By Steve Elliott
Lawmakers across the United States are turning to relaxing the marijuana laws as a winning issue in 2014, and Democratic candidates appear to be intent on owning the cannabis issue this year.
On Tuesday, Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Texas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all made statements supporting marijuana policy reform, reports Max Lockie at MSNBC. And in Florida, where incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Scott opposed a medical marijuana constitutional amendment but Democratic challenger Charlie Crist supports it, cannabis looms as a big factor in the race.
In Texas, Democratic candidate Wendy Davis came out in support of medical marijuana, as well as revealing openness to decriminalization in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. "I personally believe that marijuana should be allowed for," Davis said, adding she would support reducing penalties for marijuana possession.
By Steve Elliott
Banking institutions say that while reassurances from Attorney General Eric Holder are nice, they are going to need more than a nod and a wink before providing banking services to marijuana businesses in states where recreational or medical cannabis is legal.
Atty. Gen. Holder made headlines last week when he said the Obama Administration plans to allow banks to make loans to or open accounts for marijuana businesses in states where they are legal, report Kate Davidson and Kevin Cirilli at Politico.com. Marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law.
Financial firms face a complex maze of anti-money-laundering rules enforced by federal bank regulators, and violations can be very risky for banks which do business with companies which are breaking federal laws.
One major problem for bankers is that the Justice Department directive isn't binding; there have been past examples of federal prosecutors who disagree with DOJ guidance ignoring its directives. If the next administration is more conservative, all the banks catering to cannabis businesses could once again be subject to federal prosecution. If a U.S. Attorney files criminal charges against a bank, it could lose its charter and be forced to close.
All this means that the risks still outweigh the rewards for banks when it comes to accepting marijuana money.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions Cites Lady Gaga As Reason Not To Legalize
By Steve Elliott
Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Wednesday that recreational marijuana legalization doesn't mean that minors will be able to toke up.
"People cannot buy alcohol I guess now until you're age... age 21, but young people can find ways to get alcohol because adults can have access to it," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, reports Maya Rhodan at Time. "I'm not sure that we will see the same thing here given what we have said with regard to our enforcement priorities."
The legalization of cannabis by voters in Colorado and Washington in 2012, and the rollout of implementation of the new laws, has resulted in discussion of federal marijuana policies. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law and is considered a Schedule I controlled substance, the most stringently controlled class of drugs which also includes heroin and LSD.
Holder defended the Obama Administration's policy of allowing states to go forward with marijuana legalization laws while making sure it doesn't become available to minors or move across state lines. "The distribution of marijuana to minors will... will entail a very vigorous federal response," Holder said.
Policy Changes Will Protect Public Safety, Honor the Will of the Voters, and Help Small Businesses
Drug Policy Alliance: White House Appears to be Working in Good Faith with Colorado and Washington’s efforts to Regulate Marijuana in a Responsible Way
While speaking on Thursday at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama Administration will soon announce policy guidance that would make it easier for banks to deal with state-legalized marijuana businesses.
Twenty states and Washington D.C., have legalized marijuana for medical use; two of those states (Colorado and Washington) recently legalized marijuana like alcohol.
Many banks have been afraid to open checking or savings accounts for legalized marijuana businesses out of fear of breaking federal law. As a result, these businesses are forced to deal with large amounts of cash, creating public safety risks for employees, bystanders, and police officers.
"You don’t want just huge amounts of cash in these places. They want to be able to use the banking system," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "There’s a public safety component to this. Huge amounts of cash—substantial amounts of cash just kind of lying around with no place for it to be appropriately deposited is something that would worry me, just from a law enforcement perspective."
Federal prosecutors routinely threaten extraordinarily severe prison sentences to coerce drug defendants into waiving their right to trial and pleading guilty, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday. In the rare cases in which defendants insist on going to trial, prosecutors make good on their threats.
Federal drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch.
The 126-page report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” details how prosecutors throughout the United States extract guilty pleas from federal drug defendants by charging or threatening to charge them with offenses carrying harsh mandatory sentences and by seeking additional mandatory increases to those sentences. Prosecutors offer defendants a much lower sentence in exchange for pleading guilty.
Since drug defendants rarely prevail at trial, it is not surprising that 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty.
Holder: “We Will Never Prosecute or Incarcerate Our Way to Becoming a Safer Nation”; 1 in 100 Americans Behind Bars Inadvisable and Unsustainable, Financially and Morally
DPA's Ethan Nadelmann: Historic Significance of Holder’s Critique Cannot Be Denied
Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday offered the Obama Administration’s most forceful critique to date of U.S. mass incarceration policies, at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellín, Colombia. He also emphasized the Obama Administration's efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing policies.
“The path we are currently on is far from sustainable,” said Holder. “As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.
"Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners," Holder said. "While few would dispute the fact that incarceration has a role to play in any comprehensive public safety strategy, it’s become evident that such widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable.
"It requires that we routinely spend billions of dollars on prison construction – and tens of billions more, on an annual basis, to house those who are convicted of crimes," said the Attorney General. "It carries both human and moral costs that are too much to bear. And it results in far too many Americans serving too much time in too many prisons – and beyond the point of serving any good law enforcement reason.”
By Steve Elliott
Firing up a joint in the U.S. capital may soon get you in less trouble than a parking ticket.
Mayor Vincent Gray and 10 of 13 members of the D.C. Council have endorsed a plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana; this means cannabis possession would be a civil offense, rather than a criminal offense, reports The Washington Post.
Under the plan, recreational marijuana users won't face arrest, charges or jail, as long as they aren't caught with more than an ounce of pot. Instead, they would have to pay a fine, possibly as low as $25. The mayor also wants criminal penalties to remain in place for those caught smoking weed in public.
A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) suggests that D.C. and many other places enforce anti-marijuana laws in a racially discriminatory manner, arresting a disproportionate number of African American suspects.
The Washington Post endorsed decrim, saying "Enforcing criminal penalties against those who aren’t involved in trafficking or selling the drug would be too harsh and a waste of government resources."
Holder Orders Prosecutors to Remove Any Reference to Quantities Of Illicit Drugs that Trigger Mandatory Minimums And To Apply Provision to Pending Cases
Bipartisan Support Grows In Congress for Overhauling U.S. Drug Laws
Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Administration are continuing to push for reforms of draconian drug sentencing policies that have resulted in the U.S. federal prison population skyrocketing over the past three decades. The White House announced that they will curtail federal mandatory minimum drug laws by ordering prosecutors to remove any references to specific amounts of illegal drugs that trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
Holder also ordered prosecutors to refile charges against defendants in pending cases and to apply the new policy to defendants who are already in the system but have not yet been sentenced.
“I must say I’m impressed at the speed and specificity with which Mr. Holder has followed up on last month’s comments,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “This looks like a major good faith effort to reform federal drug sentencing laws as much as possible given the constraints of federal law and judicial prerogative over sentencing.”
Hearing Builds on Bipartisan Patrick Leahy/ Rand Paul Legislation and Attorney General Holder’s Recent Call for Federal Sentencing Reform
As Opposition to Mass Incarceration Builds, Mandatory Minimums Face Increased Scrutiny From Across Political Spectrum
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will hear testimony from four conservative witnesses who have concerns with the continued use of mandatory minimum sentencing, a costly and counterproductive cookie-cutter approach that binds a judge’s ability to apply a meaningful sentence that will address the offense and provide for public safety.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, mandatory minimums have significantly contributed to the overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons and drastic racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The BOP operates at nearly 140 percent of capacity -- one-fourth of the Justice Department’s budget.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder said there are too many people in prison and it is time for federal sentencing reform. In his remarks, Attorney General Holder encouraged a partnership between the legislative and executive branches to work to solve the issue.
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population -– but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population -– the U.S. leads the world in the incarceration of its own citizens.
By Steve Elliott
Both Washingtons could have legal marijuana soon -- both the state and the nation's capital. A member of the D.C. Council plans to introduce legislation next week that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Washington, D.C.
"If we're going to have alcohol legal in this country, I don't see any reason why we couldn't have marijuana legal," Councilman David Grosso said, reports Michael Walsh at the New York Daily News.
The bill would regulate and tax marijuana sales and create licensing requirements for the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, Grosso told Andrea Noble of The Washington Times. It would also reportedly make it legal for cannabis users to grow a small amount on their property.
Grosso thinks a few attempts might be necessary to get the legislation passed. "I'm not holding my breath this year, but I'm hoping to get the debate out there," he said.
Ten of the District's 13 council members already support a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean they support legalization.
Majority of Americans Now Support Legalizing and Regulating Marijuana like Alcohol
Senator John McCain: “I Respect the Will of the People”
By Steve Elliott
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, September 10, will hold the first-ever Senate hearing on the issue of marijuana legalization and the tension between state and federal marijuana laws.
Colorado and Washington last November became the first political jurisdictions in the world to approve the legal regulation of marijuana. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have also approved the medical use of marijuana.
The witnesses at Tuesday's hearing will include Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper, and the Honorable John Urquhart, Sheriff of King County in Seattle, an outspoken proponent of marijuana law reform.
Witnesses are expected to testify regarding the unnecessary challenges placed on regulators and law enforcers by lack of access to banking services and the resulting cash-based business structure.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET in the Hart Senate Office Building, Room 216.
On August 29, the Department of Justice issued a directive to federal prosecutors instructing them not to interfere with state marijuana laws – as long as a number of stipulations are adhered to, such as preventing distribution to minors.
By Steve Elliott
A huge pro-marijuana billboard now greets visitors to Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos, thanks to the Marijuana Policy Project.
MPP is continuing its strategy of advertising at our near popular American sports events with the billboard purchase just outside Sports Authority Field at Mile High, reports Dan Carson at Bleacher Report.
"Stop Driving Players To Drink," the billboard scolds the National Football League, referring to the NFL's policy of punishing players for smoking marijuana, but allowing alcohol use.
"NFL players are being told that they can go out and get completely drunk, but face no punishment from the leagues," MPP spokesman Mason Tvert said. "But if a player gets caught using marijuana, they could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, forced to sit out games and deemed a troublemaker."
MPP had attempted to air a promotional video at the Indianapolis Speedway in July during the Brickyard 400, but the ad was pulled before the race began.
MPP reportedly paid $5,000 for the ad space. The billboard is located one block west of the stadium.
Colorado voters, like those in Washington state, last November legalized marijuana for adults. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government won't interfere with the state laws legalizing cannabis -- at least not right now.
By Steve Elliott
It's no wonder that New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie has been foot-dragging for years when it comes to implementation of his state's medical marijuana law, signed by his Democratic predecessor Jon Corzine on Corzine's last day in office: He really hates cannabis.
While speaking to a crowd in Point Pleasant, N.J., on Thursday, Gov. Christie said the Obama Administration's decision to not legally challenge marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington was "a mistake" that essentially legalizes cannabis, reports Susan K. Livio at The Star-Ledger. Christie vowed that "will never happen" in New Jersey while he is governor. But something tells me Christie doesn't have to worry about a second term.
Christie was responding to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the Obama Administration would not challenge the decision by Colorado and Washington voters to legalize marijuana possession.
"Based on assurances that those states will impose an appropriately strict regulatory system, the Department is deferring its right to challenge the legalization laws at this time," the memo read. "Marijuana is and remains illegal under federal law."
Christie, a former U.S. Attorney, claimed Holder overstepped his authority.
Colorado and Washington to Establish Systems for State-Regulated Marijuana Retail Sales
By Steve Elliott
At a Thursday press briefing, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will allow Colorado and Washington to move forward with implementation of laws establishing state-regulated systems of marijuana production and distribution.
Attorney General Eric Holder told the governors of Washington and Colorado that the DoJ would "allow" the states to create a system of regulation implementing the ballot initiatives that legalized adult use of marijuana, reports Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post.
The directive will also apply to the 20 states that have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole also issued a three-and-a-half page memo to U.S. Attorneys.
"The Department's guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health and other law enforcement interests," Cole's memo reads. "A system adequate to that task must not only contain robust controls and procedures on paper; it must also be effective in practice."
The memo outlines eight priorities for federal prosecutors enforcing marijuana laws. According to the new guidance, DoJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:
• The distribution of cannabis to minors;
Attorney General Holder Invited to Hearing Scheduled for September 10
By Steve Elliott
Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT) on Monday invited Attorney General Eric Holder to a September 10 hearing to clarify the federal response to states that have passed marijuana laws in conflict with federal policy.
"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Monday, reports US News.
"I believe that these state laws should be respected," Leahy said. "At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and Colorado and Washington last year became the first places in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana for personal use.
Holder has been saying that an announcement clarifying the federal response to these new state laws would be coming “soon” since last year. In the meantime, the federal government has continued to crack down on medical marijuana providers, leaving states and local communities unsure how best to proceed.