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This article was published in collaboration with Alternet and first appeared here.
Hundreds of members of the Atlanta community and dozens of the nation's leading advocates for drug policy reform gathered in a groundbreaking meeting over the weekend. The meeting aimed at building alliances with the African American community to both advance smart public health approaches to drug policy and maintain and protect existing reforms in the face of hostile powers in Washington.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, Georgia State University's Department of African American Studies, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Amnesty International, The Ordinary People's Society, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Peachtree NORML, "Not One Step Back" marked the first time the drug reform movement has come to the historically black colleges of the South and signals the emergence of a powerful new alliance between black academics and reform advocates.
The event included a series of panels filled with activists, academics, and public health experts, including Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrice Cullors and VH1 personality and best-selling author Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and was highlighted by a keynote address by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).
To the delight of the audience, "Auntie Maxine" slammed the drug war as aimed only at certain communities while those making fortunes at the top of the illegal drug trade go untouched. The representative from South Central reached back to the days of the crack cocaine boom to make her case.
"The police did everything you think wouldn't happen in a democracy," she said, citing illegal raids and thuggish behavior from the LAPD of then-Chief Darryl Gates, the inventor of the SWAT team. But if low-level users and dealers were getting hammered, others involved went scot free.
"Something happened to devastate our communities," she said, alluding to the arrival of massive amounts of cocaine flowing from political allies of the Reagan administration as it waged war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. "The CIA and DEA turned a blind eye," Waters argued. "If you're the CIA and DEA, you know who the dealer is, but they take the lower-level dealers and let the big dealers keep selling drugs."
"Ricky Ross did time," she said, referencing the South Central dealer held responsible for unleashing the crack epidemic (with the help of Nicaraguan Contra connections). "But those big banks that laundered all that drug money -- nobody got locked up, they just have to pay fines. But for them, fines are just a cost of doing business. Even today, some of the biggest banks are laundering money for drug dealers," Waters noted.
"We have to defend our communities; we don't support drugs and addiction, but you need to know that people in high places bear some responsibility. One of the worst things about the drug war is that we never really dealt with how these drugs come into our communities," Waters added.
The selection of Atlanta for the conclave was no accident. Georgia is a state that incarcerates blacks for drug offenses at twice the rate it does whites. While blacks make up only a third of the state's population, they account for three-quarters of those behind bars for marijuana offenses.
The state has the nation's fourth-highest incarceration rate, with a prison population on track to grow 8% within the next five years, and one out of every 13 adults in the state are in prison or jail or on probation or parole.
Atlanta is also the powerhouse of the South -- the region's largest city, and one that is increasingly progressive in a long-time red state that could now be turning purple. And it is the site of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- the world's premier drug reform gathering -- set for October. What better place to bring a laser focus on the racial injustice of the drug war?
"The drug war is coded language," said Drug Policy Alliance senior director asha bandele. "When the law no longer allowed the control and containment of people based on race, they inserted the word 'drug' and then targeted communities of color. Fifty years later, we see the outcome of that war. Drug use remains the same, and black people and people of color are disproportionately locked up. But no community, regardless of race, has been left unharmed, which is why we are calling everyone together to strategize."
And strategize they did, with panels such as "Drug Reform is a Human Rights Issue," "This is What the Drug War Looks Like: Survivors Speak," "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom: Who We Must Be in These Times," and "Dreaming a World: A Nation Beyond Prisons and Punishment."
While denunciations of white privilege were to be expected, the accompanying arguments that capitalism plays a role in perpetuating oppression and inequality was surprisingly frank.
"We have to dismantle both white supremacy and capitalism," said Eunisses Hernandez, a California-based program coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We need to reach a place where trauma is dealt with in a public health model. The current system of law enforcement, prisons, and jails doesn't do anything for us."
"We're in agreement here," said Dr. Hill. "We have to eliminate white supremacy and capitalism."
That's not something you hear much in mainstream political discourse, but in Atlanta, under the impetus of addressing the horrors of the war on drugs, the search for answers is leading to some very serious questions -- questions that go well beyond the ambit of mere drug reform. Something was brewing in Atlanta this weekend. Whether the initial progress will be built upon remains to be seen, but the drug reformers are going to be back in October to try to strengthen and deepen those new-found bonds.
The two octogenarian senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are up to one of their favorite pastimes again this year. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have reintroduced a perennial bill that would increase penalties for drug dealers who sell products designed to entice children.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]If the bill were to become law, anyone who knew or "had reasonable cause to believe" that a "modified controlled substance would be distributed to a minor" would be looking at a 10- to 20-year prison sentence.
But the bill, the "Protecting Kids from Candy-Flavored Drugs Act of 2017" (Senate Bill 739), is seemingly justified more by urban myths than facts and, critics say, both unnecessary and more likely to be used against real-life sellers of marijuana edibles than mythical strawberry-flavored meth dealers.
"There are many instances of of drug dealers altering flavor and packaging of cocaine or methamphetamines to appeal to children," Feinstein tweeted as the bill rolled out late last month.
"Law enforcement reports that drug dealers frequently combine drugs with chocolate or fruit flavors or package the drugs to look like candy or soda to attract youth," the senators claimed in a joint statement. "For example, there are reports of candy bracelets containing ecstasy; gummy bears laced with Xanax; and candy laced with THC."
"Cynical criminals take advantage of drug trends in the general population to market dangerous illicit drugs specifically to kids," Grassley added in a separate press release. "It could be marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine or something else. The criminals are innovative, and the law should keep up with them. Federal law should make crystal clear that marketing potentially lethal drugs to kids will have steep consequences."
The problem for Feinstein and Grassley, who have unsuccessfully filed the bill three times before, is that the crisis they wish to solve largely doesn't exist. The first time around, they were inspired by media reports of strawberry-flavored meth, but those have been roundly debunked as myths.
Some of their other claims are even more ludicrous. "Gummy bears laced with Xanax" seem only to be found on the furthest fringes of the web (a Reddit user subforum, to be precise) dedicated to bored drug hobbyists with too much time on their hands.
And the "candy bracelets containing ecstasy" claim appears to be based on a misreading of raver culture percolated through a concerned parents group.
"People (especially at Raves) have started wearing bracelets lined with ecstasy as opposed to the old candy bracelets kids used to wear," warned something called Careful Parents. "Much like the candy bracelets of old, people can eat the drug right off the bracelets. Google images of these bracelets for a better idea of what they look like and be on the lookout if your kids like to go to Raves."
But that warning was based on a 10-year-old story about rave culture in the Seattle Times -- a story that indeed mentioned bracelets and ecstasy and "candy kisses" (the sharing of beaded bracelets), but did not claim that the bracelets were made of ecstasy. The wearing of colorful bracelets is part of rave culture, but ecstasy bracelets are a myth based on misunderstanding.
The idea of drug dealers peddling candy-flavored drugs to kids may be an old bugaboo, but it just doesn't make much economic sense, said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"Those are not popular commodities to sell to children," he told ATTN:. "Why risk already severe penalties for some kid's lunch money?"
"This reminds me of the horror stories that you hear every Halloween -- where you have people handing out these infused products to children," Daniel Shortt, an attorney who focuses on cannabis law at the firm Harris Bricken, told ATTN:. "There's really no data supporting that that happens."
While candy-flavored meth or ecstasy bracelets are mythical, marijuana edibles and beverages are not. They are sold legally under state laws in medical and adult legal marijuana states, but the text of the bill could certainly be interpreted as aiming at them as well. It specifies that it would apply to people who sell federally illegal drugs to minors that are:Combined with a beverage or candy product,Marketed or packaged to appear similar to a beverage or candy product, or
Modified by flavoring or coloring to appear similar to a candy or beverage product.
"That's broad," Shortt said. "I worry about how that could applied to marijuana-infused edibles."
Edibles are often infused in candies, cookies, and chocolates, as well as brightly packaged beverages. It's not strawberry-flavored meth dealers who are likely to be caught up if this bill ever passes -- since they don't exist -- but people selling pot brownies and the like, in the black market or in the legal pot shop, who sell to minors, either knowingly or inadvertently.
This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus flexed its muscles Thursday as members of Congress filed a package of bills aimed at creating a "path to marijuana reform" at the federal level and protecting and preserving marijuana laws in states where it is legal.
[image:1 align:left]Two Oregon politicians, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) led the charge, announcing a bipartisan package of three bills, including a marijuana legalization bill reintroduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), as well as a pair of bills aimed at cleaning up "collateral issues" such as taxes, regulation, banking, asset forfeiture, descheduling, research, and protection for individuals.
"The federal government must respect the decision Oregonians made at the polls and allow law-abiding marijuana businesses to go to the bank just like any other legal business," Wyden said in a statement. "This three-step approach will spur job growth and boost our economy all while ensuring the industry is being held to a fair standard."
The three bills in the package have not yet been assigned bill numbers, but are:
The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act (Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act) -- Remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act; impose an excise tax regime on marijuana products; allow for the permitting for marijuana businesses; and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.
The Small Business Tax Equity Act -- Create an exception to Internal Revenue Code section 280E that would allow businesses compliant with state laws to claim deductions and credits associated with the sale of marijuana. Currently, under 280E, people and businesses cannot claim deductions or credits for the sale of Schedule I or Schedule II substances. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is a cosponsor of Wyden's Senate bill and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, is sponsoring companion legislation in the House.
Responsibly Addressing the Marijuana Policy Gap Act -- Remove federal penalties and civil asset forfeiture for individuals and businesses complying with state law; ensure access to banking, bankruptcy protection, research and advertising; expunge the criminal records for certain marijuana-related offenses; end requirement for residents of marijuana-legal states to take a marijuana drug test for positions in the federal civil service; and ease barriers for medical marijuana research.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]The three-bill package is just the latest pot law reform effort in Congress this year. At least five other bills have already been filed, and lawmakers are also planning to reintroduce the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which blocked the Justice Department from funding enforcement efforts against state-legal medical marijuana programs, and the McClintock-Polis amendment, which would similarly block enforcement against state-legal adult use programs. That later amendment came up just eight votes short last year.
The moves come against a backdrop of increasing acceptance of marijuana and marijuana legalization. Twenty-nine states now allow marijuana for qualified patients and eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use. Public opinion polls now consistently show pot legalization with majority support; the latest came this week when the General Social Survey pegged support for legalization at 57% in 2016, up five points from just two years earlier.
Groups supporting marijuana legalization pronounced themselves pleased.
"The first time introduction of this particular piece of legislation in the US Senate is another sign that the growing public support for ending our failed war on cannabis consumers nationwide is continuing to translate into political support amongst federal officials," said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri, "With marijuana legalization being supported by 60% of all Americans while Congress' approval rating is in the low teens, ending our country's disastrous prohibition against marijuana would not just be good policy, but good politics."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"This is commonsense legislation that will eliminate the growing tension between federal and state marijuana laws," Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "Voters and legislatures are rolling back antiquated state marijuana prohibition policies, and it's time for Congress to step up at the federal level. States are adopting laws designed to improve public safety by replacing the illegal marijuana market with a tightly regulated system of production and sales. The federal government should be working to facilitate that transition, not hinder it."
"If we are truly going to move our nation towards sensible marijuana policies, the removal of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act is paramount. Annually, 600,000 Americans are arrested for nothing more than the possession of small amounts of marijuana and now is the time for Congress to once and for all end put an end to the national embarrassment that is cannabis prohibition," said Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director. "Passing this legislation would end the current conflict between state and federal laws and allow the states to implement more sensible and humane marijuana policies, free from the threat of federal incursion."
Not everybody was happy. Former White House drug policy advisor Kevin Sabet, who now heads the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told The Cannabist that more marijuana legalization would have negative consequences.
"While we don't want to see folks locked up or given criminal records for smoking pot, we support federal laws against marijuana," Sabet wrote in an e-mail. "We need to end, not expand the special interest big marijuana lobby. We can't ignore the fact that today's legalized marijuana -- and the accompanying industry -- is damaging to public health. States that have legalized marijuana continue to see a black market for the drug, increased rates of youth drug use, continued high rates of alcohol sales and interstate trafficking."
But Sabet's is an increasingly lonely voice in the wilderness.
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.