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This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.
Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes -- and he's still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.
[image:1 align:left]Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.
Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts -- African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population -- and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.
In Bernard Noble's case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state's harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as "the bitch.") Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.
Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.
Taking into account Noble's minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.
"Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture."
It has also shattered Noble's family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother's house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He's been locked up ever since.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]But there's renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it's a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.
If Jindal's record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.
"This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker," said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. "He's been in there 44 months, and he's not even close to finishing his sentence. He's just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment."
Noble's sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.
The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses -- staffing and inmate care and programs -- as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.
Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn't happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.
Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.
"Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it's mostly black men fed into the prison system from there," said Cadore. "Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him."
Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.
[image:3 align:left]"What's rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community -- the black community," Dore pointed out. "We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that's black, and it has a gender, and that's mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier."
Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he's just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.
"If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state," said Cadore.
"We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We're in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do," she continued. "Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they're not paying attention or that they're not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?"
This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.
[image:1 align:left]As of midnight, it became legal to possess, grow, and consume small amounts of marijuana in the nation's capital. An initiative passed with the support of 70% of DC voters has now gone into effect.
Republicans' efforts to block the law have been to no avail. Congress passed a budget bill that blocked the District from spending money on easing marijuana laws -- and that has stopped the District council from moving forward with a bill to tax and regulate marijuana commerce -- but that came after voters had already approved the ballot measure, Initiative 71.
Though some Republicans have cried foul, DC interpreted that timing as meaning that the initiative would take effect. After the 30 legislative days Congress had to act to block the initiative ran out (after DC officially forwarded the November election result to Congress), Congress had 30 days to act to block the legalization it. It failed to do so, and the 30-day period ends today. Absent a court ruling to the contrary, the initiative is law.
District officials, from Mayor Muriel Bowser to Police Chief Cathy Lanier, have signaled that they intend to heed the will of the voters.
"DC residents spoke loud and clear," Bowser said at an event Tuesday with the council where she and other city leaders vowed to carry out the new law.
The city has even produced a Q & A pamphlet that seeks to clarify exactly what is and is not allowed under Initiative 71.
That is particularly useful because this is legalization with some caveats. Adults 21 and over can possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes, of which no more than three can be flowering. They can also give (but not sell) up to an ounce to other adults.
But there is no public consumption allowed, and there is no provision for taxed and regulated marijuana sales. There will be no legalized pot shops in DC -- at least for now -- although existing dispensaries will continue to operate to serve the medicinal market.
Anyone convicted of smoking or consuming marijuana in public faces a $500 fine and up to 60 days jail time. Selling marijuana carries a $1,000 fine and six months jail time. And any business that lets patrons use pot could lose its license.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]And the DC law doesn't apply on federal property. This is significant because 22% of the District is federal property. If you are caught with marijuana on the Mall or the Jefferson Memorial, for example, you can face federal marijuana charges.
DC now joins Alaska, Colorado, and Washington in having marijuana legalization in effect. In Oregon, where residents also voted to legalize it last November, the new law goes into effect on July 1.
"The sky isn't going to fall," predicted Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance national affairs office, which worked closely with the DC Cannabis Campaign, the group that sponsored Initiative 71. "But there will be some confusion about what this means. It's going to be very similar to other states that have legalized or are in the process. In those states, legalization went into effect and they didn't have tax and regulate for months, and there wasn't any chaos. There won't be any chaos here, either."
"I feel good," said long-time activist Adam Eidinger, the driving force behind Initiative 71. "I've stopped pinching myself."
Still, Eidinger said, he had nothing special planned to mark the day. "We'll plant some seeds, that's about it," he said.
He has certainly planted the seed of marijuana legalization in the nation's capital, but there is more to be done, he said, pointing to the huge racial imbalance in DC marijuana arrests. Blacks accounted for 91% of all marijuana arrests in the city and were arrested at a rate eight times that of whites.
Anger over the disparate enforcement of the pot laws was key to winning the initiative. Multiple civil rights, faith, and community advocacy groups campaigned for Initiative 71, seeing it as an opportunity to redress racial injustice.
"Marijuana has been effectively legal in the affluent and white parts of the District west of 16th Street for years," said Bill Piper, head of the Drug Policy Alliance's national office. "All Initiative 71 does is treat the black community the same way -- no arrests for minor marijuana violations."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]But without full legalization, Eidinger said, racially-biased enforcement will continue.
"Home cultivation and possession begin to address the racial justice end of this, but that will not be fully addressed until we have in-store sales," Eidinger said. "We will still have people selling marijuana illegally."
The experience has also reawakened the DC political gadfly's long-standing interest in home rule for the District.
"I've been very disturbed by the way Congress has been treating residents of the capital," he said. "The whole effort to overturn the initiative really opened my ears to how once and for all we have to have equal rights as a state. We're planning a big push for home rule in the spring. That would benefit marijuana, too."
But as earth-shaking as marijuana legalization in the shadow of the Capitol is, what is equally striking is the inability of Republican conservatives to stop it.
"The big story is not that DC legalized it," said Collins, "but that the Republicans couldn't stop this. They had 30 days to review this, they had the opportunity to hold a quick up and down vote, and they chose not to. The Republicans are split on this issue. A lot of them support marijuana reforms, and many more are not interested in being the anti-marijuana party."
"There is simply no organized, significant group of members of Congress willing to waste time fighting against marijuana legalization, an issue that has become extremely popular with voters everywhere," added Piper. "The Republican House voted five times last year to let states set their own marijuana policies. And the recent scandal over DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz shows that it is opposition to marijuana reform that is now politically toxic."
Now, the fight will turn to whether and how the District can move forward with taxation, regulation, and marijuana commerce. While some will be toking up in DC tonight, the battle is only half over.
This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.
Two congressmen from two states where marijuana is already legal under state law today filed two separate bills to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a bill that would allow states to legalize marijuana without fear of federal intervention, while Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill that would tax marijuana at the federal level, in addition to any state taxes. The bills were not yet available on congressional web sites as of this afternoon.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Polis's Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013) removes marijuana from the schedule set by the Controlled Substances Act; transitions marijuana oversight from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and regulates marijuana like alcohol by inserting language into the section of the US code governing "intoxicating liquors."
"Over the past year, Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana like alcohol takes money away from criminals and cartels, grows our economy, and keeps marijuana out of the hands of children," said Polis. "While President Obama and the Justice Department have allowed the will of voters in states like Colorado and 22 other jurisdictions to move forward, small business owners, medical marijuana patients, and others who follow state laws still live with the fear that a new administration -- or this one -- could reverse course and turn them into criminals. It is time for us to replace the failed prohibition with a regulatory system that works and let states and municipalities decide for themselves if they want, or don't want, to have legal marijuana within their borders."
Blumenauer's Marijuana Tax Revenue Act (HR 1014) would, after federal legalization, impose a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes as well as apply an occupational tax for marijuana businesses. The bill would establish civil and criminal penalties for those who fail to comply, like those in place for the tobacco industry.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]The bill also requires the IRS to produce periodic studies of the marijuana industry and to issue recommendations to Congress. It phases in an excise tax on the sale by a producer (generally the grower) to the next stage of production (generally the processor creating the useable product). This tax is initially set at 10% and rises over time to 25% as the legal market displaces the black market. Medical marijuana is exempt from this tax.
"It's time for the federal government to chart a new path forward for marijuana." said Blumenauer. "Together these bills create a federal framework to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, much like we treat alcohol and tobacco. The federal prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, wasting tax dollars and ruining countless lives. As more states move to legalize marijuana as Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska have done, it's imperative the federal government become a full partner in building a workable and safe framework."
The federal bills come as marijuana is increasingly accepted in the US. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans live in a state or jurisdiction that allows for some form of legal marijuana use. Four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use, while 23 others allow for medical marijuana. Eleven more states have passed laws allowing for the use of low-THC cannabis products to treat specified medical conditions.
By now, nearly half (46%) of all people 18 and over have tried marijuana at least once, and in the past few years, public opinion polls have consistently found support for legalization at or above 50%. But while states and localities have taken the lead in finding ways to accommodate legal marijuana, the federal government continues to not only criminalize marijuana, but to classify it as among the most dangerous illegal drugs.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]The Obama administration has taken a relatively laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana and legal marijuana in the states, but that is a matter of policy, not law. And as long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, policy can change with a new administration, or even if this one decides to take a different tack.
The congressional bills were met with approval by drug reform movement groups.
"As more state marijuana legalization laws come on board it's increasingly important for federal policy to catch up," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "The Obama administration's enforcement approach over the past few years has created some room for Colorado and Washington to implement their laws and show the world that legalization works. And we even saw the Republican-controlled Congress vote last year to stop the DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. Now it's time to fully and officially end the federal criminalization of marijuana so that states can move ahead with full certainty that the DEA won't be able to step in whenever the drug warriors that run the agency feel like it."
"Cops have better things to worry about than the recreational habits of responsible, nonviolent adults," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a former Maryland narcotics officer and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals opposed to the drug war. "And dispensary owners have better things to worry about than whether the federal government is going to arrest them and/or seize their assets for acting in accordance with state law."
"These bills would regulate and tax marijuana, taking cultivation and sales out of the underground market and allowing it to be controlled by legitimate businesses under the close watch of authorities. Marijuana would be grown in licensed facilities instead of national forests and basements in the suburbs. It would be sold in stores that create good jobs and generate tax revenue, instead of on the street where it benefits cartels and criminals," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.
"Congress has been ignoring our broken and outdated marijuana laws for decades," Riffle continued. "Their failure to let go of prohibition is causing serious problems for state governments and interfering in the lives of countless Americans. It's time for our federal representatives to come to grips with the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol and most people think it should be treated that way. Members who consider it unthinkable to return to alcohol prohibition need to ask themselves why they are clinging to the prohibition of a less harmful substance."
The bills are there. Now it's time to see whether Congress will act on them.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]During a series of YouTube interviews Thursday, President Obama demonstrated a remarkably laissez-faire attitude toward marijuana legalization experiments in the states. And he signaled strongly that the Obama administration wouldn't be taking to the hustings to try to beat back legalization efforts, as previous administrations had been wont to do.
"What you're seeing now is Colorado, Washington through state referenda, they're experimenting with legal marijuana," the president said in response to a question from YouTube host Hank Green. "The position of my administration has been that we still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance, but we're not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue. My suspicion is that you're gonna see other states start looking at this."
Indeed. Legalization bills are already popping up in state legislatures around the country, and while it's unlikely -- though not impossible -- that any of them will pass this year, 2016 looks to be the breakout year for freeing the weed. One state is going to be the first to legalize it through the legislature, and next year seems reasonable. And the presidential election year is also likely to see successful legalization initiatives in several more.
Currently four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have ended pot prohibition. But that's only about 18 million people. By the time they quit counting the votes on Election Day 2016, that number is likely to triple, and then some.
So, where's it going to happen? Here's where:
That California is the only state on the West Coast to not yet have legalized pot is an embarrassment to Golden State activists. They were first with medical marijuana in 1996, and they tried to be first to legalize it with Prop 19 in 2010, but came up short, garnering 46% of the vote on Election Day despite leading in the polls up until the final weeks. In 2012, with the big players sitting on their cash stashes, none of the competing initiative efforts even managed to make the ballot.
It will be different in 2016. The actors with deep pockets are all ready to get involved next year, the polling is good (if not great, hovering in the mid-50s), and the state's disparate and fractious cannabis community is already working to forge a unified front behind a community-vetted initiative. The main vehicle for activists is the California Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform, which has already started holding meetings statewide to try to a unified marijuana reform community.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]With 38 million people, California is the big prize. It's also an expensive place to run an initiative, with the cost of getting on the ballot alone at around a million dollars. And it'll take several million more to pay for advertising in the key final weeks of the campaign. But the money is lining up, it'll take fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot (thanks to the dismal turnout in last year's midterms), and once it qualifies, it will have momentum from (by then) four years of legalization in Colorado and Washington and two years of it in Alaska and Oregon. California will go green in 2016.
Nevada is the state that is actually furthest down the path towards legalizing it next year. The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada has already qualified a legalization initiative for the 2016 ballot. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults 21 and over and allow for taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.
Under Nevada law, the legislature now has a chance to approve the initiative. If it does so, it would become law; if it rejects it or fails to act on it, it then goes to the voters on Election Day 2016.
Nevadans approved medical marijuana in 1998 (59%) and again in 2000 (65%), but voted down decriminalization in 2002 (39%) and legalization in 2006 (44%). But it has since then effectively decriminalized possession of less than ounce, and it's now been a decade since that last legalization initiative loss at the polls. Either marijuana will be legal by Election Day 2016 thanks to the legislature or the voters will decide the question themselves at the polls.
In Arizona, possession of any amount of pot is still a felony, but polling in the last couple of years shows support for legalization either hovering around 50% or above it. Those aren't the most encouraging polling numbers -- the conventional wisdom is that initiatives want to start out at 60% support or better -- but a serious effort is underway there to put the issue before the voters in 2016.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is teaming with Safer Arizona and other state activist groups for the 2016 initiative campaign and has formed a ballot committee to begin laying the groundwork for a Colorado-style initiative.
The initiative language is not a done deal, and there are some signs that local activists aren't completely happy with MPP's proposed language, but that's why there are consultations going on.
The Marijuana Policy Project has been laying the groundwork for a statewide legalization initiative in 2016 with local initiative campaigns in some of the state's largest cities in 2014 and 2013 and is working on final initiative language now. But it is also seeing competition from a state-based group,Legalize Maine, that says it is crafting its own initiative and is criticizing both MPP and Maine politicians for advancing "out of state corporate interests" at the expense of Mainers.
Whether MPP and Legalize Maine can get together behind a single initiative remains to be seen. If they can, good; if they can't, well, Maine is a small and relatively inexpensive state in which to run a signature-gathering campaign. There could be not one, but two legalization initiatives in Maine next year.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Diane Russell has filed a legalization bill in the legislature this year. Maine is one of the states where the looming presence of legalization initiatives could actually move the legislature to act preemptively to craft a legalization scheme to its own liking.
Massachusetts is another. As in Maine, but to a much greater degree, Bay State activists have been laying the groundwork for legalization for years. Groups such as MassCann/NORML and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts have run a series of marijuana reform "public policy questions" in various state electoral districts each election cycle since 2000 -- and they have never lost! The questions are non-binding, but they're a clear indicator to state legislators where voter sentiment lies.
The state has also seen successful decriminalization and medical marijuana initiatives, in 2008 and 2012, respectively. In both cases, the initiatives were approved with 63% of the vote. And again as in Maine, the Marijuana Policy Project is organizing an initiative, but local activists with similar complaints to those in Maine are threatening to run their own initiative. Organized as Bay State Repeal, which includes some veteran Massachusetts activists, the group says it wants the least restrictive legalization law possible. Whether the two efforts can reach a common understanding remains to be seen.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Meanwhile, the issue could move in the legislature in the next two years. New Republican Gov. Charlie Baker says he's opposed to legalization, but is praising Democratic Senate President Stanley Rosenberg's decision to appoint a special Senate committee to examine issues around legalization. Rep. David Rogers (D-Cambridge) isn't waiting. He's filed a legalization bill, and while previous such bills have languished in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, incoming committee head Sen. Will Brownberger (D-Boston) has said he will give it a hearing. Something could happen this year, although it's more likely next year, and the voters doing it themselves on Election Day 2016 is more likely yet.
Vermont could be the best bet for a state to legalize it this year and for the first state to legalize it through the legislative process. There is no initiative process in the state, so that's the only way it's going to happen. And the state has already proceeded well down that path.
Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has endorsed legalization in principle -- the devil is the details -- and the legislature last year approved a RAND study on the impacts of legalization, which was just released earlier this month. That study estimated that freeing the weed could bring the state $20 to $70 million in annual pot tax revenues.
Other state officials have expressed openness to the idea, and a May 2014 poll found 57% support for legalization. There's not a bill in the hopper yet this year, but one could move quickly in this state where a lot of the legislative groundwork has already been laid.
The Marijuana Policy Project has formed the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana to help push the process along. Stay tuned; this is one to watch.
And there's a dark horse in the heartland. The Missouri activist group Show Me Cannabis has been running an impressive educational campaign about marijuana legalization for the past few years. The group tried to get an initiative on the ballot last year, but came up short.
They've already filed paperwork for 2016 for a constitutional amendment to make it legal to grow, sell, and use marijuana for people 21 and over.
One reason Show Me Cannabis came up short in 2014 was the lack of support from major players outside the state. Given the lack of polls showing strong support for legalization, the big players remain sitting on their wallets, but that could change if good poll numbers emerge. And there's still plenty of time to make the 2016 ballot.
This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Attorney General Eric Holder this morning issued an order that will bar federal agencies from participating in "adoptions" of assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies. "Adoptions" occur when state or local law enforcement agencies seize cash or properties under state laws, but then ask that a federal agency takes the seized property and forfeit it under federal law.
State and local law enforcement agencies routinely resort to "adoption" as a means of circumventing state laws that mandate seized assets go to designated programs, typically a state's general fund or education fund. When a seizure is "adopted" by the feds, the seizing agency gets to keep 80% of the proceeds, with the federal government getting the rest.
"With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons," Holder said in a statement. "This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program. Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately -- providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations. This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties."
While much asset forfeiture activity is related to drug cases, they are not included in the list of exceptions to the new policy barring "adoptions." Those public safety exceptions include firearms, ammunition, explosives, and materials related to child pornography.
The new policy does not impact asset forfeitures conducted by federal law enforcement, nor does it bar state and local law enforcement from conducting civil asset forfeiture under state law.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Under the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture "adoption" program, state and local law enforcement has made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property with a value of more than $3 billion since 2008.
Holder's move Friday is the boldest step to roll back sweeping police powers to seize goods and property since federal asset forfeiture began as tactic in the war on drugs in the 1980s. The Justice Department adopted the Equitable Sharing program in 1993.
Civil asset forfeiture -- the seizure of goods or property without having obtained a criminal conviction -- has come under increasing fire in recent years. Several asset forfeiture reform bills were filed in the last Congress, one has already been filed in the new Congress, and members from both parties are working jointly to draw up a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture.
The issue brought together libertarian-leaning groups like the Institute for Justice, which produced the highly critical study "Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture," and left-leaning groups like the ACLU to press for reforms. They met with congressional staffers to seek changes last fall.
Just last Friday, a bipartisan group of legislators including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) sent a letter to Holder calling on him to end the Equitable Sharing program.
Pressure mounted after a Washington Post investigative piece published in September found police had seized nearly $2.5 billion in cash from motorists without search warrants or indictments since September 11, 2001. In that investigation, the Post found that police routinely stopped drivers for minor traffic violations, then intimidated them into agreeing to warrantless searches and seized cash without evidence of criminal misconduct.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Holder's move is likely to exacerbate already strained relations between the Obama administration and law enforcement agencies. Police groups have expressed unhappiness with remarks both Holder and Obama made about controversial police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
And now, the administration is in effect taking money out of their pockets. More than 7,500 of the nation's 18,000 state and local police departments and joint task forces have participated in the Equitable Sharing program. And hundreds of departments and sheriff's offices have seizure proceeds accounting for more than 20% of their budgets.
The move will also hurt federal agencies that have been "adopting" the seizures, particularly the DEA and ICE. Federal law enforcement has pocketed $800 million under Equitable Sharing seizures without arrests or convictions since 2001.
This is the second major asset forfeiture reform at the federal level. Spurred by reports of abuses of asset forfeiture in the late 1990s, Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. That bill originally contained a provision "ending the sharing of seizure proceeds between local police and federal agencies," but it was removed in the face of fierce opposition from police and prosecutors.
Since 9/11, with calls by federal officials for state and local law enforcement to surveil the nation's highways looking not only for drugs, but now for terrorists, the program only expanded. It didn't help that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security paid out millions to private companies to teach police officers aggressive highway interdiction techniques emphasizing the importance of seizing cash.
The Equitable Sharing program and the aggressive interdiction techniques created what lawmakers a decade-and-a-half ago called "a perverse incentive" for police to concentrate more on seizing cash than seizing drugs. Now, Holder has butchered the cash cow.