Reentry/Rehabilitation

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Chronicle AM: NM Marijuana Poll, House Passes Limited Prison Reform Bill, More... (5/23/18)

A solid majority of New Mexicans support marijuana legalization, the House passes a limited prison -- but not sentencing -- reform bill, an Open Society Foundations report calls for increased opportunities for legal coca sales in Colombia, and more.

Colombian coca grower. A new report says more legal markets for the crop could reduce violence. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. A poll from Research & Polling Inc. conducted in March but not released until yesterday has support for marijuana legalization at 63%. Respondents were asked if they would support a bill to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. Support was up 2% over a similar poll in 2016.

Medical Marijuana

West Virginia Bid for Special Session to Address Marijuana Banking Issues Fizzles. The legislature concluded its may interim meetings Tuesday without securing enough signatures in the House of Delegates to force a special session to address marijuana banking issues. The legislature needed three-fifths of members in both the Senate and the House to force a special session. Enough senators signed on to meet that bar, but not enough delegates did.

Prison Reform

House Passes Prison Reform Bill Backed By Trump. The House easily passed a bipartisan prison reform bill Tuesday, but it faces a murky future in the Senate. House Resolution 5682 aims to reduce recidivism by providing training programs for prisoners. Powerful senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), however, are holding out for a more substantive bill that includes not just prison reforms, but also sentencing reforms. "For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform. At least as of now, that's something Sen. Durbin and I still are sticking together on," Grassley said at a Tuesday event on criminal justice reform.

International

Open Society Report Calls for Boosting Colombia's Legal Coca Market to Reduce Violence. A new report from Open Society Foundations calls on Colombia to move away from traditional drug eradication measures that have not proven successful and instead create policies that encourage coca farmers to stay out of the black market. The report says both international and Colombian law allow coca to be grown for legal purposes, and Colombia should move to increase that prospect.

The Movement to Expunge Marijuana Convictions in Legalization States Picks Up Steam [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, [email protected]

As marijuana legalization spreads into various states, some are allowing people who'd been previously been convicted of possession of a small amount of pot to clear their records.

Marijuana is now legal in nine states, but what about those old convictions? (IRIN News)
They have their convictions either wiped off their record forever under state expungement laws or, in some cases, have low-level felony marijuana convictions be reduced to misdemeanors. In another variation, a marijuana conviction can be sealed from public view pursuant to a court order under a state's nondisclosure law.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, over 574,000 American citizens were charged with simple possession in 2016.

"It really makes sense to not burden these people with a lifelong criminal record," Kate Bell, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project in Maryland, recently told the Washington Post.

Approximately 12 more states are considering marijuana legalization this year, with possibly more hopping on the express train as the continuing quest for marijuana legalization continue to roll down the tracks at full speed, making 2018 a pivotal year in the ever-growing movement to convince lawmakers to legalize pot in all 50 states.

"With over 60 percent of Americans now supporting the full legalization of marijuana for adults, the momentum behind marijuana law reform will not only continue but increase as we head into 2018," said NORML executive director Erik Altieri.

Seattle Mayor Jennie Durkan (D) has moved to clear old records.(Wikimedia)
People with prior marijuana convictions face a harsh reality when it comes to becoming a productive member of society with a criminal record. A simple marijuana conviction carries adverse consequences by diminishing a person's access to employment and higher education, military induction denial, and a person can even be denied access to fair housing, particularly apartment rentals.

Recently at least 4,900 Californians petitioned the courts to have their prior marijuana convictions expunged off their criminal record.

Washington state legalized marijuana in 2012, yet many convicted citizens have been burdened with criminal records for simple misdemeanor pot convictions while slick wealthy investors make a killing selling legal weed. Moving to redress the injustice, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in February that the city will toss several hundred low-level misdemeanor marijuana cases.

"The war on drugs ended up being a war on people who needed help, who needed opportunity and who needed treatment," Durkan told a news conference at the time.

Similarly, prosecutors in San Francisco will throw out thousands of marijuana-related convictions dating back to 1975. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said earlier this year his office will dismiss and seal 3,038 misdemeanor convictions from before the state's legalization of marijuana went into effect, with no action necessary from those convicted.

The moves make perfect sense. What else should happen to convictions for a victimless crime when that victimless behavior is now no longer a crime? American University Law Professor Jenny Roberts has an idea.

"If you've made a legislative determination that this is no longer criminal; why would you want to continue to have people feeling the ramifications of something that people going forward will no longer have to suffer?" she asked.

And so has San Francisco DA George Gascon. (Wikimedia)
In many states that have legalized marijuana, lawmakers are moving in the same direction.

"Since this is now the law of Nevada, it's important we allow folks who have made these mistakes in the past to have their records sealed up," said Nevada Assemblyman William McCurdy, a Democrat who proposed a bill on the issue.

Oregon state law now allows people who'd been convicted of an ounce of marijuana or growing up to six marijuana plants to have their record sealed now that marijuana is legal.

But in Colorado, some lawmakers fought against the proposal. For example, the legislature considered a bill in 2014 to allow citizens to petition the courts to seal their criminal records for old convictions, but the bill died in committee after facing stiff opposition from prosecutors. The Colorado District Attorneys Council opposed the bill because, they argued, it allowed low-level drug dealers to wipe their records clean.

"There were many cases of (drug) distribution that were pleaded down to low-level (possession) felonies," said council executive director Thomas Raynes.

"The bill creates a horrible precedent by retrofitting criminal sanctions for past conduct every time a new law is changed or passed," objected Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for Republican Attorney General John Suthers.

This year, Colorado passed a less controversial law focused specifically on misdemeanor possession.

Nevada also suffered a mild setback. Governor Brian Sandoval (R) vetoed McCurdy's bill requiring judges to seal records and vacate judgments for marijuana offenses that are now legal.

"To the extent there are individuals suffering under criminal records for conduct now legal in Nevada, those cases are best handled on a case-by-case basis," Sandoval wrote in his veto statement. "Given other reforms to the sealing and expungement process in Nevada, a marijuana-specific law wasn't necessary," Sandoval added.

Although nearly a million people have been arrested for marijuana crimes in California during the past decade, according to Drug Policy Alliance, California courts only received 1,506 petitions from applicants requesting their marijuana conviction be sealed or expunged.

DPA further reported that more than 78,000 convictions qualify to be set aside in Oregon, yet few are seeking expungement. Oregon courts only received approximately 388 requests for set-asides in cases involving marijuana in 2015, with 453 in 2016, and 365 requests in 2017.

Courts are more likely, though, to reject petitioners with extensive criminal histories including violent crimes like murder, kidnapping, sexual assaults, money laundering and crimes involving large amount of drugs.

Marijuana is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana in 29 states. The following states are preparing marijuana offense expungement legislation:

California

Assembly Bill 1793, introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-18th District), seeks to enact legislation that would allow the "automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction for an act that is not a crime as of January 1, 2017." Under Proposition 64, residents of California are now allowed to possess and purchase up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate no more than six plants for personal use. The voter-approved measure, in addition to legalizing adult-use consumption, cultivation, and distribution -- allows individuals convicted of past criminal marijuana possessions to petition the courts to have those convictions expunged. An expensive and time-consuming venture for most individuals, the automatic expungement of records would be mandated by the passage AB-1793.

Massachusetts

H.2785, authored by Rep. Aaron Vega (D-5th District), and cosigned by 25 other elected officials, would allow for the expungement of "records of marijuana arrest, detention, conviction and incarceration." Marijuana use in Massachusetts was first decriminalized in 2008, with the voters approving medical marijuana just four years later in November 2012. Officially legalized for adult use on Nov. 8, 2016, residents are still waiting for their first recreational dispensary to open.

New Jersey

S.830, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22nd District), would not only legalize the personal possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by those over the age of 21, the bill also allows a person convicted of a prior marijuana possession to present an application for expungement to the state's Superior Court.

Vermont

H.865, sponsored by Maxine Grad (D), Tom Burditt (R), Chip Conquest (D), would allow a person to file a petition with the court requesting expungement or sealing of the criminal history related to a conviction if "the person was convicted of an underlying offense for which the underlying conduct is no longer prohibited by law or designated as a criminal offense."

Chronicle AM: DEA Deploys Against Opioids, NY Gov's Criminal Justice Plan, More... (3/29/18)

Mucho medical marijuana, a Connecticut legalization bill gets a hearing, the DEA is deploying 250 agents to fight opioids, Louisiana could get a full-fledged needle exchange program, and more.

The DEA is ready to fight some more drug war.
Marijuana Policy

Third Connecticut Legalization Bill Gets Hearing. A marijuana legalization bill that also includes funding for drug treatment and prevention got a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday. House Bill 5394 calls for drafting a plan to legalize and regulate weed by October 1, as well as requiring a treatment and prevention plan by the same date.  The bill did not get a vote. Two other legalization bills before the legislature do not contain the treatment and prevention funding provisions.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Judge Puts Hold on State Medical Marijuana Program. A state judge last week put the state's program on hold because of objections to the licensing process, but was apologetic for imposing the delay. "Amendment 98 to the Constitution of Arkansas, an initiative by the people, exists because Arkansans want to provide medical marijuana to persons who suffer from chronic, debilitating, and life-threatening health challenges," Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen wrote in his order last week. "The prospect that Arkansans must now endure more delay before gaining much needed access to locally grown medical marijuana should be unpleasant to anyone concerned about providing relief to people who suffer from serious illnesses."

Kansas House Votes Down Medical Marijuana. As they debated changes to the state's drug laws, lawmakers in the House voted down an amendment that would have allowed the use of medical marijuana. The amendment was offered by Rep. Cindy Holscher (D-Lenexa), who said her own daughter, who suffers from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, could benefit from access to the medicine. "Please don’t make us lawbreakers," Holscher said. "Give us an option for something that has been proven to work." But the underlying bill contains a provision that allows for the limited use of CBD cannabis oil.

Louisiana House Committee Approves Medical Marijuana for Autism. The House Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would add certain types of autism to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The move comes as dispensaries are set to open in the state just four months from now. The measure, House Bill 627, now goes to the full House.

New Hampshire Senate Approves Bill to Add More Dispensaries. The state Senate last week approved a bill that would allow for two additional dispensaries in the state.  The state currently has four medical marijuana outlets. The bill now goes to the House.

South Carolina Senate Committee Advances Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate Medical Affairs Committee approved a medical marijuana bill on Thursday. The measure, Senate Bill 212, now heads for a Senate floor vote.  But advocates worry the bill will die for lack of action in the House. The House has declined to hear its own medical marijuana bill so far this year, and the deadline for doing so is April 10.

Tennessee Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Second House Committee Vote. The House Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday approved House Bill 1749, which would allow for the use of medical marijuana for a dozen qualifying conditions.  The bill now heads for a House floor vote.

Utah Poll Shows Enduring Strong Support for Medical Marijuana. More than three-quarters (77%) of Utahns "strongly" or "somewhat" favor legalizing medical marijuana, according to a new poll from Dan Jones & Associates. The poll is in line with other recent state polls show high levels of support, undaunted by the legislature's passage of a bill that allows for a "right to try" medical marijuana for terminally ill patients. An initiative that would create a full-blown medical marijuana system in the state will likely be on the ballot in November.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Federal Spending Plan Has Nearly $5 Billion to Deal With Opioid Crisis. The omnibus spending bill signed into law by President Trump last week contains some $4.6 billion. The biggest chunk of the money will go to states and tribes, especially those with the highest overdose mortality rates. Some 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year. The funding is less than the $7 billion for fighting AIDS, which killed 42,000 Americans last year.  

DEA Deploying 250 Additional Agents to Fight Opioid Crisis. The DEA announced Tuesday that it is deploying 250 additional task force officers and dozens of analysts across the country in a bid to crack down on opioids. The additional agents and analysts will go to areas hardest hit by the epidemic.

Oregon Governor Signs Opioid Bills into Law. Gov. Kate Brown (D) on Tuesday signed into law two bills and an order setting deadlines for a drug policy commission that has been plagued with staffing and other issues. The order declares addiction a public health crisis in the state. Two bills, House Bill 4137 and House Bill 4143, cover similar ground and require studying barriers to addiction treatment.

Criminal Justice

New York Governor Launches Campaign to Overhaul Criminal Justice System. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Monday launched a "Campaign to Restore Fairness in New York’s Criminal Justice System." The governor's package would eliminate cash bail for misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses, ensure access to speedy trials, improve the disclosure of evidence, reform asset forfeiture, and improve reentry programs for people leaving prison.

Harm Reduction

Louisiana House Approves Needle Exchange Bill. A bill that would expand needle exchange programs by allowing them without seeking approval from local governments was approved by the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice on Wednesday. House Bill 661 also expands the types of materials and programs a needle exchange can offer, including access to naloxone. The bill now heads for a House floor debate and vote next week.

International

Colombia Coca Growers Threaten to Suspend Cooperation With Peace Process. The federation that represents coca growers, COCCAM, said in a statement on Tuesday it is consulting its members "to define whether to suspend our participation" with the government program that seeks to substitute legal crops for coca.  The federation cited continuing violence, noting that more than 200 coca farmers have been killed since the beginning of the peace process in December 2016. The growers are also unhappy with the government's response to their complaints with Justice Minister Enrique Gil for proposing a law shielding coca growers from criminal prosecution, but which excludes families that have already signed up for the program. The bill also more than halved the amount of land to be considered a small grower, changes the federation called a "flagrant betrayal of the peasants, Afro-descendants and indigenous people who put their trust in the peace process by joining the program."

Georgia Drug Decriminalization Bill on Hold After Controversial Rewrite. A bill that would decriminalize drug use and possession has been held up after an interagency commission expressed support for a new draft drug policy law that activists say no longer talks about decriminalization.  The new draft also fails to differentiate quantities of drugs for personal use from those for distribution except in eight cases, meaning people caught with any amount of other drugs face years in prison. "Nobody mentioned decriminalisation at today’s hearing, which is alarming," Guram Imnadze, a lawyer from local rights group the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC) said after it was over. The current draft doesn't address the key problem with the country's drug policy, which, he said, was that "people spend years in prison for drugs they intended for personal use."

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: FL Voting Init Qualifies for Ballot, NYC Sues Big Pharma Over Opioids, More... (1/24/18)

More than a million Floridians would regain their right to vote in November after an initiative qualfied for the ballot, California small pot growers sue to stop concentration in the industry, New York City sues opioid manufacturers and seeks half a billion in damages, and more.

A Florida initiative that would restore the voting rights of felons is headed for the November ballot. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Growers' Group Sues to Block Huge Grow Operations. The California Growers Association, which represents small marijuana cultivators, filed suit in Sacramento Tuesday to block state rules it fears could open the way for huge commercial marijuana operations, driving its members out of business. Although the state has put a moratorium on large marijuana grows, state regulators are allowing businesses to acquire an unlimited number of licenses for smaller grows, which could lead to monopolization of the industry and have "a devastating effect" on small growers.

Maine GOP, Governor Seek to Delay Legalization Implementation. Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage (R) and legislative Republican leaders said Tuesday they want to extend a moratorium on the launch of legal pot businesses in the state until January 2019 and they will refuse to support a bill now before lawmakers that would extend the moratorium only until April 18. Voters approved marijuana legalization in November 2016. The proposed April 18 moratorium bill was unanimously approved by the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee last week, and is likely to come up for a vote Thursday on the Senate floor.

Massachusetts Marijuana Sanctuary State Bill Filed. Last Friday, Reps. Dave Rogers (D-Cambridge) and Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) filed a bill that would prevent state and local authorities from cooperating with federal authorities attempting to enforce federal marijuana laws against state-legal marijuana businesses. The Refusal and Compliance Act would prevent police from handing over people in compliance with state marijuana laws unless federal authorities have a warrant.

Medical Marijuana

Another Utah Poll Shows Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Initiative. A new poll from the Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah's Hinckley School of Politics has support for a proposed medical marijuana initiative at 76%. That's nearly identical to the 75% approval polled in October. The poll comes as the Utah Patients Coalition, which is sponsoring the initiative, moves toward completing its signature-gathering campaign.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New York City Sues Big Pharma Over Opioid Crisis. The city filed suit against a handful of opioid manufacturers Tuesday in Manhattan Supreme Court. The lawsuit aimed at "corporate drug pushers" seeks $500 million from Johnson & Johnson, Cephalon, Purdue Pharma, Teva, and Janssen. The city saw more than a thousand opioid overdose deaths last year.

Asset Forfeiture

Alabama Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. Rep. Arnold Moore filed a bill Tuesday to curb the widespread use of civil asset forfeiture. House Bill 287 would effectively end civil asset forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before seizing someone's property.

Harm Reduction

Philadelphia Takes Step Toward Approving Safe Injection Sites. City officials announced Tuesday that they would allow a safe injection site as part of an effort to stem the rising tide of opioid overdose deaths. The city won't operate the site itself, but is now preparing to solicit operators interested in setting up such a site. There are no sanctioned safe injection sites in the US, although a number of other cities, including Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are considering them.

Voting Rights

Florida Initiative to Restore Voting Rights to Felons Qualifies for Ballot. The Voting Restoration Amendment, which would restore voting rights to more than a million Floridians with felony records, has qualified for the November ballot. Campaigners led by Floridians for Fair Democracy gathered more than the 799,000 valid voter signatures to qualify, state figures showed Tuesday. Because it is a constitutional amendment, the measure will need 60% of the vote to pass.

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.)

Senate Heavyweights File Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

A bipartisan group of Senate heavy-hitters have filed a bill aimed at reducing the swollen federal prison population by moving away from harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences, among other reforms. But it's not completely reformist.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley -- the face of sentencing reform? (Official photo)
The measure is a mixed bag, a product of lengthy discussions among senators seeking a compromise that could actually pass the Senate. While it has a number of progressive sentencing reform provisions, it also includes new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including some drug offenses. Those provisions will provide political cover to conservatives fearful of being tagged "soft on crime," but tired of perpetuating failed drug war policies.

The federal prison system has swollen dramatically since President Reagan reinvigorated Nixon's war on drugs. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, the federal prison population has increased eight-fold since 1980, and while it peaked in 2012 and 2013, before Obama era sentencing reforms began to bite, there are still 192,000 people currently behind bars in the federal system.

The federal incarceration boom has largely been driven by the war on drugs. While the prison population jumped eight-fold, the number of drug prisoners jumped nearly 25-fold during the same period, according to the Sentencing Project. The nearly 81,000 people currently doing federal time for drug crimes constitutes nearly half (46.2%) of all federal prisoners.

The reform bill, S. 1917, was rolled out Wednesday by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with cosponsors senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Roy Blunt (R-MO).

"Our justice system demands consequences for those who choose to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement works hard to keep our communities safe," said Grassley. "This bipartisan compromise ensures that these consequences fit their crimes by targeting violent and career criminals who prey on the innocent while giving nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society. This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system. It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation, and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward."

"This compromise represents more than five years of work on criminal justice reform," said Durbin. "The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

Given who is behind it and the senatorial compromise it represents, the measure actually has a chance of moving in the Republican-controlled body. Still, even if it were to pass there, sentencing reform faces murkier prospects in the House and, if the first months of the Trump administration are any indication, implacable hostility from the White House and the Justice Department.

According to a summary from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill:

  • Reduces enhanced mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug offenders and eliminates the mandatory life provision for third strike offenders.
  • Increases judicial discretion by expanding existing the "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence beneath federal guidelines to include offenders with broader criminal histories, including people with prior felonies or violent or drug trafficking offenses if a court finds those offenses overstate a defendant's criminal history and recidivism risk. The bill also creates a second "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence some low-level drug offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.
  • Reforms sentences for drug offenses with firearms to clarify that enhanced mandatory minimums only apply for people who have previously been convicted and served a sentence for such an offense and gives judges the discretion to order lesser sentences if the firearm wasn't brandished or discharged during the commission of a drug or violent crime. This provision would prevent abominations like the case of Weldon Angelos, the Salt Lake city music producer who got nailed for selling $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant, but ended up being sentenced to 55 years because he had a pistol in an ankle holster when he did his pot deals. (He was released last year after winning a sentence reduction.)
  • Makes the Fair Sentencing Act and certain other sentencing reforms retroactive, which would allow some nonviolent offenders current serving time to seek sentence reductions upon a judicial review.
  • Establishes programs to reduce recidivism, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Prisoners who successfully complete those programs could get to serve up to the final quarter of their sentences under home confinement or in a reentry center.
  • Limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.
  • Creates a national criminal justice commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.
  • Creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and providing weapons and defense materials to prohibited countries or designated terrorist groups, and creates a five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking heroin containing fentanyl.

There's plenty in there to appeal to sentencing reformers, and some sops to conservatives, but from a drug reform and anti-prohibitionist perspective, this is just some fixes on the back end. From that vantage point, instead of haggling over how many months to shave off some poor sap's sentence, we should be questioning why he was even arrested and prosecuted in the first place.

But you have to start somewhere, and ameliorating some of the cruelest injustices of the drug war is a good place to get going.

Chronicle AM: Fed Sentencing Reform Bill Filed, Colombia Coca Clashes, More... (10/6/17)

Leading senators roll out a federal sentencing reform bill, Jeff Sessions ramps up the Safe Neighborhoods program, the VA doubles down against medical marijuana, more clashes erupt in Colombia's coca producing areas, and more.

A newly filed Senate bill seeks to address prison overcrowding. (supremecourt.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Just Keeps On Selling More and More Legal Weed. The state broke its marijuana sales record for the sixth consecutive month in August, a trend that officials expect to continue when September figures come in. Farmers sold 734 pounds of buds and 444 pounds of other marijuana plant parts to retailers in August, generating nearly $700,000 in taxes for the state.

Kentucky State Senator Calls for Legalization to Ease Budget Crunch. With the state facing a $200 million budget deficit this year, state Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale) has suggested that legalizing marijuana could help. "My argument is before any new taxes, let's explore the potential of new monies," he told WKYT Thursday.

Maine Legalization Bill Now Requires Town to Opt In, Not Opt Out. Under the latest iteration of the legislature's bill to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization, localities would have to act affirmatively to allow medical marijuana businesses. That's the opposite of what the legalization initiative intended, which was to make localities opt out of participation if they didn't want pot businesses. The latest version of the bill is now headed for a floor vote on October 23.

San Diego Sets Legal Marijuana Business Rules. California's second largest city has made itself ready for legal marijuana. The city has finalized rules for pot growing and manufacturing ahead of the scheduled January 1 start date for legal marijuana sales. It will allow both indoor cultivation and manufacturing, as well as testing labs.

Medical Marijuana

Veterans Department Reiterates Opposition to Medical Marijuana Use. VA policy has been to disallow government doctors from recommending medical marijuana, but now, the agency has updated its website to state that opposition more firmly -- and inaccurately. As Tom Angell at Marijuana Majority noted, the website's claim that "as long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I drug, VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist veterans to obtain it" is not technically true. There is no law barring the VA from allowing its doctors to recommend medical marijuana.

WADA No Longer Considers CBD a Prohibited Drug. The World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) has removed CBD from its 2018 list of prohibited substances. "Cannabidiol is no longer prohibited," WADA said. But it emphasized that THC, the euphoric psychoactive chemical in marijuana, remains banned and that CBD products could contain actionable amounts of THC. "Cannabidiol extracted from cannabis plants may contain varying concentrations of THC," WADA noted.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Federal Bill to Increase Opioid Prescribing Requirements Filed. Rep. David Roe (R-TN) Thursday filed House Resolution 3964, "to amend the Controlled Substance Act to establish additional registration requirements for prescribers of opioids." The bill text is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Ramps Up Safe Neighborhoods Program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday plans to ramp up efforts against drug trafficking and violent gangs through the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. In a memo, the country's top cop ordered federal prosecutors to emphasize violent crime reduction and develop plans to work with local police and prosecutors in the effort.

Sentencing

Senate Heavyweights File Sentencing Reform Bill. A bipartisan group of senators today reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 to recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, target violent and career criminals and save taxpayer dollars. The legislation permits more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement. It is led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Scott (R-SC), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). The bill is S. 1917. Check back for a Chronicle feature on the bill.

International

Four Killed in Colombia Clashes Between Coca Growers, Eradicators. Four people are dead and 14 wounded after somebody attacking protesting coca farmers in the municipality of Tumaco, along the Pacific Coast. The government blamed members of a dissident FARC faction that has refused to lay down its arms, but local activists blamed government security forces for opening fire. Clashes between coca growers and security forces have become more frequent as production of cocaine in Colombia surged to record levels in recent years.

Chronicle AM: MJ Policy Keeps Northeast Busy, Major Louisiana Sentencing Reforms, More.... (6/16/17)

Marijuana policy continues to roil statehouses across the Northeast, a US senator and a congressman file identical medical marijuana protection bills, Louisiana -- the lock 'em up state -- enacts comprehensive sentencing reforms, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts to Get New Legalization Rewrite Bill on Monday. After criticism and errors in the text force the House leadership to pull its marijuana legalization rewrite bill this week, House committee chair Rep. Mark Cusack (D-Braintree) said a redrafted version of the bill would be released on Monday, with debate expected in the House on Wednesday. At issue are tax rates and a governance model for the industry.

New Jersey Arresting More People Than Ever for Marijuana, ACLU Report Finds. Marijuana arrests have climbed steadily in the state in recent years, with black residents three times more likely than whites to be targeted. The report, which analyzed FBI Uniform Crime Report and U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2013, comes as lawmakers are making a push to legalize marijuana in the state. The report found a steady increase in marijuana arrests over that period, from 19,607 in 2001 to 24,067 in 2013.

Rhode Island Legalization Advocates Offer Compromise Bill. Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), along with Regulate Rhode Island, have outlined a compromise bill that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana starting July 1, 2018, with an advisory board to study the effects of legalization and report to the General Assembly next year on setting up a taxed and regulated system of marijuana commerce. Assembly leaders are pushing a bill that would defer legalization until a legislative commission studies the issue.

Vermont Governor Says Legalization Deal Still Possible. Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday an agreement with legislators on marijuana legalization is still possible this year. Scott vetoed the legalization bill last month, citing concerns about drugged driving and children. "We are still negotiating," Scott said. "They understand... what my reservations are in terms of what they're planning, but I still think it's workable." If an agreement is reached, House Republicans would have to agree to suspend the rules of the veto session to allow a vote on the pot bill. They do not sound very interested in that, but Scott has said that if he can reach agreement on a bill, he will try to persuade his GOP colleagues to allow a vote.

Medical Marijuana

Corey Booker, Steve Cohen File Identical Medical Marijuana Protection Bills. Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen has filed House Resolution 2920, "to extend the principle of federalism to drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana." New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 1374, in the upper chamber.

Michigan Lawmakers File Medical Marijuana Billboard Ad Ban Bills. State Sen. Rick Jones (R) and Rep. Andy Schor (D) have filed identical bills that would effectively ban billboard for medical marijuana businesses. The bills are Senate Bill 463 and House Bill 4767. They are not yet available on the state legislative web site.

Pennsylvania Governor Warns Session Against Interfering with Medical Marijuana. In a sharply worded letter, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) warned Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to interfere with medical marijuana in the state. "For a lot of patients, this is the only medicine that works. So for him to go after medical cannabis is kind of flying in the face of science and the facts," said a spokesman for the governor.

Criminal Justice

Louisiana Enacts Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reforms. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) on Thursday signed a package of 10 bills that shrink sentences, mostly for nonviolent offenders, and expand parole and probation and reentry opportunities for offenders. The state has the highest proportion of its population behind bars of any state, but Edwards predicts that the new laws will see the state's prison population falling by as much as 10% in the next decade. The bills are House Bills 116, 249, 489, 519, 680 681 and Senate Bills 16, 139, 220, 221. They can be viewed at the state legislative website.

International

British Columbia Court Throws Out Mandatory Minimums for Marijuana Producers. The BC Court of Appeals last week threw out the mandatory minimum sentence for people caught producing more than six marijuana plants, saying the law mandating it was unconstitutional. "I note that a six-month sentence is typical for a first-time trafficker involved in a relatively sophisticated commercial dial-a-dope operation. Imposing that sentence on a 19-year-old student or a migraine sufferer who is growing six plants intending to share them with friends would, in my view, be abhorrent to most Canadians," the trial court judge held, instead giving the man a suspended sentence. The government appealed, and lost last week.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Sought Free Rein on MedMJ, VT Legalization Still Alive, More... (6/14/17)

Lots of marijuana policy news today, plus GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner files a bill to reauthorize the Second Chance Act.

Marijuana Policy

California Pot Shops Could Sell Both Recreational and Medical Marijuana Under New Proposal. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and state legislators proposed Monday to allow medical and recreational marijuana to be sold by the same shops. The move was one of dozens of new regulations aimed at merging the medical and recreational marijuana industries contained in budget bills released Monday.

Nevada Lawsuit That Threatens July 1 Sales Date Still Alive. A Carson City district court judge on Tuesday denied the state's motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by liquor distributors seeking a cut of the action in the state's emerging legal marijuana industry. The liquor distributors have won a temporary restraining order holding up the implementation of the state's marijuana sales law until their lawsuit is settled. The distributors claim the state's regulations for licensing marijuana distributors are arbitrary and unfair. This means the state's early July 1 legal sales goal is in jeopardy.

Nevada Governor Signs Three Pot Bills, Vetoes One. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has signed a bill setting a 15% wholesale tax on both medical and recreational marijuana (Senate Bill 478), and bills adjusting medical marijuana regulations (Senate Bill 344 and Assembly Bill 422), but vetoed a bill that would have allowed those convicted of past marijuana-related crimes involving an equal or lesser amount of what's now legal to have that crime vacated from their criminal records (Assembly Bill 259).

Rhode Island Legislature to Vote on Study Bill, But Advocates Say No Thanks. Marijuana legalization supporters said Wednesday they will not participate in a legalization study commission if it is approved by the General Assembly, calling it "a flawed delay tactic." Instead, Regulate Rhode Island is calling on legislative leaders to vote on a bill that would legalize personal possession and cultivation, but include no immediate plans for taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Vermont Governor, Legislative Leaders Move Toward Compromise on Legalization. After Gov. Phil Scott (R) vetoed the legalization bill, Senate Bill 16, he said he didn't oppose legalization in principle, but had concerns about youth use and impaired driving. He also said he wanted a study commission in the bill to have more time to examine how the state could implement legal marijuana commerce. Now, legislative leaders say they have come up with compromise language that addresses his concerns, including tougher penalties for selling to children and longer sentences for smoking in a car when a child is present. A spokesman for the governor said "We're making good progress toward an agreement." Legislators will need Republicans to waive a rule to bring the issue up for consideration during a looming special session, but Scott said if an agreement on the bill could be reached, he would seek to persuade Republican legislators to allow it to be taken up.

Medical Marijuana

Attorney General Session Asked Congress to Let Him Go After Medical Marijuana. Attorney General Sessions sent a letter to Congress last month asking leading members to reject a federal law letting medical marijuana states set their own policies. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment to the Justice Department budget bars the use of federal funds to prevent states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana." In a letter urging congresspeople to walk back the amendment, Sessions said the law would "inhibit [his department's] authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act." Hat tip to Tom Angell at MassRoots, who first obtained the letter.

Reentry/Rehabilitation

Rep. Sensenbrenner Files Second Chance Act Reauthorization Bill. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner( R-WI) has filed House Resolution 2899 to reauthorize the Second Chance Act of 2007. That law provides funding to state, local, and tribal governments that are working to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for people getting out of jail or prison.

Drug War Issues

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