Marijuana Legalization

RSS Feed for this category

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Approved for Circulation

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan announced Monday that two initiatives for marijuana legalization measures have been approved for circulation. Both were filed by attorney Dan Viets, a long-time marijuana legalization advocate and a member of the national NORML Legal Committee and board of directors.

Viets and Missouri NORML chapters have aligned themselves with other marijuana legalization advocates and supporters as Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, a reference to Missouri's nickname as the "Show Me" state.

The two measures are identical, except that one would amend the state constitution and the other would amend state law.

The initiatives call for marijuana legalization for persons 21 and over, a process for licensing marijuana establishments, and the lifting of criminal justice system sanctions against people imprisoned or under state supervision for nonviolent marijuana offenses that would no longer be illegal and the expunging of all criminal records for such offenses. The initiatives would also allow for the use of marijuana for medical reasons by minors and allow the legislature to enact a tax of $100 a pound on retail marijuana sales.

The initiatives now move on to the signature-gathering phase. To qualify for the November 2012 ballot, the constitutional amendment initiative must obtain the signatures of a number of registered voters equal to 8% of the total votes cast in the 2008 governor's race from six of the state's nine congressional districts. The requirements for the statutory amendment are slightly looser; it needs the signatures of 5% of the voters in those districts. Signatures must be turned in by May 6, 2012.

If marijuana legalization makes the ballot in Missouri next year, the state is likely to join Washington and Colorado in taking the issue before the voters. Efforts in those two states are the most advanced and likely to make the ballot, although there is a possibility that similar efforts could make the ballot in California and Oregon.

Columbia, MO
United States

White House Rebuffs Marijuana Legalization Petitions

As promised, the White House has responded to the online petition to "Legalize and Regulate Alcohol," and seven other similar pot petitions as well, but the response wasn't favorable. That's not particularly surprising, given that the person chosen to deliver the response, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske, is mandated by law to oppose legalization.

"Isn't it time to legalize and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol?" asked the petition submitted by "Erik A" of Washington, DC. "If not, please explain why you feel that the continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

The threshold for an official response was at least 25,000 signatures by 30 days from October 3. The marijuana legalization petition was by far the most popular, with more than 74,000 signatures as of Friday night. Another seven petitions similarly calling for one form of pot legalization or another, which Kerlikowske also included in his response, carried an additional 76,000 signatures.

The marijuana legalization petitions far exceeded all others. Currently, the other leading contenders are banning puppy mills (30,234), abolishing the TSA (28,515), and two other issues that are closely related to marijuana reform -- allowing for industrial hemp (20,498) and ending the war on drugs (18,614).

The official response from drug czar Kerlikowske is certain to disappoint and infuriate marijuana legalization supporters and drug reformers, but should come as little surprise. Under the 1998 ONDCP Reauthorization Act, the drug czar is required by law not only to not spend any money to study legalization but also to "take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize" a Schedule I substance, a category that under federal law includes marijuana. The drug czar could no more come out for marijuana legalization than the 17th Century Holy Office could endorse a universe without the earth at its center.

That the administration chose the drug czar to respond sends a strong signal that legalization talk will go nowhere in this administration. That it chose to release its response during the late Friday afternoon "news dump," when it will hopefully vanish over the weekend suggests that it realizes it isn't going to win many political points with its position.

"Our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug's effects," Kerlikowske begins before warning that "marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment." He then wheels out marijuana treatment admissions and emergency room visits, reminds that potency has increased, and concludes that "simply put, it is not a benign drug."

Kerlikowske asserts that the administration is "ardently support[ing] ongoing research" into marijuana as a medicine, but scoffs at smoked marijuana as a medicine. Then he actually addresses the petition.

"As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem," the drug czar continued. "We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

Instead, Kerlikowske recommends, not surprisingly, his own 2001 National Drug Control Strategy, "emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities." What is needed is not marijuana legalization, but more drug treatment and more drug courts, Kerlikowske concludes.

The legalization petition was drafted in response to the White House's We the People campaign "because we want to hear from you," according to the web page. "If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it is sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response."

The drug czar's recitation of the harms associated with marijuana use is certainly debatable and will doubtlessly be thoroughly criticized in days to come. But as the administration response makes clear, that marijuana is a dangerous drug that Americans cannot be trusted with to use responsibly is the official line, and they're sticking to it.

Washington, DC
United States

Colombia President Calls for Global Marijuana Legalization

In a Sunday interview, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called for the global legalization of marijuana, but said his country could not be the one to lead the way. Santos also called for a tougher, smarter approach to international drug trafficking and hard drug use.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/juan-manuel-santos-3.jpg
Juan Manuel Santos
"The world needs to discuss new approaches," Santos said. "We are basically still thinking within the same framework as we have done for the last 40 years."

Colombia has made progress in its fight against cocaine trafficking in the past 20 years, managing to destroy first the Medellin and then the Cali cartels and subsequently seeing a reduction in the violence that had plagued the country. But a legion of mini-cartels have emerged to take up the trafficking mantle, and Colombia remains a world leader in cocaine production.

When asked by his interviewer whether marijuana legalization could be a means of further reducing the violence, Santos said he would support legalization, but only if it were a global move. "Yes, that could be an answer, provided everyone does it at the same time," he said.

Colombia would not undertake such a move itself because of national security reasons, Santos said. "For Colombia, this is a matter of national security," he explained. "Drug trafficking is what finances the violence and the irregular groups in our country. I would be crucified if I took the first step. We need to insist on more multinational actions on drug trafficking and innovate the ways we are dealing with it," he said.

"In other countries [Europe and the US] this is mainly a health and crime issue," Santos continued. "We need to look at all components, one of them being targeting the assets in this business. But we need to do so on a global level. We must discuss a new approach, looking at all the components: The profit and the crime that follows drug trafficking, the fight against money laundering, trade with arms and so on. These are all effects of drugs."

Or, more precisely, global drug prohibition. And so, the consensus continues to crumble.

Bogota
Colombia

Gallup Poll Support for Marijuana Legalization at 50% for First Time

Support for marijuana legalization in the US continues to climb, with the Gallup Poll reporting Monday that a record high 50% of Americans now approve of freeing the weed. That's up from 30% in 2000, 40% in 2009, and 46% last year.

But pot legalization remains a divisive subject. Nearly half -- 46% -- of respondents opposed legalization, with only 4% either undecided or not answering the question.

When Gallup first began asking the marijuana legalization question in 1969, only 12% approved and 84% opposed. Approval figures hovered in the mid-twenties from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s before beginning the current upward climb.

In line with other national polls, the current Gallup poll found support for legalization strongest among liberals (69%), 18-29-year-olds (62%), and moderates, Democrats, and independents (57%). Men (54%) and 30-49-year-olds (56%) also showed majority support for legalization.

Those demographic groups least like to favor marijuana legalization were people over 65 (31%), conservatives (34%), Republicans (35%), and women (46%).

Geographically, marijuana legalization had majority support in the West (55%), the Midwest (54%), and the East (51%). The only region not showing majority support for legalization was the South, where only 44% approved.

Especially in the West, these numbers will bring some solace to legalization campaigners. Organizers in at least four states -- California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington -- are working toward placing legalization initiatives on state ballots, and these numbers suggest they are within striking distance of victory, even if not within the 60%+ approval comfort zone of initiative veterans.

As Gallup itself noted, "Support for legalizing marijuana has been increasing over the past several years, rising to 50% today -- the highest on record. If this current trend on legalizing marijuana continues, pressure may build to bring the nation's laws into compliance with the people's wishes."

The poll was conducted by telephone interviews on October 6-9. The sample was a random sample of 1,005 adults 18 or older living in all 50 states and Washington, DC. The margin of error is +/- 4%.

California Doctors' Group Says Legalize Marijuana

California's largest doctors' group is calling for marijuana legalization. The trustees of the California Medical Association (CMA) adopted the position at their annual meeting in Anaheim Friday. The call came after the group last year decided to study the issue and make recommendations.

The group, which represents more than 35,000 physicians statewide, called for legalization even as it acknowledged health risks and questioned the medical value of pot.

The CMA's policy recommendations on marijuana included rescheduling marijuana in order to encourage further research, regulating recreational marijuana "in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco," taxing marijuana, and facilitating information about the risks and benefits of marijuana use.

Dr. Donald Lyman, a Sacramento physician who authored the new policy, wrote that the new policy was inspired by frustration with California's medical marijuana law. The law permits marijuana use with a physician's recommendations, even though marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That puts doctors in an untenable position, Lyman argued.

"It's an uncomfortable position for doctors," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It is an open question whether cannabis is useful or not. That question can only be answered once it is legalized and more research is done. Then, and only then, can we know what it is useful for."

But despite questioning marijuana's medical efficacy, the CMA made it clear that it sees pot prohibition as a failure. "The California Medical Association (CMA) has recognized that the criminalization of cannabis is a failed public health policy," Lyman wrote in the white paper. "Based on the growing momentum of medical cannabis decriminalization nationally (16 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized medical cannabis), there may also be growing public support in several states for decriminalization of the cultivation, transport and use of cannabis."

The CMA said it was the first state medical association to call for marijuana legalization.

Anaheim, CA
United States

Activist Dana Beal Sentenced, Suffers Heart Attack

Iconic activist Dana Beal suffered a heart attack while in a Wisconsin jail awaiting transfer to a state prison to begin serving a 2 ½ prison sentence for marijuana trafficking. According to Celebstoner.com and the Free Dana Beal and Free Ourselves Facebook page, Beal was stricken Tuesday morning, and at last report, he was hospitalized in stable condition under sedation at the Intensive Care Unit at St. Mary's Hospital in Madison.

Beal leading Global Marijuana March in NYC, 1994 (wikimedia.org)
Last week, Beal was sentenced to prison in Wisconsin after pleading guilty to trafficking 180 pounds of pot in a bust that unraveled when his 1997 Chevy van got pulled over for expired tags and no tail light. He also got 2 ½ years of probation to be served after his jail time. He got credit for 267 days already served.

Despite courtroom testimonials from Beal supporters, including "Guru of Ganja" Ed Rosenthal and Wisconsin medical marijuana patient Jacki Rickert, Beal got prison time. But it was less than the four years the prosecution asked for and well below the 15 year maximum allowable under Wisconsin law.

Beal was already on probation after being busted with another 100-pound-plus load in Nebraska in 2009. The previous year, the New York City-based activist saw more than $100,000 in cash seized in Illinois, although he avoided any convictions in that case. He also has previous drug convictions in 1971, 1987, 1993 and 2006.

When not fighting his own cases, Beal has built a career as an activist, first with the Yippies in the early 1970s, then as a founding organizer of the Global Marijuana Marches, and in recent years, as a crusader for the addiction-treating powers of ibogaine with his group Cures Not Wars.

Madison, WI
United States

Marijuana Legalization Trails in New California Poll

Even as a trio of proposed California marijuana legalization initiatives are getting underway in an effort to make the November 2012 ballot, a poll released last Thursday suggests they could face an uphill battle. The Public Policy Institute of California poll had 51% opposing pot legalization, with 46% in favor.

In the survey, only the San Francisco region favored legalization, while a majority of Southern California and Central Valley residents opposed it. Not surprisingly, liberals and Democrats were more supportive of legalization than conservatives and Republicans.

In 2010, when Proposition 19 was on the ballot, it led in polls throughout the run-up to the election, sometimes achieving more than 50% approval, before the poll numbers tightened and then reversed in the final weeks of the campaign. Prop 19 lost with 46% of the vote, the same number the generic marijuana legalization question is garnering now.

The common wisdom among initiative and referendum experts is that an initiative should be polling at 60% favorable or above at the beginning of the campaign because support will inevitably drop as Election Day draws near, more people start paying more attention, undecideds are forced to decide, and opponents start attacking.

The man behind Prop 19, Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, said earlier this month that his group's effort to return to the ballot in 2012 is "pretty much dead, the funders didn't come through."

The funders haven't been coming through for the other proposed initiatives, either, according to the California Secretary of State's office. It reports no significant donations so far for Lee's Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012 initiative sponsored by a pair of North Bay attorneys and Northern California activists, the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative championed by Libertarian and marijuana activist Steve Kubby and retired Judge Jim Gray, and the (reduce) Marijuana Penalties Act of 2012 initiative, being pushed by long-time Southern California political operative Bill Zimmerman.

If any of these proposed initiatives are going to attract the serious funding necessary to gather signatures to make the ballot and then pay for an ad campaign as the election draws near, there is going to have to be some evidence of a shift in these numbers. And it will have to happen soon, as the cost of gathering the substantial number of signatures needed to get an initiative to the ballot in California escalates as the time remaining to do so counts down.

CA
United States

WA State Voters Split on Marijuana Legalization

Washington state voters are evenly divided on the question of marijuana legalization, according to a poll released Monday. The Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey found that of likely voters surveyed, 46% supported pot legalization and 46% opposed it.

The poll comes as advocates organized as New Approach Washington are in the midst of a signature-gathering campaign to place a legalization initiative, I-502, on the November 2012 general election ballot.

Polls conducted earlier this year did better. In July, an Elway poll had 30% "definitely supporting" legalization, with another 24% "inclined to support, but need[ing] to know more" -- a possible majority, but within the poll's +/- 5% margin of error. In January, as lawmakers considered bills that would decriminalize or legalize pot, KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% of respondents saying they thought legalization was a good idea, with 54% saying they thought lawmakers should allow marijuana to be sold at state-run liquor stores with the proceeds taxed.

The conventional wisdom among initiative campaign veterans is that a measure should start out polling at 60% or more to have a likelihood of breaking 50% on Election Day. For I-502 to start at 60%, its specific wording and title will have to win over some voters who responded negatively to these more general polls. Its ability to do so may in turn influence funders' willingness to support it. On the flip side, there is more than a year to go, and pro-legalization polling has continued to increase in most recent years.

In the current poll, marijuana legalization had its highest level of support among 2008 Obama voters (60%), Democrats or leaning Democratic (59%), independents (56%), King County and North Puget Sound residents (54%), and non-whites (51%).

The strongest opposition to legalization came from Republican and Republican leaning voters and 2008 McCain supporters (69%), Eastern Washington residents (59%), women (54%), and Western Washington residents (excluding King County and North Puget Sound) (52%).

The poll was conducted via telephone on September 11 through 14. It surveyed 500 Washington state residents who indicated they were likely to vote in the November 2012 election and included 400 who indicated they were likely to vote in the November 2011 election. The margin of error was +/- 4.4% for the 500-person sample and greater for subsamples.

Seattle, WA
United States

WA State Dems Endorse Marijuana Legalization

The Washington state Democratic Central Committee Saturday endorsed a marijuana legalization initiative, throwing the party's weight behind the effort to put the measure on the ballot for the November 2012 election.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/downtown_seattle.jpg
downtown Seattle
The Central Committee voted 75-43 for a resolution supporting Initiative 502, which would legalize the possession of marijuana by adults and allow for its sale through pot-only stores regulated by the state liquor control authority. Initiative sponsors New Approach Washington estimate that marijuana legalization under its model would generate more than $200 a million a year in tax revenues, with more than half of that earmarked for public health programs.

The Democrats cited, among other things, law enforcement costs of marijuana prohibition and the revenues that could be gained with legalization. They noted that marijuana possession arrests, with mandatory 24-hour jail stays, accounted for half of all Washington drug arrests. 

I-502 is controversial among some segments of the marijuana legalization and medical marijuana communities because it also includes a per se driving under the influence provision. The initiative sets a blood THC level of 5 nanograms per millileter above which drivers are presumed to be impaired, but some activists argue that such a provision will result in the arrest and conviction of pot-accustomed drivers who are not actually impaired.

That didn't seem to bother the Democratic Central Committee too much, though. The committee included that provision in its long list of "whereases" in support of the initiative, noting that "this per se limit will not apply to the non-psychoactive marijuana metabolite carboxy-THC that can appear in blood or urine tests for days or even weeks after last use."

I-502 is supported by the ACLU of Washington, whose Alison Holcomb has taken a leave of absence to spearhead the campaign, and has been endorsed by prominent Washington figures, including former US Attorney John McKay (the man who prosecuted Marc Emery, ironically), Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and travel writer and TV show host Rick Steves.

Organizers have until next July to gather 241,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. But I-502 is an initiative to the legislature, meaning that if it passes the signature-gathering hurdle, it would then go before the state legislature in the upcoming session. If the legislature refuses to act, the initiative would then go before the voters in November 2012.

Bellingham, WA
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

Washington, DC
United States

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