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Chronicle AM: Dutch Move on Legal MJ Grows, Marijuana in TX Poll for Legalization, More... (2/21/17)

The Dutch are finally doing something to address their "back door" problem of lack of legal supply for the country's pot shops, a new Texas poll has majority support for legalization, a Vermont pot legalization bill gets a hearing later this week, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Block Police, Local Officials From Helping Any Federal Crackdown on Weed. Assemblyman Reggie Jones (D-Los Angeles) and five cosponsors filed Assembly Bill 1578 last Friday in response to the election of Donald Trump. The bill would bar the use of state funds, property, or equipment to "investigate, detain, detect, report, or arrest" anyone who is acting in accordance with the state's medical and recreational marijuana laws.

Texas Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization. A new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll has support for legalized marijuana at 53%, with another 30% saying it should be legal only for medical purposes. Meanwhile, the number of people who oppose any form of legalization has dropped to 16%. "The number of people who want to keep marijuana completely illegal decreased by seven points," said poll co-director Jim Henson. "The commensurate shift is in Republicans saying small amounts should be legal, and those who said any amount should be legal increased by six points. The other thing that may be going on here is the possible disappearance of the medium ground. It reminds me of what happened with gay marriage, where people often chose the civil union option. A similar thing is happening with medical marijuana as a kind of way station."

Vermont Legalization Bill Gets Hearing This Week. The House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Thursday on House Bill 170, which would legalize the possession of up to two ounces of pot and the cultivation of two mature and seven immature pot plants, but does not allow for legal marijuana commerce. A broader legalization bill was defeated last year.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Poll Finds Support for Smoking Medical Marijuana, Not Waiting for Feds. A new Talk Business and Politics/Hendrix College poll had 50% in support of allowing medical marijuana to be consumed by smoking, with only 41.5% opposed. A bill to bar the use of smoked medical marijuana is before the legislature. Similarly, 51.5% opposed waiting for the federal government to legalizes medical marijuana, while 42% were in favor.

Iowa CBD Expansion Bill Filed. The state currently allows the possession of CBD cannabis oil for the treatment of epilepsy, but it's illegal to manufacture or distribute it there, rendering the current law unworkable. A bill filed Monday by Public Safety Committee Chair Rep. Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield), House Study Bill 132 seeks to begin to break that impasse by allowing the University of Iowa's Carver School of Medicine to recommend which conditions would qualify for use of CBD cannabis oil. But Baudler said another bill would be necessary to expand access.

North Dakota Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a funding measure that allocates a little over $1 million to oversee implementation of the state's new voter-approved medical marijuana law. The Health Department told legislators it does not expect any revenue from the program this year, but it should generate $1.3 million in revenues over the next two years and be self-supporting at that point.

West Virginia Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Sen. Richard Ojeda (D-Logan) and a handful of cosponsors introduced Senate Bill 386 Tuesday. The measure would set up a commission to license medical marijuana growers and regulate distribution of the medicine through dispensaries. It's been sent to the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee.

Drug Testing

Kentucky Bill Would Require Welfare Drug Testing. Rep. C. Wesley Morgan (R-Richmond) filed House Bill 528 last Friday. The measure require people seeking public assistance to be screened for possible drug use, with those deemed suspect required to take and pass a drug test.

International

Dutch Parliament Lower Chamber Votes to Approve Legal Marijuana Cultivation. Three decades after the Dutch allowed for the operation of cannabis cafes, the government is finally moving to allow a legal supply for them. The lower chamber of parliament narrowly approved a bill to allow for legal commercial marijuana Tuesday, but it must still pass the Senate.

Chronicle AM: House Passes Unemployment Drug Test Bill, Houston Decriminalizes, More... (2/16/17)

The House approves a bill that could open the door to states drug testing people seeking unemployment benefits, harsh sentencing bills advance in Ohio and Kentucky, Houston decriminalizes marijuana possession (in most cases), and more.

The House has approved a bill that would allow states to expand drug testing of people seeking unemployment benefits. (wikimedia
Marijuana Policy

Arizona PAC Plans to File 2018 Legalization Initiative. A political action committee called Safer Arizona was set to file a marijuana legalization initiative with state officials Thursday. Arizona voters narrowly devoted a similar measure last year, but organizers say this one will have some differences, including requiring that people be at least 21 before they can buy it. They will have to gather 150,000 valid voter signatures by July to qualify for the 2018 ballot.

Guam Legalization Bill Gets Hearing. In a hearing Tuesday on a marijuana legalization measure, Bill 8-34, representatives of the judiciary said they took no position on the bill, but cautioned that implementing legalization would require a review of the island territory's entire criminal code. Guam Customs and Quarantine acting chief, Maj. Phillip Taijeron also testified, saying he supported the will of the people. "If the will of the people is to enact Bill 8-34, then I am in support of Bill 8-34," Taijeron said.

New York State Assembly Passes Landmark Legislation to Seal Past Marijuana Possession Convictions. The Assembly voted Tuesday in favor of Assembly Bill 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who have been unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view. The vote was 95 in favor and 38 opposed.This sealing legislation has taken on increased importance amid the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and actions targeting immigrant communities. On the national level, simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation, according to the report "Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program?" Sealing records will provide a measure of protection for immigrants by making it difficult or impossible for immigration authorities to meet their legal burden of proof for a judge to find a lawful permanent resident deportable. Additionally, sealing will guard against the Trump administration's Executive Order targeting noncitizens with any criminal arrests and/or convictions for deportation. If the arrest is also sealed and the sealed information is not shared with the FBI, these individuals may be at lower risk of becoming an enforcement target.

Houston to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. The nation's fourth largest city is ready to decriminalize small-time marijuana possession. As of March 1, under a new "Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program," in most circumstances people caught with an ounce or less will face no jail, no tickets, no court appearances and no criminal record. Houston and surrounding Harris County have spent $200 million prosecuting 100,000 pot possession cases in the past decade, with "no tangible public safety benefit," said District Attorney Kim Ogg (D), who took office this year.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana Senate Passes Limited CBD Bill. A measure that would allow people with epilepsy to use low-THC cannabidiol oil passed the Senate Tuesday. The measure, Senate Bill 15, now moves to the House.

Virginia Republicans Kill CBD Expansion Bill. Patient advocates burst into tears Wednesday night as six House Republicans voted to kill a major expansion of the state's CBD law, which limited its use to people with epilepsy. Senate Bill 1298 would have expanded the law to allow its use for treatment for 13 more conditions, but the bill was killed by a 5-6 party line vote in the subcommittee that writes criminal law.

Asset Forfeiture

Colorado Cops Lobby Hard, Defeat Asset Forfeiture Reform. A proposal to expand oversight of police seizures of property was defeated in a party line vote in a Senate committee Wednesday, with Republicans casting all the "no" votes. The measure, Senate Bill 17-136, would also have prevented law enforcement agencies from turning property over to the federal government to get around state restrictions unless the property was worth more than $50,000. The vote came after a parade of law enforcement officers testified against the bill.

Drug Testing

House Approves Measure Aimed at Expanding Drug Testing of People Who File for Unemployment Assistance. The House approved H.J. Res 42, which would repeal a recently finalized Department of Labor rule that interpreted a 2012 federal law that permits states to drug test people who file for unemployment insurance in certain circumstances. Advocates see the repeal of the Department of Labor rule as a first step by some Republicans in Congress at undoing federal restrictions on states conditioning receipt of unemployment and other forms of public assistance on a drug test. The measure now goes before the Senate.

Sentencing

Kentucky Senate Passes Bill Toughening Penalties for Heroin, Fentanyl Sales. The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to approve a bill increasing penalties for people trafficking even the smallest amounts of heroin and fentanyl. The measure, Senate Bill 14, rolls back sentencing reforms enacted in 2011. Under those reforms, trafficking less than House Bill 4, which reverses a state Supreme Court ruling that only the weight of actual cocaine -- not filler -- be used when imposing stiffer sentences for possession and trafficking. Under the bill, prosecutors would be able to sentence defendants based on the weight of the entire mixture. Under the bill, a pound of powder that contained only a gram of cocaine would be considered a pound of cocaine for sentencing purposes. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Chronicle AM: House GOP Wants to Drug Test for Unemployment Benefits, More... (2/15/17)

Vermont's GOP governor throws up an obstacle to marijuana legalization, the House GOP is set to vote to force unemployed workers to take drug tests before receiving their earned benefits, the rightist mayor of South America's largest city turns his back on harm reduction, and more.

House Republicans want laid off workers to have to undergo suspicionless drug tests before receiving their earned benefits.
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Bill Would Limit Pipe, Bong Sales to Pot Shops. Minority whip Rep. Jodi Hack (R-East Salem) has filed a bill that would only allow pot paraphernalia to be sold a licensed marijuana shops. Hack said the measure, House Bill 2556, was aimed at stopping minors from buying the stuff at gas stations, minimarts, and tobacco shops. But smoke shop operators and other retailers are vowing a fight.

Vermont Governor Demands Tough Driving Provisions Before He Will Support Legalization. Gov. Phil Scott (R) says he will not support a legalization bill before the legislature unless it has provisions allowing police to determine is someone is driving while impaired. "Certainly it's still problematic from the standpoint of public safety," said Scott. "I want to make sure that we address those concerns I talked about on the campaign trail in terms of impairment on our highways." He also acknowledged that current tests don't provide clear evidence of impairment, but used that uncertainty to say Vermont should wait and see how other states deal with the issue.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Medical Marijuana "Fix" Bills Advance. The House voted Monday to approve two bills aimed at tidying up the state's new medical marijuana law. The measures, both authored by Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) are House Bill 1371, which requires that Arkansans hold 60% ownership interest in pot businesses in the state, and House Bill 1298, which requires that persons, not corporations, hold the licenses. The bills now head to the Senate.

South Dakota CBD Bill Advances. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 95, which would reschedule CBD as a Class 4 drug in the state and remove it from the definition of marijuana under state law. The bill would legalize the possession and use of CBD, but only upon approval by the FDA. That requirement was added in committee.

Drug Testing

House to Vote on Drug Testing the Unemployed. The House was prepared to vote as early as today on House Joint Resolution 42, which would undo Obama administration limits on drug testing people seeking unemployment benefits. Under a compromise to extend unemployment benefits in 2012, the Obama administration agreed to limited drug testing, but only once the Labor Department had identified industries and sectors that "regularly require drug tests." People receiving unemployment benefits are people who have been laid off from work, not people who have been fired for cause, including drug use. People who are fired for cause don't qualify for unemployment benefits.

Arkansas Senate Approves Bill Making Welfare Drug Testing Permanent. The Senate Tuesday approved Senate Bill 123, which would make permanent a welfare drug testing pilot program approved two years ago, even though the pilot program had only two people fail a drug test and 11 decline to take it out of more than 3,000 people who applied for welfare last year. Under the Arkansas law, the children of people who fail a drug test lose their benefits unless their parent undergoes drug treatment at his or her own expense. The bill now goes to the House.

International

Sao Paulo's New Mayor Turns Back on Successful Harm Reduction Program. New Mayor Joao Doria will scale back a successful harm reduction program that provided housing and jobs to people with problematic crack cocaine use and replace it with a coercive and abstinence-based program. The Restart program Doria likes involves the involuntary "hospitalization and confinement of those who are victims of crack so that with medical treatment, they can stay away from drugs," he explained.

Venezuela VP Shrugs Off US Drug Sanctions. The Venezuelan government Tuesday condemned US sanctions imposed a day earlier on Vice President Tareck El Aissami as a "highly dangerous" infringement of Venezuelan sovereignty, while El Aissami himself called it a "miserable and defamatory aggression" that wouldn't distract him from his job. The US accuses El Aissami of facilitating cocaine shipments while he was a provincial governor.

Chronicle AM: NM Senate on MedMJ & Harm Reduction; Iowa Students Win Speech Case, More... (2/14/17)

Medical marijuana and harm reduction measures advance in New Mexico, a police drug field test kit maker is being sued by a Florida man busted for the glaze on his Krispy Kreme donuts, Idaho considers ending mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and more.

The New Mexico Senate has approved a pair of measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Calls for Decriminalization. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northum (D) called Monday for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement is costly and aimed disproportionately at African-Americans. The move comes weeks after Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) requested that the Virginia Crime Commission study the issue. That move froze pending decriminalization legislation sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Washington State Bill Would Repeal Legalization. Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kenniwick) has filed House Bill 2096, which would repeal "all laws legalizing the use, possession, sale, or production of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.

Wyoming Senate Committee Scales Back Marijuana Sentencing Reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to amend House Bill 197, weakening proposed sentencing reforms by doubling the period during which previous convictions would result in a longer sentence from five years to 10 years. More importantly, the amendment removes the plant form of marijuana from the bill completely, meaning the new tiered sentencing system would apply only to edibles.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 29-11 Monday to approve Senate Bill 177, which would expand the state's program by increasing the amount of marijuana patients may possess to five ounces and increasing the number of plants commercial providers can grow. The bill now goes to the House.

Drug Policy

Idaho Bills Would Alter State's Drug Laws. The House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted Monday to introduce a package of three bills that would reform the state's harsh drug laws. One bill would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and another would bar the seizure of vehicles for simple drug possession and require that property found near drugs be seized only if it is meaningfully connected to the crime. The third bill, however, is a step in the opposite direction -- it would allow heroin sellers to be charged with murder in the event of fatal overdoses.

Drug Testing

Florida Field Drug Test Kit Company Sued By Man Jailed for Possessing Donut Glaze. A Florida man is suing the police field drug test kit manufacturer Safariland LLC after an Orlando police officer using one of its field kits charged him with possessing methamphetamine although the substance being tested was actually the glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. The drug test is either ineffective or unreliable, Daniel Rushing charges in his lawsuit, twice registering a positive result for meth and resulting in his false arrest and imprisonment before felony charges were dropped.

First Amendment

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Student Drug Legalization Group's Free Speech Rights. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university's logo and mascot on t-shirts calling for the legalization of marijuana. Iowa State NORML had sued in 2014 after the university first gave its okay, but then refused permission after pressure from high-ranking state officials, including the governor's office. Instead, the university suddenly changed its guidelines, with new rules prohibiting designs "that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products." Last year a federal district court filed an injunction prohibiting the school from using its new policy to block NORML from printing new t-shirts, and now the appeals court has upheld that permanent injunction.

Harm Reduction

New Mexico Senate Approves Pair of Harm Reduction Bills. The state Senate Monday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state. Senate Bill 47 would improve the state's 911 Good Samaritan law to include alcohol overdoses and eliminate the prospect of criminal liability for violating drug laws while seeking medical assistance for an overdose. Senate Bill 16 would require health care providers to counsel patients on the risk of overdose and to offer prescriptions for the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bills now go to the House.

International

Trump Administration Accuses Venezuela VP of Drug Smuggling. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Treasury said that El Aissimi facilitated drug trafficking in his previous post of Aragua state. The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for "specially designated narcotics traffickers," part of what's known as the Kingpin Act.

In the Time of Trump, Can Congress Take the Lead on Marijuana Policy? [FEATURE]

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

While the marijuana community -- consumers, industry, and advocates alike -- eyes with trepidation the reign of avowed drug warrior Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, the Trump executive branch isn't the only game in town when it comes to making marijuana policy. Congress is back in session, and after last November's legalization and medical marijuana victories at the polls, the pot state delegation is larger than ever.

Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) (house.gov)
And at least some of those senators and congressmen and women representing the 28 states (and the District of Columbia) that have embraced medical marijuana and the eight states plus DC that have so far gone for adult legalization, are gearing up to fight for reform at the Capitol.

A nascent congressional Cannabis Caucus formed in December is preparing a plethora of bills for the current session, and its members say they are optimistic about their chances, even in the time of Trump -- and Republicans holding every committee chair in both houses. It's because Congress is riding the marijuana wave, too, said caucus founder and co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

"This Congress is going to be a little better than last Congress, and last Congress was better than the one before that," he said in an interview this week with The Cannabist. "It's very interesting watching the momentum build."

That momentum derives from public opinion polls consistently showing nationwide majorities favoring legalization and, more importantly, the actual victories at the polls in November, where legalization went four for five and medical marijuana went four for four.

"It's easier for people to embrace much of what we're doing legislatively," he said. Fixing industry-critical concerns such as the lack of operating expense deductions or access to financial services for state-legal businesses or barriers to medical marijuana research are now mere "housekeeping" issues, he added.

Nonetheless, fixes still have to get through the Congress. They haven't so far, and it's a long way between filing a bill and seeing it signed into law. Still, Blumenauer and colleagues will be pushing harder than ever.

He is joined in the Cannabis Caucus by co-chairs Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Don Young (R-AL). The bipartisan grouping is notably made up of representatives from vanguard legalization states, but by no means all of them -- California alone has 53 House members -- and there is certainly room for more to come on board.

"I'm more hopeful than ever before that we can move legislation like the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act," Polis told The Cannabist, referring to last session's H.R. 1013, which picked up 19 cosponsors and was referred to a slew of subcommittees, but never even got a hearing.

Caucus member Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) (house.gov)
That bill was one of about two dozen pot-related proposals filed in the last session, and they're already starting to pile up again this session. While Blumenauer told The Cannabist more were to come, here's what's on the table so far:

H.R. 331 -- Filed by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the States' Medical Marijuana Rights Protection Act would block federal civil asset forfeiture aimed at the owners of state-legal medical marijuana operations.

H.R. 714 -- Filed by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), the Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marihuana Act would move marijuana to the Controlled Substance Act's Schedule II, opening the door to more research and, potentially, doctors' ability to prescribe (as opposed to recommend) marijuana for patients. It would also bar the use of that act or the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to interfere with medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

H.R. 715 -- Also filed by Rep. Griffith, the Compassionate Access Act would reschedule marijuana, provide for its medical use under state laws, and remove CBD (cannabidiol) from the definition of marijuana.

H.R. 975 -- Filed by Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Rohrabacher, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act would exempt 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.

There is no outright federal marijuana legalization bill out there yet this session, but expect to see Rep. Polis come back with his bill or perhaps Bernie Sanders reviving his bill to end federal marijuana prohibition, or both. Given political realities on the Hill, though, the Cannabis Caucus will likely save its political capital for fights it might be able to win, such as fixing the tax and banking problems facing the industry.

Another key battleground -- and one where marijuana advocates have actually won before -- is the appropriations process. The Justice Department and the DEA can't go after marijuana in legal states if Congress bars them from spending any federal funds to do so, and that's exactly what Congress did when it approved the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment last session.

If a similar amendment were to succeed again, even if Attorney General Sessions wanted to call out the cavalry, he couldn't buy the horse feed, and it wouldn't matter how many nasty memos his deputies wrote.

And while his past pronouncements are indeed worrisome, he was quite coy at his nomination hearings, saying that he "won't commit to never enforcing federal law," but adding that enforcement priorities are "a problem of resources for the federal government."

Sessions did add later in the hearings that it's not "the attorney general's job to decide what laws to enforce," but suggested that his former colleagues could settle things once and for all.

Does new Attorney General Jeff Sessions want to punt pot policy back to Congress? (senate.gov)
"I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act," he said. "If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass the law to change the rule."

And then there's Sessions' boss, President Trump. While he projects a law and order image and has campaigned against "drugs," the drugs he seems most concerned about are heroin and the prescription opioids -- not pot. He's also suggested in the past a willingness to let states experiment on marijuana policy, and he has a lot of other things on his plate. It's not at all clear he would let Sessions unleash a war on weed even if he wanted to.

Earl Blumenauer doesn't think Trump wants to charge into this particular melee.

"This is a struggle and will continue to be, but this is something where I honestly don't think the new administration, which has probably enough controversy on its hands, is going to knowingly pick a fight with what, almost without exception, was approved by local voters," Blumenauer said.

To ensure that Sessions doesn't strike out, "we need to make the case directly to Trump" about the economic potential of the marijuana industry, said Polis. But until federal marijuana prohibition is ended, "the industry really exists at the discretion of the president and the attorney general, and that's a dangerous place to be," he added.

Well, and Congress, too. It holds the purse strings, after all.

Marijuana policy is going to be at play in the 115th Congress. Ending federal prohibition remains the Holy Grail, but in the meantime, there are concrete actions Congress can take to protect medical and legal marijuana and the industry it's creating. Now, let's see if the Cannabis Caucus can lead the way to some victories.

Chronicle AM: Drug Warrior Jeff Sessions is AG, NY Gov Calls Marijuana Gateway Drug, More... (2/9/17)

A man who thinks marijuana users aren't "good people" is now the US attorney general, New York's Democratic governor cites the gateway theory as he opposes marijuana legalization, North Dakota lawmakers kill a welfare drug testing bill, and more.

Meet the new boss: Attorney General Jeff Sessions takes office. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

New York Governor Calls Marijuana "Gateway Drug," Rejects Legalization. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Wednesday that marijuana is "a gateway drug, and marijuana leads to other drugs and there's a lot of proof that that's true... There's two sides to the argument. But I, as of this date, I am unconvinced on recreational marijuana."

Washington Bill Would Bar State From Helping Any Federal Crackdown. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. David Sawyer (D-Lakewood) and three others would attempt to protect the state's legal marijuana industry by "prohibiting the use of public resources to assist the federal government in any activity that might impede or interfere with Washington state's regulation of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The measure is House Bill 1895, which is now before the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee.

Medical Marijuana

Kansas Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) has filed Senate Bill 155, which would allow patients with specified diseases or conditions to grow and possess medical marijuana, or have a caregiver grow it for them. The bill also envisions the creation of state regulated and taxed "compassion centers" or dispensaries.

Drug Policy

Jeff Sessions Confirmed As Attorney General, Drug Policy Reformers React. The Senate confirmed Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General on a near party-line vote Wednesday night. The marijuana and drug reform communities -- among many others -- are nervous about how Sessions might deviate from the Obama administration's hands-off policy on marijuana in the states, as well as broader criminal justice issues. "Jeff Sessions and President Trump are stuck in the 1980s when it comes to drug policy, while most of the country knows by now that we need alternatives to the failed drug war," the DPA's Bill Piper said. "If the Administration tries to roll back marijuana reform or to undermine criminal justice reform they will find themselves even less popular than they are now."

Drug Testing

North Dakota Senate Kills Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The Senate killed Senate Bill 2279, which would have required mandatory "addiction screening" of people receiving food stamps, with those identified as being "at risk" of drug use being forced to undergo drug treatment. The measure died on a 20-26 vote after legislators pointed out that similar welfare drug testing programs have found only a tiny number of people.

International

Peru Government Will Present Medical Marijuana Bill. The administration of President Pedro Kuczynski said it will present a bill allowing for the use of medical marijuana to the legislature, which is dominated by the opposition. The move comes in the wake of a public uproar after police raided a Lima house where a group of parents grew marijuana to make cannabis oil to treat their children's epilepsy and other diseases.

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?

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: CA Faces Plethora of Pot Bills, NM Legalization Bill Advances, More... (2/6/17)

Marijuana-related legislation is moving in several states, the HIA is suing the DEA over hemp foods, Philippines Catholic bishops speak out against drug war killings, and more.

The Hemp Industry Association is suing the DEA (again) over hemp foods. (thehia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska On-Site Consumption Not Dead Yet. Last Wednesday, the Marijuana Control Board shot down a proposal that would have allowed for Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes, but a day later, the state's Department of Economic Development clarified in a press release that the decision didn't amount to a permanent ban on such businesses. The department encouraged marijuana businesses that want to allow on-site consumption to continue filing relevant paperwork, even though there is not yet an alternative proposal to regulate businesses allowing on-site consumption.

After Legalization, California Faces a Plethora of Pot Bills. The passage of Prop 64 appears to have left as many questions as answers, and legislators in Sacramento are working to address them with at least nine bills filed already. The proposals range from efforts to reconcile the medical marijuana and legal marijuana regulatory systems to protecting non-union workers to helping pot businesses gain access to financial services and beyond. Click on the link to see the full list of bills and accompanying discussion.

New Mexico Legalization Bill Wins House Vote. The House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted to allow a legalization measure, House Bill 89, to keep advancing through the House. The committee made no recommendation for or against. The bill still faces to more committee votes before it can head for a House floor vote. "This is the one thing we can do this year that will instantly inject a massive amount of money into our economy and create jobs right away," said bill sponsor Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park).

New York Legalization Bills Filed. A pair of identical bills to legalize marijuana for adults and allow for legal, taxed, and regulated marijuana commerce have been filed in Albany. They are Senate Bill 3040, with Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) as primary sponsor, and Assembly Bill 3506, with Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) as primary sponsor.

Wyoming House Votes to Cut Pot Penalties. The House voted Saturday to approve House Bill 197, which would reduce the penalty for possession of three ounces of marijuana or less. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Washington Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana Use at School Wins Committee Vote. The House Health Care and Wellness Committee approved "Ducky's Bill," House Bill 1060, last Friday on a 13-3 vote. The bill is named after an elementary school student who can only attend half-days of class because of intractable epileptic seizures. It would require school districts to allow students to use medical marijuana on school grounds, on a school bus, or while attending a school-sponsored event. A companion measure has been filed in the Senate, but has not moved yet.

Hemp

Hemp Industries Association Sues DEA Over Illegal Attempt to Regulate Hemp Foods as Schedule I Drugs. The Hemp Industries Association (HIA) has filed a motion to hold the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in contempt of court for violating an unchallenged, long-standing order issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, prohibiting the agency from regulating hemp food products as Schedule I controlled substances. Specifically, the HIA asserts that the DEA continues to operate with blatant disregard for the 2004 ruling made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which permanently enjoined the DEA from regulating hemp fiber, stalk, sterilized seed and oil, which are specifically exempted from the definition of "marijuana" in the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Asset Forfeiture

Colorado Bill Would Close Federal Asset Forfeiture Loophole in Most Situations. A bipartisan group of four senators has filed Senate Bill 136, which would require state law enforcement to comply with extensive reporting requirements, but would also prohibit them from entering into agreements to transfer seized property to the federal government unless it amounts to more than $100,000. Law enforcement agencies use federal sharing programs to get around state laws aimed at reining in asset forfeiture procedures. The bill is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Drug Testing

Colorado Companies Shedding Marijuana Drug Tests. The Associated Press is reporting that in the past two years, seven percent of Colorado companies have dropped marijuana from pre-employment drug tests. Would you test someone for alcohol or something like that I mean it's legal like alcohol is. Why would you test someone for marijuana especially if it's legal?" said one small business owner.

Rhode Island Random Welfare Drug Testing Bill Filed. State Sen. Elaine Morgan last Thursday filed a bill that would allow the Department of Human Services to conduct random, suspicionless drug tests on welfare recipients. The bill heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It has yet to appear on the legislative website.

International

Israeli Ministers Endorse Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana Exports. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation has endorsed a draft bill to allow the export of medical marijuana. That means the measure will now move forward as a government bill.

Tel Aviv Marijuana Legalization Demonstration Draws Thousands. As the Knesset and the Israeli cabinet ponder marijuana decriminalization, thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night to call for full legalization. At least two Knesset members, Likud's Sharren Haskel and Meretz's Tamar Zandberg, were present.

Philippines Catholic Bishops Issue Pastoral Statement Condemning Drug War Killings. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued a pastoral statement Sunday expressing opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign of killings of drug users and sellers. The bishops called on Filipinos to follow the basic teaching of the Church. The full text of the statement is available at the link.

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.

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