Saturday, September 20, 2014
Recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Since it has once again been a few weeks since I did a round-up of recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here goes:
Thursday, September 11, 2014
"Marijuana, Federal Power, and the States"
The title of this post is the title of the exciting symposium taking place all day tomorrow, Friday, September 12, at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. The website for the event with the full schedule of speakers is available at this link (including a webcast link), and the website sets up the event with this overview:
In 2013 voters in Colorado and Washington legalized the possession of marijuana under state law. Several other states allow the possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and others appear ready to follow suit. Yet marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The federal governmental has not sought to preempt these decisions, and has outlined a new enforcement policy that largely defers to state law enforcement.
Nonetheless, the conflict between federal and state laws creates legal difficulty for business owners, financial institutions, and local law enforcement. Is this dual regime sustainable? Should the federal government defer to state electorates on marijuana policies? Is drug policy best made at the federal or state level? How should principles of federalism inform the federal government’s response to state initiatives on marijuana? Prominent academics will consider these and related questions raised by state-level marijuana policy reforms.
Professor Jonathan Adler, along with Case's Center for Business Law and Regulation, has brought together for this event nearly all of the leading legal and policy scholars doing research and work on these topics. I am heading up to Cleveland right after I finish this post and I am very excited to be a part of this great event.
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"
The question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU. An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront." And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:
Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime? Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.
And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by Vanita Gupta:
Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.
The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....
While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.
We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.
Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.
The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.
But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.
According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.
The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.
As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.
September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Monday, September 01, 2014
Lots more highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
It has been a few weeks since I did a round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform. Here are some of the latest posts from a a variety of bloggers, with my own little bit of organization added in:
General research and commentary
State-specific research and developments
Campaign 2014 advocacy and developments
Special series by Prof Mikos on "The Local Option"
Thursday, August 28, 2014
How should governments approach a product that research suggests reduces overdose deaths, domestic violence and Alzheimer's?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this week's research news indicating, as reported in recent posts here and here, that reform of marijuana prohibition and/or marijuana use might alleviate some of biggest social ills and public health concerns in the United States.
In a prior post, I noted that I have been trying to avoid claiming that marijuana reform likely can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug. But upon seeing this notable new FoxNews piece, headlined "Marijuana compound may slow, halt progression of Alzheimer's," it is now that much harder for me to resist suggesting that marijuana reform could very well end up being a real boon for public health.
Perhaps even more importantly, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think it is now becoming especially difficult for government officials and bureaucrats to keep saying seriously and aggressively that even considering the reform of marijuana prohibition is obviously dangerous and is sure to result in profound public health problems. I certainly understand and appreciate and respect concerns of anti-drug advocates who, I believe in good-faith, fear the potential consequences of wide-spread repeal of marijuana prohibition. But, especially in light of the growing research suggesting marijuana reform may do a whole lot more good than harm, I hope prohibitionist might become a bit more open-minded about array of positives that might come from smart, good-government, liberty-enhancing reforms in this arena.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Two positive reports on positive public health results from marijuana reform and use
My Google news feed with marijuana headlines was topped this morning with these two notable reports about research suggesting both legal reform and usage can have positive public health consequences:
From Newsweek here, "In States With Medical Marijuana, Painkiller Deaths Drop by 25%"
From Huffington Post here, "Marijuana Use Lowers Risk Of Domestic Violence In Married Couples, Study Finds"
I am strongly trying to resist the impulse to claim that marijuana reform can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug. Nevertheless, it is hard not to get excited about the results of the research reported above. Of particular note, the study concerning opiate overdoses, which is available in full here and is titled "Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010," is published in the highly-respected JAMA Internal Medicine journal.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
After Ferguson, can and should marijuana legalization and drug war reform become a unifying civil rights movement?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by my own uncertainty concerning the fitting public policy responses to the events in Feguson this month and in part by this potent and provocative new Huffington Post piece by Jelani Hayes headlined "Ending Marijuana Prohibition Must Take a Historical Perspective." Here are excerpts from the commentary (with links from the original):
Underlying marijuana prohibition is a familiar philosophy: to preserve social order and white supremacy and secure profits for an influential few, it is permissible, even advisable, to construct profit-bearing institutions of social control. Historically, this philosophy has been advanced by governmental action, guided by special interests. The traditional tactics: manufacturing mass fear, criminalizing the target or demoting them to a sub-citizen status, and profiting from their subjugation.
Cannabis prohibition did all three. The [New York] Times editorial board dedicated an entire article to explaining this phenomenon. Part 3 of the series begins, "The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria in the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason."...
Additionally, business interests play a part in keeping cannabis illegal. Some pharmaceutical companies, drug-prevention nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, and the private prison industry have an economic interest in criminalization, what is known as the drug control industrial complex. It pays big to help fight the war on drugs, and marijuana prohibition is a crucial facet of that effort. The Nation has recently called these interests "The Real Reason Pot is Still Illegal."
The United States should legalize marijuana. It should also end the drug war, which would be a tremendous and beautiful accomplishment, but it would not be enough.
The war on drugs is a mechanism of social control — not unlike African slavery, Jim Crow, alcohol Prohibition, or the systematic relegation of immigrants to an illegal status or substandard existence. Different in their nature and severity, all of these institutions were tools used to control and profit from the criminalization, regulation, and dehumanization of minority communities. Legalizing marijuana will not alone rid society of the tendency to turn fear into hatred, hatred into regulation, and regulation into profit. To address this cycle, we must put cannabis prohibition (and the drug war) in its historical context and connect the dots where appropriate.
Already we have seen that the reality of legalization does not alone ensure justice or equality. As law professor and best selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander points out, thousands of black men remain in jail or prison in Colorado (where licit weed has been on the market since January) while white men make money from the now legal marijuana market -- selling the drug just as the incarcerated men had done. She warns that legalization without reparation is not sufficient, drawing the parallel to what happened to black Americans post-Reconstruction. "And after a brief period of reconstruction a new caste system was imposed — Jim Crow — and another extraordinary movement arose and brought the old Jim Crow to its knees...Americans said, OK, we'll stop now. We'll take down the whites-only signs, we'll stop doing that," she said. "But there were not reparations for slavery, not for Jim Crow, and scarcely an acknowledgement of the harm done except for Martin Luther King Day, one day out of the year. And I feel like, here we go again."
Alexander's historical perspective is warranted because despite the size and intensity of marijuana prohibition, of the drug war in its entirety, its purpose is not unlike that of Jim Crow or other structural forms of social control and oppression. The drug war was never about drugs. Therefore, our solution to it can't be either.
We must frame the campaigns for cannabis legalization across the states as civil rights movements — as institutional reform efforts — so that the public might demand justice oriented outcomes from the campaigns....
In order to undue the damage — to the extent that that is possible — that the criminalization of marijuana specifically and the war on drugs more broadly have caused, we must pay reparations and retroactively apply reformed drug laws. More importantly, we must undermine the philosophies that allow for the construction of institutional harm, and we must be able to identity them when they creep up again and be ready to take action against them, to arm our minds and our bodies against the next wave of social oppression — whatever and wherever it may be and to whomever it may be applied. This is my plea to make history matter so that it doesn't repeat itself — again, and again, and again.
Regular readers likely know that I see marijuana and drug sentencing reform efforts as tied to a broader civil rights movement (and not just for people of color). But, especially in the wake of what has transpired this month in Ferguson, I am getting especially drawn to the idea that appropriate public policy response is to connect criminal justice reform efforts to civil rights messages and history as this HuffPo commentary urges.
A few (of many) recent and older related posts (some from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform):
- 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?
- "The New Jim Crow? Recovering the Progressive Origins of Mass Incarceration"
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
- Do (and should) marijuana reform advocates consider themselves civil rights activists like MLK?
- Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?
- Fittingly for MLK day, Prez Obama laments class and race disparities from pot prohibition
August 21, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Saturday, August 16, 2014
Recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
It has been a few weeks since I did a round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, so here goes:
Saturday, August 09, 2014
Early data from Colorado suggest teenage use of marijuana is down since legalization
I have tended to assume that teenage use of marijuana would likely increase in the wake of legalization in Colorado, but the early data suggest a reduction in teenager use of marijuana since the stuff became legal for adults. This recent news report, headlined "Pot Use Among Colorado Teens Appears to Drop After Legalization," provides these details:
Marijuana use among Colorado high school students appears to be declining, despite the state’s pioneering voter-approved experiment with legalization. According to preliminary data from the state’s biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, in 2013 - the first full year the drug was legal for adults 21 and older - 20 percent of high school students admitted using pot in the preceding month and 37 percent said they had at some point in their lives.
The survey’s 2011 edition found 22 percent of high school students used the drug in the past month and 39 percent had ever sampled it. It’s unclear if the year-to-year decline represents a statistically significant change, but data from 2009 suggests a multiyear downward trend. That year 25 percent of high school kids said they used pot in the past month and 45 percent said they had ever done so.
The data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also appears to show post-legalization pot use among Colorado teens was lower than the national average....
Supporters of marijuana legalization argue underage use will shrink as states impose strict age limits. Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, fear that declining perceptions of harm associated with the drug will lead to an uptick in teen use. According to the data released Thursday, students surveyed do have a lowered perception of harm - 54 percent perceived a moderate or great risk in using the drug, down from 58 percent in 2011 - but use did not increase.
“Once again, claims that regulating marijuana would leave Colorado in ruins have proven to be unfounded,” Marijuana Policy Project Communication Director Mason Tvert said in a statement. “How many times do marijuana prohibition supporters need to be proven wrong before they stop declaring our marijuana laws are increasing teen use?”
Tvert, co-director of Colorado’s successful Amendment 64 legalization campaign, said “the drop in teen use reflects the fact that state and local authorities have far more control over marijuana than ever before.” He argues “our goal should not be increasing teens’ perception of risk surrounding marijuana. It should be increasing teens’ knowledge of the actual relative harms of marijuana, alcohol, and other substances so that they can make smart decisions."
Foes of legalization haven't thrown in the towel. "No statistician would interpret that as being a decline," Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says of the 2 percentage point year-to-year drop. Sabet says it will be important to review county-level data when full survey results are released later this year and points out that state-licensed stores were not open in 2013.
Tuesday, August 05, 2014
Notable discussion of traffic fatalities in Colorado after marijuana legalization
Radley Balko has this notable new Washington Post piece headlined "Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows." The full piece merits a full read for those thinking about the potential public safety impact of marijuana, and here are excerpts:
It makes sense that loosening restrictions on pot would result in a higher percentage of drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents having smoked the drug at some point over the past few days or weeks. You’d also expect to find that a higher percentage of churchgoers, good Samaritans and soup kitchen volunteers would have pot in their system. You’d expect a similar result among any large sampling of people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that marijuana caused or was even a contributing factor to accidents, traffic violations or fatalities.
This isn’t an argument that pot wasn’t a factor in at least some of those accidents, either. But that’s precisely the point. A post-accident test for marijuana metabolites doesn’t tell us much at all about whether pot contributed to the accident....
It seems to me that the best way to gauge the effect legalization has had on the roadways is to look at what has happened on the roads since legalization took effect.... [R]oadway fatalities this year are down from last year, and down from the 13-year average. Of the seven months so far this year, five months saw a lower fatality figure this year than last, two months saw a slightly higher figure this year, and in one month the two figures were equal....
What’s notable here is that the totals so far in 2014 are closer to the safest composite year since 2002 than to the average year since 2002. I should also add here that these are total fatalities. If we were to calculate these figures as a rate — say, miles driven per fatality — the drop would be starker, both for this year and since Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2001. While the number of miles Americans drive annually has leveled off nationally since the mid-2000s, the number of total miles traveled continues to go up in Colorado. If we were to measure by rate, then, the state would be at lows unseen in decades.
The figures are similar in states that have legalized medical marijuana. While some studies have shown that the number of drivers involved in fatal collisions who test positive for marijuana has steadily increased as pot has become more available, other studies have shown that overall traffic fatalities in those states have dropped. Again, because the pot tests only measure for recent pot use, not inebriation, there’s nothing inconsistent about those results....
Of course, the continuing drop in roadway fatalities, in Colorado and elsewhere, is due to a variety of factors, such as better-built cars and trucks, improved safety features and better road engineering. These figures in and of themselves only indicate that the roads are getting safer; they don’t suggest that pot had anything to do with it. We’re also only seven months in. Maybe these figures will change. Finally, it’s also possible that if it weren’t for legal pot, the 2014 figures would be even lower. There’s no real way to know that. We can only look at the data available. But you can bet that if fatalities were up this year, prohibition supporters would be blaming it on legal marijuana.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
Round-up some more potent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Not surprisingly, the New York Times series explaining its editorial judgment that marijuana prohibition should be ended (first noted here) has generated lots of buzz. And, as demonstrated by this round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, lots of folks are talking about lots of issues in addition to the points being raised by the NYTimes:
Thursday, July 31, 2014
More potent reviews of criminal justice data via the Washington Post's Wonkblog
In this post last week, titled " "There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime," I made much of some recent postings on the Washington Post Wonkblog and suggested that sentencing fans ought to make a habit of checking out Wonkblog regularly. This set of new posts at that blog reinforce my views and recommendation:
Though all these posts merit a close read, I especially recommend the first one linked above, as it meticulously details all significant problems with all the "science" claims made by the federal government to justify marijuana prohibition. Here is how that piece it gets started:
The New York Times editorial board is making news with a week-long series advocating for the full legalization of marijuana in the United States. In response, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) published a blog post Monday purporting to lay out the federal government's case against marijuana reform.
That case, as it turns out, it surprisingly weak. It's built on half-truths and radically decontextualized facts, curated from social science research that is otherwise quite solid. I've gone through the ONDCP's arguments, and the research behind them, below.
The irony here is that with the coming wave of deregulation and legalization, we really do need a sane national discussion of the costs and benefits of widespread marijuana use. But the ONDCP's ideological insistence on prohibition prevents them from taking part in that conversation.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
"The Federal Marijuana Ban Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia"
The title of this post is the headline of this latest editorial in the New York Times series explaining its editorial judgment that marijuana prohibition should be ended (first noted here). Here are excerpts:
The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that is it almost impervious to reason.
The cannabis plant, also known as hemp, was widely grown in the United States for use in fabric during the mid-19th century. The practice of smoking it appeared in Texas border towns around 1900, brought by Mexican immigrants who cultivated cannabis as an intoxicant and for medicinal purposes as they had done at home....
The law enforcement view of marijuana was indelibly shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico and subsequently with black and poor communities in this country. Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of “immoral” populations who were promptly labeled “fiends.”
As the legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread explain in their authoritative history, “The Marihuana Conviction,” the drug’s popularity among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a “narcotic,” attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine.
By the early 1930s, more than 30 states had prohibited the use of marijuana for nonmedical purposes. The federal push was yet to come. The stage for federal suppression of marijuana was set in New Orleans, where a prominent doctor blamed “muggle-heads” — as pot smokers were called — for an outbreak of robberies. The city was awash in sensationalistic newspaper articles that depicted pushers hovering by the schoolhouse door turning children into “addicts.” These stories popularized spurious notions about the drug that lingered for decades.
Law enforcement officials, too, trafficked in the “assassin” theory, under in which killers were said to have smoked cannabis to ready themselves for murder and mayhem.
In 1930, Congress consolidated the drug control effort in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by the endlessly resourceful commissioner, Harry Jacob Anslinger, who became the architect of national prohibition. His case rested on two fantastical assertions: that the drug caused insanity; that it pushed people toward horrendous acts of criminality. Others at the time argued that it was fiercely addictive....
The country accepted a senselessly punitive approach to sentencing as long as minorities and the poor paid the price. But, by the late 1960s, weed had been taken up by white college students from the middle and upper classes. Seeing white lives ruined by marijuana laws altered public attitudes about harsh sentencing, and, in 1972, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse released a report challenging the approach.
The commission concluded that criminalization was “too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use,” and that “the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.” The Nixon administration dismissed these ideas.
During the mid-1970s, virtually all states softened penalties for marijuana possession. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have made medical use of some form of the drug legal. The Justice Department’s recent decision not to sue states that legalize marijuana — as long as they have strong enforcement rules — eases the tension between state and federal laws only slightly but leaves a great many legal problems unresolved.
The federal government has taken a small step back from irrational enforcement. But it clings to a policy that has its origins in racism and xenophobia and whose principal effect has been to ruin the lives of generations of people.
Prior related posts:
- New York Times: "on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization" of marijuana
- "The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
Monday, July 28, 2014
"The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
The title of this post is the headline of this latest editorial in the New York Times series explaining its editorial judgment that marijuana prohibition should be ended (first noted here). This lengthy editorial is authored by Jesse Wegman, and here are excerpts:
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
In October 2010, Bernard Noble, a 45-year-old trucker and father of seven with two previous nonviolent offenses, was stopped on a New Orleans street with a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. His sentence: more than 13 years. At least he will be released. Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man, was arrested in December 1993, for participating (unknowingly, he said) in the purchase of a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because he had two prior nonviolent marijuana convictions, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Outrageously long sentences are only part of the story. The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. These are disproportionately people of color, with marijuana criminalization hitting black communities the hardest.
Meanwhile, police departments that presumably have far more important things to do waste an enormous amount of time and taxpayer money chasing a drug that two states have already legalized and that a majority of Americans believe should be legal everywhere....
Nationwide, ... [f]rom 2001 to 2010, the police made more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests; almost nine in 10 were for possession alone. In 2011, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes put together.
The costs of this national obsession, in both money and time, are astonishing. Each year, enforcing laws on possession costs more than $3.6 billion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It can take a police officer many hours to arrest and book a suspect. That person will often spend a night or more in the local jail, and be in court multiple times to resolve the case. The public-safety payoff for all this effort is meager at best: According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense.
The strategy is also largely futile. After three decades, criminalization has not affected general usage; about 30 million Americans use marijuana every year. Meanwhile, police forces across the country are strapped for cash, and the more resources they devote to enforcing marijuana laws, the less they have to go after serious, violent crime. According to F.B.I. data, more than half of all violent crimes nationwide, and four in five property crimes, went unsolved in 2012.
The sheer volume of law enforcement resources devoted to marijuana is bad enough. What makes the situation far worse is racial disparity. Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, according to a comprehensive 2013 report by the A.C.L.U.
While the number of people behind bars solely for possessing or selling marijuana seems relatively small — 20,000 to 30,000 by the most recent estimates, or roughly 1 percent of America’s 2.4 million inmates — that means nothing to people, like Jeff Mizanskey, who are serving breathtakingly long terms because their records contained minor previous offenses....
Even if a person never goes to prison, the conviction itself is the tip of the iceberg. In a majority of states, marijuana convictions — including those resulting from guilty pleas — can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life. A misdemeanor conviction can lead to, among many other things, the revocation of a professional license; the suspension of a driver’s license; the inability to get insurance, a mortgage or other bank loans; the denial of access to public housing; and the loss of student financial aid....
As pioneers in legalization, [Colorado and Washington] should set a further example by providing relief to people convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes, including overturning convictions. A recent ruling by a Colorado appeals court overturned two 2011 convictions because of the changed law, and the state’s Legislature has enacted laws in the last two years to give courts more power to seal records of drug convictions and to make it easier for defendants to get jobs and housing after a conviction. These are both important steps into an uncharted future.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
New York Times: "on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization" of marijuana
The title of this is drawn from the heart of this this important new New York Times editorial calling for the legalization of marijuana. The editorial is headlined "Repeal Prohibition, Again," and it kicks off a series of pieces about marijuana law and policy. Here are excerpts from the editorial:
The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana. We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times’s Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.
There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.
We considered whether it would be best for Washington to hold back while the states continued experimenting with legalizing medicinal uses of marijuana, reducing penalties, or even simply legalizing all use. Nearly three-quarters of the states have done one of these.
But that would leave their citizens vulnerable to the whims of whoever happens to be in the White House and chooses to enforce or not enforce the federal law.
The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals....
Creating systems for regulating manufacture, sale and marketing will be complex. But those problems are solvable, and would have long been dealt with had we as a nation not clung to the decision to make marijuana production and use a federal crime.
In coming days, we will publish articles by members of the Editorial Board and supplementary material that will examine these questions. We invite readers to offer their ideas, and we will report back on their responses, pro and con.
We recognize that this Congress is as unlikely to take action on marijuana as it has been on other big issues. But it is long past time to repeal this version of Prohibition.
I will be covering this notable editorial development, reactions to it, and the coming Times series more fully at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Round-up of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
As demonstrated by this round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, there are many developments for lawyers and law reform observers to be thinking about these days:
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization
As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it." And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:
Male: 54% to 36%
Age 30-44: 60% to 28%
Democrat: 62% to 27%
White: 52% to 37%
Income $100+: 57% to 32%
Midwest: 55% to 31%
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Friday, July 11, 2014
Some more informed legal buzz about marijuana reform via MLP&R
The mainstream media is buzzing plenty about marijuana law and policy again now that Washington state has now officially started legal recreational sales under its state legalization initiative. But, as demonstrated by this round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, there is a lot much for lawyers and law reform observers to be thinking about these days:
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition
The Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:
Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....
Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.
Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....
People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.
So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.
A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....
The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....
[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.” The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy. That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse. Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years. The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.
The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol. The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors. For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”
Thursday, July 03, 2014
"6 Months Later, Legalizing Weed In Colorado Is A Huge Success"
The title of this post is the headline chosen by Business Insider for this Reuters mid-year update on marijuana reform in Colorado. Here is an excerpt:
Six months on, Colorado's marijuana shops are mushrooming, with support from local consumers, weed tourists and federal government taking a wait-and-see attitude. Tax dollars are pouring in, crime is down in Denver, and few of the early concerns about social breakdown have materialized - at least so far.
"The sky hasn't fallen, but we're a long way from knowing the unintended consequences," said Andrew Freeman, director of marijuana coordination for Colorado. "This is a huge social and economic question."
Denver, dubbed the "Mile High" city, now has about 340 recreational and medicinal pot shops. They tout the relaxing, powerful or introspective attributes of the crystal-encased buds with names like Jilly Bean, Sour Diesel and Silverback Kush. In the first four months, marijuana sales amounted to more than $202 million, about a third of them recreational. Taxes from recreational sales were almost $11 million.
Despite some critics' fears of a pot-driven crime explosion, Denver police say burglaries and robberies were down by between 4 and 5 percent in the first four months of the year. On the down side, sheriff's deputies in neighboring Nebraska say pot seizures near the Colorado border have shot up 400 percent in three years, while Wyoming and New Mexico report no significant increases.
In May, controls on marijuana edibles were tightened after two people died. In one case, a college student jumped from a hotel balcony after eating six times the suggested maximum amount of pot-laced cookies. In the other, a Denver man was charged with shooting dead his wife after apparently getting high from eating marijuana-infused candy.
As Colorado passes the six-month mark, Washington state is approaching with some trepidation the launch next week of the nation's second recreational pot market.