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Support for Marijuana Legalization Creeping Up

Public support for marijuana legalization continues its upward trend and has "never been higher," according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The poll had support for marijuana legalization at 45%, up four points from the same poll a year earlier.

Half of respondents (50%) still opposed legalizing pot, but that number is down two points from last year and continues a two-decade long trend of declining opposition. In 1990, 81% opposed legalization; by 2000, that number had declined to 63%, and has continued to drop since then.

The upward trend line for legalization and the downward one opposing legalization are nearing the convergence point, and support for legalization will soon surpass opposition, if current trends continue.

Pro-legalization sentiment was strongest among 18-to-29-year-olds (54%), Democrats (53%), and people with some college education (50%). Among liberal Democrats, support rose to 66%.

Keeping marijuana illegal got the strongest support from Republicans (67%) and people over 65 (66%), and women (54%). Men were evenly divided on the issue.

The new Pew poll is in line with other polls in recent years showing a steady increase in support for marijuana legalization, but that we're not quite there yet nationally. Still, we are getting tantalizingly close. You can review our archive of Chronicle articles about polls here.

Marijuana Reform Bills Move in the States [FEATURE]

Times are changing. Ten states decriminalized the possession of marijuana in a sudden burst in the 1970s, just before the dark, "just say no" years of the Reagan era, but after that, it was more than two decades before another state decriminalized when Nevada joined the list in 2001. Then Massachusetts voters added the Bay State to the list in 2008, and California came on board last year.

California Rep. Ammiano during legislative hearings on his legalization bill, January 2010, Sacramento
Driven by budgetary imperatives and increasing awareness of the absurdity of pot prohibition, what had been a trickle of interest in at the least down-grading the severity of pot punishments now threatens to become a torrent. At least nine state legislatures are contemplating marijuana decriminalization bills this year (a tenth, Virginia's, already defeated it this year), while California is pondering a bill to reduce cultivation penalties, and legislatures in two states, Massachusetts and Washington, are considering outright legalization.

It's unlikely that all -- or even most -- of the bills will pass, but prospects are good in several states. In other states, progress will be measured by winning a hearing or a committee vote, and will be viewed as laying the ground work for a longer-term legislative strategy.

"That these bills are popping up shows that popular support has been increasing for both taxing and regulating marijuana and other reforms," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state affairs for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Gallup and other polls show steady increases in support," she added.

"States are also interested in decriminalization because of their budget crunches," O'Keefe noted. "They can't afford to lock up people for marijuana possession. There has been an explosion in these bills. The states can do this to save money and not punish people so severely for something that is less harmful than alcohol."

Here are the states where decriminalization bills have been introduced (thanks to NORML and its "Take Action" web page):

In Arizona, House Bill 2228 would make adult possession of up to two ounces a petty offense punishable by a $100 fine. Under current law, possession of that amount is potentially a felony. The bill has been referred to the House Rules Committee, where no action has been taken.

In California, Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) is not reintroducing his legalization bill, but has introduced Assembly Bill 1017, which would keep marijuana growers out of prison by reducing the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. It is not exactly decriminalization of cultivation, but it is a step in that direction.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy (D) is backing Senate Bill 163, which decriminalizes adult possession of up to an ounce, making it a civil infraction punishable only by a fine. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor worth up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In Hawaii, Senate Bill 1460 would decriminalize adult possession of up to an ounce, making it punishable by no more than a $100 fine. The law currently mandates a misdemeanor with up to 30 days in jail and a $1000 fine. A similar measure passed the Senate last year, and this bill is moving in that direction, too. It has already been approved by the Senate Joint Committee on Judiciary and Labor and the Senate Committee on Health and awaits a Senate floor vote.

In Illinois, House Bill 100 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce with a fine of $500 for first-time offenders. Current law makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary II -- Criminal Law Committee.

In Maryland, House Bill 606 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a civil offense punishable only by a $100 fine, with no criminal record. The bill has been endorsed by the Maryland Black Caucus and had a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on February 22. The committee has yet to take action on the bill.

In Rhode Island, House Bill 5031 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a civil offense with a maximum $150 fine and no criminal record. Under current law, it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.

In Texas, House Bill 548 would decriminalize the adult possession of up to an ounce by making it a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine and no criminal record. The offense is currently a Class B misdemeanor punishable by 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. It was set for a hearing in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Tuesday.

In Vermont, a decriminalization bill is yet to be filed, but is expected shortly. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has endorsed the notion. The bill is expected to reduce the penalty for pot possession from a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine to a fine only civil infraction.

In Virginia, House Bill 1443, which sought to reduce penalties for first-time pot possession offenders, was killed in January by the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee. It would have reduced the current $500 criminal fine to a civil penalty and removed the possible 30-day jail sentence.

And then there are the legalization bills:

In Massachusetts, House Bill 1371 would legalize and regulate the possession, production, and distribution of marijuana for adults 21 and over. The bill would impose licensing requirements and excise taxes on the commercial, for-profit retail sale of marijuana. It has been referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

In Washington, House Bill 1550 would legalize and regulate marijuana distribution, with pot being sold through the existing state liquor store system. The bill had a hearing before the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee February 8, and has picked up the endorsement of the Seattle Times, the state's largest newspaper, and the Seattle city prosecutor, but has yet to have a committee vote.

MPP is most directly involved in Rhode Island and Vermont, said O'Keefe, and, not surprisingly, she said she
thought those two states had the best chances of passing decriminalization bills this year. She also said chances were good in Hawaii.

"In Vermont, the new governor is a vocal proponent of decriminalization, so that has increased our chances there, and in Rhode Island, about half the House has signed onto the decriminalization bill. They will have a hearing there on March 16," said O'Keefe. "Things are looking good in Rhode Island," she added.

"In Hawaii, the Senate last year passed decriminalization, but the governor was hostile," said O'Keefe. "This year, the new governor is favorable, or at least not hostile. We expect a floor vote there soon."

"The bill is moving nicely in the Senate," said Pam Lichty of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. "It passed unanimously and unamended out of its last committee and awaits a floor vote. It will likely pass there," she said.

"But prospects are dicier in the House," Lichty continued. "There are some new and/or conservative committee chairs who will likely get the referrals. If it reaches Gov. Ambercrombie's desk, he will probably sign it, but that's a big if."

While the Drug Policy Alliance and the A Better Way Foundation are working for reform in Connecticut, the decriminalization bill came from a governor who has also been influenced by the ongoing Campaign for Restorative Justice and who said on the campaign trail that he planned to introduce the bill.

"I talked with Malloy when I was running for governor, and he said he was going to do just what he did with the bill," said Cliff Thornton of Efficacy, who has also been a long-time reformer there. But marijuana decriminalization is only a half-step, Thornton said, and one that allows Malloy to look reformist on drug policy without addressing the fundamental problem: prohibition.

"The decriminalization bill in Connecticut is seen by many as a great bill proposed by Gov. Dan Malloy, but for seasoned reformers like myself, it doesn't go far enough," said Thornton. "My main problems with the bill are that it leaves the criminal black market intact, there's little reason for people who do not use illegal substances to support the bill, and it supports the lie that there's something wrong about illegal drug use," said Thornton.

The Massachusetts legalization bill is "not going to pass this year," said Bill Downing of MassCann. "If it got out of committee, it would be a great surprise to all of us, but stranger things have happened."

Patience is a virtue, said Downing. "We're trying to advance the conversation, and we want to use that conversation to produce legislative language that makes sense to everybody," he said.

Things are looking a little better in Washington. "We had a great hearing on the cannabis regulation bill last month and educated a lot of people," said Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), a cosponsor of the bill. "It's another step in the process of reform."

Goodman said he had prepared an amendment to the bill that would make its implementation effective upon the changing of federal law, either through rescheduling or amending the Controlled Substances Act. "That would deal with the chair's objections and get it out of committee," he said. "If we delay implementation under federal law changes, we can do it. We will then have a system in place."

And then there's California. While Rep. Ammiano broke ground last year when his legalization bill became the first to ever win a legislative committee vote, he's leaving legalization to others this year. "We will not be reintroducing the legalization bill, but have introduced a bill decriminalizing cultivation, and we are potentially looking at the possibility of statewide regulation of marijuana," said Ammiano spokesman Quintin Mecke.

California will likely have another marijuana initiative on the 2012 ballot, said Mecke, and Ammiano will leave it up to the voters. "We talked to our allies, and there didn’t seem to be any strategic rationalization for reintroducing the bill," he said. "It will be decided at the ballot box one more time in 2012."

While California waits for the voters to decide, in state houses across the country, legislatures are beginning to move on marijuana reform. Whether we end up four successful decriminalization bills or three, or even one or two, each bill is a step in the right direction. And even bills that don't make it into law this year lay the groundwork for next year and the year after. The times are indeed changing.

Rallies to Legalize Marijuana in Louisiana

Location: 
LA
United States
A group called Legalize Louisiana is leading statewide marches seeking to change Louisiana laws and legalize marijuana.
Publication/Source: 
WWL (LA)
URL: 
http://www.wwl.com/pages/9312746.php?contentType=4&contentId=7752024

Marijuana Debate Reignites in Bay State

Location: 
MA
United States
A bill to legalize marijuana was quietly introduced last week. Sponsored by Amherst Democrat Ellen Story, the bill could reap thousands of dollars for the state in tax revenue. "Reps come up to me and say thank you so much for doing this Ellen. I support you, but I can't be public about it. Legislators are afraid of being seen as soft on drugs," Story says.
Publication/Source: 
WSHM (MA)
URL: 
http://www.cbs3springfield.com/news/local/Weed-117122948.html?skipthumb=Y

Rep. Barney Frank Speaks at Medical Marijuana Expo, Receives Award

Location: 
ME
United States
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank spoke at Maine’s first Medical Marijuana Expo and said that the current laws against marijuana use should be revoked. "People who make a personal decision to smoke marijuana should not be subject to prosecution," said Frank. "This is the kind of fight that's worth making. It's winnable. Most American people think it’s sensible, and are for it," said Frank to the standing-room only crowd as he received the first-ever Patients’ Choice Award — a glass trophy in the shape of a marijuana leaf.
Publication/Source: 
Boston Herald (MA)
URL: 
http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view/2011_0228barneys_frank_talk_about_pot/srvc=home&position=also

Call for Release of Moroccan Marijuana, Human Rights Activist

Last week, Moroccan human rights activist, denouncer of corruption, and marijuana legalization advocate Chakib El-Khayari began his third year in prison for "offending the Moroccan state." El-Khayari, president of the Human Rights Association of the Rif region in Morocco, has been jailed since February 17, 2009, and now, European drug reform activists and international human rights groups are calling for his release.

Chaikh El-Khayari (encod.org)
El-Khayari, who is also known for defending the rights of the Amazigh (Berber) people and African migrants passing through en route to Europe, aroused the ire of the Moroccan state for declaring to the press that the Moroccan military and police are collaborating in the trafficking of hashish to Europe. In 2008, he also took the path-breaking step of initiating a national debate on the legalization of industrial hemp and medical marijuana.

El-Khayari was arrested on February 17, 2009, and has been jailed ever since. He was convicted of "offending the Moroccan state" for his statements about the involvement of high-ranking officials in the police, the army, and the government in the hash trade. He was also convicted of violating Morocco's foreign exchange laws for depositing in a bank in Madrid a check from a Spanish newspaper for an article he had written.

In an open letter to Mohamed VI, the King of Morocco, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) is calling for El Khayari's immediate release. It is also calling on activists to print out and sign the letter, sending copies to the king and to the Moroccan embassy in their countries.

"Nothing justifies the heavy sanction that has been applied to Chakib El-Khayari," the letter says. "It is a manifest act of repression that is contrary to the international instruments to protect human rights that were ratified by Morocco and in particular, the international agreement on civil and political rights between Morocco and the European Union. We denounce firmly the detention of Chakib El-Khayari and urge his inmediate and unconditional release."

It's not just drug reformers. Five months ago, Amnesty International called for El-Khayari's release, saying it considers him a prisoner of conscience, "solely detained for his anti-corruption statements and his human rights activities."

The call for El-Khayari's release comes as the Moroccan government teeters under the wave of popular unrest that is sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. Five people were killed during widespread protests seeking constitutional reform Sunday.

Morocco

Zimbabwe MP Says Legalize, Export Marijuana

A member of parliament (MP) from Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwean African National Union -- Patriotic Front) has called for the legalization of marijuana cultivation for medicinal reasons and/or for export. That call was rejected by the country's agriculture minister.

Flag of Zimbabwe (Image via Wikimedia)
Uzumba MP Simbaneuta Mudarika suggested that marijuana be grown legally in "remote areas" as medicine and to export to countries where it is legal. According to New Zimbabwe News, the notion prompted prolonged laughter and uproar in the chamber.

"I would like to know from the Minister the national policy with regards to creating export processing zones (EPZ) in remote areas," said Mudarikwa. "The reason for creating the EPZs in those remote areas is so that we can grow marijuana. Other countries like California and Norway have legalized it," he added.

[Editor's Note: Mudarikwa is a bit confused here. California is a state, not a country, and Norway has not legalized it. Perhaps he was thinking of the Netherlands.]

Agriculture Minister Joseph Made was having none of it. "That crop is not authorized in this country, and from a policy point of view, this crop is prohibited," he responded.

ZANU-PF is the party headed by Zimbabwe's long-time authoritarian ruler, Robert Mugabe. Since February 2009, ZANU-PF has entered into a tense coalition government with Morgan Tsvangarai and the Movement for Democratic Change. Mugabe remains as president, a post he has held since 1987, while Tsvangarai serves as prime minister.

Zimbabwe

Seattle Times Endorses Marijuana Legalization Bill

In an editorial appearing in last Sunday's print edition, Washington state's largest circulation daily newspaper has called on the state legislature to legalize marijuana. "Marijuana should be legalized, regulated and taxed," the Seattle Times editorial board wrote.

The endorsement comes as the legislature ponders House Bill 1550, which would do just that. It also comes just days after a similar endorsement from first term Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, who published an op-ed titled Washington State Should Lead on Marijuana Legalization in the Times Thursday.

Legalization is within reach in Washington, according to a SurveyUSA poll released late last month. That poll had support for marijuana legalization in general at 51% in the state, although that figure dropped to 47% when respondents were asked if they supported marijuana being sold through state liquor stores, as HB 1550 envisions.

In its Sunday editorial, the Times said the Evergreen State could take the first step toward ending pot prohibition nationwide. "The push to repeal federal prohibition should come from the states, and it should begin with the state of Washington," said the Times.

The Times noted that Washington state had been in the vanguard of medical marijuana legalization and that Seattle had led the move to make adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. "It is time for the next step," the Times said.

Declaring that "marijuana is available now," the Times declared that "prohibition has not worked" and has imposed numerous costs -- to people arrested and imprisoned, in wasted law enforcement resources, in corruption and "disrespect for the law," in encouraging a criminal lifestyle among youth, and in lost tax revenues.

Although legalization would put Washington at odds with federal law, leading to a political and legal fight, somebody has to do it, and it might as well be Washington, the Times said.

[Editor's Note: HB 1550 might certainly ignite a political fight, but the legal conflict aspect tends to be overstated. As with state medical marijuana laws, the federal government has been found to have legal power to enforce federal drug laws, even in states that have broken with federal policy, but no federal power has been found which forces states to have drug laws on their own books.]

Seattle, WA
United States

Washington State Drug Reformer Roger Goodman to Run for US Congress

Washington state Rep. Roger Goodman (D) has announced that he is seeking the Democratic Party nomination to challenge US Rep. Dave Reichert (R), a two-term congressman who represents Washington's 8th congressional district. Although he doesn't emphasize it heavily on his campaign web pages, Goodman is a champion of drug policy reform.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/rogergoodman.jpg
Roger Goodman
His reform record is long and impressive. An attorney, Goodman served as the executive director of the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission in the late 1990s and was elected to the National Association of Sentencing Commissions. While with the state commission, he published major reports on prison capacity and sentencing policy, helped to increase availability of drug treatment in prisons, and shepherded 14 other sentencing-related bills through the legislature.

Goodman followed up the sentencing stint by leading the King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project, which coordinated a groundbreaking initiative to take a critical look at drug laws and promote cheaper, more effective, and more humane drug policies. In doing so, he helped create an impressive coalition of over 20 professional and civic organizations that has spurred the legislature to reduce imprisonment of drug offenders and shift funding into drug treatment.

A state representative since 2006, Goodman is cosponsor of a marijuana legalization bill currently before the legislature, and is supporting a pending medical marijuana dispensary bill. Last session, he helped push through a 911 Good Samaritan drug overdose prevention bill, and is seeking similar legislation to help prevent alcohol overdoses. He continues to work for sentencing reform in the legislature as well.

While Goodman is aiming at the 8th congressional district, that could change because of redistricting. He told the Chronicle he could end up in one of three different districts, but said he was confident he could win in any of them.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares 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.)

Kirkland, WA
United States

The Prospects for Drug Reform: California [FEATURE]

[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of reports on the prospects for drug reform in a handful of states where the chances of legalizing marijuana are the strongest. But these reports will also look at medical marijuana, harm reduction, and sentencing reform prospects. They are a work in progress and will be revised. Look for reports on Colorado, Oregon, and Washington in coming weeks.]

California, viewed from space
The West Coast is a different world when it comes to progress on drug policy reform. Three of the four states most likely to see strong pushes for marijuana legalization in the next couple of years are on the West Coast (the other being Colorado). And medical marijuana is a fact of life from San Diego to Seattle, even if many bruising battles remain, and is certain to be an area of contention in coming years.

But it's not just pot politics that makes the West Coast different. The region has also been a pioneer in sentencing reform and harm reduction practices, even if countervailing forces remain strong and both policy areas remain contested terrain.

And the fact that all three states are initiative and referendum states adds another dimension to the politics of drug reform. In all three states, the initiative process has been an important vehicle for drug reform, although it has also been used for anti-reform efforts, most notably with Oregon sentencing initiatives.

Will the West Coast continue to be the drug reform vanguard? Here, we look at the prospects for reform in four broad areas -- medical marijuana, marijuana legalization or decriminalization, drug sentencing reform, and the enactment of harm reduction practices -- and assess where the reform movement can most productively apply its energies. We also attempt to identify areas and issues around which larger coalitions can be formed to advance drug policy and criminal justice reform objectives.

We begin with California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana and that state where advocates last year came within a handful of percentage points of winning voter approval for pot legalization. California is the nation's most populous state and has long been at the cutting edge of social change, but now it is also faced with a monstrous $25 billion budget deficit. How social change and fiscal crisis interact in the realm of drug reform policy-making will be a key issue for advocates as they attempt to deepen existing drug reforms and introduce new ones.

Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw efforts to legalize pot both in Sacramento and at the ballot box in November. Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) made history when his legalization bill was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee, but that bill later died. Ammiano is back at it again this year, but getting a legalization bill through the legislature will be a tough fight.

The tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative led by Oaksterdam's Richard Lee managed to put together an impressive coalition of labor, civil rights, and other groups in the run-up to the November election, but that wasn't enough to get the measure over the top. Proposition 19 scored 46.5% of the vote. Legalization advocates are already laying the groundwork for another initiative; several hundred people gathered at a sold-out California NORML (CANORML) conference in Berkeley late last month in a bid to take the first steps toward consensus among the state's complex, variegated, and often fractious marijuana community.

While Prop 19 failed to win a majority, reformers see the coalition-building that took place around it as a basic building block toward eventual victory. For the first time, pot legalization enjoyed organized support from outside the marijuana community.

"Prop 19 has opened up everything and moved marijuana legalization into the mainstream of American politics, particularly in the Western states," said Steve Gutwillig, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Its defeat was at most a speed bump, and the Prop 19 campaign process itself accelerated the marijuana reform movement. It created unprecedented mainstream media coverage, educated millions of voters, and forged a new coalition that is poised to be recreated and expanded on in California and other states in 2012," he said.

Winning a legalization vote in California means continuing to mobilize labor and civil rights groups, he said. And the stars are aligning.

"Organized labor has to be at the table of what is clearly a burgeoning industry with thousands of viable jobs from agriculture to retail. For mainstream civil rights organizations, the racial profiling that is at the center of marijuana enforcement is an issue that intersects with groups with whom they are naturally allied on other issues. We're seeing a confluence of economic and racial justice issues at a time when mainstream voters are expressing a fatigue with the drug war in general and a contempt for marijuana prohibition in particular," Gutwillig argued.

"The SEIU's endorsement of Prop 19 in California opened the door to a serious conversation with the service employee unions all across the country, said Gutwillig. "The SEIU also took a long look at the Washington initiative, but didn't think the numbers were there. But even that examination was significant. The SEIU thought the timing wasn't right last year, but all of this will be in play again and all of this represents real progress in coalition building. This conversation is taking place in a way that was unimaginable five years ago."

Gutwillig identified one more constituency reformers will be working to draw closer: the Democratic Party and its voters.

"The California Democratic Party took a neutral position, but a majority of county Democratic committees endorsed Prop 19," he noted. "That signals that there will be real conversations about what role marijuana legalization will play in terms of turnout among traditional Democratic voters."

Long-time CANORML head and veteran scene-watcher Dale Gieringer doesn't think winning outright marijuana legalization is going to be easy despite the coalition-building. Instead, he is talking about getting to the Promised Land through small steps and by broadening the existing medical marijuana system with its population of legally sanctioned adult users and providers.

Gieringer wants to down-grade minor marijuana distribution and cultivation offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, legalize private adult use, and establish a legally-regulated production system that includes manufacturing, processing, delivery, and legal sales to legally authorized users, namely anyone who has a medical marijuana recommendation.

"That would leave room for local governments to expand the universe of authorized users" without explicitly legalizing non-medicinal sale to adults, Gieringer said. "Taking on adult sales at this moment is premature, but we can write a law that opens the door to adult sales without explicitly doing it immediately."

Medical Marijuana

Using California's existing medical marijuana program as a segue to adult legalization, however, requires something the state still lacks: clarity about what is and is not allowed by Proposition 215 and the legislature's attempt to clarify it, SB 420. Some state prosecutors insist that no medical marijuana sales are legal, and the courts have yet to provide rigorous guidance. Cases have been and are being prosecuted in those counties, meaning that access to medical marijuana depends to a great extent on where one lives within California.

"Fixing the medical marijuana system has to be integral and a number one priority," said Gieringer. "We have to make changes to the medical marijuana system. The public is not happy with the current situation and would like something that is better regulated. A lot of operators feel the same way, but have differing opinions about what would be nice."

While a fix could come through the legislature, Gieringer was leery. "I can't see the legislature passing anything we would like," he said. "Given the level of support we have in Sacramento, we could probably get a bill to clearly allow medical marijuana sales, but it would also likely be loaded down with things we would find unacceptable, like 1000-foot provisions, no on-site smoking, no sale of edibles and the like," he predicted.

"They dickered around with it last year, but it was mainly about extracting money from everybody," Gieringer continued. "What's really needed is to clarify what's legal and what isn't."

Gieringer suggested that the people working on marijuana legalization initiatives include clarifying medical marijuana sales. "I think we could get something better through a vote of the people," he said. "I am hoping that medical marijuana reform will be part of the next legalization effort if there is one."

Such a strategy also has the potential of blunting opposition to a legalization initiative within the medical marijuana community. Some dispensary operators and medical marijuana patients were among the harshest critics of Prop 19.

Job protection for medical marijuana users is another area with the potential for coalition-building. State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill to prevent most employers from firing medical marijuana users who test positive for the drug. Perhaps unions, who, after all, represent workers, would be amenable to working on the issue.

Sentencing Reform

California's bloated prison system, with its insatiable, dollar-gobbling budgetary demands has seen some sentencing reform, most notably the passage by initiative of the "treatment not jail" Proposition 36. But the prisons remain full, and with no state money for the treatment end of Prop 36, it's only the law enforcement side of the equation that is fully functioning.

In announcing his budget proposal last month, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) including diverting people convicted "nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offenses, and without any previous convictions for such offenses" to county jails instead of the state prison system. That includes first-time drug offenders. 

"Governor Brown set an important tone and made it clear that our expensive state prisons should be reserved for people convicted of serious offenses, not for everyone who's ever made a mistake,"  said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, DPA deputy state director for Southern California. "California is expected to save $500 million a year by handling more petty offenses, including low-level drug possession, at the county level. We think the savings would be even greater if drug treatment were made more available in the community. Under the plan, counties would have that option."

An opportunity to save big bucks and reduce the yawning budget gap could appeal to fiscal conservatives, but in California, conservatives have a long tradition of using tough on crime politics to fill the prisons. Whether they could swallow a measure that to some degree empties them remains to be seen.

"The challenge is finding fiscally conservative Republicans who are willing to publicly challenge the drug war orthodoxy that has long been a mainstay of the Republican Party," said Gutwillig. "There are plenty of Republicans who are willing to say privately they know the mass arrests and incarceration of low-level drug offenders is not a good use of scarce resources, but they have a hard time breaking ranks with a GOP leadership that still needs inflexible tough on crime rhetoric to beat up on the substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of the legislature. It's one of their main tools to undermine the Democratic reform instinct.

Still, the continuing budget crisis may allow reformers to peel off a conservative or two, Gutwillig said. "The economics of the state are in such open-ended crisis that no one can deny the reality that we can no longer afford the blank check we perpetually give to law enforcement and the corrections system."

A 2008 sentencing reform initiative, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) would have deepened and vastly broadened the Prop 36 reforms, but was defeated thanks to last minute attacks by prison guards and politicians. The time could be approaching for another effort on that front, either in the legislature or via the initiative process. 

Harm Reduction

Access to clean needles, preventing not only heroin, but, increasingly, prescription opioid overdose deaths, and opening a safe injection site in San Francisco are some of the issues facing California's harm reduction community. As in other reform areas, the perpetual budget crisis means if anything is going to happen, it better be inexpensive.

"We can't do anything this year that costs money, so we have to be about erasing some of the rules and barriers that exist," said Hilary McQuie, Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Jerry Brown is pretty good on these issues, and we have a solidly Democratic government, so we should be able to get some of these things through as long as there is no fiscal impact."

Brown's predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), wasn't so good on harm reduction issues. Last year, he failed to sign two bills that would have eased access to syringes. One expanded a pilot pharmacy syringe sales program statewide; the other expanded access to needle exchanges statewide.

"It looks like those bills will be reintroduced this year," said McQuie.

Overdose prevention continues to be a key harm reduction issue. Last year, a bill extending liability protection for the opioid antagonist naloxone to peer providers passed, but it only applies in a limited number of counties.

"We would like to see Naloxone made more easily available to people," said McQuie. "Maybe pharmacists could prescribe it along with opiates."

McQuie mentioned prescription opiates because that's where the action is now. And that means harm reductionists have to adapt their tactics to new clienteles. With prescription drug overdoses rising dramatically, programs aimed mainly at injection heroin users must now broaden their focus.

"Most of our overdose education happens through needle exchanges and other sites that reach injection drug users, but the trend in overdoses is toward prescription drugs," said McQuie. "We hope we can build coalitions with pharmacists, drug treatment people, and medical associations around peer intervention for overdose prevention among prescription drug users."

But coalition-building with drug and alcohol treatment providers means harm reductionists come up against abstinence-based advocates. "It is a long-term project for us to get them to recognize that they are serving people who are currently using rather than just addressing needs of people in treatment," McQuie sighed. "That will be really important for us. We need a bigger coalition in place."

And then there's the San Francisco safe injection site. At this point, it's little more than a gleam in the eye of harm reductionists, although the creation of such a site has been recommended first by the San Francisco HIV planning council and just last month by the mayor's Hepatitis C Task Force.

But given budgetary constraints, as well as morality-based opposition certain to emerge, if a safe injection site is going to happen, it's most likely to happen from the ground up. Vancouver, where drug users organized themselves and started their own safe injection site, could be a possible model, said McQuie.

"It's out on the horizon, and we're going to try," she said. "But nobody has the staff, resources, and willingness to risk their program sites and funding for this project. The way this could happen is if one of the agencies or drug user groups just starts doing it. It seems unlikely they would get prior permission."

Given the strain that existing harm reduction programs are under, maybe a new, expensive safe injection site program isn't the highest priority right now, McQuie. "But what this proposal does is open up a bigger conversation about harm reduction. Still, we need to set the stage for when the economy rebounds, and also to be prepared to step up and support whoever starts doing it."

California is fertile terrain for drug policy reform. It is also fiercely contested terrain. The coming years will tell whether the forces of reform can forge the alliances they need to emerge victorious on any number of fronts.

CA
United States

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