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Legal Marijuana: The Sky is (Probably) Not Falling [FEATURE]

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

Barrels of ink have been spilled over the prospect that the Trump administration could attempt to turn back the clock when it comes to legal marijuana, but for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth out there, marijuana industry insiders, advocates, and activists don't seem all that worried.

Jeff Sessions loathes marijuana, but is going after it the best use of DOJ resources? (senate.gov)
"I don't think there's any more reason to be scared than to be hopeful at this point," said Mason Tvert, Denver-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The administration has not changed its marijuana policy, and there is reason to believe it may maintain the existing policy or adopt a similar one that respects states' laws regulating marijuana."

"Marijuana is one of the least of my concerns with the Trump administration," said Dale Gieringer, coauthor of the pioneering 1996 Prop 215 medical marijuana initiative and long-time head of California NORML. "That's the first time I've been able to say that, but I just don’t see where there's any percentage in them going after marijuana. The polls are on our side, and they can't enforce the law."

The industry, too, seems to think that there's not really that much to fear from the Trump administration.

"We are in a posture of cautious optimism," said Taylor West, communications director for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). "We're definitely not taking anything for granted -- it's quite clear that Sessions has really strong personal opposition to the industry -- but we are encouraged by the intense pushback, not just from the industry, but from elected officials, regulators, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. That is probably the most powerful signal to the Justice Department that dramatic changes to current policy would cause them a lot of problems."

West pointed to the strong reaction from state officials in marijuana-legal and medical marijuana states, as well as support from federal lawmakers and not just Democrats. She cited Nevada US Sen. Dean Heller as an example of a Republican lawmaker siding with the industry over the administration.

"They are speaking up because the industry and individual businesses and consumers have spoken up as their constituents and taught them about the industry and what we stand far and why we deserve respect from the federal government," she said.

And the marijuana money people appear largely unperturbed, too. In a report released Thursday, Arcview Market Research projected that the industry is going to continue to boom regardless of what happens in Washington, with revenues of nearly $7 billion this year and an astounding projected annual growth rate of 27% through 2021.

"While the uncertainty created by the mixed signals coming out of the administration may cause a temporary dip in some valuations of cannabis companies and some more risk-averse institutional investors and multinational companies may continue to stay on the sidelines, it won't impact the growth of the market much at all," said Troy Dayton, CEO of Arcview Market Research. "No matter what the administration does, states will continue to issue cannabis licenses to a long line of applicants and licensed cannabis outlets will continue to have long lines of consumers ready to purchase this product from regulated establishments."

Maintaining the Status Quo

Legal marijuana could be a $7 billion industry by 2021. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Medical marijuana is now legal in more than half the states and adult recreational use is legal in eight, including the entire West Coast. Some early enforcement actions notwithstanding, the Obama administration largely turned a blind eye to state-legal but federally-illegal marijuana. The Obama Justice Department adhered to the Cole memorandum, a 2013 "guidance" to federal prosecutors that essentially limited them to going only after legal marijuana operations that crossed specified lines: selling to minors, diverting product to non-legal states, being involved in violence or other trafficking, and the like.

Medical marijuana states at least are also protected by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to go after state-compliant medical marijuana operations. A similar measure, the McClintock-Hollis amendment, would have extended that same shield to the adult-legal states, but came up just short in the last Congress. Both amendments will be offered again this year.

"Jeff Sessions doesn't like marijuana -- that much is clear -- but that's not the question," MPP's Tvert argued. "The question is whether he believes limited federal resources should be used to interfere in state marijuana laws. As of right now, there's no reason to believe that's the case."

Tvert pointed to Sessions' seeming acceptance of the Cole memo, as well as a memo Sessions sent to federal prosecutors last month telling them to go after "the worst of the worst" and violent crime.

"State licensed and regulate marijuana businesses are by no means violent or the 'worst of the worst,'" Tvert noted. "They want to go after cartels and violent criminals and focus on serious crime, so why force marijuana back into the underground market?"

"President Trump said states should be able to determine own marijuana policies, and he also had strong support for legal access to medical marijuana, and we haven't heard anything new from him on it," said Tvert. "But again, it's not a question of the president's personal views, but of what the federal laws are and the realities of enforcement. Sessions has said on multiple occasions that the federal government cannot effectively enforce federal prohibition in states where it is legal."

The view was not quite as sanguine from Washington, DC, where national NORML has its offices.

"As far as the industry goes, even the threat of a crackdown by the Justice Department has a chilling effect," said Justin Strekal, NORML political director and lobbyist. "While medical marijuana is protected under Farr-Rohrabacher, the adult use economy has no such protections -- at least for now."

"The Cole memo is just a piece of paper," Strekal said, "and there is nothing stopping Sessions from just throwing it away, as the Heritage Foundation has called for him to do. But the Justice Department has no way to force states to recriminalize marijuana in decrim or legal states. The worst case would be that the adult use states are rolled back to a situation where there is no way to have a legal distribution system, but local law enforcement is not going to be enforcing federal marijuana prohibition."

Where apprehension about the direction of Trump administration pot policy is having a real impact right now is in causing politicians to think twice about legalization in states that are considering it, Strekal said.

"We're hearing feedback from legislators in Connecticut and Maryland saying that the attorney general's comments are acting as a road block, while in Georgia, we just saw a defelonization bill defeated. The mere presence of a Reefer Madness-era Jeff Sessions is frightening off potential supporters of ending prohibition."

Still, Bad Things Could Happen

If Congress blocks funding, DEA can't go after legal marijuana (sort of). (justice.gov/dea)
While an oppositional Trump administration may retard the expansion of legal marijuana in the states, the status quo of a fifth of the country living under legalization and more than half with access to medical marijuana appears unlikely to be rolled-back. But that doesn't necessarily mean a free ride for legal weed.

"There could be some sort of federal action against some adult use facility or grower or cultivation company whose product is found to have gone across state lines in quantity, or something like that," CANORML's Gieringer offered. "Like if you have a situation where Nebraska complains, maybe that could stir up pressure in the Justice Department. But that's the most I expect. I could be wrong, though."

"Since Colorado started its licensing program, there's always been a fear that the Justice Department would just bring a lawsuit saying the state is participating in an ongoing conspiracy to distribute a Schedule I drug," Gieringer observed. "They had their chance and they didn't do it. If they tried it now, they will have taken away hundreds of millions of dollars from Colorado and potentially billions from other states and leave anarchy. They can't enforce the marijuana laws anyway; it's a drain on federal resources to even try."

"A federal injection is a potential threat, but it was a potential threat six months ago, too," said MPP's Tvert. "It's still a question of resources. If that were to happen, marijuana would continue to be legal, but the federal government would be preventing states from controlling its production and sale. That would be a real serious problem."

But Tvert warned that the heavy hand of the federal government could still reach out and slap someone down.

"Sean Spicer said they would have greater enforcement, and that could mean anything," he said. "They could be planning to more rigorously enforce the laws against people not in compliance with state laws, there could be more enforcement against illegal actors, they could push states to strengthen their regulations to prevent interstate trafficking. They perhaps could encourage states to increase funding to law enforcement to investigate illegal activity. There is plenty they could do without interfering with the legal market."

The Fightback Against Rollback Will Only Grow Stronger

The advent of a potential hostile Trump administration isn't changing the way NORML does business, Strekal said.

"We're continuing to do what we've always done and act as a grassroots consumer advocacy group," he explained. "We have 150 chapters and we're engaging as an advocacy group at every level of government from city councils to state legislatures to the federal government. At the federal level, we're very encouraged by the formation of the congressional cannabis caucus. We've been working with them to host a few events."

"This moment in time, where there is a lot of uncertainty at the federal level, is the kind of moment the NCIA was created for," said West. "We've been building relationships and allies in DC around industry issues, so when we need those allies, we have them."

Like MPP, the NCIA has a full-time staff lobbyist in Washington. It also works with another DC-based lobbying firm to work the Hill, and with legislators and elected officials.

"You've been able to see, through our work and the work of others, a very strong pushback from people who previously wouldn't have been in favor of the marijuana industry," West said. "The federal government can try to enforce marijuana prohibition in states where it is legal, but it doesn't really have the personnel to do that without the full cooperation of state and local law enforcement. If states are resisting that crackdown, which elected officials have said they would do, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible."

Legal marijuana is on guard, but it's not running away from a fight. The question for the Trump administration becomes whether this is a fight worth fighting.

Chronicle AM: IL Legal MJ Bill Filed, CA Bill Bars Helping Feds Attack Legal MJ, More... (3/23/17)

Illinois lawmakers want to see marijuana legalization; California lawmakers want to protect marijuana legalization, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Block Cops From Aiding Federal Pot Crackdown. Six Democratic legislators have filed Assembly Bill 1578, which would bar state and local law enforcement from cooperating in any federal enforcement activities aimed at state-legal marijuana operations. "Prohibiting our state and local law enforcement agencies from expending resources to assist federal intrusion of California-compliant cannabis activity reinforces… the will of our state's voters who overwhelmingly supported Proposition 64," said Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), the lead author of the new bill.

Illinois Lawmakers File Legalization Bill. A group of Chicago Democratic legislators have filed a marijuana legalization bill by amending an existing bill, House Bill 2353. The measure would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults (a half-ounce for non-residents), set up a system of legal marijuana manufacture and distribution $50 per 28 grams on all cannabis flowers, and give state regulators 180 days to get a system up and running.

Law Enforcement

Supreme Court Rules Lawsuit From Man Jailed Over Bottle of Vitamins Can Advance. An Illinois man jailed for two months after police claimed the pills in his vitamin bottle were ecstasy despite lab tests that showed they weren't can continue to pursue his federal civil rights claim, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. Elijah Manuel, who is black, said officers pulled over the vehicle in which he was riding, falsely claimed they smelled marijuana, screamed racial slurs, then claimed their field drug test indicated his vitamins were ecstasy. Police continued to hold him in jail even after other tests verified the pills were not ecstasy until prosecutors eventually dropped the case. "No evidence of Manuel's criminality had come to light in between the roadside arrest and the county court proceeding initiating legal process; to the contrary, yet another test of Manuel's pills had come back negative in that period," according to the opinion. "All that the judge had before him were police fabrications about the pills' content. The judge's order holding Manuel for trial therefore lacked any proper basis. And that means Manuel's ensuing pretrial detention, no less than his original arrest, violated his Fourth Amendment rights."

International

Vietnam Sentenced Nine to Death for Drug Trafficking. A court in Hoa Binh province sentenced nine men to death for trafficking more than a thousand pounds of heroin in a trial that ended Tuesday. Vietnam sentences dozens of people to death each year; about a third of them for drug offenses.

Chronicle AM: StoptheDrugWar.org in Philippines Controversy, MA Legalization, More... (3/20/17)

StoptheDrugWar.org draws the ire of the Duterte regime in Manila, Vermont's pot legalization bill gets a needed extension, a federal bill to create a National Commission on Criminal Justice is filed, and more.

David Borden's coordination of a video criticizing Philippines Pres. Duterte is making waves in Manila. (YouTube)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legislature Begins Grappling With Legal Marijuana. The legislature's effort to diddle with voter-approved marijuana legalization began in earnest Monday as the Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy held hearings featuring the state treasurer, gaming commission chairman, representatives of the attorney general's office, and legalization advocates. Some 44 bills have been filed to restrict, delay, or otherwise modify the initiative that passed last November. Further hearings on the general topic are already scheduled, but hearings for the individual bills have not.

Vermont Legalization Bill Misses Deadline, But Gets One-Week Extension. The legalization bill, House Bill 170, missed a Friday deadline for bills to emerge from committee, but House and Senate leaders agreed to give the bill a one-week extension to try to get out of the House Judiciary Committee. The committee had been scheduled to vote on the bill last Wednesday, but abruptly removed the vote from its schedule, suggesting that House leaders weren't confident it would pass out of committee. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults, but would not allow for legal marijuana commerce.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Appeals Court Upholds Limit on PTSD Recommendations. The state court of appeals ruled last Thursday that the Department of Health Services was acting legally when it decided that doctors could only recommend medical marijuana for "palliative care" for PTSD. The department argued there was no evidence showing marijuana could actually cure people of PTSD. The department also limited recommendations to people who were already being treated for PTSD. An Arizona medical marijuana nurses group filed suit against the restrictions, but now the court has ruled against them.

Arkansas Bill to Ban Smoking Medical Marijuana Where Cigarettes Are Banned Passes House. The House voted last Friday to approve House Bill 1400, which would prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana anywhere tobacco smoking is prohibited. The bill passed 88-0. Under the bill, knowingly smoking medical marijuana in the presence of a pregnant woman would be prohibited. The measure also prohibits those under 21 from smoking medical marijuana. A bill that would have banned smoking medical marijuana at all has already died in the Senate.

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Heads for Floor Vote. The legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 6-1 last Friday to advance Legislative Bill 622, which would bring medical marijuana to the Cornhusker state. The bill would authorize cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of medical marijuana products, but would ban smoking the herb or allowing patients to grow their own. The bill is opposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), as well as the state's law enforcement establishment.

Virginia Governor Signs Bill Legalizing Pharmacy Distribution of CBD and THC-A Oil. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed Senate Bill 1027 into law last Thursday. The bill allows for companies to manufacture and provide CBD cannabis oil and THC-A oil for the treatment of epilepsy and provides for its distribution through pharmacies.

Hemp

Arkansas Industrial Hemp Bill Wins Committee Vote. The House Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development unanimously approved a bill to allow the production of hemp. House Bill 1778 now goes to the House floor.

Drug Policy

Federal Bill Would Make All Controlled Substance Analogs Schedule I Controlled Substances. US Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) last week filed Senate Bill 683, which would "treat all controlled substance analogues, other than chemical substances subject to the Toxic Substances Control Act, as controlled substances in schedule I regardless of whether they are intended for human consumption." The actual bill text is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Drug Testing

Nevada Welfare Drug Testing Bill Filed. State Sen. Michael Roberson (R-Las Vegas) has filed a bill that would require applicants for welfare, food stamps, and other public assistance to undergo a suspicionless saliva drug test. If the saliva test is positive, a follow-up urine test could be used to verify the result. Senate Bill 298 has been referred to the Committee on Health and Human Services.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill Filed to Create National Criminal Justice Commission. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) has filed House Resolution 1607, which would create a national criminal justice commission. The text of the bill is not yet available on the congressional website.

International

StoptheDrugWar.org Makes Filipino News With Veep's Video Criticizing Duterte's Drug War. StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden is at the center of a controversy in the Philippines over a video message to the UN from Vice President Leni Robredo criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drug war, which has led to some 8,000 deaths since Duterte took office last year. Duterte supporters accused Stopthedrugwar.org of timing the video release to bolster an impeachment complaint filed against Duterte last week, but Borden said that was not the case. "The vice president's office did not make any requests of us as to timing or any other matters. We released it a few days before the session as a media strategy to draw attention to Pres. Duterte's atrocities," said Borden.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Adds Fentanyl Precursors to Controlled Substances List. The CND voted last Thursday to add two chemicals used to make fentanyl to the list of internationally controlled substances under UN anti-drug treaties. Putting the chemicals on the list will ensure closer monitoring of fentanyl orders and transactions and would make it more difficult for illicit fentanyl producers to access those chemicals.

Chronicle AM: DEA Says CO Not New Crackdown, Tunisia Easing Cannabis Penalties, More... (3/17/17)

Yesterday's DEA raids in Colorado do not signal a new crackdown, the agency says; Georgia CBD cannabis oil legislation looks set to advance, Rand Paul reintroduces a federal asset forfeiture reform bill, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DEA Raids Targeting Illicit Colorado Pot Distribution Ring Hit 20 Locations. The DEA and state and local law enforcement agencies raided at least 20 sites Thursday in a crackdown aimed at what it called a "large-scale illegal marijuana grow and distribution operation." DEA said the operation was selling exclusively outside of Colorado, which would have put it under DEA scrutiny even under the Obama administration's policy or largely letting states do their own thing. The DEA said Thursday's raids were not part of a new crackdown.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Lawmakers Reach Compromise on CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. Lawmakers appear to have reached an agreement that would add six illnesses and conditions to the state's list of qualifying medical conditions, allow the use of CBD cannabis oil in hospice care, and keep the allowable level of THC in cannabis oil at 5% or less. That means Senate Bill 16 should now be able to pass out of the House Human Services Committee and head for a House floor vote.

New Yorkers Suffering Chronic Pain Will Be Able to Use Medical Marijuana Starting Next Week. After announcing in December that it planned to add chronic paid to its list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, the Health Department said Thursday patients could start getting recommendations for chronic pain beginning next Wednesday. The department also announced that physicians' assistants can now recommend medical marijuana. "Improving patient access to medical marijuana continues to be one of our top priorities, as it has been since the launch of the program," Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement. "These key enhancements further that goal."

Hemp

Arizona Hemp Bill Advances. The House Land, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee approved Senate Bill 1337 Thursday. The measure would authorize industrial hemp production and explicitly does not require federal approval. The bill has already passed the Senate, but it still faces votes in the House Rules and House Appropriations committees before heading for a House floor vote.

Asset Forfeiture

Rand Paul Files Federal Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill (Again). US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has reintroduced Senate Bill 642, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act. The bill would target and limit federal civil asset forfeiture. Paul introduced the same bill last year. A companion measure, House Resolution 1555, has been filed in the House by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI).

International

Tunisia to Ease Marijuana Penalties Beginning Monday. For years, anyone caught with any amount of cannabis faced a mandatory minimum jail term, but the National Security Council said Wednesday that beginning next week, first offenders caught with cannabis will be pardoned as soon as judgement is pronounced. The council action comes as legislation that would have pardoned the first two possession offenses remains tied up in parliament.

Chronicle AM: US Senate Okays Unemployment Drug Testing, NM Decrim Advances, More... (3/15/17)

The US Congress has voted to allow states to force drug tests on people seeking unemployment benefits, decriminalization bills get filed in Florida and advance in New Mexico, another mass grave is uncovered in Old Mexico, and more.

A bill that would decriminalize small-time marijuana possession is moving in Santa Fe. (irin.org)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Decriminalization Bills Filed. A pair of lawmakers have filed identical decriminalization bills. Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) filed House Bill1403, while Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) filed Senate Bill1662. Under the bills, possession of up to an ounce would be decriminalized, with a maximum $100 fine. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce is punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

New Mexico Decriminalization Bill Advances. A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana has passed out of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee and now faces only one more vote in the House Judiciary Committee before heading to the House floor. The measure, Senate Bill 258, has already passed the Senate.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Washington State Bill Would Force Heroin and Opioid Users into Treatment. State Sen. Steve O'Ban (R-University Place) has filed a bill that could force opioid users into involuntary drug treatment by declaring them "gravely disabled" under the Involuntary Treatment Act. The measure, Senate Bill 5811, had a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health, and Housing, but no vote was taken, and O'Ban said he didn't think the bill was going anywhere this year.

Asset Forfeiture

Mississippi Governor Signs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill into Law. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) Monday signed into law House Bill 812, under which state law enforcement agencies will have to report their seizures, create a searchable website for seizure information, and submit civil seizure warrants to judges within 72 hours. The new law doesn't end civil asset forfeiture in the state, but advocates said "it's a start."

Drug Testing

Senate Votes to Allow States to Drug Test People Seeking Unemployment Benefits. The Senate voted 51-48 along party lines to roll back an Obama-era regulation that blocks states from demanding drug tests of people seeking unemployment benefits. Under a 2012 law, states can only drug test individuals applying for unemployment benefits if they were previously fired for drug use or work in jobs for which workers are regularly drug tested. The Obama rule specified a list of jobs that could be included under the law. The measure has already passed the House, and President Trump is expected to sign it.

International

Mass Grave Discovered in Mexico's Veracruz. Searchers have uncovered a series of mass graves on the outskirts of the city of Veracruz where scores, if not hundreds, of people believed to have been killed in drug gang violence have been buried. On Tuesday, local prosecutor Jorge Winkler told reporters that 250 human skulls had been found at the sites. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars in the past decade, and tens of thousands more have gone missing.

Colombia Coca Cultivation at Two-Decade High, US Says. The US estimates that coca production in Colombia increased 18% last year over 2015, with nearly half a million acres under production. The spike in production comes as the country begins implementing a peace accord with FARC rebels, and be the result of a "perverse incentive" for farmers to grow coca last year in order to qualify for subsidies for switching to substitute crops.

Jeff Sessions Claims Marijuana Only "Slightly Less Awful" Than Heroin

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

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions once again displayed his ignorance about drugs Wednesday as he claimed that marijuana is "only slightly less awful" than heroin. In the same speech, he acknowledged rising heroin and prescription opioid overdose death levels, but failed to note that no one dies from overdosing on marijuana.

The US attorney general made more inflammatory remarks about marijuana on Wednesday. (senate.gov)
Heroin produces physical addiction and is linked to thousands of overdose drug deaths each year. Marijuana does not produce physical addiction, and although it may lead to psychological dependency for a small percentage of users, the dependency rate is much lower than it is even for users of alcohol and tobacco, both of which are more dangerous than marijuana.

Sessions' uninformed claim is likely to increase jitters in the country's nascent legal marijuana industry as it confronts an attorney general whose rhetoric so far has strongly suggested he would like to crack down on legal weed -- although he has yet to take any concrete steps to do so.

Sessions made the claim in prepared remarks for a speech to state, local, and federal law enforcement in Richmond, Virginia. The long-time foe of marijuana and marijuana law reform again sketched his stance toward pot, saying "life-wrecking dependency" on marijuana is "only slightly less awful" than heroin addiction.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana -- so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that's only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.

Sessions would not be so "astonished" at the notion that access to marijuana lead to declines in opioid overdose deaths if he actually followed the field. At least three recent studies have found a link: A 2014 Johns Hopkins study found that states with medical marijuana laws have a 25% lower opioid death rate than other states; a 2015 RAND study found a decline in opioid deaths of between 16% and 31% in states that had medical marijuana dispensaries; and a 2016 Health Affairs study found that doctors in medical marijuana states wrote fewer opioid prescriptions for Medicaid patients.

Actual science notwithstanding, Sessions suggested he was prepared to embark on a 21st Century version of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" and the "this is your brain on drugs" anti-drug propaganda campaigns of the 1980s:

In the '80s and '90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.

But if Sessions wants to educate Americans on "the terrible truth" about drugs, he should probably start with himself. An attorney general who cannot recognize the difference between marijuana and heroin is not one who is fit to pronounce on such matters.

Richmond, VA
United States

Chronicle AM: Conyers Racial Profiling Bill, Competing FL MedMJ Proposals, More... (3/13/17)

The senior member of the House files a racial profiling bill, Colorado lawmakers move to reduce medical marijuana homegrow limits, Kansas lawmakers mess with a medical marijuana bill, Texas lawmakers get a hearing on decriminalization, and more.

CBD cannabis oil (marijuanagames.org)
Marijuana Policy

Texas Decriminalization Bill Gets Hearing Today. The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today held a hearing on House Bill 81, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the bill, offenders would face a ticket and fine rather than jail time and a criminal record. The Sheriff's Association of Texas opposes the bill, arguing that marijuana is "a gateway drug."

Medical Marijuana

Colorado House Gives Preliminary Approval to Cutting Home Grow Plant Limits. The House voted last Friday to give preliminary approval to House Bill 17-1220, which would limit medical marijuana home grows to 16 plants per residence. The current limit is 99 plants. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and law enforcement support the bill as a means of reducing diversion. The House must vote on the bill again this week before sending it to the Senate.

Florida Lawmakers Have Six Competing Medical Marijuana Plans to Choose From. Voters approved medical marijuana at the ballot box last November. Now, the legislature is trying to figure out how to implement it. Here's an overview of the six competing plans.

Kansas Senate Committee Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill, But Activists Unhappy. The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee approved a CBD cannabis oil bill last Thursday, but only after gutting the original bill, Senate Bill 155, and replacing it with Senate Bill 151, which would only allow doctors to recommend "non-intoxicating" cannabinoid medications. "This is not the scope of what those who want to see prescriptive authority for medical marijuana want," said Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City), who sponsored the original bill. Haley said he would attempt to restore the original bill this week.

Race

Conyers Files Federal Racial Profiling Bill. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the longest serving member of the House (he's been there since 1965), filed House Resolution 1498 last Friday. The bill calls for "eliminat[ing] racial profiling by law enforcement."

International

Philippines President Creates New "Joint Command" to Wage Bloody Drug War. President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order creating an Interagency Committee on Illegal Drugs (ICAD). The order mobilizes 21 executive agencies to prioritize "high value" targets and go after all levels of the drug trade. Since Duterte took office last year, more than 8,000 people have been killed by police or shadowy vigilante groups. Another 48,000 have been jailed.

Attorney General Sessions Won't Rule Out Using Mafia Law to Go After Legal Marijuana

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

On conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt's program Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions continued to bad mouth marijuana and suggested he might use laws enacted to go after the Mafia against the legal marijuana industry.

"I think it's a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don#39;t think we're going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store," the attorney general told Hewitt.

The conservative talker then helpfully suggested that one way Washington could go after legal pot was by bringing racketeering charges against marijuana businesses.

"One RICO prosecution against one marijuana retailer in one state that has so-called legalization ends this façade and this flaunting of the Supremacy Clause. Will you be bringing such a case?" Hewitt asked Sessions.

Sessions didn't exactly jump on the idea, but neither did he reject it.

"We will um… marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws," Sessions said in response. "So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It's not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that's legalized it."

But Hewitt was not done chewing on that bone, asking Sessions if he couldn't just make an example out of somebody.

"I mean, if you want to send that message, you can send it. Do you think you're going to send it?" he asked.

Sessions had to clue in Hewitt about the difficulty of reining in the burgeoning the legal marijuana industry.

"Well, we'll be evaluating how we want to handle that," he said. "I think it's a little more complicated than one RICO case, I've got to tell you. This, places like Colorado, it's just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it's also being moved interstate, not just in the home state," he added.

Sessions has been a staunch foe of marijuana legalization, and the industry has been on tenterhooks since he was nominated as the nation's highest law enforcement officer. He attempted to soft-shoe his views during his confirmation hearings, suggesting that he wasn't going to aggressively go after the legal pot industry, but his comments with Hewitt may suggest otherwise.

Taken together with a memo on violent crime Sessions sent to federal prosecutors Wednesday in which he hinted at at rolling back Obama Justice Department policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences, his comments to Hewitt Thursday suggest that the Trump administration is about to head resolutely backwards on drug policy in general and marijuana policy in particular.

Listen to the Hewitt interview below:

Chronicle AM: Ominous Sessions Hint on Sentencing, RI AG Anti-Pot Campaign, More... (3/9/17)

Attorney General Sessions hints at a return to tough federal drug sentencing, Rhode Island Attorney General Kilmartin announces a campaign to fend off marijuana legalization, Bolivia's president signs a law nearly doubling legal coca cultivation, and more.

It looks like the new attorney general is going old school with harsher drug sentencing. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Decriminalization Bills Filed. A pair of Democratic lawmakers has filed identical decriminalization bills in the House and Senate. State Rep Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) filed House Bill 1403, while state Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) filed Senate Bill 1662. The bills would make possession of up to an ounce a civil violation punishable by a fine of no more than $100. Under current Florida law, small time marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Rhode Island Attorney General Gins Up Anti-Legalization Campaign. State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin (D) launched a campaign against marijuana legalization Thursday. Kilmartin said he was mobilizing lawmakers, business leaders, and others concerned about public health and public safety issues to fight ongoing efforts in the legislature to legalize it. He's joining forces with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, among others.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Florida Bills Would Have Dealers Facing Manslaughter Charges for Opioid Overdose Deaths. A pair of Republican state lawmakers has filed identical bills that would allow prosecutors to bring manslaughter charges against people who sold opioids to people who overdosed and died on them. Sen. Gregg Steube (R-Sarasota) filed Senate Bill 150 Tuesday, while Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) filed House Bill 477.

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions Signals He Could Reverse Obama Policy of Seeking Less Serious Charges in Drug Cases. Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors Wednesday calling on them to crack down on violent crime, and in that memo, he hinted at rolling back Obama administration policies directing federal prosecutors to not always seek the most serious charges in drug cases and to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences by leaving drug quantities out of charging documents. "I encourage you to employ the full complement of federal law to address the problem of violent crime in your district," Sessions wrote. "Further guidance and support in executing this priority -- including an updated memo on charging for all criminal cases -- will be forthcoming."

International

Bolivian President Signs Law Nearly Doubling Amount of Legal Coca Grown. President Evo Morales, a former coca grower himself, signed into law Wednesday a bill that will increase the amount of coca that can be legally planted from 30,000 acres to 55,000 acres. "We want to guarantee coca supplies for life," he said.

Blunting Trump's Mass Deportation Plans With Drug Reform [FEATURE]

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

As President Trump ratchets up the machinery of mass deportation, supporters of a humane, comprehensive approach to immigration are seeking ways to throw sand in its gears. When mass deportation is touted because of the "criminality" of those targeted, one solution is to reduce criminalization, which is not to turn a blind eye to violent or dangerous criminals, but to recognize that we live in an over-criminalized society. That means school kids can now be arrested for behavior that would have sent them to the principal's office in years past (especially if they're a certain color). The US also generates the world's largest prison-industrial complex, and has criminalized tens of millions of people for the offense of simply possessing a certain plant, and millions more for possessing other proscribed substances.

ICE arrests an immigrant in San Jose. (dhs.gov)
While Trump talks about "bad hombres" as he ramps up the immigration crackdown, data shows that the net of criminality used to deport not just undocumented workers, but also legal immigrants and permanent resident aliens, is cast exceedingly wide. It's overwhelmingly not gang members or drug lords who are getting deported, but people whose crimes include crossing the border without papers, as well as traffic and minor drug offenses.

The report Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program , which examined Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation records, found that the top three "most serious" criminal charges used to deport people and which accounted for roughly half of all deportations were illegal entry, followed by DWI and unspecified traffic violations.

The fourth "most serious" criminal charge used to deport people was simple marijuana possession, with more than 6,000 people being thrown out of the country in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the years the study covered. Right behind that was simple cocaine possession, accounting for another 6,000 in each of those years. "Other" drug possession charges accounted for nearly 2,500 deportations each of those years.

Nearly 3,000 people a year were deported for selling pot, and more than 4,000 for selling cocaine, but only about 2,000 a year for the more serious offense of drug trafficking, accounting for a mere 1% of all deportations in those years.

ICE raid in Atlanta. (dhs.gov)
This has been going on for years. In the same report, researchers estimated that some 250,000 people had been deported for drug offenses during the Obama administration, accounting for one-fifth of all criminal deportations. Now, the Trump administration gives every indication it intends to be even tougher.

In light of the massive use of drug charges to deport non-citizens, drug reform takes on a whole new aspect. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization may not generally be viewed through the lens of immigrant protection, but they shield millions of people from drug deportation in those states that have enacted such laws. Similarly, efforts to decriminalize drug possession in general are also moves that would protect immigrants.

Now, legislators and activists in vanguard states are adopting prophylactic measures, such as sealing marijuana arrest records, rejiggering the way drug possession cases are handled, and, more fundamentally, moving to decriminalize pot and/or drug possession. In doing so, they are building alliances with other communities, especially those of color, that have been hard hit by the mass criminalization of the war on drugs.

In California, first decriminalization in 2011 and then outright legalization last year removed pot possession from the realm of the criminal, offering protection to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But the California legalization initiative, Proposition 64, also made the reduction or elimination of marijuana-related criminal penalties retroactive,meaning past convictions for marijuana offenses reduced or eliminated can be reclassified on a criminal record for free. Having old marijuana offenses reduced to infractions or dismissed outright can remove that criminal cause for removal from any California immigrant's record.

Across the county in New York, with a charge led by the state legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, the state assembly voted in January to approve AB 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who had been unjustly arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view, a charge police used to still bust people for marijuana after it was decriminalized in 1977. Like the Prop 64 provision in California, this measure would protect not only minority community members in general -- who make up 80% of those arrested on the public possession charge -- from the collateral consequences of a drug conviction, but immigrants in particular from being expelled from their homes.

"A marijuana conviction can lead to devastating consequences for immigrants, including detention and deportation," said Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. "This bill will provide some important protections for green card holders and undocumented New Yorkers targeted by Trump's aggressive deportation agenda."

"Sealing past illegitimate marijuana convictions is not only right, it is most urgent as the country moves toward legalization and immigrant families are put at risk under our new federal administration," said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Comprehensive drug law reform must include legislative and programmatic measures that account for our wrongheaded policies and invest in building healthier and safer communities, from the Bronx to Buffalo, Muslim and Christian, US-born and green card-holding."

Companion legislation in the form of Senate Bill 3809 awaits action in the Senate, but activists are also pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include similar language as part of his decriminalization proposal in state budget legislation, opening another possible path forward.

One-way street? (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
"In New York State 22,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2016. The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, leading to a potential inability to provide for their families," said Sen. Jamaal Bailey, author of the Senate bill.

"Furthermore, and even more problematic, there exist significant racial disparities in the manner that marijuana possession policy is enforced. Blacks and Latinos are arrested at higher rates despite the fact that white people use marijuana at higher rates than people of color. Responsible and fair policy is what we need here," Bailey added. "We must act now, with proactive legislation, for the future of many young men and women of our state are at stake here."

Meanwhile, back in California, Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) has reintroduced legislation explicitly designed to shield immigrants from deportation for drug possession charges, as long as they undergo treatment or counseling. Under her bill, Assembly Bill 208, people arrested for simple possession would be able to enroll in a drug treatment for six months to a year before formally entering a guilty plea, and if they successfully completed treatment, the courts would wipe the charges from their records.

The bill would address a discrepancy between state law and federal immigration law. Under state drug diversion programs, defendants are required to first plead guilty before opting for treatment. But although successful completion of treatment sees the charges dropped under state law, the charges still stand under federal law, triggering deportation proceedings even if the person has completed treatment and had charges dismissed.

"For those who want to get treatment and get their life right, we should see that with open arms, not see it as a way of deporting somebody," Eggman said.

Eggman authored a similar bill in 2015 that got all the way through the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who worried that it eliminated "the most powerful incentive to stay in treatment -- the knowledge that the judgment will be entered for failure to do so."

In the Trump era, the need for such measures has become even more critical, Eggman said.

"It might be a more complex discussion this year, and it's a discussion we should have," she said. "If our laws are meant to treat everyone the same, then why wouldn't we want that opportunity for treatment available to anyone without risk for deportation?"

Reforming drug laws to reduce criminalization benefits all of us, but in the time of Trump, reforming drug laws is also a means of protecting some of our most vulnerable residents from the knock in the night and expulsion from the country they call home.

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