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This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Attorney General Eric Holder this morning issued an order that will bar federal agencies from participating in "adoptions" of assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies. "Adoptions" occur when state or local law enforcement agencies seize cash or properties under state laws, but then ask that a federal agency takes the seized property and forfeit it under federal law.
State and local law enforcement agencies routinely resort to "adoption" as a means of circumventing state laws that mandate seized assets go to designated programs, typically a state's general fund or education fund. When a seizure is "adopted" by the feds, the seizing agency gets to keep 80% of the proceeds, with the federal government getting the rest.
"With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons," Holder said in a statement. "This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program. Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately -- providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations. This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties."
While much asset forfeiture activity is related to drug cases, they are not included in the list of exceptions to the new policy barring "adoptions." Those public safety exceptions include firearms, ammunition, explosives, and materials related to child pornography.
The new policy does not impact asset forfeitures conducted by federal law enforcement, nor does it bar state and local law enforcement from conducting civil asset forfeiture under state law.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Under the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture "adoption" program, state and local law enforcement has made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property with a value of more than $3 billion since 2008.
Holder's move Friday is the boldest step to roll back sweeping police powers to seize goods and property since federal asset forfeiture began as tactic in the war on drugs in the 1980s. The Justice Department adopted the Equitable Sharing program in 1993.
Civil asset forfeiture -- the seizure of goods or property without having obtained a criminal conviction -- has come under increasing fire in recent years. Several asset forfeiture reform bills were filed in the last Congress, one has already been filed in the new Congress, and members from both parties are working jointly to draw up a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture.
The issue brought together libertarian-leaning groups like the Institute for Justice, which produced the highly critical study "Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture," and left-leaning groups like the ACLU to press for reforms. They met with congressional staffers to seek changes last fall.
Just last Friday, a bipartisan group of legislators including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) sent a letter to Holder calling on him to end the Equitable Sharing program.
Pressure mounted after a Washington Post investigative piece published in September found police had seized nearly $2.5 billion in cash from motorists without search warrants or indictments since September 11, 2001. In that investigation, the Post found that police routinely stopped drivers for minor traffic violations, then intimidated them into agreeing to warrantless searches and seized cash without evidence of criminal misconduct.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Holder's move is likely to exacerbate already strained relations between the Obama administration and law enforcement agencies. Police groups have expressed unhappiness with remarks both Holder and Obama made about controversial police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
And now, the administration is in effect taking money out of their pockets. More than 7,500 of the nation's 18,000 state and local police departments and joint task forces have participated in the Equitable Sharing program. And hundreds of departments and sheriff's offices have seizure proceeds accounting for more than 20% of their budgets.
The move will also hurt federal agencies that have been "adopting" the seizures, particularly the DEA and ICE. Federal law enforcement has pocketed $800 million under Equitable Sharing seizures without arrests or convictions since 2001.
This is the second major asset forfeiture reform at the federal level. Spurred by reports of abuses of asset forfeiture in the late 1990s, Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. That bill originally contained a provision "ending the sharing of seizure proceeds between local police and federal agencies," but it was removed in the face of fierce opposition from police and prosecutors.
Since 9/11, with calls by federal officials for state and local law enforcement to surveil the nation's highways looking not only for drugs, but now for terrorists, the program only expanded. It didn't help that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security paid out millions to private companies to teach police officers aggressive highway interdiction techniques emphasizing the importance of seizing cash.
The Equitable Sharing program and the aggressive interdiction techniques created what lawmakers a decade-and-a-half ago called "a perverse incentive" for police to concentrate more on seizing cash than seizing drugs. Now, Holder has butchered the cash cow.
2014 was a big year for drug reform, and for a change, the US is pulling things in the right direction. But it some places, it's been business as usual, and in others, things have gone in the wrong direction. Here are our big international stories of the year.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Legalization Expands in the US
Two more states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana at the ballot box this year. That makes four states and DC that have legalized it. The US has historically been the leading enforcer of global drug prohibition, but the actions of voters in American states have seriously undercut the (now former, see below) US position, as well as providing an example to the rest of the world.
The US Signals a New Openness to Drug Reform at the International Level
In a little-heralded, but groundbreaking move, US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), made it clear that the US is willing to embrace flexibility, up to and including drug legalization in other countries, in the face of rising calls for international drug reform.
Brownfield succinctly laid out the US approach in an October speech: "First, respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions. Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions… Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies. And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations -- not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain. Respect the conventions; flexible interpretation; tolerance for national policeis; criminal organizations -- that is our mantra."
Calls for an End to Drug Prohibition Increase as the 2016 UNGASS on Drugs Looms
This year saw the pressure for reform of the international drug control regime grow even more intense, and fractures in a now crumbling prohibitionist consensus grew even deeper. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna in March revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization. The meeting ended with a formal joint ministerial statement agreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.
During the rest of the year, the call for reform from civil society only grew louder. In May, the London School of Economics (LSE) published a Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy, signed onto by five Nobel Prize-winning economists, as well as political figures including British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, former US Secretary of State George Schultz, and former European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Dr. Javier Solana, among other luminaries.
"It is time to end the 'war on drugs' and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis," the report says forthrightly. "The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage. These include mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world."
That was followed in June by the West Africa Commission on Drugs, which was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria, is headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary. The commission issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.
And then, in September, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes Annan, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and Ruth Dreifuss (Switzerland), and others, issued a new report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. It boldy called on "governments to decriminalize a variety of illegal drugs and set up regulated drug markets within their own countries."
Uruguay Forges Ahead With Marijuana Legalization
President Jose "Pepe" Mujica may be gone -- his term expired -- but his legacy of legalizing the marijuana trade lives on. There was some doubt as Uruguayans voted on his replacement -- the opposition candidate vowed to roll it back -- but they chose a successor from his same party who will uphold and implement the legal marijuana commerce plan. Uruguay never criminalized pot possession, and now it is the first country to legalize the trade. Implementation should continue apace next year.
Afghanistan Pumps Out More Opium
As the US and NATO declare an end to their Afghan war, Afghanistan is growing and producing as much opium as ever. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014, land under poppy cultivation increased 7% this year. UNODC estimated opium production this year at 6,400 tons, up 17% over last year. But while annual production has been at 6,000 tons or more for the past few years, it is not as high as the record year of 2007, when production totaled over 8,000 tons. And this as the US spent $7.6 billion to fight the opium trade since invading in 2001.
And the Golden Triangle Is Back, Too
Opium production increased again in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle this year, continuing a pattern of growth that has now gone on for at least the past eight years. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014, the region produced 762 tons of opium this year, with the vast majority coming from the Burmese Shan State. While Golden Triangle production accounts for only about 10% of global opium production, Burma is now the world's second largest opium producer, behind Afghanistan.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Mexican Drug War
It's been the best of times and the worst of times for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and his government's prosecution of its war against the drug cartels. While media attention to the Mexican drug war has declined dramatically since 2012 -- an election year in both the US and Mexico -- the drug war hasn't gone away, and the death toll has plateaued, but not declined. The year started off great for Pena Nieto with the arrest of the heretofore seemingly invincible Chapo Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Other major cartel figures have been killed or arrested throughout the year. But things turned sour again this fall when drug gang-connected elected officials in Iguala, Guerrero, sicced local police and the local Guerreros Unidos gang, on busloads of protesting radical teachers' college students, leaving 43 missing and presumed dead. That led to mass protests against lawlessness, official corruption, and impunity across the country.
Now Part of Russia, Crimea Rolls Back Harm Reduction Measures
Whatever one thinks of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, it's been bad news for Crimean drug users. While Ukraine has embraced a harm reduction approach to hard drug use, Russia rejects such an approach and has some of the most repressive drug laws in the world. And it moved quickly in Crimea, banning the use of methadone almost immediately, which the International HIV/AIDS Alliance called "a disaster for health, human rights and the HIV epidemic in the region." By June, with more than 800 people cut off from access to opiate maintenance, activists were reporting 20 deaths among drug users and that many others had fled to Kiev, while those that remained were turning to street drugs. Things have only gotten worse, and Ukraine shares somes of the responsibility for using the opiate maintenance programs as a political weapon against Crimea. Now, only does the ban on opiate maintenance remain, but drug users face assaults in the streets, as well as stays in jail. And the only "treatment" offered is Russian-style "psychiatric treatment."
Whew, what a year! Two more states legalize it -- and DC, too -- decriminalization spreads, and more. But it wasn't all good news. Here's our Top 10:
[image:1 align:left]1. Marijuana Legalization Wins at the Polls in Alaska, Oregon, and DC. In an Election Day clean sweep, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, delivered a marijuana legalization trifecta. Legalization won with 53% of the vote in Alaska, 55% in Oregon, and a whopping 69% in Washington, DC, the highest percentage vote for legalization ever recorded. With victory in Oregon this year, every state that has had the chance to vote for legalization since 2012 has now done so.
2. The Sky Hasn't Fallen in Colorado and Washington. It's now been two years since the first two states to legalize marijuana did so, and the predicted horrible consequences have not materialized. While possession became legal almost immediately, legal sales commenced in January in Colorado and in July in Washington. Teen pot smoking declined this year, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey, and Colorado teens in particular were consuming less weed, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Neither have traffic fatalities increased, according to The Washington Post. Nor has crime increased. What has increased is state revenues from the taxation of marijuana, from zero before legalization to tens of millions of dollars annually now.
3. Big Eastern Cities Decriminalize Pot Possession. The city councils in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, this year approved the decriminalization of small-time pot possession. Although New York state decriminalized in 1978, New York City had been the marijuana arrest capital of the world, thanks to NYPD's habit of stopping people, telling them to empty their pockets, and then charging them with the misdemeanor office of public possession instead of the civil infraction. Now, thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York cops can't do that anymore. And let's not forget Baltimore; the state of Maryland decriminalized this year, too.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]4. The Death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman Crystallizes Rising Concerns About Heroin and Prescription Opiates. The February overdose death of the acclaimed actor turned a glaring spotlight on the issues of heroin and prescription pain pill addiction and overdoses. Ever since, government at the federal, state, and local level has been moved by the urge to "Do something!" And it has -- with responses covering the gamut from harm reduction measures like 911 Good Samaritan laws and increased access to overdose reversal drugs to calls for more drug treatment to more-of-the-same drug war approaches and calls for more money for law enforcement.
5. California Defelonizes Drug Possession. With one fell swoop, California voters struck a big blow against mass incarceration when they approved Proposition 47 in November. The initiative makes drug possession and five other low-level, nonviolent offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. It becomes the 14th state to do so, and by far the largest.
6. Congress Tells the Justice Department to Butt Out of Medical Marijuana States. In passing the omnibus spending bill last week, Congress approved an historic amendment barring the Justice Department from spending taxpayer funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Passage does not promise an end to all federal interference -- it doesn't address taxing issues, for instance -- and it is only for this fiscal year, but this is still a landmark vote.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]7. Floridians Vote for Medical Marijuana, But It Still Loses. Florida should have been the first Southern state to approve medical marijuana, and 57% of Florida voters agreed in November. But because the Florida initiative was a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% of the vote to pass. Even with that high bar, the initiative still could have passed, if not for some campaign gaffes. Some $5 million worth of contributions to the "no" side by conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson didn't help, either.
8. Medical Marijuana Lite. Maryland passed a medical marijuana law and Minnesota and New York passed limited medical marijuana laws, but this was the year of low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana laws. Such measures passed in a number of states where full-blown medical marijuana hasn't, including Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Utah. They typically provide access to high-CBD cannabis oils to a limited number of patients.
9. The Obama Administration Moves to Reduce the Federal Drug War Prison Population. It didn't do it all by itself -- the US Sentencing Commission deserves recognition for proposing sentencing reforms -- but the president and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke our vigorously and repeatedly against mandatory minimums and over-incarceration. It wasn't just talk; the Justice Department instructed US Attorneys to find ways to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentencing, and exhorted federal drug prisoners to seek clemency.
10. But The Drug War Juggernaut Continues to Roll. Despite all the good news this year, the reality is that we are still nibbling around the edges. While marijuana arrests the previous year were down to just under 700,000 (the historic high was 872,000 in 2008) and overall drug arrests declined by about 50,000, there were still 1.5 million people arrested on drug charges. And the number of people arrested for drugs other than marijuana actually increased.
With the holiday break coming up soon, millions of young Americans will be looking to party. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will be looking to stimulant drugs, especially Ecstasy (MDMA), to help them dance to the throbbing beats far into the night. MDMA is a synthetic stimulant with a chemical structure related to both methamphetamine and mescaline. It's great at providing the energy for partying the night away with a psychedelic tinge. The new scene drug, Molly, is simply Ecstasy in powdered form.
[image:1 align:left]According to the 2013 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 17 million Americans have taken Ecstasy at least once, more than a half million reported taking it within the past month, and about three-quarters of a million reported taking it for the first time that year. Those monthly-use and first-use figures have been roughly stable for the past few years.
Some of those fun-seekers are going to take too much. And some of them are going to end up ingesting something they thought was Ecstasy, but wasn't. And one or two or three of them might die. Despite breathless media reports, people dying from Ecstasy or from what they thought was Ecstasy or what they thought was a drug like Ecstasy, is not that big a problem, especially compared with the 16,000 or so people who died last year from opiate overdoses. The number of Ecstasy-related deaths each year ranges from the single digits to the low dozens.
Still it is a problem. Any avoidable death is a problem, and those deaths are largely avoidable. They occur because of varying combinations of ignorance, greed and bad public policy. Some people are working to prevent those deaths, and the work extends from the club or rave or festival door to the halls of power in Washington.
The harm reduction group Dance Safe is among those doing that work. The small non-profit offers educational services, encourages people to submit their pills for testing ("drug checking"), and has informational booths at venues that will let them.
Where 20 years ago, the Ecstasy and party drug scene was largely limited to word-of-mouth raves, things have changed, said Dance Safe executive director Missi Wooldridge.
"We've seen a real explosion in the scene that has been transformed from an underground rave culture to a real mainstream electronic dance music culture," she said. "People are likely to experiment with drugs at raves and dances, as well as with friends at parties or night clubs."
They are also likely to be ingesting either adulterated Ecstasy or other new synthetic drugs misleadingly marketed as Ecstasy. That is reflected in reports on drug checking websites such as Pill Reports and Ecstasy Data, as well as drug discussion forums like Bluelight.
Pill Reports warns that Yellow Pacman tablets found earlier this month in Kansas and Texas contain not MDMA but the synthetic methylone, a methcathinone stimulant that is a chemical analog to MDMA, but is not MDMA. And at least two different pills currently being peddled in Canada as Ecstasy are actually methamphetamine.
"A lot of what we're seeing is the new psychoactive substances infiltrating the market and the scene," said Wooldridge. "People can purchase these substances online. I see a lot of positive results for methcathinone, MDPV, methylone, and the like. Similarly, people think they're taking LSD, but it's actual N-Bomb, or maybe ketamine. People operate under misconceptions about what they're taking, and that can be serious because there are lots of differences in things like onset, duration and potency."
Educated, sophisticated drug consumers may take advantage of drug checking services, as well as have advanced understandings of drug potency, duration and the like, but they are a minority. Most people just want to party, and they want to do it with Ecstasy.
"In contrast with some places in Europe, the market for people seeking out new synthetics is very small in the US," said Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance "But that doesn't mean they're not here. Many of the people buying them are after MDMA, but here in the US, the market is young people, and many are not that well-informed or familiar with notions like drug checking to see what's in that powder. It's largely an uninformed market, so there's a lot of adulteration."
Dance Safe's Wooldridge concurred.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"People are taking these substances unknowingly for the most part, rather than checking them out," the Denver-based activist said. "There is a relatively small segment that is into the experimentation and the understanding, but most users are not that sophisticated and are taking these drugs without really knowing what they are."
When people die, as two people did at New York's massive Electric Zoo festival last year, the pressure is on promoters and club owners to crack down on drugs, to increase security, even to decrease or do away with harm reduction measures out of fear of appearing to encourage drug use. In large part, that's because of the RAVE Act, a 2003 law sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) that threatens owners and promoters with possible criminal sanctions for encouraging drug use.
"The RAVE Act is the elephant in the room," said Wooldridge. "Its intent wasn't to harm or prosecute legitimate event producers, but to expand the crack house laws and go after people solely having events for drug use or sales. But there has been an unintended consequence. People in the industry fear that if they attempt to address drug use they'll be help legally liable for overdoses or other emergencies. Their legal teams and insurance companies say to stay clear, turn a blind eye, but that increases the risks. We need to educate the lawyers and insurers on this. Show me a case where an event producer has been prosecuted for doing harm reduction."
"If the law is making owners scared, we should change the law so they are explicitly protected," said Jones. "Put the focus on the health and safety of the patrons. Including harm reduction shouldn't be seen as encouraging drug activity, but as prioritizing health and safety. Changing the law at the federal level would send a message to the industry that harm reduction is valuable and you won't get in trouble, and that could change the landscape of festivals."
One woman is working to do just that. Dede Goldsmith didn't mean to become a reformer, but when her daughter, Shelley, a University of Virginia student, died after taking Ecstasy at Washington, DC electronic music show the same weekend at the Electonic Zoo last year, that's what happened.
She told Vox in an October interview that when one of Shelley's friends told her Shelley had taken Molly, her first response was, "Who is Molly?" In her search for answers, she came to the realization that Molly didn't kill her daughter; federal drug prohibition and policies that discourage education about safe drug use did.
On the anniversary of her daughter's death in August, Goldsmith launched the Amend the RAVE Act campaign. Its goal, Goldsmith says, is "to make EDM festivals and concerts safer for our young people. Specifically, I am asking for language to be added to the law to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities. As the law currently stands, many owners believe that they will be accused of 'maintaining a drug involved premises' under the act if they institute such measures, opening themselves to criminal or civil prosecution."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"It's not that producers don't care, it's that they're terrified," said Wooldridge. "Amending the RAVE Act can be a way to organize the community so people don't fear law enforcement if they're addressing drug use. What's more detrimental -- a fatal overdose or having harm reduction teams and medical teams on site?"
"The campaign is just getting underway," said Jones. "They're collecting signatures, and Dede is just having first meetings with legislators to try to get them on board, to try to get some bipartisan support."
In the meantime, other steps can be taken.
"One of the biggest things we can do is to educate with a true public health approach," Wooldridge said. "We need to have honest conversations and we need to implement drug testing; we have to have that opportunity to create an early warning system when these substances begin to appear."
"Education is really, really critical," said Jones. "We need to be able to get real drug education out to young people and meet them where they are. We need to be explicit about what the drugs are, what they look like, what the common dose it. Integrating harm reduction practices into the culture is also really important, and Dance Safe is great at that."
An effective means of tracking new and available drugs, such as a publicly funded, more comprehensive version of the drug checking websites would also be useful. But that requires someone willing to spend the money.
"We don't really have a surveillance system set up to track these new psychoactive substances," Wooldridge complained. "We don't have the public health monitoring. As a nonprofit, we do some of that on a small scale, but we don't have the capacity or the resources to really do the job. What are the priorities and where is the funding to collect the data?"
"Changing policy to allow for drug checking is also an important avenue to pursue," said Jones. "If we're going to be in a world where drugs remain illegal, we will continue to have problems with imitations and new synthetics, with people not knowing what they're getting. That would be the least we can do."
There is one other obvious response.
"It's unrealistic to think we can keep drugs out of clubs and bars and festivals. Trying to do that causes more harm than good," Wooldridge said. "We need to be realistic and recognize drug use first and foremost as a health concern, not a criminal justice issue. These drugs are often being sold as something they're not, and that's because of prohibition and the black market," said Wooldridge. "One obvious option is legalization and regulation. Then you'd have quality control and you wouldn't need all this drug-checking."
But we're not there yet. Until we are, people are going to have to watch out for themselves and for each other. Check those drugs, kids!
With final approval by the Senate Saturday night, the Congress has successfully approved a massive, $1.1 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill, and the president has signaled he will sign it. The bill includes two provisions that illustrate Congress's currently schizophrenic approach to loosening marijuana laws.
[image:1 align:left]On the one hand, the bill contains an amendment that will effectively end federal interference in states where medical marijuana is legal by barring the Justice Department from using its funds to go after patients and providers there. On the other hand, it also contains a rider that seeks to undo the will of the voters of the nation's capital by blocking the District of Columbia from enacting the recently approved Measure 71 marijuana possession and cultivation legalization initiative.
Sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), and 10 others, the medical marijuana amendment is blunt. After listing all the medical marijuana states, it says: "None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used… to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." (The bill also includes similar language barring the use of Justice Department funds to interfere with hemp research authorized under the already approved Agricultural Act of 2014.)
The amendment is also important. In the past three years alone, the Justice Department has threatened elected officials, dispensary operators, and their landlords with legal action over medical marijuana. Those threats have delayed or stopped implementation of medical marijuana laws in at least six states. Similarly, threats of criminal prosecution and/or asset forfeiture aimed at landlords in California and Colorado have resulted in the closure of at least 600 state law-abiding medical marijuana businesses.
And DEA teams have aggressively raided and US Attorneys have prosecuted medical marijuana patients and providers. One stark example is the case of the Kettle Falls Five, a family of patients who were growing medical marijuana for their own personal use in accordance with Washington state law. In a state where marijuana is legal, federal prosecutors are seeking to send a pair of elderly patients and their children to prison. That prosecution is now in doubt.
"This is truly a long-fought victory for medical marijuana patients who have lived in fear of being caught in the crossfire of conflicting state and federal laws for nearly two decades," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which has lobbied for years for passage of the measure. "But this is also a victory for taxpayers because of the hundreds of millions of dollars saved on unnecessary and harmful enforcement."
Last year, ASA issued a report showing the Obama administration had spent $80 million a year on medical marijuana enforcement. That may be chump change in a trillion-dollar spending bill, but it's still $80 million that could be better used each year.
"Congress has finally initiated a drawdown in the federal government's war on medical marijuana," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "This legislation makes it clear that the DEA has no business interfering in states' medical marijuana laws. Taxpayer money should not be used to punish seriously ill people who use medical marijuana and the caregivers who provide it to them."
"For the first time, Congress is letting states set their own medical marijuana and hemp policies, a huge step forward for sensible drug policy," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "States will continue to reform their marijuana laws and Congress will be forced to accommodate them. It's not a question of if, but when, federal marijuana prohibition will be repealed."
[image:2 align:right]But if federal marijuana prohibition will someday be repealed, no one has told congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats didn't seem to care much, either. The second part of Congress's schizoid pot policy two-step was a slap in the face to both marijuana legalization and the will of the voters of the District of Columbia.
Maryland Rep. Andy Harris (R) authored a rider to the bill that says that the District cannot "enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative."
Republican House committee heads got it inserted into the House version of the bill, and Senate Democrats didn't consider it important enough to fight to remove.
Marijuana reform proponents (and believers in democratic rule for the residents of DC) were livid, and they are not ready to roll over in the face of congressional attempts to quash legalization in the District.
"In light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, it would be particularly disturbing if Congress has chosen to overturn the will of the voters in a majority black city," said Dr. Malik Burnett, DPA policy manager and vice-chair of the DC Cannabis Coalition, the group that got Measure 71 passed. "DC voters chose to reform their marijuana laws, which have a direct impact on how communities of color interact with police. Congress should not undermine that."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"By prohibiting the regulation of marijuana in the District, they are ensuring authorities have no control over it," Tvert said. "If drug cartels and gangs had lobbyists on the Hill, preventing marijuana regulation would be their top legislative priority. If the District can regulate and tax alcohol sales, it should be allowed to do the same with a less harmful substance like marijuana."
The District city council has been advancing a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana sales, but the Harris rider effectively kills that. Less certain, however, is whether it can really block Measure 71 from taking effect.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Eleanor Holmes Horton, the Congressional Delegate from DC.; Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the ranking member on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds DC; Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee; and others have said that the DC rider allows Initiative 71 to stand. The DC government is blocked from enacting any new marijuana law reforms but it is free to implement and carry out reforms that have already been enacted.
The congressional Republicans who pushed the measure naturally disagree. They argue that Measure 71 has not been enacted because the DC council has not yet sent it to Congress and that the rider thus blocks it from being implemented.
While the question is likely to end up being settled in the courts, the next move is up to the District city council. It can go ahead and send the measure to Congress despite what the budget bill rider says. Advocates are urging the council to do just that.
And the council seems to be in a mood to stick up for the initiative -- and for democratic rights for the District. DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson told The Washington Post even before the final Senate vote that he plans to ignore the rider. He said he will instead follow normal procedure for voter-approved initiatives in a city that exists under the congressional thumb. He will sent a bill implementing the initiative to Congress next month for a 30-day review in which lawmakers can vote it up or down.
And if that doesn't work, there's still the courts.
"If the question is whether I'd be open to legal action, the answer is yes," Mendelson told Politico after the House vote.
Whether Congress has successfully blocked marijuana legalization in DC clearly remains to be seen. What is not in dispute, though, is that Congress has taken a major step toward clearing the way for medical marijuana, and that's a big deal.
[image:1 align:right]Reflecting the will of the voters, the elected representatives of the people of Washington, DC -- the DC city council -- approved marijuana decriminalization earlier this year. District voters went even further than the council in last month's elections, approving an initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of pot with a whopping 70% of the vote.
Now, congressional Republicans are working feverishly to block the District from putting the results of this exercise in democracy into effect. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is leading a House effort to block federal funds being used for DC pot law reforms. Harris has crafted an amendment to the DC appropriations bill that would bar the use of federal or local funds to implement the reforms, and Rep. Harold Rodgers (R-KY), head of the House Appropriations Committee, has agreed to include Harris's amendment in the bill.
And, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been deeply involved in DC marijuana reform efforts, "Democrats are rumored to be cutting a deal with Republicans" that would sacrifice legalization in order to save decriminalization."
[Update: Late Tuesday afternoon, DPA released the following report: "Currently, sources are reporting that Congress is considering allowing Initiative 71, approved by 70% of District residents, to stand while preventing future action on the District of Columbia's ability to tax and regulate marijuana. These reports stand in sharp contrast to a previously reported deal that would have stopped the ballot measure from taking effect."]
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hasn't exactly quelled those rumors. At a press conference last Friday, she said she supported the District's autonomy, but stopped short of saying any Republican moves to block the implementation of decriminalization or legalization would be a "deal breaker" on agreement for a broader appropriations package. (Republicans are also seeking to use the appropriations bill to overturn DC firearms safety laws.)
[image:2 align:left caption:true]"I have expressed concerns about treating the District of Columbia in a fair way, respecting home rule," Pelosi said. "I'm not saying any one of them is a deal breaker, but I'm saying this is an array of concerns that we have: clean air, good food standards, workplace safety, fairness to the District of Columbia, how the top line dollar is allocated within the legislation."
That not-so-ringing endorsement of the District's ability to democratically determine its own drug policies, as well as the rumored deals, has prompted DPA and other reform supporters to ramp up the pressure on congressional Democrats. In an open letter to the Democratic leadership today, a number of civil rights and other advocacy groups, including DPA, DC Votes, and the DC branches of the ACLU, NAACP, and NOW, called on the Democrats to grow a backbone.
"As you conclude negotiations over the FY15 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, we urge you to reject all efforts to include undemocratic restrictions on DC's rights," said the letter addressed to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "As you know, the spending bill passed by the House included new provisions that would interfere in the District of Columbia's local affairs, including language intended to overturn the results of a local voter initiative. The undersigned organizations advocate on diverse issues, but are united in our opposition to the inclusion of social policy riders targeting the District of Columbia in the appropriations bill."
[image:3 align:right]"Democratic leadership made it clear they would stand with voters on this crucial racial justice issue, and push back against Republican opposition to the DC law," said Michael Collins, policy manager at DPA's office of national affairs. "Democrats have always made claims of supporting DC home rule now is their chance to stand with 70% of voters in the District who voted for marijuana reform," Collins said.
Advocates are particularly dismayed given the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws in the District. According to a 2013 ACLU report, not only did DC have the highest per capita number of pot possession arrests -- more than three times the national average -- but it also saw black people arrested for pot possession at a rate more than eight times that of whites. In that regard, DC was second, trailing only the state of Iowa among the 50 states.
The Republican efforts to interfere -- and block these moves to reduce racial disparities in the District -- takes on added salience in the context of weeks of protests nationwide over racially biased policing.
"In light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, it is particularly disturbing that Congress would choose to overturn the will of the voters in a majority black city," said DPA policy manager and vice-chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign, which was responsible for the passage of Initiative 71, the legalization initiative. "DC voters chose to reform their marijuana laws, which have a direct impact on how communities of color interact with police. Congress is poised to undermine that."
But the Republican Party is no longer a monolith when it comes to marijuana law reform. On at least five votes this year, some Republican legislators voted in favor of such reforms. It is questionable whether the GOP could block DC's reforms on a straight up-and-down vote. By tying the effort to the broader appropriations bill, however, the issue is placed in the hands of the congressional leadership, and that could leave the District hanging out to dry. It's time for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to stand up for the District and for democratic principals, the advocates say, and they are prodding them today.