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