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Trump Goes Full Nixon on Law-and-Order, Vows 'Ruthless' War on Drugs and Crime [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump last week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America."

"We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in," Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last Wednesday. "We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence."

Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one of its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed "record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins," Trump complained.

And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for "the most serious" drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on "shipping loopholes" he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the US from other countries.

In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday's speech.

Last Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America," but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.

The first, which Trump said would "reduce crime and restore public safety," orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime," propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.

The second, regarding "transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking," directs various federal law enforcement agencies to "increase intelligence sharing" and orders an already existing interagency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, "along with any recommended actions for dismantling them."

"I'm directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people," Trump said Thursday.

The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.

Trump was breathing law-and-order brimstone last week. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
"It's a shame what's been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That's going to stop as of today."

The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.

In a report released last Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

The report was coauthored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.

"Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today's crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety," the report said.

The president's crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on "antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses" and Trump's plan would "repeat this mistake," the officials wrote. "We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics."

Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.

"This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest," said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country's mass incarceration crisis."

Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.

"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing," the authors conclude.

Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, the rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn't be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it's not just what's being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what's being imported, too.

"For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, 'OK, the problem with drugs -- that it's creating so much violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico -- is because there's demand for drugs in the US,''" Videgaray said. "We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it's just the other way around," he said, adding that both countries need to get past "the blame game."

And if the US is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels "business model," it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.

"We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico," Videgaray said. "We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns -- and we're not talking small guns, we're talking heavy weapons -- they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels."

Will progress on reducing mass incarceration come to a halt? (nadcp.org)
Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a "dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk," by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. "There is no 'dangerous permanent trend' in violent or non-violent crime," it pointed out.

And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.

"Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work," said Amnesty's Noor Mir. "Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.

There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.

"This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the US criminal justice system," he said. "Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians."

The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more -- not less -- distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.

And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.

Chronicle AM: Trump Rolls Out Crime & Drug War, Brazil Top Judge Says Legalize, More... (2/10/17)

Donald Trump takes a hard line on crime and drugs, a new Michigan poll has support for marijuana legalization at an all time high, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice calls for an end to the drug war there, and more.

Donald Trump takes a hard line on crime and drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at Highest Level Ever. A new poll from EPIC/MRA has support for marijuana legalization in the state at 57%. That's a four percent increase from the same poll last year. The poll comes as activists organized as MILegalize prepare efforts to get a legalization initiative on the 2018 ballot. They came up just short last year after the state legislature and state courts blocked their efforts to get all their signatures counted.

New Jersey Lawmakers Vow to Press Forward With Legalization Effort Despite Trump. Garden State lawmakers say the appointment of marijuana legalization foe Jeff Sessions as President Trump's attorney general will not stop them from pressing forward with their efforts. State Sen. Nick Scutari (D) said he is "concerned," but not deterred. "It doesn't give me pause. It's a concern but we are not going to pause," Scutari said Thursday. "Hopefully he will follow what President Trump said as a candidate -- that it's a states' rights issue."

Vermont's GOP Governor Opposes Legalization Bill. Gov. Phil Scott's (R) administration came out firmly against legalization Thursday. "We oppose this bill," State Police Major Glenn Hall told the House Judiciary Committee. "We speak with one voice," added Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson. "That's what the governor stands for also."

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Bills to "Fix" Medical Marijuana Law Moving. Six medical marijuana-related bills moved out of committees to face floor votes in their respective chambers Wednesday. The House Rules Committee advanced five bills, while the Senate Education Committee advanced one bill. More bills are still in committee. Many of the bills deal with technical "fixes," but some of them would alter the way the program is intended to work. Click on the link for a complete rundown on the bills.

Drug Policy

Trump Signs Executive Orders Aimed at Drugs, Crime. The president signed three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America." One that aims to "reduce crime and restore public safety" directs Attorney General Sessions to create a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which is charged with developing "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime" proposing new legislation, and submiting at least one report to the President within the next year. The second is aimed at combatting international drug trafficking organizations, while the third directs the Justice Department to use existing federal law to prosecute those who commit crimes against police officers.

International

Brazil Supreme Court Judge Calls for Marijuana, Cocaine Legalization. Supreme Court Justice Robero Barroso called Friday for marijuana and even cocaine to be legalized to erode the growing power of illegal drug trafficking organizations. Fifty years of drug war had only clogged jails with small-time offenders and fueled violent gang battles. "Unlike the United States and Europe where the problem lies in the impact drugs have on consumers, in Brazil the problem lies in the power drug traffickers have over poor communities," Barroso said. "I can assure you it is only a matter of time. Either we legalize marijuana now or we do it in the future after we have spent billions and incarcerated thousands."

Chronicle AM: States' Rights Marijuana Bill Filed, Trouble in Morocco's Rif, More... (2/8/17)

A federal bill to let states experiment with marijuana policy is back, CBD cannabis oil and medical marijuana study bills advance at the statehouse, trouble is bubbling up in Morocco's hash-producing regions, and more.

California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is again introducing a bill to give states the lead on marijuana policy. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Republican Congressman Files Federal Bill to Let States Set Own Marijuana Policies. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) Tuesday filed House Resolution 975, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The bill would resolve conflicts between state and federal laws by exempting people and entities from certain provisions of the Controlled Substances Act if they are acting in compliance with state laws. Rohrabacher authored similar legislation in the last Congress, garnering 20 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.

Minnesota Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. Jon Applebaum (DFL-Minnetonka) filed a bill Wednesday to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "Minnesotans are rightfully developing different attitudes on marijuana," Applebaum said in a news release. "Other states' successes, along with the failed prohibition attempts of others, validated the need for a statewide conversation," he added. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Bill to Lower THC Levels, Add Autism Advances. A bill that would add autism to the list of qualifying conditions for using CBD cannabis oil, but would also lower the amount of THC in cannabis oil was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Medical marijuana advocates like Senate Bill 16 for its autism provision, but don't want the lower THC provision. The bill would drop allowable THC levels from 5% to 3%.

Utah House Passes Medical Marijuana Research Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pass House Bill 130, which would allow universities in the state to study medical marijuana. The bill is a fallback after legislators retreated from earlier plans to push an actual medical marijuana bill. The bill now advances to the Senate.

Wisconsin Senate Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a bill allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil to treat seizures. Senate Bill 10 now heads to the House.

Sentencing

Maryland Bill Would Set Criminal Penalties for People Who Sell Drugs Linked to Fatal Overdoses. A bill that would set criminal penalties of up to 30 years in prison for people who sell heroin or fentanyl where "the use of which is a contributing cause to the death of another" has been filed in the House. The measure, House Bill 612, aims not only at the person who directly sold the drug, but also anyone in the supply chain. It's scheduled for a committee hearing on February 28.

International

Morocco Drug Control Policy Sparking Unrest in Country's North. The death of an illegal fish vendor in November has sparked months of widespread protests and unrest in Morocco's Rif, but that unrest has been brewing for years thanks to a lack of economic development and the government's harsh treatment of cannabis growers, one of the few economic activities available to area residents: "This situation in which Rifans are left with few other economic options than to engage in illicit activities and risk criminal sanctions is aggravated by the harsh provisions of the Moroccan narcotics law. While drug use is punished with two months to one year in prison, the law allows for up to 30 years for drug trafficking offenses. The average sentence is around 10 to 15 years, even for minor, non-violent offences."

Philippines President Insults Former Colombia President Over Drug Policy Criticisms. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria "an idiot" for publishing an article in the New York Times criticizing Duterte's murderous crack down on drugs. "To tell you frankly... they say that Colombia leader has been lecturing about me. That idiot," Duterte said.

Colombia Gives Land Titles to Families Abandoning Coca Crops. The Colombian government announced Monday it will grant land titles to some 10,000 peasant families that have given up on coca production. The program will take place in southern Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo provinces, where about half the country's coca is grown. The move comes after the government and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC agreed to a crop eradication and substation program last month.

Interview: Marc Mauer on Criminal Justice Reform in the Trump Years [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

For nearly half a century, America has been in the grip of incarceration fever. Beginning with the "law and order" campaigns of Richard Nixon, reprised by Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," and seemingly carried on by inertia through the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the fever only began to break in the last few years.

The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer (Human Rights Project/Bard College)
For the first time in decades, we have not seen the ever-increasing uptick in the number of people behind bars in the United States. After the incredible expansion of imprisonment that made the land of the free the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, the US prison population may have finally peaked. Small declines have occurred in state prison populations, and the federal prison population, fueled largely by drug war excess, is stabilizing.

Much of the progress has come under the Obama administration, but now, there's a new sheriff in town, and he doesn't seem remotely as reform-friendly as Obama. What's going to happen with sentencing reform and criminal justice under Trump and the Republicans?

To try to find some answers, we turned to someone who's been fighting for reform for decades now, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit committed to working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Drug War Chronicle: When it comes to sentencing reform, we're likely in for a rough ride these next few years with tough-talking Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But before we look forward to what may come, it's worth looking back at where we've been and what's been accomplished in the last eight years. How did sentencing reform do under Obama?

Marc Mauer: I think we saw very substantial reform, both in terms of actual policy changes that have made a real difference, but also in terms of a change in the political environment, which is really critical for long-term reform.

We saw substantial changes coming out of Congress, the White House, and the US Sentencing Commission. In Congress, probably the most substantial piece of legislation was the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced -- but didn't eliminate -- the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

But changes put in place by the Sentencing Commission have had the largest impact. It amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce punishments for drug offenders, which affected an estimated 46,000 people currently serving federal drug sentences. Of those, about 43,000 have seen their cases reviewed, with 29,000 getting sentence reductions and 14,000 getting denied. These are going to be rolling reductions -- for people who might have had three years left, the guidelines change might knock that down to six months; for people doing 30 years, it might knock it down to 27. They still have a long way to go, but not as far as before. This is having and will have the most significant effect.

The Obama White House was very active on sentencing reform, too. Obama commuted more than 1,700 federal prison sentences, a third of those life sentences, typically for third-time drug offenses, and that has a very significant effect. They've also done a number of initiatives around re-entry, collateral consequences, "ban the box" policies, and the like.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance to employers about when it is and isn't appropriate to use prior criminal records when considering employment applications. The administration set up an interagency reentry council that brought together a number of cabinet agencies to see what they could do to have an impact on easing reentry.

There's been a congressional ban on inmates using Pell grant education funds, which only Congress can overturn, but the Obama administration created a pilot Pell grant program and was able to restore some funding on a research basis. The estimate is that about 12,000 incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of that.

President Obama meets with federal prisoners, El Reno, Oklahoma, 2015 (whitehouse.gov)
DWC: Now, it's a new era, and Jeff Sessions appears set to become our next attorney general. He was something of a player on criminal justice issues in the Senate; what's your take on what to expect from him on sentencing and criminal justice reform?

MM: I'm not overly optimistic. He's been supportive of some criminal justice reform in the past, most notably the Fair Sentencing Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- that involved a left-right coalition that felt prison rape was a bad thing, and provided money for research, training, and oversight as ways to reduce prison rape and sexual assault.

But in other areas, he's pretty much a hardliner. He was one of a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed sentencing reform legislation that was moving through Congress last year. He's one of the reasons the bill never got a Senate floor vote, even though it had passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

He's expressed skepticism about the work of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, particularly toward the consent decrees that it has imposed on cities and police departments making them agree to try to deal with tensions police law enforcement and African-American communities. That wasn't a pro- or anti-law enforcement approach; we have a real problem, and we need to get the parties working together. Getting law enforcement and local officials to agree that we have a problem is a very important tool to address a very serious problem.

To just say as Sessions does that he supports law enforcement doesn't get us very far. What do we do when law enforcement isn't doing the right thing, when it's violating people's rights? This will be very problematic.

And he continues to express support for harsh sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what perspective he has on what federal prosecutors should do. Eric Holder directed US Attorneys to change their charging practices in low-level drug cases so that people with minimal criminal histories wouldn't be hit with mandatory minimum sentences when possible. We haven't heard from Sessions whether he will keep that in place, or overturn it, or come up with something else. That will be critical. Attorneys general have swung back and forth on this.

DWC: That sentencing reform bill died last year, in part because of election year politics. Now the campaigns are over, but the Republicans control Congress. What are the prospects for anything good happening there now?

MM: There is some hope for sentencing reform. Among the Republican leadership, both Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly expressed a desire to see criminal justice reform go through this Congress. It's not entirely clear what that would look like -- would it look like last year's bill or only contain some aspects? -- but it is encouraging that they're voicing support for moving in that direction. Clearly, the big question is how the White House responds.

DWC: That is the big question. So, what about Trump? What do you foresee?

MM: Well, during the campaign, Trump called himself the law and order candidate, and he's been a vocal proponent of the death penalty and other tough measures, so that isn't encouraging. And if Sessions becomes attorney general, he would be involved, too, and that doesn't bode well for sentencing reform. Whether he makes this a priority issue or lets his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill take the lead will tell us a lot about the prospects.

DWC: With Trump and a Republican Congress you're facing a different political constellation than you were last year. How does that change your work, or does it?

MM: It doesn't change much in the day-to-day work. To make criminal justice reform work, we've always needed to make it bipartisan. It's been too sensitive and too emotional for so long that it's just not going to work unless it's bipartisan. That worked with crack sentencing and some other sentencing reform measures moving through Congress, and we are just going to continue the work. We meet regularly with congressional offices.

When it comes to justice reform issues, the political environment has shifted from the days of just "lock 'em up." There is growing and substantial support for reform from the right, not uniformly, but there is enough commonality of purpose that there is a good base for some kind of legislative change. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though.

DWC: Our conversation has focused so far on the federal level, but it's the states -- not the feds -- who hold the vast majority of prison inmates. How are things looking at the state level, and what impact do you thing the new order in Washington will have at the statehouse?

The states have begun reducing their prison populations. (nadcp.org)
MM: Unlike issues like health care, criminal justice is primarily a state and local issue, and over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been significant forward momentum. Overall, the state prison population has declined modestly, but in a handful of states they have achieved reductions of 25% or 30% over this period. And they did it on their own; this wasn't inspired by Washington.

And this wasn't just a blue state phenomenon. The state with the most substantial prison reduction was New Jersey with 31% -- under Christ Christie, who was generally supportive. Other states that saw big reductions were California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, but also Mississippi. We've also seen reforms enacted in places like Georgia and South Carolina, and Republican governors have been supportive.

It's quite likely the momentum we see at the state level will continue to a significant extent. At that level, policymakers are closer to the issue, and money issues are more relevant -- states actually have to balance their budgets. And by now, a number of states have had good experiences with reducing prison populations, with no adverse effects on public safety. The public has been supportive, or at least not opposed.

DWC: So, where do we go from here?

MM: Our goals and our strategy largely remain the same. We have to speak to broad audiences and work both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, we have to remember that criminal justice reform has never been easy. For several decades, we spent a good part of our careers trying to explain why tough on crime policies are counterproductive. It's been a long battle, but it's come to the point where the public environment has been shifting in a more rational, compassionate direction.

We have to build on the hard work that's been done. Now, we have Black Lives Matter and related grassroots activity, which has really spread quite quickly, creating a broader demand for change from the ground up. Some political leaders lead, but many follow; the more active support there is around the country, the more politicians have to respond.

Still, going backwards is quite possible. What happens to the commitment to civil rights? What happens to sentencing policy? If not actual backward movement, probably at least a halt to work around reentry programming in prisons and the like. That would be a real shame. We have made significant progress, the field has a much greater store of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. We are ready to try to expand on that; it would be extremely foolish in terms of public safety not to take advantage of that.

Chronicle AM: Sessions AG Nomination Advances, FL Bill Would Fix MedMJ System, More... (2/2/17)

The Senate Judiciary Commitee has approved the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, a legalization bill pops up in Wyoming, a Florida bill that would fix the state's medical marijuana system has the support of the folks behind the constitutional amendment, and more.

Marijuana foe Jeff Sessions is one step closer to being Attorney General (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Wyoming Bill to Put Legalization to Popular Vote Filed. State Reps. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) and Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) have filed House Joint Resolution 11, which would allow the state's residents to vote on a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana. The measure envisions legalizing up to three ounces and six plants, three of which can be mature. The bill's prospects are dim; the legislature has already defeated a decriminalization bill this year and is currently fighting over how much jail time pot possessors should face.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Bill Would Overhaul State's Medical Marijuana Laws. State Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) filed Senate Bill 614 Wednesday. The bill would scrap the state's existing system and replace it with a new set of rules. The move is supported by the people behind the successful Amendment 2 initiative. "Sen. Brandes' bill does an excellent job of establishing a comprehensive, tightly regulated medical marijuana system in Florida," said United For Care campaign manager Ben Pollara on Wednesday. "The two most essential pieces of implementation are maintaining the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship, and expanding the marketplace to serve patient access. SB 614 does both in a well-regulated, well thought out manner."

Asset Forfeiture

Kansas Legislature Punts on Asset Forfeiture. The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to set aside five bills dealing with asset forfeiture issues until it could get input from an advisory committee. The bills have been referred to the Kansas Judicial Council, which Committee Chairman Blaine Finch said may "possibly draft legislation," but probably not this year.

Drug Testing

Iowa Workplace Hair Drug Testing Bill Passes Senate. A bill that would allow employers to conduct drug tests using hair samples passed the Senate 35-15 on Wednesday. Employers can already conduct drug tests using blood, urine, or saliva, but the hair tests can indicate drug use months in the past.

Drug Policy

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved the nomination of Sen. Jeff Session (R-AL) to be attorney general on a party line vote of 11-9. The nomination now goes before the full Senate.

Medical Marijuana Update

Medical marijuana bills are popping up all over the place, a federal bill to protect medical marijuana businesses from asset forfeiture has been filed, and more.

National

Last Thursday, a federal bill to protect medical marijuana businesses from asset forfeiture was filed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) filed House Resolution 331, which would shield medical marijuana-related conduct authorized by state law from federal asset forfeiture attempts. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.

Connecticut

On Wednesday, a medical marijuana expansion hearing was scheduled. A panel of eight physician specialists will hear public testimony on expanding medical conditions covered by the state's medical marijuana law Wednesday. Patients are expected to ask the panel to expand the law to include conditions such as eczema, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The panel will make a recommendation to the Consumer Protection Commissioner, who can then propose the change to a legislative oversight committee, which would make a final decision. The whole process could take a year or more.

Indiana

Last Friday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. State Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Indianapolis) has filed Senate Bill 255, which would allow patients with a specified list of conditions or "any persistent or chronic illness or condition" to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation. The measure would also create a statewide medical marijuana program. Tallian has introduced similar bills in past years that have gone nowhere.

Minnesota

On Monday, a key legislator filed a bill to block any new qualifying conditions. Longtime medical marijuana skeptic and former House Majority Leader Rep. Matt Dan (R-Dellwood) has filed a measure, House File 120, that would block the state health commissioner from adding new qualifying conditions to the state's medical marijuana law. It's a power that has been used sparingly -- "intractable pain" was added after a year's wait -- but Dean wants it used not at all. His bill would accomplish that by striking out the phrase "or any other medical condition or its treatment approved by the commissioner."

Mississippi

Last Friday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. Joel Bomgar (R-Madison) has filed House Bill 179, which would ensure that any "qualifying patient who possesses a valid registry identification card is not subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner." The bill specifies a list of qualifying conditions, allow for caregivers for patients who can't grow their own, and allow for dispensaries. Patients could possess up to 2. 5 ounces of marijuana.

Nebraska

Last Friday, a state senator said she would file a medical marijuana bill this session. State Sen. Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) says she will introduce a comprehensive medical marijuana bill this session. A similar measure came within three votes of advancing last year, but the measure would still face an uphill battle in the legislature and a probable veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).

New Mexico

Last Friday, a medical marijuana expansion bill was filed. State Sen. Cisco McSorly (D-Albuquerque) has filed Senate Bill 8, which would more than double the amount of medical marijuana licensed producers can grow in the state and expand the amount of marijuana that patients could possess. "This bill will guarantee there is an adequate supply of marijuana for our patients," McSorley said.

South Carolina

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. State Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) and state Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) Tuesday filed identical versions of the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 212) at the statehouse. The bill would allow qualifying patients with debilitating medical conditions and a recommendation from their doctor to use medical cannabis.

Wisconsin

Last Thursday, prospects for passage of a CBD bill brightened after a key legislator waived objections. Legislation to allow the use of CBD cannabis oil could pass this year after key opponents last year said they would get out of the way this year. The Assembly passed a CBD bill last year, only to see it derailed in the Senate by opposition from three Senate Republicans, Leah Vukmir, Duey Stroebel, and Mary Lazich. Vukmir now says she will support a CBD bill, Stroebel is staying silent, and Lazich is gone. The bill is expected to be introduced later this month.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: Guam Gov Files Legalization Bill, More Iran Drug Executions, More... (1/11/17)

Marijuana legalization bills get filed in Guam and the District of Columbia, the Global Drug Policy Commission asks Obama to commute more sentences, Chris Christie vows to fight drug addiction during his last year in office, and more.

Iran has already executed ten drug offenders this year, with another dozen set to face the gallows. (iranhr.org)
Marijuana Policy

Guam Governor Files Legalization Bill. Gov. Eddie Calvo Tuesday introduced a bill to legalize marijuana on the US island territory. "I am introducing this bill, not because I personally support the recreational use of marijuana, but as a solution to the regulatory labyrinth that sprouted from the voter-mandated medical marijuana program," Calvo said in a press release. The measure would legalize marijuana for people over 21 and impose a 15% tax on sales. Medical marijuana patients would be exempt from the tax.

DC Councilmember Files Bill for Legal Marijuana Commerce and Regulation. Councilmember David Grosso Tuesday filed a bill to establish a full tax and regulatory framework for legal marijuana commerce. If passed, the bill would put the District in conflict with Congress, which must approve city spending. But Grosso said that Congress had forced the District's hand with its meddling in city affairs.

Drug Policy

New Jersey Governor Vows to Heighten Fight Against Drug Addiction. In his final state of the state address, Gov. Chris Christie (R) said he will spend his last year as governor fighting drug addiction. "Our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey's families than any other issue we could confront," Christie told the legislature in Trenton. "Beyond the human cost, which is incalculable, there is a real cost to every part of life in New Jersey." Christie is pushing for treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders, expanded drug courts, and expanded needle exchange programs, among other initiatives.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill to Clear Way for more Surplus Military Gear for Police Filed. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) has filed House Resolution 426, which would bar the federal government from limiting the sale or donation of excess federal property to state and local agencies for law enforcement purposes. The bill is a response to the Obama administration's short-lived decision last year to block the transfer of military-style equipment to domestic police forces.

Sentencing

Global Drug Policy Commission Asks Obama to Free More Prisoners. In an open letter to the outgoing president, the commission, which includes a number of former heads of state, thanked Obama for his efforts to shift from a punitive approach to drugs, noted that he had freed more than a thousand drug war prisoners through his clemency program, and asked for more: "We hope that in these final days of your presidency, you will use the power of your office to commute even more prison sentences of low-level drug offenders, and restore dignity and hope to their lives," the commission wrote. "May your example inspire not only your successor, but also governors across the country."

International

Colombia Coca Cultivation Set to Increase. Colombia's post-conflict minister, Rafael Pardo, said Tuesday that coca cultivation will increase this year, the third year in a row that has seen increases in the country's coca crop. Pardo said part of the reason was the government's turn away from using aerial eradication, but that a bigger part was the government's devaluation of the peso, which dramatically increased profit margins for drug traffickers.

Iran Starts New Year With Spate of Drug Executions. The world's leading drug executioner is at again. In the first week of the new year, Iran executed 16 people, 10 of them for drug offenses. Iran executes hundreds of people each year, with drug offenders accounting for an increasing number of them. In 2015, the last year with full statistics, 66% of all executions in Iran were for drug offenses. Another 12 prisoners were set to be executed for drug offenses this week.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Provides No Clarity on MJ Policy, MO Legalizers Trying Again, More... (1/10/17)

Sen. Jeff Sessions is on the hotseat today and Wednesday during his Senate confirmation hearings, Missouri activists gear up for a 2018 legalization initiative, and more.

Sen. Jeff Sessions left the marijuana situation still muddied Tuesday. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Evades Firm Answer on State Marijuana Laws, Leaves Door Open for Federal Enforcement. During his confirmation hearing for the position of Attorney General Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) avoided giving a straight answer on how he will handle states that have legalized marijuana. When asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) if he would use Justice Department resources to prosecute medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal, Sessions replied, "I won't commit to never enforcing federal law… but absolutely it is a problem of resources for our federal government. And when asked by Leahy if he agreed with Obama Justice Department guidelines that have largely allowed marijuana legalization to proceed at the state level, Sessions responded with evasion. When asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) about states' right to experiment with marijuana legalization, Sessions responded that marijuana was illegal at the federal level: "One obvious concern is the United States Congress has made the possession in every state and distribution an illegal act. If that's' something that's not desired any longer Congress should pass a law to change the rule, it is not the Attorney General's job to decide what laws to enforce."

Missouri Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Missouri came just a couple of dozen of signatures away from being able to vote on marijuana legalization in 2016, and activists there are already gearing up for 2018. A legalization initiative has been approved for signature gathering. It would make marijuana legal for people 21 and over, and medical marijuana would be legal for minors with a doctor's permission.

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Medical Marijuana Expansion Hearing Wednesday. A panel of eight physician specialists will hear public testimony on expanding medical conditions covered by the state's medical marijuana law Wednesday. Patients are expected to ask the panel to expand the law to include conditions such as eczema, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The panel will make a recommendation to the Consumer Protection Commissioner, who can then propose the change to a legislative oversight committee, which would make a final decision. The whole process could take a year or more.

South Carolina Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) and state Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) Tuesday filed identical versions of the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 212) at the statehouse. The bill would allow qualifying patients with debilitating medical conditions and a recommendation from their doctor to use medical cannabis.

Key Minnesota GOP Legislator Wants to Block Any New Qualifying Conditions. Longtime medical marijuana skeptic and former House Majority Leader Rep. Matt Dan (R-Dellwood) has filed a measure, House File 120, that would block the state health commissioner from adding new qualifying conditions to the state's medical marijuana law. It's a power that has been used sparingly -- "intractable pain" was added after a year's wait -- but Dean wants it used not at all. His bill would accomplish that by striking out the phrase "or any other medical condition or its treatment approved by the commissioner."

Chronicle AM: Federal OD & MedMJ Bills Filed, State MedMJ Bills, More... (1/9/17)

Both Congress and state legislatures are getting back to work, and the bills are starting to pile up; South Dakota activists eye a 2018 legalization initiative, and more.

Medical marijuana bills are being filed in the states that have yet to embrace it. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Some California Dispensaries Are Already Selling Marijuana to All Adult Comers. Legal recreational marijuana sales won't begin in the state until at least 2018, but some medical marijuana dispensaries are already selling pot to anyone over 21. "Dozens" of dispensaries are advertising that they no longer require a doctor's recommendation to make purchases. Many, if not all, of these "Prop 64 friendly" dispensaries are unlicensed.

South Dakota Activists Eye 2018 Legalization Initiative. The state has twice rejected medical marijuana at the polls, but that isn't stopping a new group, New Approach South Dakota, from planning a 2018 legalization initiative. The group says it will submit a proposal to the attorney general's office next week.

DC Mayor Announces Plan to End Driver's License Suspensions for Drug Offenses. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said Monday that her administration plans to change a law that suspends the driver's license of people arrested for drug offenses. "In Washington, DC, we value and support rehabilitation and promote employment as a critical component of successful reentry," Mayor Bowser said in a statement. "This change will ensure that the DC criminal code is tailored to public safety, not maintaining antiquated and ineffective policies that place unnecessary burdens on District residents."

Medical Marijuana

Federal Bill to Protect Medical Marijuana Businesses From Asset Forfeiture Filed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) last Thursday filed House Resolution 331, which would shield medical marijuana-related conduct authorized by state law from federal asset forfeiture attempts. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.

Mississippi Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Rep. Joel Bomgar (R-Madison) has filed House Bill 179, which would ensure that any "qualifying patient who possesses a valid registry identification card is not subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner." The bill specifies a list of qualifying conditions, allow for caregivers for patients who can't grow their own, and allow for dispensaries. Patients could possess up to 2. 5 ounces of marijuana.

Indiana Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Indianapolis) has filed Senate Bill 255, which would allow patients with a specified list of conditions or "any persistent or chronic illness or condition" to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation. The measure would also create a statewide medical marijuana program. Tallian has introduced similar bills in past years that have gone nowhere.

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Coming Soon. State Sen. Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) says she will introduce a comprehensive medical marijuana bill this session. A similar measure came within three votes of advancing last year, but the measure would still face an uphill battle in the legislature and a probable veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).

New Mexico Medical Marijuana Fix Bill Filed. State Sen. Cisco McSorly (D-Albuquerque) has filed Senate Bill 8, which would more than double the amount of medical marijuana licensed producers can grow in the state and expand the amount of marijuana that patients could possess. "This bill will guarantee there is an adequate supply of marijuana for our patients," McSorley said.

Kratom

Florida Bill to Make Kratom a Controlled Substance Filed. State Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Grove) last Friday filed House Bill 183, which would add mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine, the psychoactive components of kratom, to the state's controlled substances act. Under the bill, selling, manufacturing, or importing kratom would be a misdemeanor.

Collateral Consequences

Nebraska Bill Would (Mostly) End Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons. State Sen. Mike Groene (R-North Platte) last Friday filed Legislative Bill 128, which would end the lifetime ban on food stamps for drug felons, but only if they got drug abuse treatment after their most recent conviction. Alternately, drug felons could take and pass voluntary drug tests every six months to qualify. People with more than two drug felonies would continue to be banned from receiving food stamps. A measure to completely end the ban failed last year.

Harm Reduction

Federal Bill Filed to Ease Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and a bipartisan group of 18 cosponsors have filed House Resolution 304, which would ease bureaucratic obstacles to emergency medical care providers wishing to administer the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

As 2016 comes to a tumultuous end, we look back on the year in drugs and drug policy. It's definitely a mixed bag, with some major victories for drug reform, especially marijuana legalization, but also some major challenges, especially around heroin and prescription opioids, and the threat of things taking a turn for the worse next year. Here are the ten biggest domestic drug policy stories of the year. (Check back for a top ten international drug policy stories soon.)

1. Marijuana Legalization Wins Big

Legalization initiatives won in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, losing only in Arizona. These weren't the first states to do so -- Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, following in 2014 -- but in one fell swoop, states with a combined population of nearly 50 million people just freed the weed. Add in the earlier states, and we're now talking about around 67 million people, or more than one-fifth of the national population.

The question is where does marijuana win next? We won't see state legalization initiatives until 2018, (and conventional wisdom may suggest waiting for the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election year), and most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of initiative states has been harvested, but activists in Michigan came this close to qualifying for the ballot this year and are raring to go again. In the meantime, there are the state legislatures. When AlterNet looked into the crystal ball a few weeks ago, the best bets looked like Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

2. Medical Marijuana Wins Big

Medical marijuana is even more popular than legal marijuana, and it went four-for-four at the ballot box in November, adding Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota to the list of full-blown medical marijuana states. That makes 28 states -- more than half the country -- that allow for medical marijuana, along with another dozen or so red states that have passed limited CBD-only medical marijuana laws as a sop to public opinion.

It's worth noting that Montana is a special case. Voters there approved medical marijuana in 2004, only to see a Republican-dominated state legislature gut the program in 2011. The initiative approved by voters this year reinstates that program, and shuttered dispensaries are now set to reopen.

The increasing acceptance of medical marijuana is going to make it that much harder for the DEA or the Trump administration to balk at reclassifying marijuana away from Schedule I, which is supposedly reserved for dangerous substances with no medical uses. It may also, along with the growing number of legal pot states, provide the necessary impetus to changing federal banking laws to allow pot businesses to behave like normal businesses.

Drug reformers are nervous about the future. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
3. The Republicans Take Control in Washington

The Trump victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress has profound drug policy implications, for everything from legal marijuana to funding for needle exchange programs to sentencing policy to the border and foreign policy and beyond. Early Trump cabinet picks, such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) to lead the Justice Department, are ominous for progressive drug reform, but as with many other policy spheres, what Trump will actually do is a big unknown. It's probably safe to say that any harm reduction programs requiring federal funding or approval are in danger, that any further sentencing reforms are going to be in for a tough slog, and that any federal spending for mental health and substance abuse treatment will face an uphill battle. But the cops will probably get more money.

The really big question mark is around marijuana policy. Trump has signaled he's okay with letting the states experiment, but Sen. Sessions is one of the most retrograde of drug warriors in Washington. Time will tell, but in the meantime, the marijuana industry is on tenterhooks and respect for the will of voters in pot legal states and even medical marijuana states is an open question.

4. The Opioid Epidemic Continues

Just as this year comes to an end, the CDC announced that opioid overdose deaths last year had topped 33,000, and with 12,000 heroin overdoses, junk had overtaken gunplay as a cause of death. There's little sign that things have gotten any better this year.

The crisis has provoked numerous responses, at both the state and the federal levels, some good, but some not. Just this month, Congress approved a billion dollars in opioid treatment and prevention programs, and the overdose epidemic has prompted the loosening of access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and prodded ongoing efforts to embrace more harm reduction approaches, such as supervised injection sites.

On the other hand, prosecutors in states across the country have taken to charging the people who sell opioids (prescription or otherwise) to people who overdose and die with murder, more intrusive and privacy-invading prescription monitoring programs have been established, and the tightening of the screws on opioid prescriptions is leaving some chronic pain sufferers in the lurch and leading others to seek out opioids on the black market.

5. Obama Commutes More Than a Thousand Drug War Sentences

In a bid to undo some of the most egregious excesses of the drug war, President Obama has now cut the sentences of and freed more than a thousand people sentenced under the harsh laws of the 1980s, particularly the racially-biased crack cocaine laws, who have already served more time than they would have if sentenced under current laws passed during the Obama administration. He has commuted more sentences in a single year than any president in history, and he has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.

The commutations come under a program announced by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who encouraged drug war prisoners to apply for them. The bad news is that the clock is likely to run out before Obama has a chance to deal with thousands of pending applications backlogged in the Office of the Pardons Attorney. The good news is that he still has six weeks to issue more commutations and free more drug war prisoners.

6. The DEA Gets a Wake-Up Call When It Tries to Ban Kratom

Derived from a Southeast Asian tree, kratom has become popular as an unregulated alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, not to mention withdrawing from opioids. It has very low overdose potential compared to other opioids and has become a go-to drug for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people.

Perturbed by its rising popularity, the DEA moved in late summer to use its emergency scheduling powers to ban kratom, but was hit with an unprecedented buzz saw of opposition from kratom users, scientists, researchers, and even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who authored and encouraged his colleagues to sign a letter to the DEA asking the agency to postpone its planned scheduling.

The DEA backed off -- but didn't back down -- in October, announcing that it was shelving its ban plan for now and instead opening a period of public comment. That period ended on December 1, but before it did, the agency was inundated with submissions from people opposing the ban. Now, the DEA will factor in that input, as well as formal input from the Food and Drug Administration before making its decision.

The battle around kratom isn't over, and the DEA could still ban it in the end, but the whole episode demonstrates how much the ground has shifted under the agency. DEA doesn't just get its way anymore.

7. Federal Funds for Needle Exchanges Flow Again

It actually happened late in 2015, but the impact was felt this year. In December 2015, Congress approved an omnibus budget bill that removed the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges. The ban had been in place for 20 years, except for a two-year stretch between 2009 and 2011, when Democrats controlled the House.

Federal funding for needle exchanges is another drug policy response that could be endangered by Republican control of both the Congress and the presidency.

Vancouver's safe injection site. Is one coming to a city near you? (vch.ca)
8. The Slow Turn Towards Safe Injection Sites Accelerates

When will the US join the ranks of nations that embrace the harm reduction tactic of supervised drug consumption sites? Maybe sooner than you think. Moves are underway in at least three major US cities to get such facilities open, a need made all the more urgent by the nation's ongoing opioid crisis, as the Drug Policy Alliance noted in a December report calling for a number of interventions, including safe injection sites, to address it.

In New York City, the city council has approved a $100,000 study into the feasibility of safe injection sites, while in San Francisco, city public health officials have endorsed a call for them there and have even suggested they need as many as a half dozen. But San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee opposes them, so battle lines are being drawn.

The best bet may be Seattle, where city and surrounding King County officials are on board with a plan to open safe injection sites to fight heroin and prescription opioid abuse. That plan, conceived by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, was released in September.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reform Advances

Nearly 20 years after Congress passed limited federal civil asset forfeiture reform, the practice is now under sustained assault in the states. More than a half-dozen states had passed civil asset forfeiture reforms before the year began, and this year the following states came on board (although some of the new laws did not end, but only modified or restricted civil asset forfeiture): California, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

And next year looks to be more of the same. Bills have already been filed in Missouri and Texas, and renewed efforts are likely in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where they were thwarted this year.

10. The DEA is Busting Fewer People

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported in December that convictions for drug cases referred by the DEA continued a 10-year decline. During Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors won 9,553 criminal convictions on cases referred by the DEA. That's down 7.1% from the previous year, down 25% from five years ago, and down 35% from 10 years ago. TRAC notes that the decline in convictions is the result of fewer referrals by the DEA, not a lowered conviction rate, which has held steady.

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