Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Noticing how hemp reform indirectly became criminal justice reform in Texas

JzOybXdocQLWjml-800x450-noPadLong-time readers know that my focus on marijuana reform began with, and is still situated deeply within, my eagerness for criminal justice reforms.   And though I remain concerned that the marijuana reform movement and broader debate still fails give enough attention to criminal justice issues, I always like seeing new stories of how the movement can have criminal justice reform success even in unexpected ways.  One such story can be found in Texas, as reported here by Kyle Jaeger at Marijuana Moment under the headline "Marijuana Possession Arrests Plummet In Texas After Hemp Legalization, New State Data Shows." Here are details:

Marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, new state data shows, and that trend seems connected to the legalization of the plant’s non-intoxicating cousin hemp.

While marijuana remains illegal in Texas, the policy change around hemp in mid-2019 created complications for law enforcement since the two forms of the cannabis crop are often indistinguishable to the naked eye. Police have said that, because of this, they can’t consistently charge people without conducting lab analyses of seized cannabis for THC content.

According to data released last week by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), that appears to have led to a significant decline in marijuana arrests.   In 2018, there were about 63,000 marijuana [arrests in total] in the state [data here] — and that went down to just over 45,000 arrests in 2019 [data here].

Prosecutors have dismissed hundreds of low-level cannabis cases since hemp was legalized. And state officials announced in February that labs wouldn’t be performing testing in misdemeanor cases, with DPS saying it “will not have the capacity to accept those.” Cannabis manufacturing arrests also dropped significantly since hemp’s legalization — from about 2,700 in 2018 to about 1,900 in 2019.

Municipalities across the state have jumped at the chance to push through local cannabis reforms in recent months. The El Paso City Council approved a measure in May that encourages police to issue citations for low-level marijuana cases instead of making arrests.  In January, the Austin City Council approved a resolution aimed at ending arrests for simple cannabis possession. The city’s police department said in July that they “will no longer cite or arrest individuals with sufficient identification for Class A or Class B misdemeanor ‘possession of marijuana’ offenses, unless there is an immediate threat to a person’s safety or doing so as part of the investigation of a high priority, felony-level narcotics case or the investigation of a violent felony.”

A cite-and-release program in San Antonio led to a 35 percent reduction in the number of arrests for small amounts of marijuana, according to data released by the local police department....

Last year, the House voted to approve a decriminalization bill that would’ve made possession of one ounce or less of cannabis punishable by a $500 fine and no jail time, but it filed to advance to a Senate floor vote by the end of the session.

I am not sure the significant reduction in arrests for marijuana possession in Texas in 2019 can or should be wholly or even mostly attributed to hemp reform, but hemp reform was likely one of a number of factors that played an important contributing role.  And, as I have highlighted in some prior posts here and here, it will be fascinating to follow 2020 arrest data to see how the health challenges of COVID and the moral challenge of calls for racial justice might be impacting marijuana prohibition's continued enforcement in Texas and nationwide.

But, to make sure an important reality is not lost, we ought not lose sight of the fact that even at reduced arrest rates in 2019, on average well over 100 people were being arrested every single day in Texas for merely possessing marijuana.  (And, as we see everywhere, blacks were greatly over-represented among those arrested: though only about 12% of the Texas population is black, over 30% of those arrested for possessing marijuana in Texas in 2019 were black.)

September 10, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

"Effects of Marijuana Legalization on Law Enforcement and Crime: Final Report"

Images (13)The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report, which was made possible by funding from the National Institute of Justice and which digs deeply into law enforcement and crime experiences after Washington state legalized marijuana. The study covers lots of important ground in thoughtful and diverse ways, and here are part of its lengthy abstract:

In 2012 the citizens of Washington State, via Initiative 502, legalized possession of a small amount of cannabis by adults.  On July 1, 2014 licensed retail outlets in Washington opened with a regulated and monitored product. The effects that this legalization would have on crime and law enforcement in the state were open questions.  In this National Institute of Justice-funded study we employed a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches geared toward addressing these questions. Research partners and participants included municipal, county, state and tribal law enforcement agencies representing 14 state, urban, suburban, rural, and tribal organizations in Washington the neighboring state of Idaho, as well as law enforcement professionals from 25 additional agencies and organizations.  Focus group, joint, and individual interviews involved 153 justice system officials that included sworn officers from three multi-agency drug task forces and one gang task force....  We constructed case study profiles and assessed qualitative (focus groups, interviews) and quantitative (Uniform Crime Reporting Program or UCR, calls for service records, and body/dash camera footage) data regarding how police practices and strategies, and crime itself, have been affected by legalization in Washington, and how that watershed decision in Washington has changed policing in adjacent border areas....

We found that marijuana legalization has not had an overall consistently positive or negative effect on matters of public safety.  Instead, legalization has resulted in a varied set of outcomes, including: concern about youth access to marijuana and increased drugged driving, a belief that there is increased cross border transference of legal marijuana to states that have not legalized, reports that training and funding for cannabis-related law enforcement activities have been deficient given the complex and enlarged role the police have been given, and the persistence of the complex black market.  On the “positive” front, legalization appears to have coincided with an increase in crime clearance rates in several areas of offending and an overall null effect on rates of serious crime.  Importantly, the legalization of marijuana has reduced the number of persons brought into the criminal justice system by non-violent marijuana possession offenses.  The police were also greatly concerned about how to best handle the detection and documentation of marijuana-related impairment in both commercial vehicle operations and traffic incidents.  The state has adopted the Target Zero goal of no traffic fatalities by 2030 and the legalization of marijuana and the privatization of liquor sales have combined to make accomplishment of this worthy goal extremely difficult.

Our research methodology necessarily included a number of limitations that would prevent the wholesale generalization of the results.  For instance, most of the data was collected from one state (Washington) which was one of the two “pioneer” states involved in legalization in this country.  Furthermore, the calls for service data were obtained from a limited number of agencies and are likely not generalizable to the entire state, much less the country.  The crime data is extracted from the UCR database (as not all of Washington was National Incident Based Reporting System [NIBRS] compliant for all years under study) is known to suffer from a number of limitations, including: undercounting of some crimes, a lack of contextual information about criminal activity, and missing incidents not reported to the police.  While the calls for service data address some limitations of the UCR database (for instance, calls for service data are better suited for the analysis of minor crimes), these data still do not address the limitation that only incidents reported to the police are analyzed.  Put simply, if legalization resulted in a shift in criminal behavior that was not reported to the police, our quantitative analyses would be incapable of detecting it.  Similarly, the body-worn camera (BWC) analysis was exploratory in nature and the data represent two agencies that are geographically and organizationally disparate.  As an exploratory component, these results are not generalizable.

The qualitative findings of this study offer insight into the lived experiences of officers, deputies, troopers, trainers, supervisors, administrators, and prosecutors, and are not without their limitations.  Our qualitative data are limited by issues of generalizability (they may not represent the opinions of law enforcement professionals more broadly) and potentially be issues of selection bias (it is possible that those with the strongest opinions were perhaps most likely to volunteer to participate in focus groups and interviews).  As with any research design employing purposive sampling, these results are not generalizable.  They do not represent the lived experiences of all law enforcement officers or justice system representatives, nor adequately capture the totality of the lived experiences of this study’s participants.... These results emphasized and sought to document experiences pre- and post-legalization. While we made every effort to restrain our analysis to issues involving cannabis legalization effects on law enforcement and crime, our participants, as reflected in our findings, often gravitated towards broader frustrations involving police resourcing, training, and prosecutorial practices.  Lastly, while our qualitative data is wellsuited for capturing the perceptions of police officers, they are also limited in this regard.  Police perceptions of legalization may be skewed and not reflective of the broader process of legalization.

September 5, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

A classic, modern (or modern, classic) debate on "Should We Legalize Marijuana?"

Newsweek has brought together two leading voices in the marijuana reform conversation here under the headline  "Debate: Should We Legalize Marijuana? | Opinion."  Here is how the opinion editor sets up the discussion and links to the commentary:

Drug overdoses in America have inexplicably skyrocketed over the past five years. We are, it seems, facing terrible societal crises of mass despondency and lonely atomization. What's more, the stuff peddled to kids today, more potent in terms of THC level than ever before, ain't exactly your grandpa's weed from Woodstock. But on the other hand, surely the War on Drugs has been an abject failure, needlessly ruining lives and locking up youngsters who wouldn't otherwise have a chance at success in live. And as American public opinion shifts, is it finally time to fully legalize recreational marijuana?

This week, of Law Enforcement Action Partnership debates Dr. Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana on one of the perennial questions facing the American populace. We hope you enjoy the detailed, lively exchange.

As is often the case, these two advocates make their arguments eloquently and effectively. Franklin stresses the myriad criminal justice harms and inequities that have resulted from marijuana prohibitions; Sabet stresses the myriad public health risks and inequities that may result from marijuana legalization and commercialization.  Most of their points are sound, and I often think the crux of the marijuana reform debate turns on one's perspective on whether one is more concerned with documented criminal justice harms and inequities from prohibition or with potential public health risks and inequities that may result from marijuana legalization and commercialization.

August 14, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Is the Black Lives Matter movement now significantly advancing the marijuana reform movement?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Politico piece.  The headline, "Black Lives Matter movement sparks 'collective awakening' on marijuana policies," and the start of the piece suggests the answer to the question is yes:

States and cities across the country have overhauled their marijuana policies in recent months, propelled by the Black Lives Matter protests over racial inequality and police brutality.

Since protests began in early June, many states and municipalities have adopted new cannabis regulations. Nashville, Tenn., stopped prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases.  Portland, Ore., redirected all cannabis tax revenue away from the Portland Police Bureau.  Colorado’s Legislature passed a long-stalled proposal to address social equity and scrap old marijuana convictions, and Sonoma County, Calif., and New York state expanded their programs to erase cannabis criminal records....

Cannabis was legalized in Colorado almost eight years ago, but without a social equity program or the expungement of cannabis-related convictions.  Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Singer first pushed for expungement of cannabis records in 2014 and has pressed for marijuana possession charges to be wiped ever since.

But Singer said it was the protests around racial justice that finally got the proposal to the governor’s desk with strong bipartisan support — the social equity and expungements bill only garnered one “no” vote in the state Senate.  Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law at the end of June.

But as the article continues, it becomes less clear if anything really big is changing with marijuana reform as racial justice gets more attention:

[M]any of the states and cities that did change their marijuana policies were already moving in that direction. Nashville spent the last six years reducing the number of marijuana arrests, before the protests motivated District Attorney General Glenn Funk to stop prosecuting possession entirely.  Portland was already reassessing where cannabis tax revenue was directed, and the “defund the police” movement provided the catalyst for the city council to change the budget. In many of these cases, conversations around racial justice simply pushed legislation over the finish line in a jurisdiction that was already working on it.

And it’s clear that the racial justice conversation has not convinced the most vocal skeptics.  In Pennsylvania, for example, the state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police is not changing its anti-legalization position.  Even some Democratic lawmakers in the state remain unconvinced about the current legalization effort, despite the demonstrations....

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear that racial justice protests have affected the motivation to pass marijuana policy reform.  While many of the issue’s most prominent advocates have been silent on federal legalization in the last two months, House leaders are now considering a vote on the MORE Act — which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge some records — sometime this fall....

In June, Congress tried to reach an agreement on police reform.  The House passed a sweeping policing bill largely along partisan lines.  Senate Republicans introduced a more modest package of reforms, which Senate Democrats ultimately killed because it did not go far enough.  Missing from either chamber’s proposal was anything that would overhaul federal marijuana policies. Even many of the most ardent champions of marijuana legalization as criminal justice reform were silent.

A few of may prior related posts:

August 9, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Another example of stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement in a northern city headed by an African-American police chief

Chief Hawkins headshotA couple of years ago, I noted in this post a local press piece from Minneapolis reporting on low-level marijuana stings being stopped after an extreme racial disparity was revealed ("46 of 47 arrested were black").   I thought this story was notable not only because of the extreme disparity in arrests, but also because this took place in a northern city and one in which the new police chief was African-American. 

Of course, two years later, Minneapolis is a key location for the intersection of policing and racial justice due to the needless killing of George Floyd.  But this lengthy local story from another northern city headed by an African-American police chief highlights that stark racial disparity in marijuana enforcement is still often the norm, not the exception  The piece is headlined "In Albany, marijuana arrests fall almost entirely on Black residents," and here are excerpts:

Last year, New York Civil Liberties Union lawyers released a report that showed police in Albany County overwhelmingly arrested minorities for low-level marijuana violations.  At the time, police insisted they did not target minorities and Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins vowed to examine what was behind the disparity in his city.

But a year later, a Times Union review of Albany police data from July 9, 2019, to July 9, 2020, shows little has changed. The city's police department made arrests or wrote tickets for marijuana-related offenses 134 times, ranging from violation-level tickets to felony-level possession arrests.  According to the department’s data, 97 percent of the time, those arrested or ticketed were Black.  Only four white people were charged with marijuana offenses during the time period despite nationwide evidence that shows Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate.

Hawkins said violent-crime and quality-of-life investigations drive many of the arrests, but his vow to conduct an in-depth investigation of the matter was sidetracked by the department's need to focus on matters connected to the coronavirus pandemic.

The arrests are happening nearly two years after District Attorney David Soares said he would no longer prosecute minor marijuana arrests when it is the only charge a defendant faces.  The data shows that the majority of the arrests were for low-level offenses, either violations or low-level misdemeanors.  Seventy six of the 134 incidents were for unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation.  Twenty-five arrests were for felony amounts of marijuana, which is at least 8 ounces of the drug.

Debora Brown-Johnson, president of the Albany NAACP branch, said the organization had a conversation with the police department about its approach to marijuana cases after the NYCLU study was released last year.  Last week, she said the organization remains concerned and the issue is something Mayor Kathy Sheehan needed to address. “Questions still exist, what’s going on here, is this a targeted group?” she said....

In an interview, Hawkins said a more in-depth examination of the department’s marijuana enforcement had been delayed while the city confronts difficulties with the pandemic but he defended the way his officers enforced the laws around marijuana possession.  Hawkins said all of the felony-level arrests and many of the other citations were connected with police investigations into violent crime or “major” quality-of-life issues related to drug use and sales.  “It’s always concerning when you see that all of the arrests were black males,” said Hawkins, who is Black. “It’s not surprising to me that when we’re concentrating on addressing violent crime … we’re going to pull in some marijuana-related issues.”

In recent months, violence in the city has spiked but there has been no corresponding rise in marijuana arrests.  Since June 13, the department has written one marijuana citation, for a violation-level offense on July 26.  From the department’s data it is difficult to make connections between specific arrests and investigation into major crimes or shootings.  Of the 134 arrests and citations, 117 are related to calls for a crime in progress, according to the data, but the statistics give no indication of what crimes were being committed or investigated.

Hawkins said the areas with more marijuana citations are locations where police are receiving more calls for service, such as West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End. According to patrol-zone-level data, 30 percent of the marijuana citations and arrests happened in the area bordered by Central Avenue, Judson Avenue and Lark Street, which includes parts of Arbor Hill and West Hill.  It is unclear if the tickets result in any meaningful prosecutions.  Last summer the state decriminalized the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The maximum penalty is $50 for possessing less than 1 ounce of pot and a maximum of $200 for between 1 and 2 ounces.

After Soares' office said it would no longer prosecute cases where the sole charge was possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana, the Sheriff’s Department said it would stop writing possession tickets.  The city police department, however, decided to continue to make those arrests.  The department has had conversations about how to handle low-level possession tickets and Hawkins said officers were not out on patrol looking for minor marijuana crimes.  “We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening,” he said. “I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”

Though the stark racial disparity in the Albany data on marijuana enforcement is what rightly generates headlines here, the story is also a revealing account for how marijuana enforcement ends up embedded in and connected to other aspects of policing even when states and localities have made significant decriminalization efforts.

August 4, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The Spillover Effect of Recreational Marijuana Legalization on Crime: Evidence From Neighboring States of Colorado and Washington State"

The title of this post is the title of this new research paper published in the Journal of Drug Issues and authored by Guangzhen Wu, Francis D. Boateng and Xiaodong Lang.  Here is its abstract:

An ongoing debate exists about the implications of recreational marijuana legalization to public safety.  One important public concern is how recreational marijuana legalization may affect crime in neighboring states that have not legalized.  Based on Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data from 2003 to 2017, this study used difference-in-differences (DID) analysis to examine the potential spillover effect of recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State, with a special focus on the examination of the changes in the rates of a variety of crimes in the border counties of neighboring states relative to the nonborder counties in these states following Colorado’s and Washington’s legalization.

Results provide some evidence suggesting a spillover crime reduction effect of legalization, as reflected by the significant decreases in the rates of property crime, larceny, and simple assault in the Colorado region that includes six neighboring states.  Results also suggest that the effects of marijuana legalization on crime in neighboring states vary based on crime type and state.

July 14, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

"Understanding Social Equity"

The title of this post is the title of this significant new digital book put together by Chris Nani now available via SSRN.  I am proud to be able to say Chris is a former student who has been doing amazing work in the cannabis space since his time in law school (including the development of a great tool for judging social equity programs available as "Social Equity Assessment Tool for the Cannabis Industry").   In his new book, Chris has assembled short and effective essays from more than a dozen experts; here is the book's SSRN abstract: 

Understanding Social Equity is a compilation of viewpoints from various authors with diverse backgrounds.  From attorneys, policy analysts, and journalists to advocates, business owners, and social equity applicants, my goal was to provide as many perspectives as possible – some of which may conflict with other authors to provide regulators a wide range of respected opinions about social equity programs.  Together, we believe this compilation can be used as a guide for drafters and regulators when determining minute details about how they would like to create or improve their social equity program.

The goal of this book can further be defined into four objectives:

 ●  Educate regulators on what social equity programs are and their importance.

 ●  Why certain criteria should be used to define social equity applicant eligibility.

 ●  An analysis of prior social equity programs.

 ●  Key factors for social equity programs.

I was quite honored that Chris asked me to author an essay for this book. My contribution is titled simply "Tracking Social Equity," and here is how it begins:

Chris Nani, in the first sentence of his preface to this volume, defines social equity programs as those that “seek to remediate and help individuals, families, and communities harmed by the War on Drugs.”  Behind this crisp definition of social equity programs stands a series of complicated questions about just who should be the focal point for remediation and help and how these programs should be oriented and assessed.  By starting to unpack these questions, we can begin to appreciate just why these programs are so important in principle and so challenging in practice.

July 7, 2020 in Business laws and regulatory issues, Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 3, 2020

Is it growing clearer that marijuana reform is criminal justice reform and racial justice imperative?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Crime Report piece headlined "Marijuana Laws ‘Central’ to Justice Reform, Advocates Say."  Here is how it starts:

As protests against racism continue to march on across the country, conversations have sparked a new dialogue about policing, criminal and racial justice, and even the War on Drugs. 

Lawmakers and advocates alike say the latter of these dialogues must play “a central part,” seeing that the War on Drugs and policing of marijuana usage has disproportionately targeted Black Americans, and encouraged negative police interactions, Stateline and Brookings report.

In light of these discussions, some states are taking active roles in changing the current narrative.

I would also recommend these linked pieces from Stateline and Brookings:

Long-time readers know that I have long viewed marijuana reform as a criminal justice issues first and foremost, though I fully understand why public health advocates and others see lots of other issues implicated in this arena. But in light of the very, very, very clear evidence that marijuana prohibition's enforcement is racially skewed, I think everyone concerned about racial justice must be thinking hard about how marijuana reform can be part of creating a more fair and just society.

July 3, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Notable new research and commentary on marijuana reforms and traffic fatalities

Download (2)The JAMA Internal Medicine journal has this week published online notable new original research and commentary on roadway fatalities in some states that have legalized marijuana use by all adults (called RCL in the works).  Here is the main piece and its main results and conclusions from its abstract:

"Association of Recreational Cannabis Laws in Colorado and Washington State With Changes in Traffic Fatalities, 2005-2017":

Results

Implementation of RCLs was associated with increases in traffic fatalities in Colorado but not in Washington State.  The difference between Colorado and its synthetic control in the post-RCL period was 1.46 deaths per 1 billion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per year (an estimated equivalent of 75 excess fatalities per year; probability = 0.047).  The difference between Washington State and its synthetic control was 0.08 deaths per 1 billion VMT per year (probability = 0.674).  Results were robust in most sensitivity analyses.  The difference between Colorado and synthetic Colorado was 1.84 fatalities per 1 billion VMT per year (94 excess deaths per year; probability = 0.055) after excluding neighboring states and 2.16 fatalities per 1 billion VMT per year (111 excess deaths per year; probability = 0.063) after excluding states without MCLs.  The effect was smaller when using the enactment date (24 excess deaths per year; probability = 0.116).

Conclusions and Relevance

This study found evidence of an increase in traffic fatalities after the implementation of RCLs in Colorado but not in Washington State.  Differences in how RCLs were implemented (eg, density of recreational cannabis stores), out-of-state cannabis tourism, and local factors may explain the different results.  These findings highlight the importance of RCLs as a factor that may increase traffic fatalities and call for the identification of policies and enforcement strategies that can help prevent unintended consequences of cannabis legalization.

And here are two follow-up pieces published with this main piece:

Invited Commentary: "Reducing Impaired Driving Fatalities: Data Need to Drive Testing, Enforcement, and Policy"

Research Letter: "Change in Traffic Fatality Rates in the First 4 States to Legalize Recreational Marijuana"

June 23, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Medical community perspectives, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Retroactive Legality: Marijuana Convictions and Restorative Justice in an Era of Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Deborah Ahrens on one of my favorite topics. Here is its abstract:

The last decade has seen the beginning of a new era in United States criminal justice policy, one characterized by a waning commitment to over-criminalization, mass incarceration, and a punitive War on Drugs as well as a growing regret for the consequences of our prior policies.  One of the central questions raised by this shifting paradigm is what to do about the millions of individuals punished, marked, and shunned as a result of policies we now regret.  This issue is particularly pointed for marijuana convictions, as the coexistence of strict regimes of collateral consequences for drug convictions and the active government promotion of a new cannabis economy present a stark and deeply racialized contrast.

This Article argues that, in states where marijuana has been legalized, our policy-making apparatus should acknowledge and move to redress both the failings of our prior system of drug regulation and the social and economic disparities in current law by embracing a concept of “retroactive legality.”  Retroactive legality is a framework in which we seek to restore those convicted of marijuana crimes to the rights and civic status they would have had if their conduct had never been illegal.  Such an approach would build upon the piecemeal expungement and pardon policies adopted or proposed in some of these jurisdictions but would reach substantially further, by incorporating those convicted of more serious offenses, putting the onus on the state to identify and clear such convictions, and declining to impose additional requirements and costs on those seeking to have their convictions retroactively legalized.

June 17, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 15, 2020

Timely reminders that marijuana reform is criminal justice reform ... especially when Black Lives Matter

Long-time readers know that I have long viewed marijuana reform as a form of criminal justice reform. And, at a time when we are all rightly concerned about police encounters with people of color and systemic racism in our criminal justice systems, it is more than fitting that some legislators and commentators are highlighting how we might improve our criminal justice system by reforming our marijuana laws. Here are three pieces and brief excerpts:

"Bernie Sanders And Cory Booker Talk Racial Injustices Of Marijuana Criminalization At Virtual Town Hall" by Kyle Jaeger:

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) discussed the role of marijuana criminalization and the broader drug war in perpetuating racial injustices during an online town hall on Wednesday. The former 2020 presidential candidates touched on a variety of drug-related policy issues.  For example, Booker brought up an ongoing ban on access to coronavirus relief programs for business owners with prior drug convictions and said it’s an example of why the two senators “talk about marijuana justice all the time.”

"Criminalization that never should have been: Cannabis" by Justin Strekal:

In short, the prohibition and criminalization of cannabis were, and still is, a racially motivated public policy response to personal behavior that is, at worst, a public health matter. But this should have never been a pretext for expanding police powers to search, incarcerate and arrest millions of American citizens.  Annually, over 650,000 Americans are arrested for violating marijuana laws. According to an analysis of these arrests released earlier this year by the ACLU, “In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010.”

"Racist cannabis arrests put Black Americans at higher risk of Covid-19" by Jenni Avins:

Even as cannabis reform sweeps the nation, offering Americans access to state-regulated cannabis-infused gummies and designer vape pens — and entrepreneurs the opportunity to sell them — poor people are still behind bars for possessing or selling the plant.  Statistically speaking, there’s a very good chance those people are Black.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports cannabis arrests still make up some 43% of all drug-related arrests, the vast majority of which are for possession, as opposed to more serious charges such as distribution or sale.  A 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that Blacks were five times as likely as whites to go to prison for drug possession — despite that surveys show whites use drugs as much or more than Blacks in the US.  In some places the statistics are markedly worse.  In 2018, Blacks and Latinos accounted for nearly 90% of arrests  for cannabis possession in New York City, despite being just 51% of the city’s population.  And in every single state, Blacks were likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. (Florida and Washington, DC did not provide data.)

June 15, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2020

Nevada Gov announces plan to secure pardons for "tens of thousands of Nevadans previously convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana"

As reported by this tweet, the Governor of Nevada, Steve Sisolak, has placed "a resolution on the Board of Pardons Commissioners agenda next week to provide relief to tens of thousands of Nevadans previously convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana, which is no longer a crime in the State."   This Marijuana Moment article by Kyle Jaeger provides some context for this action and other notable recent gubernatorial activity in this arena:

Last year, the governor signed a bill providing people with cannabis convictions a means to petition the court for expungements, but this resolution would offer proactive pardons for anyone convicted of possession up to an ounce of marijuana.  

“The people of Nevada have decided that possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a crime,” Sisolak said, referencing the state’s 2016 vote to legalize cannabis for adult use. “If approved, this resolution will clear the slate for thousands of people who bear the stigma of a conviction for actions that have now been decriminalized.”

The board is set to meet on Wednesday, June 17. The agenda designates time for “a discussion that may include but not limited to the resolution regarding pardons for persons convicted of minor marijuana possession.”  While pardons don’t void convictions, they can restore rights such as the right to vote, own a firearm or serve on a jury.

The governors of Washington State and Illinois have both issued pardons for cannabis offenses since their states legalized the plant.

Meanwhile, other top state officials have recently made arguments that marijuana reform is a necessary civil rights issue that’s particularly important to pursue as a means of addressing racial inequities.  California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said last week that legalization was “about addressing the ills of this war on drugs.” 

The governor of Virginia said on Tuesday that the passage of marijuana decriminalization legislation this year represents an example of how his state has addressed racial inequities that are inspiring mass protests over recent police killings of black Americans.

June 12, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana State Laws and Reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 8, 2020

"Why Marijuana Legalization Funds The Police"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely new Forbes piece worth reading in full.  Here are excerpts:

Bribing the cops is illegal, but not in politics.  Without paying off the cops, California might not have legalized recreational cannabis.

But now, four years later, with the legal industry struggling and police unable to protect legal merchants from either the illicit market or organized thieves, there’s serious doubt whether devoting tax revenue from marijuana sales to police budgets was smart politics.  And in light of calls to defund or cut police spending throughout the country, California’s experience is a warning for legalization efforts in other states.  Should police get a cut before education, healthcare, or disadvantaged communities shut out of the legal market?  And does law enforcement have any business making money off of legalization at all?

Eager to sell regulating and taxing cannabis to uneasy suburban and conservative voters, the authors of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, offered the state’s powerful law-enforcement lobbies a gift.  Twenty percent of the promised $1 billion in annual tax revenue legalization would create was earmarked for “public safety.” Legalization advocates heard an earful from growers and merchants eager to go legal — why reward the crews that had spent decades trying to arrest them? — but it was sold as necessary and practical electoral strategy. And from a public-safety standpoint, the gambit worked — sort of.  Though the cop lobbies opposed the measure anyway, they also didn’t run a massive scare campaign. On Election Day 2016, AUMA won more than 57 percent of the vote....

Similar tactics have been employed elsewhere.  California’s generosity was notable only in its size. Marijuana legalization has meant money for American police everywhere the social experiment’s been tried....  In Nevada, pot taxes help pay the police to “enforce” the measure (along with, one assumes, other laws).  In Colorado, cannabis taxes fund diversion and addiction-recovery programs, which are administered by the police.  In Portland, Oregon, most of a special 3 percent city tax on cannabis, part of which was meant to help jump-start minority entrepreneurs, somehow ended up in the police budget, infuriating local lawmakers who thought the cash would go to minority entrepreneurs....

Either Arizona, New Jersey, or maybe New Mexico or New York will be the next state to legalize cannabis for adults.  All need money, badly.  And in all states, elected officials and policymakers have suggested cannabis could provide that money.  This is the ATM argument for legalization.  But anyone running those campaigns will now have a harder sell promising cash to cops — at all, and not just up front.

As for California, lawmakers are now in a bind.  “I can think of a lot of betters uses of those funds,” said Matt Kumin, a San Francisco-based lawyer who advocated for Prop. 64’s passage.  In the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of Americans going untested for COVID-19 symptoms and millions more out of work, he’s not the only one.

Redirecting legalization money away from police budgets will require modifying the voter-approved legalization law.  This can probably be done by the state Legislature, but not without a fight. “The cops use blackmail, threaten, and practice low enforcement activity if pols threaten their budgets,” Kumin added.  Hints of this were underway before the pandemic and the protests.  In December, an effort to cut local weed taxes in Oakland, where Goldsberry and other merchants paid a 10 percent local tax on top of state taxes, in order to stimulate the industry was opposed — by the local police union.

Defunding the police will be a lengthy and divisive political project.  Whether legalization should fund the police in the first place may be a question settled much sooner.

June 8, 2020 in Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Criminal justice developments and reforms, Taxation information and issues , Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

New research on racial disparities in traffic stops and searches highlights how marijuana reform reduces searches (but not racial disparities)

2The events of the last week with its focus on police practices make all the more notably this already notable recent study, titled " A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States," published by the journal Nature Human Behavior.   Here is the article's abstract, with one line highlighted:

We assessed racial disparities in policing in the United States by compiling and analysing a dataset detailing nearly 100 million traffic stops conducted across the country. We found that black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions.  Furthermore, by examining the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and the likelihood that searches turned up contraband, we found evidence that the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers.  Finally, we found that legalization of recreational marijuana reduced the number of searches of white, black and Hispanic drivers — but the bar for searching black and Hispanic drivers was still lower than that for white drivers post-legalization.  Our results indicate that police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias and point to the value of policy interventions to mitigate these disparities. 

Here is more from the text of the article in the section titled "The effects of legalization of marijuana on stop outcomes":

In line with expectations, we find that the proportion of stops [in Colorado and Washington] that resulted in either a drug-related infraction or misdemeanour fell substantially in both states after marijuana was legalized at the end of 2012....

[Also] we found that after the legalization of marijuana the number of searches fell substantially in Colorado and Washington (Fig. 4), ostensibly because the policy change removed a common reason for conducting searches.

Because black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be searched before legalization, the policy change reduced the absolute gap in search rates between race groups; however, the relative gap persisted, with black and Hispanic drivers still more likely to be searched than white drivers post-legalization.  We further note that marijuana legalization had secondary impacts for law-abiding drivers, because fewer searches overall also meant fewer searches of those without contraband.  In the year after legalization in Colorado and Washington, about one-third fewer drivers were searched with no contraband found than in the year before legalization.

As further evidence that the observed drop in search rates in Colorado and Washington was due to marijuana legalization, we note that in the 12 states where marijuana was not legalized — and for which we have the necessary data — search rates did not exhibit sharp drops at the end of 2012 (Fig. 5).

Despite the legalization of marijuana decreasing search rates across race groups, Fig. 4 shows that the relative disparity between whites and minorities remained.  We applied the threshold test to assess the extent to which this disparity in search rates may reflect bias.  Examining the inferred thresholds (shown in Supplementary Fig. 3), we found that white drivers faced consistently higher search thresholds than minority drivers, both before and after marijuana legalization.  The data thus suggest that, although overall search rates dropped in Washington and Colorado, black and Hispanic drivers still faced discrimination in search decisions.

June 2, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"The heterogeneous effect of marijuana decriminalization policy on arrest rates in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2009–2018"

X03768716The title of this post is the title of this new research to appear in the July 2020 issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.  Here is the article's abstract:

Background

Marijuana decriminalization holds potential to reduce health inequities.  However, limited attention has focused on assessing the impact of decriminalization policies across different populations.  This study aims to determine the differential effect of a marijuana decriminalization policy change in Philadelphia, PA on marijuana arrests by demographic characteristics.

Methods

Using a comparative interrupted time series design, we assessed whether the onset of marijuana decriminalization in Philadelphia County was associated with reduction in arrests rates from 2009 to 2018 compared to Dauphin County.  Stratified models were used to describe the differential impact of decriminalization across different demographic populations.

Results

Compared to Dauphin, the mean arrest rate for all marijuana-related crimes in Philadelphia declined by 19.9 per 100,000 residents (34.9% reduction), 17.1 per 100,000 residents (43.1% reduction) for possession, and 2.8 per 100,000 resident (15.9% reduction) for sales/manufacturing.  Arrest rates also differed by demographic characteristics post-decriminalization.  Notably, African Americans had a greater absolute/relative reduction in possession-based arrests than Whites. However, relative reductions for sales/manufacturing-based arrests was nearly 3 times lower for African Americans.  Males had greater absolute/relative reduction for possession-based arrests, but lower relative reduction for sales/manufacturing-based arrests compared to females.  There were no substantial absolute differences by age; however, youths (vs. adults) experienced higher relative reduction in arrest rates.

Conclusions

Findings suggest an absolute/relative reduction for possession-based arrests post-decriminalization; however, relative disparities in sales/manufacturing-based arrests, specifically for African Americans, increased.  More consideration towards the heterogeneous effect of marijuana decriminalization are needed given the unintended harmful effects of arrest on already vulnerable populations.

May 27, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Race, Gender and Class Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 9, 2020

"Weeding Out Injustice: Amnesty for Pot Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Mitchell Crusto that I just came across and that was recently published in the Spring 2020 issue of the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly.  Here is its abstract:

There are a growing number of States that have legalized marijuana, challenging the view that marijuana is a dangerous drug.  These States are taking positions relative to both the retroactivity of the new laws and to amelioration of past offenses, which arguably contradict United States Supreme Court decisions on the retroactivity of changes in substantive criminal standards.  And, many States recognize that past marijuana laws have greatly contributed to the problems related to a broken criminal justice system, including mass incarceration and racial disparities, particularly to the devastation of communities of color.

In response to these legal developments, this Article advances the normative claim that past pot offenders are entitled to retroactive amelioration, in States that have legalized marijuana.  This Article argues that such retroactive amelioration has deep support in constitutional provisions and U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  Moreover, it suggests that, due to large numbers of offenders, over a long period of time, retroactive amelioration is best achieved through the use of amnesty.

May 9, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 1, 2020

Is anyone closely tracking state or national marijuana arrest data during this coronavirus era?

20170927_weedThough I have been thinking about the question in the title of this post for a few weeks now, this new Marijuana Moment article finally got me to work on this post.   The piece is titled "Thousands Of Constituents Urge Governors To Deprioritize Marijuana Enforcement Amid Coronavirus," and here are excerpts:

The marijuana reform group NORML is leading an effort to encourage states to deprioritize the enforcement of cannabis criminalization amid the coronavirus pandemic.  So far, more than 4,000 constituents across the country have participated in the organization’s action campaign launched on Wednesday by sending messages to their governors, urging them to take steps to minimize the spread of the virus by avoiding unnecessary marijuana arrests.

NORML created customized email blasts to supporters in all 39 states that have yet to legalize marijuana for adult use.  Each one contains a link to a suggested prewritten letter asking the governor to abide by the group’s public health recommendations during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Beyond deprioritizing marijuana enforcement, the organization said states should also drop existing charges for nonviolent cannabis violations “in order to reduce non-essential interactions,” review and release those currently incarcerated for marijuana convictions and waive pending probation requirements for cannabis-related cases.

Though I am unaware of any proclamations that formally call for police and prosecutors to deprioritize marijuana enforcement, it is my sense that functionally a lot of police and other law enforcement are deprioritizing all sorts of low-level criminal enforcement. For example, this local article on plummeting arrest rates notes:

In some places, police leaders have been frank about ordering officers to cease arresting for low-level crimes. In some places, prosecutors are refusing to pursue such cases. For example, Philadelphia police have been ordered to avoid arrests for crimes like drug offenses and burglaries. Instead, they are issuing warrants to be processed once the health crisis abates, according to reporting by the Associated Press.

Similarly, consider this local piece from Indiana: "The sheriff’s office is making fewer arrests to combat the spread of disease, [Jay County Sheriff] Ford said. For those charged with most non-violent misdemeanors and drug-related Level 6 felonies, court summons are being issued instead of them being arrested."  And this piece from Austin, Texas with some more specifics: "Austin posted the fewest number of arrests in the month of March for at least four years....  Some of the largest declines include a 75% drop in traffic warrant arrests, to 33 arrests this March from 132 arrests in March 2019.  A similar drop was also seen in the number of those arrested and charged with possession of marijuana."

I am not knocking NORML for seeking a  formal call for police and prosecutors to deprioritize marijuana enforcement, but I am really interest in seeing whatever data might be available concerning just how much enforcement is currently afoot.  My guess is relatively little, though still arguably a lot more than is healthy or just during these weird and uncertain times.

Eventually, but likely at least a few years from now, we will get official FBI arrest data for 2020 and we will all surely see a wide array of notable "COVID" craters.  I sure hope someone might be collecting and assessing the marijuana arrest data a lot sooner.

May 1, 2020 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Student presentation on "Marijuana Reform and Gun Ownership"

This will be another exciting week as students in my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform seminar are finishing up their presentations on research topics of their choice. The fourth presentation slated for this week will focus on how marijuana reforms intersect with gun ownership. Here is the student's description of his topic and some background readings he has provided:

My presentation will focus on the interaction between legal marijuana and gun ownership.  I will begin by analyzing federal firearms laws and their practical implementation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). I then look through examples of the conflicts these laws present in states which have legalized marijuana, and how federal laws currently prohibit any individual from exercising both their right to consume marijuana in legal states and their right to own a firearm under the Second Amendment. For some background reading, here are some helpful links:

Paul Barach, Why Can’t Medical Cannabis Patients Own Guns?, PotGuide (Jan. 17, 2020). 

Open Letter to All Federal Firearms Licensees, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (Sept. 21, 2011).

Aimee Green, Medical Marijuana Cardholders Can’t Be Denied Concealed Gun License Solely Because they Use Pot, Oregon Supreme Court Rules, OregonLive (May 19, 2011).

Mike Lowe, Mixed Legality of Marijuana on State, Federal Levels Leaves Gun Owners in Limbo, WGN9 (Jan. 9, 2020).

April 22, 2020 in Assembled readings on specific topics, Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Medical Marijuana Commentary and Debate, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Student presentation on "Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana, or 'High Driving'"

As I mentioned in this recent post, students in my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform seminar are now "taking over" my class by making presentations on research topics of their choice. Though the COVID-19 crisis means my resilient students are doing their presenting to the class online, going online has been going pretty well so far.   

As regular readers know, students provide in this space a little background on their topic and links to some relevant materials before they present.  Our first presentation planned for this week will focus on marijuana-influenced driving, and here is how my student has described his topic along with background readings he has provided for classmates (and the rest of us):

Marijuana legalization proponents quite often compare marijuana use to that of alcohol, claiming that alcohol consumption is far more dangerous, especially when a vehicle is involved.  Legalization dissenters, on the other hand, often make the argument that legalization would lead to rampant use and, inevitably, increases in traffic fatalities and damages as the result of people driving while stoned.  The aim of my class presentation and paper is to explore three topics related to Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana, or, as I like to call it, "High Driving": (1) Marijuana’s effect on driving ability, (2) The different state approaches to testing and prosecuting High Driving, and (3) what research shows about the relationship between the different legal marijuana regimes, the prevalence of High Driving, and the resulting consequences.

For background on these three interrelated topics, please reference the resources below:

"It’s High Time: A Common Sense Approach To Marijuana-Impaired Driving"

"Crash Fatality Rates After Recreational Marijuana Legalization in Washington and Colorado"

"The effects of medical marijuana laws on cannabis-involved driving"

"Drug Impaired Driving/Marijuana Drug-Impaired Driving Laws" (slightly out of date)

"Marijuana Use and Highway Safety"

April 7, 2020 in Assembled readings on specific topics, Business laws and regulatory issues, Criminal justice developments and reforms, Medical Marijuana Data and Research, Recreational Marijuana Data and Research | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Advocacy groups urge ceasing of cannabis arrests and release of cannabis offenders during COVID-19 outbreak

As detailed in this press release, the "Last Prisoner Project and other organizations are urging law enforcement officials to dramatically curtail arrests for non-violent crimes, including ceasing arrests for cannabis offenses. In addition to curtailing arrests, the organizations are calling for officials to release or grant clemency to those incarcerated for cannabis offenses along with dramatically reducing the number of incarcerated non-violent prisoners, whether sentenced or un-sentenced." Here is more:

The Marijuana Policy Project, Last Prisoner Project, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Clergy for a New Drug Policy, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, National Cannabis Industry Association, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have sent a letter calling for these actions to the National District Attorneys Association, National Governors Association, National Sheriffs’ Association, National Association of Chiefs of Police, National Correctional Industries Association, American Correctional Association, and AFSCME.

The letter is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

[W]e are imploring you to curtail arrests for non-violent offenses, such as marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale until the country is better able to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Similar actions have already been taken in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and nationally by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Many jurisdictions give police broad discretion to choose infractions and summonsed misdemeanors as alternatives to serious charges and arrests.  In addition, officers have wide discretion to merely provide warnings for minor offenses.  We encourage broad use of this flexibility in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to curtailing arrests, we are urging you to release cannabis offenders, along with dramatically reducing the number of incarcerated non-violent prisoners, whether sentenced or un-sentenced.  By significantly reducing the number of inmates in local jails and prisons, you can ultimately reduce the risk of the coronavirus being spread amongst inmates, staff, and the community.  Guards return to their families and communities after their shifts, as do prisoners upon their release.  The larger the number of individuals incarcerated, the greater the likelihood and possible scope of a related outbreak.  This puts prisoners, guards, and the larger community at risk as the communities grapple with this public health crisis. Significantly reducing the number of inmates is a necessary step to ensuring public health in the face of this crisis.

Many localities — including Baltimore; Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; New Jersey; Los Angeles; and New York City — and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have already begun to release inmates incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related offenses with the understanding that infections in prisons and jails are rampant, and releasing inmates could save the lives of not only inmates but also the custodial, medical, and safety staff that serve them.

March 27, 2020 in Campaigns, elections and public officials concerning reforms, Criminal justice developments and reforms, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)