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Medical Marijuana Update

A pair of federal bills get filed, California's medical marijuana wars continue, Florida looks set to pass medical marijuana this fall, pressure is rising for New York to get its program up and running, and more. Let's get to it:

National

Last Thursday, US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) filed a medical marijuana amendment to Senate Bill 2569, the "Bring Jobs Home Act." It would explicitly allow states to pass medical marijuana laws despite the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would also bar prosecutions of patients and doctors for engaging in medical marijuana activities in states where it is legal.

On Monday, a Pennsylvania Republican filed a bill to allow low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) introduced a bill that would exempt low-THC, high-CBD marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. The bill is the Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act (House Resolution 5226).

Arizona

On Tuesday, a fired University of Arizona medical marijuana researcher lost her 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.

California

On Tuesday, police in Redding raided the Planet Herb Collective. They arrested two women running the collective, which they said was operating in violation of a local ordinance banning them. The two women face charges of criminal conspiracy and sale of marijuana.

Also on Tuesday, the Cathedral City council voted to permit dispensaries. The council voted 3-2 to allow three dispensaries to open. Cathedral City becomes the second Coachella Valley community to allow dispensaries; Palm Springs is the other.

Also on Tuesday, Riverside County supervisors voted to approve draft regulations penalizing medical marijuana grows. People growing fewer than a dozen plants in unincorporated areas of the county would be charged with an infraction and hit with fines, while people growing more than 12 plants would face a misdemeanor charge and six months in jail.

Florida

On Monday, a Quinnipiac University poll found overwhelming support for medical marijuana. The poll had support at 88%. Floridians will vote on a medical marijuana initiative in November.

Minnesota

Last Thursday, the state named a medical marijuana director. The state Department of Health has named department employee Michelle Larson the first-ever director of the Office of Medical Cannabis. She is charged with managing the office's staff and creating and implementing administrative policies for things like an application process for a manufacturer and a patient registry. The state's law limits medical marijuana to eight specified diseases or conditions and does not allow for the use of smoked marijuana.

New York

Last Thursday, a poster child for medical marijuana died without her medicine. Nine-year-old Anna Conte, whose family has been at the center of the Empire State medical marijuana debate, has died without ever gaining access to marijuana medicines that may have alleviated her condition. Conte suffered from Dravet Syndrome, which caused her to suffer hundreds of crippling seizures every day. The state passed a medical marijuana law last month, but it won't go into effect for another year and a half.

On Wednesday, Gov. Cuomo told the state 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 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."

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM -- July 29, 2014

Marijuana Policy

New York gubernatorial candidate Randy Credico slams Cuomo on clemency. (credico2014.com)
Colorado, Washington Senators Urge White House to Intervene to Fix Muddled Federal Marijuana Policies. All four US senators from the legal marijuana states signed onto a letter to the White House yesterday saying that federal policies about marijuana in states where it is legal are "at odds with one another" and asking the administration to establish "consistent and uniform" guidelines across the federal government. "Without such guidance, our states' citizens face uncertainty and risk the inconsistent application of federal law in Colorado and Washington state, including the potential for selective enforcement actions and prosecution," wrote Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennett of Colorado and Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Oregon Legalization Initiative Picks Up Endorsements. The New Approach Oregon marijuana legalization initiative has announced endorsements from three groups: the Oregon State Council for Retired Citizens, the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and the national group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

No Legalization Vote in Grosse Point, Michigan, After All. A marijuana legalization initiative won't be on the ballot in Grosse Point this fall after city officials disqualified some signatures over a technicality. One set of signatures had the wrong date on it, disqualifying 106 of the 596 signatures turned in and leaving the signature count at 490, five fewer than needed to make the ballot.

Albuquerque Decriminalization Initiative Supporters Hand in Signatures. Supporters of a decriminalization initiative in New Mexico's largest city handed in 16,000 signatures to city officials Monday. They need 11,203 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. A similar effort in Santa Fe came up short last week, but there is still time to gather more signatures there.

York, Maine, Selectmen Reject Putting Legalization Ordinance on Ballot; Advocates Will Have to Come up With More Signatures to Force Vote. If the people in York want to vote to legalize marijuana, they will have to do it themselves. The town Board of Selectmen yesterday voted not to put a legalization initiative on the November ballot, so now advocates will have to come up with 613 more signatures to force a vote.

Harm Reduction

UNODC Issues Call for Harm Reduction Proposals from Civil Society Organizations. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has issued a call for civil society organizations to apply for funding to support work in harm reductions. The proposals should be strategic initiatives addressing HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support among injection drug users. The deadline for applications is August 20. Click on the link for more details and to apply.

Law Enforcement

The Year's 27th Drug War Death. The Drug War Chronicle has been tracking deaths related to US domestic drug law enforcement activities since 2011. We're going to start including them here, beginning with the death last week of Ohio resident Agyasi Ector, 27, who was walking to his job when he was struck and killed by a vehicle being driven at high speeds as it was being chased by police doing a drug investigation. Police said they plan to charge the driver with murder, but hold themselves blameless in the high-speed pursuit. Click on the link for more details and for links to previous drug war deaths.

Sentencing

Paul Ryan's Poverty Plan Includes Nod to Sentencing Reform. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)'s plan to address poverty in America includes some mention of sentencing reform. He calls for reduced resort to mandatory minimum sentencing and encourages states to enact sentencing reforms as well.

Independent New York Governor Candidate Slams Cuomo Over Failing to Use Clemency Powers. Independent gubernatorial candidate and political gadfly Randy Credico accuses Gov. Andrew Cuomo of Grinch-like behavior in failing to exercise his power to grant clemency and pardons to prisoners and ex-prisoners. Cuomo has granted zero clemencies. Credico notes that previous governors have made use of that power, but that Cuomo is even worse than his father, Mario Cuomo, who "granted an enemic 33 pardons while bouncing and stuffing 30,000 poor blacks and Latinos into the 36 new state prisons he built with funds that could have been used for low cost housing or improving the school system."

(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.)

Summer Reading Assignment for Congress

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/dean-becker-200px.jpg
Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network is in Washington today to give copies of his book, "To End the War on Drugs," to every member of the House and Senate. There is a press conference at 10:00am this morning in room 340 of the Cannon House Office Building, with Dean, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, sponsored by Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX).

Phil reviewed Dean's book last night.

I was also on Dean's radio show last week talking about my two new papers; check out the audio or transcript of the interview, which also featured Judge James P. Gray.

Rand Paul Files Crack Sentencing Reform Bill

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) last Thursday filed Senate Bill 2657 the RESET (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment) Act to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The potential 2016 GOP presidential contender unveiled the bill publicly the following day as he pitched his criminal justice reforms before an African-American audience at the National Urban League.

Rand Paul (congress.gov)
The bill would also reclassify some low-level federal drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. And it seeks to address the issue of drug weights in food items by clarifying that only the weight of the drug itself -- not the weight of the food containing it -- can be used in charging decisions, thus resulting in lesser charges for defendants.

As of early Tuesday morning, the text of the bill is not yet up on the congressional web site, but can be viewed here.

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but this bill would totally equalize the penalties by removing the sentencing enhancements for crack.

It's been a busy month for Paul when it comes to criminal justice matters. In addition to the RESET Act, he has also introduced an asset forfeiture reform bill and a medical marijuana amendment explicitly allowing states to set their own laws. And he also cosponsored, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another sentencing reform bill.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- July 28, 2014

The New York Times comes out for marijuana legalization, a Florida poll finds majority support for it, Rand Paul introduces a bill to wipe out the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and more. Let's get to it:

The nation's "newspaper of record" wants to free the weed. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

New York Times Editorial Board Calls for End to Federal Marijuana Prohibition. What is arguably the most influential and respected newspaper in the United States is ready to free the weed. In a Sunday editorial, the New York Times called forthrightly for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. "The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana," the newspaper proclaimed. "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."

Alaska Legalization Initiative Backers File Campaign Finance Complaint Against Foes. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska has filed a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission charging that the "Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2" campaign deceived the public trust when its campaign spokesperson, Kristina Woolston, said her employer, Northwest Strategies is donating its time to the campaign. State law requires that donations be filed as campaign contributions.

Florida Poll Finds 55% for Marijuana Legalization. A majority (55%) of Floridians are ready to legalize marijuana, a new Quinnipiac University poll has found. It looks to be a generational thing; 72% of people under 30 support it, but only 36% of people 65 and older do. The poll also had 88% support for medical marijuana.

More Michigan Towns to Hand in Local Decriminalization Initiative Signatures Tomorrow. Initiative organizers in Port Huron, Lansing, and Portage are preparing to hand in signatures for local decriminalization initiatives tomorrow. The Safer Michigan Coalition says organizers have already handed in signatures in 14 other towns: Frankfort, Huntington Woods, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge and Utica; in prior weeks, they did so in Berkley, Grosse Pointe Park, Harrison, Hazel Park, Lapeer, Montrose, Oak Park, Onaway and Saginaw.

Santa Fe, New Mexican, Decriminalization Initiatives Comes Up Short on Signatures. A campaign to put a municipal decriminalization on the Santa Fe ballot in November has hit a bump. Only 3,569 of the 7,000 signatures it handed in were valid; it needs 5,763 to qualify. But campaigners still have more time to gather more.

Medical Marijuana

Bill to Allow Low-THC, High-CBD Medical Marijuana Filed in US House. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) today introduced a bill that would exempt low-THC, high-CBD marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Law Enforcement

Staten Island Narcs Are NYPD's Most Sued. Seven of the 10 most sued NYPD officers work out of a Staten Island narcotics unit, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. Those Staten Island narcs account for 21% of the more than 600 cases filed against NYPD officers in the past decade. Taxpayers have shelled out more than $6 million to settle suits against them. Most of the suits against them allege false arrests for charges that are later dropped. Detective Vincent Orsini, who has been sued 21 times since 2003, with payouts of nearly $1.1 million, is the most-sued cop on the Island.

Sentencing

Rand Paul Introduces Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) last Thursday filed the RESET (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment) Act to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but this bill would totally equalize the penalties. The bill would also reclassify some low-level federal drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. It is not yet up on the congressional web site.

International

Gun Battles Continue in Northeast Mexico Across from US Border. Fighting between various Mexican drug cartel factions in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas continues. Gun battles in Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, left six suspected cartel gun men dead, including at least one killed by Mexican marines.

Chronicle AM -- July 25, 2014

Wichita looks set to vote on decriminalization this fall, Rand Paul (busy, busy) files a federal asset forfeiture reform bill, drug users finally get a voice at the International AIDS Conference, and more. Let's get to it:

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/KFC_logo2.jpg
Marijuana Policy

Wichita Decriminalization Initiative Campaign Turns in Twice the Necessary Signatures. Organizers of a decriminalization initiative signature-gathering campaign yesterday turned in 5,800 signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot. Kansas for Change needs 2,928 valid voter signatures to qualify. They turned in the signatures at 4:20pm.

Five People Ticketed for Marijuana Possession in First Week of DC Decriminalization Law. DC police have cited five people for marijuana possession in the week since the DC decrim law went into effect. Four of the five citations came in predominantly black areas of the city east of the Anacostia River. Last year, before decrim, police made about 11 marijuana possession arrests a day.

Poll: California Latinos Strongly Oppose Deportation for Marijuana Possession. A new poll from Latino Decisions and Presente.org finds that nearly two-thirds (64%) of California Latinos strongly oppose deporting non-citizens for marijuana possession. Marijuana possession is the fourth most common criminal offense leading to deportation, according to a 2012-2013 study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Asset Forfeiture

Rand Paul Files Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has filed a bill to reform federal asset forfeiture laws. Yesterday, he introduced 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. The FAIR Act would also require that state law enforcement agencies abide by state law when seizing property. It would also remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures assets from the Attorney General's Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury's General Fund.

International

Drug Users Get a Voice at Global AIDS Conference. For the first time, a group of drug users has been allowed space at the International AIDS Conference, taking place this year in Melbourne, Australia. The International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) had a booth at the conference and also held a movie premiere event at the conference for the film, "We are Drug Users."

British National Survey Finds Slight Overall Increase in Drug Use. The number of drug users in Britain increased by 0.7% last year, according to the 2013 to 2014 Crime Survey for England and Wales. Some 8.8% of adults used drugs in the past year; 6.6% used marijuana. Cocaine was the second most commonly used drug, at 2.4%.

Guatemalan President Still Mulling Marijuana Legalization. President Otto Pérez Molina said in an interview in Washington yesterday that he hadn't ruled out the possibility of legalizing marijuana. "Right now we have a commission that's following what's been happening in Uruguay, Portugal, Holland, Colorado, and the state of Washington," he said. "I expect to receive the studies, analysis and recommendations at the end of the year and from there we will make the decisions that would best fit our country." Pérez Molina will be hosting an international conference on drug policy in Guatemala in September. [Editor's Note: We are not aware of any conference in Guatemala this fall. It's not clear if Perez Molina misspoke or the Washington Post misheard. There is a V Conferencia latinoamerica sobre la politica de drogas set for Costa Rica in September.]

WOLA Releases Analysis of Ecuador Drug Policy Trends and Contradictions. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has published "Reforma y contradicciones en la politica de drogas de Ecuador." The report identified advances and blockages in Ecuador's path to a more progressive drug policy. Click on the link to read it in Spanish or use your translate button or wait a few days for WOLA's English version to read it in English.

Rand Paul Files Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has filed a bill to reform federal asset forfeiture laws. Yesterday, he introduced 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.

A modern form of highway robbery?
It also takes aim at state and local law enforcement agencies who evade state laws requiring that seized assets go into state general funds or other specified destinations by instead turning their seizures over to a federal agency, which delivers back 80% of the value of the seized goods to the local or state law enforcement agency involved.

The FAIR Act would require that state law enforcement agencies abide by state law when seizing property. It would also remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures' assets from the Attorney General's Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury's General Fund.

"The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime. The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime," Sen. Paul said.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As of today, it has no cosponsors.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- July 24, 2014

There's dollar signs coming with marijuana legalization laws, Rand Paul moves to protect medical marijuana, but it's too late for one New York girl, there's a new opiate pain reliever out there (with a twist), and more. Let's get to it:

Chilean Senator Isabel Allende Bussi wants to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Marijuana Legalization Could Generate $38.5 Million in Taxes in First Year, Report Says. An economic study commissioned by New Approach Oregon, the people behind the marijuana legalization initiative just approved for the November ballot, finds that legalization would produce $38.5 million in tax revenues in its first year.

Medical Marijuana

Rand Paul Files Medical Marijuana Amendment. US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) today filed an amendment to Senate Bill 2569, the "Bring Jobs Home Act," that would explicitly allow states to pass medical marijuana laws despite the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would also bar prosecutions of patients and doctors for engaging in medical marijuana activities in states where it is legal.

New York Poster Child for Medical Marijuana Dies Without Her Medicine. Nine-year-old Anna Conte, whose family has been at the center of the Empire State medical marijuana debate, has died without ever gaining access to marijuana medicines that may have alleviated her condition. Conte suffered from Dravet Syndrome, which caused her to suffer hundreds of crippling seizures every day. The state passed a medical marijuana law last month, but it won't go into effect for another year and a half.

Minnesota Names Medical Marijuana Director. The state Department of Health has named department employee Michelle Larson the first-ever director of the Office of Medical Cannabis. She is charged with managing the office's staff and creating and implementing administrative policies for things like an application process for a manufacturer and a patient registry. The state's law limits medical marijuana to eight specified diseases or conditions and does not allow for the use of smoked marijuana.

Prescription Opiates

FDA Approves Oxycodone/Naloxone Combo Pain Reliever. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new opioid pain reliever that combines oxycodone and naloxone. Targiniq ER, produced by Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, included naloxone to block the euphoric effects of oxycodone, making it less likely to be misused.

International

Poll Finds Strong Australian Majority for Medical Marijuana. A new ReachTel survey finds that nearly two-thirds of respondents support legalizing medical marijuana. Support was highest among people between 51 and 65. The poll comes as New South Wales inches toward approving medical marijuana.

Chilean Senators Propose Legalizing Marijuana Possession, Cultivation. Four Chilean senators have introduced a bill that would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, as well as for "therapeutic and spiritual reasons." The legislators include Sen. Isabel Allende Bussi, daughter of Salvador Allende, who died in the midst of a rightist military coup to overthrow him in 1973, and Juan Pablo Letelier, the son of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean politician assassinated by the Pinochet government in Washington, DC, in 1976.

Rand Paul Files Medical Marijuana Amendment

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) today filed an amendment to Senate Bill 2569, the "Bring Jobs Home Act," that would explicitly allow states to pass medical marijuana laws despite the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would also bar prosecutions of patients and doctors for engaging in medical marijuana activities in states where it is legal.

Rand Paul (congress.gov)
The amendment, No. 3630, is not yet available on the congressional web site, but a copy has been made available to the Chronicle.

"Notwithstanding section 708 of the Controlled Substances Act or any provisions of law (including regulations), a State may enact and implement a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use," the amendment says.

"No prosecution may be commenced or maintained against any physician or patient for a violation of Federal law (including regulations) that prohibits the conduct described in subsection (b) [Ed.: The paragraph above.] if the State in which the violation occurred has in effect a law described in subsection (b) before, on, or after the date on which the violation occurred."

The amendment then lists the 32 states and the District of Columbia that have laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana, including some that only allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oils.

Senate Bill 2569 was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

Washington, DC
United States

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.

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