabis is the number one problem in Africa so what are we therefore saying. People laugh at these things, because, they are growing them in their homes," he said.

Peru Ponders Restarting Drug Plane Shootdown Program.Peru suspended its law allowing its Air Force to shoot down suspected drug planes in April 2001, when the Peruvian Air Force, accompanied by a CIA support plane, mistakenly shot down an aircraft carrying American missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter. Now, Congressman Carlos Turbino, a retired general, has filed a bill to reinstate the program. It is currently before the congressional defense committee, even though it is opposed as unnecessary by the government of President Ollanta Humala.

New Indonesian Drug Law Emphasizes Rehabilitation Instead of Punishment of Drug Users. Indonesian ministers this week signed a memorandum of understanding that they say will declare drug users "victims" instead of criminals, to be treated at rehabilitation centers instead of sentencing to prison. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has gone on the record supporting a softer touch for addicts, but early efforts to push for more rehabilitation centers have met with resistance from judges who are loathe to appear weak on drugs and lawmakers who often use the early release of traffickers as opportunities to grandstand against the president. Drug user make up 42% of all Indonesian prisoners.

Marijuana Reform Rally Set for Glasgow Next Month. A mass marijuana rally called by the Glasgow Cannabis Social Club is set for the city center next month, and it's already causing grumbling. "People will be extremely annoyed at the high-profile celebration of something that's illegal," grumped Conservative MSP John Lamont. "It is disappointing that such a carnival in homage to an illegal substance is being facilitated in this way," he added. The old fogies want the police to shut it down, but the police have said they will stop it only if lawbreaking takes place. The celebration is due to take place at Glasgow Green on Sunday April 20. So far, more than 200 people have signed up via Facebook to attend.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School