Monday, May 26, 2014

California DA tries to make sure marijuana crime does not pay by making the criminals pay for reduced charges

La-me-g-mendocino-potwebThe Los Angeles Times has this fascinting new article on a fascinting drug war innovation being utilized by a local districy attorney in California.  The article is headlined "Mendocino County D.A. takes a new approach to marijuana cases," and here are excerpts: 

When David Eyster took over as Mendocino County district attorney, felony marijuana prosecutions were overwhelming his staff and straining the public coffers.

With hundreds of cases active at any one time, taking an average 15 months to resolve, there were few victories to show for all the effort. "The system hadn't broken yet," Eyster said, "but it was dangerously close."

That was a little over three years ago. These days marijuana cases clear in about three months and the Sheriff's Department is flush with cash, thanks to what some are calling "the Mendocino model." To others, it's the Mendocino shakedown.

The transformation began when Eyster dusted off a section of the California health and safety code, intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows, and retooled it for a modern Mendocino County. In exchange for paying restitution, which Eyster sets at $50 per plant and $500 per pound of processed pot seized, eligible suspects can plead to a misdemeanor and get probation. (The law says restitution is reimbursement for actual enforcement costs, but defendants waive an itemized accounting and state the amount owed is "reasonable.")

The relinquishing of allegedly ill-gotten gains seized in separate civil forfeiture actions — cash, trucks and the occasional tractor — also might be part of the deal offered under Eyster's "global resolutions."

The restitution program is available only to those without troublesome criminal backgrounds who have not wildly overstepped California's somewhat gray laws on medical marijuana. Those who trespass, grow on public lands or degrade the environment need not apply.

Eyster said it's a complex calculation that he jots out himself, by hand, on the back of each case file. The size of a grow is not necessarily the deciding factor: In one current case, the defendants have records indicating they are supplying 1,500 medical users, Eyster said. Another case involved just four pounds of processed marijuana, but evidence indicated the defendant was selling for profit. Participants must agree to random searches while on probation, comply with medical marijuana laws and grow only for personal use.

Restitution funds, which have topped $3.7 million since early 2011, go directly to the investigating agencies. Asset forfeitures — the $4.4 million in cash and goods seized in 2013 was nearly double the previous year — are shared by the state, the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

Among those who have criticized the program is Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who during a restitution hearing last year for a man with an 800-plant grow blasted it as "extortion of defendants."

A federal grand jury investigating county programs that derive revenue from marijuana enforcement has subpoenaed accounting records on the restitution program, Eyster confirmed. The reason is unclear, as the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Legal analysts also have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment of defendants and the incentive for officers to focus on lucrative targets at the expense of those more menacing to public safety....

Eyster teamed with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) in 2011 to try to make pot cultivation a "wobbler," prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. The effort failed, but he had devised another way to thin the caseload.

He drew on past experience with welfare fraud, where considering restitution before making a filing decision was routine. Convinced that not all defendants were created equal — the mastermind behind a for-profit grow is more culpable than hired trimmers — he decided to evaluate each case, consider potentially exculpatory evidence and cut deals as he saw fit.

He offers defendants guidance on how to stay within the law, and said paying restitution "shows a step toward rehabilitation." "A month doesn't go by when someone doesn't say: 'Thank you for handling it this way,'" Eyster said.

Since he took office, 357 defendants have decided to pay restitution. About 20 of those violated their probation, resulting in 180-day jail stints and new charges. (On a second round, a straight misdemeanor charge is off the table.)

Eyster never accepts seized cash as payment of restitution, but his approach does throw such assets into the bargaining mix. It is unclear how many probationers paid restitution and forfeited seized cash or goods, but Eyster conceded the practice is common. "One hundred percent of the time, the defense wants to do a global resolution," he said. "It's saving a lot of time and costs."...

Defense attorney Keith Faulder, who practices in Mendocino County, is circumspect when discussing Eyster's program.  The district attorney, Faulder said, is "an innovator" who he believes is "operating in good faith when it comes to settling marijuana cases." However, Faulder said, Eyster "has a real policy of settling cases for civil forfeiture ... I think it gets a lot of dolphin with the tuna." That program has exploded in recent years, with law enforcement officials attributing the increased seizures to a pot trade that permeates the county....

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said his deputies do not have the time or inclination to police for profit: "If I wanted to use this as a business plan, I'd have 12 people on my eradication team," he said.  He has two.  But he credits restitution and forfeitures for a sheriff's budget that is $600,000 in the black, and said he has also been able to expand a resident deputy program and purchase a new fleet of cars.

Despite the criticism, Eyster said he was confident in the legality and effectiveness of his approach. He said that he had offered Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, "first dibs on the prosecution of all marijuana cases in Mendocino County" but that she declined.  So "they should please leave us alone and let local enforcement tackle our own marijuana problems."

Regular readers should not be at all surprised that I am inclined to praise Mendocino County DA for engineering a seemingly more efficient and perhaps more effective way to wage the modern drug war. Indeed, given the muddled mess that is both California's medical marijuana laws and the opaque federal enforcement of prohibition in that state, this "Mendocino model" for modern marijuana enforcement for lower-level marijuana cases strikes me as a very wise way to use prosecutorial discretion and triage prosecutorial resources.

I would like to believe that the federal grand jury investigating the "Mendocino model" is focused on seeing if a local success story can be turned into a national program. But I fear that the feds are looking into what DA Eyster is doing because they fear even the prospect of somebody inventing any better drug war mousetraps.

Finally, though I suppose I should be concerned about the potential for prosecutors extorting criminal defendants in this setting, this form of extortion troubles me much less that when prosecutors demand that defendants give up various rights to avoid a crazy-long mandatory prison sentences in traditional plea bargaining. When DA Eyster seeks money from marijuana defendants as part of the plea process, it seems he is only seeking to have them relinquish what were likely ill-gotten gains (much of which might end up going to defense attorneys' pockets without such a deal available); when other prosecutors seek pleas and cooperation from other defendants facing extreme prison terms, these prosecutors are demanding that defendants relinquish constitutional and statutory rights created specifically to limit and check the power of government officials.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"[A]nybody who’s a limited-government conservative can’t ignore the decades-long record of all of this money wasted and how ineffectual [the drug war has] been"

MalkinThe quote that makes up the title of this post is one from this interesting and very lengthy recent profile of Michele Malkin from the Denver Post. The piece is headlined "Michelle Malkin: Conservative hero and marijuana advocate," and here are some excerpts:

Michelle Malkin is one of the most revered conservative voices in America, and yet the author, columnist and commentator also actively supports medical and recreational marijuana.

“The war on drugs has been a failure. Prohibition was also a failure,” Malkin said recently, drinking coffee at a diner near her Colorado Springs home. “And pointing out that mainstream hospitals are administering these far more pernicious narcotics to terminally ill patients undercuts this whole idea that marijuana is this dangerous gateway.”

Surprised to hear such progressive talk coming from a conservative? Join the club. If you’re not surprised you’ve likely been reading Malkin’s missives for years. The pro-marijuana conservative is a growing segment in the U.S. political spectrum, something we’ll see more of in the November elections. Malkin’s intensely personal story — dating from her time at the Seattle Times in the ‘90s to her mother-in-law’s current struggle with metastatic melanoma — is a potent example of why these two strange bedfellows are becoming increasingly familiar....

But Malkin didn’t always feel that way.  When she left the LA Daily News for The Seattle Times in the mid-90s, she was as anti-marijuana as most Republicans were at that time. But after a chance debate with the late Seattle medical marijuana advocate Ralph Seeley, who died in 1998 of a rare bone cancer after suing the state to allow marijuana to be prescribed medically, she changed her mind on the issue.  Seeley’s arguments were legitimate, Malkin said, and less than a year after his death Washington voters approved medical marijuana.

“People always ask me, ‘When have you ever changed your mind?’ I tell them, ‘Ralph Seeley changed my mind’,” said Malkin.... “I was on a local public TV debate, and at the time I was a fairly orthodox law-and-order, pro-war on drugs conservative columnist. I would accept at face value anything Bill Bennett had claimed about the war of drugs.”

“Of course it’s been an abysmal trillion-dollar failure, and anybody who’s a limited-government conservative can’t ignore the decades-long record of all of this money wasted and how ineffectual it’s been. But going back to the debate with Ralph Seeley: We were on the opposite side of the debate, him in his wheelchair and he had chordoma, an awful degenerative cancer in the spine. He was paralyzed with a trach. He was so articulate, and you couldn’t argue with his facts.”

Just like that Malkin — who jokingly refers to herself on occasion as a “right-wing nut-job” — switched over to the pro-marijuana side of the debate. And nearly two decades after her initial change of heart readers came across her recent “My trip to the pot shop” column on March 25, 2014....

There’s a philosophical and literary hook in Colorado’s mountainous landscape for Malkin, too.  “For Libertarians, of course, Colorado is a special place because it’s Galt’s Gulch, in the Ayn Rand novels,” said Malkin. “The appeal is it’s the last, best sanctuary of the bulwark against the meddling state. And it’s real — it’s not just a fictional sanctuary. It’s real for many people, and those stories of those families moving here from New Jersey underscores that, and it resonates with me because that’s how we feel about Colorado.”...

Marisol Therapeutics is a recreational pot shop in Pueblo West, just 47 miles from Uncle Sam’s Pancake House — and Malkin’s nearby home. (Colorado Springs doesn’t allow recreational marijuana shops.)  The shopping experience, from the initial decision to head south to the storm of comments that followed in the wake of the article, was a historic one for the Malkin family.

But what will Michelle remember the most from her first time buying legal weed? “What an incredible experience it was to walk into the shop and have the understanding and compassion of somebody in the business of providing healing,” Michelle said. “A lot of people from out of state, New York or DC, would parachute into our state and sneer at the so-called ‘medical veneer’ that a lot of these shops have.  But there’s no denying the reality that these places provide the services that people want and need, and that was the upshot of the column.”

The column created a whirlwind of activity on Malkin’s website, both positive and negative.  But the takeaways steeled her resolve and gave her a new found perspective. “When I was at the shop, I told my husband that the clerk seemed like a Libertarian to me,” Malkin said.  “What were they doing? They were complaining about the regulations, the bureaucracy, the taxes. Here’s your natural outreach into a nontraditional constituency, right?”

Malkin splits from party-line mob mentality in that she doesn’t believe that marijuana is a gateway drug — “but speaking of gateway drugs, I think this is a gateway policy issue. It’s a gateway for getting people to start moving beyond traditional right and left politics. And I think that’s a good thing.”...

On protecting the Second Amendment and decriminalizing drugs:  “There has been such an infantilization of citizens by the nanny state that it becomes easier and easier to swallow rationalizing increasing the power of government as a way to protect people from both social harm and self harm.  And for people who think about liberty and how the power of the state should be limited, it bothers me greatly that we’ve redefined what social harm is and that there’s been this encroachment on people’s ability to do whatever they want and in their own homes as long as it doesn’t impose social harm outside of your home.  As long as I’ve been thinking about these issues, dating back to my days in Seattle, it’s always seemed to me that there are similar arguments for fiercely protecting Second Amendment rights as there are for decriminalizing drugs, not just for medical marijuana but for recreational as well. And I have to say that my reservations are greater with regard to recreational marijuana, but the very simple point of my column was how grateful we were that the people of Colorado passed Amendment 64 because it provided an opportunity for us to circumvent the bureaucracy because we could just drop by and walk in. I’m absolutely against repealing it.”

On finding capitalism alive and well in the legal pot industry: “We were so sheepish at the pot shop. I’m sure we looked so goofy saying, ‘Are there brownies?’ And she whipped out the cheddar crackers.  And for me, as someone who believes in capitalism, I was just amazed at how many different companies are involved in producing these different products.  From the bakery to those (vape) pen things, some of it was a bit cliché — they had the Tommy Chong banner up top, the big ’70s heavy metal pounding when you went into the recreational side, but it also struck me how we felt safe. There were multiple ID checks and serious guards at the door — and contrast that with god knows what we would have had to do if we tried obtaining it on the streets.”...

On being pro-marijuana, cautiously: “While some people on the pro side who don’t ever want you to acknowledge that there are costs and consequences and abuses, I don’t have any problem with saying, ‘Of course we should be worried about what else can happen here.’ Of course I tell my kids, ‘Don’t you mess with this,’ as I would with any illicit, addictive substance. It’s not a weakness that there are always those concerns, and that’s why I stress the need for the cultural guardrails.  It bothers me to see Snoop Doggy Dogg and this big haze around all these kids — just how irresponsible that is.  And to the extent that the movement has grown up, it’s a tribute to people like Ralph Seeley, for whom it was a matter of individual liberty and principal all along. There will always be people on either side who exploit the extremes.

Just a few recent and older related posts:

May 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Could This Be the Year for a House Reversal on Medical Marijuana?"

Congress and cannabisThe title of this post is the headline of this intriguing article from Roll Call.  Here are excerpts:

The last time Rep. Dana Rohrabacher offered an amendment on the House floor to protect states rights when it came to legalization of medical marijuana, it was defeated 163–262. Since that vote in 2012, four states — Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maryland — passed laws or regulations allowing for the use of medical marijuana, bringing the total to 21 states and the District of Columbia.

Now, supporters of medical marijuana anticipate the strongest vote yet on a states-rights amendment when the fiscal 2015 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations measure (HR 4660) comes to the House floor in a few weeks, while lawmakers are weighing offering additional marijuana provisions on appropriations measures. Most, but not all, of the proposals lawmakers are considering bringing up are aimed at protecting state laws and programs on medical marijuana use.

The chief provision, which will be offered as an amendment to the appropriations bill funding the Commerce and Justice departments, would prohibit the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana users and providers who are abiding by their state’s law. The House has voted on similar proposals six times since 2003, with about 150 to 160 members supporting it each time. But advocates expect that more lawmakers than ever will support the bipartisan proposal this year, which will likely be introduced by two California lawmakers, Rohrabacher, who is a Republican, and Democrat Sam Farr. Boosters expect to win new backers this year because of the increasingly high poll numbers supporting legalization....

That increasing support may lead lawmakers to hold additional marijuana policy votes on other appropriations bills. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., may consider offering an amendment to the Financial Services appropriations measure that would help marijuana businesses get access to banking by updating federal rules, according to his office. An aide for Colorado Democrat Jared Polis said he also may offer marijuana policy amendments, although he has not made a decision yet....

The backers of the Rohrabacher amendment are an unusual group of social liberals and conservatives who see legalization as a states’ rights issue. Lawmakers including Blumenauer, Michigan Republican Justin Amash and Texas Republican Steve Stockman have voted for it in the past.

Georgia Republican Paul Broun, a physician who supports the amendment, said in a statement that the provision makes sense “from both a medical perspective and a Constitutional perspective.” He added, “This amendment would ensure that medical marijuana patients adhering to their state’s laws would not be punished by an overreaching federal government.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

May 17, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Another week with lots of marijuana developments covered at MLP&R

Continuing a recent tradition of a mid-week review of activities on marijuana law and policy fronts, here is a round up of recent notable posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

May 14, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

So many marijuana developments, so many new posts at MLP&R

In part because there is so much activity on so many marijuana law and policy front, I have been remiss lately about doing my usual round ups of notable posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.   I highly encourage everyone interested in drug reform topics to make regular stops at MLP&R, though I also will try to keep finding time to provide a sampling here of recent posts from MLP&R that help highlight how dynamic the (non-sentencing parts of the) marijuana reform world continues to be.  So:

May 7, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 02, 2014

Family of medical marijuana patients in Washington turn down plea and set up notable federal trial

HarveysThis lengthy new Huffington Post article, headlined "This Entire Family Of Medical Marijuana Patients Could Go To Prison For Growing Pot," spotlights a developing federal criminal case that seems likely to provide a notable criminal justice setting for the on-going national debate over marijuana law, policy and reform. Here are the basics:

Four family members and a close family friend in a rural town in northeastern Washington are facing years in federal prison for growing marijuana for their personal medical use.

Larry Harvey, 70, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, their son Rolland Gregg, 33, and Rolland's wife Michelle, 35, as well as close family friend Jason Zucker, 38, claim they were individually growing 74 marijuana plants for their own medical use at the Harveys' rural home near Kettle Falls, Washington, as is their right under state law.

"There is no hidden agenda here," Rhonda said Thursday in a statement to the media. "My husband and I are retired, but work hard to live a peaceful, sustainable life in the northeast Washington wilderness.  We both have serious health issues and were told by our doctors that medical marijuana could help. All five of us have qualifying conditions, actually, and the garden was below the limit of 15 plants per patient."

"It's outrageous that the federal government is wasting money prosecuting five patients who were in total compliance with state law," Rhonda added.  The Harvey home was first raided by state authorities in August 2012 after two flybys from Washington state's Civil Air Patrol -- the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force -- reported an apparent marijuana grow near the Harvey residence.

On August 9, according to a motion filed by the Washington state U.S. attorney's office, state law enforcers raided the Harvey property and found 74 plants growing near the home. Under the presumption that the family was growing this cannabis as a collective, rather than individually, officers seized 29 cannabis plants so that the family would be compliant with state law, which limits collective crops to no more than 45 plants. The authorities did not press charges or seize any other assets.

However, days later, on August 16, federal authorities showed up with a new warrant and conducted a more comprehensive raid.  At the time, authorities were enacting a widespread crackdown on medical marijuana providers -- an effort that extended into states like California and Colorado -- at the directive of the Obama administration. During the Aug. 16 raid, Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized the Harveys' remaining marijuana plants, as well as about five pounds of raw cannabis and some marijuana-infused edibles from the freezer.  The feds also seized a 2007 Saturn Vue, $700 in cash, a computer, a motorcycle and an ATV, along with the family's legally owned firearms.

"This is not the kind of spectacular haul that the DEA is typically called in for," the family's attorneys wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder this February urging him to reconsider the charges. "Just the opposite, the evidence seized is consistent with the type of strict medical dosage that occurs with a doctor's supervision."

In 2013, the five patients were indicted by the Eastern Washington attorney general's office. According to the defendants' attorneys, all of them were growing cannabis in compliance with state law. Still, the federal government has charged each of them with six felonies apiece, including manufacturing, possession and distribution of marijuana, as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, according to the indictment.

Because their trial is being held in federal court, it may not be enough of a defense for the family to argue that they were compliant with state law. In a motion filed Wednesday, Michael Ormsby, the U.S. attorney in eastern Washington state involved in the case, requested that "any evidence of medical purposes as well as the defendants' belief that they were lawfully engaged in marijuana cultivation" be inadmissible in court. Ormsby argued that the family's purpose for growing the marijuana is not the issue. Rather, he said, the "knowing or intentional manufacturing of marijuana" is all that matters in this case....

During pre-trial hearings for the case this week, the family unanimously rejected the plea deals offered by the prosecuting attorneys that would have reduced their maximum sentences to just three years behind bars. Without the plea deal, their maximum sentences range from up to 40 years to life in federal prison.

Washington state law allows for licensed medical marijuana patients to grow up to 15 plants and be in possession of up to 24 ounces of usable cannabis. The law also says that no more than 10 qualified patients can participate in a single collective garden. The patients can grow up to 15 plants each, but the garden cannot exceed 45 plants.

Federal authorities are charging the Harvey family with growing "100 or more" marijuana plants -- a charge that dramatically increases related fines and prison sentencing -- alleging that the family had grown a crop in 2011 similar in size to the one seized in the raids the following year. The charge is based on "numerous" photos, found on a seized computer from the residence, that allegedly depict the defendants in the grow at the same location in 2011, according to the motion filed by the U.S. attorney's office....

In their letter to Holder, the defendants' attorneys argued that there is no proof these five people are "perceived to be violent in any way," and say that the firearms had "absolutely nothing to do with the cultivation of cannabis." "This is a mom and pop on a family homestead near a National Wildlife Refuge in the Northeastern corner of Washington, where the nearest town is 10 miles in any direction," the attorneys wrote.

The family's attorneys argue that there is an "equal justice disparity" created by federal drug laws that directly contradict state laws in Washington, where medical marijuana has been legal for well over a decade. "In the very city where the Harvey family is set to stand trial, an ordinance was recently passed to establish groundbreaking licensing requirements for aspiring entrepreneurs in the existing medical marijuana field, as well as those planning to enter the emerging [recreational] marketplace," the attorneys wrote in their letter to Holder. "These conflicting realities cannot co-exist."...

Now that all five defendants have rejected the plea deals, their federal trial is expected to begin later this month. An official from the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Washington familiar with the matter said that the office cannot comment on ongoing cases.

For individuals and groups concerning about excessive federal government involvement in the activities of individuals out West, the Harvey family would seem to be a much more sympathetic cause célèbre than Cliven Bundy. But I have a feeling Sean Hannity and some of the folks quick to back Bundy in his stand-off with the feds are not likely to be championing family values and states' rights in this setting. And, sadly, that seems too bad and a telling indication that political principles may only go so far once pot is involved.

May 2, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New survey suggests that "medical community supports the use of medical marijuana"

WebMDIn many prior discussions of modern marijuana reform, frequent (but now MIA) commentor Bill Otis was often very quick to highlight that the American Medical Assocation has expressed serious concerns and considerable reservations about the potential health impact of legalizing marijuana.  I largely agree with Bill that the medical community should have a significant role and voice in the on-going national marijuana reform debate, and thus I found notable this new FOXBusiness article headlined "Survey: 53% of Doctors Support National Legalization of Medical Marijuana."  Here are the details:

Medical marijuana might be legal in 21 states, but it is still not widely prescribe by doctors across the country — despite the majority of doctors and patients supporting its use. According to a survey by online medical resource WebMD, 69% of doctors and 52% of patients polled say marijuana delivers benefits.

“Regardless of past restrictions, a majority of patients and doctors see marijuana as delivering real benefits to treat patients,” says Michael Smith, chief medical editor at WebMD in the research report. “Uncertainty is the next largest response, with 37% of patients unsure of marijuana’s benefits versus 20% of doctors.”

Among the nearly 1,500 doctors surveyed, 82% of the physicians in favor of medical marijuana were oncologists and hematologists. What’s more, a wide majority of respondents say medical marijuana should be an option for patients. However, the support of legalized marijuana has its limits, according to the survey: 53% of doctors and 51% of consumers oppose legalizing it nationally for recreational use.

WebMD and its Medscape unit polled 3,000 consumers along with 1,500 doctors for its report. Support for medicinal use of marijuana is strong even in states where it’s illegal. According to the survey, 50% of doctors practicing in states where it’s banned say it should be legalized, while 52% of doctors practicing in states that are considering legalizing it for medicinal use support the practice. Forty-nine percent of consumers living in states where it’s not legal support legalizing medical marijuana.

Smith says the findings of the survey indicate the medical community supports the use of medical marijuana, but more studies are needed to boost doctors’ confidence as to where medical marijuana can help and where it may not. “Despite more than 20 years of anecdotal evidence about the medicinal effects of marijuana, doctors and consumers remain in search of answers,” he said in a recent press release.

The press release referenced in this article is available at this link, and it provides some more details about the survey and its results.  I also now see WebMD has this entire special section of its website providing coverage of marijuana-related issues.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

UPDATE:  I am pleased to see that Bill Otis has responded to this post via a new post here at Crime & Consequences headlined "How Do You Conduct a Phony Pot Survey?" This response confirms my hope that Bill continue to engage with what I post here even though he, for reasons unexplained to me, no longer seems able or willing to comments directly in the comment section.

April 30, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Legalizing marijuana has been good for Colorado, voters in the state say 52 - 38 percent"

The title of this post is the first line of this notable press release discussing the results of a notable new Colorado poll.  Here is more from the press release:

Legalizing marijuana has been good for Colorado, voters in the state say 52 - 38 percent, but 52 percent of voters are less likely to vote for a candidate for office who smokes marijuana two or three days a week, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today....

Legalized marijuana has been bad for the state, Republicans say 63 - 28 percent and voters over 65 years old say 62 - 28 percent. All other listed groups say it's good for the state....

"Colorado voters are generally good to go on grass, across the spectrum, from personal freedom to its taxpayer benefits to its positive impact on the criminal justice system," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. "But if you are a politician, think twice before smokin' them if you got 'em," Malloy added.

I tend not to put too much stock in a single poll, and a lot could change concerning public opinion regarding legalized marijuana in the weeks and months ahead. But the demographic breakdown of the results in this poll are quite interesting and reveal that, relatively to the general Colorado population, independents, women and persons under 50 all most strongly believe that legalizing marijuana has been good for the state. These numbers confirm my sense that supporting legalized marijuana may now help a politician attract key swing voters more than opposing it.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

April 28, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A few headline highlights concerning those celebrating different high holy day

A busy holiday weekend and balky blog software precluded me from making much of the strange tradition of making 4/20 a special day on the calendar for marijuana fans. But with the mainstream media so interested in this matter this year, I though a round-up of some notable headlines might be justified. So here goes:

April 20, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Another bizarre, sad and fatal case of reefer madness?

As reported in this prior post, a Denver coroner report concluded that a young man fell to his death in March after eating marijuana cookies which may have caused him to act erratically.  Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Police looking at pot role in wife's murder," another sad and fatal event might be linked to marijuana use in Colorado. Here are the distressing details:

The Denver man accused of shooting his wife in their home is in jail without bond. Richard Kirk made his first court appearance on Wednesday. He's facing first-degree murder charges after reportedly telling officers that he killed his wife, 44-year-old Kristine Kirk, while she was on the phone with 911.

Richard's family was in court on Wednesday to support him. They declined comment because they were advised not to speak.

It happened around 9:30 p.m. on Monday in the 2100 block of South St. Paul Street. Law enforcement sources tell 9NEWS that Kristine told the 911 dispatcher her husband Richard Kirk may have eaten marijuana edibles and that he was hallucinating and scaring their three young children.

"I can't get necessarily into specifics about that, but we are looking at a marijuana aspect of this investigation to see if it did play a role in this particular crime," said Denver Police spokesperson Sonny Jackson.

A longtime friend of the Kirk family, who did not want to be identified, told 9NEWS Richard is a religious man, happy-go-lucky and very friendly, who is not known for being violent. The friend also said Kristine was an amazing mother and good friend. They are stunned by what happened. It is a shock shared by many in the neighborhood where the crime scene tape remains a stark reminder of what unfolded there....

Richard has a prior arrest in Douglas County for driving under the influence and careless driving. A police source told 9NEWS it did not appear cops had ever been called to the home before.

Neighbors say they are still coming to grips with what happened. "Just kind of shocking, and it's almost just incredible that something like this would happen," Coyne said.

Kristine was on the phone with 911 for 12 minutes before she was shot. Denver Police said that's not unusual because the call originally came in as non-life threatening, but they plan to look into the circumstances of that call to make sure it was handled properly.

Though I am not ready to jump to any conclusions about this bizarre story, if this sad matricide gets attributed to marijuana use it could certainly impact public perceptions about the pros and cons of marijuana reform.

UPDATE:  I just came across this AP story, headlined "Police: Denver man ate marijuana candy before fatally shooting his wife," which provides these additional details about this tragic story:

Authorities say a Denver man accused of killing his wife while she was on the phone with 911 ate marijuana-infused candy before he allegedly shot her.

According to search warrants released Thursday, 44-year-old Kristine Kirk told dispatchers her husband bought and ate the candy before he started hallucinating and frightening the couple's three children. Police say 47-year-old Richard Kirk also may have taken prescription pain medication before he began acting erratically.

It was not clear whether the pot influenced his behavior.

April 16, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Denver reporting notable 2014 crime reduction since legal pot sales started

As this MSNBC article highlights, new data from Denver shows a notable decrease in crime over the first quarter of 2014.  Here are the encouraging details:

Three months after Colorado residents legalized recreational marijuana with the passage of Amendment 64 in Nov. 2012, Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocio County, Calif. – a haven for marijuana growers – warned that an onslaught of crime was headed toward Colorado. “Thugs put on masks, they come to your house, they kick in your door. They point guns at you and say, ‘Give me your marijuana, give me your money,’” Allman told a Denver TV station in February....

But a new report contends that fourteen years later, even after Colorado legalized the sale of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use on Jan. 1 of this year, violent and property crime rates in the city are actually falling.

According to data from the Denver Police Department, violent crime (including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) fell by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2014, compared with the same period in 2013. Property crime (including burglary, larceny, auto theft, theft from motor vehicle and arson) dropped by 11.1%.

A study looking at the legalization of medical marijuana nationwide, published late last month in the journal PLOS ONE, found that the trend holds: Not only does medical marijuana legalization not correlate with an uptick in crime, researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas argue it may actually reduce it. Using statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report and controlling for variables like the unemployment and poverty rates; per capita income; age of residents; proportion of residents with college degree; number of police officers and prisoners; and even beer consumption, researchers analyzed data from all 50 states between 1990 and 2006....

“The central finding gleaned from the present study was that MML (medical marijuana legalization) is not predictive of higher crime rates and may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault. Interestingly, robbery and burglary rates were unaffected by medicinal marijuana legislation, which runs counter to the claim that dispensaries and grow houses lead to an increase in victimization due to the opportunity structures linked to the amount of drugs and cash that are present.”

The study drew a link between marijuana and alcohol use, surmising that the legalization of pot could cause the number of alcohol-fueled crimes to decline. “While it is important to remain cautious when interpreting these findings as evidence that MML reduces crime, these results do fall in line with recent evidence and they conform to the longstanding notion that marijuana legalization may lead to a reduction in alcohol use due to individuals substituting marijuana for alcohol. Given the relationship between alcohol and violent crime, it may turn out that substituting marijuana for alcohol leads to minor reductions in violent crimes that can be detected at the state level.”

Of course, this is a limited set of data and correlation does not prove causation. But, at the very least, this early crime data certain provide more helpful evidence for supporters of drug law reforms who are eager to assert that it is not drugs but drug prohibition that contributes to crimes.

Some recent related posts:

April 16, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prez Obama commutes 15-year sentence for marijuana offender down to 11.5 years

Build-itIf NYU Law builds it, the President's counsel will come ... and, it seems, the President will act!  

With apologies for the bad "Field of Dreams" reference, I am not sure how else to react to the news I have got via this press release while I am sitting in the audience excited to be at this amazing on-going NYU conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies" with the keynote speaker White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.   I was hoping and expecting the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler would be making news via her afternoon keynote, but her boss beat her to the punch as the full text of the press release reveals:

Today, President Barack Obama granted clemency to the following individual:

• Ceasar Huerta Cantu, also known as Cesar Huerta Cantu – Katy, Texas

Offenses: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; money laundering (Western District of Virginia)

Sentence: 180 months’ imprisonment (as amended), five years’ supervised release (May 11, 2006)

Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to 138 months’ imprisonment

Thanks to the wonderful internet, I found this 2255 dismissal order concerning the Cantu case which suggests that Cantu received an erroneous initial sentence that he was unable to get changed via traditional legal means. But it is unclear from this order alone whether this sentence calculation error provides the basis and reason for this notable commutation.  A quick read of the order does suggest that the reduction from 180 to 138 appears to reflect precisely the sentence Cesar Huerta Cantu would have and should have gotten (after getting substantial assistane credit) had his initial sentence been calculated properly. 

Live-blogging UPDATE:  In her keynote speech at this NYU conference, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is talking up this grant and says that it shows that clemency can serve as a "fail-safe" for correcting errors that cannot be corrected by other means.

WH Counsel Ruemmler has announced that DOJ via BOP is going to alert federal prisonsers about the on-going clemency initiative previously announced by Deputy AG Cole.

MSM UPDATE:  Lots of press reports are now providing context for this grant such as this AP article headlined "Obama commutes sentence made longer by typo."

April 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Notable comments by AG Holder about marijuana legalization in the states

This notable new Huffington Post article, headlined "Eric Holder 'Cautiously Optimistic' About Marijuana Legalization," reports on notable new interview with the AG discussing his latest view onf marijuana reform. Here are excertps: 

Attorney General Eric Holder is "cautiously optimistic" about how things are going in Washington state and Colorado following the legalization and state regulation of marijuana. But the nation's top law enforcement official, who spoke to The Huffington Post in an interview on Friday, also said it was tough to predict where marijuana legalization will be in 10 years.

"I'm not just saying that, I think it's hard to tell," Holder said in a jury room at the federal courthouse in Charleston, which he visited as part of the Justice Department's Smart on Crime initiative. "I think there might have been a burst of feeling that what happened in Washington and Colorado was going to be soon replicated across the country. I'm not sure that is necessarily the case. I think a lot of states are going to be looking to see what happens in Washington, what happens in Colorado before those decisions are made in substantial parts of the country."

Under Holder, the Justice Department has allowed marijuana legalization to move forward in Washington and Colorado and has issued guidance to federal prosecutors that is intended to open up banking access for pot shops that are legal on the state level.

Based on the reports he has received out of Washington and Colorado, Holder also said he thinks things are going about how he'd expected them to go. "I think what people have to understand is that when we have those eight priorities that we have set out, it essentially means that the federal government is not going to be involved in the prosecution of small-time, possessory drug cases, but we never were," Holder said. "So I'm not sure that I see a huge change yet, we've tried to adapt to the situation in Colorado with regard to how money is kept and transacted and all that stuff, and try to open up the banking system."

"But I think, so far, I'm cautiously optimistic," Holder continued. "But as I indicated to both governors, we will be monitoring the progress of those efforts and if we conclude that they are not being done in an appropriate way, we reserve our rights to file lawsuits."

Holder's positive outlook on how legalization is going in Washington and Colorado stands in contrast to the views expressed by Drug Enforcement Administration head Michele Leonhart, who reportedly criticized President Barack Obama for comparing marijuana to alcohol. Leonhart claimed earlier this month that voters were mislead when they voted to legalize and regulate marijuana on the state level, that Mexican drug cartels are "setting up shop" in Washington and Colorado and that this country should have "never gone forward" with legalization. Another DEA official recently claimed that "every single parent out there" opposed marijuana legalization.

Washington and Colorado, of course, aren't the only places in the U.S. reforming their approach to marijuana. In March, Washington, D.C., decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Asked about D.C.'s move, Holder said it didn't make sense to send people to jail on possession charges. "Well, I'll tell you, as a former judge, I had to put in jail substantial numbers of young people for possessory drug offenses, and it was not from the perspective I had as a judge necessarily a good use of law enforcement resources," Holder said. "When I became U.S. attorney we put in place certain guidelines so that people would not end up, especially young people, with criminal records and all that then implies for them."...

Holder also acknowledged the Obama administration has made the political decision not to unilaterally "reschedule" marijuana by taking it off the list of what the federal government considers the most dangerous drugs, though that is something the attorney general has the authority to do. Instead, Holder has said DOJ would be willing to work with Congress if they want to reschedule marijuana, which doesn't seem likely to happen in the near future.

"I think that given what we have done in dealing with the whole Smart on Crime initiative and the executive actions that we have taken, that when it comes to rescheduling, I think this is something that should come from Congress," Holder said. "We'd be willing to work with Congress if there is a desire on the part of Congress to think about rescheduling. But I think I'd want to hear, get a sense from them about where they'd like to be."

April 15, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 07, 2014

If it clearly cost thousands of innocent lives through heroin abuse, would most everyone oppose modern marijuana reforms?

I engendered an intriguing debate over research data, criminal drug reform and public safety concerns in my post here last week titled "If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?".  I am hoping to engender a similar debate with the question in the title of this new post, which is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most supportive of modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this notable new Washington Post article headlined "Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls."  Here are excerpts:

The surge of cheap heroin spreading in $4 hits across rural America can be traced back to the remote valleys of the northern Sierra Madre. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling — driven in part by decriminalization in sections of the United States — Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies.

Mexican heroin is flooding north as U.S. authorities trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse have tightened controls on synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. As the pills become more costly and difficult to obtain, Mexican trafficking organizations have found new markets for heroin in places such as Winchester, Va., and Brattleboro, Vt., where, until recently, needle use for narcotics was rare or unknown.

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them....

The needle habit in the United States has made a strong comeback as heroin rushes into the country. Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned last month.

Although prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses, heroin has been “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before,” said Carl Pike, a senior official in the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With its low price and easy portability, heroin has reached beyond New York, Chicago and other places where it has long been available. Rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the Midwest are being hit especially hard, with cities such as Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Oklahoma City struggling to cope with a new generation of addicts. Pike and other DEA officials say the spread is the result of a shrewd marketing strategy developed by Mexican traffickers. They have targeted areas with the worst prescription pill abuse, sending heroin pushers to “set up right outside the methadone clinics,” one DEA agent said.

Some new heroin users begin by snorting the drug. But like addicts of synthetic painkillers who go from swallowing the pills to crushing and snorting them, they eventually turn to intravenous injection of heroin for a more powerful high. By then, experts say, they have crossed a psychological threshold — overcoming the stigma of needle use. At the same time, they face diminishing satisfaction from prescription pills that can cost $80 each on the street and whose effects wear off after four to six hours. Those addicts are especially susceptible to high-grade heroin offered for as little as $4 a dose but with a narcotic payload that can top anything from a pharmacy.

Unlike marijuana, which cartel peons usually carry across the border in backpacks, heroin (like cocaine) is typically smuggled inside fake vehicle panels or concealed in shipments of legitimate commercial goods and is more difficult to detect. By the time it reaches northern U.S. cities, a kilo may be worth $60,000 to $80,000, prior to being diluted or “cut” with fillers such as lactose and powdered milk. The increased demand for heroin in the United States appears to be keeping wholesale prices high, even with abundant supply.

The Mexican mountain folk in hamlets such as this one do not think of themselves as drug producers. They also plant corn, beans and other subsistence crops but say they could never earn a living from their small food plots. And, increasingly, they’re unable to compete with U.S. marijuana growers. With cannabis legalized or allowed for medical use in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, more and more of the American market is supplied with highly potent marijuana grown in American garages and converted warehouses — some licensed, others not.  Mexican trafficking groups have also set up vast outdoor plantations on public land, especially in California, contributing to the fall in marijuana prices.

“When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that’s true of any farmer,” said David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego. “The wave of opium poppies we’re seeing is at least partially driven by changes we’re making in marijuana drug policy.”

I find this article fascinating in part because it highlight one (or surely many dozen) serious unintended consequences of modern marijuana reforms in the United States. I also find it fascinating because, just as my prior post explored some possible public safety benefits of consumers switching from alcohol use to marijuana use, this article spotlights some possible public safety harms of producers switching from marijuana farming to opium farming.

Some recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

Today's New York Times has this interesting lengthy article discussing pot politics under the headline "Despite Support in Party, Democratic Governors Resist Legalizing Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

At a time of rapidly evolving attitudes toward marijuana legalization — a slight majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug — Democratic governors across the country ... find themselves uncomfortably at odds with their own base.

Even with Democrats and younger voters leading the wave of the pro-legalization shift, these governors are standing back, supporting much more limited medical-marijuana proposals or invoking the kind of law-and-order and public-health arguments more commonly heard from Republicans. While 17 more states — most of them leaning Democratic — have seen bills introduced this year to follow Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana, no sitting governor or member of the Senate has offered a full-out endorsement of legalization. Only Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in Vermont, which is struggling with a heroin problem, said he was open to the idea....

The hesitance expressed by these governors reflects not only governing concerns but also, several analysts said, a historically rooted political wariness of being portrayed as soft on crime by Republicans. In particular, Mr. Brown, who is 75, lived through the culture wars of the 1960s, when Democrats suffered from being seen as permissive on issues like this.

“Either they don’t care about it as passionately or they feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They fear the judgment,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana. “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.” He described that sentiment as, “Do not let yourself be outflanked by Republicans when it comes to being tough on crime and tough on drugs. You will lose.”

In Washington and Colorado, the Democratic governors had opposed legalization from the start, though each made clear that he would follow voters’ wishes in setting up the first legal recreational-marijuana marketplaces in the nation. “If it was up to me, being in the middle of it, and having read all this research and having some concern, I’d tell people just to exercise caution,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a recent interview....

Washington has yet to let its first marijuana stores open — that is expected to happen later this spring — but Gov. Jay Inslee has made his position clear. “As a grandfather, I have the same concerns every grandfather has about misuse of any drug, including alcohol and marijuana,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “All of us want to see our kids make smart decisions and not allow any drug to become injurious in our life. “I recognized the really rational decision that people made that criminalization efforts were not a successful public policy,” Mr. Inslee continued. “But frankly, I really don’t want to send a message to our kids that this is a route that is without risk.”...

The resistance comes as public opinion on the issue is moving more rapidly than anyone might have anticipated. Nationally, 51 percent of adults support legalizing the drug, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February, including 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 72 percent of young adults. Even 44 percent of Tea Party members said they wanted the drug legalized....

There is no obvious political upside to supporting legalization, analysts said, and politicians, as a rule, tend to be risk averse. “You don’t hold these positions without having a sense of your own place in history,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who joined Mr. Sabet in founding Project SAM, which strives to reduce marijuana use by emphasizing health risks. “They can honestly see that this is not a good move, that it’s going to have huge consequences, not all of which can be foretold.”...

At this point, the prospects for other elected officials jumping on the legalization bandwagon is likely to depend on what happens as the experiments in Washington and Colorado proceed. Among the questions are whether legalization will lead to more drug abuse by teenagers and how much it will fatten state tax coffers.

“I don’t tell other governors what to do,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, “but when they asked me, I said, ‘If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether

there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.’”

April 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, April 04, 2014

If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most concerned about modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this extended (data-focused) commentary by Jacob Sollum at Forbes headlined "More Pot, Safer Roads: Marijuana Legalization Could Bring Unexpected Benefits." Here are excerpts (with key research links retained):

The anti-pot group Project SAM claims drug test data show that marijuana legalization in Washington, approved by voters in that state at the end of 2012, already has made the roads more dangerous. The group notes with alarm that the percentage of people arrested for driving under the influence of a drug (DUID) who tested positive for marijuana rose by a third between 2012 and 2013. “Even before the first marijuana store opens in Washington, normalization and acceptance [have] set in,” says Project SAM Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy. “This is a wakeup call for officials and the public about the dangerousness of this drug, especially when driving.”

In truth, these numbers do not tell us anything about the dangerousness of marijuana. They do not even necessarily mean that more people are driving while high. Furthermore, other evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana could make the roads safer, reducing traffic fatalities by encouraging the substitution of marijuana for alcohol....

According to State Toxicologist Fiona Couper, the share of DUID arrestees in Washington whose blood tested positive for THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient, rose from 18.6 percent in 2012 to 24.9 percent in 2013.  That’s an increase of more than 33 percent, as Project SAM emphasizes with a scary-looking bar graph. At the same time, the total number of DUID arrests in Washington rose by just 3 percent, about the same as the increases seen in the previous three years, while DUID arrests by state troopers (see table below) fell 16 percent.

These numbers do not suggest that Washington’s highways are awash with dangerously stoned drivers. So why the substantial increase in positive marijuana tests?  Lt. Rob Sharpe, commander of the Washington State Patrol’s Impaired Driving Section, notes that additional officers were trained to recognize drugged drivers in anticipation of marijuana legalization. So even if the number of stoned drivers remained the same, police may have pulled over more of them as a result of that training....

As Columbia University researchers Guohua Li and Joanne E. Brady pointed out a few months ago in the American Journal of Epidemiology, [a recent] increase in marijuana consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage of drivers killed in car crashes who test positive for cannabinol, a marijuana metabolite.

But as with the increase in DUID arrestees who test positive for THC, this trend does not necessarily mean marijuana is causing more crashes.  A test for cannabinol, which is not psychoactive and can be detected in blood for up to a week after use, does not show the driver was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the crash, let alone that he was responsible for it. “Thus,” Li and Brady write, “the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment.”

Another reason to doubt the premise that more pot smoking means more deadly crashes: Total traffic fatalities have fallen as marijuana consumption has risen; there were about 20 percent fewer in 2012 than in 2002.  Perhaps fatalities would have fallen faster if it weren’t for all those new pot smokers.  But there is reason to believe the opposite may be true, that there would have been more fatalities if marijuana consumption had remained level or declined.

While marijuana can impair driving ability, it has a less dramatic impact than alcohol does. A 1993 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, concluded: “The impairment [from marijuana] manifests itself mainly in the ability to maintain a lateral position on the road, but its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol.  Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate when they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort.  As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”  Similarly, a 2000 report commissioned by the British government found that “the severe effects of alcohol on the higher cognitive processes of driving are likely to make this more of a hazard, particularly at higher blood alcohol levels.”

Given these differences, it stands to reason that if more pot smoking is accompanied by less drinking, the upshot could be fewer traffic fatalities. Consistent with that hypothesis, a study published last year in the Journal of Law and Economics found that legalization of medical marijuana is associated with an 8-to-11-percent drop in traffic fatalities, beyond what would be expected based on national trends.  Montana State University economist D. Mark Anderson and his colleagues found that the reduction in alcohol-related accidents was especially clear, as you would expect if loosening restrictions on marijuana led to less drinking. They also cite evidence that alcohol consumption declined in states with medical marijuana laws.

Anderson et al. caution that the drop in deadly crashes might be due to differences in the settings where marijuana and alcohol are consumed. If people are more likely to consume marijuana at home, that could mean less driving under the influence.  Hence “the negative relationship between legalization and alcohol-related fatalities does not necessarily imply that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol,” although that is what experiments with both drugs indicate.

Arrest data from Washington are consistent with the idea that marijuana legalization could result in less drunk driving. Last year drunk driving arrests by state troopers fell 11 percent. By comparison, the number of drunk driving arrests fell by 2 percent between 2009 and 2010, stayed about the same between 2010 and 2011, and fell by 6 percent between 2011 and 2012. The drop in drunk driving arrests after marijuana legalization looks unusually large, although it should be interpreted with caution, since the number of arrests is partly a function of enforcement levels, which depend on funding and staffing.

Two authors of the Journal of Law and Economics study, Anderson and University of Colorado at Denver economist Daniel Rees, broadened their analysis in a 2013 article published by the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Anderson and Rees argue that marijuana legalization is apt, on balance, to produce “public health benefits,” mainly because of a reduction in alcohol consumption. Their projection hinges on the premise that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes. If marijuana and alcohol are instead complements, meaning that more pot smoking is accompanied by more drinking, the benefits they predict would not materialize.  Anderson and Rees say “studies based on clearly defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.”  But in the same issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-director of the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, and University of South Carolina criminologist Eric Sevigny conclude that the evidence on this point “remains mixed.”

study published last month by the online journal PLOS One suggests that the substitution of marijuana for alcohol, assuming it happens, could affect crime rates as well as car crashes. Robert G. Morris and three other University of Texas at Dallas criminologists looked at trends in homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft in the 11 states that legalized marijuana for medical use between 1990 and 2006. While crime fell nationwide during this period, it fell more sharply in the medical marijuana states, even after the researchers adjusted for various other differences between states. Morris and his colleagues conclude that legalization of medical marijuana “may be related to reductions in rates of homicide and assault,” possibly because of a decline in drinking, although they caution that the extra drop in crime could be due to a variable they did not consider.

One needs to be very cautious, of course, drawing any firm conclusions based on any early research about impaired driving, car crashes, and marijuana reform. But let's imagine it does turn out generally true that legalizing medical marijuana helps produce a 10% drop in a jurisdiction's traffic fatalities. If extended nationwide throughout the US, where we have well over 30,000 traffic fatalities each and every year, this would mean we could potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. (One might contrast this number with debated research and claims made about the number of lives possibly saved by the death penalty: I do not believe I have seen any research from even ardent death penalty supporters to support the assertion that even much more robust use of the death penalty in the US would be likely to save even 1000 innocent lives each year.)

Obviously, many people can and many people surely would question and contest a claim that we could or would potentially save more than 3000 innocent lives each year from nationwide medical marijuana reform. But, for purposes of debate and discussion (and to know just how important additional research in this arena might be to on-going pot reform debates), I sincerely wonder if anyone would still actively oppose medical marijuana reform if (and when?) we continue to see compelling data that such reform might save over 50 innocent lives each and every week throughout the United States.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Months into state experiment, first death officially linked to marijuana legalization in Colorado

As reported in this Denver Post article, headlined "Denver coroner: Man fell to death after eating marijuana cookies," it appears that at least one fatality can now be directly linked to "legalized" marijuana use and abuse in Colorado.  Here are the basics:

A college student visiting Denver jumped to his death from a hotel balcony after eating marijuana-infused cookies, according to a coroner's report that marks the first time authorities have publicly linked a death to marijuana since legal sales of recreational cannabis began in Colorado.

Levy Thamba, a 19-year-old student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., died last month at a Holiday Inn in northeast Denver. On Wednesday, the Denver coroner released a report concluding that Thamba's death was caused by "multiple injuries due to a fall from height." The coroner also listed "marijuana intoxication" from cannabis-infused cookies as a significant condition contributing to the death. The report classifies the death as an accident.

A brief summary of the investigation that was included in the autopsy report says Thamba, also known as Levi Thamba Pongi, traveled to Denver with three friends on spring break. On March 11, the report says, Thamba consumed "marijuana cookies" and "soon thereafter exhibited hostile behavior (pulling items off the walls) and spoke erratically."

"The decedent's friends attempted to calm him down and were temporarily successful," the report states. "However, the decedent eventually reportedly jumped out of bed, went outside the hotel room, and jumped over the balcony railing." Thamba and his friends were staying on the hotel's fourth floor, according to the report.

Michelle Weiss-Samaras, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, said the office often lists alcohol intoxication as a significant contributing factor in a death — for instance, in an alcohol-related car accident. She said the office also has seen cases involving apparent marijuana-impaired driving, but she said she believes this is the first time it has listed marijuana intoxication from an edible product in such a way.

Weiss-Samaras said Thamba had no known physical or mental-health issues, and toxicology tests for other drugs or alcohol came back negative. "We have no history of any other issues until he eats a marijuana cookie and becomes erratic and this happens," she said. "It's the one thing we have that's significant."

According to the autopsy report, Thamba's marijuana concentration in his blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. In impaired driving cases, state law sets a standard of 5 nanograms per milliliter at which juries can presume impairment.

In January, Colorado became the first state in the country to allow people 21 and over to legally buy marijuana for any purpose from regulated stores.  Weiss-Samaras said investigators believe a friend of Thamba's purchased the cookies in a recreational marijuana store. "We were told they came here to try it," she said....  It remains unclear how much of the marijuana-infused product Thamba consumed or how long after consuming it that he died.  

Marijuana edibles — which account for 20 to 40 percent of overall sales, industry experts estimate — have been controversial in Colorado, and the legislature will likely take up the issue again this session.  Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, plan to introduce a bill as early as this week that would further cap the potency of edibles and prohibit them from being made in forms that might appeal to children.

This story is already getting coverage in national newspapers, and it will now be interesting to see whether and how opponents of marijuana reform might actively use this sad development in support of their arguments against reform efforts.  Notably, at age 19, Levy Thamba was technically underage and thus his recreation marijuana use was not legal.  But that fact itself reinforces the arguments of opponents of marijuana reform that legalization makes it easier and more likely that underage persons will have access and be eager to try marijuana products.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 3, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (30) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New study suggests legalizing medical marijuana may reduce violent crime

This new Washington Post piece, headlined "No, legalizing medical marijuana doesn’t lead to crime, according to actual crime stats," a notable new study provides reason to think (or at least hope) that medical marijuana reforms may actually be a crime reduction strategy. Here are excerpts from the Post posting, with links to the study being discussed:

Actual historic crime data, however, suggest there's no evidence that legalizing the drug for medicinal purposes leads to an increase in crime. In fact, states that have legalized it appear to have seen some reductions in the rates of homicide and assault.

These findings come from a nationwide study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One (which is notable for the fact that no one seems to have done this crucial analysis before).  Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the FBI's Uniform Crime Report data across the country between 1990 and 2006, a span during which 11 states legalized medical marijuana. Throughout this time period, crime was broadly falling throughout the United States.  But a closer look at the differences between these states —  and within the states that legalized the drug before and after the law's passage — further shows no noticeable local uptick among a whole suite of crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and auto theft.

The robbery and burglary findings are particularly interesting, as those are the crimes we'd most likely expect to see outside of medical dispensaries.  But what about the apparent declines in homicide and assault?

The researchers, Robert G. Morris, Michael TenEyck, J.C. Barnes and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, caution that this may be a mere statistical artifact of their analysis. But there's also a plausible explanation:

While it is important to remain cautious when interpreting these findings as evidence that MML reduces crime, these results do fall in line with recent evidence and they conform to the longstanding notion that marijuana legalization may lead to a reduction in alcohol use due to individuals substituting marijuana for alcohol. Given the relationship between alcohol and violent crime, it may turn out that substituting marijuana for alcohol leads to minor reductions in violent crimes that can be detected at the state level.

Their analysis controlled for other potentially confounding factors: employment and poverty rates in each state, income and education levels, age and urban demographics, per-capita rates of prison inmates and police officers, as well as per-capita rates of beer consumption (per the Beer Institute).

The results don't definitely prove that medical marijuana has no effect on crime (or that it might even reduce it). Maybe the researchers failed to account for some other crucial variable here, some common factor that further depressed crime in precisely these 11 states, precisely after the moment that each passed a medical marijuana law, masking the actual crime increase caused by the policy. Or, there's this interpretation, from the authors:

Perhaps the more likely explanation of the current findings is that [medical marijuana] laws reflect behaviors and attitudes that have been established in those societies. If these attitudes and behaviors reflect a more tolerant populace that is less likely to infringe on one another’s personal rights, we are unlikely to expect an increase in crime and might even anticipate a slight reduction in personal crimes.

March 27, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Cooperative Federalism and Marijuana Regulation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper co-authored by Erwin Chemerinsky, Jolene Forman, Allen Hopper and Sam Kamin and now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The struggle over marijuana regulation is one of the most important federalism conflicts in a generation. Since 1996 twenty states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes and, in November 2013, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for adult recreational use. In the fall of 2013, the federal Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced it will not prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states with their own robust marijuana regulations, specifying eight federal enforcement priorities to help guide state lawmaking. This announcement has been widely interpreted to signal that the federal government will not enforce its stricter marijuana laws against those complying with the new Washington and Colorado laws so long as the new state regulatory regimes effectively prevent the harms the DOJ has identified as federal priorities.  Yet even if the federal government voluntarily refrains from enforcing its drug laws against those complying with robust state regulatory regimes, the ancillary consequences flowing from the continuing federal prohibition remain profound.  Banks, attorneys, insurance companies, and potential investors concerned about breaking federal law are reluctant to provide investment capital, legal advice, or numerous other basic professional services necessary for businesses to function and navigate complex state and local regulations. And consumers face the risk of severe legal consequences.

The Article explains why, even if it wished to do so, the DOJ could not simply shut down all state marijuana legalization efforts using the federal government’s preemption power under the Supremacy Clause.  We suggest an incremental and effective solution that would allow willing states to experiment with novel regulatory approaches while leaving the federal prohibition intact for the remaining states.  The federal government should adopt a cooperative federalism approach that allows states meeting specified federal criteria — criteria along the lines that the DOJ has already set forth — to opt out of the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) provisions relating to marijuana. In opt-out states certified by the Attorney General, state law would exclusively govern marijuana-related activities and the CSA marijuana provisions would cease to apply.  Federal agencies could continue to cooperate with opt-out states and their local governments to jointly enforce marijuana laws, but state law rather than the CSA would control within those states’ borders. Equally important, nothing would change in those states content with the status quo under the CSA.  This proposed approach embodies the best characteristics of federalism by allowing some states to experiment while maintaining a significant federal role to minimize the impact of those experiments on other states.

March 26, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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