Thursday, March 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 09, 2014

This week's review of marijuana reform news and notes

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

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

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Another review of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two notable new commentaries via HuffPost

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

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

Monday, February 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 09, 2014

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Super Sunday of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Football, Pain and Marijuana"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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