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This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
Barrels of ink have been spilled over the prospect that the Trump administration could attempt to turn back the clock when it comes to legal marijuana, but for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth out there, marijuana industry insiders, advocates, and activists don't seem all that worried.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]"I don't think there's any more reason to be scared than to be hopeful at this point," said Mason Tvert, Denver-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The administration has not changed its marijuana policy, and there is reason to believe it may maintain the existing policy or adopt a similar one that respects states' laws regulating marijuana."
"Marijuana is one of the least of my concerns with the Trump administration," said Dale Gieringer, coauthor of the pioneering 1996 Prop 215 medical marijuana initiative and long-time head of California NORML. "That's the first time I've been able to say that, but I just don’t see where there's any percentage in them going after marijuana. The polls are on our side, and they can't enforce the law."
The industry, too, seems to think that there's not really that much to fear from the Trump administration.
"We are in a posture of cautious optimism," said Taylor West, communications director for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). "We're definitely not taking anything for granted -- it's quite clear that Sessions has really strong personal opposition to the industry -- but we are encouraged by the intense pushback, not just from the industry, but from elected officials, regulators, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. That is probably the most powerful signal to the Justice Department that dramatic changes to current policy would cause them a lot of problems."
West pointed to the strong reaction from state officials in marijuana-legal and medical marijuana states, as well as support from federal lawmakers and not just Democrats. She cited Nevada US Sen. Dean Heller as an example of a Republican lawmaker siding with the industry over the administration.
"They are speaking up because the industry and individual businesses and consumers have spoken up as their constituents and taught them about the industry and what we stand far and why we deserve respect from the federal government," she said.
And the marijuana money people appear largely unperturbed, too. In a report released Thursday, Arcview Market Research projected that the industry is going to continue to boom regardless of what happens in Washington, with revenues of nearly $7 billion this year and an astounding projected annual growth rate of 27% through 2021.
"While the uncertainty created by the mixed signals coming out of the administration may cause a temporary dip in some valuations of cannabis companies and some more risk-averse institutional investors and multinational companies may continue to stay on the sidelines, it won't impact the growth of the market much at all," said Troy Dayton, CEO of Arcview Market Research. "No matter what the administration does, states will continue to issue cannabis licenses to a long line of applicants and licensed cannabis outlets will continue to have long lines of consumers ready to purchase this product from regulated establishments."
Maintaining the Status Quo
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Medical marijuana is now legal in more than half the states and adult recreational use is legal in eight, including the entire West Coast. Some early enforcement actions notwithstanding, the Obama administration largely turned a blind eye to state-legal but federally-illegal marijuana. The Obama Justice Department adhered to the Cole memorandum, a 2013 "guidance" to federal prosecutors that essentially limited them to going only after legal marijuana operations that crossed specified lines: selling to minors, diverting product to non-legal states, being involved in violence or other trafficking, and the like.
Medical marijuana states at least are also protected by the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to go after state-compliant medical marijuana operations. A similar measure, the McClintock-Hollis amendment, would have extended that same shield to the adult-legal states, but came up just short in the last Congress. Both amendments will be offered again this year.
"Jeff Sessions doesn't like marijuana -- that much is clear -- but that's not the question," MPP's Tvert argued. "The question is whether he believes limited federal resources should be used to interfere in state marijuana laws. As of right now, there's no reason to believe that's the case."
Tvert pointed to Sessions' seeming acceptance of the Cole memo, as well as a memo Sessions sent to federal prosecutors last month telling them to go after "the worst of the worst" and violent crime.
"State licensed and regulate marijuana businesses are by no means violent or the 'worst of the worst,'" Tvert noted. "They want to go after cartels and violent criminals and focus on serious crime, so why force marijuana back into the underground market?"
"President Trump said states should be able to determine own marijuana policies, and he also had strong support for legal access to medical marijuana, and we haven't heard anything new from him on it," said Tvert. "But again, it's not a question of the president's personal views, but of what the federal laws are and the realities of enforcement. Sessions has said on multiple occasions that the federal government cannot effectively enforce federal prohibition in states where it is legal."
The view was not quite as sanguine from Washington, DC, where national NORML has its offices.
"As far as the industry goes, even the threat of a crackdown by the Justice Department has a chilling effect," said Justin Strekal, NORML political director and lobbyist. "While medical marijuana is protected under Farr-Rohrabacher, the adult use economy has no such protections -- at least for now."
"The Cole memo is just a piece of paper," Strekal said, "and there is nothing stopping Sessions from just throwing it away, as the Heritage Foundation has called for him to do. But the Justice Department has no way to force states to recriminalize marijuana in decrim or legal states. The worst case would be that the adult use states are rolled back to a situation where there is no way to have a legal distribution system, but local law enforcement is not going to be enforcing federal marijuana prohibition."
Where apprehension about the direction of Trump administration pot policy is having a real impact right now is in causing politicians to think twice about legalization in states that are considering it, Strekal said.
"We're hearing feedback from legislators in Connecticut and Maryland saying that the attorney general's comments are acting as a road block, while in Georgia, we just saw a defelonization bill defeated. The mere presence of a Reefer Madness-era Jeff Sessions is frightening off potential supporters of ending prohibition."
Still, Bad Things Could Happen
[image:3 align:left caption:true]While an oppositional Trump administration may retard the expansion of legal marijuana in the states, the status quo of a fifth of the country living under legalization and more than half with access to medical marijuana appears unlikely to be rolled-back. But that doesn't necessarily mean a free ride for legal weed.
"There could be some sort of federal action against some adult use facility or grower or cultivation company whose product is found to have gone across state lines in quantity, or something like that," CANORML's Gieringer offered. "Like if you have a situation where Nebraska complains, maybe that could stir up pressure in the Justice Department. But that's the most I expect. I could be wrong, though."
"Since Colorado started its licensing program, there's always been a fear that the Justice Department would just bring a lawsuit saying the state is participating in an ongoing conspiracy to distribute a Schedule I drug," Gieringer observed. "They had their chance and they didn't do it. If they tried it now, they will have taken away hundreds of millions of dollars from Colorado and potentially billions from other states and leave anarchy. They can't enforce the marijuana laws anyway; it's a drain on federal resources to even try."
"A federal injection is a potential threat, but it was a potential threat six months ago, too," said MPP's Tvert. "It's still a question of resources. If that were to happen, marijuana would continue to be legal, but the federal government would be preventing states from controlling its production and sale. That would be a real serious problem."
But Tvert warned that the heavy hand of the federal government could still reach out and slap someone down.
"Sean Spicer said they would have greater enforcement, and that could mean anything," he said. "They could be planning to more rigorously enforce the laws against people not in compliance with state laws, there could be more enforcement against illegal actors, they could push states to strengthen their regulations to prevent interstate trafficking. They perhaps could encourage states to increase funding to law enforcement to investigate illegal activity. There is plenty they could do without interfering with the legal market."
The Fightback Against Rollback Will Only Grow Stronger
The advent of a potential hostile Trump administration isn't changing the way NORML does business, Strekal said.
"We're continuing to do what we've always done and act as a grassroots consumer advocacy group," he explained. "We have 150 chapters and we're engaging as an advocacy group at every level of government from city councils to state legislatures to the federal government. At the federal level, we're very encouraged by the formation of the congressional cannabis caucus. We've been working with them to host a few events."
"This moment in time, where there is a lot of uncertainty at the federal level, is the kind of moment the NCIA was created for," said West. "We've been building relationships and allies in DC around industry issues, so when we need those allies, we have them."
Like MPP, the NCIA has a full-time staff lobbyist in Washington. It also works with another DC-based lobbying firm to work the Hill, and with legislators and elected officials.
"You've been able to see, through our work and the work of others, a very strong pushback from people who previously wouldn't have been in favor of the marijuana industry," West said. "The federal government can try to enforce marijuana prohibition in states where it is legal, but it doesn't really have the personnel to do that without the full cooperation of state and local law enforcement. If states are resisting that crackdown, which elected officials have said they would do, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible."
Legal marijuana is on guard, but it's not running away from a fight. The question for the Trump administration becomes whether this is a fight worth fighting.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
As President Trump ratchets up the machinery of mass deportation, supporters of a humane, comprehensive approach to immigration are seeking ways to throw sand in its gears. When mass deportation is touted because of the "criminality" of those targeted, one solution is to reduce criminalization, which is not to turn a blind eye to violent or dangerous criminals, but to recognize that we live in an over-criminalized society. That means school kids can now be arrested for behavior that would have sent them to the principal's office in years past (especially if they're a certain color). The US also generates the world's largest prison-industrial complex, and has criminalized tens of millions of people for the offense of simply possessing a certain plant, and millions more for possessing other proscribed substances.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]While Trump talks about "bad hombres" as he ramps up the immigration crackdown, data shows that the net of criminality used to deport not just undocumented workers, but also legal immigrants and permanent resident aliens, is cast exceedingly wide. It's overwhelmingly not gang members or drug lords who are getting deported, but people whose crimes include crossing the border without papers, as well as traffic and minor drug offenses.
The report Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program , which examined Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation records, found that the top three "most serious" criminal charges used to deport people and which accounted for roughly half of all deportations were illegal entry, followed by DWI and unspecified traffic violations.
The fourth "most serious" criminal charge used to deport people was simple marijuana possession, with more than 6,000 people being thrown out of the country in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the years the study covered. Right behind that was simple cocaine possession, accounting for another 6,000 in each of those years. "Other" drug possession charges accounted for nearly 2,500 deportations each of those years.
Nearly 3,000 people a year were deported for selling pot, and more than 4,000 for selling cocaine, but only about 2,000 a year for the more serious offense of drug trafficking, accounting for a mere 1% of all deportations in those years.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]This has been going on for years. In the same report, researchers estimated that some 250,000 people had been deported for drug offenses during the Obama administration, accounting for one-fifth of all criminal deportations. Now, the Trump administration gives every indication it intends to be even tougher.
In light of the massive use of drug charges to deport non-citizens, drug reform takes on a whole new aspect. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization may not generally be viewed through the lens of immigrant protection, but they shield millions of people from drug deportation in those states that have enacted such laws. Similarly, efforts to decriminalize drug possession in general are also moves that would protect immigrants.
Now, legislators and activists in vanguard states are adopting prophylactic measures, such as sealing marijuana arrest records, rejiggering the way drug possession cases are handled, and, more fundamentally, moving to decriminalize pot and/or drug possession. In doing so, they are building alliances with other communities, especially those of color, that have been hard hit by the mass criminalization of the war on drugs.
In California, first decriminalization in 2011 and then outright legalization last year removed pot possession from the realm of the criminal, offering protection to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But the California legalization initiative, Proposition 64, also made the reduction or elimination of marijuana-related criminal penalties retroactive,meaning past convictions for marijuana offenses reduced or eliminated can be reclassified on a criminal record for free. Having old marijuana offenses reduced to infractions or dismissed outright can remove that criminal cause for removal from any California immigrant's record.
Across the county in New York, with a charge led by the state legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, the state assembly voted in January to approve AB 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who had been unjustly arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view, a charge police used to still bust people for marijuana after it was decriminalized in 1977. Like the Prop 64 provision in California, this measure would protect not only minority community members in general -- who make up 80% of those arrested on the public possession charge -- from the collateral consequences of a drug conviction, but immigrants in particular from being expelled from their homes.
"A marijuana conviction can lead to devastating consequences for immigrants, including detention and deportation," said Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. "This bill will provide some important protections for green card holders and undocumented New Yorkers targeted by Trump's aggressive deportation agenda."
"Sealing past illegitimate marijuana convictions is not only right, it is most urgent as the country moves toward legalization and immigrant families are put at risk under our new federal administration," said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Comprehensive drug law reform must include legislative and programmatic measures that account for our wrongheaded policies and invest in building healthier and safer communities, from the Bronx to Buffalo, Muslim and Christian, US-born and green card-holding."
Companion legislation in the form of Senate Bill 3809 awaits action in the Senate, but activists are also pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include similar language as part of his decriminalization proposal in state budget legislation, opening another possible path forward.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"In New York State 22,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2016. The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, leading to a potential inability to provide for their families," said Sen. Jamaal Bailey, author of the Senate bill.
"Furthermore, and even more problematic, there exist significant racial disparities in the manner that marijuana possession policy is enforced. Blacks and Latinos are arrested at higher rates despite the fact that white people use marijuana at higher rates than people of color. Responsible and fair policy is what we need here," Bailey added. "We must act now, with proactive legislation, for the future of many young men and women of our state are at stake here."
Meanwhile, back in California, Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) has reintroduced legislation explicitly designed to shield immigrants from deportation for drug possession charges, as long as they undergo treatment or counseling. Under her bill, Assembly Bill 208, people arrested for simple possession would be able to enroll in a drug treatment for six months to a year before formally entering a guilty plea, and if they successfully completed treatment, the courts would wipe the charges from their records.
The bill would address a discrepancy between state law and federal immigration law. Under state drug diversion programs, defendants are required to first plead guilty before opting for treatment. But although successful completion of treatment sees the charges dropped under state law, the charges still stand under federal law, triggering deportation proceedings even if the person has completed treatment and had charges dismissed.
"For those who want to get treatment and get their life right, we should see that with open arms, not see it as a way of deporting somebody," Eggman said.
Eggman authored a similar bill in 2015 that got all the way through the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who worried that it eliminated "the most powerful incentive to stay in treatment -- the knowledge that the judgment will be entered for failure to do so."
In the Trump era, the need for such measures has become even more critical, Eggman said.
"It might be a more complex discussion this year, and it's a discussion we should have," she said. "If our laws are meant to treat everyone the same, then why wouldn't we want that opportunity for treatment available to anyone without risk for deportation?"
Reforming drug laws to reduce criminalization benefits all of us, but in the time of Trump, reforming drug laws is also a means of protecting some of our most vulnerable residents from the knock in the night and expulsion from the country they call home.
Legalization bills are getting hearings on the East Coast, decriminalization advances in New Mexico and Israel, a Wyoming edibles penalty bill is dead, and more.
[image:1 align:left]Marijuana Policy
Connecticut Legalization Bill Gets Hearing Tomorrow. The General Assembly's Public Health Committee has a hearing set for House Bill 5314, cosponsored by Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R-East Haddam). The bill would legalize marijuana for people 21 and over, set up a regulatory system for marijuana cultivation and sales, and set up a tax system for marijuana commerce. Other legalization bills proposed by Democrats are awaiting action.
Maryland Legalization Bills Get Hearing. Supporters and foes of marijuana legalization testified before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last Thursday on Senate Bill 927, which would tax and regulate legal marijuana sales, and on Senate Bill 891, which would set up a referendum to amend the state constitution to allow people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces and grow up to six plants. No votes were taken.
New Mexico Senate Approves Decriminalization Bill. The Senate voted last Thursday to approve Senate Bill 258, which would decriminalize the possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana. Between a half-ounce and eight ounces would remain a misdemeanor. The move comes after the legislature rejected outright legalization. The bill is now before the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.
North Dakota Legalization Initiative Supporters Will Try Again. Initiative campaigners gave up a few months ago on signature gathering, but now say they will try again and are aiming at getting a measure on the 2018 ballot. Campaigners said they would have a new petition later this spring or summer.
Wyoming Bill to Set Edibles Penalties Dies Amidst Discord. A conference committee of House and Senate members was unable to reach agreement on how to punish the possession of marijuana edibles, killing House Bill 197. The bill had sought to close a loophole in state law that left it unclear how to punish edibles possession, but originally also included sentencing reductions for marijuana in its plant form. That provision was intended to make the bill palatable to Democratic lawmakers, but it was stripped out of the bill in the Senate. The bill died when the House rejected the Senate version.
Arkansas Medical Marijuana "Fix" Bills Are Moving. The Senate sent two medical marijuana bills to the governor's desk last Thursday, while the House passed three more bills and sent them to the Senate. Winning final legislative approval were House Bill 1556, which bars the use of teleconferencing to certify a patient for medical marijuana, and House Bill 1402, which would allow the state to reschedule marijuana if the federal government does it first. Meanwhile, the Senate will now take up House Bill 1580, which imposes a 4% sales tax on cultivation facilities and a 4% sales tax on dispensary sales; House Bill 1436, which sets an expiration date for dispensary licenses, and House Bill 1584, which would led regulators issue temporary dispensary or cultivation licenses when the original owner ceases to be in control of the business.
West Virginia Medical Marijuana Bills Filed. Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) and 11 cosponsors have filed Senate Bill 386 and companion legislation in the House that would allow for the medical use of marijuana by patients with one of a list of qualifying disorders.
Mississippi Senate Approves Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. The Senate voted unanimously last Thursday to approve House Bill 812, which will require law enforcement to report on all forfeitures and creates a new asset forfeiture warrant system under which a judge would have to authorize seizures. The bill had already passed both houses, but had to go back to the Senate for a housekeeping vote. It now head to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant (R).
Israeli Cabinet Approves Marijuana Decriminalization. The cabinet has approved the public safety minister's proposal to decriminalize pot possession. Under the proposal, people caught with marijuana would face only administrative fines for their first three offenses, but criminal charges for a fourth. The measure must still be approved by the Knesset.
Durham Police Will Become First in England to Implement Prescription Heroin and Supervised Injection Sites. Police in Durham are set to begin buying pharmaceutical heroin and providing it to addicts, who will inject it twice a day at a supervised injection site. The plan is currently being studied by public health authorities in the region.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
While the marijuana community -- consumers, industry, and advocates alike -- eyes with trepidation the reign of avowed drug warrior Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department, the Trump executive branch isn't the only game in town when it comes to making marijuana policy. Congress is back in session, and after last November's legalization and medical marijuana victories at the polls, the pot state delegation is larger than ever.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]And at least some of those senators and congressmen and women representing the 28 states (and the District of Columbia) that have embraced medical marijuana and the eight states plus DC that have so far gone for adult legalization, are gearing up to fight for reform at the Capitol.
A nascent congressional Cannabis Caucus formed in December is preparing a plethora of bills for the current session, and its members say they are optimistic about their chances, even in the time of Trump -- and Republicans holding every committee chair in both houses. It's because Congress is riding the marijuana wave, too, said caucus founder and co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).
"This Congress is going to be a little better than last Congress, and last Congress was better than the one before that," he said in an interview this week with The Cannabist. "It's very interesting watching the momentum build."
That momentum derives from public opinion polls consistently showing nationwide majorities favoring legalization and, more importantly, the actual victories at the polls in November, where legalization went four for five and medical marijuana went four for four.
"It's easier for people to embrace much of what we're doing legislatively," he said. Fixing industry-critical concerns such as the lack of operating expense deductions or access to financial services for state-legal businesses or barriers to medical marijuana research are now mere "housekeeping" issues, he added.
Nonetheless, fixes still have to get through the Congress. They haven't so far, and it's a long way between filing a bill and seeing it signed into law. Still, Blumenauer and colleagues will be pushing harder than ever.
He is joined in the Cannabis Caucus by co-chairs Reps. Jared Polis (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Don Young (R-AL). The bipartisan grouping is notably made up of representatives from vanguard legalization states, but by no means all of them -- California alone has 53 House members -- and there is certainly room for more to come on board.
"I'm more hopeful than ever before that we can move legislation like the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act," Polis told The Cannabist, referring to last session's H.R. 1013, which picked up 19 cosponsors and was referred to a slew of subcommittees, but never even got a hearing.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]That bill was one of about two dozen pot-related proposals filed in the last session, and they're already starting to pile up again this session. While Blumenauer told The Cannabist more were to come, here's what's on the table so far:
H.R. 331 -- Filed by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the States' Medical Marijuana Rights Protection Act would block federal civil asset forfeiture aimed at the owners of state-legal medical marijuana operations.
H.R. 714 -- Filed by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), the Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marihuana Act would move marijuana to the Controlled Substance Act's Schedule II, opening the door to more research and, potentially, doctors' ability to prescribe (as opposed to recommend) marijuana for patients. It would also bar the use of that act or the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to interfere with medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
H.R. 715 -- Also filed by Rep. Griffith, the Compassionate Access Act would reschedule marijuana, provide for its medical use under state laws, and remove CBD (cannabidiol) from the definition of marijuana.
H.R. 975 -- Filed by Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Rohrabacher, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act would exempt people and entities from certain provisions of the Controlled Substances Act if they are acting in compliance with state laws. Rohrabacher authored similar legislation in the last Congress, garnering 20 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.
There is no outright federal marijuana legalization bill out there yet this session, but expect to see Rep. Polis come back with his bill or perhaps Bernie Sanders reviving his bill to end federal marijuana prohibition, or both. Given political realities on the Hill, though, the Cannabis Caucus will likely save its political capital for fights it might be able to win, such as fixing the tax and banking problems facing the industry.
Another key battleground -- and one where marijuana advocates have actually won before -- is the appropriations process. The Justice Department and the DEA can't go after marijuana in legal states if Congress bars them from spending any federal funds to do so, and that's exactly what Congress did when it approved the Rohrabacher-Farr Medical Marijuana Amendment last session.
If a similar amendment were to succeed again, even if Attorney General Sessions wanted to call out the cavalry, he couldn't buy the horse feed, and it wouldn't matter how many nasty memos his deputies wrote.
And while his past pronouncements are indeed worrisome, he was quite coy at his nomination hearings, saying that he "won't commit to never enforcing federal law," but adding that enforcement priorities are "a problem of resources for the federal government."
Sessions did add later in the hearings that it's not "the attorney general's job to decide what laws to enforce," but suggested that his former colleagues could settle things once and for all.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"I think one obvious concern is that the United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act," he said. "If that something is not desired any longer, Congress should pass the law to change the rule."
And then there's Sessions' boss, President Trump. While he projects a law and order image and has campaigned against "drugs," the drugs he seems most concerned about are heroin and the prescription opioids -- not pot. He's also suggested in the past a willingness to let states experiment on marijuana policy, and he has a lot of other things on his plate. It's not at all clear he would let Sessions unleash a war on weed even if he wanted to.
Earl Blumenauer doesn't think Trump wants to charge into this particular melee.
"This is a struggle and will continue to be, but this is something where I honestly don't think the new administration, which has probably enough controversy on its hands, is going to knowingly pick a fight with what, almost without exception, was approved by local voters," Blumenauer said.
To ensure that Sessions doesn't strike out, "we need to make the case directly to Trump" about the economic potential of the marijuana industry, said Polis. But until federal marijuana prohibition is ended, "the industry really exists at the discretion of the president and the attorney general, and that's a dangerous place to be," he added.
Well, and Congress, too. It holds the purse strings, after all.
Marijuana policy is going to be at play in the 115th Congress. Ending federal prohibition remains the Holy Grail, but in the meantime, there are concrete actions Congress can take to protect medical and legal marijuana and the industry it's creating. Now, let's see if the Cannabis Caucus can lead the way to some victories.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
In a sharp break with the Obama administration, which distanced itself from harsh anti-drug rhetoric and emphasized treatment for drug users over punishment, President Trump last week reverted to tough drug war oratory and backed it up with a series of executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America."
[image:1 align:right]"We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in," Trump told law enforcement professionals of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last Wednesday. "We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence."
Trump also lambasted the Obama administration for one of its signature achievements in criminal justice reform, opening the prison doors for more than 1,700 drug war prisoners who had already served sentences longer than they would have under current, revised sentencing guidelines. Obama freed "record numbers of drug traffickers, many of them kingpins," Trump complained.
And in a sign of a return to the dark days of drug war over-sentencing, he called for harsher mandatory minimum prison sentences for "the most serious" drug offenders, as well as aggressive prosecutions of drug traffickers and cracking down on "shipping loopholes" he claimed allowed drugs to be sent to the US from other countries.
In a New Hampshire campaign speech during the campaign, Trump called for more treatment for drug users and more access to overdose reversal drugs, but there was no sign of that side of the drug policy equation in Wednesday's speech.
Last Thursday, Trump backed up his tough talk with action as, at the Oval Office swearing in of Attorney General Jeff Session, he rolled out three executive orders he said were "designed to restore safety in America," but which appear to signal an increasingly authoritarian response to crime, drugs, and discontent with policing practices.
The first, which Trump said would "reduce crime and restore public safety," orders Sessions to create a new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Policy, which will come up with "strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking and violent crime," propose legislation to implement them, and submit a report to the president within a year.
The second, regarding "transnational criminal organizations and preventing drug trafficking," directs various federal law enforcement agencies to "increase intelligence sharing" and orders an already existing interagency working group to submit a report to Trump within four months describing progress made in combating the cartels, "along with any recommended actions for dismantling them."
"I'm directing Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people," Trump said Thursday.
The third directs the Justice Department to use federal law to prosecute people who commit crimes against police officers, even though they already face universally severe penalties under existing state laws.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]"It's a shame what's been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That's going to stop as of today."
The tough talk and the executive orders provoked immediate alarm and pushback from human and civil rights advocates, drug reformers, the Mexican government, and even the law enforcement community. The apparent turn back toward a more law-and-order approach to drugs also runs against the tide of public health and public policy opinion that the war on drugs has been a failure.
In a report released last Friday, dozens of senior law enforcement officials warned Trump against a tough crackdown on crime and urged him to instead continue the Obama administration's efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
The report was coauthored for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration by former Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who won wide praise for his response after a gun man killed five of his officers last year.
"Decades of experience have convinced us of a sobering reality: Today's crime policies, which too often rely only on jail and prison, are simply ineffective in preserving public safety," the report said.
The president's crime plan would encourage police to focus on general lawbreaking rather than violent crime, the report said. The Justice Department already spends more than $5 billion a year to support local police, much of it spent on "antiquated law enforcement tools, such as dragnet enforcement of lower-level offenses" and Trump's plan would "repeat this mistake," the officials wrote. "We cannot fund all crime fighting tactics."
Drug reformers also sounded the alarm.
"This rhetoric is dangerous, disturbing, and dishonest," said Bill Piper, senior director for national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have had a war on drugs. It has failed. Tough talk may look good before the cameras, but history has taught us that cracking down on drugs and building walls will not stop the supply or use of drugs. It mostly causes the death and destruction of innocent lives. Trump must tone down his outrageous rhetoric and threats, and instead reach out to leadership from both parties to enact a humane and sensible health-based approach to drug policies that both reduce overdose and our country's mass incarceration crisis."
Indeed, most public health experts argue that the prohibitionist approach to drugs has been a failure. They point to research such as a 2013 study in the British Medical Journal that found that despite billions spent on drug prohibition since 1990, drug prices have only decreased and purity increased, making getting high easier and more affordable than ever before.
"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing," the authors conclude.
Public health analysts also point to research showing that between 1991 and 2001, even when the drug war was in full effect, the rate of illicit drug use among teens rose sharply, while their cigarette smoking rate fell off a bit and their alcohol use dropped sharply. The substances that are legal for adult use were less likely to see increases than ones that are prohibited, the analysts point out.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Luis Videgaray also chimed in to note that there wouldn't be any Mexican drug cartels without American demand for drugs and to remind Washington that it's not just what's being exported from Mexico that is a problem, but what's being imported, too.
"For years, from the Mexican perspective, people say, 'OK, the problem with drugs -- that it's creating so much violence, so many deaths of young people in Mexico -- is because there's demand for drugs in the US,''" Videgaray said. "We happen to be neighbors to the largest market for drugs. From the American perspective, it's just the other way around," he said, adding that both countries need to get past "the blame game."
And if the US is serious about helping Mexico disrupt the cartels "business model," it needs to stop the southbound traffic in cash and guns.
"We need to stop illegal weapons flowing from the U.S. into Mexico," Videgaray said. "We always think about illegal stuff moving through the border south to north, but people forget that most guns -- and we're not talking small guns, we're talking heavy weapons -- they get to the cartels and create literally small armies out of the cartels."
[image:3 align:right caption:true]Human Rights Watch reacted to a comment from Attorney General Sessions at his swearing in ceremony that crime is a "dangerous permanent trend that places the lives of American people at risk," by noting that crime is down dramatically by all measures over the past 20 years despite a slight increase in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015. "There is no 'dangerous permanent trend' in violent or non-violent crime," it pointed out.
And Amnesty International swiftly reacted to the executive order calling for new federal penalties for crimes against police.
"Law enforcement officers face unique hardships and challenges due to the nature of their work," said Amnesty's Noor Mir. "Authorities are already able to vigorously prosecute crimes against law enforcement officers, and there is no history to suggest that officers are not fully protected by current laws. This order will not protect anyone, and instead it creates additional penalties that could cause people to be significantly over-prosecuted for offenses including resisting arrest.
There is a better way, said Mir, but that would require going in a radically different direction than where the Trump administration is headed.
"This order does nothing to address real and serious problems in the US criminal justice system," he said. "Relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve could instead be improved by investing in reform of the criminal justice system and better training for officers. Police already have laws protecting them, but there is no federal standard for the prosecution of officers who unlawfully kill civilians. Implementing a standard for lethal force in line with international standards will protect both police and civilians."
The Trump administration has outlined an approach to drugs and criminal justice policy with dark Nixonian and Reaganite underpinnings, promising more, more, more heavy-handed policing, more swelling prison populations, and more -- not less -- distrust and suspicion between police and the communities they are supposed to serve and protect.
And, in typical Trump fashion, his brash, draconian approach to the complex social problems around crime and drugs is creating a rapid backlash. Whether the rising opposition to Trump can rein in his authoritarian impulses and regressive policy approaches to the issue remains to be seen, but a battle to stop the slide backward is brewing.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
For nearly half a century, America has been in the grip of incarceration fever. Beginning with the "law and order" campaigns of Richard Nixon, reprised by Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," and seemingly carried on by inertia through the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the fever only began to break in the last few years.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]For the first time in decades, we have not seen the ever-increasing uptick in the number of people behind bars in the United States. After the incredible expansion of imprisonment that made the land of the free the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, the US prison population may have finally peaked. Small declines have occurred in state prison populations, and the federal prison population, fueled largely by drug war excess, is stabilizing.
Much of the progress has come under the Obama administration, but now, there's a new sheriff in town, and he doesn't seem remotely as reform-friendly as Obama. What's going to happen with sentencing reform and criminal justice under Trump and the Republicans?
To try to find some answers, we turned to someone who's been fighting for reform for decades now, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit committed to working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
Drug War Chronicle: When it comes to sentencing reform, we're likely in for a rough ride these next few years with tough-talking Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But before we look forward to what may come, it's worth looking back at where we've been and what's been accomplished in the last eight years. How did sentencing reform do under Obama?
Marc Mauer: I think we saw very substantial reform, both in terms of actual policy changes that have made a real difference, but also in terms of a change in the political environment, which is really critical for long-term reform.
We saw substantial changes coming out of Congress, the White House, and the US Sentencing Commission. In Congress, probably the most substantial piece of legislation was the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced -- but didn't eliminate -- the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
But changes put in place by the Sentencing Commission have had the largest impact. It amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce punishments for drug offenders, which affected an estimated 46,000 people currently serving federal drug sentences. Of those, about 43,000 have seen their cases reviewed, with 29,000 getting sentence reductions and 14,000 getting denied. These are going to be rolling reductions -- for people who might have had three years left, the guidelines change might knock that down to six months; for people doing 30 years, it might knock it down to 27. They still have a long way to go, but not as far as before. This is having and will have the most significant effect.
The Obama White House was very active on sentencing reform, too. Obama commuted more than 1,700 federal prison sentences, a third of those life sentences, typically for third-time drug offenses, and that has a very significant effect. They've also done a number of initiatives around re-entry, collateral consequences, "ban the box" policies, and the like.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance to employers about when it is and isn't appropriate to use prior criminal records when considering employment applications. The administration set up an interagency reentry council that brought together a number of cabinet agencies to see what they could do to have an impact on easing reentry.
There's been a congressional ban on inmates using Pell grant education funds, which only Congress can overturn, but the Obama administration created a pilot Pell grant program and was able to restore some funding on a research basis. The estimate is that about 12,000 incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of that.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]DWC: Now, it's a new era, and Jeff Sessions appears set to become our next attorney general. He was something of a player on criminal justice issues in the Senate; what's your take on what to expect from him on sentencing and criminal justice reform?
MM: I'm not overly optimistic. He's been supportive of some criminal justice reform in the past, most notably the Fair Sentencing Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- that involved a left-right coalition that felt prison rape was a bad thing, and provided money for research, training, and oversight as ways to reduce prison rape and sexual assault.
But in other areas, he's pretty much a hardliner. He was one of a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed sentencing reform legislation that was moving through Congress last year. He's one of the reasons the bill never got a Senate floor vote, even though it had passed out of the Judiciary Committee.
He's expressed skepticism about the work of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, particularly toward the consent decrees that it has imposed on cities and police departments making them agree to try to deal with tensions police law enforcement and African-American communities. That wasn't a pro- or anti-law enforcement approach; we have a real problem, and we need to get the parties working together. Getting law enforcement and local officials to agree that we have a problem is a very important tool to address a very serious problem.
To just say as Sessions does that he supports law enforcement doesn't get us very far. What do we do when law enforcement isn't doing the right thing, when it's violating people's rights? This will be very problematic.
And he continues to express support for harsh sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what perspective he has on what federal prosecutors should do. Eric Holder directed US Attorneys to change their charging practices in low-level drug cases so that people with minimal criminal histories wouldn't be hit with mandatory minimum sentences when possible. We haven't heard from Sessions whether he will keep that in place, or overturn it, or come up with something else. That will be critical. Attorneys general have swung back and forth on this.
DWC: That sentencing reform bill died last year, in part because of election year politics. Now the campaigns are over, but the Republicans control Congress. What are the prospects for anything good happening there now?
MM: There is some hope for sentencing reform. Among the Republican leadership, both Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly expressed a desire to see criminal justice reform go through this Congress. It's not entirely clear what that would look like -- would it look like last year's bill or only contain some aspects? -- but it is encouraging that they're voicing support for moving in that direction. Clearly, the big question is how the White House responds.
DWC: That is the big question. So, what about Trump? What do you foresee?
MM: Well, during the campaign, Trump called himself the law and order candidate, and he's been a vocal proponent of the death penalty and other tough measures, so that isn't encouraging. And if Sessions becomes attorney general, he would be involved, too, and that doesn't bode well for sentencing reform. Whether he makes this a priority issue or lets his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill take the lead will tell us a lot about the prospects.
DWC: With Trump and a Republican Congress you're facing a different political constellation than you were last year. How does that change your work, or does it?
MM: It doesn't change much in the day-to-day work. To make criminal justice reform work, we've always needed to make it bipartisan. It's been too sensitive and too emotional for so long that it's just not going to work unless it's bipartisan. That worked with crack sentencing and some other sentencing reform measures moving through Congress, and we are just going to continue the work. We meet regularly with congressional offices.
When it comes to justice reform issues, the political environment has shifted from the days of just "lock 'em up." There is growing and substantial support for reform from the right, not uniformly, but there is enough commonality of purpose that there is a good base for some kind of legislative change. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though.
DWC: Our conversation has focused so far on the federal level, but it's the states -- not the feds -- who hold the vast majority of prison inmates. How are things looking at the state level, and what impact do you thing the new order in Washington will have at the statehouse?
[image:3 align:left caption:true]MM: Unlike issues like health care, criminal justice is primarily a state and local issue, and over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been significant forward momentum. Overall, the state prison population has declined modestly, but in a handful of states they have achieved reductions of 25% or 30% over this period. And they did it on their own; this wasn't inspired by Washington.
And this wasn't just a blue state phenomenon. The state with the most substantial prison reduction was New Jersey with 31% -- under Christ Christie, who was generally supportive. Other states that saw big reductions were California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, but also Mississippi. We've also seen reforms enacted in places like Georgia and South Carolina, and Republican governors have been supportive.
It's quite likely the momentum we see at the state level will continue to a significant extent. At that level, policymakers are closer to the issue, and money issues are more relevant -- states actually have to balance their budgets. And by now, a number of states have had good experiences with reducing prison populations, with no adverse effects on public safety. The public has been supportive, or at least not opposed.
DWC: So, where do we go from here?
MM: Our goals and our strategy largely remain the same. We have to speak to broad audiences and work both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, we have to remember that criminal justice reform has never been easy. For several decades, we spent a good part of our careers trying to explain why tough on crime policies are counterproductive. It's been a long battle, but it's come to the point where the public environment has been shifting in a more rational, compassionate direction.
We have to build on the hard work that's been done. Now, we have Black Lives Matter and related grassroots activity, which has really spread quite quickly, creating a broader demand for change from the ground up. Some political leaders lead, but many follow; the more active support there is around the country, the more politicians have to respond.
Still, going backwards is quite possible. What happens to the commitment to civil rights? What happens to sentencing policy? If not actual backward movement, probably at least a halt to work around reentry programming in prisons and the like. That would be a real shame. We have made significant progress, the field has a much greater store of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. We are ready to try to expand on that; it would be extremely foolish in terms of public safety not to take advantage of that.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
Where does Donald Trump's pick for the Supreme Court come down on weed? The record is pretty sparse.
[image:1 align:left]Neil Gorsuch hasn't made any known public pronouncements about marijuana policy, and despite his tenure on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, he hasn't ruled in any cases that directly take up the issue.
But he has ruled on some marijuana cases, and he didn't go out of his way to support freeing the weed in them. And there's at least one marijuana-related case he's ruled on that demonstrates a disquieting deference to law enforcement.
In Feinberg et al. v. IRS, Gorsuch ruled against a Colorado dispensary that sought not to report data about its operation to the IRS because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and it feared incriminating itself. But in passing, he offered some commentary on the legal weirdness of state-legal but federally illegal marijuana commerce.
"This case owes its genesis to the mixed messages the federal government is sending these days about the distribution of marijuana. Officials at the Department of Justice have now twice instructed field prosecutors that they should generally decline to enforce Congress's statutory command when states like Colorado license operations like THC. At the same time and just across 10th Street in Washington, D.C., officials at the IRS refuse to recognize business expense deductions claimed by companies like THC on the ground that their conduct violates federal criminal drug laws. So it is that today prosecutors will almost always overlook federal marijuana distribution crimes in Colorado but the tax man never will."
And he marveled at the federal government's contortions as it sought to accommodate commerce in a substance it considers illegal.
"Yes, the Fifth Amendment normally shields individuals from having to admit to criminal activity. But, the IRS argued, because DOJ's memoranda generally instruct federal prosecutors not to prosecute cases like this one the petitioners should be forced to divulge the requested information anyway. So it is the government simultaneously urged the court to take seriously its claim that the petitioners are violating federal criminal law and to discount the possibility that it would enforce federal criminal law."
Gorsuch also pointedly noted the provisional nature of the Obama administration's decision to work with -- instead of against -- the states experimenting with marijuana legalization.
"It's not clear whether informal agency memoranda guiding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion by field prosecutors may lawfully go quite so far in displacing Congress's policy directives as these memoranda seek to do. There's always the possibility, too, that the next... Deputy Attorney General could displace these memoranda at anytime."
This is, of course, something of which the marijuana industry and legalization advocates are painfully aware and explains much of the movement's agonizing over the nomination of pot foe Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). A single signature on a new policy memorandum at the Justice Department could throw the industry into chaos.
As Tom Angell notes at the MassRoots blog, Gorsuch ruled in a 2010 case, US v. Daniel and Mary Quaintance, that a couple charged with federal marijuana distribution offenses couldn't use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense because their claims weren't sincere.
"Numerous pieces of evidence in this case strongly suggest that the [couple's] marijuana dealings were motivated by commercial or secular motives rather than sincere religious conviction... "The record contains additional, overwhelming contrary evidence that the [couple was] running a commercial marijuana business with a religious front."
In other words, if you're trying to run a real marijuana ministry, don't be selling weed.
But it's a 2013 case, Family of Ryan Wilson v. City of Lafeyette and Taser International , that raises disturbing implications that go beyond marijuana policy into the broader realm of police use of force. In that case, Gorsuch held that a police officer's fatal tazing of Wilson, who was fleeing a marijuana arrest, was "reasonable."
"[T]he illegal processing and manufacturing of marijuana may not be inherently violent crimes but, outside the medical marijuana context, they were felonies under Colorado law at the time of the incident... And Officer Harris testified, without rebuttal, that he had been trained that people who grow marijuana illegally tend to be armed and ready to use force to protect themselves and their unlawful investments."
As Angell noted, that ruling in particular had the National Urban League tweeting its concern and calling for close scrutiny of Gorsuch's record within hours of Trump's announcement of his selection.
Overall, Gorsuch hasn't provided a whole lot of hints about how he might rule on cases revolving around the conflict between state and federal marijuana, although he has shown he's aware of it. Any members of the Senate Judiciary Committee representing states where medical or recreational marijuana commerce is legal might want to be asking for some clarification when his confirmation hearings come around.