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Chronicle AM: Trump Looking at Drug Dealer Death Penalty, Vancouver Wants Drug Decrim, More... (3/12/18)

Sessions admits feds can't effectively enforce pot laws, Trump admin studies the death penalty for some drug dealers, Mexico murders hit a high, Vancouver wants drug decriminalization, and more.

Trump isn't just talking about the death penalty; his administration is working on it. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Attorney General Sessions Concedes Feds Lack Resources to Prosecute Small-Time Pot Busts. The attorney general admitted the obvious Saturday, saying that federal prosecutors will not take on small-time marijuana cases because federal law enforcement lacks the resources to take on "routine cases." In response to a question, Sessions said, "I am not going to tell Colorado or California or someone else that possession of marijuana is legal under United States law," but then added that federal prosecutors "haven’t been working small marijuana cases before, they are not going to be working them now."

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative Has 200,000 Signatures, Still Wants More. It's looking increasingly likely that Shoe Me state residents will have a chance to vote to legalize medical marijuana in November. New Approach Missouri, the group behind a medical marijuana initiative, announced Sunday it had collected more than 200,000 raw signatures. It only needs 160,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but because some raw signatures may be disqualified, the group said its goal is 300,000 raw signatures.

Utah Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana Bills, But Initiative Campaign Will Continue. Faced with an ongoing initiative campaign, legislators in Salt Lake passed four medical marijuana bills this session, but none of them actually sets up a workable, dispensary-based program, and the Utah Patients Coalition, the folks behind the initiative campaign say they are tired of lawmakers beating around the bush and will continue to gather signatures so the issue will appear on the November ballot. Of the bills passed, one would allow terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana, one would ease medical marijuana research, one seeks a federal waiver for doctors to recommend CBD, and one modifies a task force charged with reviewing existing medical marijuana research.

West Virginia Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Dies. The legislature adjourned Saturday without taking final action on a medical marijuana expansion bill, just days after State Treasurer John Perdue warned that because of federal pot prohibition the state could not support the program with its financial services. House Bill 4345 would have increased the number of growers, processors, and dispensaries that can operate in the state.

Drug Policy

Trump Administration Studying Death Penalty for Drug Dealers. It's not just off-the-cuff rhetoric: The administration is studying a new policy that could allow federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for some drug dealers, particularly those dealing in fentanyl and its analogs. The Department of Justice and the Domestic Policy Council are studying potential changes, and a final announcement could come within weeks.

New Report Finds War on Drugs a Key Factor in Colorado’s Growing Prison Population — and Its Prison Budget, Which Is Nearing $1 Billion for First Time in History. The war on drugs is a key factor in Colorado's growing prison population and, in turn, its growing budget, according to a report released Monday by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC). It also appears to be having a disproportionate impact on women. The analysis of state court and prison data found there were more than twice as many drug felony case filings in Colorado in 2017 (15,323) compared to 2012 (7,424), and the vast majority of drug felony filings (75%) are for simple possession. As a result, there are more people being sentenced to prison for drug possession, especially women. The report, which also includes a breakdown for each of Colorado's 22 judicial districts, shows that five districts saw drug felony filings increase by 165% or more in 2017 compared to 2012.


European Union Calls on Member States to Find Alternatives to Punishing Drug Users. The EU's Justice and Home Affairs Council last week adopted recommendations on alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug users. These recommendations were approved within the frame of the EU Action Plan on Drugs 2017-2020 which requests member states to provide alternatives to coercive sanctions for drug using offenders "where appropriate, and in accordance with their legal frameworks."

Dutch Will Decide on Marijuana Cultivation Pilot Programs By Summer. Justice Minister Ferninand Grapperhaus told parliament last Friday that ministers will publish their proposals for the planned experiment with legal marijuana cultivation this summer. The move is an effort to address the country's "back door problem," where possession and legal sales are allowed, but there is no legal provision for supply.

Vancouver Calls for Canada to Decriminalize Drugs. The city is officially calling on the Liberal federal government to immediately decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs. "What we've learned from countries, for example like Portugal, is that when you decriminalize then people are feeling like they're actually safe enough to ask for treatment," said managing director of social policy, Mary Clare Zak. "People who are dying are more likely to be indoors and struggle with accessing help or assistance because of their illicit drug use." The move comes as the city saw 33 overdose deaths in January, the highest number since last May.

Jamaica's First Marijuana Retailer is Now Open for Business. Kaya Farms in St. Ann Parish opened its doors last Saturday. It's a wellness-focused, tourist-friendly café, lounge, juice bar, and "herb house" on the island nation's north coast. Bob Marley must be smiling.

Mexico Saw More Than 29,000 Murders Last Year. The Interior Ministry has reported that there were 29,168 murders in the country last year, more than at the previous peak of prohibition-related violence in 2011 and 2012. While fighting among cartels and between various cartels and law enforcement and the military accounts for the vast majority of these killings, it's not the only cause. Still, the homicide rate is now the highest in years.

Chronicle AM: Jail Populations Drop, Maine MJ Social Clubs Go Up in Smoke, More... (2/22/18)

An Arizona legalization poll has good numbers, asset forfeiture reform bills move in a couple of states, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on declining jail population numbers, Maine lawmakers appear ready to do away with pot social clubs the voters voted for, and more.

Jail populations have been declining for a decade. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Poll Shows Strong Support for Legalization. A new poll from OH Predictive Insights and the Consumer Choice Center had support for marijuana legalization at nearly two-thirds. Some 62.9% of respondents supported taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol, with 40.9% strongly supporting it. Voters in the state narrowly rejected a legalization initiative in 2016; efforts are underway to get one on the ballot this year.

Illinois Will Put Non-Binding Legalization Question on November Ballot. The Senate Executive Committee voted Wednesday to put a non-binding question on the ballot asking voters whether they would support marijuana legalization. Meanwhile, a legalization bill awaits action in the legislature.

Maine Lawmakers Erase Social Consumption. Lawmakers working to get the state's legal marijuana industry off the ground have eliminated any reference to social clubs where people can use marijuana, even though the initiative passed by voters in 2016 included them. "No other state has licensed social clubs," said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the implementation committee. "This is clearly the law, but it passed by the narrowest of margins. We ought to go slow and be conservative." The move came in a straw vote Wednesday; a final committee vote is set for Friday.

West Virginia Legalization Bill Filed. A Democratic congressional candidate who is also a current state senator filed a legalization bill Monday. Sen. Richard Ojeda (D-Logan) filed Senate Bill 593, which would allow adults to possess up to four ounces at home and two ounces in public and grow up to four seedlings and four mature plants. The bill does not contemplate a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana CBD Bill Wins Committee Vote. The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee voted Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 52, which would allow the legal sale of CBD cannabis oil with low THC levels. The bill is one of a number filed to address the state's CBD mess, which was created when the legislature passed a bill last year allowing for its use, but which left no means to legally obtain it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Maryland Bill to Lengthen Prison Sentences for Opioid Overdose Deaths of Minors Gets Hearing. The House Judicial Committee held a hearing Tuesday on House Bill 649, which would impose a prison sentence of up to 30 years for anyone convicted of selling or giving heroin, fentanyl, or other opioids to a minor who then overdoses and dies. Under the bill, even sharing drugs that result in a fatal overdose by a minor could result in a conviction. No vote was taken. Similar bills have been introduced in recent years, but went nowhere.

Asset Forfeiture

Idaho House Approves Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. The House voted unanimously Wednesday to approve House Bill 447, which does not eliminate civil asset forfeiture, but does restrict it. The bill would ban police from seizing cash or property merely because it is in close proximity to an illegal substance and it would ban the seizure of vehicles unless they are connected to trafficking offenses. It also imposes new reporting requirements. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Kansas House Gives Preliminary Approval to Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. The House voted Wednesday to give preliminary approval to House Bill 2459, which doesn't end civil asset forfeiture, but would impose stricter reporting requirements on all law enforcement agencies. The bill was set for a final House vote Thursday.


Jail Incarceration Rate Has Declined. The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced Thursday that the percentage of US residents in jail has declined since 2012. At midyear 2016, the jail incarceration rate was 229 per 100,000 residents, down 3.4% from 2012 and down 11.2% from 2008, the year jail populations peaked. There were some 740,700 inmates in jails at midyear 2016. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of those in jail had not been convicted of a crime, but were awaiting trial.

Philadelphia DA Will Stop Jailing People Accused of Low-Level Crimes Who Can't Afford Cash Bail. District Attorney Larry Krasner said Wednesday his office will stop jailing people who can't afford to pay cash bail in minor criminal cases, including drug cases. The move is the latest in a growing movement that argues that the practice unfairly targets poor Americans. "There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a risk of flight, is not a threat to their neighbors and community should sit in jail for days or weeks or months or years because they can't post a small amount of bail," said Krasner, a civil rights lawyer who ran on a liberal platform last year opposing mass incarceration. "We do not imprison the poor in the United States for the so called crime of poverty."

Four Reasons Black Incarceration Rates Are Going Down, While White Rates Are Going Up [FEATURE]

It's long been a given that tremendous racial disparities plague the nation's criminal justice system. That's still true -- blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites -- but the racial disparities are decreasing, and there are a number of interesting reasons behind the trend.

That's according to a report released this month by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Researchers there reviewed annual reports from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system and found that between 2000 and 2015, the incarceration rate for black men dropped by nearly a quarter (24%). During the same period, the white male incarceration rate bumped up slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

When it comes to women, the numbers are even more striking. While the black female incarceration rate plummeted by nearly 50% in the first 15 years of this century, the white rate jumped by a whopping 53%.

And make no mistake: Racial disparities in incarceration rates haven't gone away. As the NAACP notes, African Americans account for only 12 percent of the US population, but 34 percent of the population in jail or prison or on parole or probation. Similarly, black children account for 32 percent of all children who are arrested and more than 50 percent of children who are charged as adults.

In and of itself, increases in the white incarceration rate isn't a good thing. The world's leaders incarcerator state needs to reduce the number of prisoner it holds, especially for nonviolent, mostly low-level offenses such as drug crimes, not just shift who the people are that it incarcerates. Still, the reduction in disparities is at least an improvement, and has come with some reduction in the numbers of minorities being imprisoned.

When it comes to drugs, the NAACP reports, African Americans use drugs in proportion to their share of the population (12.5 percent), but account for 29 percent of all drug arrests and 33 percent of state drug prisoners. Black people still bear the heaviest burden of drug law enforcement.

Still, that that 5:1 ratio for black vs. white male incarceration rates in 2015, was an 8:1 ratio 15 years earlier. Likewise, that 2:1 ration for black vs. white female incarceration rates was a 6:1 ratio in 2000.

"It's definitely optimistic news," Fordham University law professor and imprisonment trends expert John Pfaff told the Marshall Project. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it's pretty hard to celebrate. How, exactly, do you talk about 'less horrific?'"

So what the heck is going on? These numbers challenge the standard narrative around mass incarceration, if only partially. It behooves analysts and policymakers alike to try to make sense of the changing complexion of the prison population, but that's no easy task.

"Our inability to explains it suggest how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general," Pfaff said.

Still, the Marshall Project wanted some answers, so it did more research and interviewed more prison system experts, and here are four theories, not mutually exclusive, that try to provide them:

Crime Has Been Declining Overall

Arrests for nearly all types of crime rose into the mid-1990s, then declined dramatically, affecting African-Americans more significantly than whites since they were (and are) more likely to be arrested by police in the first place. In the first decade of the new century, arrests of black people for violent offenses dropped 22%; for whites, the decline was 11%. Since those offenses are likely to result in substantial prison sentences, this shift has likely contributed to the changing racial makeup of the prison population.

White guys get busted for meth. (Wikimedia)
Shifting Drug War Demographics

The black vs. white disparity in the prosecution of the war on drugs is notorious, and a central tenet of drug reform advocacy. But even though blacks continue to suffer drug arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment at a far greater rate than whites, something has been happening: According to BJS statistics, the black incarceration rate for drug offenses fell by 16% between 2000 and 2009; at the same time, the number of whites going to prison for drugs jumped by nearly 27%.

This could be because the drug crises of the day, methamphetamines and heroin and prescription opioid addiction, are mainly white people drug problems. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the drug crisisdu jour was crack cocaine, and even though crack enjoyed popularity among all races, the war on crack was waged almost entirely in black communities. The war on crack drove black incarceration rates higher then, but now cops have other priorities.

The shift in drug war targeting could also explain the dramatic narrowing of the racial gap among women prisoners, because women prisoners are disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes.

White People Blues

Declining socioeconomic prospects for white people may also be playing a role. Beginning around 2000, whites started going to prison more often for property offenses, with the rate jumping 21% by 2009. Meanwhile, the black incarceration rate for property crimes dropped 9%.

Analysts suggest that an overall decline in life prospects for white people in recent decades may have led to an increase in criminality among that population, especially for crimes of poverty, such as property crimes. A much discussed study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that between 1998 and 2013, white Americans were experiencing spikes in rates of mortality, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. That's precisely when these racial shifts in imprisonment were happening.

And while blacks also faced tough times, many whites were newer to the experience of poverty, which could explain why drug use rates, property crime, and incarceration rates are all up.

Reform is More Likely in the Cities, Where More Black People Live

Since the beginning of this century, criminal justice reform has begun to put the brakes on the mass incarceration engine, but reforms haven't been uniform. They are much more likely to have occurred in more liberal states and big cities than in conservative, rural areas.

In big cities such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, new prison admissions have plummeted thanks largely to sentencing and other criminal justice reforms. But in counties with fewer than 100,000 residents, the incarceration rate was going up even as crime went down. In fact, people from rural areas are 50% more likely to be sent to prison than city dwellers.

Even in liberal states, the impact of reforms vary geographically. After New York state repealed its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, the state reduced its prison population more than any other state in the country in the 2000s. But the shrinkage came almost entirely from heavily minority New York City, not the whiter, more rural areas of the state.

People in rural districts are now 50 percent more likely to be sent to prison than are city dwellers, as local prosecutors and judges there have largely avoided the current wave of reform. New York offers an illustrative example. It reduced its incarcerated population more than any other state during the 2000s -- but almost entirely through reductions in the far more diverse New York City, not in the whiter and more sparsely populated areas of the state.

Whatever the reason for the shrinking racial disparities in the prison population, there is a long way to go between here and a racially just criminal justice system. If current trends continue, it would still take decades for the disparities to disappear.

Chronicle Book Review: This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, by Anthony Papa

After decades of the war on drugs and other "tough on crime" policies, America seems finally to have begun to come to its senses. The imprisonment rate has leveled off, and we're no longer seeing year after year after year of ever-increasing numbers of people behind bars in the land of the free.

We've seen that change at the federal level, with the Fair Sentencing Act, softening of the sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, and Justice Department instructions to prosecutors to avoid hitting bit players with mandatory minimum sentences. We've seen that at the state level, with sentencing reforms in dozens of states leading to an actual reduction in the number of state prisoners. And we've even seen it at the local level -- the nation's system of city and county jails -- through things like marijuana decriminalization and reforms in bail practices.

That's all well and good, but we're still the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita term, with more than two million people locked up (China only has 1.5 million). Tens of thousands of them are non-violent drug offenders sentenced under draconian laws enacted before the fever broke -- confined not for years, but for decades -- and writing less brutal sentencing laws now isn't much help to them.

In his waning days in office, President Obama struck a bold blow for justice and made modern presidential history by granting clemency to more than 1,700 federal drug prisoners. Let's be crystal clear here: These were not pardons granted to people who had finished their sentences and long ago returned to society and now wanted their records wiped clean. Obama's commutations meant that people currently spending their lives behind prison walls walked free -- years or decades before they otherwise would have. Hundreds, mostly third time drug offenders serving life sentences, would have died in prison.

But the president can only grant pardons or commutations to people in the federal system, and the vast majority of American's prisoners are in state prisons. Each state governor holds a pardon power similar to the federal chief executive's, but it is used sparingly, some might even say stingily, and has certainly never been wielded in a mass fashion to achieve a social justice end like Obama did at the federal level.

That's a crying shame -- and a potential focus of reform organizing -- because a governor's signature can liberate a human being who not only deserves a chance to breathe the air of freedom, but who may actually make our world a better place by being in and of it instead of being locked away from it -- and us.

Ask Tony Papa. He was a young New York City family man with his own business who, short on cash, took an offer to make a few hundred bucks by delivering some cocaine back in the 1980s, when New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws were still in full effect. It was a sting, and Papa got popped. Like thousands of others, the luckless he quickly entered the state's drug war gulag, sentenced to 15 years to life.

In an earlier work, 15 to Life, Papa told the story of his bust, his seeming eternity behind bars, his slammer-honed artistic talent, and how an anguished self-portrait that seemed to encapsulate the horror and madness of crushing drug prohibition resulted in some high-placed interest, followed by media attention, a public campaign on his behalf, and his release after 12 years when he was granted clemency by then-Gov. George Pataki. It is a remarkable tale of punishment, perseverance, and redemption.

And now, he's back with the rest of the story. In This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency, the personable Papa tells the tale of his life after rebirth -- and makes achingly clear how the trauma of years-long incarceration lingers in the psyche of the freed. There is a clear public policy moral buried in these pages, too: Getting out of prison is only the first step, reentry into society is hard, society itself seems to make it even harder, a virtual obstacle course for people taking the baby steps of freedom, but if we as a society are smart, we will make the effort, for our own collective sake as well as out of a humanitarian impulse.

Compared to most newly freed prisoners, Papa had it good. The campaign for his release had made him connections, he could find work, he could revive his familial ties, yet still he struggled, and understandably so. When you've spent a dozen years being told what to do, freedom isn't easy.

Papa had his demons, and part of the way he fought them was by resolving not to forget the prisoners he left behind. Within a year of his release, inspired by the courageous years-long struggle of the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, those survivors of the thousands taken and killed by the military dictatorship of the 1970s, he and comic/political gadfly Randy Credico formed the New York Mothers of the Disappeared along with family members of the thousands imprisoned under the Rockefeller laws.

Papa, Credico, and the Mothers played a critical role in early efforts to overturn the Rockefeller drug laws, and his tales of feckless politicians, preening celebrity intervenors, and back room double-dealing are the inside dirt on the glacial process of bringing some sanity to the state's drug laws. It ain't pretty, but reform did happen -- eventually -- and Papa got his social justice payback. If that isn't redemption-worthy, I don’t know what is.

This Side of Freedom is one part memoir, one part social history, one part heart-felt manifesto. Papa is an effective, engaging writer who tells his story in discrete episodes and has a knack for jumping from the personal to the political like a quivering quantum particle. You'll meet a range of colorful characters and experience the gamut of human emotion -- the highs, the lows, the ennui -- as you follow Papa's path.

His is one portrait of life in turn-of-the-21st Century America: mindless cruelty and brutality, mixed with racial injustice, but leavened with the will to resist. Read and ask yourself: How many other Tony Papas are out there, watching their lives tick away as they're locked in the cells, when they could be out here helping the rest of us make our world a better, more just and humane place?

Clinton's and Trump's Drug Policies [FEATURE]

(This article was written prior to the election.)

One means of judging the competing presidential candidates is to examine their actual policy prescriptions for dealing with serious issues facing the country. When it comes to drug policy, the contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn't be more telling.

Donald Trump talks drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
The country is in the midst of what can fairly be called an opioid crisis, with the CDC reporting 78 Americans dying every day from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses. Both candidates have addressed the problem on the campaign trail, but, as is the case in so many other policy areas, one candidate has detailed proposals, while the other offers demagogic sloganeering.

Guess which is which.

Hillary Clinton has offered a detailed $10 billion plan to deal with what she called the "quiet epidemic" of opioid addiction. Donald Trump's plan consists largely of "build the wall."

That was the centerpiece of his October 15 speech in New Hampshire where he offered his clearest drug policy prescriptions yet (though it was overshadowed by his weird demand that Hillary Clinton undergo a drug test).  To be fair, since then, Trump has also called for expanding law enforcement and treatment programs, but he has offered no specifics or cost estimates.

And the centerpiece of his approach remains interdiction, which dovetails nicely with his nativist immigration positions.

Donald Trump wants a wall here to stop drugs and immigrants. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
"A Trump administration will secure and defend our borders," he said in that speech. "A wall will not only keep out dangerous cartels and criminals, but it will also keep out the drugs and heroin poisoning our youth."

Trump did not address the failure of 40 years of ever-increasing border security and interdiction policies to stop the flow of drugs up until now, nor did he explain what would prevent a 50-foot wall from being met with a 51-foot ladder.

Trump's drug policy also takes aim at a favorite target of conservatives: so-called sanctuary cities, where local officials refuse to cooperate in harsh federal deportation policies.

"We are also going to put an end to sanctuary cities, which refuse to turn over illegal immigrant drug traffickers for deportation," he said. "We will dismantle the illegal immigrant cartels and violent gangs, and we will send them swiftly out of our country."

In contrast, Clinton's detailed proposal calls for increased federal spending for prevention, treatment and recovery, first responders, prescribers, and criminal justice reform. The Clinton plan would send $7.5 billion to the states over 10 years, matching every dollar they spend on such programs with four federal dollars. Another $2.5 billion would be designated for the federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program.

Hillary Clinton has a detailed drug policy position. (
While Trump advocates increased border and law enforcement, including a return to now widely discredited mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, Clinton does not include funding for drug enforcement and interdiction efforts in her proposal. Such funding would presumably come through normal appropriations channels.

Instead of a criminal justice crackdown, Clinton vows that her attorney general will issue guidance to the states urging them to emphasize treatment over incarceration for low-level drug offenders. She also supports alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts (as does Trump). But unlike Trump, Clinton makes no call for increased penalties for drug offenders.

Trump provides lip service to prevention, treatment and recovery, but his rhetorical emphasis illuminates his drug policy priorities: more walls, more law enforcement, more drug war prisoners.

There is one area of drug policy where both candidates are largely in agreement, and that is marijuana policy. Both Clinton and Trump have embraced medical marijuana, both say they are inclined to let the states experiment with legalization, but neither has called for marijuana legalization or the repeal of federal pot prohibition.

If Clinton's drug policies can be said to be a continuation of Obama's, Trump's drug policies are more similar to a return to Nixon's. 

(This article was prepared by"s lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

A Possession Arrest Every 25 Seconds: The Cruel Folly of the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

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

Nearly a half century after Richard Nixon inaugurated the modern war on drugs, to criticize it as a failure as so common as to be banal. Yet even as marijuana prohibition falls in some states, the drug war rolls on, an assembly line of criminalization and incarceration, dealing devastating blows to the lives of its victims that linger far beyond the jail or prison cell.

More than 1.25 million arrests for simple drug possession last year. (Creative Commons)
And most of its victims are not capos or kingpins, but simple drug users. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), drug possession is the single offense for which the largest number of arrests are made in the US, totaling more than 1.25 million last year, and accounting for more than three-fourths of all drug arrests.

Based on analysis of national and state-level data, as well as more than 360 interviews with drug offenders, family members, past and present government officials, and activists conducted mostly in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and New York, the 196-page report, "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," finds that enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.

The long-term consequences can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime. While more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the US than for any other crime, mainstream discussions of criminal justice reform rarely question whether drug use should be criminalized at all.

"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the report's author. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."

Among those interviewed was for the study was Corey, who is doing 17 years in Louisiana for possessing a half ounce of marijuana. His four-year-old daughter, who has never seen him outside prison, thinks she's visiting him at work.

The harmful consequences of a drug arrest extend far beyond prison walls (
Another is "Neal," whose name was changed to protect his privacy. Also in Louisiana, he's doing five years for possessing 0.2 grams of crack cocaine. He has a rare autoimmune disorder and said he cried the day he pleaded guilty because he knew he might not survive his sentence.

Then there's Nicole, held for months in the Harris County Jail in Houston and separated from her three young children until she pleaded guilty to a felony -- her first. The conviction meant she would lose her student financial aid, the food stamps she relied on to feed her kids, and the job opportunities she would need to survive. All for an empty baggie containing a tiny bit of heroin residue.

"While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer," Borden said. "Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment."

The report also emphasized the now all-too-familiar racial disparities in drug law enforcement, noting that while blacks use drugs at similar or lower rates than whites, they're more than two-and-a-half times more likely to arrested for drug possession and more than four time more likely to be arrested for pot possession. It's even worse in some localities, such as Manhattan, where blacks are 11 times as likely to be busted for drug possession as whites. That amounts to "racial discrimination under international human rights law," the two groups said.

Aside from the vicious cruelty of imprisoning people for years or decades merely for possessing a substance, that drug conviction -- and drug possession, even of tiny amounts, is a felony in 42 states -- also haunts their futures. Drug convicts face the loss of access to social welfare benefits, the stigma of criminality, the disruption of family life, the financial burden of paying fines and fees, and the burden of trying to find work with a felony record. And that harms society at large as well as the criminalized drug users.

And despite tens of millions of drug arrests over the past few decades, with all their collateral damage, the war on drugs doesn't achieve its avowed goal: reducing drug use. There has to be a better way, and Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have something to say about that.

report launch at National Press Club, Washington, DC, 10/12/16
"State legislatures and the US Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs. Federal and state governments should invest resources in programs to decrease the risks associated with drug use and provide and support voluntary treatment options for people struggling with drug dependence, along with other approaches," the two groups recommended.

"Until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices," they added, providing detailed recommendations to state legislatures, police, prosecutors, and other state and local government entities, as well as the federal government.

"Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources," Borden said. "If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead."

Chronicle AM: At Least Four States Voting on MedMJ, Filipino Prez Could Face ICC, More... (8/25/16)

Michigan legalizers lose a court battle, Oklahoma medical marijuana advocates look to be heading for the ballot box, the 10th Circuit rules that having license plates from marijuana states is not sufficient reason for a stop and search, and more.

Medical marijuana will be on the ballot in at least four states. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legalizers Lose Court Bid to Get on Ballot. The backers of the MI Legalize legalization initiative have struck out in court in their bid to get their measure on this year's ballot. The group had collected some 354,000 signatures, well above the 220,00 required, but more than 200,000 of the signatures were gathered outside a 180-day window that the State Board of Canvassers was the only time signatures could be considered. The campaign argued that the 180-day rule was unconstitutional and unfair, but the state Court of Claims ruled Wednesday that the Board of Canvassers was correct. The campaign says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court, but the election clock is ticking and time is running out.

Medical Marijuana

These Four States Will Definitely Be Voting on Medical Marijuana in November. Get a look at the details of and prospects for medical marijuana initiatives that have officially qualified for the November ballot in Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota. There is also an Oklahoma initiative that may still qualify (see below), a second Arkansas initiative that may qualify, and a Montana anti-marijuana initiative that is appealing come up short on signatures.

Arkansas Prohibitionists Go to Court to Block Medical Marijuana Initiative. A group calling itself Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana Wednesday asked the state Supreme Court to block the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act from appearing on the November ballot. The measure has already qualified, but the group's lawsuit claims the wording of the proposal is misleading and omits key information.

Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Initiative Has Enough Signatures, But Is Not on the Ballot Yet. Secretary of State Chris Benge announced Tuesday that a medical marijuana initiative, State Question 788, has handed in 67,761 valid voter signatures. It only needs 65,987 to qualify for the November ballot, but there are still a couple more hurdles to overcome. The secretary of state's office must send a report on its findings to the state Supreme Court, which will then determine if the number of signatures is enough to put the initiative on the ballot.


Report Finds Women Increasingly Jailed for Drug Offenses. A new report from the Vera Institute for Justice finds that the arrest rate for drug possession for women tripled between 1980 and 2009 and that 29% of women in jails were there for drug offenses. Two-thirds of those women are black or Hispanic, and nearly 80% are mothers, largely single mothers. The report called for localities to adopt cite and release policies and/or decriminalizing drug possession.

Search and Seizure

Marijuana State License Plate is No Reason for Police Stops and Searches, Fed Court Rules. In a case involving a Colorado man pulled over in Kansas, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police violated his constitutional rights by stopping and searching him based primarily on the fact that he came from a state that was a "known drug source." Cops can't do that, the court ruled bluntly. To allow such a practice would justify searching drivers from the 25 states that allow medical or fully legal marijuana. "It is time to abandon the pretense that state citizenship is a permissible basis upon which to justify the detention and search of out-of-state motorists, and time to stop the practice of detention of motorists for nothing more than an out-of-state license plate," Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero wrote in the opinion. "Absent a demonstrated extraordinary circumstance, the continued use of state residency as a justification for the fact of or continuation of a stop is impermissible," he added.


Philippines President Could Face International Tribunal Over Drug War Killings, Senator Says. President Rodrigo Duterte could be charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the wave of killings of alleged drug users and sellers since he took office two months ago, according to Sen. Leila de Lima. "There are some experts who are saying that… if this spate of killings go unabated and unchecked, it could reach that point that the ICC could send a prosecutor to our country and investigate all these for possible prosecution under the Rome Statute," she was quoted saying. "This is not a joke. The last thing we need right now is for our dear president to be subjected to an investigation by an international tribunal like the International Criminal Court. I am not threatening the president. I am just stating a fact," she added.

Chronicle AM: Drug Policy in Obama's SOTU Speech, New England Legalization Bills Heard, More... (1/13/16)

As New England states ponder marijuana legalization, Colorado is raking in the revenues. Plus, the president touches on drug policy in his SOTU speech, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Colorado Will Have Taken in More Than $100 Million in Adult Marijuana Taxes and Fees Last Year. Based on official figures through the end of October, the state will have collected more than $100 million on pot taxes and fees through the end of 2015. The state had already collected more than $109 million by the end of October, but some $17 million of that was for medical marijuana. Still, with the last two months of the year yet to be accounted for, and with tax revenues at $9 million for the lowest month in 2015, the state will certainly top the $100 million mark by the time everything is counted.

Massachusetts Legislative Committee Holding Hearing on Legalization Bill. The Joint Committee on the Judiciary is holding a hearing today on House Bill 1561, filed by Rep. David Rogers (D-Cambridge). The bill would regulate marijuana like alcohol in the state.

Vermont Senate Committee Hears Legalization Bills. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony for and against two legalization bills, Senate Bill 95, introduced last session by Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) and Senate Bill 241, from Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham). If the committee decides to approve one or both bills, it must do so by January 29. In Tuesday's testimony, representatives from law enforcement expressed strong opposition to legalization, especially citing fears of stoned driving.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Initiative Hands in Signatures. It looks like Floridians will get a second chance to approve medical marijuana. United for Care, the group leading the campaign, handed in more than one million raw signatures to state officials Monday. The group needs only 683,149 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. In 2014, United for Care's initiative failed even though it won 58% of the vote. Because it was a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% to pass.

Drug Policy

President Obama Touches on Drug Policy in State of the Union Speech. The president's State of the Union speech included a call to imprison fewer people. "I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse," the president said. Obama also mentioned people who have reentered society after being imprisoned: "I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over -- and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe."

Telephone Town Hall with "Orange Is the New Black" Author Piper Kerman, June 29
Piper Kerman
Mass Incarceration: A Conversation With Piper Kerman, Author of "Orange Is the New Black" -- a Telephone Town Hall Meeting Hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance -- Monday, June 29, 1:00-2:00pm ET.

Piper Kerman, author, advocate, and professor, in conversation with asha bandele, Director, Advocacy Grants Progra, Drug Policy Alliance. Visit to RSVP -- space is limited. Audience participation is encouraged.

Three Marijuana Reform Bills Filed in Louisiana

(Welcome back to our one-time intern Jimi Devine, who has graciously volunteered his time to support our blog.)

Louisiana State Capitol
The smell of marijuana reform is strong in the bayou air, Louisiana is now home to a big push for both medical marijuana and major sentencing reforms around marijuana convictions.

Today the Louisiana legislature' House Health and Welfare Committee will hear a medical marijuana bill brought forward by Republican State Senator Fred Mills, a man who formerly served as head of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy. Mills spent the last year working with law enforcement to make it past a committee and organizations that had held it back in the past.

According to Northeast Louisiana media outlet The News Star, major revisions have been made with support from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, they include:

  • Prescribed marijuana would be taken in a form other than smoking it, perhaps in a pill.
  • The state Agriculture Department would be in charge of growing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
  • Dispensing pharmacies -- ten, at this point -- would be required to meet certain conditions.
  • The bill would "sunset," or be reviewed on Jan. 1, 2020, giving lawmakers pause to determine if the changes to state law were beneficial. If the bill proves ineffective, the law could be corrected or ended.
  • The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would adopt rules about dispensing medical marijuana.

This session the bill made it through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that halted its progress in 2014, and then passed the full senate with two thirds in support. On when he takes it before the house Mills noted, "I'm hoping for a repeat performance from the Senate."

While the bill is very restrictive, but it would reinforce national trends on the medical use of marijuana in Louisiana. Hopefully leading to a more inclusive law in the future.

The sentencing reform bills look to reduce the penalties associated with a marijuana conviction in the state. Currently a third marijuana possession conviction could lead to a baffling 20 year sentence.

According to, the bill authored by New Orleans State Senator J.P. Morrell,

"reduces the maximum penalty for possession from 20 years in prison to eight, raises the threshold for a felony-level possession charge and adds a second-chance provision for first-time offenders."

Penalties would still be much more severe than their counterparts in other states, but first time offenders would have one opportunity to expunge their record after two years without a conviction. The bill would also reclassify a second offense from a felony to misdemeanor for quantities between fourteen grams and two and a half pounds.

The bill is projected to save Louisiana $17 million over the first five years. This would cover the $900,000 a year in wasteful spending on corrections highlighted by the Office of State Inspector General with $13 million to spare. columnist Jarvis DaBerry noted,

"Such a bill does two important things. First, it establishes that a person with a small amount of weed isn't a real threat to the public. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bill would keep such a conviction from haunting a person forever."

The second bill authored by Rep. Austin Badon would push major reforms, but is not as big a shift as the one presented by Morrell. Badon' bill would see those committing a third offense jailed five years, as opposed to the two year sentence in Morell' bill. It also does not include the possibility of conviction being expunged for first time offenders.

UPDATE: On Thursday Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he would sign the bills if passed by the house and senate. In regards to the sentencing bill he told the Shreveport Times

"We've said all along we're fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. I think this bill does that. That's good for those offenders, that is good for taxpayers. So again, that's another one of those bills that if it got to our desk we'd sign that."

While Louisiana debates the direction of their sentencing procedures, I'll leave you with another quote from Jarvis DeBerry on the subject:

"Here's a prediction: Sooner or later, we're going to look back at what Louisiana has doing to folks caught with marijuana, and we're going to be just as shocked those sentences had our officials' blessing."


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