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DEA Tightens Rules on Popular Pain Relievers

It is about to get more difficult to obtain popular pain medications based on hydrocodone, including widely prescribed drugs such as Vicodin. The DEA announced today that it is moving hydrocodone combination drugs from Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to Schedule II.

Drugs containing only hydrocodone were already placed on Schedule II, but drug combinations containing hydrocodone plus other substances, such as aspirin or acetaminophen, have been Schedule III since the CSA was passed in 1970.

The DEA will publish the final rule establishing the change in the Federal Register tomorrow. It will go into effect in 45 days.

This is the end result of a rescheduling request first submitted in 1999, and another indication of retreat from the looser prescribing of opiate pain medications that began about 15 years ago. It comes as prescription overdose deaths and rising levels of heroin addiction are sparking public and official concern.

"Almost seven million Americans abuse controlled-substance prescription medications, including opioid painkillers, resulting in more deaths from prescription drug overdoses than auto accidents," said DEA administrator Michele Leonhart. "Today's action recognizes that these products are some of the most addictive and potentially dangerous prescription medications available."

Moving these hydrocodone combination products to Schedule II will significantly tighten access to them. Patients will not be able to get refills on the same prescription, but will have to go back to the doctor's office to get another one. Doctors will no longer be able to call in prescriptions. And pharmacies will have to store the drugs in secured vaults.

"This is substantial," said Dr. Nathaniel Katz, assistant professor of anesthesia at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. "It's a sign of a shift toward more cautious opioid prescribing. This will be an inconvenience to some, but policy is a machete not a scalpel and you have to figure out where to use it. I think people will be more helped than harmed," he told the New York Times.

But Dr. John Mendelson, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, and an addiction specialist, told the Times he thought the change would lead to an increase in prescriptions of other drugs such as oxycodone, and a rise in the use of heroin.

Other pain management experts have yet to offer opinions, but there is likely to be criticism that the move will create more obstacles for chronic pain sufferers, including those who have problems making it to the doctor's office for a visit to get a prescription written. As many as 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to a 2011 study from the Institute of Medicine.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: SWAT Teams in the News, Santa Fe Decrim Init, Barcelona Cannabis Clubs (8/18/14)

SWAT teams are in the news, the RAVE Act gets critiqued as counterproductive, there will be no medical marijuana initiative in Oklahoma, but it looks like there will be a decriminalization initiative in Santa Fe, and more. Let's get to it:

Demonstration in support of Barcelona's cannabis clubs (fac.cc)
Marijuana Policy

Santa Fe, New Mexico, Decriminalization Initiative Qualifies for Ballot. The Santa Fe city clerk has determined that an initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession in the city has qualified for the November ballot. Now the city council must either vote to change the city ordinance or send the measure to the voters. This measure will eliminate jail time for the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana and possession of marijuana paraphernalia for personal use and will result in no more than a simple $25 fine, as well as make marijuana possession the lowest priority for the Santa Fe Police Department.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Initiative Effort Will Fall Short, Organizers Concede. There will be no medical marijuana initiative in the Sooner State this year. Saturday was the deadline for handing in signatures, and organizers concede they don't have enough valid signatures. They vow to be back at next year.

Hawaii Medical Marijuana Events Slated. The Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii (cofounders of the Medical Cannabis Coalition of Hawaii) have announced three free public events on medical marijuana policy next weekend. "Policy Perspectives on Medical Marijuana" will take place in Oahu and Hilo, while a talk session will be held in Kona. Click on the link for more details.

Law Enforcement

Georgia County Won't Pay Medical Bills for Toddler Injured in SWAT Raid. Habersham County, Georgia, says it will not pay the hospital bills for Bounkham "Baby Boo Boo" Phonesavah, the 19-month-old toddler severely burned when a SWAT team executing a drug arrest warrant threw a flash-bang grenade into his home during a May drug raid. The person the police were looking for wasn't there. Look for a civil lawsuit.

Tampa Police Review Finds No Problem With SWAT Team Killing of Man in Minor Marijuana Raid. SWAT team members acted appropriately when they shot and killed 29-year-old Jason Westcott during a May drug raid, a Tampa Police internal review has found. Police entered the residence where Westcott and a roommate were sleeping, then encountered him with a handgun in the bathroom, where they shot and killed him. Police seized less than $2 worth of marijuana at the scene. There are problems with the investigation that led to the raid, too; click on the May drug raid link to read more.

New York Governor Candidate Randy Credico Arrested, Jailed for Making Video of Cops Arresting Black Man in Subway. Randy Credico, challenger to incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo in next month's Democratic primary, was arrested and jailed for videotaping undercover transit police aggressively arresting a black man Friday afternoon. He is charged with menacing a police officer, obstructing government administration and resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Credico has been arrested more than 20 times, mostly for civil disobedience actions or videotaping police activities.

Justice Department Ups the Ante on FedEx with New Money Laundering Charges. Federal prosecutors in San Francisco unveiled a new indictment against FedEx last Thursday that adds money laundering to a list of charges alleging that the delivery company knowingly shipped illegal prescription drugs from two online pharmacies. The company was already facing 15 conspiracy and drug charges and is looking at a fine of up to $1.6 billion if found guilty. UPS paid the feds $40 million last year to settle similar charges.

RAVE Act Has Done More Harm Than Good, Study Finds. The 2003 RAVE Act (Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act) has not reduced the drug's popularity, but has instead endangered users by hampering efforts to protect them. The law held club owners and produces criminally responsible for drug use at their events, and that made them disinclined to provide harm reduction services -- providing free bottled water of allowing groups like DanceSafe to do informational flyering or drug testing -- because that could be used as signs they were aware of drug use. "There were a lot of groups like that, and there was a lot of educational information about drugs being made available," study author University of Delaware sociologist Tammy Anderson said. "Today, clubs and promoters are reluctant to take those precautions because it could be used as evidence against them. The RAVE Act is a relic of the War on Drugs," she said. "It never worked in the past, and it's not working now." Her research was presented Sunday at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in San Francisco.

International

Vietnam Sentences Six to Death for Heroin Trafficking. A court in northern Vietnam sentenced six people to death last Thursday for trafficking Laotian heroin destined for China. The six were convicted of trafficking 240 pounds of the drug. Under Vietnamese law, the death penalty can be imposed for offenses involving as little as 3.5 ounces of heroin.

Barcelona to Shut Down Dozens of Cannabis Clubs. The city of Barcelona moved quietly last week to shut down about a third of the city's 145 cannabis clubs, citing "deficiencies" in management at nearly 50 of them. Those "deficiencies" included the illegal sale of marijuana, trying to attract non-members to their premises, and creating problems for the neighborhoods where they operate. Under Spanish law, the clubs can operate as members-only establishments where participants share their collective crops. The Spanish Federation of Cannabis Associations has asked for better regulations to avoid illegal practices.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- August 14, 2014

A bill to end the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is close to becoming law in California, the US Sentencing Commission still has work to do on mandatory minimums, the 50th anniversary of America's first pot protest will be commemorated this weekend, and more. Let's get to it:

There's action on sentencing on a couple of fronts today. (supremecourt.gov)
Marijuana Policy

50th Anniversary of First Pot Protest to Be Commemorated at Seattle Hempfest This Weekend. On August 16, 1964, a lone crusader named Lowell Eggemeier marched into the San Francisco Hall of Justice, fired up a joint, and puffed it in the presence of the police inspector. "I am starting a campaign to legalize marijuana smoking," he announced, "I wish to be arrested." He was promptly hauled off to jail for marijuana possession, at that time a felony. California NORML will lead a commemoration of Eggemeir's historic first step Saturday at the Hempfest in Seattle.

National Council of State Legislatures to Consider Marijuana Reform Resolution Next Week. The council's Law and Criminal Justice Committee will consider a resolution encouraging prohibiting the federal government from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that have authorized either medical marijuana or adult marijuana sales and use. Click on the link to read the resolution.

Medical Marijuana

Public Hearings Set for Iowa's New CBD Cannabis Oil Law. Iowans who have something to say about the state's new law decriminalizing the possession of low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil for epileptics will get a chance at a series of public hearings. They will be held in six cities: Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Mason City, Ottumwa, and Sioux City. Click on the link for times and dates, as well information on submitting comment via email or snail mail.

Harm Reduction

Federal Overdose Prevention Act Text Now Available Online. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) filed the bill, Senate Bill 2755, on July 31, and the text is now available online. The bill would create a task force to come up with ways to reduce overdose deaths. Click on the link to read the bill.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission Includes More Work on Mandatory Minimums As Part of Next Year's Priorities. The Commission today approved its list of priorities for the coming year and includes "continued work on addressing concerns with mandatory minimum penalties." The Commission said it would "once again set as its top priority continuing to work with Congress to implement the recommendations in its 2011 report on federal mandatory minimum penalties, which included recommendations that Congress reduce the severity and scope of some mandatory minimum penalties and consider expanding the 'safety valve' statute which exempts certain low-level non-violent offenders from mandatory minimum penalties.

California Fair Sentencing Act Passes Assembly. The California Assembly today approved the Fair Sentencing Act, which would remove the legal disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenders under state law. The measure, Senate Bill 1010, has already passed the state Senate. It goes back to the Senate for a pro forma concurrence vote, and then on to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The bill would remove not only sentencing disparities, but also disparities in the guidelines for probation and asset forfeiture in cases of possession of cocaine for sale. The disparities have resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and imprisonment in the state.

International

British Drug Minister Calls for Legalizing Medical Marijuana. British Drug Minister Norman Baker is calling for new drug laws that allow the use of marijuana to treatment certain medical conditions in a letter he will send to Health Minister Jeremy Hunt. Baker is a Liberal Democrat, the junior partner in the Conservative-led government. Lib Dems have a significantly softer drug policy line than the Tories, as was evidenced yet again when the Tories immediately slapped down Baker's proposal.

Chronicle AM -- August 12, 2014

Everybody must be at the beach, because it's pretty quiet on the drug reform front. But Philly faces a class action lawsuit over asset forfeiture, the DEA gets caught wasting taxpayer money, and there's marijuana policy action down South America way. Let's get to it:

Tax dollars go up in smoke as DEA pays an Amtrak snitch nearly a million bucks for freely available passenger information.
Marijuana Policy

Saginaw, Michigan, City Council Approves Decriminalization Vote. The city council voted last night to approve placing a decriminalization initiative before the voters in November. The council is required by state law to place qualifying citizen initiatives on the ballot, but four of the nine council members still voted against. Saginaw is one of more than a dozen Michigan towns and cities where citizen decriminalization initiatives are aiming for the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Oregon Bans Medical Marijuana Patients From Being Daycare Providers. Oregon's Early Learning Council has passed a temporary rule barring child daycare owners and operators from holding medical marijuana cards. Owners and operators must now also report this information to the council. The rule doesn't apply to users of any other medicines.

Asset Forfeiture

Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Philadelphia Forfeiture Practices. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is violating the constitution with its asset forfeiture practices, a class action lawsuit alleges. The city seizes an average of $5.8 million worth of assets a year, nearly four times the amount seized in Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, or Los Angeles County, both of which have larger populations. Lead plaintiff Christos Sourovelis sued after the city seized his home when his son was arrested for drug possession. His two co-complainants also allege their homes were seized although they committed no crimes.

Law Enforcement

DEA Paid an Amtrak Informant Nearly A Million Bucks for Freely Available Information. The DEA paid an Amtrak employee some $854,460 over two decades for providing passenger list information that the agency could have obtained for free, Amtrak reported Monday. The Amtrak inspector general says the DEA is already part of joint drug task force with Amtrak's police agency and could have obtained the information for no cost. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter Monday to DEA head Michele Leonhart saying the incident "raises some serious questions about the DEA's practices and damages its credibility to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies."

International

Brazilian Senate Has Public Hearing on Marijuana Legalization. The Senate's Human Rights Commission debated marijuana legalization at a public hearing Monday. It is one of a series of public hearings about whether to introduce a legalization bill in the legislature.

Chilean Woman Becomes First Official Latin American Medical Marijuana Patient. The Chilean Institute for Public Health has approved the use of the marijuana extract tincture Sativex for a woman suffering from breast cancer and lupus. Cecilia Heyder is most likely the first officially approved medical marijuana patient in Latin America.

Costa Rica Lawmaker Files Medical Marijuana, Hemp Bill. Lawmaker Marvin Atencio of the Citizen Action Party held a press conference in San Jose Monday to announce that he had filed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the Central American nation. The bill would create an institute within the Health Ministry to supervise it and would allow private concessions to grow marijuana -- for a hefty price tag. The bill would also legalize industrial hemp. Citizen Action controls the government, but does not have a majority, so the bill would require support from other parties to pass.

Two Killed As Driver Flees Drug Traffic Stop

A fleeing drug suspect and the driver of a vehicle with which he collided were killed last Friday night in Durham, North Carolina. Fleeing driver Angel Santana, 52, and innocent motorist Tamar White, 55, become the 28th and 29th persons to die in US domestic drug law operations so far this year.

According to WNCN TV News, citing law enforcement sources, Santana was fleeing after a DEA drug investigation. The TV station named the victims Saturday.

According to the Charlotte News Observer, also citing law enforcement sources, Durham Police reported that the chain of events leading to the deadly collision began when the DEA asked local police to assist in a traffic stop "in connection with a narcotics investigation."

Santana's vehicle "stopped momentarily, but then drove off," said Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Mike Baker. "Durham officers lost sight of the suspect vehicle. When they found the vehicle a short time later, it had been involved in an accident on Patterson Road," he explained.

Durham Police took pains to say they were not engaged in a high-speed pursuit of Santana's vehicle.

But Santana was apparently in a real hurry to get away. According to the police crash report, the roads were rain-slicked, and Santana exceeded both the speed limit and the safe speed for highway conditions and operated his vehicle "in an erratic, reckless, careless, negligent, or aggressive manner."

Chronicle AM -- August 1, 2014

The New York Times isn't done talking about marijuana, a House committee hears about stoned driving, you can comment now on Maryland's draft medical marijuana regulations, federal asset forfeiture and overdose prevention bills get introduced, and more. Let's get to it:

The New York Times says it's time for Reefer Madness to come to an end.
Marijuana Policy

New York Times Has a Week's Worth of Legalization Editorials. The Times's editorial last Sunday calling for the end of federal marijuana prohibition, Repeal Prohibition, Again, was only the beginning. Throughout this week, the "newspaper of record" has kept at it -- and there's still more to come. The other editorials printed so far are Let States Decide on Marijuana, The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests, The Federal Marijuana Ban is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia, and What Science Says About Marijuana. Still to come are editorials addressing track records and regulation. There is also a blog post providing background on the Times's decision to endorse legalization.

House Holds Hearing on Stoned Driving. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing yesterday on driving under the influence of marijuana, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Operating While Stoned," but the upshot was that the federal government has very little information about stoned driving and little basis for setting a legal limit for marijuana impairment. "No one is arguing that [driving while high is] a good idea, but the fact of the matter is that we don't have a lot of data," said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. "[Public policy has] got to be based on science, and we need more of it." Researchers testifying before the committee agreed. Click on the hearing link to watch the whole thing.

Washington Attorney General Intervenes in I-502 Lawsuits. Attorney General Bob Ferguson yesterday moved to intervene in three marijuana lawsuits filed against the cities of Wenatchee and Fife, which have passed local ordinances barring the operation of retail marijuana outlets. An opinion released by Ferguson in January concluded that I-502 does not bar localities from banning such businesses, so it appears he will be siding with the localities.

More Michigan Towns to Vote on Marijuana Reform Measures. Three more Michigan communities have joined the list of towns and cities that will vote on municipal legalization measures. Saginaw, Clare, and Harrison all have measures that have qualified for the ballot. In Saginaw, up to an ounce would be legalized; in Clare and Harrison, up to 2.5 ounces. More than a dozen Michigan communities are expected to vote on reform measures in November.

Portland, Oregon, Moves to Tax Marijuana Before It's Even Legal. The city of Portland has created a marijuana advisory committee in anticipation of voters legalizing marijuana statewide in November. The committee is discussing where to allow pot shops, but it is also moving to create a city sales tax -- and it has to do that before the November election because the language of the New Approach Oregon initiative does not allow cities to impose taxes beyond the state tax it imposes. The thinking is that if a tax is passed before the election, it can be grandfathered in.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Medical Marijuana Draft Regulations are Now Available -- And You Have Until Tuesday to Comment. Maryland's medical marijuana commission has released draft regulations for cultivators and physicians. The Marijuana Policy Project has some problems with them, including calls for an "unnecessary" training course on medical marijuana for all certifying physicians, mandatory drug testing for patients, and a requirement that doctors specify dosage and strain type. These are draft regulations, but the period for comment on the draft ends Tuesday. Interested parties can email the commission to register their comments.

Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marijuana Act Picks Up New Cosponsor. House Resolution 4498, the Legitimate Use of Medical Marijuana Act, has picked up a fourth cosponsor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). The bill, sponsored by Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), would move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act and block the act from being used against medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

Sentencing

Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014 Picks Up New Cosponsor. Senate Bill 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, has picked up its 31st cosponsor, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). The bill would allow judges in some cases to sentence without regard to mandatory minimums, reduce mandatory minimums, and allow people sentenced for crack offenses after the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act went into effect to seek sentence reductions.

Harm Reduction

Senator Jack Reed Introduces Overdose Prevention Act. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and four Democratic cosponsors today introduced the Overdose Prevention Act, which would expand overdose prevention services and providing funding for access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bill is not yet up on the congressional web site.

Asset Forfeiture

Rep. Tim Walberg Introduces Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) has filed House Resolution 5212, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. The bill would raise the standard of proof necessary for the government to seize property and reinstate due process so the government is required to  prove a property owner's involvement in criminal activity. This is the second asset forfeiture reform bill filed in as many weeks. Last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) ACT, Senate Bill 2644, which would require the government to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the property it wishes to forfeit is connected with a crime.

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Report Scolds DEA for Leaving Student in Cell for Five Days. A Justice Department report on the detention of San Diego student Daniel Chong, who was left unattended in a holding cell for five days at a DEA office there, has concluded that the DEA did not take simple measures to ensure that detainees are not forgotten. The report also slammed the agency for having the same agents who left Chong in the cell conduct the investigation into how it happened. Chong earlier received a $1.4 million payout from the DEA to settle a lawsuit he brought against the agency.

International

Russian Drug Agency Proposes Giving Social Benefits to Recovering Drug Users. In something of a surprise move, the Russian Federal Drug Control Service has proposed providing free housing, food subsidies, and home health care to help recovering drug users progress in their rehabilitation. The bill would add drug addicts to a list of categories of people considered socially vulnerable, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities. The proposal has drawn harsh criticism from opponents, who argue that it would encourage drug use.

Chronicle AM -- July 30, 2014

Marijuana arrests are up in a third of the states, the drug czar's office responds to the New York Times, Dr. Carl Hart wins a literary award, Philly narcs get busted, and more. Let's get to it:

Bus ad for the Alaska marijuana legalization campaign.
Marijuana Policy

ONDCP Responds to New York Times Call to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. In a Monday night blog post, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) responded to the New York Times's Sunday editorial calling for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. "Marijuana legalization is not the silver bullet solution," ONDCP proclaimed. "The New York Times editorial team failed to mention a cascade of public health problems associated with the increased availability of marijuana," the blog post reads. "While law enforcement will always play an important role in combating violent crime associated with the drug trade, the Obama Administration approaches substance use as a public health issue, not merely a criminal justice problem." Click on the link to read the whole post.

NORML PAC Endorses Constance Johnson for US Senate in Oklahoma. NORML PAC, the campaign and lobbying arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has endorsed state Sen. Constance Johnson (D) for the US Senate in Oklahoma. Johnson has been an advocate for medical marijuana and marijuana legalization and, this year, has been leading a petition drive to put legalization on the November ballot. "I'm incredibly thankful for NORML's endorsement, " said Sen. Johnson. "After years of stonewalling in the state legislature, I'm taking this fight to the people. It's time for the people of Oklahoma to speak on this issue." The Democratic primary is August 26.

Marijuana Arrests Up in Many States. Although annual marijuana arrests nationwide declined by 3.3% between 2008 and 2012, they increased in at least 17 states, according to a report published by NORML, Marijuana in the States 2012: Analysis and Detailed Data on Marijuana Use and Arrests. South Carolina and the District of Columbia saw the biggest increases, but DC has just decriminalized marijuana possession, so that should change soon. Marijuana arrests accounted for two-thirds of more of all drug arrests in five states: Nebraska (74.1%), New Hampshire (72%), Montana (70.3%), Wyoming (68.7%) and Wisconsin (67.1%).

Alaska Legalization Campaign Unveils News Bus Ads. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol In Alaska unveiled a series of bus ads yesterday in Anchorage that highlight the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol. The ads will appear throughout the week on city buses.

National Cannabis Industry Association Announces Food Safety Program for Edibles Makers and Responsible Selling Program for Retailers. The National Cannabis Industry Association will hold a ServSafe Food Safety training for edibles makers and a responsible selling program for budtenders in Denver next month. Click on the link to register.

Medical Marijuana

New York Governor Tells Health Department to Hurry Up with Medical Marijuana. Impelled by the deaths of two children with epileptic seizure disorders whose conditions could be alleviated with medical marijuana, Gov. Andrew Cuomo today sent a letter to the Department of Health urging it to find ways to "accelerate the process for this specific dire population." Cuomo added that he looked forward "to any progress you can make for the children of our state living with epilepsy."

Fired University of Arizona Medical Marijuana Researcher Loses Appeal. Dr. Sue Sisley, the University of Arizona researcher whose pending study of medical marijuana to treat PTSD among veterans was halted when she was fired last month, has lost an appeal to regain her job. Sisley is now looking for a new academic home to pursue the research.

Law Enforcement

Six Philadelphia Narcs Charged in Corruption Probe. The long-running scandal around Philadelphia's out-of-control narcotics units took another twist today when federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against six of them, including robbery, extortion, kidnapping, and drug dealing. They are accused of shaking down drug dealers and stealing hundreds of thousands in cash and drugs over a six-year period. Federal prosecutors asked that they be held without bail, given their violent histories.

Drug Science

Dr. Carl Hart's "High Price" Wins Science Writing Award. Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University (and Drug Policy Alliance board member), has been awarded the PEN/EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for his memoir, "High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society." Read our review of "High Price" here.

International

Medical Marijuana Civil Disobedience Action in Italy. Activists affiliated with the Italian Radical Party have engaged in civil disobedience over medical marijuana by planting seeds to grow specifically selected marijuana plants to treat patients with multiple sclerosis. The move is a result of frustration with the lack of effective access to medical marijuana in the country, where only 60 patients manage to obtain Dutch-produced medical marijuana through the Public Health Service. Click on the link for more details.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Sentencing Commission Cuts Up to 46,000 Drug War Prisoners' Sentences [FEATURE]

In a much anticipated move, the US Sentencing Commission last Friday voted unanimously to retroactively apply previously approved reductions in federal sentencing guidelines to federal drug war prisoners already serving their sentences. The move means more than 46,000 federal prisoners will be able to apply for sentence reductions.

"This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach," said Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission. "It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."

It's not going to be a flood of inmates suddenly walking out of federal prisons. Prisoners will not be able to seek sentence cuts until November 1 and none will be released before November 1, 2015. Those cuts will average about two years, turning what are currently average 11-year sentences to average nine-year sentences.

It is not quite a done deal. Congress has until November 1 this year to move to block it, but there appears to be little sign of any significant effort underway to do so.

The move is the latest in an effort by the Sentencing Commission to reduce the excesses of drug sentencing resulting from harsh laws passed mostly in the 1980s. It comes as the federal prison population continues to expand, even as state prison populations have begun to shrink following the enactment of sentencing reforms at the state level.

Before the Commission acted, it opened the issue to public comment, and the response indicated intense interest in making the move. The Commission received some 65,000 letters during the comment period, the vast majority endorsing the proposed change. Commenters included nearly a dozen US senators and representatives, including members of both the House and the Senate judiciary committees, all of them in support of the move, as well as federal judges, civil liberties, civil rights, and sentencing and drug reform groups.

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, there are 100,549 people serving federal time for drug offenses, accounting for nearly half (49.7%) of all federal prisoners. The next two biggest categories are weapons offenses (15.7%) and immigration offenses (10.4%).

Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti Saris (uscourts.gov)
The federal prison population has tripled since 1991, largely driven by harsh drug war sentences, the Sentencing Commission found, and the federal prison budget is now eating up $6 billion a year, or one quarter of the entire Justice Department budget. The federal prison system is currently 32% over capacity, with that figure rising to 52% over capacity in maximum security prisons.

The Sentencing Commission acted in April to redress harsh prison sentences by reducing the base offense levels in drug quantity tables in the federal sentencing guidelines so that drug offenses are scored lower in the federal sentencing grid. That reduces the length of possible sentences for a given offense under the guidelines.

"The Commission has the statutory duty to ensure that the guidelines minimize the likelihood that the federal prison population will exceed capacity," Judge Saris explained. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991" and high prison costs "are reducing the resources available for federal prosecutors and law enforcement, aid to state and local law enforcement, crime victim services, and crime prevention programs -- all of which promote public safety," she added.

"Many of the same factors which led us to vote in April to reduce drug guidelines support making those reductions retroactive," Saris continued. "The same changes in the guidelines and laws I mentioned earlier that made the lower guideline levels more appropriate prospectively also make lower guideline levels appropriate for those offenders already in prison, most of whom were convicted after many of these statutory and guideline changes were already in place. In addition, retroactive application of the amendment would have a significant impact on reducing prison costs and overcapacity, which was an important purpose of the amendment, and the impact would come much more quickly than from a prospective change alone."

The Sentencing Commission's action was greeted with cheers from the drug reform and sentencing reform communities.

The Sentencing Commission during a May public hearing. (uscourts.gov)
"We did it!" exclaimed Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) president and founder Julie Stewart. "We got full retroactivity of the drug guideline amendment! Because of your help, 46,000 federal drug offenders sentenced before November 1, 2014, will now be eligible to file a motion in federal court asking for a shorter sentence. I am thrilled with this outcome, especially because we did it together," she said. "More than two dozen FAMM supporters were present with me in the hearing room when the Commission voted in favor of full retroactivity. All of us were overjoyed at the result."

"The Sentencing Commission has promoted fundamental fairness by making its amendment retroactive, ensuring that sentence dates do not determine sentence lengths," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "This vote reflects an historic shift in the decades-long war on drugs, which has filled half of federal prison cells with people convicted of drug offenses. That war has come at a ruinous cost for all Americans, but particularly for communities of color. Not only has there been an enormous financial cost to the public, but there is little evidence to suggest that excessively punitive federal drug policies have improved public safety," he said.

"Retroactive application of the drug guidelines amendment is an important step toward addressing the unjust racial disparities produced through federal sentencing policies as well," Mauer added. "Because drug law enforcement has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos, reduced drug penalties will help to mitigate the effect of harsh sentencing policies on communities of color."

"It makes little sense, of course, to reform harsh sentencing laws proactively but not retroactively," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's what politicians do when they're scared of allowing people out of prison early. The Sentencing Commission really had no choice but to rectify the moral absurdity of keeping people locked up based on sentences that are no longer the law. What they did today was right and just."

The Sentencing Project's Mauer told the Chronicle Tuesday he thought it unlikely that Congress would attempt to block the reform.

"I have not heard of any significant opposition that is developing," he said. "My guess is that since it was a unanimous recommendation from the commission and that this is an election year and members have that on their minds, I'm optimistic there won't be any serious threat of this not going through."

Still, prisoners, their friends, families, and supporters will be waiting for that November deadline for congressional action to pass before they exhale. But it does look as if the federal government has taken a rather significant step in reversing some of the worst excesses of the drug war.

US Drug Policy and the Border Child Immigration Crisis [FEATURE]

The mass migration of tens of thousands of children and adolescents from Central America festered for months before exploding into a full-blown border refugee/immigration crisis in the last few weeks, as images of hundreds of children warehoused in temporary holding facilities competed with equally compelling images of crowds of angry Americans loudly protesting their presence.

At the border. (COHA)
The finger-pointing is in full swing. Much of it centers on the need to "secure the border" and the Obama administration's alleged failure to do so. Other Republican critics blame the administration's alleged "softness" on child immigrants as a factor pulling the kids north. Democrats counter that the GOP's blockage of long-pending immigration reform is part of the problem.

A lot of the discussion centers around the "pull" factors -- those policies or social or economic realities that draw these immigrants toward the US, but equally at play are "push" factors -- those policies or social or economic factors that impel these emigrants to seek new, better lives outside their homelands.

And there is finger-pointing going on about that, too, with some loud and prominent voices placing a good share of the blame on prohibitionist US drug policies in Latin America -- their emphasis on law enforcement and military responses, their balloon effects, and their other unintended consequences.

The majority of the child immigrants are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (the isthmus also includes Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). Those Northern Triangle countries suffered not only devastating civil wars in the 1980s, with the US supporting conservative, often dictatorial governments against leftist popular guerrilla movements (or, in the case of Honduras, serving as a platform for counterinsurgency against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua), but also chronic poverty and income inequality.

They are also the countries feeling the brunt of the expansion of powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- who, in response to increased pressure from the Mexican government (assisted by US aid under the Merida agreement) began pushing south into the region around 2008. And they are countries where transnational criminal gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) have taken on an increasingly high profile, bringing high levels of criminal violence with them. (San Pedro Sula, Honduras, bears the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world.)

Honduran President Juan Fernandez is one of the prominent voices placing the blame for the crisis squarely on the war on drugs.

"Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade," Hernandez told Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior. "The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it. This is creating a serious problem for us that sparked this migration. A good part of (migration) has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence, and this violence, almost 85% of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking," he said.

Former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich has been another prominent voice pointing to the role of the drug war -- and earlier militaristic US interventions in the region. He let loose in a Facebook post last weekend.

"I've been watching media coverage of angry Americans at our southern border waiving signs and yelling slogans, insisting that the children -- most of whom are refugees of the drug war we've created -- 'go home' to the violence and death that war has created, and I wonder who these angry Americans are," he wrote. The "United States is not a detached, innocent bystander" when it came to the refugee crisis, he explained.

"For decades, US governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism -- often defined as virtually any reformer -- gave these regimes a blank check," Reich continued. "The result is a legacy of dealing with opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional. After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 % for Guatemala, 36 % for El Salvador, and 60 % for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix."

While the president of Honduras and Democrats like Reich could have political incentives in what is an increasingly ugly and partisan debate over the crisis, a number of experts on the region -- though not all of them -- agree that US drug policies in the region are playing a major role in the affair.

"Although there are many factors, clearly the drug war is one of them," said John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "There can't be any doubt that drug trafficking and efforts to repress it are part of the criminality and violence in Central America," he told the Chronicle.

"It's not the only explanation, of course," he added. "There are decades of weak institutions and long histories of violence in the area. But if you take into account the shifting trafficking patterns resulting from the US helping other governments in the region put pressure on the industry and shift routes through Central America, it has certainly added to the problems."

"We've been engaged in a drug war for 40 years, and everywhere we put pressure, it bulges out somewhere else," said Nathan Jones, fellow in drug policy at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston. "In the Miami Vice era, we put pressure on the Caribbean, and the trade moved to Mexico. We dismantled the Cali and Medellin cartels in the early 1990s, and in hindsight, we know that also empowered the Mexican cartels."

The pattern keeps repeating, Jones said.

"Through the Merida Initiative, we put more pressure on the Mexican cartels -- and for very good reasons -- but that resulted in their dispersal into Central America. The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel established alliances and began carving out chunks of Central America. They shifted to two-state and multi-stage trafficking operations and tried to minimize their risk by having their loads stop in various countries."

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (wikipedia.org)
At the same time the Mexican cartels were pushing (and being pushed) into Central America, Central American gangs were rearing their tattooed heads. Ironically enough, gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) had their origins in another US war in the region: the Reagan-era effort to thwart the rise to power of popular leftist guerrillas.

"Deportation got us into this mess in the first place," said Jones. "We had immigrants coming from Central America during the wars of the 1980s. Some of them formed their own gangs after being rejected by Mexican street gangs in places like Los Angeles, and when they showed up in the criminal justice system, we deported them back to their home countries. We transnationalized those gangs in the process, and now the violence from those very gangs is resulting in another mass migration flow. And now we are proposing the same solution of deportation. This doesn't deal with root causes."

"I'm not a big proponent of the drug war as an explanation for everything," countered Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. "We need to stop thinking about the violence in Central America as a drug problem. It's a factor in the violence but not really a primary factor. Community based criminal networks involved in extortion, kidnapping, and other forms of criminal activity -- including retail drug markets -- are more of a factor," he told the Chronicle.

"There is virtually no state presence in most of the areas of highest violence so it's a little hard to blame the drug war," Olson continued. "Where the drug war has been the biggest problem has been when there are mass operations and mass detentions, but even those arrests have less and less to do with drugs and more and more to do with the criminalization of gang membership, extortion, and other things. We've got to stop seeing everything through the drug war lens."

"Criminal groups have diversified their business models," WOLA's Walsh conceded. "Drug trafficking is only one aspect, but the revenues are so huge that there is more money to buy weapons and corrupt officials, so it contributes to crime and impunity. There is no doubt this is part of the problem."

"This is a very complicated issue, with lots of causal factors, and blaming it solely on US policy has lots of shortcomings," said Alicia Magdalena Duda, a researcher with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). "But the drug war and the violence is a big issue."

Assigning blame for the status quo is a backwards looking exercise, but what is to be done moving forward? There are divergences of opinion there, too.

"We have to recognize that just equipping these countries to chase drugs around in the interest of interdicting them for our purposes isn't contributing much to reducing violence and increasing public safety," said Walsh. "Drug enforcement as measured by how much they're interdicting has no impact at best, and probably makes things worse. Rather than foster the illusion that we can eradicate the drug trade, we need to steer law enforcement there to reduce violence by going after the worst, most violent actors rather than measuring success in tons seized."

"How to end the violence is a long-term issue," said COHA's Duda. "Those countries are facing extreme violence and poverty. To address this immigration crisis, we have to actively engage with them, and not just with monetary packages. One of the contributors to poverty is corruption, and corruption is rampant there. Ignoring that and just continuing with the present approach is not effective, either," she said.

Duda even broached a very controversial response, one that has also been heard in regard to Mexico and the prohibition-related violence there.

"Maybe they have to engage in peace talks with the gangs and cartels," she suggested.

"One of the great frustrations about Central America is that we supported those right-wing regimes during the Cold War, but we didn't deal with any of the underlying conditions, the grievances, the extreme income inequality, the crushing, grinding poverty," said Jones. "We need a sustained engagement with Central America, but we also have to leverage those host governments to do the right thing. We can't have a situation where wealthy elites are not paying their fair shares of taxes. We have societies fundamentally structured along wrong principles. It will take decades to turn things around, but it needs to happen."

"Our focus should be on reducing violence and addressing the factors that are actually driving the violence," said Olson. "This should include targeted law enforcement, but also prevention programs as well as gang intervention and reintegration programs. Only by reducing violence and the stranglehold criminal networks have on communities will people consider staying in place."

This is a complicated problem with no easy solutions and a lot of different suggestions. Whether prohibition and US drug policies have played a key role or only a supporting one, it does seem clear that, at best, they have not helped. At worst, our drug policies in the region have increased violence and corruption in the region, enriching the worst -- on both sides of the law.

Sentencing Commission Makes Drug Sentencing Reductions Retroactive

The US Sentencing Commission Friday voted unanimously to make previously agreed upon federal drug sentencing reductions retroactive. That means tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners could see sentence cuts beginning in November 2015.

The move comes after the Commission's April decision to amend federal sentencing guidelines by lowering base offense levels in the guidelines' Drug Quantity Table across all drug types, which should lead to lower sentences for most federal drug offenders. Today's vote means that sentencing judges can extend that reduction to people currently serving drug sentences.

"This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach," said Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission. "It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."

"We did it! We got full retroactivity of the drug guideline amendment," an elated Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), wrote to supporters. "Because of your help, 46,000 federal drug offenders sentenced before November 1, 2014, will now be eligible to file a motion in federal court asking for a shorter sentence. The average sentence reduction for those who qualify will be two years!"

The Sentencing Commission had asked for public input on its pending decision and was swamped with some 65,000 letters. FAMM took credit for much of that.

"I am thrilled with this outcome, especially because we did it together," Stewart wrote. "With your help, we generated most of the 65,000 letters the US Sentencing Commission received about this issue. And more than two dozen FAMM supporters were present with me in the hearing room when the Commission voted in favor of full retroactivity. All of us were overjoyed at the result."

It is not quite a done deal. Congress has until November 1 to reject the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. If it fails to act by then, federal courts could begin considering petitions for sentence reductions, but no prisoners would be released under the reductions until November 15, 2015.

"The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans," Saris said.

Look for a Chronicle feature article on this ground-breaking move early next week.

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