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Chronicle AM: Federal MedMJ Research Bill Re-Filed, VA Marijuana Reform Bills Killed, More... (1/17/19)

A federal medical marijuana research bill has been refiled without a bothersome provision, Wisconsin's new Democratic governor now supports marijuana legalization, a Virginia House panel kills decrim and legalization bills, and more.

Florida patients may be soon be able to legally smoke their medicine. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia House Panel Kills Marijuana Reform Bills. A House Courts of Justice subcommittee led by conservative Republicans killed a pair of marijuana reform bills Wednesday night. One of the bills would have decriminalized pot possession; the other would have legalized marijuana. They both died on 6-2 votes in the subcommittee.

Wisconsin Governor Endorses Marijuana Legalization. New Gov. Tony Evers (D), who campaigned in support of medical marijuana, has now gone a step further, saying he now supports recreational marijuana legalization. “At the end of the day do I favor legalization? Yes,” Evers said Tuesday. “I want it to be done correctly so we will likely have in our budget a first step around medical marijuana.” He also said he may call for a statewide referendum on legalization. Such a referendum would only be advisory but could put pressure on recalcitrant Republicans in the legislature.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Medical Marijuana Research Bill Reintroduced. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on Wednesday refiled the Medical Cannabis Research Act. It is not yet available on the congressional website. The bill would require the Justice Department to approve more producers of research-grade marijuana, allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to inform patients about medical marijuana studies they can participate in, and protect medical marijuana research institutions. A provision in last year's version that barred people with drug convictions from growing research marijuana has been removed after Democrats complained about it last year.

Florida Governor Will End Fight to Block Smoking Buds. New Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Thursday that if the legislature doesn't move to allow the smoking of medical marijuana by March, he will drop the state's appeal to keep the ban in place. A state court had blocked the ban, but DeSantis' predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, ordered the appeal.

Michigan Will Allow Unlicensed Dispensaries to Reopen. The Medical Marihuana Licensing Board agreed Wednesday to allow dispensaries that are in the process of applying for a license and who have local approval to stay open until March 31. The move comes amidst a medical marijuana shortage caused in part by the board's closure of 72 unlicensed dispensaries on January 1.

Wisconsin Governor Ready to Move on Medical Marijuana. New Gov. Tony Evers (D) said he will include a “first step” toward legalizing medical marijuana in his state budget proposal. “I just want to make sure we do it correctly,” he said. He will face a tough fight in the legislature, where Republicans control both houses. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said she is open to addressing medical marijuana, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he doesn't support it.  

Chronicle AM: AG Nominee Addresses Sentencing, OH Sees First MMJ Dispensary, More... (1/16/19)

William Barr addresses concerns about his sentencing policy history, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) reiterates his call to pass a legalization bill, Ohio sees its first medical marijuana dispensary, and more.

The Buckeye State sees a landmark day. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Renews Call for Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) used his State of the State address Tuesday to renew his call for marijuana legalization. “By legalizing adult-use marijuana – first and foremost – we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” he said. He also called for the expungement of past pot possession arrests. “We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education,” he said. A legalization bill is already very near the finish line, but Murphy and legislators are still haggling over issues such as tax rates.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Dispensary Sales Begin Today. A Sandusky dispensary initiated the era of legal medical marijuana sales in the Buckeye State on Wednesday, making its first sale to a card-carrying woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Four other dispensaries have received their final licenses but have not opened yet. Eventually, there should be 56 dispensaries statewide.

South Carolina Legislators Unveil Medical Marijuana Bill. A pair of Republican legislators, state Sen. Tom Davis and Rep. Peter McCoy, on Tuesday filed a medical marijuana, the Compassionate Care Act (S 366). “This is South Carolina, not California or Colorado, and what the vast majority of people in our state want is a socially conservative medical marijuana law, one that provides medical patients truly in need with relief but draws a bright line against recreational use by imposing strict penalties,” Davis said.

Sentencing

Attorney General Nominee Defends Harsh Sentencing But Says He is Open to Sentencing Reform. During his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, defended his role in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing practices in the 1980s and 1990s but said he is now open to sentencing reforms, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed Congress last month. "From my perspective, the very draconian penalties on crack were put in place initially because when the crack epidemic first hit, it was like nuclear weapons going off in inner cities," Barr told Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.). "The initial reaction was actually trying to help those communities. Over time, those same leaders are now saying to us, 'This is devastating. Generations of us have been incarcerated.' And we should listen to the same people we were listening to before."

Chronicle AM: IL, NY Governors Embrace Pot, PA Bid to Punish Drug Using Pregnant Women, More... (1/15/19)

William Barr suggests he'll keep hands off of state-legal marijuana, New York's governor unveils his marijuana legalization plan, government witnesses in the El Chapo trial undercut Trump's drug justification for his border wall, and more. 

Governors are seeing dollar signs in marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

US Attorney General Nominee Says He Supports Federal Pot Prohibition, But Won't Go After State Law-Compliant Operations. During his confirmation hearing Tuesday, attorney general nominee William Barr said he would support banning marijuana “everywhere,” but that he did not want to “upset settled expectations” in states that have already legalized marijuana. “I’m not going to go after companies that have relied on the Cole Memorandum,” Barr told the committee. “However, we either should have a federal law that prohibits marijuana everywhere, which I would support myself because I think it’s a mistake to back off marijuana. But if we want a federal approach, if we want states to have their own laws, let’s get there and let’s get there the right way.”

Ilinois Governor Reiterates Pledge to Legalize Marijuana. In his inaugural address Monday night, incoming Gov. JB Pritzker (D) confirmed that he will indeed move ahead with a plan for marijuana legalization. “In the interests of keeping the public safe from harm, expanding true justice in our criminal justice system, and advancing economic inclusion, I will work with the legislature to legalize, tax and regulate the sale of recreational cannabis in Illinois,” Pritzker said. A placeholder bill has already been filed in the Senate.

New York Governor Unveils Marijuana Legalization Plan. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on Tuesday unveiled his plan to legalize marijuana in the state. His plan calls for a 22% tax on wholesale sales and a per-gram tax on growers. It would also set up licensing programs for growers, distributors, and retailers, with growers barred from opening retail shops. The plan would allow cities and counties the option of banning marijuana sales in their jurisdictions. Cuomo also vowed to institute expungement for past pot possession convictions.

Pregnancy

Pennsylvania Senator Wants to Punish Women Who Use Drugs While Pregnant. Late last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that pregnant women who use drug cannot be charged with child abuse because a fetus is not a child. That was too much for state Sen. Don White (R-Indiana County), who issued a press release Monday announcing plans to file a bill that would allow the state to punish them. "Regardless of what the court may rule, a mother's responsibility begins before her child is born and that should not be erased by a perceived ambiguity in the law," White said in a press release. The move is opposed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which said the issue is much more complex.

The Border

Government Witnesses in El Chapo Trial Testify That They Trafficked Drugs Through Tunnels, Ports of Entry, Not Over Wall-less Border. Sinaloa cartel members testifying as government witnesses at the trial of imprisoned cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman testified that most of the drugs they smuggled into the US came in fishing boats, trains, semi-trucks, and passenger vehicles entering the country at ports of entry. They testified that they've also used tunnels under the border, but none testified that they pushed drugs across an unwalled border. 

Chronicle AM: Blumenauer Files HB 420, MI Civil Forfeiture Bills Filed, More... (1/10/19)

The head of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus has been busy, a Massachusetts panel recommends allowing pot cafes, a bipartisan Kentucky medical marijuana is filed, bipartisan Michigan asset forfeiture reform bills get filed, and more.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has hit the ground running in the new Congress. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Blumenauer Announces Co-Chairs of Congressional Cannabis Caucus for 116th Congress. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a leading advocate for cannabis policy reform and founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, today announced the launch of the Caucus for the 116th Congress. The Caucus leadership team includes Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who will become the first woman of color to Co-Chair the Caucus; Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), who newly joins the leadership team; and returning Co-Chair, Rep. Don Young (R-AK-At-Large). The bipartisan Caucus provides a forum for members of the U.S. House of Representatives to discuss, learn, and work together to establish a better and more rational approach to federal cannabis policy.

Blumenauer Files Bill to Treat Marijuana Like Alcohol -- House Bill 420. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has filed a bill to treat marijuana like alcohol by removing it from the list of controlled substances. Although it is not yet up on the congressional website, the bill will be numbered HB 420 in a nod to cannabis culture. The bill would put the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives in charge of regulating marijuana.

Massachusetts Panel Recommends Marijuana Social Consumption Sites. The Cannabis Advisory Board's public safety subcommittee voted Wednesday to allow on-site consumption of marijuana at designated cafes. The subcommittee also voted to allow delivery services. The Advisory Board is just that: it makes recommendations to the Cannabis Control Commission, but the Commission is not bound by its decisions.

Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Delegate Steve Heretick (D-Norfolk) has filed a marijuana legalization bill, HB 2371. It would legalize the possession and sale of marijuana by adults and would decriminalize pot possession for minors. The bill would also allow for limited home cultivation. Marijuana would be regulated by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. A bill with bipartisan support to legalize medical marijuana was filed Wednesday. SB 80 would set up a fully functioning production and distribution system and allow for home cultivation, but its prospects for passage this year are dim. House Majority Floor Leader John Carney has said he would not call for a vote on it if the Senate didn't support it, and Republican Senate President Robert Stivers is still calling marijuana "a gateway drug" that has no medicinal value other than "it makes you feel good."

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Bills to End Civil Asset Forfeiture Filed. A pair of bills to end civil asset forfeiture in the state, HB 4001 and HB 4002, were filed with bipartisan support Wednesday. The bills would require a criminal conviction before property valued at less than $50,000 could be permanently seized. Laws would also be tightened for seizures involving larger sums of money. The bills were rolled out with Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield joining Democrats, including Attorney General Dana Nessel, to back the bills.

International

Canada's Black Market Weed is Cheaper, More Prevalent Than Legal Weed. Stats Canada has reported that Canadians bought twice as much black market marijuana last year as legal marijuana, and paid less for it. The average price for a gram of legal pot last year was $9.70 per gram, while black market grams were going for $6.51. Stats Canada blamed legal pot shortages, delivery delays, and issues with delivery web sites.

Chronicle AM: Drug Czar's Office Shuttered in Shutdown, DC Full Pot Legalization Bill Filed, More... (1/9/19)

The federal government shutdown shutters the drug czar's office, Trump again mischaracterizes the nature of border drug smuggling, New Jersey's highest court lends a hand to drug court graduates seeking expungement, and more.

closed down in the shutdown
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Expungement Bill. Rep Renny Cushing (D) has filed a bill, HB 399, that would let people with convictions for possessing less than three-fourths of an ounce of weed before September 2017 have their records cleared. That date is when the state law decriminalizing pot possession went into effect.

DC Lawmaker Files Full Legalization Bill. Councilmember David Grosso (I) has reintroduced the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act, which would allow the city to establish a system of retail marijuana sales. Such a move has been blocked by House Republicans, and its prospects this year remain uncertain, but Grosso is moving ahead anyway.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Pair of Medical Marijuana Bills. Rep. Renny Cushing (D) has filed two bills related to medical marijuana. HB 366 would add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition, while HB 364 would allow patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine.

Asset Forfeiture

North Dakota Lawmaker Files Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck) has filed House Bill 1286, which would end civil asset forfeiture in the state. He filed a similar bill in 2017 that passed the House, but got zero votes in the Senate after it was opposed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who remains in office but has refused so far to comment on this year's bill.

Drug Policy

Trump Once Again Misstates How Drugs Cross the Border With Mexico. In his oval office speech Tuesday night making his case for a border wall, President Trump once again mischaracterized the nature of drug smuggling across the Mexican border. While he was correct in stating that the vast majority of drugs coming into the country come through Mexico, his own DEA reported in November that "only a small percentage" of heroin and other drugs comes through areas outside of ports of entry.

Federal Government Shutdown Shutters Drug Czar's Office. Among the casualties of the shutdown is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). If the shutdown continues up to the end of the month, funding for important grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention could be jeopardized.

Expungement

New Jersey Supreme Court Eases Requirements for Drug Court Graduates. The state Supreme Court ruled 7-0 Tuesday that drug offenders who have successfully completed a court-ordered treatment program do not have to prove that expunging their criminal records of those offenses is in the public interest. Instead, the high court ruled, the burden to demonstrate that the public interest requirement was not met should fall on the state. "In light of the rigorous monitoring that is the hallmark of drug court, as well as the new law's overall policy in favor of expungement for successful graduates, we find that participants are entitled to a rebuttable presumption that expungement is consistent with the public interest," the court held.

Of All People: The DEA Demolishes One of Trump's Main Claims About the Border Wall

As the president attempts to make his case for a wall on the US-Mexico border, one of his main selling points is that the wall would reduce the flow of illicit drugs into the country. Of all people, it's not our favorite agency that has rebutted the claim.

That agency is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which in its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment released just two months ago makes clear that at best Trump is uninformed and at worst that he is lying to the American people.

The vast majority of drugs smuggled into the US from Mexico come through ports of entry. (Creative Commons)
"Remember drugs. The drugs are pouring into this country. They don't go through the ports of entry. When they do, they sometimes get caught," Trump claimed at a Rose Garden news conference last Friday.

It's not a new claim for the president; it has been a pillar of his claim that there is a "crisis" on the border. But repeating a false claim doesn't make it any less false. What is true, as the DEA reports, is that the southwest border "remains the primary entry point for heroin into the United States," but it is not being lugged across the desert via a wall-less border.

According to the DEA, "the majority of the flow is through POVs [privately owned vehicles] entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers, where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods. Body carriers represent a smaller percentage of heroin movement and they typically smuggle amounts ranging from three to six pounds taped to their torso, or in shoes and backpacks."

To be clear, the body carriers the DEA is talking about are people coming through ports of entry -- not across an open border. The agency reported that only "a small percentage of all heroin seized" along the border was seized between ports of entry.

It's the same thing with fentanyl. According to the DEA, which says fentanyl imports are split between China and Mexico, Mexican drug traffickers "most commonly smuggle multi-kilogram loads of fentanyl concealed in POVs before trafficking the drugs through Southwest Border ports of entry." In the San Diego sector, which saw the biggest fentanyl seizures, 74 percent off seizures were from cars at ports of entry. In the Tucson sector, which had the next highest fentanyl seizure numbers, that figure was 91 percent.

Claiming that building a border wall would reduce the flow of drugs into the country is probably not the biggest lie Trump and his allies have told about the wall, but it is patently false.

Chronicle AM: Federal Marijuana Bill Filed, Ciudad Juarez Drug War Killings Surge, More... (1/4/19)

Wow, that was fast: The first marijuana bill of the new Congress has already been filed, an Arizona sheriff finally hops on board the naloxone train, Ciudad Juarez drug war killings are way up, and more.

Deputies in Pima County, Arizona, will finally start carrying the overdose reversal drug naloxone. (pa.gov)
Marijuana Policy

The New Congress Just Saw Its First Marijuana Bill Filed. That didn't take long. Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK) on Thursday reintroduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act. The bipartisan bill would protect state medical marijuana programs from federal interference and open the way for doctors at the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana. The bill is not yet available on the congressional website, but you can view last year's version here. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is expected to file the Senate version soon.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Georgia Joins List of States Suing Opioid Makers for Fueling Drug Crisis. Georgia has now become the latest of more than 30 states that have filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for what they say is their role in fueling the opioid crisis. The state is suing nine opioid makers and distributors in state court for what it calls racketeering and for creating the crisis. "We have over a 1,000 Georgians that died last year, more Georgians dying every day. We have over 1,000 Georgians right now that are suffering from an opioid misuse disorder," said Attorney General Chris Carr. The state is seeking both monetary damages to repay it for costs incurred fighting the epidemic, as well as punitive damages.

Harm Reduction

Arizona's Pima County Sheriff Finally Gets on Board With Deputies Carrying Naloxone. Pima County, home to the state's second largest city, Tucson, has gotten with the program and the sheriff's department will now issue the overdose reversal to deputies. Deputies in eleven of the state's 15 counties already carry it. Department officials had previously argued it was necessary for deputies because paramedics already carried it and because it might become unstable in the Arizona summer heat, but Sheriff Mark Napier admitted Wednesday that medical experts had told him the worse that could happen was that it might not work.

International

Mexico's Ciudad Juarez Had Nearly 1,250 Murders Last Year. The border city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso saw a big spike in murders last year, most of them drug prohibition-related. The state attorney general's office reported 1,247 killings last year, a big increase from the 772 people killed in 2017 and nearly triple the number killed in 2014. Most of the violence is related to the revival of the Juarez Cartel and to the defection of a key Los Aztecas leader to La Linea. Los Aztecas are also in the midst of internal factional strife. But wait, there's more: There's also a factional fight within Los Artistas Asesinos (Assassin Artists), a street enforcement gang with links to the Sinaloa Cartel, which is also working in the area.

Chronicle AM: AZ Groups Want Needle Exchange, DE Judge Rules for Fired MedMJ User, More... (12/24/18)

A Delaware judge says a medical marijuana user fired for failing a drug test can sue his former employer, Arizona public health advocates want the governor to approve needle exchanges, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Incoming House Rules Committee Chairman Becomes Cosponsor of Marijuana Justice Act. What a difference an election makes! Outgoing House Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions (R-TX) reliably blocked any marijuana reform legislation, but things are going to be different under incoming Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA). McGovern has already said he is "not going to block marijuana amendments like my predecessor has done," and now he has just signed on as a cosponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act (HR 4815).

Indiana Governor Not Down With Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has made it clear he will oppose any legislative moves to legalize marijuana. "I'm just not willing to look at that, especially since it is illegal right now according to the federal government," Holcomb said.

South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed. Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) has filed a statement on the language of an initiative to legalize marijuana, the first step in the process of getting the measure on the ballot. According to the attorney general's statement, the measure would allow anyone 21 and over to grow, possess, use, and sell marijuana. Localities would be barred from taxing or regulating marijuana businesses. And, the attorney general says, "it forbids prosecutions for driving under the influence of ingested marijuana," but the language of the initiative only bars prosecution for "consumed cannabis metabolites."

Medical Marijuana

Delaware Judge Rules Fired Medical Marijuana User Can Sue Former Employer. A factory worker fired from his job after failing a drug test can sue his former employer, Superior Court Judge Noel Primos ruled on Monday. Jeremiah Chance claims his firing violated the anti-discrimination provision of the state's medical marijuana law and that he was targeted for retaliation after pointing out safety issues with railroad ties manufactured by the Kraft Heinze plant in Dover. The company had argued that the anti-discrimination clause was preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act, but the judge disagreed. The law does "not require employers to participate in an illegal activity... but instead merely prohibits them from discriminating based upon medical marijuana use," Primos wrote.

Oregon to Allow Medical Marijuana Deliveries in Areas That Ban Dispensaries. State regulators have approved medical marijuana deliveries in areas where dispensaries are banned effective December 28. The rules were approved last week after patient advocates voiced concern about rules that limited access to medical marijuana.

Drug Testing

Utah Bill Would Criminalize Using Fake Urine to Pass Drug Tests. Under a bill already approved by an interim legislative committee, it would be "a criminal offense to distribute, possess, or sell an adulterant or synthetic urine;" or "to defraud an alcohol or drug test using an adulterant, bodily fluid of another person, or bodily fluid expelled or withdrawn before collection for the test." The measure would make violations a misdemeanor.

Harm Reduction

Arizona Public Health Advocates Urge Governor to Legalize Needle Exchange Programs. In a letter delivered last week to Gov. Doug Ducey (R), more than 30 organizations involved in public health and addiction recovery called on him move to legalize the proven harm reduction intervention. "Arizona has fallen behind in its response to this national crisis, states like North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky have all implemented syringe service legislation and are seeing the benefits in their communities," the letter says. "Too many lives are on the line to continue with the status quo."

Chronicle AM: NYC Mayor Backs Legal Weed, Report Chides DEA & Drug Companies on WV Opioids, More... (12/20/18)

A report from congressional Democrats explores the economic benefits of marijuana legalization, a report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee scolds the DEA and drug distributors over massive shipments of opioids to West Virginia, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio climbs on board the legalization bandwagon, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Congressional Democrats Release Report On Marijuana Legalization's Economic Benefits. Democratic members of the congressional Joint Economic Committee released a report Tuesday emphasizing the economic benefits legal marijuana can bring at both the state and federal levels. The report is The National Cannabis Economy, and it predicts marijuana sales revenues will jump from $8 billion last year to $23 billion by 2022. "It's time we legalize marijuana, but at the minimum, we must reduce the conflicts between federal and state laws so that the industry can continue to create jobs and bolster state economies," Senator Martin Heinrich, (D-NM), the ranking member of the panel, said in a press release. "This conflict hurts small businesses and constrains the economic benefits of legal cannabis -- an industry that is estimated to reach $11 billion in sales this year and $23 billion by 2022. But in order to realize the benefits, we must act on legislation such as the STATES Act to help these businesses thrive."

West Hollywood, California, Approves Cannabis Cafes, Consumption Lounges. The city announced Wednesday that it had approved licenses for eight edibles-only consumption cafes an eight consumption lounges where marijuana can be smoked, vaped, drunk, or eaten. The businesses now have a year to obtain a West Hollywood business license and a place to operate. The move could nearly double the number of consumption lounges nationwide: there are seven such facilities in San Francisco, one in Oakland, and one in Denver.

New York City Mayor Backs Marijuana Legalization. Just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said he wants to legalize marijuana next year, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio hopped on board the legal pot train, saying it represents "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers." De Blasio's remarks came as the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization released a report recommending that the city tax sales, automatically expunge old pot possession offenses, and work to ensure "diverse participants" get a shot in the legal industry.

Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney Throws Out Hundreds of Old Pot Convictions. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzales appeared in court Wednesday to vacate outstanding warrants related to low-level pot offenses, as well as expunging past misdemeanor pot convictions. "To fail to address these past convictions would be hypocritical and it would be to turn a blind eye on all the harm caused by marijuana enforcement in prior years," Gonzalez said.

Pennsylvania Governor Suggests He Could Get Behind Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said Wednesday that it's time for the state to consider legalizing marijuana. "More and more states are successfully implementing marijuana legalization," he noted, adding that it's time for "a serious look" at doing it. The statements mark a change of heart for Wolf, who previously had shied away from legalization talk.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Legal Battle Over Medical Marijuana Takes Another Turn. A state appeals court this week agreed to stay a circuit court judge's ruling that the legislature and the Department of Health violated the state's voter-approved medical marijuana amendment. The ruling comes in a case involving a Tampa marijuana grower, which challenged caps placed on the number of medical marijuana licensees. While the 1st District Appeals Court approved the stay, it also said its final decision on the case would be "expedited."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Congressional Report Scolds DEA, Drug Distributors on Flood of Opioids to West Virginia. Massive shipments of prescription opioids to West Virginia -- 20.8 million pounds opioids sent to one town of 3,000 over a ten-year period, for example -- reflect failures by the DEA and drug distribution companies to conduct effective oversight of their customers and failures to recognize obvious red flags, a bipartisan report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee found. These lapses helped make the state "the epicenter of the nation's opioid epidemic and the state with the highest drug overdose death rate in the country," the report said. And it's not just West Virginia: "Taken all together, the Committee's report outlines a series of missteps and missed opportunities that contributed to the worsening of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia," the report said. "While focused on a narrow part of West Virginia, the report raises grave concerns about practices by the distributors and the DEA nationwide."

In Rare Show of Bipartisanship, Senate Passes Prison and Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate on Tuesday approved a major prison and sentencing reform bill, the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to pass it easily, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

Give Chuck Grassley some kudos for shepherding the passage of the bill. (senate.gov)
Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill added significant sentencing reform provisions to a prison reform bill passed earlier by the House.

"The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who've put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society," Grassley said on the Senate floor after the vote. "It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses."

"I think we showed something which most American people wouldn't have believed -- that a bipartisan group of Senators from across the political spectrum could tackle one of the toughest political issues of our day, assemble an array of support -- left, right, and center -- from members of the Senate as well as organizations devoted to law enforcement as well as civil rights, and at the end of it have something we all felt was a fair product to send over to the House, which I hope will act on this very quickly," Durbin said. "It is, however, the first step. We've got to start thinking about the second step. And we need the help of all of our colleagues when shaping that."

In addition to the prison reform language, the bill's key sentencing provisions include:

  • Retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people;
  • Expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years;
  • Eliminate "stacking" for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense.

"Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making," Grassley continued. "It couldn't have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We've had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other's point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come."

The First Step Act was backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation's largest police group, as well as 172 former federal prosecutors and sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governors Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

For progressives and drug reformers, though, the bill is indeed only a first step. It does nothing, for example, to address the plight of people sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses, and that leaves reformers offering only qualified praise.

"The Senate's version of the legislation, while far from perfect, includes crucial sentencing reforms that safely reduce the footprint of the federal criminal justice system from the front end," said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. "Additionally, the Senate added important checks on the US Department of Justice as it creates a risk and needs assessment and a system of programs and education in the Bureau of Prisons."

"This is a bittersweet moment," said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time the bill leaves far too many people behind. It's a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes."

Drug War Issues

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