Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new article in the Los Angeles Times.  Here are excerpts:

Political contributors are not the only ones taking notice of the new realities of the marijuana business, said San Francisco-based ArcView Chief Executive Troy Dayton, who estimated his group would pump about $500,000 into pot this year.  Officeholders and candidates now jostle for the stage at investor meetings, he said. "A little more than a year ago, it would have been worthy of a headline if a sitting politician came to talk to a cannabis group," he said.  "Now they are calling us, asking to speak at our events."

No clearer example of the change exists than the industry's newest full-time lobbyist, Michael Correia.  An advocate for the 300-member National Cannabis Industry Assn., he is a former GOP staffer who worked two years as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that has worked with state lawmakers to block the Affordable Care Act, clean energy incentives and gun restrictions.

"People hear the word 'marijuana' and they think Woodstock, they think tie-dye, they think dreadlocks," the San Diego native said. "It is not. These are legitimate businesses producing revenue, creating jobs. I want to be the face of it. I want to be what Congress sees."

Correia doesn't like to smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said.  And he isn't among those who have been in the trenches for years fighting for legalization.  For him, the work is largely about the federal government unnecessarily stifling an industry's growth. Any conservative, he said, should be troubled when companies can't claim tax deductions or keep cash in banks or provide plants for federal medical research....

Correia's association ... recently formed an alliance with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform. In the fall, Norquist stood at a news conference with a longtime nemesis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the most liberal members of Congress, to promote a measure that would allow marijuana enterprises to deduct business expenses from their taxes.  "Grover's view is government should not pick winners and losers," Correia said. "It is a fairness issue. This resonates with him."

The Marijuana Policy Project recently purchased a building in Washington's vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood, complete with a rooftop deck. On a recent warm evening, it hosted its first fundraiser there for a Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. The next day, Rohrabacher noted the "evil weed" some loiterers had been inhaling outside the building: "They were smoking tobacco," he said.

Rohrabacher is a coauthor of a bill that would require the federal government to defer to state laws that allow marijuana sales. "If it was a secret ballot," he said, "the majority of my Republican friends would vote for it."

March 23, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March madness insights from the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog

Continuing my habit of doing regular round ups of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here is just a sampling of all the exciting mid-March action in recent posts:

March 22, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ACLU of Washington State reports huge drop in low-level marijuana offense court filings after legalization initiative

As detailed in this press release, the ACLU of Washington State has some new data on one criminal justice reality plainly impacted by marijuana reform.  Here are the details:

Passed by Washington voters on November 6, 2012, Initiative 502 legalized marijuana possession for adults age 21 and over when it went into effect 30 days later.  New data show the law is having a dramatic effect on prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses in Washington courts.  The ACLU of Washington’s analysis of court data, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, reveals that filings for low-level marijuana offenses have precipitously decreased from 2009 to 2013:

• 2009 – 7964
• 2010 – 6743
• 2011 – 6879
• 2012 – 5531
• 2013 – 120

“The data strongly suggest that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals – to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources. These resources can now be used for other important public safety concerns,” says Mark Cooke, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Washington....

Although the overall number of low-level marijuana offenses for people age 21 and over has decreased significantly, it appears that racial bias still exists in the system.  An African American adult is still about three times more likely to have a low-level marijuana offense filed against him or her than a white adult.

Initiative 502 legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over.  However, possession of more than an ounce, but no more than 40 grams, remains a misdemeanor.  Exceeding the one-ounce threshold is a likely explanation for the presence of 120 misdemeanor filings against adults in 2013.

A number of folks on this blog who seem opposed to marijuana reform are often quick to (rightly) note that very few people are serving prison sentence for low-level marijuana offenses. But this data provides a notable reminder that, even in a liberal state with medical marijuana legalized, many thousands of persons can still get arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses unless and until a state fully legalizes marijuana possession.

If it is reasonable to estimate that it costs around $2000 to process each of these misdemeanor possession cases (which may be a conservative estimate based on some numbers crunched here), the elimination of over 5,000 pot arrests could be alone saving Washington State more than $10 million each year.  That amount is perhaps not all that much money in a state with a nearly $40 billion annual budget, but it would be enough to double the monies the state spends on a state seed program called "Building for the Arts."   Though my biases are showing here, I generally think citizens are likely to get a better civic return on their tax dollars when state money is spent helping to build for the arts rather than busting a few thousand potheads.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

March 20, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Drug Dealers Aren't to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are."

The title of this post is the provocative headline of this interesting new article from The New Republic. Here is a portion of how the piece gets started:

Heroin epidemics don’t come and go randomly, like the McRib. They have clearly identifiable causes — and in this case, by far the largest cause is doctor -prescribed pills. Every year since 2007, doctors have written more than 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. (Consider that there are 240 million adults in the country.)  And about four in five new heroin addicts report that they got addicted to prescription pills before they ever took heroin....

Most people who try opiates don’t get addicted.  But enough do. Since 2002, the total number of monthly heroin abusers has doubled to 335,000 nationwide.  Some of the addicts get the pills through a well-meaning doctor or dentist, and many others swipe leftover pills from their friends or family members.  The result for an addict is the same: Once the pills or money run out, heroin is still available — and cheap.  At about $10 per hit, it can be half the street cost of pills.

“We seeded the population with opiates,” says Robert DuPont, an addiction doctor who served as drug czar under Presidents Nixon and Ford and who is now a harsh critic of opiate over-prescription.  The supply shock from easy access to prescription drugs has pushed heroin use out of cities and into rural and suburban and middle-class areas. Massachusetts reported a staggering 185 heroin deaths outside its major cities since November, and Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, spent his entire “state-of-the-state” address talking about the nearly eightfold increase in people seeking opiate treatment there since 2000.  “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said.

In addition to providing an important reminder about the dynamic (and sometimes unpredictable) intersection of medical care, drug abuse and the "war on drugs," this piece also suggests a reason why we might not want to readily assume (or trust) that the medical profession will be an effective and healthy intermediary when debating how best to reform marijuana laws and regulate the use of cannabis-based products as a pain relievers.

March 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2014

Who will create an astute marijuana litigation and legal practice blog?

Regular readers know that I have long covered marijuana laws, policies and reform advocacy here because I see so many crime and punishment issues intersecting with the drug war generally and criminal justice approaches to marijuana specifically.   And, last year, I felt compelled to start a new blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, in part because there were so many broader issues of public policy implicated by modern marijuana reform efforts: as I have said in my marijuana seminar course description, "contemporary state-level reforms of marijuana laws have raised significant new constitutional, legal, political and practical issues; policy concerns relating to states' rights, local government law, race, gender, public health, crime, political economy, and bioethics intersect with modern marijuana law reform." 

Now, as the title of this post suggests and largely thanks to some terrific guest blogging by Alex Kreit over at MLP&R, I think the time may be right for an enterprising lawyer and/or law firm to start a blog focused particularly on marijuana-related litigation and emerging legal practice issues surrounding this new industry.  I say this based in part on these four new recent posts over at MLP&R which highlight the array of diverse issues and courts now dealing with dynamic marijuana-related litigation:

In this post a few months ago, I speculated that green (i.e., young/junior) lawyers may have a uniquely important role to play in the emerging marijuana green rush industry: not only may veteran lawyers be cautious and concerned about representing persons actively involved in state marijuana business, but marijuana reform often seems a "young man's game" for which junior lawyers may be uniquely positioned to be of service to persons needing legal help in this arena.  Now I am thinking, based in part on the posts above, that an especially effective way for a young lawyer or small law firm to make a name here (and to learn a whole lot) would be to start blogging astutely about the emerging challenges and opportunities that surround marijuana litigation and legal practice.

March 14, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 09, 2014

This week's review of marijuana reform news and notes

I continue to make a habit of doing a weekly round up of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform because here continue to be so many developments in that realm that ought to be of great interest to senencing fans.  For example, Alex Kreit has a new post at MLP&R, Race, marijuana enforcement and legalization, which astutely observes that "though the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color, it seems the emerging marijuana industry is largely white." For more discussion of this insight and others, here are links to some notable recent posts:  

March 9, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Conservative committee opens door to medical marijuana for Florida," a notable swing/southern state now has a number of notable legislators talking in notable ways about marijuana reform.  Here are excerpts:

One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family, only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.

Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the surly Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues Wednesday to pass out the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.

The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, was a historic moment for the conservatives in the GOP-dominated House. It was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product. “That’s because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can’t just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you’re either for it or against it,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill after the emotional hearing. “Not all marijuana is created equally.”

The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate president Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt’s father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step. “Here I am, a conservative Republican but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times....

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable. Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of “brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease” but continued to ban the substance. “Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren’t criminals in seeking treatment I’m entitled too,” Hood said.

Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome. “We’ve got a plant here on God’s green earth that’s got a stigma to it — but it’s got a medical value,” Eagle said, “I don’t want to look into their eyes and say I’m sorry we can’t help you,” he said. “We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was “in support.” The bi-partisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth. “We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,” he said. “It’s very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life.”

The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor. She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: “I can’t imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you.” But, she said the bill had “serious problems.” It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm. “I really think we need to address this using science,” Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. “This bill takes a step in the right direction … but it’s not quite there.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Another review of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

Another week of interesting developments covered at  Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seems to justify linking to some higlights:

March 1, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seeking a (much?) broader perspective on the modern marijuana reform movement

Today's New York Times has this notable new front-page article headlined "Pivotal Point Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana."  Here are some excerpts:

A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use. That has set up a watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol.

Demonstrating how marijuana is no longer a strictly partisan issue, the two states considered likeliest this year to follow Colorado and Washington in outright legalization of the drug are Oregon, dominated by liberal Democrats, and Alaska, where libertarian Republicans hold sway.

Advocates of more lenient marijuana laws say they intend to maintain the momentum from their successes, heartened by national and statewide polls showing greater public acceptance of legalizing marijuana, President Obama’s recent musings on the discriminatory effect of marijuana prosecutions and the release of guidelines by his Treasury Department intended to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses.

Their opponents, though, who also see this as a crucial year, are just as keen to slow the legalization drives. They are aided by a wait-and-see attitude among many governors and legislators, who seem wary of pushing ahead too quickly without seeing how the rollout of legal marijuana works in Colorado and Washington. “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is spearheading much of the effort to stop these initiatives. “We could stop that momentum.”...

At least 14 states — including Florida, where an initiative has already qualified for the ballot — are considering new medical marijuana laws this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization, and 12 states and the District of Columbia are contemplating decriminalization, in which the drug remains illegal, but the penalties are softened or reduced to fines. Medical marijuana use is already legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

An even larger number of states, at least 17, have seen bills introduced or initiatives begun to legalize the drug for adult use along the lines of alcohol, the same approach used in Colorado and Washington, but most of those efforts are considered unlikely of success this year.

The allure of tax revenues is also becoming a powerful selling point in some states, particularly after Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said last week that taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year, much higher than had been predicted when the measure was passed in 2012....

Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, are mobilizing across the country to slow the momentum, keeping a sharp eye on Colorado for any problems in the rollout of the new law there. “Legalization almost had to happen in order for people to wake up and realize they don’t want it,” Mr. Sabet said. “In a strange way, we feel legalization in a few states could be a blessing.”...

While much of the recent attention has focused on these legalization efforts, medical marijuana may also cross what its backers consider an important threshold this year — most notably in the South where Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states considering such laws....

Election data, compiled by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, showed that the percentage of the vote that came from people under 30 increased significantly from 2008 to 2012 in states that had marijuana initiatives. This youth vote, predominantly Democratic, rose to 20 percent from 14 percent in Colorado, and to 22 percent from 10 percent in Washington, both far above the 1 percent rise in the national youth vote....

A narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe marijuana should be legal, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, matching the result in a CBS News poll the previous month. In 1979, when The Times and CBS first asked the question, only 27 percent wanted cannabis legalized. There were stark differences in the new poll, though. While 72 percent of people under 30 favored legalization, only 29 percent of those over 65 agreed.  And while about a third of Republicans now favored legalization, this was far below the 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents who did so....

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for legalizing marijuana, said campaigns were already underway to stage aggressive legalization drives in several states over the next couple of years, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and possibly Montana. “It is certainly important to maintain the momentum,” Mr. Tvert said,  “But I don’t think we can look at any one election cycle and see what the future holds. This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

I do not disagree with the general view that 2014 is a "watershed year" concerning discussion and debate over marijuana reform (and this was one big reason I developed a taught a seminar on the topic at my law school last Fall). But, as the title of this post highlights, I have come to believe that a much broader set of social and political forces help account for modern marijuana reform movement. The forces include, inter alia, a growing distrust of all government among both left-leaning and right-leaning opinion leaders over the last 15 years, growing evidence that the many aspects of the drug war may do more harm than some drugs, the failure of Big Pharma to provide effective pain relief (without too many side effects) to many who suffer from a range of serious medial problems, and changing labor and economic realities that change to cost/benefit realities of pot prohibition versus pot regulation.

I am happy to see the front-page of the NY Times discuss the various 2014 short-term realities that may impact marijuana reform over the next few years. But I would be especially eager to hear from readers concerning what they think are broader social and political forces that will shape these stories over the next few decades.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two notable new commentaries via HuffPost

Though they both both likely merit their own posts, I will have to be content on this busy hump-day afternoon to just provide links to, and recommend folks read in full, these two new commentary pieces at The Huffington Post:

February 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 24, 2014

Attention 2016 Prez candidates: new poll says 87% in Ohio support use of medical marijuana

One of many reasons I thought Colorado's 2012 vote to legalize marijuana was such a big deal is because the Mile High state is something of a swing state in the national race for President and thus all 2016 candidate for Prez will need to have a somewhat more refined message on marijuana come the next national election than other recent candidates.  Additional reasons why would-be candidates for the Oval Office need to start working on their pot platform has emerged today via this new about a new poll from the ultimate swing state:

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approve of medicinal marijuana and narrowly support same-sex marriage, according to a poll released Monday.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters found 87 percent support the use of medical marijuana while only 11 percent oppose. Ohio voters also narrowly approve of allowing adults to possess small amounts of the drug for personal use -- 51 percent in favor, 44 percent opposed. Two medical marijuana proposals are in the works, but it's unclear whether either will collect the more-than 385,000 signatures of valid Ohio voters required to put the issue before voters in November.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C. allow for medical marijuana programs and Colorado and Washington voters gave the green light for legal recreational use in 2012. Ohio voters say Colorado's legalization is bad for the state's image, with 37 percent of those polled saying it helps the state.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said Ohioans' views of marijuana are complicated. "Twice as many voters think alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, and about half the state's voters think the two are equally harmful," Brown said in a statement.

Support is strongest among voters age 18 to 29, who approve of personal marijuana use 72 percent to 25 percent, but boomers and Gen-Xers say they've tried marijuana at a higher rate than younger voters.  More than half of Ohio voters -- 55 percent -- say they've never tried marijuana.

The poll surveyed 1,370 registered Ohio voters from Feb. 12-17 on land lines and cell phones, and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

For a bunch of reasons, I think all polling numbers concerning views on marijuana are subject to lots of "noise" based on how the poll questions are posed. And, of course, at least until the 2014 mid-term elections take place, it is way too early to make too many predictions about 2016 candidates and issues. Nevertheless, these latest poll numbers from Ohio reinforce my view that the 2016 Prez campaign is sure to have a lot more serious and sophisticated discussion of federal marijuana laws, policies and practices than any other election cycle in memory.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 24, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Another weekend review of news and notes from the modern marijuana movement

I have not done a round up for posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in a few weeks, so here goes:

UPDATE: This new lengthy Washington Post piece provides some historical perspective on all the modern developments discussed above. The piece is headlined "Marijuana’s rising acceptance comes after many failures. Is it now legalization’s time?," and here are its final two paragraphs:

As the rhetorical battle continues and politicians remain cautious about speaking out on marijuana, the facts on the ground are changing fast. The Cannabis Cup, an open-air marketplace the size of two football fields in the San Bernardino Valley, featured open consumption of pot-infused sodas, candies and cookies and displays of whole marijuana plants — staged with virtually no controversy.

“Generations coming up now don’t see what the big deal is,” says Brian Wansolich, 39, wearing a white coat emblazoned with the logo of his online cannabis ratings service, Leafly. “My parents still have moral problems with it, but now they see we can tax this and get states out of trouble. It’s the American way.”

February 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 21, 2014

How might opponents of marijuana reform want Colorado to spend its $100 million in new annual tax revenue?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable tax revenue news emerging from Colorado as reported in this New York Times piece headlined "Colorado Expects to Reap Tax Bonanza From Legal Marijuana Sales." Here are the basics (with some of the existing state spending plans highlighted):

For Colorado’s new flock of recreational marijuana growers and sellers, Thursday was Tax Day — their first deadline to hand over the taxes they had collected during their inaugural month of sales. And as store owners stuffed cash into lockboxes and made the nervous trek to government offices, new budget numbers predicted that those marijuana taxes could add more than $100 million a year to state coffers, far more than earlier estimates.

The figures offered one of the first glimpses into how the bustling market for recreational marijuana was beginning to reshape government bottom lines — an important question as marijuana advocates push to expand legalization beyond Colorado and Washington State into states including Arizona, Alaska and Oregon.

In Colorado, where recreational sales began on Jan. 1 with hourlong waits, a budget proposal from Gov. John W. Hickenlooper estimated that the state’s marijuana industry could reach $1 billion in sales in the next fiscal year, with recreational sales making up about $610 million of that business. “It’s well on its way to being a billion-dollar industry,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a Colorado trade association. “We went from 110,000 medical marijuana patients to four billion people in the world who are 21 and up.”

In the budget proposal that Mr. Hickenlooper released Wednesday, his office said the state could collect about $134 million in taxes from recreational and medical marijuana for the fiscal year beginning in July. He proposed to spend $99 million on programs including substance-abuse treatment, preventing marijuana use by children and teenagers, public health and law enforcement.  “This package represents a strong yet cautious first step toward ensuring a safe and responsible regulatory environment,” Mr. Hickenlooper wrote in the proposal.

In Washington, where retail sales of marijuana are expected to begin in June, budget forecasters estimated Wednesday that marijuana could bring the state nearly $190 million in taxes for the four years beginning in the middle of 2015. That money would go to a variety of health and substance-abuse programs, and the state’s general fund. “Every governor and legislator in the country will be like, ‘Hey, check out these numbers,’ ” said Reuven Carlyle, a Democratic state lawmaker from Seattle who is chairman of the House Finance Committee.

For marijuana advocates, taxes were one of the major selling points of legalization. They have said that expanding the market for the federally prohibited plant could give states money for school construction, health care, substance-abuse programs and public health. Colorado’s legalization measure said $40 million in tax revenue would go toward school construction, and in November, voters across this otherwise tax-averse state overwhelmingly approved 25 percent taxes on recreational marijuana.

But opponents, and some skeptical economists, say the dreams of a windfall are far too optimistic. They worry that the higher costs of enforcement and regulation could outweigh any tax revenue from marijuana sales.

Officials in Colorado and Washington warned that the marijuana revenue numbers were only their best guesses for the moment and could shift, depending on marijuana prices, demand, the number of cities that prohibit marijuana retailers and other factors. In Washington, where retail sales have not begun, Mr. Carlyle said it was far too early to say how marijuana might affect the state’s pocketbook.

As this article suggests, it is likely far too early to assume that Colorado can expect to reap $100 million in extra tax revenues every year in the future. But it is now plainly not too early to start a robust discussion — in which I want marijuana reform opponents to play a leading role — about the best ways for the new state tax revenue from marijuana legalization to be used.

Given the limited evidence of success for youth drug education programs like DARE, I am not sure it is wise to invest too much of the new state money on programming to prevent marijuana use by children and teenagers. But I do think spending more money on law enforcement and public health and substance-abuse programs is a great idea, and I would expect that some very significant public safety (and other) benefits ought to be achievable with $100 million in extra tax revenues to spend on such programming.

I suspect fierce opponents of marijuana reform have a much different perspective than I have about the needs of a state like Colorado and its local communities as it move forward with its experiments in ending pot prohibition. Ergo, I am genuinely hopeful that readers deeply concerned with what is unfolding in Colorado and Washington and other states will express their views on how communities ought to be using its new tax revenues.

February 21, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer?

The question in the title of this post might be a bit of foolish wishful thinking on my part, but these passages from this notable new New York Times article provides the foundation for my (undue?) optimism:

[S]cience’s answers to crucial questions about driving while stoned — how dangerous it is, how to test for impairment, and how the risks compare to driving drunk — have been slow to reach the general public.  “Our goal is to put out the science and have it used for evidence-based drug policy,” said Marilyn A. Huestis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  “But I think it’s a mishmash.”

A 2007 study found that 12 percent of the drivers randomly stopped on American highways on Friday and Saturday nights had been drinking.  (In return for taking part in the study, intoxicated drivers were told they would not be arrested, just taken home.)  Six percent of the drivers tested positive for marijuana — a number that is likely to go up with increased availability.  Some experts and officials are concerned that the campaign against drunken driving has not gotten through to marijuana smokers.

“We’ve done phone surveys, and we’re hearing that a lot of people think D.U.I. laws don’t apply to marijuana,” said Glenn Davis, highway safety manager at the Department of Transportation in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use became legal on Jan. 1. “And there’s always somebody who says, ‘I drive better while high.’ ”

Evidence suggests that is not the case. But it also suggests that we may not have as much to fear from stoned driving as from drunken driving.  Some researchers say that limited resources are better applied to continuing to reduce drunken driving.  Stoned driving, they say, is simply less dangerous.

Still, it is clear that marijuana use causes deficits that affect driving ability, Dr. Huestis said.  She noted that several researchers, working independently of one another, have come up with the same estimate: a twofold increase in the risk of an accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream....

The estimate is low, however, compared with the dangers of drunken driving. A recent study of federal crash data found that 20-year-old drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit for driving — had an almost 20-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident compared with sober drivers. For older adults, up to age 34, the increase was ninefold.

The study’s lead author, Eduardo Romano, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that once he adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana did not statistically increase the risk of a crash. “Despite our results, I still think that marijuana contributes to crash risk,” he said, “only that its contribution is not as important as it was expected.”

The difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things, Dr. Huestis and Dr. Romano both say. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones, and they have different deficits. Drunken drivers tend to drive faster than normal and to overestimate their skills, studies have shown; the opposite is true for stoned drivers. “The joke with that is Cheech and Chong being arrested for doing 20 on the freeway,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the U.C.L.A. School of Public Affairs....

Another factor is location. A lot of drinking is done in bars and clubs, away from home, with patrons driving to get there and then leaving by car. By contrast, marijuana smokers tend to get high at home....

All of these facts lead experts like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman to believe that public resources are better spent combating drunken driving. Stoned driving, they say, is best dealt with by discouraging people from mixing marijuana and alcohol — a combination that is even riskier than alcohol alone — and by policies that minimize marijuana’s risk on the road.

For instance, states that legalize recreational marijuana, Dr. Kleiman said, should ban establishments like pot bars that encourage people to smoke away from home. And Dr. Romano said that lowering the legal blood-alcohol concentration, or B.A.C., to 0.05 or even 0.02 percent would reduce risk far more effectively than any effort to curb stoned driving. “I’m not saying marijuana is safe,” he said. “But to me it’s clear that lowering the B.A.C. should be our top priority. That policy would save more lives.”

My supposition based on this article that marijuana reforms could end up making our roadways much safer is a result of two potential impacts of ending pot prohibition: (1) if marijuana reform leads a number of people who would generally go get drunk at a bar to instead now just get stoned at home, the net effect will be safer roads, and (2) if enduring concerns about the impact of marijuana reform leads more policy-makers to focus on highway harms, we might see a greater effort to get much tougher on the enduring public safety disaster that is drinking and driving.

I am not expecting that we will get strong evidence that marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer anytime soon, but I am hopeful that researchers like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman continue to stress that our modern alcohol policies and practices now impact highway safety much more than any marijuana reforms are likely to do. And, as these related recent articles also highlight, the media so far is doing a pretty good job defusing the risk of misguided reefer madness when it comes to driving under the influence:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 18, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 14, 2014

Feds give guidance to financial institutions about providing services to marijuana-related businesses

As reported in this lengthy new Denver Post article, headlined "Feds give historic green light to banks working with marijuana businesses," today brought another remarkable and remarkably important new development in the arena of marijuana law, policy and reform. Here are the basics:

Banks were given a green light Friday to offer services to the legal marijuana industry, but must continue to report any suspicious activity specific to that industry to federal authorities.

The historic step brings marijuana businesses closer to legitimacy in states where pot is already legal, but it falls short of the legislative action many banks want to see before doing business with marijuana operators. That will be up to Congress to consider.

In a joint statement, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, said the move gives "greater financial transparency" to an industry that remains illegal in nearly every state. It also makes clear that banks would be helping law enforcement with "information that is particularly valuable" in filing regular reports that offer insights about how marijuana businesses work.

"Law enforcement will now have greater insight into marijuana business activity generally," FinCEN said in a news release, "and will be able to focus on activity that presents high-priority concerns." Banks currently must file a suspicious activity report any time they suspect a transaction has a drug connection. Under the new guidance, banks would have three tiers of SARs specific to marijuana businesses dependent on levels of concern.... The marijuana-specific reports are either "marijuana limited," "marijuana priority," and "marijuana termination," which identifies the business as operating normally or having some measure of truly suspicious activity.

Colorado-based U.S. Attorney John Walsh said the guidance clarifies how law enforcement and banking will approach what's been a sticky issue. The "guidance seeks to mitigate the public safety concerns created by high-volume cash-based businesses without access to banking and the financial system, while at the same time ensuring that criminal organizations, gangs and drug cartels do not have access to the financial system to launder criminal proceeds," Walsh said in a statement.

Colorado and Washington are the only states to allow legal recreational marijuana sales while 20 about others allow medical marijuana. "Now that some states have elected to legalize and regulate the marijuana trade, FinCEN seeks to move from the shadows the historically covert financial operations of marijuana businesses," FinCEN director Jennifer Shasky Calvery said in a statement.... "Clearly it is possible to provide financial services to state-regulated marijuana businesses and comply with the Bank Secrecy Act requirements," the FinCEN official said.

The fledgling industry saw a lack of banking and credit card services — not all are without it, though most are — as its most serious problem, particularly because it essentially forced those businesses into a cash-only system. That made for ripe targets and worried business owners, law enforcement and patrons.

Colorado's medical marijuana industry last year contributed more than $9 million in state sales tax revenues — all of it banked at JPMorgan Chase, one of three to hold a contract for state deposits. Although JPM happily accepts state funds derived from recreational marijuana proceeds, it will not say whether the government's announcement will induce it to bank with those businesses directly.

The latest guidance, as with three previous memos issued by the Justice Department, doesn't carry the same force as law, and bankers are quick to point that out. ...

Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade organization for cannabis stores, said his group is happy the federal government saw the need for marijuana businesses to have banking services. But Elliott said the memo shouldn't be the final word and said federal law still must be changed to give banks greater confidence in working with the industry. "These memos certainly help and provide some cover but ultimately do not solve all the problems," Elliott said. "So I think we're waiting here to see what the banks' reactions are."

The FinCEN memo is available at this link, and here is how its seven, dense pages get started:

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) is issuing guidance to clarify Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) expectations for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana-related businesses.  FinCEN is issuing this guidance in light of recent state initiatives to legalize certain marijuana-related activity and related guidance by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) concerning marijuana-related enforcement priorities.  This FinCEN guidance clarifies how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses consistent with their BSA obligations, and aligns the information provided by financial institutions in BSA reports with federal and state law enforcement priorities.  This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.

February 14, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Two physicians highlight why medical science makes it important to re-schedule marijuana

Orrin Devinsky and Daniel Friedman, two physicians at the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, provide an informative and sober discussion of medical marijuana issues and research problems in this New York Times op-ed headlined "We Need Proof on Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

Many people have heard the story of Charlotte Figi, a young girl from Colorado with severe epilepsy. After her parents began giving her a marijuana strain rich in cannabidiol (CBD), the major nonpsychoactive ingredient in marijuana, Charlotte reportedly went from having hundreds of seizures per week to only two or three per month.  Previously, her illness, Dravet Syndrome, was a daily torture despite multiple high doses of powerful anti-seizure drugs.

As news of Charlotte’s story moved from the Internet to a CNN story by Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Facebook pages, some families of children with similar disorders moved to Colorado, which recently legalized marijuana, to reap what they believe are the benefits of the drug.

Dozens of other anecdotes of miraculous responses to marijuana treatments in children with severe epilepsy are rife on Facebook and other social media, and these reports have aroused outsize hopes and urgent demands.  Based on such reports, patients and parents are finding official and backdoor ways to give marijuana to their children.

But scientific studies have yet to bear out the hopes of these desperate families. The truth is we lack evidence not only for the efficacy of marijuana, but also for its safety. This concern is especially relevant in children, for whom there is good evidence that marijuana use can increase the risk of serious psychiatric disorders and long-term cognitive problems.

The recent wave of state legislatures considering and often approvingmedical marijuana raises significant concerns.  By allowing marijuana therapy for patients with diseases such as difficult-to-control epilepsy, are state legislatures endorsing the medical benefits and safety of a broad range of marijuana species and strains before they have been carefully tested and vetted?  Marijuana contains around 80 cannabinoids (THC is the major psychoactive cannabinoid, largely responsible for the high) and more than 400 other compounds.  The chemical composition of two genetically identical plants can vary based on growing conditions, soil content, parasites and many other factors.

While the language of the legislation may be cautious, there is an implied endorsement of medical benefit for marijuana when a legislature passes a bill and a governor signs it into law, and the tremendous gaps in our knowledge are not effectively conveyed to the public....

Before more children are exposed to potential risks, before more desperate families uproot themselves and spend their life savings on unproven miracle marijuana cures, we need objective data from randomized placebo-controlled trials....

Paradoxically, however, as state governments increasingly make “medical” marijuana available to parents to give to their children, the federal government continues to label the nonpsychoactive CBD — as well as THC — as Schedule 1 drugs.  Such drugs are said to have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”  This designation hamstrings doctors from performing controlled studies.  While it is possible to study Schedule 1 drugs in a controlled laboratory setting, it is extremely difficult to study these substances in patients.  For our study, we keep the CBD in a 1,200-pound safe in a locked room, in a building with an alarm system.

To foster research, we need to change compounds derived from marijuana from Schedule 1 to a less restrictive category.  It is troubling that while few barriers exist for parents to give their children marijuana in Colorado, there are significant federal roadblocks preventing doctors from studying it in a rigorous scientific manner.

When patients have not been able to get successful medical treatment, and they live in a state where the law allows medical marijuana for children — we are not suggesting they smoke the drug — compassionate use is reasonable.  But for the long-term health of Charlotte and other patients like her, we urgently need valid data.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 13, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"High Times, Westword sue Colorado over marijuana ad restrictions"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new report on the latest notable legal frontier concerning marijuana law and reforms.  Here are the basics:

The publisher of marijuana magazine High Times has sued the state of Colorado in federal court over the state’s rules preventing recreational cannabis businesses from advertising in most publications.  High Times, along with local weekly magazine Westword, filed the lawsuit on Monday.  It marks the first time anyone has challenged the restrictions in court.

The rules allow recreational marijuana businesses to advertise only in publications that are adult-oriented.  According to the state’s rules, recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in a publication that “has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the publication’s readership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.”  There is no such restriction on medical marijuana businesses.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also restrict television, radio and outdoor advertising, are an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.  The magazines are “chilled from soliciting advertisements from prospective clients and prevented from making revenue from clients who wish to engage in advertising concerning marijuana-related products and services,” the lawsuit’s complaint states....

It is also unclear how the suit’s filing in federal court will impact the judge’s assessment of its claim that the ads concern “lawful activity,” since marijuana is illegal federally. But publications have previously had success in federal court in overturning another Colorado marijuana law — one that required marijuana-themed publications to be kept behind the counter at stores.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 12, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

If you like paternalism and hate permissive freedoms and big business...

then you are on the same page as anti-marijuana reformer Patrick Kennedy and Project SAM, as well explained in this amusing and telling segment from last night's Colbert Report.  

Sam-logo-horizAt about the 2:20 mark of the clip linked above, Kennedy explains he is a "a good liberal Democrat" who "does not like big business" and fears that this new industry will start selling lots of products that people will want to buy with THC in it.  And just after the six-minute mark, Kennedy explains that he is "worried about the future of our country" because the permissive environment created by marijuana legalization might lead to stressed kids thinking they should consider using marijuana "which might in the short run make them feel better but in the long run will cost them and our country."

Though it is dangerous easy to make fun of big government paternalists like Kennedy, I am truly sympathetic to his concerns and I am glad he is giving voice to reasonable anti-reform views.  But I also think he fails to recognize (1) that big business can actually do a lot of good when incentivized to develop and market "safer" vice products that people would otherwise get from the black market, and (2) that pot prohibition (especially with its inevitable big-government criminal-justice support system) ends up costing a lot of kids in both the short run and the long run.

That all said, I am glad this debate is going on in a variety of media forums.  I am also glad to see, as evidenced by this local article from Florida, that for some parents with ill kids, supporting marijuana reform is actually a better way to be paternalistic in the healthy version of that trait:

Several efforts to legalize medical marijuana are gaining momentum in both Florida and Georgia.  Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are proposing bills that would legalize a different form of cannabis, giving medical patients an alternative treatment. And in November, Floridians will be able to vote in a statewide referendum.

Medicinal marijuana has yet to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and opponents argue more tests and studies need to be done proving its medical benefits. Yet there are parents willing to take a chance on this alternative form of medicine with their children, saying it's their last hope.

In December of 2013, Cathy Klein, along with thousands of volunteers worked feverishly to collect enough signatures to get medical marijuana on Florida's November ballot. Now, two months later she says, "I know in my heart it's going to be legalized."  Nearly 700,000 signatures collected and validated, the decision is now in the hands of Florida voters. At the same time, state lawmakers in both Florida and Georgia are working towards finding their version of a solution for sick patients.

In Georgia HB 885, known as "Haleigh's Hope" would utilize academic medical centers in state, allowing them to study marijuana in a controlled clinical setting.  Monday, Florida State Representatives Jeff Clemens and Joe Saunders held a press conference supporting the Cathy Jordan Medical Cannabis Act, which would create a medicinal marijuana program that allows access to cannabis for medical treatment. It would also regulate when and how it can be cultivated, dispensed, and used.

House Bill 843, Klein says is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Her 9-year-old son Sean endures several seizures every single day.  "I am very excited," said Klein. "That is our golden ticket right there. That is what we're after, is Charlotte's Web for Sean."

The measure would legalize an extract of a cannabis strain known as Charlotte's Web. Proponents say it reduces seizures in children with severe forms of epilepsy.  "It makes me tear up to think about it," said Klein. "To have a day where he doesn't have seizures would be so huge."

Florida Governor Rick Scott has opposed the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes in state. Some opponents say it's dangerous and addictive. Still, parents like Klein say they're willing to take a chance.  "I don't remember his personality anymore," said Klein about her son. "He's been on seizure medications for so long. It would just be nice to get my child back."

February 11, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Another week of news and notes via "Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform"

Another Sunday afternoon provides another opportunity to provide a sampling of some recent posts from the week just past from my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog:

February 9, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Is there a faith-based perspective on modern marijuana laws and reforms?

God potThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article from the Washington Post headlined "Faith leaders wrestle over growing support for marijuana." Here are excerpts:

Sunday’s Super Bowl was dubbed by some as the “pot bowl,” as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks hail from the two states where fans can soon get marijuana as easily as they can get pizza. As public opinion has shifted in support of legalized marijuana, religious leaders are wrestling over competing interests, including high prison rates and legislating morality.

According to a 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of white mainline Protestants and 54 percent of black Protestants favor legalizing the use of marijuana. On the other side, nearly seven-in-10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose it.

Catholics appear to be the most divided Christian group, with 48 percent favoring legalization and 50 percent opposing it. Opinions on how states should handle those who possess or sell marijuana varies among Christian leaders.

Caught in the middle of the debate are pastors, theologians and other religious leaders, torn over how to uphold traditional understandings of sin and morality amid a rapidly changing tide of public opinion.

Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for several prominent evangelicals including Franklin Graham and Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, admits he takes a view that might not be held by most Christian leaders. “When 50 percent of our prison beds are occupied by nonviolent offenders, we have prison overcrowding problems and violent offenders serving shortened sentences, I have a problem with incarceration for possession of marijuana,” he said. “None of that’s to say I favor free and rampant marijuana use. I don’t think it’s the most serious blight on America.”

Alcohol abuse, he said, is a much more serious issue. President Obama suggested something similar to The New Yorker recently when he said that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol.

But don’t expect pastors to start preaching in line with DeMoss, who said he has not seen much comment from religious leaders on the issue. “If a pastor said some of what I said, there would be some who would feel the pastor was compromising on a moral issue,” he said. “No one wants to risk looking like they’re in favor of marijuana. I’m not in favor, but I think we should address how high of a priority it should be.”...

Laws on marijuana have disproportionately impacted minorities, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “There are community programs that can better engage young people than incarceration,” he said. “Many black and brown lives are destroyed because of incarceration.”...

Most Christians are still reluctant to favor legalization, Rodriguez said, since the effects of marijuana aren’t much different from getting drunk, which is a biblical no-no. “It has the ability of diluting reason, behavior, putting your guard down,” he said. “We are temples of God’s Holy Spirit, and it has the ability of hindering a clear thought process.”

Some who favor legalized marijuana liken the Christians who oppose it to be like the early 20th-century evangelicals and fundamentalists who supported a federal prohibition on alcohol. Part of a move in the Republican Party toward a loosening on marijuana legislation could be coming from people who also would sympathize with the Tea Party, said Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“I definitely think there’s been a coalition of ‘leave us alone’ libertarians and Woodstock nation progressives on this issue of marijuana,” Moore said. “I do think there has been an effort to stigmatize those with concerns as Carrie Nations holding on to prohibition.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Super Sunday of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

As some readers may already know, my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog is really super interesting now that great set of guest-bloggers adding their insights and perspectives.  And, as anyone who has been keeping up with the broader news the last, discussion of marijuana issues has been super dynamic with the biggest annual US sporting event involving two teams from states at the forefront of marijuana reform.  So, I figured I could gear up for the big game not only with a new post at MLP&R that provides lots of Super Sunday stories about marijuana and the Super Bowl, but also with another of my usual reviews of some of recent posts from MLP&R, many of which have a football theme and many of which should also be of interest to sentencing fans: 

February 2, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Football, Pain and Marijuana"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, in which it so happens both teams hail from states that recently legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, pressure is mounting on the [NFL] to reconsider its ban. A group called the Marijuana Policy Project has even bought space on five billboards in New Jersey, where the game will take place on Sunday, asking why the league disallows a substance that, the group says, is less harmful than alcohol.

It’s a fair question. Marijuana isn’t a performance-enhancing drug, for starters, and more than 20 states have legalized it for medical purposes. The league would merely be catching up to contemporary practice by creating a medical exception.

At a news conference on Jan. 7, the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, did not rule out a change in policy. “I don’t know what’s going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries,” he said, “but we will continue to support the evolution of medicine.” On Jan. 23, he said the league would “follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that.” There is, in fact, a body of evidence indicating a “proper usage”: one of particular relevance to a hard-hitting, injury-riddled sport.

“Cannabinoids,” the Institute of Medicine reported in 1999, “can have a substantial analgesic effect.” N.F.L. medical experts obviously aren’t convinced, but N.F.L. players seem to be. HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” estimated in January that 50 to 60 percent of players smoked marijuana, many to manage pain.

Players, of course, have access to other painkillers, including prescription drugs. Yet as former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders has argued, “marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day.” As public opinion and state laws move away from strict prohibition, it’s reasonable for the N.F.L. to do the same and let its players deal with their injuries as they — and their private doctors — see fit.

Some recent related posts via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

January 31, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What are the virtues and vices of criminal justice localism ... especially with respect to pot prohibition?

The question in the title of this post is an effort to encourage input on the broader questions raised by a mini-debate that Rob Mikos and I are now having over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.  I started the discussion with a post suggesting advocates of marijuana reform should be pleased localities in Colorado and Washington and elsewhere can preserve pot prohibition in their community, and Rob explained why he disagreed in a subsequent post.  Here are links to these posts:

Informed sentencing fans and advocates know, of course, that these local control and related localism issues are not unique to modern marijuana reform movements. Concerns about how local officials apply or resist state-wide laws are often raised in the context of (1) the death penalty, where we often see wide variations in when and how local DAs pursue capital charges, and (2) sex offender regulations, where we often see local laws limiting where registered sex offenders can live or can go.

As a general fan of criminal justice federalism and localized democracy, I often see the virtues of letting localities have some significant control over how controversial and contestable state-wide criminal justice policies get applied in individual communities. That said, I also can see the vices of letting each and every county or neighborhood adopt and enforce its own particularized criminal code. Ergo, I am interested in reader insights of the question of criminal justice localism, perhaps with special focus on marijuana reform but also with respect to other prominent modern sentencing issues as well.

January 29, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 27, 2014

After split state Supreme Court decision, Florida becomes next state to watch closely concerning pot reform politics

As reported in this lengthy and effective Miami Herald article, which is headlined "Medical marijuana headed to Florida ballot after Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision," the Sunshine State is now the place to watch for both supporters and opponents of modern marijuana reform movements. Here are the basics:

Florida voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana for medical use, after the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that a proposed constitutional amendment won’t mislead people when they go to the polls in the Nov. 4 elections.

“Voters are given fair notice as to the chief purpose and scope of the proposed amendment, which is to allow a restricted use of marijuana for certain ‘debilitating’ medical conditions,” the court said in a 4-3 ruling that split liberals and conservatives. “We therefore reject the opponents’ assertion that the amendment ‘would allow far wider marijuana use than the ballot title and summary reveal.’”

By going to such great and explicit lengths in knocking down a core objection to the amendment, the justices dealt a serious blow to the talking points of opponents who called the measure a type of backdoor legalization that allows for “unfettered” marijuana use for minor ailments.

Leading the opposition: Attorney General Pam Bondi, state House Speaker Will Weatherford, state Senate President Don Gaetz and many conservative-leaning lobby groups based in the state Capitol. Gov. Rick Scott also opposes the medical marijuana amendment.

Democratic governor candidates Charlie Crist and Nan Rich support the amendment, as does Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie. The amendment draws strong bipartisan support from voters right now, according to polls, so the effect it will have on the governor’s race is debatable.

A host of polls show Florida's measure would pass right now, with one survey showing support as high as 82 percent. The most recent Public Policy Polling survey gauged voter support at 65 percent. If the amendment passes — for which it needs 60 percent of the vote — Florida would become the 21st state plus the District of Columbia to decriminalize marijuana for medical use. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

The citizens’ group pushing the amendment, People United for Medical Marijuana, pointed out that the Florida Legislature, led by Republicans, has repeatedly blocked medical-marijuana efforts from even getting a hearing in the state Capitol until recently.

Opponents say medical marijuana is a first step toward legalizing marijuana in general and they opposed Florida’s measure because they said it would trick voters into legalizing pot under the guise of helping sick people. One of the most conservative members of the court, Chief Justice Ricky Polston, echoed the arguments of opponents — sure to be amplified on the campaign trail — in saying the proposal is designed to “hide the ball” from voters....

With the amendment on the ballot in the gubernatorial election year, consultants and voting experts say it's an open question about whether it will help Democrats or hurt Republicans.

Prior state constitutional amendments had no discernable impact on other statewide races. A successful 2010 anti-gerrymandering amendment pushed by liberal groups in Florida did nothing to stop conservatives from racking up historic wins that year. And a successful 2008 amendment banning gay marriage that conservatives drafted did nothing to stop President Obama and Democrats from making big gains....

Despite clearing the tall hurdles of collecting signatures and arguing the case before the Supreme Court, People United and its backers know they're in for a difficult fight. Morgan said he believes the pharmaceutical and the corrections industries might try to defeat the amendment. The Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Association of Chiefs of Police, which tried to stop the amendment in court, plans to step up its criticisms through the year.

“This medical marijuana initiative is a fraud that’s being perpetuated against the compassionate people of the state of Florida — it is not about helping people,”' said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, president of the Florida Sheriff's Association. “It’s about legalizing marijuana for recreational use.” He said anecdotal evidence from states that have passed similar provisions shows “people have been able to receive recommendations for medical marijuana for menstrual cramps, back pain, and test anxiety.”

The amendment names nine specific medical conditions: cancer, glaucoma, human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. But physicians could recommend marijuana for other ailments if, after conducting an examination, they determine cannabis would help patients more than it would hurt them.

To opponents, that last clause allowing for medical marijuana in unspecified cases was a major loophole that could allow the “unfettered” prescribing of the drug. In at least two states — Washington and Colorado — the legalization of medical marijuana was a precursor to outright marijuana decriminalization. In both cases, voters decided the laws. Unlike Florida, those states don’t require super-majority votes of the citizenry to pass laws.

Recent state and national polls have shown that support for medical marijuana has increased, as well as support for complete legalization of cannabis. If the amendment passes, qualifying patients and doctors would receive instant protection from prosecution or punishment in most cases. But the Department of Health has six to nine months to make rules governing finer points of the program. The amendment does not give people permission to grow marijuana.

As support increased and People United showed signs of success, state lawmakers began giving more consideration to proposal for limited of medical cannabis, after years of quashing discussion of the issue. That limited proposal is aimed at a niche strain of marijuana called “Charlotte’s Web” that contains a low level of high-inducing THC and a stronger level of a substance called CBD, which parents and physicians say helps prevent severe epileptic attacks, especially in children.

But that legislative proposal, which is being resisted by some Republican leaders, is far more limited in scope than the proposed constitutional amendment. After repeatedly sponsoring medical-marijuana proposals in the Legislature, state Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, recently joined with Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz — the Senate president’s son — to push the Charlotte’s Web proposal.

The full Supreme Court of Florida ruling on the ballot initiative than was handed down today runs 84 pages and can be accessed at this link.

January 27, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 23, 2014

"How Colleges Are Preparing Students for a Country Where Pot Is Legal"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article appearing in The Atlantic.  I am pleased that my law school seminar, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is discussed in the piece, and I am even more pleased to learn from the article that at least one other law school is now innovating in this interesting new legal space:

Professors who found an intersection between the cannabis issue and their own area of study are not the only ones pushing to introduce cannabis to higher education. Rehman Bhalesha, a South Texas College of Law student, approached the dean about wanting to establish a drug policy institute at the law school that concentrated on the legalization of cannabis. Instead, the school started a collaboration with Rice University's Baker Institute, which already focused on drug policy. The first class at South Texas College of Law, which covered cannabis legislation, was taught last spring semester. It is offered again this semester.

“Internally, the administration is really thrilled about it because it’s something innovative. And the students are excited because they get to feel like they’re putting their legal knowledge to use and to do something that might have a lasting impact in the real world. They’re not just taking exams and doing make-believe projects. We’re taking what they draft and turning it over to people who have been approached by state legislators asking for ideas,” said Dru Stevenson, the professor who teaches the legislation course.

Students in the legislation class have a range of personal feelings about cannabis. Some feel all drugs should be legalized, others think cannabis should be legalized for medical purposes only, while a few others think all drugs are bad. But Stevenson said even those who think no one should ever consume cannabis recognize the trend toward relaxing cannabis laws from a historical perspective.

“I teach a lot of courses, but I’ve never had one where people were emailing me months in advance wanting to make sure that I’m going to be offering the course and wishing they could reserve a seat ahead of time,” Stevenson said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

January 23, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lots of new talk about lots of new stufff to talk about at "Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform"

As some readers may already know, my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog is really humming now as a great set of guest-bloggers adding their insights and perspective in that space have been providing lots more original commentary to that blog, a lot of which should be of continuing interest to sentencing fans.  Here is a sampling of some of the new posts from just the past week:

Among lots of other noteworthy matters, the last post linked above notes that tonight's episode of HBO's Real Sports examines pot use in the NFL.  This story about the story provides a preview:

HBO’s acclaimed Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel returns on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/PT) with a closer look at marijuana use in the NFL....

The enlightening feature, reported by correspondent Andrea Kremer and produced by Chapman Downes, includes interviews with former NFL tight end Nate Jackson (Broncos 2003-2008); former NFL punter Chris Kluwe (Vikings 2005-2012); NFL Senior Vice President of Law and Labor Policy Adolpho Birch; Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and former NFL player Daniel Davis (Real Sports happened to run into him at a Denver area dispensary while they were filming the segment).

According to the HBO report, players estimate that between fifty and sixty percent of today’s NFL players smoke pot. Former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson spoke candidly about self-medicating with marijuana during his playing days in Denver. “I weeded as needed,” Jackson told Kremer. “For me, personally, [marijuana as a painkilling alternative is] very viable. I prefer it. Marijuana was something that helped me, as the season wore on my body would start to break down. I was in a lot of pain.”

The Real Sports report also found that players prefer marijuana for pain management over opiate-based painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycodone which are legal and regularly prescribed by NFL team physicians to help players deal with the inevitable pain and injuries that result from the physically brutal sport.

“For a lot of guys, they see what happens with the older generation of players and how a lot of those guys got addicted to pain pills,” former NFL punter Chris Kluwe told Kremer. “You know - they have alcohol problems. And they're like, ‘Well, you know, is there an alternative? Is there something else we can do?’ And marijuana is an alternative.”...

Beyond pain management and relief, the Real Sports report also explores another potential benefit of marijuana -- effective treatment of traumatic brain injuries (another issue Real Sports has reported on for several years).  Nate Jackson discussed his use of marijuana to help ease concussion symptoms after a blow to his head and neck knocked him out of the second to last game of his career. “The weed helped me,” Jackson told Kremer.

Kremer interviewed Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the doctor who discovered THC in 1964 and who has spent the last 50 years studying marijuana.  Mechoulam has researched marijuana’s efficacy in relieving not only chronic pain and inflammation but how traumatic brain injuries in mice react to marijuana.  Dr. Mechoulam allowed Real Sports to film his team in action as it worked with injured mice.  The results are remarkable.

January 21, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sports, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fittingly for MLK day, Prez Obama laments class and race disparities from pot prohibition

I MLK am intrigued and pleased to see that the New Yorker has just released this very lengthy article profiling President Obama that has a very interesting small section with quotes from the President concerning modern marijuana policies and reform. Though I expect to cover various aspects of what Prez Obama said a lot more over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in the week ahead, these comments should be of special interest to sentencing fans: 

What clearly does trouble him is the radically disproportionate arrests and incarcerations for marijuana among minorities.  “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said.  “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.”  But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”  Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”

As is his habit, he nimbly argued the other side. “Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case.  There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge.”

As the title of this post highlights, I think it is valuable and fitting that news of the President of the United States making these points hits the papers on the weekend we honor the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  As students of history know, Dr. King was concerned about economic inequallity as well as racial inequality, and I think the stories of modern pot prohiibition reflect both.  More broadly, as I highlight in a new post over at my other blog, titled MLK marijuana mash-up: "I Have A Dream..." we are free at last from pot prohibition, I think MLK's most famous exhortations about freedom and equality are useful to consider at this unique moment of marijuana reform debates.

Some related recent posts (mostly from MLPR):

January 20, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sincere marijuana reform question: exactly what are DEA officials "scared" of?

The question in the title of this post, which I am now posting to all the blogs in which I now participate, is my sincere reaction to this new Washington Post article headlined "DEA operations chief decries legalization of marijuana at state level."  Here is the context:

The chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday called the legalization of marijuana at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” warning that the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences.

“It scares us,” James L. Capra said, responding to a question from a senator during a hearing focused on drug cultivation in Afghanistan.  “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”

Capra’s comments marked the DEA’s most public and pointed criticism of the movement toward decriminalization in several states, where local officials see it as an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism....

Capra said agents have watched the early days of legal marijuana sales in Colorado with dismay.  “There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks,” he said.  “The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong.  It’s a bad thing.”

Capra said that senior DEA officials have faced uncomfortable questions from law enforcement partners abroad. During a recent global summit on counter-narcotics in Moscow, he said, he and the head of the DEA were at a loss to explain the loosening drug laws. “Almost everyone looked at us and said: Why are you doing this [while] pointing a finger to us as a source state?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for them.”...

Capra said he worries about the long-term consequences of the national mood on marijuana, which law enforcement experts call a gateway to more dangerous drugs. “This is a bad experiment,” he said.  “It’s going to cost us in terms of social costs.”

Let me begin by saying I respect all those who work in the DEA and other law enforcement agencies dealing with illegal drug issues, and I am certain all those who do this work have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But it is for that very reason that I ask this question about exactly what has DEA officials "scared": I sincerely want a much better understanding of what "social costs" of reform are being referenced here so that I can better assess for myself how I think these potential "social costs" of state-level marijuana reform stack up to the existing "social costs" I see due to current pot prohibition laws and norms.

That said, I think I might be able to help DEA officials avoid "being at a loss" to explain loosening drug laws in the US to their international friends in Moscow or elsewhere.  Here is what I suggest DEA officials say: "The United States of American is an exceptional nation that, in President Lincoln's words, was "conceived in Liberty" and its citizens recently have become ever more skeptical about the growth of government's coercive powers and ever more concerned about paying high taxes for government programming perceived to be ineffectual.  Thus, just as the people of America were the first to experiment seriously with a constitutional democracy (which has worked out pretty well), now some of the people of America are eager to experiment seriously with a regime of marijuana regulation rather than blanket prohibition."

This account of why polls show ever greater support for marijuana legalization is my sincere understanding of why so much drug reform activity is going on now in the United States.  The current "Obama era" is defined by a period of relatively tight budgets, relatively low crime, and yet still record-high taxing-and-spending in service to criminal justice programming.  These realities, especially in the wake of the Tea Party movement and other notable libertarian responses to the enormous modern growth of state and federal governments, have more and more Americans thinking we should be open to experimenting with a regime of marijuana legalization and regulation rather than blanket prohibition.

It is quite possible, as the DEA official suggests, that "this is a bad experiment."  But even if it is, the experiment does not "scare" me, in part because I have a hard time fully understanding what potential increased social costs should make me or others truly "scared."  More importantly, I have enormous confidence that, if the social costs of marijuana reform prove to be significant, the American people will realize pot reform is "a bad experiment" and will again change its laws accordingly. Indeed, this is precisely the experiences we have seen with our legal experiments with other drugs throughout American history:

I emphasize these historic examples of American drug experimentation because it is certainly possible to lament the harms produced along the way or the enduring "social costs" of having tobacco and/or alcohol still legal.  But it is also possible to conclude, as I do, that what makes America both great and special — dare I say exceptional — is that we persistently maintained our fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law throughout these experiments.  Consequently, this modern era's new round of American drug experimentation has me excited and intrigued to watch unfold the next chapter of the American experience, and I am not "scared" by the marijuana reform movement because they it strikes me as a further vindication of our people's fundamental commitments to freedom, democratic self-rule and the rule of law.

But maybe I am just way too high on the idea of American exceptionalism to have a sensible and sober understanding off all the potential harms and "social costs" that are apparently scaring DEA officials. And, as I said above, I readily acknowledge that all those who work on the front lines of the drug war have much more first-hand knowledge of the myriad harmful social costs of drug use and abuse than I ever will.  But, again, that it why the question in the title of this post is sincere: I genuinely and really want to have a much better understanding of what has DEA officials "scared" so that I can sensibly temper my excitement and optimism about modern marijuana reforms.

I fear that responses to this post could become snarky or ad hominem real quickly, but I hope all readers will tap into the spirit of my inquiry and really try to help me understand just what potential social costs of modern marijuana reform could lead those in the know to be "scared" as the quote above suggests. And I am posting this query in all five blogs I work on these days because I am eager to get wide input and as many diverse insights on this question as possible.

January 16, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New highlights with new voices coming from "Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform"

As those who regularly check out my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform already know, I now have a terrific trio of guest-bloggers adding their insights and perspective in that space: Professor Sam Kamin (hailing from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law);  Professor Alex Kreit (hailing from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law); Professor Robert Mikos (hailing from Vanderbilt Law School).  As I noted in this post over there, aided by their collective help and insight and wisdom, I am hoping to take the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog to "the next level" by having the blog prioritize more original commentary and less reporting (especially now that the MSM is finally reporting seriously on a range of marijuana issues).  And here is a sampling of some of the new highlights:

January 15, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Notable new data showing pot arrests way down in Colorado after reforms

This new Denver Post article, headlined "Marijuana case filings plummet in Colorado following legalization," spotlights one notable criminal justice metric that has been dramatically impacted by legal developments in the Centennial State. Here are some details:

Charges for all manner of marijuana crimes plummeted in the months after Colorado voters legalized limited possession of cannabis for people over 21.

According to a Denver Post analysis of data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch, the number of cases filed in state court alleging at least one marijuana offense plunged 77 percent between 2012 and 2013.  The decline is most notable for charges of petty marijuana possession, which dropped from an average of 714 per month during the first nine months of 2012 to 133 per month during the same period in 2013 — a decline of 81 percent.

That may have been expected — after all, people over 21 can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. But The Post's analysis shows state prosecutors also pursued far fewer cases for marijuana crimes that remain illegal in Colorado. For instance, charges for possessing more than 12 ounces of marijuana dropped by 73 percent, and cases alleging possession with intent to distribute fewer than 5 pounds of marijuana dipped by 70 percent. Even charges for public consumption of marijuana fell statewide, by 17 percent, although Denver police have increased their number of citations issued for public consumption.

While marijuana prosecutions against people over 21 declined, so did prosecutions against people under 21, for whom all marijuana possession remains illegal except for medical marijuana patients.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he thinks the drop in cases may be due to police not wanting to parse the complexities of the state's marijuana law. "I think they've kind of thrown their arms up in the air," he said.

Marijuana advocates, meanwhile, praised the drop in prosecutions — even for things that remain illegal under state law — because it lessens what they say is the racially biased impact of marijuana enforcement. A report last year from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks in Colorado were arrested for marijuana crimes at a rate nearly double that of whites. Overall, the report found arrests for marijuana possession in 2010 made up more than 60 percent of all drug-offense arrests.

"We're talking about not only saving the state time and money," said Art Way, a policy manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of legalization, "but we're no longer criminalizing primarily young adults, black and brown males primarily, with the collateral consequences of a drug charge."

The Post's analysis is not a comprehensive look at marijuana prosecutions in Colorado because prosecutors can also file cases in municipal courts, which aren't tracked by the data provided. Even though Colorado voters partially legalized marijuana for adults in 2012, there are still numerous marijuana crimes on the books. Possession of more than an ounce, cultivation of more than six plants and sales without a special state license all remain illegal and can be punished.

But Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said the state's new marijuana laws are likely making it tougher for police to crack down on the remaining marijuana crimes. Because some marijuana possession and use is now legal, Raynes said that means police are no longer allowed to investigate in depth purely because they smell pot. "Just because your car smells like marijuana doesn't give an officer enough probable cause to initiate an arrest or a search," Raynes said....

[T]here is no evidence so far that Colorado's new laws on marijuana have resulted in a dramatic reduction in caseloads for prosecutors or police. Denver police, for instance, recorded only 3 percent fewer arrests for any crime in the first 11 months of 2013 when compared with the first 11 months of 2012.

What also appears relatively unchanged is the treatment of petty marijuana-possession charges: It is far more likely that those charges will be dismissed by either a judge or a prosecutor than it is the charges will result in a finding of guilty for the defendant, according to the data. For the charges filed in September 2012, 79 percent were ultimately dismissed. In September 2013, it was 84 percent.

But Raynes said those similarities belie the uncertainty police and prosecutors now feel when approaching marijuana cases. "With small quantities especially," he said, "I think law enforcement feels like they don't know which way to turn."

Though I obviously cannot speak for the blue line on the ground in Colorado, it seems to me that these data show law enforcement in the state knows exactly which way to turn: away from wasting time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on low-level marijuana matters and instead focusing more time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on more serious and harmful matters.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

January 12, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mass incarceration, marijuana and deeper dives into national employment data

The title and topic of this post is driven by the curious news today, reported here by the AP, that US employers "added a scant 74,000 jobs in December after averaging 214,000 in the previous four months," but that also "the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, its lowest level since October 2008."  The standard "official reason" for low job growth but a big dip in the unemployment rate is "because many Americans stopped looking for jobs."  But I started then thinking about whether and how the thousands of people now employed in state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana businesses are counted in this national data.  Could it be that a significant number of people working in the state-legal marijuana industry are now counted as unemployed and/or not looking for work (just as I assume all illegal cocaine dealers are counted)?

These thoughts are based in part on this one notable Montana study, which students in my marijuana seminar found when they assembled information about job creation in marijuana industry. Though the data in this 2011 study may be hinky because it was produced by the Montana Medical Growers Association, the study estimated that 1,400 new jobs had been created in the sparcely populated state of Montana alone and that "approximately 70% of employees [in the Montana marijuana industry] were previously unemployed."  Extrapolating from these numbers, it seems plausible that there may already be 50,000 or more Americans already working in state-legalized medical marijuana businesses, and these employment numbers are certain to grow in states like Colorado and Washington now with a huge new recreational marijuana market.

But do all Americans now working in the (cash only) state-legal marijuana industry count as employed in the federal data?  I would suspect not given that the federal law still regards all these folks as illegal drug dealers on par with a guy on a street-corner trying to peddle crack.  Perhaps more worrisome for those concerned about the abuse of federal benefits, how many Americans have acquired jobs in the state-legal marijuana industry but remain happy and eager to report they are "still looking for (fully legal) work," and thus are collecting federal unemployment insurance while actually working in the marijuana industry?  Or instead, once formerly unemployed folks get a job within a state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana business, do they tend then to just report that they have given up looking for work?

As the title of this post suggests, I am asking these questions about the mariujuana industry and employment data in part because shrewd labor-force data-crunchers have long known that the massive increase in incarceration during the 1990s played a huge role in making national unemployment data look better than the reality.  During from 1985 to about 2005, hundreds of thousands of unemployed (and mostly low-skilled) Americans were added to our prison population, taking them out of the labor force entirely and thus (artificially) driving down the unemployment rate statistic.  (In addition, the need to build and staff ever more prisons was a terrific government stimulus program for low-skilled labor.)  But in the last decade or so, the national prison population has been relatively stable: each year roughly 700,000 new persons get admitted to prison and another 700,000 get released.  However, the reality of prison life and the challenges of a criminal record mean that every person newly released from prison each year is all but certain to have a harder time finding legal employment than every person newly admitted to prison that year.

Put differently, growing the prison-industrial complex often makes for better superficial national job numbers, while keep America's prison population stable (or getting it to decline) can end up hurting simplistic national job numbers.  (That reality is one of many reasons it is often so much easier to get politicians to support laws that fuel prison growth rather than laws that fuel prison reduction.)  

With these statistical realities in mind, I am now wondering and worrying in light of the latest national employment data whether a reverse data-collection problem could be at work with the marijuana-industrial complex as long as pot prohibition is still the law at the federal level.  Could significant growth of a state-legal "marijuana-industrial complex" actualy produce federal data that makes national employment data look worse than it really is? 

Obviously, I am not a labor economist, and I could be waaaaaay off base here.  But I suspect and fear few serious US labor economists are even considering these realities much, if at all, as they think about the modern American labor force and its needs in the years ahead.   More broadly, the only key takeaway from this post should be that just as mass incarceration is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue, so too do I think marijuana law and policy is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue.

January 10, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A mid-week round up of notable marijuana stories

I have not blogged much about marijuana reform in this space despite all the notable experiences now that recreational marijuana sales are legal and operational in Colorado, in part because the traditional media is now (finally) all over the story. But because there are so many notable marijuana reform reports and discussions going on, I cannot resist some links to a quick sampling of just come of the headlines and commentaries that have recently caught my eye from traditional and alternative media:

January 8, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 05, 2014

A political and media tipping point?: New York's Gov to reform state's marijuana laws

The title of this post is prompted the fact that today's New York Times has this lengthy lead story on its front page above the fold under the headline "New York State Is Set to Loosen Marijuana Laws." Here are excerpts:

Joining a growing group of states that have loosened restrictions on marijuana, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York plans this week to announce an executive action that would allow limited use of the drug by those with serious illnesses, state officials say.

The shift by Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who had long resisted legalizing medical marijuana, comes as other states are taking increasingly liberal positions on it — most notably Colorado, where thousands have flocked to buy the drug for recreational use since it became legal on Jan. 1.

Mr. Cuomo’s plan will be far more restrictive than the laws in Colorado or California, where medical marijuana is available to people with conditions as mild as backaches. It will allow just 20 hospitals across the state to prescribe marijuana to patients with cancer, glaucoma or other diseases that meet standards to be set by the New York State Department of Health.

While Mr. Cuomo’s measure falls well short of full legalization, it nonetheless moves New York, long one of the nation’s most punitive states for those caught using or dealing drugs, a significant step closer to policies being embraced by marijuana advocates and lawmakers elsewhere. New York hopes to have the infrastructure in place this year to begin dispensing medical marijuana, although it is too soon to say when it will actually be available to patients.

Mr. Cuomo’s shift comes at an interesting political juncture. In neighboring New Jersey, led by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican whose presidential prospects are talked about even more often than Mr. Cuomo’s, medical marijuana was approved by his predecessor, Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, but was put into effect only after Mr. Christie set rules limiting its strength, banning home delivery, and requiring patients to show they have exhausted conventional treatments. The first of six planned dispensaries has already opened. Meanwhile, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, had quickly seemed to overshadow Mr. Cuomo as the state’s leading progressive politician.

For Mr. Cuomo, who has often found common ground with Republicans on fiscal issues, the sudden shift on marijuana — which he is expected to announce on Wednesday in his annual State of the State address — was the latest of several instances in which he has embarked on a major social policy effort sure to bolster his popularity with a large portion of his political base....

The governor’s action also comes as advocates for changing drug laws have stepped up criticism of New York City’s stringent enforcement of marijuana laws, which resulted in nearly 450,000 misdemeanor charges from 2002 to 2012, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates more liberal drug laws. During that period, medical marijuana became increasingly widespread outside New York, with some 20 states and the District of Columbia now allowing its use....

[Mr. Cuomo's] shift, according to a person briefed on the governor’s views but not authorized to speak on the record, was rooted in his belief that the program he has drawn up can help those in need, while limiting the potential for abuse. Mr. Cuomo is also up for election this year, and polls have shown overwhelming support for medical marijuana in New York: 82 percent of New York voters approved of the idea in a survey by Siena College last May.

Still, Mr. Cuomo’s plan is sure to turn heads in Albany, the state’s capital. Medical marijuana bills have passed the State Assembly four times — most recently in 2013 — only to stall in the Senate, where a group of breakaway Democrats shares leadership with Republicans, who have traditionally been lukewarm on the issue.

Mr. Cuomo has decided to bypass the Legislature altogether. In taking the matter into his own hands, the governor is relying on a provision in the public health law known as the Antonio G. Olivieri Controlled Substance Therapeutic Research Program. It allows for the use of controlled substances for “cancer patients, glaucoma patients, and patients afflicted with other diseases as such diseases are approved by the commissioner.”

Mr. Olivieri was a New York City councilman and state assemblyman who died in 1980 at age 39. Suffering from a brain tumor, he used marijuana to overcome some of the discomfort of chemotherapy, and until his death lobbied for state legislation to legalize its medical use. The provision, while unfamiliar to most people, had been hiding in plain sight since 1980. But with Mr. Cuomo still publicly opposed to medical marijuana, state lawmakers had been pressing ahead with new legislation that would go beyond the Olivieri statute.

Richard N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who leads the assembly’s health committee, has held two public hearings on medical marijuana in recent weeks, hoping to build support for a bill under which health care professionals licensed to prescribe controlled substances could certify patient need. Mr. Gottfried said the state’s historical recalcitrance on marijuana was surprising. “New York is progressive on a great many issues, but not everything,” he said.

Mr. Gottfried said he wanted a tightly regulated and licensed market, with eligible patients limited to those with “severe, life-threatening or debilitating conditions,” not the broader range of ailments — backaches and anxiety, for instance — that pass muster in places like California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996. “What we are looking at bears no resemblance to the California system,” Mr. Gottfried said....

Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, praised Mr. Cuomo’s decision as “a bold and innovative way of breaking the logjam” in Albany, though it may not be the final word on medical marijuana. Mr. Cuomo “remains committed to developing the best medical marijuana law in the country,” Mr. Nadelmann said. “And that’s going to require legislative action.”

For a host of (mostly economic and practical) reasons, legal reforms and policy developments in New York often can and usually will get more than its fair share of national political and media attention from elites up and down the east coast and even around the nation. Indeed, the very fact this story in not due to break "officially" until later this week, but is still now front-page news in the first Sunday New York Times in 2014 shows how some New York stories often are treated like national and nationally-important stories from the get-go.

Especially interesting in this coverage and in the development of this issue in 2014, it seems that Gov. Cuomo has decided he needs to make a (bold?) move toward marijuana reform for political reasons. I am not surprised that recent developments in Colorado and elsewhere may change political calculations by lots of politicians on these matters over time, but I did not expect to see things moving so fast in important places like New York and involving important established state officials with national political aspirations.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

January 5, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Seeking first-hand accounts/reports (good, bad and ugly) of start of recreational pot sales in Colorado

It is around 2pm EDT, January 1, 2014 as I write this post, which means recreational marijuana sales have now been underway for a full 12 hours in Colorado today.  On the east coast, at least, the sky has not fallen (and my kids have not already become regular pot smokers) ... yet.   Perhaps the sky is falling in the Mile High City.  Or, perhaps most accurately, a few more folks than usual in Denver, where most of the early sales are taking place, may be feeling sky high.

Jokes and snickering aside, I am genuinely interested in any and all "objective" on-the-ground reports from folks in Denver or elsewhere about what is going on in the midst of what some suggest is the start of the end of a 40-year drug war in the US and what others fear is the start of a doomed experiment with a harmful new legal substance.  As the title of this post highlights, I am especially eager to hear praise, complaints and observations from all quarters, if possible.

Cross-posted at  Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

January 1, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Any short- or long-term Colorado predictions as recreational marijuana sales are set to begin?

Lots of mainstream (as well as not-so-mainstream) media outlets are now talking a lot about what may or may not happen in Colorado a few days from now when state-legalized and regulated sales of recreational marijuana begins with the start of 2014.  This Reuters article is just one of many covering the buzz surrounding the opportunity for folks in Colorado to have a new legal way to get buzzed.   Here how it starts:

The world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers, catering to Colorado's newly legal recreational market for pot, are stocking their shelves ahead of a New Year's grand opening that supporters and detractors alike see as a turning point in America's drug culture....

[S]tarting January 1, cannabis will be legally sold and taxed at specially regulated retailers in a system modeled after a regime many states have in place for alcohol sales - but which exists for marijuana nowhere outside of Colorado.

For the novelty factor alone, operators of the first eight marijuana retailers slated to open on Wednesday morning in Denver and a handful of establishments in other locations are anticipating a surge in demand for store-bought weed.  "It will be like people waiting in line for tickets to a Pink Floyd concert," said Justin Jones, 39, owner of Dank Colorado in Denver who has run a medical marijuana shop for four years and now has a recreational pot license.

Jones said he is confident he has enough marijuana on hand for Day One but less sure of inventory levels needed after that.   About 90 percent of his merchandise is in smokable form, packaged in small child-proof containers.  The rest is a mixture of cannabis-infused edibles, such as cookies, candy and carbonated drinks.  "People seem to prefer smoking," he said.

In addition to the "Black Friday"-type atmosphere sure to part of the New Year's Day experiences in Denver, this AFP article highlights that some folks are planning a road-trip in order to get to Colorado for another kind of trip:

Enterprising companies are even offering marijuana tours to cash in on tourists expected to be attracted to a Netherlands-style pot culture -- including in Colorado's famous ski resorts.  "Just the novelty alone is bringing people from everywhere," said Adam Raleigh of cannabis supplier Telluride Bud Co.

"I have people driving in from Texas, Arizona, Utah... to be a part of history.  Over the last month I have received somewhere between four to six emails a day and five to 10 phone calls a day asking all about the law and when should people plan their ski trip to go along with cannabis," he added.

But as highlighted in this lengthy AP article, headlined "Legal pot sales begin amid uncertainty in Colorado," perhaps the only real certainty come 2014 in Colorado is uncertainty:

Will it be a showcase for a safe, regulated pot industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year and saves money on locking up drug criminals, or one that will prove, once and for all, that the federal government has been right to ban pot since 1937?

Legal pot's potential has spawned businesses beyond retail shops. Marijuana-testing companies have popped up, checking regulated weed for potency and screening for harmful molds. Gardening courses charge hundreds to show people how to grow weed at home....

Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, maker of pot-infused foods and drinks, is making new labels for the recreational market and expanding production on everything from crispy rice treats to fruit lozenges. "The genie is out of the bottle," says company president Tripp Keber. "I think it's going to be an exciting time over the next 24 to 48 months."...

The challenges, activists and regulators say, are daunting in Colorado and Washington. One of the biggest questions is whether they have built an industry that will not only draw in tens of millions of dollars in revenue but also make a significant dent in the illegal market. Another is whether the regulatory system is up to the task of controlling a drug that's never been regulated.

There are public health and law enforcement concerns, including whether wide availability of a drug with a generations-old stigma of ruining lives will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime....

To prevent the criminal element from getting a foothold, regulators have enacted residency requirements for business owners, banned out-of-state investment and run background checks on every applicant for a license to sell or grow the plant. Whether the systems are enough is anyone's guess.

I like the descriptive phrase that the "genie is out of the bottle," and think the green marijuana genie could grant many wishes and also create many nightmares. And I am eager to hear reader thoughts and predictions about what might happen in this arena in 2014 before the official start of this unofficial "turning point in America's drug culture."

December 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A notable reader reaction to study about youthful pot usage

I received (and got permission to post here) this notable e-mail from a reader expressing concerns about studies that indicate negative effects from youths using marijuana:

I just read your commentary on daily use of marijuana with teenagers and it's relation to memory loss and alleged relationships to schizophrenia. Perhaps there is some truth to that claim for persons who would of otherwise become schizophrenic without using marijuana. However, in my personal experiences and witnessing of 100's of friends, parents, relatives, professional, doctors, lawyers, etc., in the U.S. and abroad I can reassure the Gov't and the general public that such a report is either biased or manipulated to result in such a outrageous claim. If we the public were to believe everything from FDA, the USDA, or the DEA, we would all be unhealthy, unhappy, and extremely naïve.

My personal experience suggest just the opposite of the article you commented on. I admit I am unique when it comes to beginning my marijuana experience but nevertheless I first tried in the 2nd grade, then again in the 3rd and 4th grade. It was not until the 5th and 6th grade when I and friends began to use more heavily specifically 2 nights/week. Then intermittently there after until the present (I'm 44 y/o). I am a heterosexual, athletic, educated (graduate degree), responsible father, tax/law abiding citizens who functions in society without any abnormalities medically, psychologically, or socially. I have no cri

minal records etc. Essentially there are special interest groups that can only beat the drum of portraying marijuana as a negative drug. Unfortunately this is all these groups can do because the scientific evidence (facts) is not there to prove otherwise. More importantly reports from gov't agencies or even world renowned university's can be extremely biased based on who is funding the research.

When the public demands alcohol, nicotine or caffeine the public gets it. The same is true with marijuana with the exception of legal hurdles which are being experienced today. The facts of the effects of alcohol and tobacco on the youth and general public are astronomical medically and financially speaking. The deaths related to these two legal drugs per year are astounding (Do some real research from professional journals for more information than you want to know concerning real numbers of fatalities). The Irony of alcohol and nicotine being legal and marijuana illegal is as illogical as letting a convicted murder free from jail and arresting a innocent citizen and placing them in jail for that same murder.

If folks like yourself truly believe marijuana is an evil and harmful toward young people or any person with non biased objectionable research to prove otherwise and to not advocate simultaneously for the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco you and your constituents are as discreditable, unbelievable as a typical con man selling snake oil.

December 22, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What are the best and worst drugs for daily use by teens?

The title of this post is the (perhaps silly) question that came to my mind upon reading this new report on some new research headlined "Heavy Pot Use Linked To Memory Loss, Schizophrenia Link."  Here are the basics:

Heavy pot users — smoking marijuana daily for three years — had abnormal changes in their brain structures related to working memory, U.S. researchers say.  Lead study author Matthew Smith, an assistant research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said poor working memory predicts poor academic performance and everyday functioning.

The groups in the study started using marijuana daily at ages 16 to 17 for about three years.  At the time of the study, they had been marijuana free for about two years. Almost 100 subjects participated, including matched groups of healthy controls, subjects with a marijuana use disorder, schizophrenia subjects with no history of substance use disorders and schizophrenia subjects with a marijuana use disorder. The subjects who used marijuana did not abuse any other drugs, the researchers said.

Of the 15 marijuana smokers who had schizophrenia in the study, 90 percent started heavily using marijuana before they developed the mental disorder. Marijuana abuse has been linked to developing schizophrenia in prior research, Smith said.

“The abuse of popular street drugs, such as marijuana, might have dangerous implications for young people who are developing or have developed mental disorders,” said co-senior study author Dr. John Csernansky of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“This paper is among the first to reveal that the use of marijuana may contribute to the changes in brain structure that have been associated with having schizophrenia.”... The paper was published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Modern brain science research has long had me convinced that it would be wise for everyone under the age of 25 to avoid all dangerous substances while their brains are still developing.  Consequently, I am not at all surprised by a finding that daily use of marijuana could hurts developing brains.  I wonder, though, whether it is likely to hurt developing brains more than daily use of alcohol or even some prescription drugs.

That said, I hope the relaxation of modern marijuana laws in many jurisdictions will facilitate a lot more serious scientific research on the various potential harms and benefits of the use and abuse of this widely-used and seemingly widely under-researched drug.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

December 17, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is a "worst-case scenario" regarding marijuana reform and regulation already emerging in Colorado and Washington?

22353476The question in the title of this post is my reaction to what strikes me as a "Chicken Little" comment appearing in this lengthy New York Times article about marijuana reform in Colorado and Washington.  The article, which started on the front page of Saturday's Times is headlined "In 2 States, Corner Cannabis Store Nears Reality." And here are excerpts that provide some background and context for my query:

Starting early next year, any adult with a craving or curiosity will be able to stroll into a strip mall or downtown shop in Colorado or Washington State and do what has long been forbidden: buy a zip-lock bag of legal marijuana.

After landmark votes made marijuana legal for recreational consumption, users in these two states will no longer need doctors’ notes or medical reasons to buy the drug. Instead, they will simply show identification to prove they are at least 21, and with the cautious blessing of state and federal officials, they will be able to buy as much as an ounce of marijuana and smoke it in their living rooms.

It is a new frontier of drug legalization, one that marks a stark turn away from the eras of “Reefer Madness,” zero tolerance and Just Say No warnings about the dangers of marijuana. But it also raises questions about whether these pioneering states will be able to regulate and contain a drug that is still outlawed across most of the country — although medical marijuana can be sold legally in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The end of the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s, by contrast, to which some historians and legal scholars are comparing this moment, came all at once across the nation.

On this never-traveled road, the outcome on many fronts is uncertain: Supporters predict an economic boom in new business activity, cannabis tourism and reduced public expense with fewer low-level drug offenders clogging jails and courtrooms.

Elected officials, parents’ groups and police chiefs worry that drug traffickers will exploit the new markets, that more teenagers will take up marijuana, and that two places with reputations for fresh air and clean living will become known as America’s stoner states.

Other states flirting with legalization are watching closely too, not least for the expected windfall in state revenue in stiffly taxing something that has never been taxed at all. Referendum drives modeled on Colorado and Washington are already underway for next year in Arizona, California, Oregon and Alaska, and others are expected to follow in 2016. So the pressures to get it right the first time, local and state officials said, are immense. “We are floating in uncharted waters here,” said Mayor Michael B. Hancock of Denver, where 149 businesses have applied to sell or grow retail marijuana.

Consider, for example, the strangely altered new role of the police, who in Washington are required to make sure all marijuana is of the legal, state-licensed variety. That could make for more crackdowns on illegal grow-and-sale operations, not fewer, a fact highlighted when federal agents raided several dispensaries in Colorado last month, smashing glass and hauling away hundreds of plants.

Practical questions about the legal, workaday drug trade have required reams of rules and regulations to answer: Should it be specifically taxed?... Can people give it away in public parks?...

But most important, Colorado and Washington must show skeptical federal authorities that they can control this new world of regulated marijuana, and keep it from flowing to underage consumers, into other states or into the grip of drug traffickers and violent cartels. Even as the Justice Department announced in August that it would not block states from regulating marijuana, it also warned that their enforcement rules “must be tough in practice, not just on paper.”

“We’re already seeing a worst-case scenario emerging,” said Kevin A. Sabet, an opponent of legalization and the co-founder of Project SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. He said marijuana was already flowing from dispensaries into the hands of teenage users, and he predicted the social costs would only mount in the months ahead.

Though I genuinely hope that marijuana reform is successful in Colorado and Washington because it would provide more evidence that freedom and free markets tend to be superior public policy choices to big government, I am genuinely eager to see sensible and sober assessments of the on-the-ground pros and cons of what these two states are trying. But if anti-reform (or, for that matter, pro-reform) advocates are going to persistently scream that the sky is falling (or that all is nirvana), it is going to end up being very hard to come to a truly sound assessment of whether and how reform can be more or less successful.

December 15, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Growing acceptance of marijuana no help to pot convicts serving life in the joint"

The title of this post is the (too clever?) headline of this notable new article from FoxNews.com.  Here are excerpts:

John Richard Knock realizes he’ll likely die in a 12-by-10-foot cell in federal prison. Locked behind bars on a marijuana trafficking conviction, America's growing acceptance of the drug is cold comfort to the 66-year-old who was handed two life sentences, plus 20 years — for a first-time conviction.

“I don’t think about it, I just try and stay healthy,” Knock told FoxNews.com of his sentence via phone from the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania. “I just wish society would look at this and say, ‘Hey is this fair?’”

The sentence makes Knock one of 3,278 prisoners recently identified by the American Civil Liberties Union who are serving life without parole for nonviolent drug and property crimes. Nearly four in every five were convicted of crimes involving drugs, including marijuana.

While Knock, who prosecutors said was part of an international marijuana trafficking scheme, has been serving his time, the drug has become increasingly accepted. Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and 15 other states have also eased restrictions, most for medical purposes. In October, for the first time, a Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans now favor legalizing the drug after reaching 50 percent in 2011....

But Knock and most others serving life for pot convictions were typically traffickers and not simply users, some experts note. Profiting from drugs — even marijuana — is a far cry from puffing on a joint, they say.

"Those who traffic in illegal drugs, who prey on our nation’s youth with poisons that destroy bodies, minds, and futures, should find no refuge in the criminal justice system," John Walters, who was drug czar under President Bush, wrote in a 2007 report. "Long prison terms, in many cases, are the most appropriate response to these predators."

Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis, started lifeforpot.com two years ago to raise attention to her brother’s plight and other prisoners facing similar fates. She hopes that society's changing views on marijuana could prompt a review of the sentences of her brother and others. “When public opinion reaches some kind of tipping point, I think most lawmakers will jump out in front of the issue,” she said. “I don’t see why they would find any value in continuing to oppose [legalizing marijuana] if their constituents want it legalized.”

Some attorneys contacted by FoxNews.com said Knock’s case is far from unique. Randall Brown Johnston, a Missouri-based criminal defense attorney who formerly worked as a prosecutor, recalled the case of Jeff Mizanskey, who was found guilty of possession of five pounds of marijuana in 1993 and was later sentenced to life without parole. “This was a brutal sentence,” Johnston told FoxNews.com. “Unfortunately, the difference between one judge and another can make all the difference. This judge was particularly harsh and had a reputation for that.”...

But Johnston also hopes the changing opinion of pot can lead to relief for people doing life for marijuana-related crimes. “There’s been a great change in public opinions about marijuana convictions,” he said. “It may take another 10 years for lawmakers to catch up and maybe go back and revisit the severity of the laws. But these laws are on the books right now and these are nonviolent people. It costs a huge amount of money to lock them up and people can go out and commit a murder or rape somebody and be sentenced to less.”...

Knock, meanwhile, takes some comfort from what happens outside of prison, even if it leaves him little hope of being free. His son, Aaron, 22, recently graduated from Columbia University in New York with an engineering degree.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the Eighth Amendment can and should be a basis for defendants like Knock and Mizanskey to seek relief from their seemingly extreme LWOP sentences based on the "evolving standards of decency" that is supposed to inform the application of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause. Especially if (when?) a majority of states legalize medical and/or recreational marijuana, I think the case for an Eighth Amendment attack on extreme sentences for first-time marijuana dealers should become pretty compelling. But, as regular readers also know, I tend to have a much more dynamic view of how the Eighth Amendment should be understood than the vast majority of judges considering Eighth Amendment claims.

A few recent related posts:

December 13, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Slate series examines Colorado prelude to pot legalization

Sam Kamin and Joel Warner have launched a new Slate series that is a must-read for any and everyone interested in following Colorado's path-breaking experiences with marijuana legalization. This first piece, headlined "Blazing a Trail: Colorado is about to become the first state in the modern world to legalize marijuana from seed to sale—is it ready?," sets up the themes, and here are excerpts:

On Jan. 1, Colorado will become the first state in the modern world to legalize marijuana from seed to sale. (Uruguay voted on Tuesday to legalize pot, but the law won't be implemented for 120 days. In the Netherlands, marijuana is simply decriminalized, not legal. While Washington state legalized marijuana at the same time Colorado passed Amendment 64, its regulatory system likely won’t be up and running until next summer.) That means Colorado’s lawmakers, businesses, and citizens are facing issues no one has tackled before. How do you legally produce marijuana? What procedures should be put in place for its packaging, transportation, sale, and taxation? How do you keep track of all that pot, and how do you discipline those who run afoul of your regulations? How do you regulate the financing of pot operations, the development of peripheral businesses, the marketing of marijuana to tourists? And how do you keep the whole thing from falling apart? In short, how do you build an entire industry from scratch?

Over the next two months, as Colorado’s legal pot industry opens for business, the two of us — Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor, and Joel Warner, a local writer — will look at how Colorado is answering these questions, with the world watching and possibly billions of dollars at stake — not to mention the federal government keeping a close eye on everything. Marijuana, after all, remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, alongside LSD and heroin. That means Colorado has to figure out a way to abide by its voters’ wish to authorize marijuana’s possession, manufacture, and sale without causing the feds to act on the fact that all of these actions are still punishable by up to life in prison.

We’re beginning our coverage with the most important issue Colorado has had to wrestle with so far: How do you build a regulatory framework for pot? All other decisions on legalized marijuana derive from this one. Pretty much every legal good and service is regulated in one way or another—restaurants are inspected, plumbers are licensed, sodas have to list their ingredients—and marijuana is a psychoactive substance, like cocaine, alcohol, and sleeping pills, so clearly there have to be rules about how it’s used. Even marijuana’s most ardent proponents concede there have to be limits on its sale and usage — children shouldn’t have access to it, people shouldn’t drive under its influence. But the biggest argument of all for marijuana regulation, from the government’s perspective, is taxation. If the state doesn’t know who is selling it, where they are selling it, or who’s buying it and at what price, Colorado can’t make any money off it.

To determine the best way to regulate this new market, a week after the law passed, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper formed the Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force comprised of elected officials, stakeholders in the state’s existing medical marijuana industry, and various experts (including one of us—the University of Denver’s Sam Kamin). It was no easy task, especially since Colorado had just over a year to pick a regulatory model, pass legislation implementing it, conduct rulemaking around it, and go through all the licensing and inspections required to implement it by Jan. 1. Compared to how long most governmental processes take, that was a blink of an eye.

Cross posted in part at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

December 12, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So many notable marijuana stories and so little time to blog 'em all

As my my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seminar winds down with students working on final papers, local, state, national and international stories concerning modern marijuana reform efforts is really starting to heat up.  Here are headlines and links from just today's latest news of note:

I would be interested in reader perspectives on which of these stories seems the most notable and/or consequential for sentencing law and policy in particular or for American criminal justice more generally.

Cross posted in part at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

December 11, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Should reform advocates welcome latest DEA raids of hinky medical marijuana facilities in Colorado?

20131125__hector-diaz-comlaint~p1The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent report from The Denver Post, headlined "Feds arrest one, seize guns and ammo in Colorado marijuana raids" about recent federal raids of medical marijuana facilities in a state now only a month away from having recreational marijuana stores.  Here are the details of the latest federal intervention:

When federal agents swooped into a swanky Cherry Hills Village home last week as part of widespread raids tied to medical-marijuana businesses, they found a person inside holding a loaded gun, according to a court document unsealed Monday. By the time they were done searching the $1.3 million home Thursday, agents had collected five assault-style rifles, five handguns, a shotgun and a "large cache of ammunition," according to the document. It did not identify the person with the gun.

One person was detained and later arrested on suspicion of weapons violations, authorities announced Monday. As part of their investigation, agents had obtained an e-mailed photograph that appears to show that man, 49-year-old Hector Diaz, holding two semi-automatic rifles while wearing a Drug Enforcement Administration ball cap.

The details on the raids — disclosed for the first time Monday — come from an affidavit in the criminal case against Diaz and provide new context for the largest federal operation against medical-marijuana businesses ever in Colorado. Agents executed "approximately 15" search warrants during the raids, the affidavit states.  Sources have told The Denver Post that the raids — which a search warrant shows targeted 10 men — were part of an investigation into a single enterprise that detectives believe may have ties to Colombian drug cartels.

Diaz, a Colombian national, was charged with a single count of possessing a firearm after having been admitted to the United States under a non-immigrant visa.  He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Appearing in court Monday afternoon, Diaz was advised of the charge against him and ordered held until at least Wednesday, when a hearing will determine whether he should be released and at which time more information about the raids will likely be disclosed.

The raids focused especially on stores, cultivation warehouses and individuals connected to the VIP Cannabis dispensary in Denver. On Sunday, an attorney for one of the owners of the dispensary sent a letter to Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh proclaiming his client's innocence. Attorney Sean McAllister wrote that his client, Gerardo Uribe, did nothing wrong under state law and "will be vindicated by a full review of this matter."...

The raids are not the first time, however, the people associated with VIP Cannabis have been accused publicly of marijuana misdeeds. A lawsuit filed last month in Denver claims Gerardo Uribe and two other men named in the search warrant, Luis Uribe and Felix Perez, have not made good on hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to three men for the purchases of a dispensary on East Colfax Avenue and a grow warehouse on Elizabeth Street. The suit also alleges that the Uribes and Perez were suspected of hiding profits and product from their marijuana businesses and selling marijuana out of state.

"Marijuana product is unaccounted for, proceeds from the dispensary are unaccounted for and Plaintiffs assume that the Defendants have stolen product and money from them," the lawsuit states. Another section of the suit alleges: "Plaintiffs believe that the Defendants may be transacting business with people in other states and do not want to reveal what the businesses are really making or who they are conducting business with."...

Other lawsuits also provide a glimpse into the high-dollar business of marijuana in which the raid targets were involved. A lawsuit filed this year in Jefferson County accuses businesses controlled by Luis Uribe and another person named as a target in the search warrant, Carlos Solano, of not paying up on the purchase of a cultivation facility. In a settlement reached in September, Uribe and Solano agreed to pay $90,000 to the plaintiffs.

As the title of this post hints, I think advocates for legalizing and regulating marijuana ought generally be pleased when the feds go after the most shady operators of marijuana facilities. I suspect businesses that follow the law in any industry can and do generally hope that those competitors cutting corners will get in trouble for regulatory failings. And, with respect to state-legalized marijuana industries, even advocate for a regulatory scheme instead of prohibition may still find it useful and beneficial for there to be the ever-present threat of the feds bringing a severe criminal justice hammer down on those businesses getting the most out of line.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 27, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, November 25, 2013

New report (by reform advocacy group) praises state regulation of medical marijuana in wake of DOJ enforcement memo

As reported in this press release,"[m]edical marijuana advocates Americans for Safe Access (ASA) issued a report today that analyzes the Obama Administration's latest enforcement guidelines for federal prosecutors in states that regulate medical marijuana distribution."  Here are basics concerning the 88-page report (which is available in full here):

The report, "Third Time the Charm? State Laws on Medical Cannabis Distribution and Department of Justice Guidance on Enforcement," shows that states have already enacted regulations that meet federal concerns, and some would have stronger regulations if it were not for federal threats that disrupted the legislative process.  The report concludes with recommendations for how federal and state legislators can protect patients and harmonize state and federal policies.

Medical marijuana patients greeted the Department of Justice (DOJ) memo issued August 31st by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole with cautious optimism.  The memo is the third from the Obama Administration that attempts to rein in federal prosecutors in states that allow for regulated distribution of marijuana.  The first memo, issued in October 2009 by Cole's predecessor, then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, did not stop various federal prosecutors from attempting to thwart the implementation of several state medical marijuana laws.  A report issued by ASA earlier this year put the cost of federal interference with state medical marijuana programs at more than $300 million.

“We hope the latest federal policy on marijuana will compel the Obama Administration to make good on its promises to stop wasting taxpayer money on undermining duly enacted state laws,” said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. “With almost 40 percent of Americans living in states that permit medical marijuana, it's time for the federal government to resolve the conflict between its outdated policies and the growing number of compassionate state laws.”...

The ASA report recommends that state legislators use the 2013 Cole memo as a guide when developing production and distribution regulations, while avoiding unnecessarily restrictive policies that fail to meet the needs of patients.  The report also urges lawmakers to recognize that all three DOJ directives maintain that cultivation by individual patients is not a federal enforcement concern, giving the green light for state legislators to preserve or adopt patient cultivation rules.

The report also recommends that Congress make short and long-term policy changes to ensure respect for state laws and protection for patients and their providers. The report urges federal legislators to restrict how DOJ funds are spent on enforcement in medical marijuana states until the DOJ can determine what "metrics" to use in evaluating compliance with their enforcement priorities.  As a long-term solution, the report asks Congress to adopt HR 689, which would reclassify marijuana for medical use.

November 25, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Maryland Gov. candidate running on "comprehensive plan to legalize and regulate marijuana"

MizAs reported in this local article, headlined "Gubernatorial Candidate Mizeur Proposes Marijuana Legalization In Md.," a relatively high-profile candidate in a relatively high-profile state has come out with a campaign message that ensures she will be endorsed by High Times.  Here are the basics:

A candidate for governor wants to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and she’s drawing passionate reaction.... It comes from Democratic candidate Heather Mizeur and would highly regulate the use of pot. She says it’s time to decriminalize it and she’s making more than just political waves.

For the first time, a major party candidate for Maryland governor wants to open the door to legalized recreational marijuana use. “We will take the underground market that exists for everyone trying to access this substance and bring it to the light of day,” Mizeur said.

Mizeur says it would only be for those over 21, illegal to smoke in public and she wants to tax it $50 an ounce, bringing in as much as $157 million a year for education. “Drug dealers on the streets are still selling marijuana to children. They’re not asking for an ID,” she said.

But critics like former addict and counselor Mike Gimbel call the controversial proposal dangerous. “It is totally backwards, irresponsible, stupid and it’s going to hurt people and nobody really seems to care,” he said.

A poll last month showed 51 percent of Marylanders support legalization and 40 percent oppose it.... Maryland is surrounded by jurisdictions that have legalized medical marijuana like D.C. and Delaware, and states considering doing so, like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Past attempts for less strict laws have largely failed here and none of Delegate Mizeur’s opponents – Democratic or Republican – support it.

What I find especially noteworthy (and appealing) about this political development is that delegate Mizeur seems eager to make marijuana reform a centerpiece of her campaign and she has this part her official website promoting this detailed 11-page document titled "A Comprehensive Plan to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in Maryland." Here is how that document gets started:

Marijuana's time as a controlled, illegal substance has run its course.  Marijuana laws ruin lives, are enforced with racial bias, and distract law enforcement from serious and violent crimes. Marijuana criminalization costs our state hundreds of millions of dollars every year without making us any safer.  A Maryland with legalized, regulated, and taxed marijuana will mean safer communities, universal childhood education, and fewer citizens unnecessarily exposed to our criminal justice system.

I do not know local Maryland politics well enough to have any real idea if Mizeur has any real chance to become the next governor of Maryland.  But I do have an idea that her campaign on this issue is just the latest sign of being in interesting political times concerning drug laws and policies.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 21, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent New York Times commentary by Jim Dwyer headlined "A Marijuana Stash That Carried Little Risk."  The piece is, I think, designed to complain about the impact and import of NYC stop-and-frisk policies, but my take-away is a bit distinct.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Walking down Eighth Avenue a few weeks ago, I made sure my backpack was fully zipped shut.  Inside was a modest stash of pot, bought just an hour or so earlier.  A friend knew someone in that world, and after an introduction, then a quiet, discreet meeting, I was on my way to the subway.  Never before had I walked through Midtown Manhattan with it on my person.  There were four cookies in vacuum-sealed pouches — “edibles” is the technical term — and then a few pinches of what was described as “herb.”

The innovations of Michael R. Bloomberg as mayor are legion, but his enforcement of marijuana laws has broken all records.  More people have been arrested for marijuana possession than any other crime on the books.  From 2002 through 2012, 442,000 people were charged with misdemeanors for openly displaying or burning 25 grams or less of pot.

I wasn’t sure about the weight of my stash — although a digital scale was used in the transaction, I didn’t see the display — but it didn’t feel too heavy.  Still, I wasn’t about to openly display or burn it.

It turns out that there was little to fret over.  While scores of people are arrested on these charges every day in New York, the laws apparently don’t apply to middle-aged white guys. Or at least they aren’t enforced against us.

“It is your age that would make you most unusual for an arrest,” said Professor Harry Levine, a Queens College sociologist who has documented marijuana arrests in New York and across the country.  “If you were a 56-year-old white woman, you might get to be the first such weed bust ever in New York City — except, possibly, for a mentally ill person.”

About 87 percent of the marijuana arrests in the Bloomberg era have been of blacks and Latinos, most of them men, and generally under the age of 25 — although surveys consistently show that whites are more likely to use it.

These drug busts were the No. 1 harvest of the city’s stop, question and frisk policing from 2009 through 2012, according to a report released Thursday by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman.  Marijuana possession was the most common charge of those arrested during those stops.  The few whites and Asians arrested on these charges were 50 percent more likely than blacks to have the case “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” the report showed.

Now, having a little bit of pot, like a joint, is not a crime as long as you don’t burn or openly display it.  Having it in my backpack was a violation of law, meaning that it is an offense that is lower than a misdemeanor.  Pot in the backpack is approximately the same as making an illegal turn in a car.  Taking it out and waving it in the face of a police officer or lighting up a joint on the street would drive it up to the lowest-level misdemeanor.

How was it that all the black and Latino males were displaying or burning pot where it could be seen by the police?  The answer is that many of them were asked during the stops to empty their pockets.  What had been a concealed joint and the merest violation of the law was transformed into a misdemeanor by being “openly displayed.” If these were illegal searches — and they very well could have been — good luck trying to prove it....

Michael A. Cardozo, the chief lawyer for the city, is eager to get an appeals court to throw out the findings of fact by a judge who ruled against the city in a lawsuit over the stop-and-frisk tactics. Mr. Cardozo appears to believe, mistakenly, that losing a lawsuit is going to damage the legacy of his patron, Mayor Bloomberg.  Undoing a lawsuit will not unstain this history.

As for me, the pot got to a couple of people who might need it to get through some medical storms.  It’s too risky for me to use: I already have a hard enough time keeping my backpack zipped.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 16, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Is it "misleading to compare marijuana to beer"?

Beer potThe question in the title of this post is drawn from a quote by someone from the Beer Institute appearing in this notable new National Journal item headlined "Alcohol Is Really Pissed Off at Marijuana Right Now; The marijuana industry is convincing Americans its substance is safer than alcohol, and booze lobbyists don't like it." Here are excerpts from the new National Journal piece:

Marijuana has been giving alcohol a bad name. So contend booze lobbyists, who are getting sick of an ad campaign that makes the claim that pot is safer than their beloved beverages.

"We're not against legalization of marijuana, we just don't want to be vilified in the process," said one alcohol industry representative who didn't want to be quoted harshing his colleagues mellow. "We don't want alcohol to be thrown under the bus, and we're going to fight to defend our industry when we are demonized."

The marijuana industry has had a good couple of years: a recent poll found that 58 percent of the country thinks the product should be legal, recreational use has been legalized in two states already, and this past election saw the city of Portland, Maine, legalize 2.5 ounces of pot. Ahead of the vote in Portland — which received 70 percent support — the Marijuana Policy Project put up signs around the city with messages like "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it doesn't make me rowdy or reckless," and "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it's less harmful to my body."

Alcohol lobbyists believe it's a "red herring" to compare the two. "We believe it's misleading to compare marijuana to beer," said Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute. "Beer is distinctly different both as a product and an industry."

Thorne notes that the alcohol industry is regulated, studied extensively, and perhaps more importantly already an accepted part of the culture. "Factually speaking beer has been a welcome part of American life for a long time," he said. "The vast majority drink responsibly, so having caricatures won't really influence people."

But MPP takes issue with the idea they are painting a false picture. In a recent Op-Ed for CNN, Dan Riffle, the group's director of federal policies, notes that according to the Centers for Disease Control excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Booze also "plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits," he says....

"That's like saying we shouldn't talk about relative harms of sushi to fried chicken," said Mason Tvert, who in addition to working at MPP wrote a book called Marijuana is Safer: So Why are We Driving People to Drink? "It's important that people know the relative harms of all substances, so there's no reason not to talk about the two most popular substances in the world." 

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 7, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Election outcomes in Nov 2013 keep up marijuana reform momentum

Though it would be unwise jump to too many conclusions based on off-year election results, these headlines reporting on results concerning various marijuana initiative in various jurisdictions suggest a continuing affinity for responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices:

Practically speaking, the Colorado vote is probably the most important and consequential, as it ensures a significant tax revenue stream now flowing from marijuana legalization in the Mile High state.  But politically speaking, the voting outcomes in Maine and Michigan, though most symbolic, could still prove important if (and when?) more politicians on both side of the aisle in the northeast and upper midwest see that there could be political upsides in 2014 and beyond from supporting responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 6, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sentencing judge explains his view on how nationwide reforms should impact federal marijuana sentencing

I noted in prior recent posts here and here, U.S. District Judge James Bredar last month conducted a hearing to explore marijuana legal reforms and developments at the state and federal level now called for imposing below-guideline sentences for federal marijuana offenses.  This past Friday, Judge Bredar handed down a 12-page opinion in US v. Dayi, No. JKB-13-0013 (D. Md. Nov. 1, 2013) (available here), explaining his views and thinking on this front.  Here is an excerpt from the final sections of the fascinating (and perhaps very important?) Dayi opinion:

The evolving landscape of state law and federal enforcement policy regarding marijuana is particularly relevant to two of these [statutory sentencing] factors, namely (1) the need for any sentence imposed “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense,” § 3553(a)(2)(A), and (2) the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct,” § 3553(a)(6).....

The Court’s role is not to question, criticize, or laud the Justice Department’s new enforcement priorities or the recent enactments of state voters and legislators.  These policy choices reflect an on-going effort to address a complex, difficult, and highly controversial issue.  Rather, the Court’s role is simply to take note of these developments and consider them as part ofits assessment of the seriousness of these offenses. Ultimately, the Court finds that, in 2013, strict Guidelines sentences would overstate the seriousness of the underlying offenses and therefore fail “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.” § 3553(a)(2)(A)....

The Court also finds that Guidelines sentences in these cases would fail to address the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendant s with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct.” § 3553(a)(6). The Court construes this factor broadly, interpreting it as a command to ensure that sentences comport with the notion of equal justice under the law.  The Justice Department has decided it will not prosecute certain marijuana traffickers, including large-scale commercial distributors who, in compliance with state laws and regulations, establish retail outlets that cater to recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington.  Although the illegal enterprise in these cases is not identical to these commercial distributors — i.e., it did not comply with the laws or regulations of any state and implicated several federal enforcement priorities — it nonetheless bears some similarity to those marijuana distribution operations in Colorado and Washington that will not be subject to federal prosecution. The Court therefore finds it should use its sentencing discretion to dampen the disparate effects of prosecutorial priorities.  As a result, the Court finds this factor too justifies a downward variance from the sentence the Guidelines would otherwise recommend....

Of course, these two factors are not the only ones the Court must consider under § 3553(a). Others, particularly “the nature and circumstances of the offense,” § 3553(a)(1), and“the need for the sentence imposed to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct” § 3553(2)(B), militate more strongly in favor of a Guidelines sentence. Indeed, the conspiracy at issue in these cases was a large, elaborate, and profitable illegal operation involving well in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.  The Court therefore believes that a two-level variance from the Guidelines, which would reduce each defendant’s sentence by roughly 20 to 25%, is appropriate.  Such a variance reflects national trends in the enforcement of marijuana-related offenses, while recognizing the undeniable illegality of defendants’ conduct.  As it determines the sentence of each defendant in these cases, the Court will adopt this analysis, and accordingly it will grant each defendant the benefit of a two-level downward variance.

Recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Might public health be significantly improved by marijuana legalization?

The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable op-ed by Jacob Sullum at Forbes headlined "Economists Predict Marijuana Legalization Will Produce 'Public-Health Benefits'."  Here are excerpts:

In their 2012 book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, Jonathan Caulkins and three other drug policy scholars identify the impact of repealing pot prohibition on alcohol consumption as the most important thing no one knows.  Are cannabis and alcohol complements, so that drinking can be expected to increase along with pot smoking?  Or are they substitutes, implying that more pot smoking will mean less drinking?  For analysts attempting to calculate the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana, the question matters a lot, because alcohol is considerably more dangerous than marijuana by most measures.  If the two products are complements, states that legalize marijuana can expect to see more consumption of both, exacerbating existing health and safety problems.  But if the two products are substitutes, legalizing marijuana can alleviate those problems by reducing alcohol consumption.

Reviewing the evidence in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and University of Colorado economist Daniel Rees find that “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.” [Study Here] Increasing the drinking age seems to result in more marijuana consumption, for instance, and pot smoking drops off sharply at age 21, “suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes.”  Another study found that legalizing marijuana for medical use is associated with a drop in beer sales and a decrease in heavy drinking.   These results, Anderson and Rees say, “suggest that, as marijuana becomes more available, young adults in Colorado and Washington will respond by drinking less, not more.”

That conclusion is consistent with earlier research in which Anderson and Rees found that enacting medical marijuana laws is associated with a 13 percent drop in traffic fatalities. [Study Here]  That effect could be due to the fact that marijuana impairs driving ability much less dramatically than alcohol does, although the fact that alcohol is more likely to be consumed outside the home (resulting in more driving under its influence) may play a role as well....

Anderson and Rees note that UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman, who co-wrote Marijuana Legalization and has been advising Washington’s cannabis regulators, recently described a worst-case scenario for legalization featuring an increase in heavy drinking, “carnage on our highways,” and a “massive” increase in marijuana consumption among teenagers.  “Kleiman’s worst-case scenario is possible, but not likely,” they conclude.  “Based on existing empirical evidence, we expect that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington will lead to increased marijuana consumption coupled with decreased alcohol consumption.  As a consequence, these states will experience a reduction in the social harms resulting from alcohol use.  While it is more than likely that marijuana produced by state-sanctioned growers will end up in the hands of minors, we predict that overall youth consumption will remain stable.  On net, we predict the public-health benefits of legalization to be positive.”

Notably, this commentary and the research it emphasizes appears only to consider the public health benefits that could result from folks substituting marijuana use for alcohol use.  I have long thought that another possible public health benefit could flow from marijuana legalization if some heavy cigarette smokers end up smoking less in total because they sometimes substitute a few joints for a few packs of cigs.  Similarly, one might further speculate that there might be a positive "reverse gateway" effect from marijuana legalization with respect to other dangerous drug use and abuse: perhaps fewer folks will try using, or end up harmfully abusing, harder drugs like ecstasy and heroin and meth and oxycodone if they can get always get a cheap and legal buzz from marijuana.

Of course, a lot of research about the use and abuse of various drugs will be needed in order to come to dependable conclusions about the full public health impact of modern marijuana reform developments.  Still, especially when everyone is understandably all worked up about the Obamacare roll-out and broader health care reform realities, it is fun to speculate that modern marijuana reforms could end up being the most consequential and positive public health development of the Obama era.

I have long been drawn to the marijuana legal reform movement due to my general affinity for expanding personal freedom and my generally disaffinity for big-government programs like the war on drugs that seem very costly and mostly ineffective.  But I have always respected the concerns expressed by serious people that pot prohibition is a public health necessity and that even modest moves toward marijuana legalization could prove costly and harmful in various ways.   Without getting too much into the weeds of an empirical debate, I wonder if those who are vigorously opposed to (or even just generally resistant to) marijuana reform movements would still oppose reform if (and when?) empirical evidence starts to show that (some? many? all?) US public health measures and metrics are improved in the wake of marijuana legalization reforms.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 2, 2013 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Terrific (though incomplete) analysis of the state and future of modern pot politics

Rs and potThis very interesting new piece in The New Republic authored by Nate Cohn and headlined "Marijuana is America's Next Political Wedge Issue: Pot politics, in 2016 and beyond," sets forth what strikes me as an astute (but incomplete) political analysis of modern marijuana reform realities circa fall 2013.   Here are excerpts:

We’ve reached the point where there should be no surprise if a major national politician embraces marijuana legalization. Without any large-scale campaign on its behalf, surveys show that approximately half of Americans now support marijuana legalization, including 58 percent in a recent, but potentially outlying, Gallup poll. Regardless of the exact support today, marijuana is all but assured to emerge as an issue in national elections — it's only a question of how and when.

So far, neither party wants to touch the issue. The Democratic governors of Washington and Colorado didn’t even support initiatives to legalize the possession, distribution, and consumption of marijuana, even though the initiatives ultimately prevailed by clear margins. It took the administration ten months to announce — in the middle of the Syria debate — that the Department of Justice wouldn’t pursue legal action against Washington and Colorado. And on the other hand, Republicans weren't exactly screaming about hippies and gateway drugs, either.

Despite their apparent reservation to engage the issue, it’s hard to imagine Democrats staying on the sidelines for too many more election cycles. The party’s base is already on board, with polls showing a clear majority of self-described Democrats in support....

To date, Democrats haven’t had many incentives to take a risk on the issue. Democrats are already winning the winnable culture war skirmishes, at least from a national electoral perspective, and they have a winning demographic hand. And let’s get perspective: Marijuana legalization may be increasingly popular, but it’s not clearly an electoral bonanza. Support for legalization isn’t very far above 50 percent, if it is in fact, and there are potential downsides. National surveys show that a third of Democrats still oppose marijuana legalization. Seniors, who turnout in high numbers in off year elections, are also opposed. Altogether, it’s very conceivable that there are more votes to be lost than won by supporting marijuana. After all, marijuana legalization underperformed President Obama in Washington State.

Even so, Democratic voters will eventually prevail over cautious politicians, most likely through the primary process. Any liberal rival to Hillary Clinton in 2016 will have every incentive to support marijuana legalization. Whether Clinton will follow suit is harder to say, given that frontrunners (and Clintons) are generally pretty cautious. It’s probably more likely that Clinton would endorse steps toward liberalization, like weaker criminal penalties and support for the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado.

Republicans, meanwhile, are less likely to support legalization or liberalization. To be sure, some Republicans will. They can take a states’ rights position and the party has a growing libertarian bent, perhaps best exemplified by Rand Paul’s willingness to support more liberal marijuana laws. Republicans also have electoral incentives to lead on issues where they can earn a few votes among millennials, who pose a serious threat to the continued viability of the national Republican coalition. If the Republicans can't adjust their existing positions to compensate for demographic and generational change, which (for now) it appears they cannot, then perhaps taking a stance on a new issue, like marijuana, is the best they can do.

Of course, the problem is that a majority of Republicans are opposed to legalization. Two thirds of Republicans voted against legalization in Colorado and Washington, where one might expect Republicans be somewhat more amenable than the nation as a whole. It probably doesn’t help that marijuana is closely aligned with the liberal counterculture. It's also possible that many pro-legalization conservatives don't identify as Republicans at all, but instead might be independents....

With Republicans likely to remain opposed, marijuana could emerge as a big cultural issue in the 2016 election. In particular, Clinton would be well-positioned to deploy the issue. Her strength among older voters and women mitigates the risk that she would lose very much support, while legalization could help Clinton with the young, independent, and male voters who could clinch her primary or general election victory.

But realistically, Clinton or another Democrat won't campaign on marijuana legalization. For one, it’s most likely that the Democratic nominee will support incremental measures....

It’s easier to imagine marijuana playing a role in the 2016 primaries. Many candidates will have incentives to use the issue, whether it’s a cultural conservative using marijuana to hurt Rand Paul among evangelicals in Iowa, or a liberal trying to stoke a progressive revolt against Clinton’s candidacy. And once one party begins to debate the issue, the other will almost certainly be confronted by the same question. Marijuana won’t be decisive in a primary, but 2016’s primary battles will shape the two party’s initial positions on the issue.

Yet marijuana’s big moment will probably come later, perhaps in 2024. Legalization might eventually be popular enough for Democrats to use the issue in general elections, first at the state level and then nationally. As with gay marriage, the GOP’s obvious but difficult solution is to take their own creed on states’ rights seriously, and devolve the issue — and the politics — to the states. Compared to gay marriage, which strikes at the heart of the evangelical wing of the party, it should be easier for the Republicans to make an adjustment on marijuana. But if they cannot, the GOP will again find itself on the losing side of the culture wars.

I see lots and lots of merit to this analysis, and I find especially intriguing the cogent observation that a older female politician like Hillary Clinton might be especially well positioned to experiences far more political benefits than costs from pro-marijuana reform positions. (Indeed, I have been thinking for some time that the marijuana reform movement needs a prominent female (and motherly) face and voice comparable to Pauline Sabin, the first woman to sit on the Republican National Committee, who was a vocal advocate from repealing alcohol prohibition 80 years ago.)

But I think this commentary may be missing one key reality that I am certain will impact dramatically the politics of pot over the next few election cycles: the reality and perceptions of what ends up happening, good or bad, in Colorado and Washington as recreational pot goes mainstream in these two distinct states.  If legalization is seen as a huge success inside and outside these states over the next 12 months, especially in swing-state Colorado, we should expect marijuana reform supporters to see positive political possibilities as early as 2014 and I suspect it will become especially difficult for either party to be vocal opponents of marijuana liberalization and legalization realities.  But if things go poorly in these states, the modern reform politics neccesarily will take on a much different character. 

Labaoratories of democracy, here we come: buckle up politicians, we are likely in for a bumpy and unpredictable politicial ride.

October 26, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack