Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization

As reported in this local article, "Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Colorado’s legalization of marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution."  Here is more on the latest fascinating development in the world of marijuana reform law and policy:

At a press conference Thursday, Bruning said he was being joined in the case by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles."

Bruning said he placed a courtesy call to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before filing the lawsuit. Suthers said in a news release he was not “entirely surprised” to learn of the lawsuit. “We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Some Nebraska law enforcement officers undoubtedly will welcome Thursday’s action. Anticipating that the attorney general planned to announce a lawsuit, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday he supports the move. "This stuff is illegal here, it’s coming here and it’s had an adverse effect on our citizens and way of life," Overman said. "Nebraska, from highest elected officials on down, should do something about it."...

He blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for not enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado. "I am adamantly against the spread of marijuana across our country," Bruning said. He said he talked recently with a father who said marijuana was a "gateway drug" for his teen.

Colorado’s legalization of pot use has had a significant impact on Nebraska law enforcement agencies. Many departments, particularly in western Nebraska counties along Interstate 80, have seen spikes in their marijuana-related arrests tied to legally purchased pot that transforms into contraband once it crosses the border. At the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, authorities regularly apprehend travelers coming from southeast Colorado with marijuana.

During a September hearing on the issue in Ogallala, Nebraska, a panel of lawmakers heard law enforcement authorities express concern about the flow of high-potency pot into Nebraska and increasing numbers of impaired drivers and possession by teens as young as 14. "Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost," Bruning said Thursday. "We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem."

Via the Denver Postthe 83-page SCOTUS filing can be found at this link.

December 18, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Stigma Dilution, Over-Criminalization, and Some Additional Reasons to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession and Consumption Offenses"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Murat Mungan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminalizing an act that provides weak signals about a person's productivity and character can dilute the stigma attached to having a criminal record.  This reduces the deterrence of serious crimes that do provide strong signals regarding the offender's character.  Over-criminalization occurs when the costs associated with reduced deterrence due to stigma dilution off-set potential benefits associated with criminalizing the less harmful act.

Identifying and analyzing the factors that affect the likelihood of over-criminalization reveal that the penalization of marijuana possession and consumption most likely constitutes over-criminalization.  The normative desirability of various practices in criminal law (e.g. the felony murder rule, conspiracy liabilities, scienters, mens rea requirements, expungements) are also discussed vis-à-vis their impacts on stigma dilution.

December 8, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new reporting about marijuana banking issues and developments in Colorado

Friday, November 28, 2014

Can we effectively quantify the benefits (and any costs) of reduction in marijuana arrests?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Reason commentary by Jacob Sullum, which is headlined "A Cannabis Crackdown Contracts: After rising dramatically, marijuana arrests are falling and the trend seems likely to continue."   Here are some data and context from the piece: 

In 1992, when Americans elected a president who said he had smoked pot without inhaling, the number of marijuana arrests in the United States began a steep climb.  It peaked in 2007, during the administration of a president who refused to say whether he had smoked pot because he worried about setting a bad example for the youth of America.  Since 2009, when a president who "inhaled frequently" because "that was the point" took office, the number of marijuana arrests has fallen steadily — a trend that continued last year, according to FBI numbers released this month.

It's not clear exactly why pot busts exploded during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, when the annual total rose from fewer than 288,000 to almost 873,000 — a 200 percent increase.  There does not seem to be any consistent relationship between the level of marijuana consumption and the number of arrests, the vast majority of which (nearly nine out of 10 last year) involved simple possession rather than cultivation or distribution. Judging from survey data on marijuana use, arrests did not rise in response to increased consumption; nor did the cannabis crackdown have a noticeable deterrent effect.  The risk of arrest for any given pot smoker rose substantially between 1991 and 2007 but remained small.

In 1991, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), about 15 million Americans smoked pot.  That year there were about 288,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 52 cannabis consumers.  In 2007, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (successor to the NHSDA), about 25 million Americans smoked pot.  That year there were about 873,000 marijuana arrests, one for every 29 cannabis consumers.

Although the overall risk of arrest is small, it is decidedly higher for blacks and Latinos. In 2010, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, blacks were nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though survey data indicated they were no more likely to smoke pot.  In some jurisdictions the black-to-white risk ratio was even higher.  It was 8 to 1 in the District of Columbia, which helps explain the dramatic turnaround in black Washingtonians' opinions about marijuana legalization.

The good news is that the downward trend in marijuana arrests since 2009 seems likely to continue, helped along by the spread of decriminalization and legalization.  In recent years California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Washington have changed their marijuana laws so that people caught with small amounts are no longer arrested.  That change has eliminated tens of thousands of marijuana arrests each year — more than 50,000 in California alone. Under ballot initiatives approved this month, Alaska and Washington, D.C., will eliminate all penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. (Possessing up to an ounce was already a citable offense in Oregon, where voters also approved marijuana legalization this month.)...

Even in New York City, where the cannabis crackdown has been especially noticeable, police are arresting fewer pot smokers, a trend that is likely to accelerate as a result of a policy change that took effect last week.  Low-level marijuana possession arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD) skyrocketed from about 3,000 in 1994, when Rudolph Giuliani took office as mayor, to more than 51,000 six years later.  The crackdown continued during Michael Bloomberg's administration, when the NYPD arrested an average of nearly 39,000 pot smokers each year, compared to 24,487 under Giuliani, 982 under David Dinkins, and 2,259 under Ed Koch, according to data gathered by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine.

As the question in the title of this post highlights, I am eager to attach some kind of benefit (and perhaps cost) metric to these data about reduced arrest. In the context of incarceration changes, we know each prison year served costs the government about $30,000 taxpayer dollars (while also potentially preventing some criminal activity which is much harder to quantify). I am inclined to speculate that there must be $100 in administrative costs associated with formal arrests, which would mean that every 10,000 fewer marijuana arrests benefits taxpayers with about $1,000,000 in savings.

November 28, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New York City mayor announces new policy concerning marijuana enforcement

ImagesAs reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Concerns in Criminal Justice System as New York City Eases Marijuana Policy," the NYC's new mayor and old sherrif are bringing a new approach to marijuana enforcement to the Big Apple. Here are the basics:

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office promising to reform the Police Department and repair relations with black and Latino communities, on Monday unveiled his plan to change the way the police enforce the law on marijuana possession.

Arrests for low-level marijuana possession have had an especially harsh impact on minority communities, and under the change announced on Monday, people found with small amounts of marijuana will typically be given a ticket and cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.

The news, outlined by the mayor and his police commissioner, William J. Bratton, at Police Headquarters, marked the most significant criminal justice policy initiative by Mr. de Blasio since he was sworn in as mayor in January. While he stressed that he was not advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, Mr. de Blasio said the impact of enforcement on the people arrested and on the Police Department compelled him to rethink how the police handle low-level marijuana arrests.

“When an individual is arrested,” he said, “even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan. It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that, for many, are very difficult to overcome.”

For a Police Department that has devoted enormous resources to tens of thousands of marijuana arrests a year, the shift in strategy should, the mayor said, allow officers to focus on more serious types of crime by freeing up people who would otherwise be occupied by the administrative tasks lashed to minor marijuana arrests.

But the change, detailed in a five-page Police Department “operations order” that is set to go into effect on Nov. 19, immediately raised questions and concerns in many corners of the criminal justice system. It directs officers who encounter people with 25 grams or less of marijuana, in public view, to issue a noncriminal violation in most instances, rather than arrest them for a misdemeanor....

As they headed into a meeting with departmental leaders to hear about the new policy, some police union leaders said the changes seemed to run counter to the “broken windows” strategy of policing, long championed by Mr. Bratton as a way to prevent serious crime by cracking down on low-level offenses. “I just see it as another step in giving the streets back to the criminals,” said Michael J. Palladino, the head of the city’s Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union representing police detectives. “And we keep inching closer and closer to that.”...

At the news conference, Mr. Bratton said officers would still have to use discretion. If marijuana was being burned or smoked, an arrest would be made, he said. If offenders had an “active warrant,” or were wanted, or could not produce proper identification, they would be taken to the station house, he said. Officials said violations would not constitute a criminal record. They said court appearances, within weeks of the violation, could lead to a fine of up to $100 for a first offense....

Critics have said the police and prosecutors have been improperly charging people with possession of marijuana in public view, often after officers ask them to empty their pockets during street stops.

In 2011, Raymond W. Kelly, then the police commissioner, issued an order reminding officers to refrain from such arrest practices. Mr. Bratton said such practices were not now in use and the problem had been fixed. By now, the number of marijuana arrests has decreased, roughly mirroring the drastic reduction in the frequency of police stop, question and frisk encounters.

Of the 394,539 arrests made last year, marijuana arrests totaled slightly more than 28,000, or a little less than 10 percent of all arrests made in the city. That is down from 50,000 a few years ago.

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Some first thougts on the 2014 election results

Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia just voted to legalize recreational marijuana. In a sense, they broke no new ground -- Colorado and Washington already legalized recreational marijuana two years ago. But the passage of these measures is extraordinary in another sense: marijuana legalization no longer surprises anyone. Even the federal government, which continues to ban marijuana, seems unlikely to raise a fuss. Indeed, following similar votes in Colorado and Washington in 2012, the Department of Justice announced that it would refrain from prosecuting marijuana users and dealers who comply with state law, so long as they do not implicate a distinct federal interest (like stopping inter-state shipments of the drug).  As control of the Congress shifts to the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that the federal government will do anything but continue to sit on the sidelines for the next two years.

The votes on Tuesday are interesting for two other reasons as well. First, these votes arguably foretell how marijuana laws will evolve in the states over time. The four states and DC that were the first to legalize recreational marijuana were also among the first to legalize medical marijuana: Alaska, Oregon, and Washington legalized medical marijuana in 1998, Colorado did so in 2000, and DC first tried in 1999. This suggests that voters might be more comfortable taking the plunge (i.e., legalizing recreational marijuana) after dipping their toes in the pool first (i.e., legalizing medical marijuana). It also suggests that the next states to legalize recreational marijuana are likely to be ones with more mature medical marijuana programs, such as California (1996) and Maine (1999).

Second, the defeat of a medical marijuana initiative in Florida is as unsurprising as the passage of legalization elsewhere. The south has been resistant to marijuana reforms; it remains the only region of the country without a legalization state. To some extent, southern resistance might be due to public attitudes toward marijuana; but it also might stem from lawmaking procedures used in many southern (and some other states) that impede the adoption even of popular reforms. After all, over half (58%) of Florida voters actually supported legalization of medical marijuana; but that figure just was not enough to change state law – the constitutional initiative process requires 60% support, higher than the simple majority needed in many other states, like California. A vote to legalize marijuana elsewhere in the country might not be surprising anymore, but when it happens in the south it will be noteworthy.

November 5, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Initiative reforms in states, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Political perspective on reforms, Polling data and results, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Intriguing new research on criminal justice impact of distinct marijuana reforms

Marijuana_comparison_Max.286.0The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice has produced this interesting new research report titled "Reforming Marijuana Laws: Which Approach Best Reduces The Harms Of Criminalization? A Five-State Analysis." Here is what the report's Introduction:

The War on Marijuana is losing steam. Policymakers, researchers, and law enforcement are beginning to recognize that arresting and incarcerating people for marijuana possession wastes billions of dollars, does not reduce the abuse of marijuana or other drugs, and results in grossly disproportionate harms to communities of color.  Marijuana reforms are now gaining traction across the nation, generating debates over which strategies best reduce the harms of prohibition.

Should marijuana be decriminalized or legalized? Should it be restricted to people 21 and older?  Advocates of the latter strategy often argue their efforts are intended to protect youth.  However, if the consequences of arrest for marijuana possession — including fines, jail time, community service, a criminal record, loss of student loans, and court costs — are more harmful than use of the drug (Marijuana Arrest Research Project, 2012), it is difficult to see how continued criminalization of marijuana use by persons under 21 protects the young.  Currently, people under 21 make up less than one-third of marijuana users, yet half of all marijuana possession arrests (ACLU, 2013; Males, 2009).

This analysis compares five states that implemented major marijuana reforms over the last five years, evaluating their effectiveness in reducing marijuana arrests and their impact on various health and safety outcomes.  Two types of reforms are evaluated: all-ages decriminalization (California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), and 21-and-older legalization (Colorado and Washington).  The chief conclusions are:

• All five states experienced substantial declines in marijuana possession arrests.  The four states with available data also showed unexpected drops in marijuana felony arrests.

• All-ages decriminalization more effectively reduced marijuana arrests and associated harms for people of all ages, particularly for young people.

• Marijuana decriminalization in California has not resulted in harmful consequences for teenagers, such as increased crime, drug overdose, driving under the influence, or school dropout.  In fact, California teenagers showed improvements in all risk areas after reform.

• Staggering racial disparities remain— and in some cases are exacerbated — following marijuana reforms.  African Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after reform than all other races and ethnicities were before reform.

• Further reforms are needed in all five states to move toward full legalization and to address racial disparities

October 2, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Wisconsin police chief advocate marijuana legalization to fund treatment for harder drugs

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This Wisconsin State Journal article, headlined "Police chief: Legalize marijuana, use tax revenue to fund drug treatment," reports on a local police chief's notable response to reports highlighting racial disparities on who gets arrested for marijuana offenses. Here are excerpts from the article:

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval endorsed the legalization of marijuana last week, saying the drug should be regulated and taxed, with revenues used to fund treatment programs for harder drugs.

The comments came during an interview with the State Journal Wednesday about data showing African-Americans in Madison were arrested or cited for marijuana offenses at about 12 times the rate of whites in the city.

Koval called efforts to enforce laws against marijuana an “abject failure,” and said the same about the broader war on drugs. “We’ve done such an abysmal job using marijuana as a centerpiece of drug enforcement, that it’s time to reorder and triage the necessities of what’s more important now,” Koval said.

Referring to the states of Washington and Colorado, which have legalized the drug for recreational use and sell it at state-regulated stores, he said it was time for Wisconsin to consider doing the same.

Koval said he would like to see the state “acknowledge the failure” of marijuana prohibition and instead focus on the “infinite amount of challenges” posed by drugs such as heroin. Taxes from the legal sale of marijuana, he said, would create state revenue that could then be used to fund drug treatment and expand the capacity of drug court programs that divert addicts from the criminal justice system....

The cause has not advanced as far in Wisconsin, though, where the drug remains completely illegal. State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, introduced a bill to legalize marijuana earlier this year, but the legislation stands little chance of becoming law.

September 15, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Legal pot, murky jobs: Marijuana laws put workers in tough spot"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today article, which gets started this way:

Every time he goes to work, Harvard-trained lawyer Andrew Freedman faces federal prosecution thanks to the source of his paycheck: Colorado's burgeoning marijuana industry.

Freedman, the governor's chief marijuana adviser, faces prison time if federal prosecutors decide to step in.  That's because federal law still considers marijuana as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, and prosecutors could easily bring drug-trafficking charges if they choose. Freedman's salary is paid by the taxes collected on legal marijuana sales.  "I'm in murky territory every day," Freedman said.

He's not alone.  Tens of thousands of marijuana growers, bud tenders, edibles makers, store owners and couriers working in Colorado and Washington and any of the other 21 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana face the same penalties.

The risk is even greater for dozens of former cops and soldiers working as armed guards in the marijuana industry because federal drug-trafficking laws prescribe far stiffer penalties for anyone using a firearm while handling drugs and money.  Several of the guards interviewed by USA TODAY say they chose to work for Blue Line acknowledged the legal risks they're taking, but said it was safer than being shot at by insurgents or dealing with violent criminals daily.

So far federal prosecutors have held off bringing charges against security firms protecting and servicing the marijuana industry, even though they're aware of the flagrant violations.  USA TODAY in July published numerous photos of a Colorado-based security-firm workers carrying pot, cash and weapons -- photos federal agents and prosecutors confirm they saw.

The situation highlights the tenuous balance federal prosecutors strike as they monitor the sale of legalized marijuana.  Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, even though voters in Colorado and Washington have allowed adults to possess and consume it for fun.  Federal officials say they're trying to balance state law while keeping pot out of the hands of kids and profits away from drug cartels.

Marijuana-industry workers acknowledge the risks they're taking, but say they're assuming federal prosecutors will leave them alone as long as they keep to the strictest interpretation of the state law.  "If you touch the product, then you're at risk for federal prosecution," said Michael Jerome, a spokesman for Blue Line Protection Group, which provides armed guards to transport marijuana and cash for pot-shop owners. "That's why we're trying to make it safe and legitimate and responsible, so we can respect the wishes of the voters of the state of Colorado and keep the federal government out of it."

September 4, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Come on vacation, leave on probation" says Idaho lawyer about state's pot policy

The quote in the title of this post is drawn from this new Businessweek article headlined "Marijuana Law Mayhem Splits U.S. as Travelers Get Busted."  Here is how the lengthy article gets started:

America is two nations when it comes to marijuana: in one it’s legal, in the other it’s not. The result is that people like B.J. Patel are going to jail.  The 34-year-old Arizona man may face a decade in prison and deportation following an arrest in 2012.  On a trip in a rented U-Haul to move his uncle from California to Ohio, he brought along some marijuana, which is legal for medicinal use in his home state.

Headed eastbound on I-44 through Oklahoma, Patel was stopped for failing to signal by Rogers County Deputy Quint Tucker, just outside Tulsa.  He was about to get off with a warning when Tucker spotted a medical marijuana card in his open wallet. “‘I see you have this card. Where’s the marijuana?’”  Patel recalled Tucker asking him. “I very politely and truthfully told him, ‘I’ll show you where it is.’”  That’s where things started to go bad for Patel.  He now faces trial next month on a felony charge.

Possessing pot for recreational use is legal in Washington and Colorado, and allowed for medicinal purposes in 23 states.  The other half of the country, which includes Oklahoma, largely prohibits any amount for any purpose.

While challenges may land the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, what exists now is a legal checkerboard where unwitting motorists can change from law-abiding citizens to criminals as fast as they pass a state welcome sign.  The difference is especially clear in states like Idaho.  Surrounded on three sides by pot-friendly Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana, Idaho State Police seized three times as much marijuana this year as in all of 2011.

“The manner in which a person acquires the drug is not relevant,” Teresa Baker, an Idaho police spokeswoman, said.  “This is important to know for those who may purchase it legally elsewhere, believing that it will be overlooked.”  

James Siebe, a lawyer in Coeur d’Alene, put it another way: “Come on vacation, leave on probation.”

August 22, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Another notable House vote continues federal reform momentum

As reported in this AP piece, which is somewhat inaccurately headlined "House Votes to Allow Marijuana-Related Banking," last night brought another notable vote from the GOP-lead House of representatives concerning federal regulatory rules surrounding federal pot prohibition.  Here are the (somewhat complicated) details of the latest notable vote:

The House voted Wednesday in support of making it easier for banks to do business with legal pot shops and providers of medical marijuana. The 236-186 vote rejected a move by Rep. John Fleming, R-La., to block the Treasury Department from implementing guidance it issued in February telling banks how to report on their dealings with marijuana-related businesses without running afoul of federal money-laundering laws.

Marijuana dealing is still against federal law, so banks who do business with marijuana dispensaries could be accused of helping them launder their money. Federal money laundering convictions can mean decades in prison.

The Treasury guidance was intended to give banks confidence that they can deal with marijuana businesses in states where they're legal. Many banks are still reluctant to do so. That has forced many marijuana operations to stockpile cash, a situation that shop owners say is dangerous.

"They are operating just in cash, which creates its own potential for crime, robbery, assault and battery," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., whose state has legalized recreational pot use. "You cannot track the money. There is skimming and tax evasion. So the guidance by the Justice Department and the guidance by the Treasury Department is to bring this out into the open."

The vote is largely symbolic since Treasury already had gone ahead with the guidance, but it demonstrates a loosening of anti-marijuana sentiment on Capitol Hill. "Whereas the federal government once stood in the way of marijuana reform at every opportunity, the changing politics of this issue are such that more politicians are now working to accommodate popular state laws so that they can be implemented effectively," said marijuana advocate Tom Angell.

A coalition of 46 mostly GOP moderates and libertarian-tilting Republicans joined with all but seven Democrats to beat back Fleming's attempt to block the Treasury guidance.

July 17, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Taxation information and issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Massachusetts SJC holds marijuana smell insufficient to justify car search

As reported in this Boston Globe article, the Massachusetts "Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday said that because voters decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in 2008, police officers in Massachusetts can no longer rely on the odor of unburnt marijuana to justify searching a person’s car." Here is more:

In two unanimous rulings, the state’s highest court said they had already decided in 2011 that the odor of smoked marijuana by itself did not provide police with probable cause to stop people on the street or search the vehicles people are riding in.

The court said in its 2011 ruling that it would be legally inconsistent to allow police to make warrantless searches after they smell burning marijuana when citizens had decided through a statewide referendum question that law enforcement should “focus their attention elsewhere."

The court said Wednesday it was now extending the same reasoning to cases where the owner has not yet started smoking it. Marijuana, the court acknowledged, generates a pungent aroma, but an odor by itself does not allow police to determine whether a person has more than an ounce with them. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is not a crime.

“The 2008 initiative decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana under State law, and accordingly removed police authority to arrest individuals for civil violations," Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the unanimous court.

“We have held that the odor of burnt marijuana alone cannot support probable cause to search a vehicle without a warrant ... [now] we hold that such odor [of unburnt marijuana], standing alone, does not provide probable cause to search an automobile."...

The court also rejected the argument from law enforcement that local police can use the odor of marijuana to stop someone because possession of marijuana is still an offense under federal law. “The fact that such conduct is technically subject to a Federal prohibition does not provide an independent justification for a warrantless search," Lenk wrote.

The full rulings from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are available here and here.

July 10, 2014 in Court Rulings, Criminal justice developments and reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Citing Windsor, marijuana defendant aggressively attacks federal prosecution

This interesting local article from Michigan, headlined "Attorney says marijuana wrongly classified as dangerous drug, federal prosecution unfair," highlights interesting arguments being made in a local federal prosecution:

A West Michigan man facing federal marijuana charges has filed a constitutional challenge based, in part, on disparate federal prosecution in different states. Shawn Taylor, the alleged leader of a marijuana grow operation, also argues that marijuana has medicinal value and should not be classified as a Schedule 1 drug -- the designation for the most dangerous drugs.

Taylor is seeking an evidentiary hearing on the issues before U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker in Grand Rapids.  “We’re raising arguments that have really never been raised before in a federal marijuana case,” former Kalamazoo attorney John Targowski, now practicing in Santa Monica, Calif., said on Thursday, June 19, after he filed an 86-page brief on behalf of his client. “We’re arguing that cannabis is wrongly scheduled -- it has medicinal value,” Targowski said.

Taylor is one of 37 people arrested for alleged roles in grow operations in Kent, Muskegon, Oceana and Ottawa counties and Traverse City.

Targowski said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act should have bearing on marijuana cases.  “Recognizing the historical support for defining marriage as between one man and one woman, the court determined that it was the duty of the judiciary to rectify past misperceptions which result in constitutionally unsound legislation,” Targowski wrote in court documents.

“Like the long held beliefs regarding the marital relationship, the long held beliefs about the effects of marijuana have evolved. While the former evolution has been the result of societal ideologies, the latter is predicated on scientific evidence, and therefore, can be more readily established through an evidentiary hearing.”

Targowski has asked that Jonker consider declarations of three experts, including a former FBI supervisor and a physician, to establish there is no rational basis to treat marijuana as a controlled substance.  Medical science has documented that “marijuana has a notably low potential for abuse,” Targowski wrote.

He said the Supreme Court has acknowledged its medical value.  “Compared to other over-the-counter substances, cannabis has the lowest potential for abuse, as it is impossible to die from an overdose: further, no studies have proven that the use of cannabis causes harms similar to those caused by the use of common over-the-counter medications, even at recommended dosages,” he wrote.  “In effect, the facts upon which marijuana was scheduled as one of the most dangerous narcotics in 1970 have been disproven.”

He also said that the government’s policy of not prosecuting those who comply with their state’s medical marijuana laws amounts to unequal prosecution based on where people live.  “The policy statement presented in the memorandum to U.S. Attorneys from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, issued on Aug. 29, 2013, by Attorney General Eric Holder has resulted in a discriminatory application of federal law, in that it protects similarly situated individuals from criminal sanctions for actions identical to that alleged to have been conducted by the defendant, and therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause,” Targowski wrote.

The government contends Taylor ran a large-scale drug operation that sold marijuana in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.  He worked with a doctor for “certification clinics” for alleged patients, police said. The government said Taylor used the state’s medical marijuana law as a ruse.

As the title of this post suggests, I find the argument based on the Supreme Court's rejection of DOMA in the Windsor ruling the most intriguing (and perhaps most viable) argument here. Until I can see the defense's 86-page filing in this case, as well as the feds' response, I am disinclined to predict whether the defendant here will even secure an evidentiary hearing to present all his best evidence to attack federal marijuana law and policy.  But I am already inclined to predict that these kinds of arguments could become a real game-changer if hundreds of federal marijuana defendants were to start raising them in dozens of federal district courts.

UPDATE:  The lawyer representing Shawn Taylor in the federal indictment in the western district of Michigan reported to me via e-mail that he "essentially replicated work that has been successful in another case in the Eastern District of California, which has led to the scheduling of an evidentiary hearing later this summer to allow the defendant to raise the issues with expert testimony." He tells me that "California attorneys Zenia Gilig and Heather Burke wrote the originally brief in the ED of CA case {though] their work didn't get any press." He also provided this link to a California blog covering the case out there which has some pdfs of some key documents.

June 21, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 2, 2014

"After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent article appearing in the New York Times.  As the headline suggests, the article documents glass-half-empty data and perspectives on Colorado's on-going experiment with marijuana legalization.  Here are excerpts:

Five months after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, the battle over legalization is still raging. Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws.

There is the Denver man who, hours after buying a package of marijuana-infused Karma Kandy from one of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana shops, began raving about the end of the world and then pulled a handgun from the family safe and killed his wife, the authorities say.  Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana.  Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.

“I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization.  “We’ve seen lives damaged. We’ve seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We’ve seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids.”

Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data.  Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect — if any — on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes. It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5 percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Proponents of legalization argue that the critics s are cherry-picking anecdotes to tarnish a young industry that has been flourishing under intense scrutiny.  The vast majority of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana stores are living up to stringent state rules, they say.  The stores have sold marijuana to hundreds of thousands of customers without incident.  The industry has generated $12.6 million in taxes and fees so far, though the revenues have not matched some early projections.

Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver — where the bulk of Colorado’s pot retailers are — are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent. Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline....

The argument is being waged with fervor because both sides say Colorado’s successes and failures with regulating marijuana will shape perceptions of legalization for voters considering similar measures in other states and for leery federal law enforcement officials.  After the 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington State — where recreational sales are expected to begin this summer — Justice Department officials gave the states a cautious green light. But they warned that they might intervene if marijuana ended up fueling violence or drug trafficking, or flowing across state lines or into the hands of children.

Marijuana opponents like Thomas J. Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which helps law enforcement, say Colorado is already falling short of those standards.  “In any other state if they were making as much money and growing as much dope, they’d be taken out by the feds,” Mr. Gorman said.

Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted out of Colorado.  Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase in Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase inseizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61 percent decline.

Some sheriffs and police chiefs along Colorado’s borders say they have noticed little change. But in Colby, Kan., which sits along an interstate highway running west to Colorado, Police Chief Ron Alexander said charges for sale, distribution or possession related to marijuana were rising fast.  This year, he tallied 20 such cases through May 23. Two years ago, there were six during that same time period.  Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Neb., said he was locking up more people for marijuana-related offenses. “It’s kind of a free-for-all,” he said. “The state or the federal government needs to step up and do something.”...

Police and fire officials across the state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as people use flammable butane to make hashish oil.. And despite a galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state, prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists....

Many of Colorado’s starkest problems with legal marijuana stem from pot-infused cookies, chocolates and other surprisingly potent edible treats that are especially popular with tourists and casual marijuana users. On Colorado’s northern plains, for example, a fourth grader showed up on the playground one day in April and sold some of his grandmother’s marijuana to three classmates.  The next day, one of those students returned the favor by bringing in a marijuana edible he had swiped from his own grandmother.  “This was kind of an unintended consequence of Colorado’s new law,” said John Gates, the district’s director of school safety and security. “For crying out loud, secure your weed. If you can legally possess it, that’s fine. But it has no place in an elementary school.”

So far this year, nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick.  In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.

June 2, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Why Republicans are slowly embracing marijuana"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Los Angeles Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Marijuana is a political conundrum for the GOP, traditionally the stridently anti-drug, law and order party. More than half the voters in the country now live in states where medical marijuana is legal, in many cases as a result of ballot measures. The most recent poll by the Pew Research Center found most Americans think pot should be legal, a major shift from just a decade ago when voters opposed legalization by a 2-to-1 margin.

Most GOP stalwarts, of course, continue to rail against liberalization of the laws. Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a physician, declared during floor debate that medical marijuana is a sham. Real medicine, he said, “is not two joints a day, not a brownie here, a biscuit there. That is not modern medicine.”

But in a sign of how the times are changing, he found himself challenged by a colleague from his own caucus who is also a doctor. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) spoke passionately in favor of the bill. “It has very valid medical uses under direction of a doctor,” he said. “It is actually less dangerous than some narcotics prescribed by doctors all over the country.” Georgia is among the many states experimenting with medical marijuana. A state program there allows its limited use to treat children with severe epileptic seizures.

The rise of the tea party, meanwhile, has given an unforeseen boost to the legalization movement. Some of its more prominent members see the marijuana component of the War on Drugs as an overreach by the federal government, and a violation of the rights of more than two dozen states that have legalized cannabis or specific components of it for medical use.

Pro-marijuana groups have lately taken to boosting the campaigns of such Republicans, even those running against Democrats. A notable case is in the Sacramento region, where the Marijuana Policy Project recently announced it was endorsing Igor Birman, a tea partier seeking to knock out Democrat Ami Berra in a swing congressional district.

May 31, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 26, 2014

California DA tries to make sure marijuana crime does not pay by making the criminals pay for reduced charges

La-me-g-mendocino-potwebThe Los Angeles Times has this fascinting new article on a fascinting drug war innovation being utilized by a local districy attorney in California.  The article is headlined "Mendocino County D.A. takes a new approach to marijuana cases," and here are excerpts: 

When David Eyster took over as Mendocino County district attorney, felony marijuana prosecutions were overwhelming his staff and straining the public coffers.

With hundreds of cases active at any one time, taking an average 15 months to resolve, there were few victories to show for all the effort. "The system hadn't broken yet," Eyster said, "but it was dangerously close."

That was a little over three years ago. These days marijuana cases clear in about three months and the Sheriff's Department is flush with cash, thanks to what some are calling "the Mendocino model." To others, it's the Mendocino shakedown.

The transformation began when Eyster dusted off a section of the California health and safety code, intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows, and retooled it for a modern Mendocino County. In exchange for paying restitution, which Eyster sets at $50 per plant and $500 per pound of processed pot seized, eligible suspects can plead to a misdemeanor and get probation. (The law says restitution is reimbursement for actual enforcement costs, but defendants waive an itemized accounting and state the amount owed is "reasonable.")

The relinquishing of allegedly ill-gotten gains seized in separate civil forfeiture actions — cash, trucks and the occasional tractor — also might be part of the deal offered under Eyster's "global resolutions."

The restitution program is available only to those without troublesome criminal backgrounds who have not wildly overstepped California's somewhat gray laws on medical marijuana. Those who trespass, grow on public lands or degrade the environment need not apply.

Eyster said it's a complex calculation that he jots out himself, by hand, on the back of each case file. The size of a grow is not necessarily the deciding factor: In one current case, the defendants have records indicating they are supplying 1,500 medical users, Eyster said. Another case involved just four pounds of processed marijuana, but evidence indicated the defendant was selling for profit. Participants must agree to random searches while on probation, comply with medical marijuana laws and grow only for personal use.

Restitution funds, which have topped $3.7 million since early 2011, go directly to the investigating agencies. Asset forfeitures — the $4.4 million in cash and goods seized in 2013 was nearly double the previous year — are shared by the state, the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

Among those who have criticized the program is Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who during a restitution hearing last year for a man with an 800-plant grow blasted it as "extortion of defendants."

A federal grand jury investigating county programs that derive revenue from marijuana enforcement has subpoenaed accounting records on the restitution program, Eyster confirmed. The reason is unclear, as the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Legal analysts also have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment of defendants and the incentive for officers to focus on lucrative targets at the expense of those more menacing to public safety....

Eyster teamed with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) in 2011 to try to make pot cultivation a "wobbler," prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. The effort failed, but he had devised another way to thin the caseload.

He drew on past experience with welfare fraud, where considering restitution before making a filing decision was routine. Convinced that not all defendants were created equal — the mastermind behind a for-profit grow is more culpable than hired trimmers — he decided to evaluate each case, consider potentially exculpatory evidence and cut deals as he saw fit.

He offers defendants guidance on how to stay within the law, and said paying restitution "shows a step toward rehabilitation." "A month doesn't go by when someone doesn't say: 'Thank you for handling it this way,'" Eyster said.

Since he took office, 357 defendants have decided to pay restitution. About 20 of those violated their probation, resulting in 180-day jail stints and new charges. (On a second round, a straight misdemeanor charge is off the table.)

Eyster never accepts seized cash as payment of restitution, but his approach does throw such assets into the bargaining mix. It is unclear how many probationers paid restitution and forfeited seized cash or goods, but Eyster conceded the practice is common. "One hundred percent of the time, the defense wants to do a global resolution," he said. "It's saving a lot of time and costs."...

Defense attorney Keith Faulder, who practices in Mendocino County, is circumspect when discussing Eyster's program.  The district attorney, Faulder said, is "an innovator" who he believes is "operating in good faith when it comes to settling marijuana cases." However, Faulder said, Eyster "has a real policy of settling cases for civil forfeiture ... I think it gets a lot of dolphin with the tuna." That program has exploded in recent years, with law enforcement officials attributing the increased seizures to a pot trade that permeates the county....

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said his deputies do not have the time or inclination to police for profit: "If I wanted to use this as a business plan, I'd have 12 people on my eradication team," he said.  He has two.  But he credits restitution and forfeitures for a sheriff's budget that is $600,000 in the black, and said he has also been able to expand a resident deputy program and purchase a new fleet of cars.

Despite the criticism, Eyster said he was confident in the legality and effectiveness of his approach. He said that he had offered Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, "first dibs on the prosecution of all marijuana cases in Mendocino County" but that she declined.  So "they should please leave us alone and let local enforcement tackle our own marijuana problems."

Regular readers should not be at all surprised that I am inclined to praise Mendocino County DA for engineering a seemingly more efficient and perhaps more effective way to wage the modern drug war. Indeed, given the muddled mess that is both California's medical marijuana laws and the opaque federal enforcement of prohibition in that state, this "Mendocino model" for modern marijuana enforcement for lower-level marijuana cases strikes me as a very wise way to use prosecutorial discretion and triage prosecutorial resources.

I would like to believe that the federal grand jury investigating the "Mendocino model" is focused on seeing if a local success story can be turned into a national program. But I fear that the feds are looking into what DA Eyster is doing because they fear even the prospect of somebody inventing any better drug war mousetraps.

Finally, though I suppose I should be concerned about the potential for prosecutors extorting criminal defendants in this setting, this form of extortion troubles me much less that when prosecutors demand that defendants give up various rights to avoid a crazy-long mandatory prison sentences in traditional plea bargaining. When DA Eyster seeks money from marijuana defendants as part of the plea process, it seems he is only seeking to have them relinquish what were likely ill-gotten gains (much of which might end up going to defense attorneys' pockets without such a deal available); when other prosecutors seek pleas and cooperation from other defendants facing extreme prison terms, these prosecutors are demanding that defendants relinquish constitutional and statutory rights created specifically to limit and check the power of government officials.

May 26, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Legalization Conflicts and Reliance Defenses"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper by Mary Fan now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This article addresses an open question of pressing practical import – whether people and businesses operating in the shadow of a legalization conflict have a reliance defense.  A legalization conflict arises when conduct is decriminalized by one authority while remaining criminalized under another legal regime.  For example, drugs, guns, undocumented immigrants, and giving legal advice or financial support for certain activities, may be both illegal and legal under conflicting regimes. People plan their lives, hopes and financial affairs around legalization laws and decrees.  If people take actions now in reliance, will they face sanctions later?  The question is of great import for many people and businesses, as well as the lawyers who advise them.

The article argues that reliance defenses should be available when governmental actors in charge of enforcing the criminal regime expressly acquiesce in the competing legalization.  In such cases, reliance is reasonable and estoppel is required lest people or businesses be lulled by the statements of actors charged with administering the law into a snare of sanctions.  Potential objections regarding privileging governmental lawlessness and the danger of giving people a normative choice of law that enables strategic gamesmanship are addressed.

May 26, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is your brain on drugs: what a recent fMRI study can and can’t tell us about the effects of marijuana use

Two weeks ago (okay, I'm late to the party), news broke of a new study showing that the brains of casual marijuana users are different than those of non-users. The study was just published in the Journal of Neuroscience and can be found here.

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 40 young adults aged 18-25. 20 of those subjects were casual marijuana users and 20 were non-users. Controlling for other behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, the researchers found that marijuana use was correlated with changes to the shape, size, and density of particular areas of the brain. From the study:

“The results of this study indicate that in young, recreational marijuana users, structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala can be observed. Pending confirmation in other cohorts of marijuana users, the present findings suggest that further study of marijuana effects are needed to help inform discussion about the legalization of marijuana.”

The study generated a lot of media coverage, and, unfortunately, over-statements of the study’s actual implications for ongoing policy debates. For example, the Society for Neuroscience issued a press release for the study. The release, while titled with appropriate caution (“Brain Changes are Associated with Casual Marijuana Use in Young Adults”), relays unsupported claims from scientists regarding the ramifications of the study. One of the authors, Hans Breiter, is quoted as saying ““This study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences.” And Carl Lupica, a researcher from the National Institute on Drug Abuse who was not involved with the study, similarly suggests that “This study suggests that even light to moderate recreational marijuana use can cause changes in brain anatomy.”  

The problem is that the study doesn’t necessarily support such conclusions. The study’s findings, while intriguing and valuable, are still quite limited. For one thing, the study will need to be replicated. The subject pool of 40 is rather small. That’s not reason enough to dismiss the study -- much brain science research relies on small n studies, because MRIs are cumbersome and expensive, and one can find statistically significant results with small pools – but it is reason to be particularly cautious about the results pre-replication.

Second, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Law policymakers commonly ignore this important scientific concept, but even scientists sometimes get ahead of themselves and jump to conclusions not warranted by a study’s design. In this study, for example, it is quite possible that people who use marijuana have differently sized and shaped brains to begin with; for example, maybe their brains are simply wired to seek out more risky behaviors and that’s why they’ve decided to use an illicit substance. Since we don’t know the size and shapes of these brains before they started using marijuana, we can’t say which came first: the marijuana usage or “the structural abnormalities in gray matter density, volume, and shape of the nucleus accumbens and amygdala.”

Third, even if the study’s results could be replicated and even if they could (somehow) demonstrate a causal connection between marijuana use and brain structure, it’s not clear from this study anyway why we should care. To be sure, different areas of the brain are associated with different functions and I wouldn't want to tinker with the size, shape, or density of my brain. But the study’s author’s can’t yet say that the changes they observe in brain structure necessarily cause negative changes in behavior.  For example, some studies suggest that the nucleus accumbens might play a role in drug addiction. But it’s not clear whether that changes observed in this study are associated with (let alone cause) marijuana addiction or any other bad behavioral outcomes; indeed, the authors made a point of excluding “dependent” marijuana users from the subject pool.

Law and neuroscience is a very promising field. It is generating intriguing findings concerning important issues like culpability. But as the best in this nascent field know, there is still much to be learned about the brain. This study is an intriguing development and clearly worthy of more follow ups. I think research on the brain cold help us understand marijuana’s effects and put them in perspective with those of alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, etc. But for now, bold statements about the import of brain science for policy debates over marijuana seem premature.

April 29, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Current Affairs, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Medical Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Science | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Great New Orleans Times-Picayune op-ed on Louisiana drug sentencing

As I've blogged about a few times here, Louisiana has one of the nation's most unforgiving drug sentencing regimes and is particularly out of step when it comes to marijuana.  This past Friday, the New Orleans Time-Picayune editorial board ran this op-ed highlighting the problem and calling for reform.  The first few paragraphs follow:

Someone caught in Louisiana for the second time with a small amount of marijuana faces up to five years in jail and the possibility of hard labor. On a third or subsequent offense, the sentence can be 20 years with hard labor. These sorts of harsh penalties for marijuana possession and other non-violent crimes are one reason the state has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

 

There's a simple change that could make a significant difference.

 

Senate Bill 323 by Sens. J.P. Morrell and Robert Adley would make the penalty for possession of marijuana a fine of up to $100 and six months in jail on all offenses. The legislation would eliminate the enhanced penalties in current law for second and subsequent pot possession convictions.

 

That is a sensible reform the coalition behind the Smart on Crime legislative agenda says would save the state "millions of dollars in supervision and incarceration costs." It also would bring tremendous relief to thousands of families across Louisiana.

April 21, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 18, 2014

How might (rare?) tragedies linked to legal marijuana use impact reform developments?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent AP story from Colorado  headlined "2 Denver deaths tied to recreational marijuana use."  Here are excerpts:

This week, two Denver deaths were linked to marijuana use, and while some details of the deaths have yet to emerge, they are the first ones on record to be associated with a once-illegal drug that Colorado voters legalized for recreational use last year.  One man jumped to his death after consuming a large amount of marijuana contained in a cookie, and in the other case, a man allegedly shot and killed his wife after eating marijuana candy.

Wyoming college student Levy Thamba Pongi, 19, jumped to his death at a Denver hotel on March 11 after eating more of a marijuana cookie than was recommended by a seller, police records show - a finding that comes amid increased concern about the strength of popular pot edibles after Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.  Pongi consumed more than one cookie purchased by a friend - even though a store clerk told the friend to cut each cookie into six pieces and to eat just one piece at a time, said the reports obtained Thursday.

Pongi began shaking, screaming and throwing things around a hotel room before he jumped over a fourth-floor railing into the hotel lobby March 11.  An autopsy report listed marijuana intoxication as a "significant contributing factor" in the death....

In a separate case, a Denver man, Richard Kirk, 47, is accused of killing his wife, Kristine Kirk, 44, on Monday while she was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. Police say he ate marijuana-infused candy and possibly took prescription pain medication before the attack, according to a search warrant affidavit released Thursday. The affidavit states that Kristine Kirk told the dispatcher her husband had ingested marijuana candy and was hallucinating.

She pleaded with dispatchers to hurry and send officers because her husband had asked her to get a gun and shoot him. She said she was "scared of what he might do." Richard Kirk could be heard in the background of the 911 call talking about the candy he bought from a pot dispensary earlier that night, and surveillance footage from the shop captured the transaction, police said.

A detective who interviewed him after the killing noted that he appeared to be under the influence of controlled substances based on his speech and inability to focus, according to the warrants. Blood samples will be tested to see whether he was on any other drugs or medications....

The cannabis industry tries to educate consumers about the potency of marijuana-infused foods. But despite the warnings - including waiting for up to an hour to feel any effects - complaints by visitors and first-time users have been rampant.

Investigators believe Pongi, a native of the Republic of Congo, and three friends from Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., traveled to Colorado on spring break to try marijuana. At their hotel, the group of four friends followed the seller's instructions. But when Pongi felt nothing after about 30 minutes, he ate an entire cookie, police said. Within an hour, he began speaking erratically in French, shaking, screaming and throwing things around the hotel room. At one point he appeared to talk to a lamp....Pongi's friends tried to restrain him before he left the room and jumped to his death, police said.

One of his friends told investigators it may have been his first time using the drug - the only one toxicology tests found in his system. All three friends said they did not purchase or take any other drugs during their stay.

The marijuana concentration in Pongi's blood was 7.2 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. Colorado law says juries can assume someone is driving while impaired if their blood contains more than 5 nanograms per milliliter.

In the days that followed the death of Pongi, Denver police confiscated the remaining cookies from the pot shop to test their levels of THC. The wrapper of the cookies bought by the students said each contained 65 mg of THC for 6 1/2 servings. Tests showed the cookies were within the required THC limits, police said. "The thing to realize is the THC that is present in edibles is a drug like any drug, and there's a spectrum of ways in which people respond," said Michael Kosnett, a medical toxicologist on the clinical faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

April 18, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (7)