Pubdate: Thu, 15 Jan 2015
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2015 Rolling Stone
Author: Tim Dickinson


Leading at the Ballot Box From Alaska to Washington, D.C., Americans 
Are Charting a Path to a Saner National Drug Policy

The conservative wave of 2014 featured an unlikely, progressive 
undercurrent: In two states, plus the nation's capital, Americans 
voted convincingly to pull the plug on marijuana prohibition. Even 
more striking were the results in California, where voters 
overwhelmingly passed one of the broadest sentencing reforms in the 
nation, de-felonizing possession of hard drugs.

One week later, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD announced 
an end to arrests for marijuana possession. It's all part of the most 
significant story in American drug policy since the passage of the 
21st Amendment legalized alcohol in 1933: The people of this country 
are leading a dramatic de-escalation in the War on Drugs.

November's election results have teed up pot prohibition as a potent 
campaign issue for 2016. Notwithstanding the House GOP's contested 
effort to preserve pot prohibition in D.C., the flowering of the 
marijuana-legalization movement is creating space for a more rational 
and humane approach to adjudicating users of harder drugs, both on 
the state level and federally. "The door is open to reconsidering all 
of our drug laws," says Alison Holcomb, who led the pot-legalization 
push in Washington state in 2012, and has been tapped to direct the 
ACLU's new campaign against mass incarceration.

On the federal stage, the Justice Department continues to provide 
what Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, calls "a 
discreet form of leadership" on state experiments in drug reform 
giving tax-and-regulate marijuana laws broad latitude, and even 
declaring that Native American tribal governments can also experiment 
with marijuana law, opening a path for recreational pot on 
reservations in, potentially, dozens of states.

Congress, in the same legislation that sought to derail D.C. 
legalization, carved out historic protections from federal 
prosecution for state-legal medical-marijuana operations. And in 
November, in a signature reform for outgoing Attorney General Eric 
Holder, the Obama administration lightened prison sentences for 
federal drug offenders.

This reform, modest on its face, nonetheless marks a striking- 
departure from three decades of ever-harsher federal enforcement. For 
the first time since Ronald Reagan took office, the federal prison 
population is shrinking. "We are witnessing a historic sea change," 
Holder said in a speech this fall, "in the way our nation approaches 
these issues."

The trajectory of the citizen-led drawdown of the Drug War is 
clearest in California  where four years ago the pot-legalization 
movement's biggest stumble, ironically, helped clear a path for one 
of the anti-Drug War movement's most transformational successes this 
past November.

Pushing the envelope back in 2010, California activists qualified a 
ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.

At the time, Holder warned the Justice Department would "vigorously 
enforce" federal marijuana prohibition in California. Eager to 
pre-empt a constitutional crisis over fully legal weed, then-governor 
Arnold Schwarzenegger steered passage of a half-measure  an October 
2010 law decriminalizing marijuana use.

The Governator's gambit worked.

Decriminalization helped take the wind out of the sails of the 
legalization campaign, which failed at the ballot box. But having 
spurred the legislature to action, pot activists indirectly scored a 
huge victory for criminal and racial justice. Possession of up to an 
ounce of marijuana became an infraction, like a parking ticket, with 
a maximum $100 fine. And the California law applied to users of any 
age not just tokers 21 and over.

The impact of this tweak has been remarkable: By removing low-level 
youth pot offenses from the criminal-justice system, overall youth 
crime has plummeted by nearly 30 percent in California  to levels not 
seen since the Eisenhower administration. And decriminalization 
didn't lead to any of the harms foretold by prohibitionists. Quite 
the opposite: Since the law passed in 2010, the rate of both high 
school dropouts and youth drug overdoses are down by 20 percent, 
according to a new research report from the Center on Juvenile and 
Criminal Justice. Non--marijuana drug arrests for California youth, 
meanwhile, are also down 23 percent  fully debunking the gateway theory.

Decriminalization in California, the report concludes, has reduced 
the harms of prohibition for thousands of California teens. "Fewer 
young people," its authors write, "are suffering the damages and 
costs of criminal arrest, prosecution, incarceration, fines, loss of 
federal aid and other punishments." Perhaps most important, the 
Darren Wilsons of California have one less pretext to disrupt the 
lives of the state's Michael Browns.

In November  building on the success of decriminalization and on 
public disgust at the state's criminally overcrowded and ruinously 
expensive prison system  California voters took an even bolder leap 
with Proposition 47, which reduced possession of hard drugs including 
cocaine, heroin and meth from a felony to a misdemeanor. (Prop 47 
also de-felonized nonviolent theft of less than $950.)

In a year of record-low voter turnout, Prop 47 passed with 59 percent 
support, thanks in part to endorsements from nationally prominent 
Republicans like Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich. The new law is expected 
to affect 24,000 drug convictions a year. And the reduction in the 
ranks of the incarcerated will create savings, the state estimates, 
in the "low hundreds of millions of dollars annually." Innovatively, 
Prop 47 captures those savings and steers them into community 
programs. "This is the first voter initiative to literally take money 
out of the prison budget and put it into prevention and treatment," 
says Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety 
and Justice, which spearheaded the campaign for Proposition 47.

The new law also allows current convicts to petition to get their 
sentences-reduced retroactively. In the cases of some convicts under 
California's notorious "Three Strikes" laws, this will mean the 
difference between a continued life sentence and freedom. 
Additionally, as many as 1 million Californians will qualify to have 
felony records expunged  removing what Anderson calls the "Scarlet- 
F" from their chests  opening doors to fuller integration in society, 
with fewer obstacles to getting a job, finding an apartment or 
enrolling in public assistance.

"We're not only stopping overincarceration," Anderson says. "We're 
also going to clean up its legacy."

As California moves dramatically, the federal government is taking 
more modest steps to stem a tide that has swollen the number of 
federal inmates imprisoned for drug crimes by more than 2,000 percent 
since 1980. In 2013, 100,026 inmates  roughly the population of 
Boulder, Colorado  languished in federal prison for drug crimes, 
accounting for half the federal prison population.

Under federal law, sentences are doled out according to a complex 
formula in which a given quantity of a trafficked drug is punishable 
at one of 38 levels of increasing severity.

Under sentencing reforms that took effect in November, Holder's 
Justice Department has stepped down those sentences by two degrees.

Someone convicted for trafficking five grams of meth, for example, 
will now be sentenced at level 24 instead of 26  a maximum of 63 
months, instead of the previous 78  knocking more than a year off the sentence.

The Justice Department is also making these sentencing guidelines 
retroactive. Beginning in November 2015, more than 46,000 federal 
inmates can appeal to shorten their prison terms, with the average 
beneficiary receiving a two-year reduction.

The move is expected to save taxpayers more than $2 billion.

Federal drug sentencing remains draconian: Locking a person in a cage 
for five years for possessing five grams of an intoxicant is not a 
rational policy.

But the Holder reforms may signal that the flood of Drug War 
incarceration has reached its high-water mark. For the first time in 
34 years, the federal inmate population is falling, down 4,800 in the 
past year. By 2016, a drop of 12,200 is projected  equivalent to more 
than six federal prisons filled to capacity.

Holder, who will be leaving office upon the confirmation of his 
successor, views this as a legacy issue. "For far too long," he said 
in a September speech focused on the harms created by the Drug War, 
"our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, 
criminality and incarceration that has trapped countless people and 
weakened entire communities  particularly communities of 
color.?.?.?.?We are bringing about a paradigm shift."

In fact, the federal government is moving into political space 
created by voters, most recently in November's election.

Top drug reformers had been wary about putting marijuana initiatives 
on midterm election ballots  worried that younger, pot-friendly 
voters might stay home, dealing the anti-Drug War movement a costly 
setback. "The midterm electorate in 2014 represented a wave of 
anti-progressive, pro-conservative voters," says the ACLU's Holcomb. 
Voters under 30 comprised just 12 percent of the national electorate, 
while voters over 60  seniors are the one demographic that strongly 
opposes legalization  made up a whopping 37 percent.

Nonetheless, each legalization measure passed, easily.

In red-state Alaska, 53 percent endorsed legal pot. In Oregon, the 
tally was 56 percent  35,000 more votes than any statewide elected 
official received. In Washington, D.C., legalization romped with 65 
percent of the vote, carrying 142 out of the city's 143 precincts.

In substance and salesmanship, Alaska's pot proposal, Measure 2, was 
much like Colorado's  seeking to "regulate marijuana like alcohol." 
The campaign's backers led with a pot-is-safer message because 
alcoholism looms large as a destructive force in Alaskan life, 
particularly among the state's tribal populations.

Measure 2 faced opposition from political heavyweights like former 
Republican senator and governor Frank Murkowski. But the "no" 
campaign stumbled when a spokesperson conceded in a debate that pot 
is, indeed, less harmful than booze  a point the "yes" campaign 
seized on, plastering stickers reading our opponents agree! on 
billboards touting cannabis as safer than wine, beer or whiskey.

Beginning in mid-February, it will become legal for anyone over 21 to 
possess, transport or give away up to an ounce of pot in Alaska. 
Measure 2 expands the oversight powers of the Alcoholic Beverage 
Control Board to regulate marijuana from seed to store, but the law 
gives ample lead time to state authorities to license pot shops, and 
commercial sales aren't expected until mid-2016.

Pot in Alaska will be taxed at $50 an ounce, at the wholesale level, 
padding the state's general fund. By the time the market matures, 
Alaska expects to reap about $24 million a year in pot revenue.

In Oregon, meanwhile, taxation and regulation were marketed with a 
stronger criminal-justice bent. Proponents highlighted not only the 
wasted law enforcement resources of arresting and citing 12,000 
people a year for marijuana  a bust every 39 minutes  but also the 
racial inequities in a state where people of color make up less than 
a quarter of the population but are twice as likely to be arrested for pot.

"There are lots of good arguments for [pot] legalization," Says 
Burnett. "But the argument that enforcement is racially biased is undeniable."

Oregon's new law is more far-reaching-than other states, and 
Nadelmann has lauded it as "the new gold standard." Beginning in 
July, Oregon residents can legally possess up to eight ounces - 
that's right, half a pound - of marijuana.

Oregonians can grow at home; commercial sales will be overseen by the 
same state agency that regulates liquor sales, and retail outlets are 
expected to open in 2016. In an overture to more conservative 
communities in eastern Oregon, the measure also legalized hemp as a 
new cash crop.

Aiming to compete with the black market on price alone, taxes in 
Oregon will be significantly lower than across the Columbia River in 
Washington. That state taxes pot at 25 percent three different times 
at wholesale, at distribution and at retail.

Oregon will charge a single tax of $35 an ounce, levied on producers.

Forty percent of this new weed revenue goes to schools, 25 percent to 
abuse prevention and treatment, with the remaining 35 percent funding 
state, county and local law enforcement. Localities can vote to ban 
marijuana commerce, but at the cost of cutting themselves off from 
this new revenue stream.

The measure is expected to raise close to $40 million a year.

D.C.'s campaign took a strikingly different approach.

By law, the initiative process couldn't be used to create a new tax 
regime there. Without new revenues to tout, the capital's campaigners 
almost exclusively emphasized the racial disparities of marijuana 
enforcement, with the slogan "Legalization Ends Discrimination."

A 2013 ACLU report showed that D.C. was second only to Iowa in the 
racial disparity of marijuana enforcement  with blacks eight times 
more likely than whites to be arrested for pot; this in a city where 
blacks make up half the population. In March 2014, the D.C. city 
council responded by passing a sweeping decriminalization bill, 
making up to an ounce of pot punishable by just a $25 fine. But it 
quickly became apparent that, even so, racial bias persisted, with 
black residents accounting for nearly two-thirds of those cited.

"There are lots of good arguments for legalization," says Dr. Malik 
Burnett, a top organizer of D.C.'s legalization campaign. "You can 
argue that it's safer than alcohol, or that regulation helps keep it 
out of the hands of kids. But the argument that enforcement is racially biased?

That's undeniable!"

In no small irony, the greatest resistance to legalization was 
centered in the black community itself  where conservative elements, 
in particular churches, remained wary of condoning pot use. But 
working through African-American religious leaders and community 
groups, legalization campaigners swung support in the black community 
from just 33 percent in early polling to 63 percent at the ballot 
box. On Election Day, the racial and criminal-justice argument cut 
across color lines. "Both blacks and whites, when asked why they 
voted for the initiative, said the racial-justice argument was the 
number one reason they voted in favor," says Nadelmann.

In December, the House GOP attempted to block D.C.'s legalization 
through the appropriations process, denying funding to the district 
to "enact" marijuana legislation at odds with federal law. But 
anti-prohibition forces believe this legislative language still 
provides a path forward  on legalization that they argue was already 
enacted by voters.

The spending bill "does not block D.C. from 'carrying out' enacted 
marijuana policies," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s 
congresswoman. District lawmakers are now blocked from creating new 
laws to tax and regulate commercial pot, as they had intended. But it 
may yet become legal, in the coming months, to stroll down 
Pennsylvania Avenue with two ounces of marijuana in your pocket, or 
to grow up to six plants in an apartment a stone's throw from the 
drug czar's office.

Citizen-led criminal-justice reform is already having an effect 
outside of the states where voters put the issue on the ballot. 
California's de-felonization model is taking root in the West  even 
in deep-red strongholds. In the days after the November election, 
Utah unveiled a proposal to reclassify most drug-possession felonies 
as misdemeanors, and to try small-fry dealers, particularly those 
selling drugs to support their own habits, under lesser felonies. "We 
are not in any way going soft on crime," said state Rep. Eric 
Hutchings, a Republican member of the justice commission that 
recommended the reform. "We are going smart on crime."

And in New York, Mayor de Blasio has finally followed through on his 
campaign commitment to stop arresting residents for pot possession. 
Pilloried for statistics showing marijuana busts had actually 
increased under his tenure, de Blasio announced in November that 
public marijuana possession will now be punished with a court summons 
and a $100 fine.

That's a dramatic improvement in a city where 28,000 residents were 
arrested for weed last year  86 percent of them black or Hispanic 
wasting nearly $75 million in taxpayer funds to adjudicate. But top 
drug reformers warn that New York's system is far from fixed.

Unlike an open-container violation, a ticket for pot possession can't 
be resolved by paying a fine by mail. Violations require a court 
appearance  and historically, about 25 percent of residents don't 
show up for their court dates, resulting in a bench warrant for their arrest.

Worse, police do not collect racial data when issuing citations, 
making future disparities harder to track. "There's still a sneaky, 
insidious aspect to the de Blasio reform," says Nadelmann.

For opponents of the Drug War, prospects are bright for 2016. Any 
rational examination of the experiments in Washington and Colorado 
leads to one conclusion, says Holcomb of the ACLU: "The sky didn't 
fall." In Colorado, legal pot has brought in close to $19 million in 
tax revenue  and few other discernible changes.

Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron, the director of economic studies at 
the Cato Institute, released a working paper in October revealing 
that essentially none of the harms opponents claimed would accompany 
legalization have materialized. Even pot use itself in Colorado has 
hardly budged.

Assuming the rollout of commercial cannabis is similarly banal 
elsewhere, 2016, with its younger, more progressive electorate, could 
produce a wave of legalization victories.

The Marijuana Policy Project is targeting ballot measures in five 
states: California, Maine, Massachusetts, Arizona and Nevada. 
Nadelmann, whose Drug Policy Alliance provides funding and legal 
support for state initiatives, suggests that even Missouri could be 
on the table. "What I tell the activists is: Show me 55 percent in 
favor and a significant edge of those who feel strongly about this 
issue," he says, "and I'll look at any state."

The biggest story for 2016 is shaping up to be California - where 
full legalization of marijuana now has an air of destiny.

The state's next-generation leadership is already moving out in front 
of the issue. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has come out forcefully  "It's 
time to legalize, it's time to tax, it's time to regulate marijuana 
for adults in California," he has said  as a step toward ending the 
War on Drugs, which he describes as "a war on people of color, and a 
war on poor people." Even the state's Attorney General, Kamala 
Harris, admitted in November that she does not oppose pot 
legalization and sees it as "inevitable."

A successful legalization vote in California, advocates believe, 
would force a national reckoning on marijuana law  and a cultural 
tipping point similar to what we've seen in the acceptance of gay 
marriage. "When California goes in 2016, that will be the 
determinative moment," says Holcomb. "I don't think Congress can 
ignore the issue." In the December spending bill, Congress took the 
historic step of blocking the Justice Department from busting 
state-level medical-marijuana operations. Similar protections, 
Holcomb says, could be extended to state-legal commercial pot.

Legal weed on the West Coast, from Calexico to Kodiak Island, would 
also give cover to governments in states without ballot initiatives 
places like Rhode Island, Vermont and Hawaii  to begin passing 
tax-and-regulate through the normal legislative process.

California remains a challenge, in part because the current 
quasi-legality of pot robs the issue of urgency for some consumers, 
while the state's larger medical-marijuana business may fight reforms 
that would bring an influx of commercial competition. For longtime 
activists, the biggest danger is that a sense of inevitability  75 
percent of Americans believe weed will be legalized nationally  may 
translate to complacency. "One of my greatest challenges is to guard 
against overconfidence," says Nadelmann. "This is not yet a lock."

Democrats would do well to get as many states as possible on the 
legalization bandwagon.

This past November, marijuana provided a strong updraft for blue 
candidates: In Oregon, pro-pot voters went three-to-one in favor of 
incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who beat his Republican 
challenger  a charismatic pediatric neurosurgeon  with a comfortable 
56 percent of the vote. Merkley became the first senator to vote, 
himself, for legal marijuana, telling reporters his decision was 
based on justice reform: "We spend a lot of money on our 
criminal-justice system in the wrong places," he said.

In Alaska, the marijuana initiative appeared to give Democratic Sen. 
Mark Begich a fighting chance in what might otherwise have been a 
red-state rout. Pro-pot votes swung for Begich 71 to 29. He didn't 
win, but Begich kept the margin close enough that his concession 
speech didn't come until 13 days after election night.

The Alaskan waged a much closer battle than blue-state Senate 
candidates in places like North Carolina. Had pot been on the ballot 
in the Tar Heel State in 2014, Kay Hagan might still be a U.S. senator.

The issue of pot could prove more complicated on the presidential 
stage in 2016, where the big question, says Holcomb, is: "Will 
Democrats grab the issue as strongly as Rand Paul?"

Among likely 2016 contenders, of either party, the Kentucky senator 
is the most progressive on marijuana.

He's sponsored legislation to make medical marijuana fully legal in 
states that have adopted it. In the last election, Paul championed 
the right of D.C. voters to decide on legalization for themselves. 
Paul has also been a vocal advocate for decriminalization, decrying 
the practice of booking kids for cannabis. "I don't want to encourage 
people to do it," he has said. "I think even marijuana is a bad thing 
to do. But I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake."

If Paul were to face off in a contest with Hillary Clinton, pot could 
emerge as an unlikely wedge issue for the Republican  particularly in 
libertarian-leaning swing states like Arizona and Nevada, where 
legalization initiatives are expected.

That's because Clinton has continued to talk like a 1990s drug 
warrior, recently fretting over the dangers of marijuana edibles to 
children in Colorado, and even declaring that "the feds should be 
attuned to the way that marijuana is still used as a gateway drug."

The political logic here is not mysterious. White male independents 
those most open to a Paul candidacy  are firmly in the legalization 
camp. (In Oregon, this slice of the electorate voted 65 percent to 
tax and regulate.) Female voters, Clinton's base, are generally more hesitant.

A 2014 CBS poll found that majority support for legalization 
nationally had a strong gender gap, with just 46 percent of women 
saying they support commercial pot.

Regardless of the final presidential matchup, pot initiatives in 
battleground states will make it impossible for the 2016 candidates 
to ignore, or to simply laugh off, the marijuana issue as they've 
done so often in the past, says Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy 
group Marijuana Majority. "The road to the White House," he says, 
"travels through legal-marijuana territory."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom