Thursday, January 05, 2017
Marijuana reform and clemency conversations at the state and federal level
Two new lengthy pieces combining news and commentary on the clemency and marijuana fronts further reinforces my view that marijuana reform is a form of sentencing reform. Here are the extended headlines and links to these two interesting reads:
From the Christian Science Monitor here, "Vermont governor pardons 192 marijuana offenders. Will other states do the same?: Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin pardoned nearly 200 nonviolent offenders convicted of marijuana possession under the state’s old laws. Will other state executives follow his lead?"
From Politico here, "The Big Statement Obama Could Make On Legalizing Pot: Pardoning a 73-year-old marijuana kingpin would please thousands of voters, but probably not the next attorney general."
Sunday, December 18, 2016
So many states with so many interesting marijuana reform stories ... only partially covered at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Especially since the election, I have found the stories and debates surrounding capital and non-capital sentencing reforms to be filled with even more intrigue and uncertainty than usual. And yet, even as sentencing law and policy gets even more dynamic, I continue to find legal and policy and practice developments in the marijuana reform space to be on a whole different level. Part of this reality comes from the fact that marijuana reform right now is such a diverse state-by-state story nationwide, with big new developments occurring literally from corner to corner of the United States. For example, in this new round-up of notable headlines at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, there is news of note from Alaska and California and Florida and Maine (as well as from fly-over states like Ohio and Montana).
Of course, all criminal justice reform stories are ultimately state-by-state stories in the United States. Still, the fact that we see so much state-level reform an innovation in the teeth of continued federal blanket prohibition seems to me an important reminder of how decentralized power in this great country can be if folks take the time to try to avoid undue obsession with the laws and policy that emerge only from inside the Beltway. And here are a few more more recent posts from MLP&R further reinforcing this essential story:
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Vermont Gov promising to pardon all marijuana offenses on his way out of office
As reported in this local article from Vermont, "before he leaves office, Gov. Peter Shumlin is planning to pardon people who were convicted of possessing up to one ounce of marijuana." Here are the details:
Vermont removed criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana possession in 2013. Shumlin said in a statement that pardoning the convictions now is "the right thing to do," and he hopes to review as many applications as possible before he leaves office in the new year. [The official statement is here.]
“Decriminalization was a good first step in updating our outmoded drug laws," Shumlin said. "It makes no sense that minor marijuana convictions should tarnish the lives of Vermonters indefinitely.”
The governor will consider pardons for people who have never been convicted of "violent criminal Vermont convictions or felonies," according to a news release. The governor's office believes as many as 10,000 people are eligible for pardons, said James Pepper, a policy adviser and director of intergovernmental affairs for Shumlin....
People interested in a pardon for marijuana possession can apply through the governor's website before Dec. 25 [link here]. The website cautions applicants that their applications may be considered public records and that a pardon "will not necessarily erase a conviction or the record of that conviction."
"If you are requesting a pardon because you believe the pardon will have certain legal consequences for you, you should talk to a lawyer," the governor's website states....
A 2015 Vermont law allows people in certain circumstances to expunge criminal records of acts they committed before age 25 that are no longer criminal, including possession of small amounts of marijuana. Shumlin believes Vermont should legalize recreational marijuana. A legalization bill passed the state Senate this year but did not pass the House of Representatives.
This story provides further reinforcement of my long-standing view that marijuana reform = sentencing reform and that everyone interested in sentencing reform should be a supporter of marijuana reform. And, of course, for more on marijuana law, policy and reform, my other blog has been covering these stories:
Friday, December 09, 2016
As opioid deaths officially surpass gun homicides, will national leaders continue to ignore potential live-saving benefits of medical marijuana?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post Wonkblog piece, which starts by noting that "opioid deaths continued to surge in 2015, surpassing 30,000 for the first time in recent history, according to CDC data released Thursday." Here is more of the grim data:
That marks an increase of nearly 5,000 deaths from 2014. Deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates, like fentanyl, rose by nearly 75 percent from 2014 to 2015. Heroin deaths spiked too, rising by more than 2,000 cases. For the first time since at least the late 1990s, there were more deaths due to heroin than to traditional opioid painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone....
In a grim milestone, more people died from heroin-related causes than from gun homicides in 2015. As recently as 2007, gun homicides outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1. These increases come amid a year-over-year increase in mortality across the board, resulting in the first decline in American life expectancy since 1993.
Congress recently passed a spending bill containing $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, including money for addiction treatment and prevention. "The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country — in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance use disorder treatment,” said Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement. "That is why the President has called since February for $1 billion in new funding to expand access to treatment."
Much of the current opioid predicament stems from the explosion of prescription painkiller use in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Widespread painkiller use led to many Americans developing dependencies on the drugs. When various authorities at the state and federal levels began issuing tighter restrictions on painkillers in the late 2000s, much of that demand shifted over to the illicit market, feeding the heroin boom of the past several years.
Drug policy reformers say the criminalization of illicit and off-label drug use is a barrier to reversing the growing epidemic. “Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others.”
These depressing data spotlight one of many reasons I am supportive of medical marijuana reforms for the treatment of pain. It is functionally impossible to die from an overdose of marijuana, and thus it will always be in some important ways safer for someone to become dependent on marijuana rather than on opioids for pain relief. In addition, as highlighted in a number of posts from my other blog, there is considerable research emerging from various sources that the opioid epidemic is somewhat less deadly in states that have robust medical marijuana programs.
Some related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:
- "The Case for Pot in the Age of Opioids: Legalizing medical marijuana could save lives that may otherwise be lost to opioid addiction."
- Given latest opioid death data, should Ohio officials be fast-tracking access to medical marijuana?
- "Elizabeth Warren Urges CDC To Consider Cannabis To Solve Opioid Epidemic"
- Yet another study suggests link between medical marijuana availability and decreased opioid use
- "Could medical marijuana solve Ohio's opioid problem?"
- "Legalize marijuana and reduce deaths from drug abuse"
- "Obama’s Opioid Offensive Again Ignores the Cannabis Solution"
Monday, December 05, 2016
Bring it, Jeff: why I seriously doubt future AG Sessions will start a foolish new weed war federal offensive
The title of this post is my (foolish?) reaction to this notable new Politico magazine article headlined "Jeff Sessions’ Coming War on Legal Marijuana: There’s little to stop the attorney general nominee from ignoring the will of millions of pro-pot voters." Here are excerpts from the start of the article which I follow with a (too brief) explanation for my blunt "bring it" bravado:
By nominating Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for attorney general, President-elect Donald J. Trump is about to put into the nation’s top law enforcement job a man with a long and antagonistic attitude toward marijuana. As a U.S. Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, Sessions said he thought the KKK "were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” In April, he said, “Good people don't smoke marijuana,” and that it was a "very real danger" that is “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.” Sessions, who turns 70 on Christmas Eve, has called marijuana reform a "tragic mistake" and criticized FBI Director James Comey and Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch for not vigorously enforcing a the federal prohibition that President Obama has called “untenable over the long term.” In a floor speech earlier this year, Senator Sessions said: "You can’t have the President of the United States of America talking about marijuana like it is no different than taking a drink… It is different….It is already causing a disturbance in the states that have made it legal.”
Sessions has not shared his plans on marijuana enforcement, but if he chooses, he will be able to act decisively and quickly — more so perhaps than with any other of his top agenda items such as re-doubling efforts to combat illegal immigration and relaxing oversight of local police forces and federal civil rights laws. With little more than the stroke of his own pen, the new attorney general will be able to arrest growers, retailers and users, defying the will of more than half the nation’s voters, including those in his own state who approved the use of CBD. Aggressive enforcement could cause chaos in a $6.7 billion industry that is already attracting major investment from Wall Street hedge funds and expected to hit $21.8 billion by 2020.
And so far, Congress has shown no interest in trying to stop the Sessions nomination, at least on this issue. Even members who are in favor of protecting states from federal interference on the marijuana issue have said they support Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general: “I strongly support Jeff Sessions as Attorney General,” said Representative Tom McClintock, Republican from California. “He is a strict constitutionalist who believes in the rule of law. I would expect that he will respect the prerogative of individual states to determine their own laws involving strictly intra-state commerce.”
There are dozens of reasons I think it would be quite foolish as a matter of constitutional law and sound federal policing priorities for future Attorney General Jeff Sessions to start his tenure by using broad federal police powers to criminally prosecute tens of thousands of players in a growing recreational marijuana industry. This industry is already well-established and producing thousands of jobs and tens of millions in tax revenues in Colorado, Oregon and Washington; it is now gearing up for growth in Alaska, California, Massachusetts and Nevada and maybe Maine.
In the most simple of terms, it would be foolish for the Trump/Sessions Administration to try to "Make America Great Again" via tough federal pot prohibition enforcement because it would show to all who care to pay attention that the GOP's purported affinity for personal freedoms, free markets, limited government and states' rights is a huge bunch of hooey. But I genuinely believe that most younger GOP Senators — e.g., folks like Ted Cruz, my wish pick for AG, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott— have always voiced a genuine commitment to personal freedoms, free markets, limited government and states' rights. Consequently, I do not think these important GOP voices are going to be quick to bless any efforts by future AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to bring back an era of national federal Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat.
Moreover, and completely missing from the facile analysis in this superficial Politico article, even if future AG Jeff Sessions were eager to bring back an era of national federal Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat for the emerging recreational marijuana industry, there will still be the bigger and stronger and much more consequential medical marijuana industry chugging along — especially in so many swing/red states that were critical to the election of Donald J. Trump circa 2016. I am thinking here specifically of now-red states like Arizona and Florida and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those now-red states alone add up to nearly 100 electoral votes that a whole bunch of Dems would love to win back in 2018 and 2020; and they are all states that, I think, could easily go back into the Dem column if/when establishment Dems finally figure out that medical marijuana reform in a winning issue worth promoting forcefully. (I have blogged here an explanation for my claim in a post at my other blog that Voter math suggests a possible Hillary landslide IF she had championed marijuana reform.)
Importantly, in this post I have only outlined some obvious political/policy reasons for why I think it would be foolish (and ultimately unlikely) for future AG Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to bring back an era of national federal pot Prohibition enforcement by executive fiat. In a future post, assuming readers are interested, I can explain all the reasons I think the other two branches of the federal government — Congress and the federal judiciary — can and would and should find an array of means to "stop the attorney general nominee from ignoring the will of millions of pro-pot voters." Given that Congress and federal judges over the last eight years have done a whole lot to preclude the Obama Administration from doing too much by executive fiat, everyone concerned about criminal justice and marijuana policy in the Trumpian future much keep in mind that the Framers gave us a wonderful federal system of check-and-balances that has been pretty effective at keeping the big bad federal government from doing too many stupid things that are obviously against the considered will of the people.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy, and Reform
Friday, December 02, 2016
Reviewing another week of developments and questions from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Absent complaints from readers, I think I am going to return to my habit of closing up my "blogging work-week" in this space by providing a round-up of posts of note from blogging over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform. So:
- Given latest opioid death data, should Ohio officials be fast-tracking access to medical marijuana?
- Highlighting how in California marijuana legalization = sentencing reform
- Some notable new stories and discussions of NFL policies and NFL players' use of marijuana
- "Marijuana advocates sceptical about Canada path to legal pot"
Saturday, November 26, 2016
So many marijuana reform developments and questions, with so many more on 2017 horizon
Though I blogged a bit in this space about marijuana reform right around the election (see here and here), over the last few weeks I have been content to cover this issues just over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform. But this new post about this new article about the thousands of Californians getting sentencing relief thanks to the state's passage of a major marijuana legalization proposition, Prop 64, reminded me that I should be reminding readers about the close links between marijuana reform in particular and sentencing reform in general.
The first post linked below tells the sentencing reform story, and some other postings from my other blog tell a whole lot of other interesting and dynamic stories about the current state and possible future of marijuana reform in the United States:
Thursday, November 03, 2016
Notable new analysis of marijuana arrest rates and patterns acorss the nation
This new post at Marijuana.com, under the headline "Marijuana Decrim Doesn’t Stop Discrimination, New Data Shows," appears to be reporting and analyzing some important new data on the impact of marijuana reform on some key criminal justice metrics. Here are excerpts from the lengthy entry:
Marijuana arrest rates are plummeting as a growing number of far-reaching state policy reforms like legalization and decriminalization are enacted; however, stark racial disparities in cannabis law enforcement remain, a new Marijuana.com analysis of policing data uncovers. The data provided an illuminating follow-up to the 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report which made headlines by showing that, while African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equivalent rates, blacks are much more likely to be arrested for it.
Public records requests submitted via MuckRock to all 50 states for data pertaining to marijuana-related arrests show, on average, a significant decrease in possession offenses in the years since the publication of the ACLU report, which was based on 2010 data. But despite the apparent shift in focus away from the enforcement of marijuana possession laws, the racial bias in arrest rates uncovered by the ACLU remains intact.
The new data also revealed that decriminalization measures may have become an unintentional barrier to transparency in marijuana law enforcement. The classification of marijuana as a less serious offense in many states has resulted in a deprioritization of tracking critical information regarding who is stopped, and how often.
Among the key findings of the new Marijuana.com analysis are:
- In New York, despite significant drops in arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, black people are more than 13 times as likely as white people to be arrested for it.
- Despite significant drops in overall arrest rates, Florida increased the number of people arrested for marijuana possession since 2010.
- States with a large racial disparity in arrests – New York, North Carolina and South Carolina – also tend to be the states with higher overall arrest rates.
- The largest drops in overall arrest rates since 2010 occurred in Nevada, Alaska, Connecticut and New York.
In all, data were received from 25 states; 12 states provided arrest numbers for local and state police — many not filtered by agency — while 13 either separated local and state police data or provided numbers only for state police. The remaining states for which data were not obtained either do not keep track of marijuana offenses as distinct from other drug-related crimes, do not keep track of marijuana offenses on a state level or charged prohibitively high fees for the same data which other states provided for free.....
The data we are able to report here do not tell the whole story of marijuana users’ clash with the law in this age of decriminalization and legalization. Public opinion toward marijuana has shifted dramatically, particularly within the last several years. A few states have legalized possession of small amounts, while others have instead opted to reclassify possession of similar amounts from felonies to misdemeanors or from misdemeanors to civil infractions, to reflect this change in perception.
While this shift has been a laudable victory for advocates pushing for full legalization of recreational use, it has also resulted in increased difficulty in tracking important data. Finding the answer to a relatively simple question, such as, “How many people in this state were caught with marijuana in the year 2014?” has become all the more arduous. Researchers are forced to track down data for misdemeanors and felonies at the state level in addition to approaching individual law enforcement agencies directly for data on civil infractions, hoping they keep track of those numbers at all.
Consequently, the data reported here reflect only the marijuana possession offenses which are reported at the state levels; the number of civil infractions in states which have decriminalized possession are evidenced only by the significant drop in arrest rates (misdemeanors) following such a change in the law....
Taken as a whole, the new numbers obtained by Marijuana.com add to the debate about the effects of both prohibition and the decriminalization policies that advocates have succeeded in enacting in a growing number of jurisdictions, and the data (or in some cases lack thereof) shed light on the difficulty in tracking many of those effects.
I find this report and its data quite interesting, but it is a bit opaque and ultimately further convinces me that one of the first (and non-controversial?) priorities for the new federal administration should be to try to collect and analyze data on modern marijuana enforcement nationwide . Of course, I think a priority for everyone interested in the marijuana reform space must include checking out my other blog where you can find these recent posts on various related topics:
- "'The Mellow Pot-Smoker': White Individualism in Marijuana Legalization Campaigns"
- Would federal marijuana reform get a real "boost" if Democrats gain control of the US Senate?
- "Future is hazy for marijuana and the workplace"
Monday, October 31, 2016
"Defendant in U.S. opioid kickback case claims constitutional right to smoke pot"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new argument about a notable motion filed in federal district court case. Here are the details:
A U.S. ex-pharmaceutical sales representative accused of paying kickbacks to induce doctors to write prescriptions for an opioid drug is asserting he has a constitutional right to continue smoking marijuana so he can remain clear-headed for his defense.
In a filing Friday, lawyers for Jeffrey Pearlman asked a federal judge for the U.S. District Court in Connecticut to modify his bail conditions so that he can continue using marijuana that was prescribed to him by a New Jersey doctor to help him kick his opioid addiction. "Forcing him off the medical marijuana and forcing him to return to addictive opioids would impair his Sixth Amendment right to participate fully in his defense and his Fifth (Amendment) right to due process," his attorneys Michael Rosensaft and Scott Resnik of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP wrote.
The novel request is one of only at least three such attempts in a federal court to permit the use of medical marijuana. It is possibly the only motion of its kind to assert a Sixth Amendment defense that the failure to permit medical marijuana use could re-trigger an opioid addiction and impede a person's ability to participate in his own defense....
A variety of state laws have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, but federal law still prohibits it. The drug is classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning it is addictive and serves no medical purpose. Many opioids, by contrast, fall under Schedule II, meaning they are addictive, but have medical uses.
Pearlman, a former Insys Therapeutics, was charged criminally in September for allegedly arranging sham speaker programs designed to encourage medical professionals to write prescriptions for a fentanyl spray. His lawyers say Pearlman became addicted to opioids used to treat severe back and leg pain and the drugs made him "foggy" and unable to think clearly.
After being prescribed marijuana in August, they said, his pain has subsided and he is able to "think more clearly." Whether the judge will grant Pearlman's request remains to be seen. Two defendants in other federal courts previously lost their bids to continue using medical marijuana, though the facts and circumstances in those cases were different.
In this case, the U.S. Attorney's Office has not opposed the request. A spokesman for the office declined to elaborate further.
There are so many drug war ironies baked into this story, I am not sure I know where to start my fuzzy commentary on the highlights of this case. For now, I will be content to note the remarkable fact that the U.S. Attorney's Office's has here not opposed a request by a federal fraud defendant to be able to break federal drug laws while on bail.
October 31, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Famous "war on drugs" voice now voicing support for marijuana reform: any questions?
This new MarketWatch article, headlined "War on drugs spokesman now supports marijuana legalization," gives me an excuse to flag an iconic 1980s public service announcement while reporting on its new symbolic significance:
The voice behind one of the war on drugs’ most iconic ads has cast a vote to legalize marijuana. During the height of the ’80s war on drugs that gave rise to the “Just Say No” campaign, actor John Roselius stared in an antidrug TV ad for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The ad featured Roselius frying an egg in a skillet to portray what happens to the brain while using drugs.
Roselius, who is now 72, recently told Colorado-based Rooster Magazine he voted “yes” on California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Prop 64, which would legalize and regulate the use and sale of the plant to adults. “I’m 100% behind legalizing it, are you kidding? It’s healthier than alcohol,” Roselius told the publication.
And he’s not alone. Just ahead of the Nov. 8 election — in which five states will vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and four will vote on legalizing medical marijuana—a Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans support legal marijuana use. That’s the highest percentage of support recorded in the 47-year trend, with support rising among all age groups in the past decade.
That follows a separate poll by Pew Research earlier in the month which found 57% of Americans support legalization. “The topline number obviously bodes well for the marijuana measures on state ballots next month,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, an organization tasked with educating people and fighting for marijuana legalization. “More politicians — presidential candidates included — would do themselves a big favor to take note of the clear trend and then vocally support legislation catering to the growing majority of Americans who support modernizing failed marijuana policies.”
Roselius told Rooster Magazine he’d smoked marijuana in the ’60s, and that when he made the ad, he knew it didn’t fry the brain like an egg.
The war on drugs has been one of the most scrutinized and debated policies to come out of the Reagan era. Drug dealers were cast as violent villains and were blamed for devastating some of America’s cities. Incarceration rates shot higher and disproportionately affected men of color.
The cannabis industry has since fought back against that portrayal, calling for an end to arrests for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. Roselius’ vote to legalize marijuana in California could help push one of the most important states in the movement to the forefront.
Of course, if you do have question about these matter, my blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform has a lot more coverage. And, with that intro and a good excuse now, here is a review of some recent posts there (many of which are the fine work of my relatively new co-blogger):
- "The Hazy Rollout of Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program"
October 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, October 13, 2016
New empirical study suggests "recreational cannabis caused a significant reduction of rapes and thefts"
As regular readers surely surmise, I tend to support modern efforts to repeal in part or in whole blanket marijuana prohibitions largely because I am hopeful that modern marijuana reforms will produce more net societal benefits than harms. Consequently, I often am (too?) quick to take note of reports and studies extolling the benefits of marijuana reforms; but, I also try to make sure I am equally quick to take note of what might be formal or informal biases in any reports and studies extolling the benefits of marijuana reforms.
Against that backdrop, I would be grateful to hear from readers with some empirical chops to help me better assess whether I should be forcefully extolling (or forcefully questioning) this notable new empirical study authored by a group of economists (and available via SSRN) titled "Recreational Cannabis Reduces Rapes and Thefts: Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment." Here is the abstract that, based on the line I have highlighted, seems almost too good to be true for supporters of significant marijuana reform:
An argument against the legalization of the cannabis market is that such a policy would increase crime. Exploiting the recent staggered legalization enacted by the states of Washington (end of 2012) and Oregon (end of 2014) we show, combining difference-in-differences and spatial regression discontinuity designs, that recreational cannabis caused a significant reduction of rapes and thefts on the Washington side of the border in 2013-2014 relative to the Oregon side and relative to the pre-legalization years 2010-2012.
A few recent and past posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform exploring links between marijuana reform and non-drug crime:
Friday, October 07, 2016
Am I crazy to actually be expecting a marijuana (or drug war/opioid) question during Sunday's town-hall Prez debate?
Especially because neither marijuana reform nor the opioid epidemic came up during the the first Prez debate (or the VP debate), I am actually anticipating that these topics will be raised in some way during the town-hall debate scheduled for this coming Sunday. As regular readers of my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog might guess, I think the very best question to ask the candidates could link these topics. Specifically, here is the question I would love to see asked on Sunday:
"Given the evidence emerging from a number of early studies that opioid use and abuse has generally been reduced in those states that have reformed their marijuana laws, will you commit your Administration in its first 100 days to move federal law away from blanket marijuana prohibition?"
I welcome readers to suggest their own questions on these topics in the comments (and recent posts at my other blog provides plenty of ideas for all sorts of possible questions):
- "Marijuana really can be deadly – when encountering police officers"
Monday, September 26, 2016
"Ask the Candidates if They Are Ready to Legalize Marijuana — and, if Not, Why?"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent Nation piece, from which comes these excerpts:
Presidential debates, as organized by the lamentable Commission on Presidential Debates, are deliberately boring. Most of the questions asked of the candidates are little more than invitations to repeat their most shopworn talking points. And, worse yet, there has been a recent trend toward asking candidates to critique their opponents — literally asking for more of the talking-head punditry that extinguishes whatever enthusiasm might be generated by a clash of ideas.
What to do? Why not ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump some pointed questions about legalizing marijuana? Arizona will be voting this fall on whether to legalize the possession and consumption of marijuana by persons who are 21 years of age or older. If passed, Proposition 205 (The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act) would establish a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control to regulate the cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation, and sale of marijuana....
While manufacturers of synthetic painkillers and other corporate interests oppose the measure, it has earned support from educators, physicians, public-health advocates and supporters of criminal-justice reform. Among the statements filed in support of a “yes” vote with the Arizona secretary of state is a reflection from a pair of retired Drug Enforcement Agency agents, Michael Capasso and Finn Selander....
So how about these two questions for Clinton and Trump:
1. Both of you have campaigned in Arizona, where polls suggest the presidential race is close. On the same November 8 ballot where voters will be asked to choose between your candidacies, they will also be asked whether they would like to legalize marijuana and establish a strictly regulated system for its cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation and sale. By this point, both of you should be well aware of the arguments for and against legalizing marijuana. If you were voting in Arizona, how would you cast your ballots: “yes” for legalization or “no” for continued prohibition?
2. If either or both of the candidates answer “no,” or try to waffle on the issue, read the statement from the retired DEA agents, and then ask: How do you respond to the arguments of people with experience, such as Agents Capasso and Selander, who write that prohibition doesn’t keep marijuana off our streets or decrease use but that it does does result in billions of dollars in profits flowing to drug cartels? Aren’t there sound domestic and foreign-policy arguments for legalization?
Yes, of course, Donald Trump might still argue that a wall would somehow solve every problem. Hillary Clinton might still try to suggest that settled issues need more study. (And viewers might really start to wish that Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein were on the stage to present alternative views.) But the debate about legalizing marijuana, which has for too long been neglected at the highest levels of American politics, would finally be given the hearing it deserves.
I really like this proposed framing of a marijuana reform question, although first-debate moderator Lester Holt could also find lots of ideas for other sharp marijuana reform questions from a number of these recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:
- Appreciating the northeastern midwest's magical medical marijuana research opportunities
Friday, September 23, 2016
Great new US Sentencing Commission report on "simple possession" federal drug cases raises array of hard follow-up questions
I find crime and punishment data so interesting and so important in large part because (1) even seemingly basic and simple data often can only be fully understood after one takes time to examine closely the backstories that surround that data, and (2) only if and when a researcher or advocate has deep understanding of data can that person even start to appreciate all the challenging policy and practical questions that important data implicate. These realities are on full display in the context of an interesting and important new report released this week by the US Sentencing Commission titled "Weighing the Charges: Simple Possession of Drugs in the Federal Criminal Justice System." Here is the introduction to the short report, which explains the notable backstories concerning a dramatic recent change in the number of federal "simple possession" cases:
The simple possession of illegal drugs is a criminal offense under federal law and in many state jurisdictions. The offense occurs “when someone has on his or her person, or available for his or her use, a small amount of an illegal substance for the purpose of consuming or using it but without the intent to sell or give it to anyone else.”
Simple drug possession is a misdemeanor under federal law which provides that an offender may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than one year, fined a minimum of $1,000, or both. However, if an offender is convicted of simple possession after a prior drug related offense has become final, the offender can be charged with a felony simple possession offense.
The number of federal offenders whose most serious offense was simple drug possession increased nearly 400 percent during the six-year period between fiscal years 2008 and 2013. A change of this magnitude over a relatively short period of time triggered further investigation into these cases using data on offender and offense characteristics routinely collected by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), as well as additional data collected specifically for this project.
At first, this dramatic increase in the number of offenders sentenced for the simple possession of drugs seems to suggest a substantially increased focus on this offense by federal law enforcement personnel. Further analysis, however, does not support such a conclusion. A closer inspection of the data demonstrates that this increase is almost entirely attributable to a single drug type — marijuana — and to offenders who were arrested at or near the U.S./Mexico border (a group almost entirely composed of offenders from the District of Arizona). For simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at locations other than the U.S./Mexico border, the median quantity of marijuana involved in the offense was 5.2 grams (0.2 ounces). In contrast, the offense conduct of simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at that border involved a median quantity of 22,000 grams (48.5 pounds or 776.0 ounces) — a quantity that appears in excess of a personal use quantity.
In other words, the USSC noticed data showing a huge increase in the charging of misdemeanor federal drug crimes, which at first might suggest a curious new commitment by federal prosecutors to pursue low-level drug offenders. But, upon closer examination, the USSC discovers that what is really going on is that a whole lot of (low-level?) drug traffickers (mules?) found with huge quantities of marijuana are having their cases prosecuted through "simple possession" charges even though that label hardly seems like a factually fitting description of their drug crimes.
I am extraordinarily pleased to see the USSC detailing and explaining this interesting new data trend, and I am extraordinarily interested to hear from readers as to whether they think federal prosecutors in border regions ought to be praised or pilloried for their new misdemeanor approach to dealing with marijuana offenders arrested at the border with an average of 50 pounds of mary jane. This USSC report not only documents one tangible way that state marijuana reforms would seem to be having a profound impact on how the federal government is now waging the so-called "war on weed," but it also prompts a lot of hard questions about whether the new behaviors by federal drug prosecutors are appropriate given the absence of any formal changes to federal drug laws.
September 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
"As Marijuana Prohibition Winds Down, What Will Control Freaks Ban Next?"
The title of this post is the enjoyably provocative headline of this notable new Reason piece authored J.D. Tuccille. Here are some excerpts which appeal to my libertarian instincts while also highlighting why I think much more that just the wicked weed is implicated in movements to reform modern marijuana laws:
As Prohibition, America's first national effort to penalize people for taking pleasure in imbibing psychoactive substances, became increasingly unpopular and widely flouted at the end of the 1920s, an assistant commissioner for the United States Bureau of Prohibition cooked up a successor project. Harry Anslinger left his old gig and took on the role of commissioner of the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics — a predecessor agency to the DEA — and helped launch the national crusade against marijuana. It was a newly demonized intoxicant to give purpose to the power and personnel that had been assembled for the faltering crusade against booze.
"This propitious marriage of state power and moral suasion would yield a dramatic expansion of federal policing and an increase of state and local policing in the quasi-military sphere of crime control," Harvard historian Lisa McGirr writes in her 2015 book, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. "The war on alcohol and the war on drugs were symbiotic campaigns," McGirr told Reason in an interview. "Those two campaigns emerged together, [and] they had the same shared...logic. Many of the same individuals were involved in both campaigns."
McGirr sees the "federal penal state" of intrusive policing and mass incarceration that arose during Prohibition as the result of the combined efforts of old-time religious scolds who disapproved of alcohol use and Progressives who were eager to use state power to address what they saw as social ills. Together they nationalized what had traditionally been an individual, local, or state concern, gave the government unprecedented power to regulate people's lives, and escalated their efforts as people refused to submit.
But even as it was a consequence of growing state power, Prohibition also helped to normalize the idea that the federal government could and should boss us around. "Faced with the unintended consequences of Prohibition, many men and women began to rethink their commitments to the war on alcohol, but they did not altogether reject the state's right to police and punish the use of other recreational narcotics," McGirr adds in her book.
People also grew accustomed to an activist and intrusive state overall, paving the way for the New Deal and the regulatory state of today. A massive government apparatus, once created, can be used for any purpose its masters desire. "War is the health of the state," Randolph Bourne famously noted. But war doesn't necessarily require ships and planes launched against other nations; it can be waged against a government's own people by police who are empowered by the law to see enemies behind every door.
Then as now, the law was unevenly enforced. If you were a New York socialite during Prohibition, you could continue to drink illicit booze at parties or in speakeasies in relative safety since you weren't considered part of a "problem" population and could push back against authorities — urban ethnics were deliberately targeted for harsher treatment when they broke the law, as were rural blacks. Likewise, Malia Obama was at little risk of more than a parental tongue-lashing when she was caught smoking a joint last month while young people — African-Americans, in particular — whose fathers don't reside in the White House often suffer nastier consequences in the absence of helpful political connections.
Even for booze, the double standard for enforcement remains. While mayor of New York City, national nanny Michael Bloomberg ceaselessly sought to mold and scold his own suffering subjects as he broke the law himself to quaff wine in public. "They were behaving," he said of his friends who were given a pass by police. He's not one of those people, you know, and so he and his buddies shouldn't have to obey rules meant to rein in "problem" groups.
So the desire to control remains in place, nurtured by policy-makers and their supporters who never intend themselves to be the target of enforcement. That desire remains even as public pushback causes yet another prohibition to stumble and fall. Prohibition has its own logic — of control and power — that has very little to do with the specific prohibition at any given moment. Those who would mold the world to suit their vision see no reason to back off their efforts, they've created a vast bureaucracy of enforcers who make their living pushing us around, and they've accustomed us to a state that pokes and prods us at every turn.
So celebrate the relegalization of marijuana for sure. Just don't convince yourself that it means we've seen the end of prohibition, or of the abuses that intrusive government brings. The next big prohibition might be kratom, or another drug, or a grab-bag of substances and activities of which our rulers disapprove. What is banned matters less than the fact of the ban and the apparatus that keeps the ban in place. Winning doesn't mean ending a prohibition, it means disempowering the prohibitionists.
In addition to providing an amusing post title, this commentary inspires me to remind readers once again that one way to keep up with marijuana prohibition winding down is to regularly read my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform. There you will find these recent posts, among many, many others:
- Crimmigration and cannabis: "Marijuana Is Legal in Colorado — But Only If You're a U.S. Citizen"
- "Study: Can marijuana improve PTSD symptoms for veterans?"
- New medical marijuana regulations create rift among California's marijuana policy reform advocates
- New research indicates that daily marijuana users are less fat
Friday, August 26, 2016
"Where Recreational Marijuana Is Legal, Should Those in Prison for Weed Crimes Get a Puff, Puff, Pass?"
The question in the title of this post is not only one that I have given a lot of thought to in recent years, but also the headline of this recent article from The Root. The piece usefully highlights that California's marijuana legalization initiative to be voted upon in November speaks a bit to this issue. Here are excerpts from the piece:
Twenty years ago, Rico Garcia was 21 when he got caught up in a marijuana sting in Colorado with a friend who wanted to buy some weed. The seller turned out to be a police informant, and Garcia and his friend were arrested. “The police came and arrested us and said we were selling weed,” says Garcia, now a 41-year-old marijuana advocate who runs Cannabis Alliance for Regulation and Education. “My friend said it was his, but … under Colorado law at the time, 8 ounces was possession with intent and I got a felony.”
Garcia says he was a first-time offender and a public defender got him to agree to accept a plea deal. He didn’t realize the full ramifications of having such a charge on his record. “They said, ‘No jail’ — that’s how they get brown people — and I said, ‘That sounds nice,’” recalls Garcia, who is Puerto Rican. He says he got four years’ probation and was released from it in two years, but the felony is still affecting his life. “You’re pretty much disqualified for housing. … Most who could give you a loan for a car or house give you a different rate or simply won’t lend to you. You can’t own a firearm, even in a pro-gun state; you can’t get any government grants or hold certain occupational licenses.”
Even though medical and recreational use of marijuana is legal under most circumstances in Colorado, Garcia’s felony precludes him from being part of the weed boom the state is enjoying, a problem that plagues many people of color trying to get into the weed business. There’s also a debate about the fate of nonviolent offenders currently incarcerated for weed crimes in states where recreational marijuana is now legal. Some marijuana advocates support the idea of state pardons for offenders incarcerated for such crimes as more states consider legalizing recreational marijuana....
[T]here has been some debate among marijuana advocates over whether lawmakers and voters would support such an effort involving weed crimes because they had to walk such tightropes to get legislation for medical and recreational marijuana approved in the first place. California — where most advocates expect Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, to pass in November in a state that has had a medical-marijuana program for 20 years — could set a national standard for the fate of nonviolent marijuana offenders caught up in the prison system.
Not only does Proposition 64 reduce the current penalty for selling marijuana for nonmedicinal purposes from up to four years in prison to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500, but it also includes big changes for those previously convicted of marijuana crimes. Those serving sentences for activities that are either legal or subject to lesser penalties under the new measure would be eligible to be resentenced. Plus, those who have already done their time could apply to have their convictions removed from their records....
But the politics surrounding whether nonviolent marijuana users should be pardoned or allowed to have their records expunged completely are complicated. In Colorado, Andrew Freeman says, people can apply to have their felony conviction for a marijuana offense that is no longer illegal under Amendment 64 changed to a misdemeanor. But that stays on your record.
Freedman notes that few of the people still in prison in Colorado for marijuana are there only for a single, nonviolent offense, which would make it easy for them to be released. According to a 2014 report (pdf) by the state’s Department of Corrections, there are only 71 nonviolent marijuana offenders among Colorado’s 20,300 inmates....
Tom Angell at the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Marijuana Majority breaks it down even further, saying that the pardoning of nonviolent marijuana offenders has been part of a general debate among advocates about what is the best, most comprehensive marijuana-reform proposal that can be put on the ballot and garner the support of voters.
“I think there’s some question as to whether a sufficient number of voters would be skittish about the notion of releasing people from prison en masse,” Angell says. “In an ideal world, we want to release all the marijuana offenders yesterday! We absolutely do. But this is politics and reality, and you can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to achieve what is achievable today and build on those victories and keep getting wins on the scoreboard.”
This Root story usefully highlights why folks interested in criminal justice and sentencing reform ought to keep a special eye on discussions and developments with marijuana reform in California this election season. Moreover, as this review of some recent posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog should highlight, I see no shortage of interesting marijuana reform issues that ought to interest criminal justice and civil rights folks:
August 26, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Ninth Circuit panel rules appropriations rider precludes federal prosecution of individuals in complaince with state medical marijuana laws
A Ninth Circuit panel today finally ruled in US v. McIntosh, No. No. 15-10117 (9th Cir. Aug. 16, 2016) (available here), on a series of appeals concerning "whether criminal defendants may avoid prosecution for various federal marijuana offenses on the basis of a congressional appropriations rider that prohibits the United States Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their own medical marijuana laws." Here is a key passage from the heart of the opinion:
DOJ, without taking any legal action against the Medical Marijuana States, prevents them from implementing their laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana by prosecuting individuals for use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana that is authorized by such laws. By officially permitting certain conduct, state law provides for nonprosecution of individuals who engage in such conduct. If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law providing for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in the permitted conduct.
We therefore conclude that, at a minimum, § 542 prohibits DOJ from spending funds from relevant appropriations acts for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by the State Medical Marijuana Laws and who fully complied with such laws.
Some previous related posts:
- Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws
- Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?
- Notable developments in dispute over meaning and application of Section 538 limiting DOJ funding
- Federal judge decides (finally!) that Congress has limited DOJ prosecution of state-legal marijuana businesses
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Realistic (though incomplete) discussion concerning how marijuana reform is not a panacea for mass incarceration
Marc Mauer has this timely and effective new commentary in The Hill headlined "Can Marijuana reform end mass incarceration?". Any regular reader of this blog knows that the only simple and accurate answer to this question is "no," but the commentary provides a fuller accounting of some reasons why I see many possible positive synergies between sentencing reform and marijuana reform movements. Here are excerpts:
This week’s DEA decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug (categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse) has disappointed advocates for drug policy reform. They contend that marijuana is less dangerous and addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even alcohol. But many reformers also argue that marijuana reform is the first step in ending mass incarceration. In many respects this appears to be wishful thinking.
There’s no question that the “war on marijuana” is overblown and unproductive. Since the early 1990s the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests. By 2014 marijuana accounted for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationally. But while this elevated level of marijuana enforcement is counterproductive in many respects, there is little evidence to indicate that it has been a substantial contributor to mass incarceration. Of the 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense. The vast majority of this group is behind the walls for selling, not using, the drug, often in large quantities. We could debate whether even high-level marijuana sellers should be subject to lengthy incarceration, but they constitute less than 3% of the prison population.
In other respects, though, marijuana law enforcement imposes substantial costs on the justice system. Few marijuana arrests may result in a prison term, but they consume enormous resources through police time making arrests and court appearances, probation and parole revocations, and time spent in local jails following arrest or serving a short sentence. And all of this activity comes with public safety tradeoffs. Time spent by police making marijuana arrests is time not spent responding to domestic violence disputes or guns on the streets.
While it may be misleading to portray the marijuana reform movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration, there are ways in which we could transform the national dialogue to make a more direct link. For a start, we should call attention to the parallels between marijuana and the overall drug war. In particular, the drug war has prioritized supply reduction through international interdiction campaigns and a heavy-handed law enforcement response. This approach has had little impact on either drug availability or price, and has drained resources from more effective allocations to prevention and treatment programming.
The racial disparities of marijuana law enforcement are emblematic of the drug war as well, with African Americans more than three times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense as whites, despite similar rates of use. Such outcomes bring to mind the vast disparities in crack cocaine arrests, as well as the use of “stop and frisk” policing tactics often premised on drug law enforcement, and exacting a substantial toll in communities of color....
There is reason for hope that change may be at hand. National drug policy is shifting toward a greater emphasis on treatment approaches to substance abuse, and thoughtful leaders in law enforcement are serving as models for how to engage communities in collaborative efforts for promoting public safety. The national debate on drug policy is worthwhile on its own, but we should also seek to extend that conversation into the realm of mass incarceration.
For reasons both practical and political, it is appropriate for Mauer and others to be quick to note that marijuana reform will not "end" mass incarceration. At the same time, given that a wealth of other reforms at the state and national level over the last decade has done no more than keep incarceration levels flat, a reduction of 40,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons would still mark a significant achievement in these modern times. Moreover, and as Mauer suggested, national marijuana reform not only could help demonstrate that public-health and regulatory approaches to drug issues are more cost-effective than criminal justice prohibitions, but also could provide a significant source of new public revenue for prevention and treatment programming.
One of many reasons I have become so interested in marijuana reform developments is because I have grown so frustrated in recent years at the seeming inability (or unwillingness) of elite policy-makers (especially in DC) to take bold action to deal with modern mass incarceration. Tellingly, modern marijuana reform in the United States is a ground-up movement that has been engineered at the local and state level despite disconcerting and persistent opposition by elite policy-makers (such as the Obama Administration at its DEA). I continue to fear that elite policy-makers will continue to fail to see that the vast marijority of Americans are eager to move dramatically away from blanket federal marijuana prohibition, though I also expect a lot of significant developments in this space once we get through the 2016 election cycle. With nearly 25% of the US population in numerous states that will be voting on marijuana reforms this November (most notably California and Florida), this election year will be the closest possible to a national referendum on marijuana prohibition. If reform wins big with voters in most states this fall, I think elite policy-makers will finally fully appreciate which way these reform winds are now blowing.
In the meantime, here are some recent highlights on related front from my blogging efforts of late over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
August 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, August 11, 2016
If you really want to fully understand what DEA has done/what is changing and not changing about federal marijuana law and policy...
you have to check out these two new posts and materials linked therein from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform for all the nuanced details:
If you do not have the time or inclination to read those posts, the DEA has this press release explaining these basics:
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced several marijuana- related actions, including actions regarding scientific research and scheduling of marijuana, as well as principles on the cultivation of industrial hemp under the Agricultural Act of 2014....
DEA has denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In response to the petitions, DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in consultation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Based on the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance because it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.
In his letter to the petitioners, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg offered a detailed response outlining the factual and legal basis for the denial of the petitions.....
DEA announced a policy change designed to foster research by expanding the number of DEA- registered marijuana manufacturers. This change should provide researchers with a more varied and robust supply of marijuana. At present, there is only one entity authorized to produce marijuana to supply researchers in the United States: the University of Mississippi, operating under a contract with NIDA. Consistent with the CSA and U.S. treaty obligations, DEA’s new policy will allow additional entities to apply to become registered with DEA so that they may grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research purposes.
Thursday, August 04, 2016
After inquiries by members of Congress, Oregon US Attorney agrees to drop federal marijuana charges against Native American teen
I reported in this post last week about the suprising federal prosecution in Oregon of Devontre Thomas, 19-years-old Native American subject earlier this year to a one-count federal misdemeanor charge for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana. The press coverage of this case prompted members of Congress from Oregon, as reported in this local piece, to inquire about this prosecution:
Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana. In letter [sent August 4, 2016], U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.
"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."
Now, and surely not coincidentally, this piece from Marijuanapolitics.com reports in its headline that federal prosecutors are "to Drop Charges Against Oregon Teen Devontre Thomas." Here are the latest details:
Even those that don’t support legalizing cannabis were hard pressed to support the federal government threatening Oregon teen Devontre Thomas with a year long prison term over about a gram of marijuana. Drug War reform advocates and concerned citizens across the nation were frankly appalled of such a harsh sentence facing a nonviolent teenager in a state that had legalized cannabis with over 56% of the vote in 2014.
Thomas’ attorney, Ruben Iniguez worked tirelessly for his client and he left me a message stating that the charges would be dismissed in 60 days so long as Thomas stayed out of trouble and stayed employed and/or in school, conditions he was confident the teen would fulfill. Iniguez thanked advocates for reaching out and offering to help with Thomas’ case.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
How much is federal prosecution of Native American teen for a marijuana offense in Oregon going to cost taxpayers?
The question in the title of this post is my effort to focus a bit more on the fiscal realities surrounding an interesting federal misdemeanor marijuana prosecution discussed in this lengthy local article from Oregon. The article is headlined "Devontre Thomas is 19. He Could Face a Year in Prison. For a Gram of Marijuana. How could this happen in Oregon?". The details here are so interesting for so many reasons, including a recent decision by the defendant not to agree to a plea to what seems to be federal charges less serious than might have been alleged. Here are some details:
Devontre Thomas is 19 years old. In a few weeks, he goes on trial in federal court in Portland. If he loses, he could go to prison for a year. For possessing an amount of cannabis that would fill one joint....
On April 7, 2016, the U.S. attorney for Oregon filed a one-count federal misdemeanor charge against Thomas for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana, according to his public defender, Ruben Iniguez. That's barely enough cannabis to dust the bottom of a Ziploc.
"I've never seen a case like this in my entire time practicing in federal court," says Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland criminal defense lawyer for 12 years. "It's outlandish." It's the first time in at least three years that the feds are prosecuting a weed crime in Oregon.
Since then, Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana. Anyone over 21 can walk into a store and buy up to a quarter ounce — 7 grams — of cannabis. In the first five months of recreational sales, the state collected $14.9 million in marijuana sales taxes. But weed isn't equally legal everywhere in Oregon.
Thomas is accused of screwing up like any other teenager. But his alleged mistake occurred at Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in the state capital, Salem, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the federal government. Observers say Thomas' prosecution, first reported by KGW-TV, is a poster case for how the nation's drug laws are still stacked against minorities — especially Native Americans. "There's absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged," says Amy Margolis, a lawyer at Emerge Law Group, a Portland firm that specializes in cannabis cases. "[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was."...
The prosecution of Thomas raises questions about the priorities of U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, the state's chief federal prosecutor. Among them: Why are federal prosecutors, who claim that Oregon is a den of heroin, meth and opioid trafficking, spending time and resources to go after a teenager for such a small amount of pot? After two weeks of declining requests for comment, Williams finally issued this statement to WW: "We look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process."
But members of Oregon's congressional delegation say it's alarming that Williams would prosecute the case at all. "I think it's deplorable," says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "What are we doing? Where are our priorities? A kid? Turning his life upside down? They don't have anything better to do to protect young people or Oregonians? It's incomprehensible to me."
As bizarre as Thomas' pot case is in weed-happy Oregon, the place where his alleged offense occurred is just as much of an anachronism. Chemawa, a Native American boarding school, was founded in 1880 and is the longest continually operating boarding school for Native American youth....
Thomas arrived at Chemawa from Madras High School, where he spent his first two years before transferring. He is a member of the Warm Springs tribe, and grew up with his parents and grandparents on the tribe's reservation 105 miles southeast of Portland.... A parent of a fellow Chemawa student described the Thomases as "a good family." His friends say his childhood was that of a normal, loved boy: spending the night at friends' houses, playing basketball on the Madras High junior varsity team....
Rayvaughn Skidmore, 20, also attended Chemawa with Thomas.... Skidmore says Thomas "would always help out his peers and be a leader—showing them what's the right things to do." Skidmore says Chemawa staff members would sometimes drive kids into town to go shopping at Keizer Station Shopping Center or Lancaster Mall in Salem, and he thinks that's when some students would meet up with marijuana connections and bring the substance back to campus.
But when kids on campus were caught with marijuana in their possession, "they'd get sent home." Skidmore says those infractions never resulted in legal charges, even though he knew plenty of classmates who regularly smoked weed. "These other students who are highly abusing any type of marijuana — I don't see why those guys get sent home when they should be prosecuted," he says....
Thomas was never technically arrested for marijuana possession. On March 25, 2015, Iniguez says, a staff member at Chemawa found roughly a gram of marijuana in a student's backpack. That kid said Thomas had sold him the weed. The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed that it responded to a call on that date involving Thomas and a juvenile classmate for "delivery" of marijuana.
Nearly a year after a classmate ratted out Thomas, a Chemawa staff member and a police officer drove him to the federal courthouse in Portland to appear before a judge. Lawyers interviewed for this story say it's likely that Thomas is feeling outsized consequences because Chemawa Indian School is under federal jurisdiction....
Retired federal drug prosecutor John Deits says Thomas' case is probably being handled as a federal case because "it's the only jurisdiction that can respond to the charge."
"Nobody else has authority," Deits says. "Marion County doesn't have authority because it's exclusive federal authority. And Indian tribes don't have jurisdiction because it didn't happen on their land."...
The resulting prosecution of Thomas shocks national observers. "He's 19. This is going to potentially haunt him the rest of his life," says Alison Holcomb, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national Campaign for Smart Justice in Seattle. It's also a stark reminder that the War on Drugs isn't over — even in Oregon.
Observers find it bizarre that the feds have continued to pursue Thomas' case. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been vocal about her desire to keep pot illegal. Local responsibility for prosecuting Thomas falls to Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon.... "We are committed to just outcomes in every case," he says. "We look forward to exploring whatever the defense ask that we consider before determining what we believe is an appropriate outcome."
Other federal officials are critical of the prosecution. "The federal government hasn't prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years," says U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state."
Blumenauer, who as an Oregon congressman has become one of the nation's loudest voices for marijuana legalization, is enraged. "It is such a powerful symbol of a waste of resources and the inequity of the system," says Blumenauer, "because you and I can walk around in Portland, or in states where it is illegal, and find people using it. To single him out, to proceed with this, to ignore real problems that are killing people…" He pauses. "I'm sorry," he finally says. "I'm getting carried away. It's incomprehensible to me. I'm just sorry that Mr. Thomas is caught up in it."
The people surrounding Thomas in the federal courthouse in Portland on July 8 — Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Martin, U.S. District Chief Justice Michael Mosman, three functionaries and a probation officer — expected Thomas to plead guilty to drug possession and enter a six-month diversion program. But a few moments earlier, Thomas' public defender, Iniguez, hustled into the courtroom with Thomas to announce a change of plans.
"He's not going to be pleading guilty today," Iniguez said. Martin, the prosecutor, looked shocked. "We want to go to trial?" she asked, flummoxed. "If we're making a federal case out of it," said Iniguez, sneaking in a smile, "we'll make a federal case out of it."
Holcomb, of the national ACLU, speculates that Thomas' last-minute decision not to plead guilty may show a steadfastness on his part to prove that he's no different from any other Oregon teenager who messed around with pot. "Devontre's response, to me, indicates a genuinely felt sense of unfairness," Holcomb says. "That it is unfair that he's being charged in federal court for this. It's the latest in a string of dramatic examples of how deeply people are feeling about unfairness and inequality…it sounds like that bubbled up for Devontre."...
Thomas is scheduled for trial Sept.13.
Like nearly all federal prosecutions that become media stories, I sense that this press account is revealing only the tip of an iceberg backstory. For starters, though subject formally only to a federal misdemeanor possession charge, the facts described here suggest that the defendant could have (and some might even say should have?) been subject to a federal felony marijuana distrubution charge. In addition, it seems the feds were seemingly eager to resolve the case through a plea that would prevent the defendant from serving any time or having a felony record. But now it seems that the defense may be gearing up for contesting the charges factually or perhaps constitutionally (or perhaps even via jury nullification if other avenues of defense falter).
I probably could go on and on about this case, and it is certainly one I will be keeping an eye on in the coming months. But, as suggested in the title of this post, whatever else one thinks about this case, I cannot help but wonder how many federal taxpayer dollars will end up being spent on this (minor?) matter.
July 28, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Has the drug war really "made policing more violent"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Democracy commentary authored by Jonathan Blanks that carries this full headline: "The War on Drugs Has Made Policing More Violent: What can be done to curb the excessive and, sometimes, predatory policing that has emerged from the Drug War?". Here are excerpts from the piece:
American policing today has become increasingly aggressive and, at times, even predatory. Policies and tactics have evolved to make police contact more confrontational. In so doing, they have increased the chances of violence and fatal uses of force. This has been particularly true of efforts aimed at fighting the Drug War. Police are incentivized to initiate unnecessary contact with pedestrians and motorists, and they do so most often against ethnic and racial minorities. Such over-policing engenders resentment among minority communities and jeopardizes public safety.
Some of the Drug War’s most disturbing images involve police officers in SWAT gear, kicking down doors, ransacking homes and endangering the lives of everyone inside during pre-dawn raids. Officers rummaging through a car for drug contraband while the driver sits helplessly on the sidewalk as onlookers drive by may be less violent, but is just as invasive and degrading. This experience can be humiliating under any circumstance, and any perception of race as playing a role in the stop piles resentment on top of humiliation.
The “pretextual” or “investigatory” stop is a common police tactic to investigate potential criminal activity — particularly drug possession and trafficking — in situations where there is no legal reason to suspect a crime is occurring. There is not a large amount of data on how often these stops produce contraband seizures, but what data there is suggests that the overwhelming majority of people who are stopped are guilty of no crime. Much like the pedestrian stops during the heyday of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” program, most of the motorists stopped for investigatory purposes are black or Hispanic. Those who are stopped are often pressured to give consent to a search the officer has no legal right to demand.
There is evidence that some police departments, particularly state police and drug task forces in the American interior, target motorists with out-of-state plates in the hopes of finding drug proceeds and other unexplained cash. Cash-driven interdiction is the result of asset forfeiture laws that allow police departments to keep the proceeds of assets seized in connection with suspected crimes. This “policing for profit” puts budgetary concerns above public safety.
Officers are also trained to prepare for the possibility of violence in every encounter. Anti-police attacks such as the recent tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge heighten the fear and trepidation some officers feel in the field. While fewer police officers are feloniously killed in the line of duty per year than at almost any time in American history, officers who find themselves in stressful situations may be more likely to resort to the use of force, including deadly force, in order to maintain their sense of control during such encounters.
In short, the laws and tactics employed to fight the Drug War have transformed police officers from those who protect and serve to a force that, too often, actively searches the innocent and seizes for profit. Aggressive and antagonistic policing also increases the likelihood of disagreement, thereby increasing the possibility of escalation and the use of force that could lead to the injury or death of an innocent person. But the effects of aggressive policing extend beyond the outcome of any given police stop.
Although a majority of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, the same is not true across all racial and ethnic lines. Less than one-third of black respondents to a Gallup poll expressed a large amount of confidence in the police. And while a majority of Hispanics still have a lot of confidence in the police, just over 40 percent of other nonwhites do. Research by Charles Epp and others at the University of Kansas shows that support for police declines when individuals and the people they know have negative police experiences, particularly through investigatory stops.
This lack of confidence in the police can endanger communities. As Jill Leovy documented in her book Ghettoside, the poor relationships officers have with black Los Angelenos hinders homicide clearance rates and prosecutions. At the same time, the “broken windows” policing strategy that focuses on heavy enforcement of petty crimes has been shown to have no effect on the felony crime rate, the premise on which the strategy is based. Together, these create a tragic contradiction in which black communities are over-policed for drugs and petty crimes, but under-policed for homicides and other violent crimes.
I would generally agree with the suggestion that the drug war has contributed to the over-policing of many communities, particularly poorer communities, and I also fear that the drug war has contributed to strained relationships between police forces and certain communities. But I am not sure I would assert that the drug war has itself "made policing more violent": rather, based in part on experiences during alcohol Prohibition a century ago, I would be more inclined to assert that efforts to treat drug use and abuse through blanket prohibitions and criminal justice interventions creates the conditions for a society that has less respect for criminal laws and for police efforts to enforce order, and that in turn makes everyone involved in this part of the criminal justice system more prone to look to violence rather than to law as a means for securing order.
Some prior related posts:
- Senator Rand Paul blames ugliness of Ferguson on the ugliness of big CJ government
- Is an end to the modern drug war the only real way to prevent future Fergusons?
- Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
- After Ferguson, can and should marijuana legalization and drug war reform become a unifying civil rights movement?
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Some mid-summer highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Because federal statutory sentencing reform has stalled in Congress and with the Supreme Court now on its extended summer break, major new sentencing stories are relatively rare these days. In contrast, over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, I have been struggling greatly to keep up with all the marijuana reform news. These recent posts from the last few weeks highlight just some of the significant summer stories that seem worth following:
Monday, June 27, 2016
Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Especially because there is likely to be a lot more marijuana reform news to cover (both in Congress and in the states) in the coming months than statutory sentencing reform news, I am likely this summer to make a habit of weekly reviews of recent postings from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. These recent posts highlight these realities:
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Some highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform . . . for Fathers' Day(?)
I am not sure if it is in any way fitting to be blogging about marijuana reform topics on Fathers' Day, but polls do pretty consistently show that men are generally more supportive of reform than women. That reality aside, this review of some recent postings from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog highlights that fathers and mothers, sons and daughters all ought to be paying attention to this dynamic arena of law and policy:
Tuesday, June 07, 2016
Minnesota survey suggests marijuana reform can help with opioid issues ... and other recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Anyone interested and concerned about the so-called "war on drugs" or the relationship between criminal justice reform and public health has to be concerned these days with the national opioid problems. And one of many reasons I am a supporter of state experiements with various forms of marijuana reform is my hope that such reforms might be one of many ways to try to address opioid problems. Consequently, I was very intrigued to see the details of a lengthy report on a survey done by the Minnesota Department of Health (here in full) showing that a number of health care practitioners reported that some medical patients were able to decrease their use of prescription opioids. I report on this report in the first of the links below providing recent highlights from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog:
Friday, May 27, 2016
Ohio legislature passes medical marijuana reform and other highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Among this past week's reform highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform is the big local news for me as the Ohio General Assembly finally finalized a medical marijuana bill to send to Gov John Kasich. But, as these links reveal, there were notable stories emerging from other jurisdictions as well:
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
"Many serving sentences for marijuana offenses deserve clemency"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent San Francisco Chronicle commentary authored by Alex Contreras, a former federal inmate serving a 40-year sentence for drug and gun charges who received clemency from President Obama in December 2015. Here is the text:
More than 10,000 clemency applicants wake up every day in a federal prison, awaiting an answer from President Obama on whether their lengthy prison sentence will come to an end. Most of them will be crushed when they are eventually denied. There are a few, however, who will realize the unlikely and overwhelming joy of finally being released. I was one of those rare few whose name was on the list of Obama’s recent clemency grants. And while I was excited to finally be going home — and extremely grateful to the president — I was also perplexed by those who weren’t on the list.
In speaking about criminal justice reform, Obama has highlighted the injustice of incarcerating marijuana offenders for “long stretches,” and has described marijuana as being “less harmful than alcohol” and a “vice,” not unlike cigarette smoking. He also instructed his Justice Department to not prosecute medical or recreational marijuana sellers who are operating under state law. But his pool of clemency recipients does not reflect these views.
Out of the 306 clemency grants, less than 3 percent were marijuana offenders, and not one of them was a medical marijuana provider, despite being the most deserving given that they were following state law and the Obama administration is no longer prosecuting them. Some of them are even serving decades in prison.
One such inmate is Ricardo Montes, a Latino serving a harsh mandatory 20-year sentence for operating a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto under California law. Montes and his co-defendant received the longest sentences ever doled out to any medical marijuana provider, because — during the aggressive George W. Bush administration — they were charged under a fearsome mandatory minimum statue designed for drug kingpins and dangerous cartels.
Individuals like Montes are even more deserving of clemency than I was. Yet I fear that men such as Montes will be left to serve the remainder of their lengthy prison terms, while others reap the rewards of the change in the legal landscape of our nation’s marijuana policies. I hope that Obama’s remaining clemency grants will reflect his sensible views regarding marijuana, ensuring that our criminal justice system “keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all.”
Friday, May 20, 2016
Reviewing another notable week at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Regular readers know that I will sometime close out my work-week blogging here by reviewing recent blogging at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform. This week will be another one of those times:
Friday, May 13, 2016
Reviewing a notable week at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Regular readers know they should be regularly checking out my blogging at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform for updates on marijuana reform stories. This past week, like most these days, included a number of notable developments highlighted in these posts:
Thursday, May 05, 2016
Lots of new and notable recent state marijuana reform developments
Regular readers know they should be regularly checking out my (not-so) regular postings at my other active blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform for updates on marijuana reform stories. This week there have been particularly notable reform developments in notable states from coast to coast that I thought merited highlighting here:
Even for those folks only interested in marijuana reform as a small piece of broader criminal justice reform policies and politics, I think developments in big state California and swing state Ohio are especially important to watch. In particular, if there were to be big marijuana reform wins at the ballot in November (e.g., if voters were to approve reforms by 60% or more) in both states --- and also, say, in at least one other big swing state like Arizona or Florida --- I think it would thereafter prove close to impossible for the next President not to make some kind of federal marijuana reform a priority in 2017.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Reviewing the week that was at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Regular readers are familiar with my periodic collecting of posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, and lots of recent content on that site are collections of materials put together by terrific students in my Ohio State College of Law seminar. Sadly, this seminar wrapped up this week, so this will be the last collection of MLP&R links that include student-generated postings:
Monday, April 18, 2016
Colorado Department of Public Safety releases "Marijuana Legalization in Colorado: Early Findings"
This new Denver Post piece, headlined "Fewer Coloradans seek treatment for pot use, but heavier use seen," reports on this notable new official state government report from Colorado (which I believe was just released today, but bears a cover date of March 2016). Here is a basic summary via the Denver Post piece:
Colorado's treatment centers have seen a trend toward heavier marijuana use among patients in the years after the state legalized the drug, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The 143-page report released Monday is the state's first comprehensive attempt at measuring and tracking the consequences of legalization.
In 2014, more than a third of patients in treatment reported near-daily use of marijuana, according to the report. In 2007, less than a quarter of patients reported such frequency of use. Overall, though, the number of people seeking treatment for marijuana has dropped since Colorado voters made it legal to use and possess small amounts of marijuana. The decrease is likely due to fewer people being court ordered to undergo treatment as part of a conviction for a marijuana-related crime.
The finding is among a growing body of evidence that marijuana legalization has led to a shift in use patterns for at least some marijuana consumers. And that is just one insight from the new report, which looks at everything from tax revenue to impacts on public health to effects on youth. Among its findings is a steady increase in marijuana use in Colorado since 2006, well before the late-2000s boom in medical marijuana dispensaries. The report documents a sharp rise in emergency room visits related to marijuana. It notes a dramatic decline in arrests or citations for marijuana-related crimes, though there remains a racial disparity in arrest rates.
But the report, which was written by statistical analyst Jack Reed, also isn't meant as a final statement on legalization's impact. Because Colorado's data-tracking efforts have been so haphazard in the past, the report is more of a starting point. "[I]t is too early to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization or commercialization on public safety, public health, or youth outcomes," Reed writes, "and this may always be difficult due to the lack of historical data."
It's not just the lack of data from past years that complicates the report. Reed also notes that legalization may have changed people's willingness to admit to marijuana use — leading to what appear to be jumps in use or hospital visits that are really just increases in truth-telling. State and local agencies are also still struggling to standardize their marijuana data-collection systems. For instance, Reed's original report noted an explosive increase in marijuana arrests and citations in Denver, up 404 percent from 2012 to 2014. That increase, however, was due to inconsistent data reporting by Denver in the official numbers given to the state.
Intriguingly, though this lengthy report comes from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, not very much of the report discusses general crimes rates at much length. But what is reported in this report is generally encouraging:
Colorado’s property crime rate decreased 3%, from 2,580 (per 100,000 population) in 2009 to 2,503 in 2014.
Colorado’s violent crime rate decreased 6%, from 327 (per 100,000 population) in 2009 to 306 in 2014.
Cross-posted at Marijuana, Law, Policy & Reform
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Would Congress be wise to pursue sentencing reform through DOJ spending limitations?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Reason piece by Jacob Sullum headlined "DOJ Accepts Decision Saying It May Not Target State-Legal Medical Marijuana Suppliers: The feds had argued that a spending rider left them free to shut down dispensaries." Here are the details:
The Justice Department has abandoned its appeal of a ruling that said federal prosecutors are breaking the law when they target medical marijuana providers who comply with state law. U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer issued that ruling last October, when he said enforcing an injunction against a state-legal dispensary would violate a spending rider that prohibits the DOJ from interfering with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. The Justice Department initially asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to overturn Breyer's decision but later changed its mind, and on Tuesday the court granted its request to withdraw the appeal.
That decision leaves in place Breyer's ruling, which involved the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana (MAMM), without establishing a circuit-wide precedent. Presumably the DOJ worried that the 9th Circuit would agree with Breyer's reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which says the department may not use appropriated funds to "prevent" states from "implementing" their medical marijuana laws. The DOJ argues that prosecuting medical marijuana suppliers, seizing their property, and shutting them down does not prevent implementation of laws authorizing them. Breyer said that interpretation "defies language and logic."
The rider that Breyer considered expired last year, but the same language was included in the omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year. If Congress continues to renew the amendment and other courts agree with Breyer's understanding of it, medical marijuana growers and suppliers who comply with state law will have less reason to worry about raids, arrests, and forfeiture actions, although uncertainty will remain in states where the rules for dispensaries are unclear. For the time being, that remains true in California, although state regulations aimed at clarifying the situation are scheduled to take effect in 2018.
In other words, now that DOJ has (sort-of) accepted a broad reading of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, this DOJ spending limitation has (sort-of) achieved indirectly what Congress has been unwilling or unable to do directly, namely authorize states and individuals to move forward with a responsible medical marijuana program without persistent concerns that DOJ may raid and prosecute participants. Of course, this spending limitation can and will expire if not consistently renewed by Congress. But still, as this Sullum piece highlights, even a short-term spending limit can end up having some real bite.
In light of this intriguing "spending limit" back-door form of congressional marijuana reform, I am now wondering if this approach should be pursued sentencing reformers/advocates growing frustrated Congress has not yet been able to pass a significant statutory sentencing reform bill. Though some clever drafting might be needed, I could imagine a provision in a federal budget bill that prohibited the Department of Justice from, say, expending any funds to prosecute a non-violent drug offender using statutes that carry any mandatory minimum sentencing term or expending any funds to continue to imprison anyone whose prison sentence would have been completed had the Fair Sentencing Act been made retroactive.
My suggestion here might ultimately be more of a Swiftian "modest proposal" than a real suggestion for how real work can get done on sentencing reform in Congress. Nevertheless, as the prospect of major federal statutory sentencing reform semes to grow ever darker with each passing week, I am ever eager to consider and suggest whatever it might take to turn the enduring bipartisan sentencing reform talk into some consequential legislative action.
Saturday, April 16, 2016
"The history of drug criminalization in America is a history of social panics rooted in racism and xenophobia"
The title of this post is the subheadline of this new Salon comentary carrying the primary headline "The real reason cocaine, heroin and marijuana are illegal has nothing to do with addiction." Here is how the lengthy piece gets started:
Looking out at the trail of devastation and death that the heroin epidemic has left in its wake, it’s hard to imagine that not long ago one could purchase the drug from a Sears catalogue. Heroin was created by German chemists during the late 1890s and marketed through Bayer, the company best known for selling aspirin. For decades, suburban housewives could peruse pages of flashy advertisements for Bayer Heroin, the cure for sore throats, coughs, headaches, diarrhea, stress and menopause. In fact, until recently the percentage of Americans using opium-derived medicine was higher at the turn of the 20th century than at any other time in history.
The majority of illicit drugs we see today were once legal, popular and used for medicinal purposes. Cocaine made its debut in toothache drops marketed to children. Cannabis was recognized for its ability to relieve pain and nausea long before it became associated with youthful vagrancy.
As the world grapples with the fallout from the War on Drugs — and heads towards UNGASS 2016, a possible opportunity to put things right — it’s important to know the history of these drugs and their journey from medicine to menace. We didn’t suddenly discover that they were far more addictive or dangerous than other medicines. In fact, the reasons that drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana and others are illegal today have far more to do with economics and cultural prejudice than with addiction.
Heroin was the first to fall from pharmaceutical darling to a demonized, black-market street drug. Long used as a cure for aches and pains, it wasn’t until Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroads and mines that opium-based products such as heroin were perceived as dangerous. American settlers were not happy with the Chinese arrivals, who brought with them a cultural tradition of smoking opium for relaxation in the evenings. The settlers accused the Chinese of “taking our jobs,” and economic resentment morphed into rumors of Chinese men luring white women into opium dens and getting them addicted. Rumors turned to fear, which turned to hysteria, which politicians seized upon. In 1875 California passed the first anti-opium law, enforced by raids on Chinese opium dens. Other states soon followed. The first federal law regulating heroin was the Harrison Act of 1914, which eventually led to its criminalization.
Cocaine was criminalized for similar reasons, only this time the backlash was directed against black Americans. After the Civil War, economic resentment simmered over the freed slaves gaining a foothold in the economy. White Southerners grumbled about black men “forgetting their place,” and fears spread about a drug some of them smoked, which was rumored to incite them to violence. In the early 1900s New Orleans became the first city to slap down laws against cocaine use and the trend quickly spread, dovetailing with efforts in Latin America to criminalize the coca leaf, an ingredient in cocaine, which was used for religious purposes among indigenous populations.
Marijuana was next in the firing line. During the 1920s, tensions sprang up in the South over the influx of Mexican immigrants who worked for low wages. By the 1930s, the Great Depression had bred panic among people desperate for work and they directed their angst towards immigrants. The media began propagating stories about Mexicans and their mysterious drug, marijuana. The first national law criminalizing marijuana, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, passed thanks to a strong push from Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who referred to marijuana as “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
While such claims of marijuana inducing violence may sound ridiculous to those of us who know marijuana as a drug that does precisely the opposite, it goes to show that the criminalization of drugs has little to do with relative risk or danger. Instead, the main impetus for criminalization is fear over certain groups seen as an economic or cultural threat to established America. Recognizing this fact does not mean ignoring or minimizing the very real harm that drugs can cause.
Most illicit drugs carry risks and serious potential for problematic use. But so does glue. So do gasoline, cough syrup, shoe polish, paint thinner, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, spray paint, whipped cream cans, vanilla extract, mouthwash, nutmeg, prescription pills and countless other household items that are not only addictive, but potentially fatal if misused.
Friday, April 15, 2016
More praise of my Ohio State students (and Ohio legislators and others) for research on marijuana law, policy and reform
Regular readers are familiar with my periodic collecting of posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog. And, as highlighted in this prior post, a lot of recent content on that site involve ideas and collections of materials put together by terrific student in my Ohio State College of Law seminar as they gear up for class presentations on an array of fascinating marijuana law and policy and reform topics. In addition, just as my class is starting to wind down, it seems that the debate over medical marijuana reform is really heating up in Ohio and elsewhere. This collection of links to recent posts at MLP&P reflect these realities:
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Two timely stories of marijuana reform not yet helping those serving "Outrageous Sentences For Marijuana"
From two very different media sources today, I see two very notable stories of defendants convicted of marijuana-related offenses serving extreme sentences for a type of behavior that is now "legal" at the state level in some form throughout much of the United States.
First, the New York Times has this new editorial headlined "Outrageous Sentences for Marijuana," which starts this way:
Lee Carroll Brooker, a 75-year-old disabled veteran suffering from chronic pain, was arrested in July 2011 for growing three dozen marijuana plants for his own medicinal use behind his son’s house in Dothan, Ala., where he lived. For this crime, Mr. Brooker was given a life sentence with no possibility of release.
Alabama law mandates that anyone with certain prior felony convictions be sentenced to life without parole for possessing more than 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of marijuana, regardless of intent to sell. Mr. Brooker had been convicted of armed robberies in Florida two decades earlier, for which he served 10 years. The marijuana plants collected at his son’s house — including unusable parts like vines and stalks — weighed 2.8 pounds.
At his sentencing, the trial judge told Mr. Brooker that if he “could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would.” Last year, Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, called Mr. Brooker’s sentence “excessive and unjustified,” and said it revealed “grave flaws” in the state’s sentencing laws, but the court still upheld the punishment.
On Friday, the United States Supreme Court will consider whether to hear Mr. Brooker’s challenge to his sentence, which he argues violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The justices should take the case and overturn this sentence.
Second, AlterNet has this new piece with this lengthy headline, "As Marijuana Goes Mainstream, California Pioneers Rot in Federal Prison: Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes opened a dispensary in Modesto. Now they're doing 20 years in federal prison. Their families want them home. " Here is how it starts:
Behind the headlines about President Obama’s historic visit to federal prisons and highly publicized releases of non-violent drug offenders, the numbers tell a different story. Despite encouraging and receiving more clemency petitions than any president in U.S. history — more than the last two administrations combined, nearly 20,000 — very few federal prisoners are actually being granted clemency.
Nowhere is this irony more glaring than in the world of legal cannabis. Cannabis is now considered the fastest-growing industry in the nation, yet remains federally illegal. The sea change from the Department of Justice since 2009 has allowed state-legal cannabis industries to thrive. Federal solutions seem to be around the corner and for the first time cannabis businesses are being publicly traded and receiving legal Wall Street investment.
Ricardo Montes and Luke Scarmazzo are two of the 20,000 federal prisoners appealing to President Obama for clemency. They have exhausted their appeals and are serving 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for openly running a dispensary in the early days of California’s pioneering medical cannabis law. The irony isn’t lost on them that their crimes are now legal and profitable, but their appeals for clemency aren’t based on justice anymore — they just want to be home with their kids. Their daughters, Jasmine Scarmazzo, 13, and Nina Montes, 10, are appealing directly to President Obama to release their fathers via a Change.org petition.
Given that the Supreme Court has often stated and held that the Eighth Amendment's "scope is not static," but "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958), I think both these cases should be pretty easy constitutional calls if courts and/or executive branch officials took very seriously a commitment to updating and enforcing Eighth Amendment limits on lengthy prison terms in light of the obviously "evolving standards of decency" concerning medical use of marijuana throughout the United States and the world. But, while hoping for some judicial or executive action in this arena, I am not holding my breath that any of these medical marijuana offenders will be free from incarceration anytime soon.
April 14, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Restrictive medical marijuana reforms proposed by Ohio legislature in shadow of broader initiative effort
As a bellwether state with a long history of picking White House winners, I often feel very lucky to be in Ohio in big election years to observe how local, state and national politics surrounding various criminal justice issues play out in the Buckeye State. But this year, given my particular interest in marijuana reform, law and policy and the coming (brokered?) GOP convention in Cleveland, my Buckeye political and policy cup is already running over.
I bring all this up today because, as detailed in this new local article, "Ohio state lawmakers release plan to legalize medical marijuana," local GOP legislative leaders in Ohio are now actively peddling an important (but restrictive) medical marijuana reform proposal at the same time the national Marijuana Policy Project is gathering signatures and building a campaign for (much broader) medical marijuana reform in the form of a November 2016 voter initiative to amend the Ohio Constitution. Here are the basics and latest in these dynamic ongoing Buckeye marijuana reform developments:
Ohio state lawmakers released plans today to legalize marijuana for medical use. The bill being considered would allow doctors to write notes for marijuana for medical use. It would still allow for drugfree workplaces.
People who use medical marijuana, could still be fired from their job, according to the bill. The bill will not allow for home growing of marijuana.
Doctors would be required to periodically report to the state why they are prescribing marijuana instead of other drugs. Anyone taking medical marijuana under the age of 18 would require parental consent.
Ohio lawmakers are also asking the federal government to change marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 2 drug. Hearing will start soon on the legislation and there could be as many as two hearings a week. No word yet on where Gov. John Kasich stands on the legislation.
The move comes as groups start collecting signatures to put an issue on the ballot before voters in November.... [and] polls show that legalizing marijuana just for medical use is popular across the state....
Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, which is backed by a national group, expects to spend $900,000 collecting 306,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform (where in coming days I will do some anaylsis of the Ohio bill and reactions thereto).
Thursday, April 07, 2016
In praise of my Ohio State students and their research on marijuana law, policy and reform
Regular readers are familiar with my periodic collecting of posts from my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog. Today, however, I have the pleasure of collecting and praising the posts which have been done in recent weeks by my Ohio State College of Law seminar students in that space as they make class presentations on an array of fascinating topics:
Monday, April 04, 2016
Senators Grassley and Feinstein convening hearing on whether DOJ is "Adequately Protecting the Public" from state marijuana reforms
This recent press release from US Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control details that this caucus has a hearing scheduled to explore how the federal government is keeping an eye on state-level marijuana reforms. (Exactly what this has to do with international control is unclear, but big-government drug warriors on both sides of the political aisle like Senators Grassley and Feinstein have never really been too keen to worry about limiting government growth in this arena.) Here are the basic details on what is prompting this hearing:
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Co-chairman of the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, will hold a hearing entitled, “Is the Department of Justice Adequately Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization?”
In August 2013, the Obama Administration decided to effectively suspend enforcement of federal law on marijuana in states that legalized it for recreational use. But to disguise its policy as prosecutorial discretion, the Administration also announced federal priorities that it claimed would guide its enforcement going forward. These priorities include preventing marijuana from being distributed to minors, stopping the diversion of marijuana into states that haven’t legalized it, and preventing adverse public health effects from marijuana use. At the time, the Justice Department warned that if state efforts weren’t enough to protect the public, then the federal government might step up its enforcement or even challenge the state laws themselves. This put the responsibility on the Department of Justice to monitor developments in these states, develop metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of its policy, and change course if developments warranted.
But a report from the Government Accountability Office that Grassley and Feinstein requested found that the Administration doesn’t have a documented plan to monitor the effects of state legalization on any of these priorities. Moreover, according to the report, officials at the Department could not even say how they make use of any information they receive related to these priorities. Grassley and Feinstein are convening this hearing to explore this problem.
What I find most notable and disconcerting about this hearing is that it claims to be exploring whether the big federal government bureaucrats inside the Beltway at DOJ who are very far removed from direct public accountability are "protecting the public" from state reforms in Alaska and Colorado and Oregon and Washington which were enacted directly by the public through voter initiatives.
Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Lots of food for marijuana reform thought via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
The biggest news this week in the marijuana reform space was the "dog-not-barking" decision by the Supreme Court to deny the "motion for leave to file a bill of complaint" brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado for its recreational reforms (basics here). But, as highlighted by students in my semester-long OSU Moritz College of Law seminar on marijuana laws and reform via readings assembled for in-class presentations, there are lots of other topics for marijuana reformers (and their opponents) to be concerned with these days.
Here is a round up of just some of the many interesting reform-related stories flagged recently over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:
Monday, March 21, 2016
SCOTUS rejects original lawsuit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over marijuana reform
Legal gurus closely following state-level marijuana reforms have been also closely following the lawsuit brought directly to the Supreme Court way back in December 2014 by Nebraska and Oklahoma complaining about how Colorado reformed its state marijuana laws. Today, via this order list, the Supreme Court finally officially denied the "motion for leave to file a bill of complaint" by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado. This is huge news for state marijuana reform efforts, but not really all that surprising. (It would have been bigger news and surprising if the motion was granted.)
Notably, Justice Thomas authored an extended dissent to this denial, which was joined by Justice Alito. Here is how this dissent stats and ends:
Federal law does not, on its face, give this Court discretion to decline to decide cases within its original jurisdiction. Yet the Court has long exercised such discretion, and does so again today in denying, without explanation, Nebraska and Oklahoma’s motion for leave to file a complaint against Colorado. I would not dispose of the complaint so hastily. Because our discretionary approach to exercising our original jurisdiction is questionable, and because the plaintiff States have made a reasonable case that this dispute falls within our original and exclusive jurisdiction, I would grant the plaintiff States leave to file their complaint....
Federal law generally prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensing, and possession of marijuana. See Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 84 Stat. 1242, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§812(c), Schedule I(c)(10), 841–846 (2012 ed. and Supp. II). Emphasizing the breadth of the CSA, this Court has stated that the statute establishes “a comprehensive regime to combat the international and interstate traffic in illicit drugs.” Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 12 (2005). Despite the CSA’s broad prohibitions, in 2012 the State of Colorado adopted Amendment 64, which amends the State Constitution to legalize, regulate, and facilitate the recreational use of marijuana. See Colo. Const., Art. XVIII, §16. Amendment 64 exempts from Colorado’s criminal prohibitions certain uses of marijuana. §§16(3)(a), (c), (d); see Colo. Rev. Stat. §18–18–433 (2015). Amendment 64 directs the Colorado Department of Revenue to promulgate licensing procedures for marijuana establishments. Art. XVIII, §16(5)(a). And the amendment requires the Colorado General Assembly to enact an excise tax for sales of marijuana from cultivation facilities to manufacturing facilities and retail stores. §16(5)(d).
In December 2014, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed in this Court a motion seeking leave to file a complaint against Colorado. The plaintiff States — which share borders with Colorado — allege that Amendment 64 affirmatively facilitates the violation and frustration of federal drug laws. See Complaint ¶¶54–65. They claim that Amendment 64 has “increased trafficking and transportation of Coloradosourced marijuana” into their territories, requiring them to expend significant “law enforcement, judicial system, and penal system resources” to combat the increased trafficking and transportation of marijuana. Id., ¶58; Brief [for Nebraska and Oklahoma] in Support of Motion for Leave to File Complaint 11–16. The plaintiff States seek a declaratory judgment that the CSA pre-empts certain of Amendment 64’s licensing, regulation, and taxation provisions and an injunction barring their implementation. Complaint 28–29.
The complaint, on its face, presents a “controvers[y] between two or more States” that this Court alone has authority to adjudicate. 28 U. S. C. §1251(a). The plaintiff States have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another State. Whatever the merit of the plaintiff States’ claims, we should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave without so much as a word of explanation.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
"Make No Mistake: Hillary Clinton is a Drug Warrior"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Romain Bonilla that I just came across on the Marijuana Politics website. Here are excerpts:
Hillary Clinton’s record on the War on Drugs sets her apart from other the other candidates — and not in a good way. From her criminal justice agenda as First Lady to her foreign policies as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be one of the greatest drug warriors of our generation. At a time when two-thirds of Americans support ending the War on Drugs, it’s crucial for her record on the issue to be brought to light.
Over the course of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton publicly supported tough-on-crime criminal justice reforms that escalated and emboldened the War on Drugs. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton pushed for the largest crime bill in the history of the United States: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This 1994 crime bill called for 100,000 more police officers, provided billions of dollars of funding to prison construction, and ramped up the use of mandatory minimum sentences. This law became a signature accomplishment of Bill Clinton’s presidency....
Hillary Clinton’s involvement with the War on Drugs didn’t stop there. As Secretary of State, Clinton waged the War on Drugs abroad. Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership, the State Department fueled the Mexican Drug War by funding efforts to combat drug trafficking. Through its Mérida Initiative, Clinton’s State Department hired American defense contractors to take part in the conflict and sold billions worth of weapons to Mexico — leading it to become one of the world’s top purchasers of U.S. military arms and equipment. Over the course of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the Mexican Drug War spiraled into chaos, killing over 160,000 people and displacing millions of others.
Worse still: As Clinton’s State Department gave billions in drug war aid to Mexico, it turned a blind eye to the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the country’s government. Even as the United Nations acknowledged that Mexican authorities were involved in kidnappings and disappearances, Clinton’s State Department continued to support the offensive.
Now aiming for the presidency, in the Democratic race against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton describes herself as a progressive leader who will end mass incarceration. As she campaigns for the Democratic nomination, Clinton appears to have “evolved” on issues of drug policy, and gives lip-service to some of the things drug policy reformers have been saying for years. In a January debate, for instance, she stressed the importance of treating addiction as a health issue rather than a crime, hinting at an understanding of the failures of the drug war.
While Hillary Clinton is willing to speak vaguely against the War on Drugs, she refuses to embrace meaningful reforms to current drug policies. While most Americans agree that marijuana should be legal, Clinton supports rescheduling it to Schedule II, the same category as cocaine and methamphetamine. This proposal would do little to end the War on Drugs, but would facilitate research on medical marijuana and allow pharmaceutical companies to sell cannabinoid drugs.
Hillary Clinton’s drug policies are completely in line with those of the wealthy special interests that fund her campaign, like the private prison lobby and Big Pharma. Under Clinton’s marijuana policy, users would still be prosecuted for mere possession (as is the case for cocaine and methamphetamine users), but drug companies would get a free pass to profit off of marijuana’s medicinal value.
This position on marijuana policy is certainly not enough to redeem Clinton’s record of tough-on-crime legislation and drug warmongering abroad. Though she didn’t declare it, Hillary Clinton has been a champion of the War on Drugs. Her policies have sacrificed millions of lives to the failed ideal of a drug-free America and her contribution to mass incarceration haunts this nation to this day. Viewed as a whole, Hillary Clinton’s record reveals her to be a staunch drug warrior — and if she won’t push for meaningful reforms now, it’s unlikely she’ll ever get around to it.
Sunday, February 28, 2016
"With Marijuana Legal, Why Are People Still Doing Life For Weed?"
Thie question in the title of this post is the headline of this article from The Kind (as well as a question that really does not have a satsfactory answer). Here are excerpts:
At least 30 people are currently serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana-related offenses. Save extraordinary events, they will die in prison. Overturning a law does not exonerate the people who were convicted of breaking the law when it was in effect. This means that even if marijuana is legalized tomorrow, those serving time for marijuana-related offenses will not be released.
“Most people don’t believe it,” says Beth Curtis, founder of Life for Pot, an organization that spotlights people who are serving life without parole for non-violent marijuana-only offenses.
One person who is scheduled to remain in jail until they die is Curtis’s brother, John Knock. “Twenty years ago I received a phone call informing me that my youngest brother had been indicted for a marijuana conspiracy in Florida,” Curtis explains on her site. “Our lives have never been the same.”...
In 2008 she launched LifeForPot.com, which currently features 30 or so inmates with life or de facto life sentences (e.g., someone who is 50 years old and gets 50 years). Most of Curtis’s advocacy takes place offline, primarily through writing and sending information about individuals to congress, congressmen, and various groups that might take up the cause. “Actually a lot of people have,” she says. “Now when you Google ‘life for pot’, lots of stuff comes up. When I first started, it was just my site.”...
Without retroactive legislation, inmates serving life without parole for weed can only be released through clemency, in the form of a pardon or sentence commutation from the president (on the federal level) or from the governor (on the state level). (Group pardons are rare, but not entirely unprecedented.)
Out of the 95 sentence commutations granted by President Barrack Obama in December, two were serving life for marijuana-related crimes: Billy Dekel and Charles Cundiff.
Beth Curtis says she’s been advocating for both of them for years and plans to visit them once they’re out. Another inmate on Curtis’s radar, Larry Duke, was freed last March under a compassionate release program for inmates over 65. While Curtis was elated by the three inmates’ release, she notes that Obama would need to seriously ramp up the number of commutations to make a meaningful dent in the population.
“These people need clemency to get any relief,” she says. “And for the old guys, it’s kind of important that it happens pretty soon. Their runway is a lot shorter. Not that the younger people shouldn’t be released also, but dying in prison is a particularly horrendous thought. “Obama said that through clemency there would be thousands released,” Curtis adds. “I hope that that’s true. I hope and pray that that’s true.”
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
What does (closet libertarian?) GOP front-runner Donald Trump now really think about the drug war and criminal justice reform and Prez clemency?
Based on his personal and professional history, as well as a number of his prior positions on a range of social and economic issues, I have long assumed the essential political views and commitments of Donald Trump to be what might be called "pragmatic libertarianism." I say that in part because most successful private businessmen in the United States, in addition to being generally pragmatic, tend to have at least some hint of a libertarian streak on at least some issues (e.g., think of the Koch brothers or Peter Lewis). More to the point, as I have flagged in prior posts here and on my marijuana reform blog, Donald Trump once embraced the libertarian view that full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.
But, of course, Donald Trump the Presidential candidate has sounded far more authoritarian than libertarian on the campaign trail, especially with respect to domestic issues. He conveniently says that he has now changed his mind about abortion and thus now is pro-life rather than pro-choice. He also has expressed in vaious ways disaffinity for marijuana legalization (though his position seems to get more and more nuanced as time goes on, as highlighted in posts here and here from my marijuana reform blog). Then again, to the extent a single idea summarizes Trump's modern politics, it would seem to be "anti-establishment"; I think it is accurate to describe The Establishment, on both the left and the right, to be quite statist and generally anti-libertarian.
I say all this not to claim that Donald Trump is the most libertarian candidate still with a serious chance to become President (although this might be true). Rather, I say it in order to try to figure out whether, when and how the candidate now seemingly most likely to represent the GOP on the national stage for the bulk of 2016 will articulate his latest thinking about federal criminal justice issues ranging from statutory sentencing reform of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders to federal responses to state marijuana legalization to the robust use of federal clemency powers.
Obviously, how the last five or six US presidents have approached these federal criminal justice issues, both politically and practically, has had a huge impact on the nature and reach of our nation's federal and state criminal justice systems. Before I can even figure out whether I should be terrified by the prospect of a President Trump, I really am eager to hear more about his current thoughts on these important criminal justice fronts. Critically, not only would Trump's discussion now of these issues help me better understand long-term what would a President Trump might actually do, I think they could have a big short-term impact on the work of the current Congress and the current President (and even the current Supreme Court) in these areas.
With apologies for my (silly?) Prez Trump musings in the wake of his latest "yuge" win in Nevada, I am eager to hear lots of thought from lots on readers on this political and legal front.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Some marijuana reform developments (with seasonal politics) via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
It has been a few weeks since I highlighted here developments in the marijuana reform space, and recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform highlight just some of the reasons why the on-going 2016 election (and the football season just completed) provide a number of marijuana reform angles and stories worth keeping an eye on:
Saturday, January 30, 2016
You be the state sentencing judge: how much prison time for former state official guilty of (small-time?) marijuana dealing
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story from Michigan, headlined "Ex-state Rep. Roy Schmidt pleads, sold marijuana as 'source of income,' judge says." Here are the basics (with my emphasis added):
Former state Rep. Roy Schdmidt pleaded no contest Thursday, Jan. 28, to manufacture of marijuana. Schmidt initially fought charges as a registered medical marijuana caregiver and disputed the amount of marijuana he possessed.
But a police report, read by Grand Rapids District Judge Michael Distel to establish a basis for Schmidt's guilt, said he told police that he sold marijuana to 10 to 15 people who were not his registered medical marijuana patients. He told police that "he was operating his business as a source of income," Distel said.
Schmidt was charged last year with manufacture or delivery of marijuana after police raided his home on Seventh Street NW and a house he rented from his son on Myrtle Avenue NW. Police said Schmidt possessed nearly three pounds of marijuana and 71 marijuana plants. Caregivers are allowed to possess 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana for each of up to five patients. Schmidt has maintained that his drying marijuana was not considered usable.
He faces up to four years in prison when sentenced on March 22 in Kent County Circuit Court.... Under the plea, Schmidt admits no guilt but the plea is treated as such at sentencing. He was allowed to plead no contest because he could face civil forfeiture proceedings related to his marijuana operation.
Schmidt is free on bond. Kent County prosecutors will drop a second charge of manufacturing marijuana.
His arrest followed an ill-fated scheme to switch parties while he served in the House of Representatives. After being elected as a Democrat in 2008, he lost his seat four years later after a controversial switch to the Republican Party. He had spent 16 years on a Grand Rapids City Commission on the West Side of town.
This case raises more than a few interesting classic "offender-based" sentencing issues: e.g., (1) should Schmidt's history as a relatively prominent politician be viewed as an aggravating sentencing factor (because it makes him more culpable as someone who was involved in making the state laws he broke) or as a possible mitigating sentencing factor (because he would seem like the type of person unlikely to be a serious recidivist); (2) should the prospect of Schmidt losing his home and/or his son's home through civil forfeiture proceedings significantly influence what criminal sentence he receives?
But, what really captured my attention in this case (and prompted my cross-posting over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog) is the different ways this defendant's offense might be viewed by a sentencing judge. His lawyers could perhaps claim, given the legalization of medical marijuana in Michigan, that Schmidt's crime is essentially a regulatory violation comparable to a liquor store owner who sold a dozen or so times to underage college students. But prosecutors likely will assert that Schmidt should be viewed and sentenced like any other greedy drug dealer.
Thoughts, dear readers?
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Lots of notable new year marijuana reform developments via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
It has been some time since I highlighted here developments in the marijuana reform space, and these recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform highlight just some of the reasons why 2016 is already full of marijuana reform stories worth keeping an eye on:
Thursday, January 07, 2016
Are there any clear data patterns linking marijuana reforms and broader criminal justice developments?
The somewhat cumbersome question in the title of this post is prompted by the number crunching appearing in this interesting data-focused new piece by Jon Gettman via High Times titled ""Pot Matters: Marijuana in the Larger Context of Criminal Justice Reform." Here are excerpts:
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has recently release their annual data on correctional populations in the United States, comparing the latest data (from 2014) with prior years. This data on people under correctional supervision consists of totals of people incarcerated in either jail or prison, those on probation, or released on parole. This data does not include information on the offenses committed by people under correctional supervision. The big headline is that the total population of people under the watchful eye of the correctional supervision is declining.
In 2014, there were 6,851,000 people in the system, a decline of 52,200 offenders from 2013. The overall rate of 2.8 percent of adults in the United States being under some form of correctional supervision is the lowest since 1996. The correction population has been declining by an annual average of one percent since 2007. The incarcerated population increased slightly (by 1,900) in 2014, and most of the decrease over time has been in the area of community supervision (probation and parole). Reducing the number of marijuana arrests in a jurisdiction is an easy way to reduce the burden on probation officers given that many marijuana possession offenses result in probation....
From 2005 to 2014, the total correctional population in the United States fell by 241,000 from 7,055,600 to 6,814,600. Actually, the federal population increased by 33,500 in this period, but the state population fell by 274,500. However, the correction population increased in 26 states by a total of 283,100. It fell in 24 states and the District of Columbia by 557,300.
So which states are increasing their correctional populations? The biggest increases from 2005 to 2014 were in Georgia (48,000), Pennsylvania (47,500), Kentucky (30,700), Colorado (25,500) and Tennessee (20,600). The other states rounding out the top 10 were Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Arizona and Iowa.
The biggest decreases in correctional populations were in California (-160,700), Massachusetts (-101,800), Florida (-49,300), New York (-38,400) and Texas (-34,500). The rest of the top 10 in reduced correctional populations were New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, Connecticut and North Carolina.
There is no clear pattern here with respect of state marijuana laws, but there is an interesting trend worth noting. States that rely more on community supervision than incarceration often have reformed their marijuana laws....
Of the 15 jurisdictions with the highest levels of community supervision, in addition to Georgia, seven of them have decriminalized or legalized marijuana (Washington D.C., Minnesota, Ohio, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Maryland). Increasing the list to 16 adds Colorado. Other states in this group of 16 have medical marijuana laws (Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan).
Marijuana law reform and legalization are sound policies with great merit, but they are also part of a larger issue in the United States, the reform of the criminal justice system in ways that reduce the number of people under correctional supervision. This has always been part of the argument for legalizing cannabis — the justice system should stop wasting resources on marijuana users and divert them to violent offenders.
The recent trends in correctional supervision data present good news and bad news when it comes to the legalization of cannabis. The good news is that many states are receptive to criminal justice reform, particularly ones that have already made a commitment to community supervision as an alternative to incarceration. These states, and states that are reducing their correctional populations, may be the most receptive to ending arrests for marijuana offenses.
The bad news is that other states remain committed to increasing arrests and increasing correctional populations. These states, their criminal justice professionals and their political leaders will present the greatest challenges to the legalization of cannabis throughout the United States.
I would be very eager for readers to point me to any other research or data sets starting to look at whether and how a state's approach to marijuana reform may (or may not) be incfluencing other criminal justice developments in the state. And, of course, anyone just generally interested in marijuana reform ought to be regularly checking out my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. Here are links to a few recent posts from that locale:
- Should we expect any major federal marijuana reform developments in 2016?
- Two different prespectives on the coming marijuana reform future
- Gearing up for historic 2016 in the arena of marijuana law, policy and reform
- MPP Director provides Top 10 accounting of marijuana reform achievements in 2015
- SAM Prez provides Top 10 accounting of marijuana reform difficulties in 2015
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Justice Department urges SCOTUS to refuse to take up original suit about marijuana brought by neighbor states against Colorado
As discussed here by Rob Mikos over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, late yesterday the US Solicitor General filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court concerning the suit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado seeking various kinds of legal relief in the wake of Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana. Rob provides this basic background and summary of the filing:
Per its practice, SCOTUS had requested the SG’s input. The brief can be found via this link. (To provide some background, the SG handles all litigation involving the United States before SCOTUS, and it also commonly files amicus briefs in SCOTUS cases in which the U.S. is not a party. The SG’s positions can be quite influential on the Court.) For earlier postings on this case, see here, here and here.
In a nutshell, the SG argued that SCOTUS should refuse to exercise original jurisdiction over the action. Why? Perhaps most importantly, the SG suggested that the NE / OK suit didn’t fit the mold of cases over which SCOTUS had traditionally exercised original jurisdiction – namely, cases in which one state had directly harmed another. Importantly, the SG argued that CO hadn’t directly injured its neighboring states, e.g., by exporting marijuana or authorizing private citizens to do so. Rather, any injury NE / OK have suffered is more directly traceable to the actions of private parties who buy marijuana in CO and then take it outside the state.
Because it focused on SCOTUS practice, the SG did not need to weigh in on the merits of the underlying action. But I think the argument the SG makes favors CO, if SCOTUS (or another court) ever had to decide the matter. After all, if CO is not directly responsible for the injury to NE / OK’s regulatory interests, it’s hard to see why CO could be held responsible for any injury to federal regulatory interests. In other words, if CO isn’t responsible for people using marijuana in NE / OK, then it arguably isn’t responsible for people using marijuana in CO either.
As the SG itself notes, even if SCOTUS declines original jurisdiction over the suit, NE / OK could still file it in a federal district court. Of course, it would have to overcome some daunting procedural hurdles there as well (e.g. ,standing), as noted in the SG brief.
I am hopeful I will have time in the coming days to closely analyze this SG amicus brief and to post some additional commentary at the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog or here. In the meantime, here is how the Discussion section of the SG's brief gets started:
The motion for leave to file a bill of complaint should be denied because this is not an appropriate case for the exercise of this Court’s original jurisdiction. Entertaining the type of dispute at issue here — essentially that one State’s laws make it more likely that third parties will violate federal and state law in another State — would represent a substantial and unwarranted expansion of this Court’s original jurisdiction.