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"Hundreds, Perhaps Thousands" Could be Freed Under New Federal Clemency Rules

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Justice Department will soon release new, more expansive criteria for recommending federal prisoner clemency applications for President Obama to review. That means Obama, who has so far freed a paltry 10 prisoners early in his first six years could free "hundred, perhaps thousands" in his final two, a senior administration official told Yahoo News Monday.

Most of those who will be eligible for clemency under the new criteria are doing time for drug offenses, a category that accounts for 50.1% of the federal prison population, or roughly 100,000 inmates. As the Justice Department noted in its press release, the move will be "an important step to reduce sentencing disparities for drug offenders in the federal prison system."

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety," Holder said in a video message posted on the department's website. "The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences."

Later this week, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole is expected to announce more specific details about the expanded criteria the department will use and the logistical effort underway to ensure proper reviews of the anticipated wave of applications, the press release said.

President Obama has, midway through his second term, begun moving to use his clemency power. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. He said the eight men and women had been sentenced under an "unfair system," including the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that was reduced but not eliminated by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

This latest move was foreshadowed by a January announcement that the administration was taking the unprecedented step of encouraging defense lawyers to suggest inmates whom the president might let out of prison early, as part of its effort to curtail severe penalties in low-level drug cases, and again last week, when White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Obama has directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Drug reform advocates greeted the announcement as a step in the right direction and as a signal to state governors -- most drug offenders are doing time on state, not federal, charges -- but also as a tail-end fix for a problem that needs front-end solutions.

"This would be a positive step toward righting the wrongs of our broken criminal justice system. I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws.

"With half a million people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands are deserving of a second chance. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for non-violent drug offenses," added Papa.

It could do that by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which has already made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But in the meantime, liberating some of the thousands of people currently imprisoned with harsh drug sentences is a move that can't come soon enough.

Washington, DC
United States

Big News from the Administration About Commutations

Eric Holder
The Obama administration may issue hundreds or even thousands of sentence commutations in drug cases, it was reported today.

Watch Attorney General Eric Holder's video speech about it, posted this morning.

Phil is driving home from Denver at this time, but will be doing a feature story on this, as well as on marijuana legalization in Colorado (he visited on 4/20), later this week.

Chronicle AM -- April 17, 2014

Marijuana legalization initiatives are in the news, the NCAA ponders relaxing marijuana penalties, a vaporizer company wants to drug test its workers, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Starts Signature-Gathering. Signature gathering began today for the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative. Backers need 87,213 valid voter signatures by July 3, and they say they are confident they will get them. Another initiative, Paul Stanford's Oregon Cannabis Tax Act initiative, is already in the midst of signature-gathering.

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Gets $100,000 Donation from Fragrance Heir. Henry van Ameringen, heir to a fragrance fortune, has donated $100,000 to the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative.

Alaska Legalization Initiative Campaign Challenges Opponents. In a Wednesday morning press conference, supporters of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska stood outside a downtown Anchorage office building with a giant novelty check written out to "No on 2/ Project S.A.M." for $9,015 -- the same amount of money the alcohol lobby donated to former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy during his time in office. Kennedy is the cofounder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group that opposes marijuana legalization. The event served as a challenge to opponents of the Alaska measure -- a group collectively known as "Big Marijuana. Big Mistake. Vote No On 2" -- to show the public the science proving that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol.

Rhode Island House Panel Hears Legalization Bill. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a marijuana legalization bill. The measure, House Bill 7506, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence), would allow adults to possess up to one once and grow one plant, as well as establishing a system of legal marijuana commerce. The committee took no action. Click on the link to get the flavor of the testimony.

NCAA Ponders Reducing Penalties for Athletes Who Test Positive for Pot. The NCAA is mulling a proposal to reduce the penalty for a student-athlete's positive marijuana test from a full-season suspension to a half-season, according to CBSSports.com. The site's senior college football columnist, Dennis Dodd, reported that the idea, which is likely to be approved, reflects the association's view that marijuana use is not performance enhancing.

Medical Marijuana

Wisconsin Governor Signs Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has signed Assembly Bill 726, which would allow the limited use of CBD cannabis oil as a treatment for seizures.

Major Medical Marijuana Industry Company Announces Drug Testing Program, But Not for Pot. OPenVAPE, a vaporizer manufacturer that bills itself as "the nation's largest cannabis brand," announced today that it will begin a drug testing program for employees. But the company won't test for the drug its products are designed to be used with; instead, it will only test for "dangerous drugs." Click on the link to read their press release.

Sentencing

Drug Policy Alliance Intervenes in Case of Louisiana Man Doing 13 Years for Two Joints. The Drug Policy Alliance has filed an amicus brief with the Louisiana Supreme Court in the case of Bernard Noble, who is serving 13 years in prison for marijuana possession. "Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, the lead author of the brief for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture." Louisiana has some of the toughest drug laws in the nation.

Faith Leaders Issue Easter Statement on War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration [FEATURE]

A broad coalition of Christian leaders have taken the occasion of the holiest day on the Christian calendar to release an Easter statement calling for the end of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. They said they chose the Easter season to release their statement because of the spirit of the Resurrection, which Easter commemorates and celebrates.

The Rev. Edwin Sanders (cannabisculture.com)
The statement calls for repealing laws that criminalize drug possession and replacing them with policies that expand access to effective health approaches to drug use, including evidence-based drug treatment.

It also calls for the elimination of policies that result in racially disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates and that that unjustly exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and opportunities.

The United States is the world leader in incarceration, accounting for 25% of the global prison population while only making up 5% of the planet's population. In state prisons, drug offenders typically make up 20-30% of all prisoners, although that proportion has begun declining as nearly half the states have undertaken sentencing reforms in recent years.

But while state prison population numbers have begun a slight decline, the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by the war on drugs. As of this month, there were more than 216,000 federal prisoners, with just more than half (50.1%) doing time for drug crimes, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.

"The cross that faith leaders are imploring others to take up is this unjust and immoral war on drugs and mass incarceration of the poor. In particular, poor black and brown young adults whose futures are being ruined at the most critical point in their lives," said Reverend John E. Jackson of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.

"We are guided by our religious principles to serve those in need and give voice to those who have been marginalized and stigmatized by unjust policies. We cannot sit silently while a misguided war is waged on entire communities, ostensibly under the guise of combating the very real harms of drug abuse. The war on drugs has become a costly, ineffective and unjust failure," says Reverend Edwin Sanders, who is a Board Member of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Senior Servant for the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

More than 100,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in federal prisons (wikimedia/chris piner)
"We are called upon to follow Jesus's example in opposing the war on drugs, which has resulted in the United States becoming the world's biggest jailer," added Sanders.

"Resurrection reality commissions and commands us to change these policies, laws and systems that rob whole communities of their most precious resource, their young. These are the ones Jesus faced betrayal, denial and desertion for. These are the ones Jesus gave up everything for. These are the issues Jesus was raised from a 3 day grave to speak truth to power to through our voices, through our crying loud and sparing not and through our organized efforts," added Jackson.

The story of the prodigal son is appropriate to ponder, said Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, Founder and Executive Director of The Ordinary Peoples Society, in Dothan, Alabama, himself a former drug war prisoner.

"The story of the prodigal son says he went out and lived a riotous life, like somebody who committed a crime or was on drugs or got incarcerated," said Glasgow. "The father of the prodigal son embraced him with open arms, but as a society, we don't do that. We incarcerate instead of trying to treat or restore. His father gave him shoes on his feet and a coat of many colors. These are things we're not doing when it comes to mass incarceration and the war on drugs."

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow (theordinarypeoplesociety.org)
The struggle against the war on drugs is a fight for civil rights and democracy, said Glasgow.

"After they gave us civil rights, they came along with the drug war and took our voting rights back," he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands who have had voted rights restricted or denied after being convicted of drug offenses.

There are concrete steps to take, said several speakers.

"We want to repeal the laws that criminalize drug possession and replace them with effective approaches, and put an end to any policy that unjustly excludes people because they have a previous criminal conviction," said the Rev Michael McBride, Director of Urban Strategies, Lifelines to Healing, Berkeley, California.

"We are fighting a righteous fight and standing in solidarity in the Holy Week to call for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration," McBride added. "We are organizing hundreds of faith congregations across the country to build a faith and moral movement to address and redress these unjust policies. Holy Week reminds us that death does not have a final say, but that God is able to bring redemption for the worst things that happen in our lives. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our generation, and the faith community is in the forefront."

"For those of us who follow Jesus, this is the time to receive his grace, but also to receive his calling," said Bill Mefford, director of Civil and Human Rights for the United Methodist Church, which has been at the forefront of the faith community's challenge to the drug war. "It is time to proclaim relief for the captives and freedom for the oppressed. Unfortunately, because we are the world's leader in incarceration, we don't have to look far," he noted.

Mefford is the chairman of an interfaith coalition working on Capitol Hill to reform the criminal justice system. It represents 35 faith organizations with millions of members.

"There are steps we can take to rescue ourselves from our own captivity," Medford continued. "We can pass the Smarter Sentencing Act as an incremental step toward justice reform that will address costly overcrowding at the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses."

The Smarter Sentencing Act has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote. It has yet to move in the GOP-controlled House.

As Holy Week looms, it is indeed appropriate to ask that rhetorical question. When it comes to dealing with drug use and the drug trade, what would Jesus do?

New York City, NY
United States

Chronicle AM -- April 16, 2014

President Obama commutes a marijuana offender's sentence, organized opposition to a legalization initiative emerges in Alaska, draconian heroin bills are moving in Louisiana, and more. Let's get to it:

Heroin would get you even more time under draconian bills moving in Louisiana. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Denver Crime Rate Drops in First Months of Legal Marijuana Sales. According to crime statistics from the Denver Police, crime is down over the previous year in the first three months of legal marijuana sales there. Violent crime (including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) fell by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2014, compared with the same period in 2013. Property crime (including burglary, larceny, auto theft, theft from motor vehicle and arson) dropped by 11.1%.

Alaska Legalization Initiative Gets Organized Opposition. An organized opposition group has emerged to campaign against the Alaska legalization initiative. A group calling itself "Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2" officially filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission last week. The group includes only a handful of Alaskans and says it is not affiliated with Project SAM, the anti-legalization group that has been playing up the "Big Marijuana" theme across the country.

Legalization Bill Filed in New Jersey Assembly. Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) have filed Assembly Bill 3094 to legalize marijuana. The bill is companion legislation to Senate Bill 1986, which was filed by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden) earlier this session.

Medical Marijuana

Tennessee Legislature Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Study Bill. The House voted 97-0 Monday to approve Senate Bill 2531, which would create a four-year study of the use of CBD cannabis oil in treating intractable seizures. The measure passed the Senate last week, and now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R).

Methamphetamine

Tennessee Senate Passes Pseudoephedrine Restriction Bill. A bill that would restrict non-prescription purchases of OTC cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical in meth manufacture, passed the Senate Tuesday. The bill would cap purchases at 4.8 grams per month and 14.4 grams per year of allergy and cold medicines like Sudafed that could be bought without a prescription. The Senate version differs from the House version in the allowable amounts. The House version has already passed, too, so the two will have to be reconciled before final passage.

Heroin

Draconian Heroin Bill Passes Louisiana Senate Committee. A bill to increase maximum penalties for heroin offenses from 50 to 99 years received approved Tuesday from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 87, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge), now heads for the Senate floor. Another draconian heroin bill, House Bill 332, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie) would double mandatory minimums for heroin use and distribution. The full House passed that bill 94-1, and it will now be heard in the Senate.

Sentencing

President Obama Commutes Sentence for Marijuana Offender. President Obama Tuesday granted clemency to a marijuana offender sentenced to too much time because of a typographical error. Ceasar Huerta Cantu had been sentenced to 180 months in federal prison for marijuana distribution conspiracy and money laundering. Obama commuted the sentence to 138 months, which is what it would have been had his initial sentence been calculated correctly. That means Huerta will get out more than three years early. Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term but has been using the power more in his second.

International

Mexico Anti-Cartel Militias Refuse to Lay Down Arms. The so-called autodefensa militias in the southwest Mexican state of Michoacán -- which took up arms against the Knights Templar cartel more than a year ago -- are now refusing the government's demand to put down their weapons. The government had allowed them to keep their arms and integrate into the security forces, but early this month, announced its intention to disarm all civilians in the state. But the militias say they will disband only once the leaders of the Knights Templar Cartel are killed or arrested. "We prefer to die at the hands of the government than at the hands of a goddamned son of a bitch who dismembers and butchers you -- without releasing even a fingernail to your family. Because, that's what the criminals do," one militia leader told VICE News.

Chronicle AM -- April 14, 2014

Maryland decriminalizes and becomes a medical marijuana state, a Tennessee hemp bill awaits the governor's signature, a Kentucky omnibus heroin bill appears dead for the session, a campaign is underway to free a Missouri marijuana lifer, and more. Let's get to it:

billboard for Missouri marijuana lifer Jeff Mizanskey
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Governor Signs Decriminalization Bill. Gov. Martin O'Malley today signed into law Senate Bill 364, making Maryland the 18th decriminalization state. The new law makes possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, up to $250 for a second offense, and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Third-time offenders and individuals under 21 years of age will be required to undergo a clinical assessment for substance abuse disorder and a drug education program. The measure will officially go into effect on October 1.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) today signed into law House Bill 881, making Maryland the 21st state with a full-fledged medical marijuana law. The bill allows Maryland residents suffering from qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. Possession limits and regulations governing cultivation and dispensary facilities will be determined by a state-sanctioned commission prior to implementation. The measure will officially go into effect on June 1.

Kentucky Governor Signs Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Steve Beshear (D) last Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 124, which will allow the limited use of CBD cannabis oil. Physicians at state research hospitals will be able to recommend use of the drug.

Colorado Bill Would Add PTSD to List of Qualifying Medical Conditions. Even though marijuana is legal in Colorado, one lawmaker, Rep. Jonathan Signer (D-Longmont) has introduced a bill, House Bill 1364, to add post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the state medical marijuana program's list of qualifying conditions. Because PTSD affects many veterans, who receive federal benefits, Singer said it's important to provide them with the ability to qualify under the state's medical marijuana law.

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Medical Marijuana Initiative Again. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has again rejected the popular name and ballot title for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. These are the same folks that put the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act on the ballot in 2012, but this year, another group, Arkansans for Responsible Medicine has claimed that initiative title. The 2014 Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act is now in the signature-gathering phase.

Vermont Lawmakers Advance Dispensary Bill, But Reject Adding PTSD to List of Qualifying Conditions. A bill that would create dispensaries in Vermont has passed out of the House Human Services Committee, but the committee rejected an effort to add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions. The measure is Senate Bill 247. It has already passed the Senate.

Hemp

Tennessee Hemp Bills Awaits Governor's Signature. Senate Bill 2495 and House Bill 2445, which would reclassify and regulate industrial hemp, have passed the legislature and await the signature of Gov. Bill Haslam (R). The bills would allow Tennessee farmers to grow hemp for research and development purposes. Earlier this year Congress approved language in a federal farm bill that would allow the cultivation of industrial hemp in the agricultural pilot programs in states that have already passed hemp measures.

Heroin

Kentucky Omnibus Heroin Bill Appears Dead. A bill that responded to heroin use and sales in the Bluegrass State through a combination of increased treatment, overdose prevention, and harsher criminal penalties will not pass this session, a key legislator said. "There's basically no time left to pass it," Sen. Jared Carpenter (R-Berea), cosponsor of Senate Bill 5, said Friday. It had passed the state Senate, but got stalled in the Judiciary Committee in the Democrat-controlled House. The session ends tomorrow.

Law Enforcement

DEA in Illinois Spying on Indoor Garden Stores. The DEA in Illinois has investigated and raided at least two people after watching them make purchases at a legal local gardening center. Both had shopped at Midwest Hydroganics in Crest Hill. One, Angela Kirking, said she and her pet terrier woke to find four flak-jacketed DEA agents and five Shorewood cops in the bedroom of her Ranchwood Drive home at 5:00am on Oct. 11. At least one of the agents held her at gunpoint before 9 grams were allegedly found. A second person, a man from Channahon, was raided and charged with growing marijuana after shopping at Midwest Hydroganics. In both cases, the DEA took interest after it spotted them shopping at the store. Federal investigators then rooted through garbage and compared utility bills to get search warrants. Kirking's attorney said he is challenging the warrants and that he has heard of more cases linked to DEA spying on a legal business since the story broke.

A Quarter Million Immigrants Have Been Deported For Non-Violent Drug Crimes, Report Finds. The report, an analysis of federal immigration data conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, details how roughly 40,000 people have been deported for drug law violations every year since 2008. That means that nearly 250,000 -- one-quarter of a million -- people were deported for nonviolent drug offenses in just the past six years. A nonviolent drug offense was the cause of deportation for more than one in ten (11%) people deported in 2013 for any reason -- and nearly one in five (19%) of those who were deported because of a criminal conviction. The report reveals that simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any crime, and the most common cause of deportation for crimes involving drugs. On average, more than 6,600 people were deported in each of the last two years just for personal marijuana possession, and overall, nearly 20,000 people were deported last year for simple possession of any drug or drug paraphernalia.

Florida Bill to Raise Drug Possession Thresholds Passes House. The House has passed a bill increasing the weight threshold for trafficking in oxycodone and hydrocodone in a move to ease what have been called overly harsh sentencing guidelines. Senate Bill 360 moves the current threshold of four grams of either drug to seven grams of oxycodone and 14 grams of hydrocodone.

Sentencing

Campaign On to Free Missouri Marijuana Lifer. The ongoing campaign to win the release of Jeff Mizansky, the only man in Missouri serving a life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent marijuana charge, are continuing this month with help from Show-Me Cannabis and Change.org. Show-Me Cannabis has bought billboard space on I-70 near Kansas City (and near Sedalia, where Mizanskey was arrested) to bring attention to his case, and a Change.org petition calling for his release now has more than 360,000 signatures. Mizansky has three convictions, all for marijuana. Campaigners will hold a press conference at the state capitol on April 28.

International

New WOLA Report on Colombia's Peace Prospects Released. As negotiations between the leftist FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government continue, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has released a new report, Ending 50 Years of Conflict in Colombia, that analyzes the prospects for a peace accord and the challenges that will follow. Click on the title link to read the report.

US Sentencing Commission Votes to Cut Drug Sentences [FEATURE]

The US Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted unanimously Thursday to reduce sentences for most federal drug trafficking defendants. The move comes as the federal prison population continues to increase, driven in large part by drug offenders, even as prison populations in the states are on the decline.

In the past decade, in many states, the harsh Reagan-era war on drugs approach to drug use and trafficking has given way to smarter approaches geared toward diversion and treatment of drug offenders, but when it comes to reforms, the federal system has lagged behind.

Passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders, was a step in the right direction. And passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act (House Resolution 3382/Senate Bill 1410), which has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and is pending in the House, would be another.

That bill, which is supported by the administration, would direct federal judges to not sentence some drug offenders to mandatory minimum sentences, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for other drug offenders, and apply the more lenient crack cocaine sentencing scheme under the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders sentenced before it was passed. It also calls on USSC to amend its sentencing guidelines and policy statements for drug offenders to minimize federal prison overcrowding and reduce and prevent racial disparities in sentencing.

But in the meantime, USSC has now, with the administration's support, acted on its own. The commission voted to reduce sentences by amending the federal sentencing guidelines to lower the base offense guidelines in the Drug Quantity Table across various drug types.

The quantity tables place specific quantities of each controlled substance in corresponding sentencing "levels," which in turn contain a range of recommended sentences based on a defendant's criminal history. For instance, under the current guidelines, a drug offense involving at least 10 grams of methamphetamine, but not more than 20 grams, is in sentencing level 18, where the recommended sentence range for an offender with one or no criminal history points is 27-33 months. Under the new guidelines, the same quantity of methamphetamine will be a level 16 offense, which means the recommended sentence range for a first-time offense will be 21-27 months.

The example above is on the low end for federal drug sentences. USSC said the changes would affect about 70% of federal drug trafficking defendants and would result in an average sentence decrease of 11 months. That means the average federal drug trafficking sentence will drop from just over five years to just over four years.

The USSC move could cut the federal prison population by 6,500 over five years. (supremecourt.gov)
This commission has concentrated this year of addressing federal prison costs and capacity. It estimates that the changes it approved Thursday will reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over the next five years and have an even greater impact over the long run.

"This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner," said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the commission. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991."

There are currently more than 216,000 federal prisoners, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Slightly more than half (50.1%) are doing time for drug offenses.

Attorney General Holder welcomed the move, calling it "a milestone" in reshaping the way the system deals with drug offenders. He called for Congress to take the next steps.

"It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system," Holder said. "Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety. I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on these types of common-sense reforms."

Attorney General Holder approves -- and wants more. (usdoj.gov)
Civil liberties and sentencing reform advocates also pronounced themselves pleased at a step in the right direction.

"We commend the Sentencing Commission for taking this important step toward reforming federal drug sentences," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "This change will save taxpayers money, help to rein in federal prison spending, and bolster the spirits of tens of thousands of federal defendants who are facing impractical and disproportionately long sentences."

"Our country is slowly but steadily reversing the damage done by the failed, racially biased war on drugs," said Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The actions taken by the Sentencing Commission today are another positive move toward reducing unnecessarily long sentences that have led to bloated, overcrowded prisons. Our criminal justice system is smarter, fairer, and more humane than it was a year ago, and we need to make sure momentum continues in the right direction."

"This is a terrific, if modest, first step toward genuine sentencing reform for drug offenders," said Mary Price, legal counsel for FAMM and an expert on the Sentencing Commission. "The next step is for Congress to pick up where the Commission left off by passing the Smarter Sentencing Act."

But first, Congress must allow the USSC recommendations to become law. The drug quantity table amendment, along with others approved by the commission, will go to Congress in May. Barring legislative objections, the new guidelines will become law on November 1, 2014.

Unless USSC votes to make the new guidelines retroactive, they will impact only those defendants sentenced after November 1. The commission voted Thursday to conduct a prison impact study before voting on retroactivity.

Chronicle AM -- April 11, 2014

A DC marijuana legalization initiative is about to start signature-gathering, we have a trio of state pot polls, the US Sentencing Commission moves to cut drug sentences, German criminal law professors call for marijuana legalization, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

DC Legalization Initiative Signature Gathering to Get Underway. Signature gathering for the District of Columbia marijuana legalization initiative will begin April 23, the DC Cannabis Campaign said this week. The campaign needs 25,000 valid signatures by July 7 to qualify for the November ballot. An Alaska legalization initiative has already qualified for the ballot there; DC and Oregon now look like the best chances for more legalization initiatives qualifying for the ballot this year.

Louisiana Poll Has Support for Legalization at 44%. The 2014 Louisiana Survey has support for marijuana legalization at 44%, with 54% opposed. Support for medical marijuana was much higher, at 79%. The survey is conducted annually by the Public Policy Research Lab, or PPRL, and sponsored by the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs in the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication.

New Hampshire Poll Has Support for Legalization at 55%. There is solid majority support for legalization in the Granite State. A new WMUR Granite State Poll found found 55% of adults in the state support legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use. Only 38% oppose legalization. Support for legalization is up seven points in the last 14 months.

Rhode Island Poll Has Support for Legalization at 48%. More Rhode Islanders support legalization than oppose, but it doesn't quite have majority support just yet, according to a new Brown University poll. The survey has 47.6% supporting legalization, with 39.3% opposed.

Rhode Island Report Says State Could Generate Tens of Millions in Legal Marijuana Tax Revenue. Maybe this will get those poll numbers up. A new report from Open Doors, a local criminal justice reform group, estimates that if the state were to pass a tax and regulate legalization bill, it could gain between $21.5 and $82 million in annual tax revenues. A legal marijuana industry would also create hundreds of new jobs in the state, the report found.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bill Gets Senate Committee Hearing, No Action Taken. The Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing held a hearing Thursday on a bill that would allow qualified patients to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana and buy it from a dispensary. But the committee took no action on Senate File 1641, tabling it until legislators return from the Easter/Passover break.

Tennessee Senate Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Study Bill. The Senate Wednesday approved a CBD medical marijuana study bill. The measure would authorize a limited, four-year study of the effectiveness of cannabis oil on certain types of intractable seizures. A vote is pending in the House.

Drug Policy

Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network Convention To Address Drug War. The largest civil rights convention of the year has the war on drugs on its agenda. A panel called "Up in Smoke: Banning of Menthol, Legalization of Marijuana & Criminalization of African Americans" will address racial justice and the war on drugs Saturday. The convention started Wednesday and continues through Monday. Click on the link for all the details.

Salvia Divinorum

Rhode Island Bill to Ban Salvia Divinorum, Jimson Weed Advances. A bill that would ban the hallucinogenic drugs salvia divinorum and jimson weed has passed the House. House Bill 7191, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-Providence) seeks to target unregulated substances by prohibiting them. It now goes to the state Senate.

Law Enforcement

Maine Drug War Enhancement Bill Passes House. The House approved an amended version of Gov. Paul LePage's (R) bill to respond to drug problems in the state by increasing drug law enforcement. Legislative Document 1811 was amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to add funding for drug treatment and reduce the number of new drug agents, prosecutors and judges to be hired, but is still opposed by groups like the ACLU of Maine. The bill now moves to the Senate.

NYPD's Most Sued Narc Is Off the Streets. Detective Peter Valentin of Bronx Narcotics is off the streets. Valentin, who has been sued at least 28 times since 2006, and three of his colleagues have been placed on modified duty after an Internal Affair Bureau investigation for taking part in drug raids "of dubious merit." The city has already paid out at least $884,000 to settle lawsuits sparked by Valentin's misbehavior, including a case where a nursing mother spent a week on Rikers Island after Valentin arrested her for drug possession even though she truthfully stated that the powder he found in her home was powdered eggshells, not drugs. Dozens of cases in which Valentin and his crew were involved are now in jeopardy.

Collateral Sanctions

Missouri Could End Lifetime Food Stamp Ban for Drug Offenders. Missouri is one of only 10 states that have not opted out of a lifetime federal ban on food stamps for people with drug felonies, but that could change this year. A bill to end the ban, Senate Bill 680, passed the Senate last week and appears to have bipartisan support in the House. Bill sponsor Sen. Kiki Curls (D-Kansas City) said she accepted amendments imposing some restrictions -- retaining the ban for three-time drug felons, requiring a one-year wait for eligibility -- as necessary to move the bill forward.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission Votes to Reduce Guidelines for Drug Sentences. The US Sentencing Commission voted Thursday to reduce sentencing guidelines for certain people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The amendment would reduce the average sentence for drug traffickers by 11 months, by lowering the drug sentencing guidelines two levels. Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the change during testimony before the commission last month. The amendment will go to Congress for its approval on May 1. Congress has six months to introduce and pass legislation to stop the proposed changes before they become law on November 1.

International

German Criminal Law Professors Call for Marijuana Legalization. Over 120 German professors of criminal law are supporting an initiative to legalize cannabis. They have called on the Bundestag to discuss the issue. The professors are part of the "Schildow Circle," founded two years ago by Lorenz Bollinger, professor emeritus of criminal law at Bremen University. Prime Minister Angela Merkel's coalition is skeptical.

Denmark Opens More Safe Injection Sites. Denmark's first safe injection site for hard drug users opened in October 2012. Now there are three in Copenhagen and at least one in each of Denmark's main cities. They have never had a fatal drug overdose on site.

Mexico Intra-Cartel Clashes Leave 28 Dead. At least 28 people have been killed in clashes between rival factions of the Gulf Cartel in northeastern Tamaulipas state since last weekend. Authorities described the fighting as "clashes or score-settling between criminal groups." The fighting comes after the February arrest of local Gulf Cartel leader Javier Garza, "El comandante 14."

Drug Bill in Australia's Capital Territory Will Ban New Drugs, Adjust Quantities That Trigger Dealing Charges. Under legislation proposed yesterday, Australia's Capital Territory (greater Canberra) will increase the quantity of drugs needed to trigger trafficking charges in a bid to separate out users from dealers. The amount of Ecstasy needed to trigger such charges would double, while the amount of cocaine would triple. The bill would also deal with new synthetic drugs by banning them, instead of regulating them, as neighboring New Zealand has done.

Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up More GOP Cosponsors

A sentencing reform measure pending in Congress has picked up more support from four more Republican members of the House this month. The Smarter Sentencing Act (House Resolution 3382/Senate Bill 1410) now has 26 cosponsors, including 10 Republicans. The Senate version of the bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.

The bill, which is supported by the administration, would direct federal judges to not sentence some drug offenders to mandatory minimum sentences, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for other drug offenders, and applies the more lenient crack cocaine sentencing scheme under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders sentenced before it was passed.

It also calls on the US Sentencing Commission to amend its sentencing guidelines and policy statements for drug offenders to minimize federal prison overcrowding and reduce and prevent racial disparities in sentencing, but at the same time directs that "penalties for violent and serious drug traffickers who present public safety risks remain appropriately severe."

The act is currently before the House Judiciary Committee. Bill sponsor Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) recently held a Republican Study Committee session on the bill, which resulted in four new GOP members signing on in one day.

The new cosponsors are Reps. Bill Huizenga (R-MI), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Mark Sanford (R-SC), and Chris Stewart (R-UT). For a complete list of sponsors, click here.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- April 4, 2014

Cops like to say they don't make the laws; they merely enforce them, but that wasn't exactly the case today in Louisiana, Oregon, and Washington, DC. Plus, decrim has a last hurrah in Maryland, an Alabama welfare drug testing bill passes, Vermont moves against the new pain reliever Zohydro, and more. Let's get to it:

Politicians worry about the dangers of Zohydro, but they have little to say about its benefits.
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Legislators Try to Revive Decriminalization Bill Today. An effort was underway in Annapolis Friday to revive a decriminalization bill just days after it was scuttled in committee. The effort to revive House Bill 879 is being led by members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who will try to amend the bill on the House floor. It was turned from a decriminalization bill to a study bill earlier this week in the House Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by reform foe Rep. Joe Vallario (D-Prince Georges).

Louisiana Marijuana Sentencing Reform Bill Derailed. Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans) has pulled his measure to soften marijuana penalties from consideration in the House Criminal Justice Committee after testimony by the head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. Association executive director Michael Ranatza said sheriffs fear the bill, House Bill 14, could lead to decriminalization of marijuana. Louisiana has some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.

Oregon State Police Withdraw from Anti-Marijuana Summit. The Oregon State Police have withdrawn from an anti-marijuana conference scheduled for later this month after the police superintendent learned the event is closed to the public. OSP was listed as a cosponsor of the summit, which includes sheriffs from Malheur and Yamhill counties, a Medford police official and law enforcement officials from Colorado, Washington and Arizona, as well as anti-drug reform groups such as Drug Watch International, Save Our Society from Drugs, and the Drug Free America Foundation.

Medical Marijuana

Ammiano Reintroduces California Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D) has reintroduced his medical marijuana regulation bill. The new bill is Assembly Bill 1894. The previous version, Assembly Bill 604 had been pending in the Senate. The major change is the addition of language authorizing limited local transaction and use taxes.

Connecticut Picks Locations for Six Dispensaries. Locations for Connecticut's six medical marijuana dispensaries have been selected, the state Consumer Protection Commissioner said Thursday. The facilities in Branford, Bridgeport, Bristol, Hartford, South Windsor and Uncasville were authorized by the state's medical marijuana program to dispense Connecticut-produced marijuana products.

Drug Testing

Labor Department Says Texas Can't Make Drug Tests a Condition for Receiving Unemployment Benefits. The US Labor Department has ruled that Texas cannot enforce a law passed by the Legislature in 2013 which makes passing a drug test a requirement for some workers to get and keep unemployment compensation benefits. The law was watered down by the legislature to cover only people who are in professions where drug testing is a requirement, like truck driving and nursing. The feds say the law as it is written is too vague and it is unclear exactly what workers will qualify.

Alabama Legislature Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The legislature has approved a bill that would require welfare applicants who have a drug conviction in the last five years to undergo drug testing before receiving benefits. People could keep their benefits after one positive drug test. After a second positive, the person would be ineligible for one year. The recipient would be permanently ineligible after a third positive drug test. Senate Bill 63 now goes to the desk of Gov. Robert Bentley (R).

Harm Reduction

FDA Approves Innovative New Device to Reverse Opiate Overdose. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Evzio, a handheld device containing naloxone, designed for lay people to use outside of hospital settings. When activated, the device will give verbal instructions about how to use Evzio to deliver the medication.

Prescription Opiates

Vermont Issues Emergency Rules to Restrict Access to Zohydro. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) and state officials announced Thursday that Vermont is moving to restrict access to the new opiate pain reliever Zohydro, the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for patients in the US. New emergency rules require that prescribers of Zohydro conduct a thorough medical evaluation and risk assessment. This is only the latest move against Zohydro, which was approved by the FDA last fall -- Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) banned it outright earlier this week and a handful of congressmen have called for the FDA to reverse its decision. But Zohydro's maker, Zogenix, said the drug is no more potent than other hydrocodone medications. The company also says it has set up a board of experts to guard against abuse of the drug and that its sales representatives are not being paid based on the volume of sales, but rather on their efforts to ensure prescribers, pharmacists and patients are educated to understand the risks and benefits of extended-release opioids Politicians have been quick to raise the alarm about possible increases in addiction and overdose deaths with Zohydro, but they haven't been nearly as quick to talk about its usefulness in addressing the needs of legitimate pain patients.

Sentencing

Who Wants to Kill Sentencing Reform? No Surprises Here. The Huffington Post reports that law enforcement groups including the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America's drug war three decades ago. The bill is the Smarter Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1410), which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. Click the title link for the full story.

New Report Shows Failure of Connecticut's Sentencing Enhancement Drug Free Zones. A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds that Connecticut's 1,500-foot sentencing enhancement zones are so pervasive that they blanket almost all urban areas, creating an "urban penalty" that increases the sentence imposed for a given offense simply because it was committed in a city rather than in a town. The report recommends the sentencing enhancement zones be shrunk to 100 feet. This would allow the law to actually create the specially protected places as intended. Connecticut Senate Bill 259, which just passed out of the Judiciary Committee, takes a similar approach and would decrease that size to 200 feet. The report is Reaching too far: How Connecticut's large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark." You can read it by clicking on the title link.

Drug War Issues

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