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  • by Danielle Keane, NORML Associate February 12, 2016

    map_leafWe’ve got news from all levels of government this week! International, federal, state, and local law reform changes are all being considered. Keep reading below to see if any pending reforms would affect you or your community!

    International:

    Tim Faron, leader of one of Great Britain’s main political parties, called for the legalization of cannabis for recreational use this week. He also announced that his party would be imminently releasing a report making the case for a legalized market for sales. The Liberal Democrats leader said: “I personally believe the war on drugs is over. We must move from making this a legal issue to one of health. The prime minister used to agree with me on the need for drug reform. It’s time he rediscovered his backbone and made the case again.”

    Federal:

    Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote a letter this week to the head of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging the agency to research cannabis access as a potential mitigating factor in opioid abuse. Population data from states where medicinal cannabis is permitted report lower rates of opioid-abuse  and mortality as compared to those states where the plant is prohibited. Clinical data and case reports also indicate that the adjunctive use of cannabis may wean patients from opiates while successfully managing their pain. Survey data of state qualified medical cannabis patients indicate that subjects with access to the plant often substitute it for opioids because they perceive it to possess fewer adverse side effects.

    Also, Senate members this week introduced The Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act, or SUCCESS Act, which repeals language in the Higher Education Act that strips students of financial aid because of a past drug offense, and removes the drug conviction question from the FAFSA form. #TakeAction 

    State:

    California: The California Medical Association has officially endorsed the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, a pending statewide ballot initiative that seeks to legalize and regulate adult marijuana use and sales in the state. The California Medical Association represents more than 41,000 physician members statewide. Additionally, the NAACP California chapter has also endorsed the initiative.

    Illinois: Legislation, HB 6199, is pending in the General Assembly to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the definition of ‘debilitating medical condition’ and to allow state-registered medical cannabis patients to retain gun ownership rights. #TakeActioncannabis_pills

    Mississippi: Senate legislation was introduced this week to permit qualified patients to legally possess and cultivate cannabis. Senate Bill 2358 permits patients with a “debilitating medical condition” to engage in marijuana therapy in accordance with a physician’s recommendation. The measure also reschedules marijuana under state law. #TakeAction

    New Mexico: Legislation opposed by NORML, HB 195 has narrowly passed the House of Representatives. The bill would prohibit workers compensation insurers from reimbursing employees who qualify for medical cannabis access for injuries sustained on the job. The measure now awaits Senate action. Please contact your Senate member today and urge him or her to vote ‘no’ on HB 195 and/or its companion measure SB 245. #TakeAction

    New Jersey: Legislation was introduced this week to end workplace discrimination against medical marijuana patients. Assembly Bill 2482, if enacted, would halt employers from taking adverse employment actions against authorized medical marijuana patients who engage in the plant’s use during their off-hours. #TakeAction

    Pennsylvania: A local decriminalization ordinance is being considered by the Harrisburg City Council. The council’s public safety committee plans to hold a public hearing on the matter in the coming weeks. If you live in Harrisburg, contact your City Council member and urge their support for this measure! We’ll keep you updated as this measure moves forward.

    Vermont: Members of the Senate are anticipated to decide imminently on legislation to regulate the adult use, production, and sale of cannabis. Media reports indicate that the floor vote could come the week of February 16. The vote is expected to be a close one; therefore, we are urging supporters to contact their Senate members over the coming days and to urge them to vote ‘yes’ for Senate Bill 241. If approved by the Senate, the bill will face further debate in the House. #TakeActionlegalization_poll

    Virginia: Senate lawmakers have approved legislation, Senate Bill 327, to amend state law so that first time, minor marijuana offenders no longer face the loss of their driver’s license. Under existing law, marijuana possession offenses may be punishable by the loss of driving privileges, even in cases where the offense did not take place in a motor vehicle. Passage of SB 327 would end this practice. #TakeAction

    Washington D.C.: Members of the D.C. Counsel this week approved a measure that would prohibit potential employers in the District from testing applicants for marijuana until after they’ve made a conditional job offer. Councilmember Vincent Orange, who sponsored the measure said, “District residents shouldn’t have to worry about lost job opportunities just because they’ve smoked pot, especially now that the city has voted to legalize marijuana possession.” The measure is still under congressional review.

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director May 10, 2011

    [Editor’s note: Kellen’s brief review of a new organization dedicated to bringing attention to the numerous life sentences in America for cannabis-only related offenses is apropos as a 35-year-old father of a young child was sentenced in Louisiana Thursday for life in a cannabis possession case (the life sentence was triggered by the state’s controversial ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mandatory minimum sentences).

    Regrettably, and discernibly, the greater south of the United States is the hotbed for these kind of insanely long prison sentences for supposedly criminal acts that many citizens in fact no longer believe are crimes whatsoever.

    A new interactive map from the Sentencing Project aptly demonstrates that deep southern states like Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas have the highest prison incarceration rates not only in America, but the world.]

    By Kellen Russoniello, George Washington Law School student, NORML legal intern

    To many of us, the idea of anyone spending life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana offense is absolutely ridiculous. Yet with the recent passage of a bill in the Oklahoma State Legislature making the manufacture of hash punishable by life imprisonment, it is clear that life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenders do exist.  In fact, a new website is drawing attention to this issue and has identified several people who are currently serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

    LifeforPot.com focuses on finding individuals who have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for federal nonviolent marijuana only offenses.  Beth Curtis, the founder of the website, has identified eight people, each with a unique background and story of how they came to spend the rest of their lives in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses.

    Beth is very familiar with the subject: the first individual listed is John Knock, her brother. Since 2000, John has been serving two life sentences plus twenty years for his connection to a conspiracy to import multiple tons of marijuana and hashish from Pakistan and Lebanon into the United States and Canada, a sentence that Beth believes is the harshest ever for nonviolent marijuana crimes. When she talked to others about the severity of her brother’s sentence, she realized that people believed that nonviolent marijuana offenders could not receive such draconian sentences.

    Despite having retired and living in Hawaii when law enforcement came knocking on John’s door he was extradited to Florida—a state that he’d never lived in or committed a crime. Instead, John was drawn into a sting operation because of his contacts with a San Francisco area smuggler who had been indicted. However, John was never seen by law enforcement committing any of the crimes he was convicted of, he was never found in possession of marijuana, and his prosecution rested only upon the testimony of informants. Criminal defense lawyers describe his as a ‘dry case’, and the full story is available at johnknock.com and grandmasmind.com

    But how extraordinary is this sentence? Life for Pot lists some of the most famous drug kingpins and the sentences that they received, and it seems that John’s sentence was given special treatment. For example, “Freeway” Ricky Ross, the preeminent crack dealer of the Los Angeles area during the 1980s and early 90s was sentenced to life in 1996. His sentence was subsequently reduced to 20 years, and he was released in 2009. Manuel Felipe Salazar-Espinosa, deemed by the DEA to be one of the world’s most significant drug kingpins making up to $14 million in a week, was given 30 years for conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States and money laundering.

    It is clear that there are differences in the sentencing of these individuals. Life for Pot seeks to identify and make others aware of these discrepancies. Beth notes that the creation of mandatory minimums at the federal level has resulted in the increase in power of the prosecutor to decide the sentence by choosing which charges to pursue. She specifically points out that the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, has given 6 of the 8 life sentences identified for nonviolent marijuana only offenses.

    So where does this effort go from here? Although Beth has already received some feedback from politicians, attorneys, activists, and journalists, she hopes to start an organization focused on this issue soon. In order to do this, she explains that she will need advisers to help out, as well as a strong coalition. The roots of this coalition have already begun to take hold, with organizations like the November Coalition, Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums providing support, as well as media attention from a Columbia, Missouri NPR affiliate and High Times Magazine.

    Beth would also like to broaden the focus by included those serving de facto life sentences for nonviolent marijuana only offenses, including where older individuals are sentenced to long sentences (e.g., a 50 year old sentenced to 20 years).

    State sentences are another area that Beth would like to examine. Sentence reform efforts can be very successful at the state level. In order to do this, however, more resources must be available.

    A group petition for clemency is also in the works for those prisoners that have been identified as part of this effort.

    “The solution is political,” Beth declared. Legislative action is the best way to address the problem of egregious sentencing disparities. An organization focused on this issue would therefore be heavily focused on reaching legislators. So far, Life for Pot has sent out several cards and letters to federal congressmen and agencies. Beth also noted that advocacy efforts for the legalization of marijuana at the national level must be bolstered.

    In these times where some jurisdictions are locking up nonviolent marijuana offenders for life, it is good to hear that someone is bringing the inconsistency and irrationality of these practices to light.

    If you know someone that is currently serving a federal life sentence without parole for a nonviolent marijuana only offense, or would be able to assist Beth in her efforts, please contact her at johnknock@johnknock.com.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director December 14, 2010

    [UPDATE! I have a revised version of this blog post online now on The Hill.com’s Congress blog. This is the website where Washington DC insiders go to blog. Click here to read my op/ed, and when you are done please leave a polite comment for the Drug Czar.]

    Since 1975 the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has been tracking students self-reported use of cannabis and other intoxicants, and every year their use of these substances trends either up or down from the prior survey. Predictably, when self-reported use goes down, drug war lackeys like Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske claim that drug prohibition is working. Conversely, when use trends upward — as it did this past year — drug warriors respond by pointing the blame at everyone else.

    White House Drug Czar: Teen Marijuana Use on the Rise
    via ABC News

    Teenagers are beginning to think of marijuana as medicine, and more and more young people are toking up as a result, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske argues upon the release of a major survey on teenage drug use.

    The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey queried 50,000 eighth, 10th and 12th graders about their use of, and attitudes toward, illicit drugs.

    The Office of National Drug Control Policy survey found that daily pot use among high school seniors is at 6.1 percent, its highest point since the early 1980s. In the past month, 21.4 percent of 12th graders said they had used marijuana, continuing an upward tick that began in the middle of the decade. Monthly, more seniors now smoke pot than cigarettes, a phenomenon not seen in nearly three decades.

    It’s the decreasing perception of the harm of marijuana that is leading to increased pot use, according to the drug czar.

    “If young people don’t really perceive that [marijuana] is dangerous or of any concern, it usually means there’ll be an uptick in the number of kids who are using. And sure enough, in 2009, that’s exactly what we did see,” Kerlikowske told ABC News Radio.

    “We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine,” the former Seattle police chief argued. “So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”

    On the other hand, he said, a broad understanding of the harms of tobacco and alcohol has led to lower cigarette smoking and binge drinking in teens. Regular cigarette smoking continues its decline, and binge drinking (five or more drinks at one sitting) among high school seniors is down from 25.2 percent to 23.2 percent. Tougher enforcement has also contributed to these declines, Kerlikowske said.

    “We know that through education and enforcement, something can be done. But I think we should also be very concerned about these marijuana numbers, particularly among these very young people,” Kerlikowske said.

    Okay, let me get this straight: California enacted legislation legalizing the physician-supervised use of medical marijuana in 1996 — some fourteen years ago — thus kicking off the national debate that is still taking place today. Between 1996 and 2005, nine additional states enacted similar laws (Alaska, 1999; Colorado, 2000; Hawaii, 2000; Maine, 1999; Montana, 2004; Nevada, 2000; Oregon, 1998; Vermont, 2004; Washington, 1998). Yet, the Drug Czar claims to the national media that this discussion has only been taking place in earnest for “the past couple years”?! Does he really think the public is that stupid?!

    Further, the Czar is well aware that throughout this period of time, youth-reported use of marijuana declined across the nation — including in the very same states that enacted medical cannabis access. NORML Advisory Board member Mitch Earleywine co-authored a comprehensive review of this data here, concluding: “More than a decade after the passage of the nation’s first state medical marijuana law, California’s Prop. 215, a considerable body of data shows that no state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an increase in youth marijuana use since its law’s enactment. All states have reported overall decreases – exceeding 50% in some age groups – strongly suggesting that the enactment of state medical marijuana laws does not increase marijuana use.”

    Investigators at the Texas A&M Health Science Center also assessed whether the passage of medical cannabis laws encourages greater recreational use. They too found, definitively, that it does not. “Our results indicate that the introduction of medical cannabis laws was not associated with an increase in cannabis use among either arrestees or emergency department patients in cities and metropolitan areas located in four states in the USA (California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington). … Consistent with other studies of the liberalization of cannabis laws, medical cannabis laws do not appear to increase use of the drug.

    As this government map (Marijuana Use in Past Year among Persons Age 12 or Older) so keenly illustrates, marijuana use rates as a percentage of the overall population vary only slightly among states, despite states having remarkably varying degrees of marijuana enforcement and punishments. In fact, several states with the most lenient laws regarding marijuana possession — such as Nebraska (possession of up to one ounce is a civil citation) and Mississippi (possession of up to 30 grams is a summons) — report having some of the lowest rates of marijuana use, while several states that maintain strict penalties for personal users (e.g., Rhode Island) report comparatively high levels of use. The Drug Czar is aware of this of course, yet he is forbidden by his office from ever acknowledging it publicly.

    But wait, it gets even sillier. One statistic gleaned from the Monitoring the Future study that was not emphasized by the Drug Czar (for obvious reasons) was that more than eight out of ten 12th graders report that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to geta percentage that has remained constant for three and a half decades! So much for the notion that criminal prohibition is limiting youth marijuana access. It never has and it never will. On the other hand, Kerlikwoske concedes that the legalization, regulation, and the imposition of age restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes is associated with a reduction in teens use of those drugs. Nevertheless, the Czar irrationally brags that, when it comes to cannabis, those words are not even in his vocabulary. Seriously.

    Finally, as to the Czar’s notion that teens are ‘misperceiving’ (a term that was apparently made up by Kerlikowske) the harms of marijuana compared to cigarettes and alcohol, let’s get real. Cigarette smoke is far more dangerous to humans than cannabis smoke, the latter of which has been shown to have an inverse relationship with incidences of certain types of cancer, even when consumed long-term. Further, unlike alcohol, marijuana is incapable of causing lethal overdose, is relatively nontoxic to healthy cells and organs, and its use is not typically associated with violent, aggressive, or reckless behavior. That’s why, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, fewer than one in five Americans nationwide now believe that consuming marijuana is more dangerous than drinking alcohol, and by a nearly two-to-one majority, respondents agree that marijuana is far less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. In short, the public has gotten it right even though their government keeps getting it wrong.

    As for the Drug Czar and his mindless rhetoric, never forget the words of novelist Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In reality, Kerlikowske is not nearly as stupid as his sound bytes imply; he just assumes that you are.

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director November 15, 2009

    At a time of heightened national security post-911, a near-depression economy and state government budgets bleeding red coast to coast, what is the moral and economic imperative that compels some in law enforcement to seek lifetime sentences for small-time cannabis growers?

    Again, cannabis consumers and activists should never shrink back from prohibitionist (and some in the media) arguments that “no one gets arrested for cannabis in the US (it’s practically legal!)” when over 755,000 cannabis consumers are busted annually for simple possession (94,000 others were charged with cultivation, distribution or conspiracy therein).

    Even more so when there are outrageous claims made that ‘no goes to jail or prison for pot’.

    Unfortunately for a Jackson Mississippi man named Ronald Sekul, he can attest to how wrong these false claims are as he stares down a lifetime sentence for cultivating 51 cannabis plants.

    Man could get life in pot bust, Jackson resident was growing 51 plants, officials say
    A 33-year-old Jackson man accused of growing marijuana in his apartment could get up to life in prison if convicted.

    In the case of Ronald Christopher Sekul, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics intends to ask prosecutors to apply a law called the “kingpin” statute, MBN Director Marshall Fisher said.

    The statute can be applied to Sekul’s case because he allegedly had a drug operation for longer than 12 consecutive months and had more than 10 pounds of marijuana, Fisher said.

    Sekul was arrested Wednesday for allegedly growing 4-foot marijuana plants in the back bedroom of the fourplex he lives in at 1510 Myrtle St., according to MBN.

    He is out of jail on $50,000 bond.

    Read the entire article here.

    Think about, life in prison for cultivating one of the most popular agricultural products in America–arguably the number one commercially cultivated commodity in the country. Think about the annual expense incurred by the taxpayers of Mississippi for the incarceration of Mr. Sekul: $22,000-30,000 a year; think about the total cost to the taxpayers if Mr. Sekul spends 10 years in prison (approx. $275,000), 20 years (approx. $600,000) or 30 years (approx. $1 million).

    Rather than tax and actually control cannabis like more dangerous and addictive government-sanctioned drugs like tobacco and alcohol products, is it not remarkable beyond words that the state and federal governments still engages both massive number of annual cannabis-related arrests and the incarceration annually nationwide of an estimated 45,000-65,000 cannabis-only offenders, while still not achieving any of the stated goals of prohibition (view a comprehensive NORML report analyzing cannabis arrests in the US here, read page 45 to see where none of the government’s stated goals are achieved).

    Feds Are The Ones Still Stirring Pot With Taxpayers’ Money

    However, there is a potential policy silver-lining to buttress the expense to the taxpayers and tragedy of what our society is trying to do Mr. Sekul and that is that President Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, can stop these kinds of foolish and expensive incarcerations for cannabis by de-funding the federal grants provided to local law enforcement and their ‘multi-jursidictional anti-drug task forces’, like JET, the Jackson Enforcement Team, which boasts of Mr. Sekul’s arrest.

    How many fewer Americans would be arrested annually if the federal government didn’t fund local arrests?

    Exactly how many taxpayer dollars could be saved if the expense and trouble of local cannabis arrests were not subsidized by the feds?

  • by Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director May 14, 2008

    Actor, TV’s ‘Price is Right’ host and libertarian activist Drew Carey casts some anti-septic light in the direction of a drug prohibition-related case for ReasonTV that features a father protecting his daughter, our country’s drug war-fueled criminal justice system and the death penalty.

    aiphp.jpeg

    I first read about this troubling case from Mississippi in the war on some drugs in 2006 in a column written by Reason editor Radley Balko.

    Read and watch more here.