Jeff Sessions’ new war on drugs won’t be any more effective than the old one

Op-ed from leaders in the ACLU and the Sentencing Project

June 24, 2017

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right to be concerned about recent increases in violent crime in some of our nation’s largest cities, as well as a tragic rise in drug overdoses nationwide (“Lax drug enforcement means more violence,” op-ed). But there is little reason to believe that his response – reviving the failed “war on drugs” and imposing more mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders – will do anything to solve the problem. His prescription contravenes a growing bipartisan consensus that the war on drugs has not worked. And it would exacerbate mass incarceration, the most pressing civil rights problem of the day.

Sessions’ first mistake is to conflate correlation and causation. He argues that the rise in murder rates in 2015 was somehow related to his predecessor Eric Holder’s August 2013 directive scaling back federal prosecutions in lower-level drug cases. That policy urged prosecutors to reserve the most serious charges for high-level offenses. Holder directed them to avoid unnecessarily harsh mandatory minimum sentences for defendants whose conduct involved no actual or threatened violence, and who had no leadership role in criminal enterprises or gangs, no substantial ties to drug trafficking organizations and no significant criminal history. (Mandatory minimums can lead to draconian sentences, as in the case of Ramona Brant, a first-time offender sentenced to life imprisonment for her part in distributing drugs at the direction of an abusive boyfriend). Individuals who met the stringent criteria of Holder’s policy would still be prosecuted, but they would be spared overly long mandatory minimums. Sessions offers no evidence that this policy caused the recent spikes in violent crime or drug overdoses. There are three reasons to doubt that there is any significant connection between the two.

First, federal prosecutors handle fewer than 10 percent of all criminal cases, so a modest change in their charging policy with respect to a subset of drug cases is unlikely to have a nationwide impact on crime. The other 90 percent of criminal prosecution is conducted by state prosecutors, who were not affected by Holder’s policy.

Second, the few individuals who benefited from Holder’s policy by definition lacked a sustained history of crime or violence or any connections to major drug traffickers.
 

Third, the increases in violent crime that Sessions cites are not nationally uniform, which one would expect if they were attributable to federal policy. In 2015, murder rates rose in Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore, to be sure. But they declined in Boston and El Paso, and stayed relatively steady in New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and Atlanta. If federal drug policy were responsible for the changes, we would not see such dramatic variances from city to city.

Nor is there any evidence that increases in drug overdoses have anything to do with shorter sentences for a small subset of nonviolent drug offenders in federal courts. Again, the vast majority of drug prosecutions are in state court under state law and are unaffected by the attorney general’s policies. And the rise in drug overdoses is a direct result of the opioid and related heroin epidemics, which have been caused principally by increased access to prescription painkillers from doctors and pill mills. That tragic development calls for treatment of addicts and closer regulation of doctors, not mandatory minimums imposed on street-level drug sellers, who are easily replaced in communities that have few lawful job opportunities.

Most disturbing, Sessions seems to have no concern for the fact that the United States leads the world in incarceration; that its prison population is disproportionately black, Hispanic and poor; or that incarceration inflicts deep and long-lasting costs on the very communities most vulnerable to crime in the first place. As of 2001, 1 of every 3 black male babies born that year could expect to be imprisoned in his lifetime, and while racial disparities have been modestly reduced since then, African Americans are still a disproportionate share of the prison population. Mass incarceration has disrupted families, created even greater barriers to employment and increased the likelihood that the next generation of children will themselves be incarcerated. Advocates as diverse as the Koch brothers and George Soros, the Center for American Progress and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree that we need to scale back the harshness of our criminal justice system.

Rather than expanding the drug war, Sessions would be smarter to examine local conditions that influence crime and violence, including policing strategies, availability of guns, community engagement and concentrated poverty. Responding to those underlying problems, and restoring trust through consent decrees that reduce police abuse, hold considerably more promise of producing public safety. Sessions’s revival of the failed policies of the past, by contrast, has little hope of reducing violent crime or drug overdoses.

Cole is national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Mauer is executive director of the Sentencing Project.

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Orlando Airport bans weed, despite local decriminalization and MMJ expansion


ORLANDO, Fla. — A board overseeing Orlando International Airport approved a measure prohibiting marijuana on its premises, despite its decriminalization by local police and passage of its use for medical purposes by Florida voters last fall.

The Greater Aviation Authority Board on Wednesday passed a“consent agenda” that included the marijuana provision without any discussion.

In a letter to board members, executive director Phil Brown said that marijuana is still regarded as a controlled substance under federal law, and the authority is required to follow federal rules. Brown said the policy will be posted on signs at the airport. Airport officials gave no indication how it would be enforced.

The policy says someone with marijuana could have it confiscated and be arrested, though the Orlando Police Department has decriminalized possession in small amounts.

In Colorado, a ban on marijuana at Denver International Airport has been in place since 2014, the year recreational marijuana sales started.

Cannabist staff contributed to this report.

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Recipe: Take it easy and make these no-bake Stoner Chocolate Balls


By Eric Roth - June 24, 2017

Cooking up edibles at home is fun, but sometimes it’s nice to get baked without doing any baking or firing up the stove.

So that brings us to this weed recipe for stoner chocolate balls — tasty, chocolaty bites full of wholesome oatmeal and peanut butter with a boost of cannabutter to bring it all together.

These treats are easy to make and they can be frozen. So make an extra batch if you’re so inclined — it could pay off to keep some extra chocolate balls in the deep freeze. They’d come in mighty handy for an impromptu gathering or if you needed a last-minute gift for your favorite cannabis indulger. That pretty much includes everyone in my family, how about yours?
 

I made the cannabutter with the strain Silver Haze. It was on special at the dispensary Nectar in Portland, Oregon, and I had heard good things. A sativa-dominant strain, I find this to be potent while at the same time it leaves me clear-headed and happy.

What more could a person want? Except maybe another chocolate ball!

Stoner Chocolate balls

Makes 12 1-inch balls

Ingredients

1 cup oatmeal

½ cup peanut butter, creamy or chunky

¼ cup sweetened dried coconut

3 tablespoons cocoa

1 teaspoon instant espresso

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons cannabutter, softened

3 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa

Directions

1. In a medium bowl combine all the ingredients with the exception of the powdered sugar and remaining cocoa. Stir to blend well and chill for 30 minutes.

2. In a small bowl combine the powdered sugar and the cocoa.

3. Divide the chilled mixture into 12 portions, form into balls by hand and roll each in the sugar/cocoa mixture. Place on a sheet of parchment or waxed paper as you go.

4. Store in refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

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Colorado students given $420,000 in marijuana tax-funded scholarships

All high school graduates in Pueblo County are automatically eligible for what's believed to be the first-of-its-kind scholarship program

June 23, 2017

Marijuana taxes paid the lion’s share of the new Pueblo County Scholarship Fund that on Tuesday awarded 210 students $2,000 each for the 2017-18 academic year.

But Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace said much of the credit is due to the southern Colorado sunshine that blasted those students at the scholarship award ceremony held on the steps of the county courthouse.

The region’s abundant natural resource has made the county a hub for the burgeoning outdoor- and greenhouse-grown cannabis industry, Pace told The Cannabist. An excise tax levied on the plant’s first point of wholesale transfer paid for what Pueblo County calls a first-of-its-kind scholarship program.

Last year the excise tax was 2 percent, Pace said. It’s scheduled to grow 1 percent annually, eventually topping out at 5 percent. Half of the tax dollars collected go to the scholarship fund, with the other half allocated for community enhancement projects.

“For years, our community has discussed creating local scholarships that could provide opportunity and help break cycles of poverty,” Pace said. “The Pueblo County Scholarship Fund will change lives, families and benefit generations to come.”

All Pueblo County high school graduates who plan on residing in the county and attending Pueblo Community College or Colorado State University-Pueblo are eligible for the annual scholarship, which is administered in partnership with the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation.

Pace was a driving force behind the creation of the county’s marijuana excise tax, approved by voters in 2015. He said it was designed to ensure that Pueblo, a Hispanic-majority community, benefits from Colorado’s cannabis boom.

“There are vast opportunities in cannabis — from growing to research — and we want to make sure all Coloradans benefit, not just a select few,” he said.

pilot version of the scholarship program launched last year, with 23 students benefiting.

Pace said he is particularly excited that the scholarships are helping students attend CSU-Pueblo, which is also utilizing cannabis tax revenue.

The school opened the Institute of Cannabis Research (ICR) in 2016 to study a broad array of topics such as industrial hemp cultivation, the medical efficacy of cannabidiol and the impact the marijuana industry is having on local economies.

ICR is funded by a unique state-county partnership combining $900,000 from the state’s marijuana tax cash fund and $270,000 in marijuana excise tax funds collected by Pueblo County and designated for community enhancement. In April, the institute hosted its first international, multidisciplinary cannabis research conference headlined by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist known as the “father of cannabis research.”

The fact that this year’s scholarships totaled $420,000 is pure coincidence, Pace said, noting that the fund hit that figure after the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative contributed a matching grant of nearly $50,000.

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Pursuit of opioid crisis accountability has taken a promising turn

Denver Post editorial: State attorneys general are right to question whether prescription drug makers were cynical in promoting their medicines.

June 23, 2017

An important question for the nation as it struggles with its opioid epidemic is whether, or to what degree, Big Pharma is behind the disaster. Were doctors too often swayed by drug makers in prescribing painkillers needlessly? Were the drug makers aware of the dangers of addiction but unwilling to change practices in marketing the drugs? Could more have been done to make the drugs harder to abuse?

Such questions gain even more importance now that the coast-to-coast epidemic is overwhelming hospitals. According to recently released public data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, hospitals saw 1.27 million opioid-related emergency room visits or inpatient stays in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. The total is a 64 percent increase for in-room care and nearly 100 percent increase in the ER from 2005.

Related: Colorado attorney general, counterparts across U.S. to investigate drugmakers’ possible ties to opioid crisis

So count us as pleased that Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has been working with dozens of state attorneys general in a months-long investigation that intends to answer these questions. Coffman tells us that findings from the recently acknowledged investigation are soon to be released.

What to expect? “We have reason to believe that there are some opioid manufacturers who chose not to see the dangers of over-prescribing,” Coffman tells us.

little history helps in considering the investigation by the attorneys general. Starting in the mid-1970s, as Percocet and Vicodin started showing up in the medicine cabinet, doctors were being told the drugs could work wonders in managing pain. In 1980, a New England Journal of Medicine report stated that addiction shouldn’t be of concern. In the ’80s, pain-management specialists like Russell Portenoy were telling doctors and patients that opioid painkillers were safe and a more humane alternative to surgery.

In the ’90s, Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin debuted. Doctors started talking about doing a better job of treating pain. Purdue created a video promotion sent to doctors’ offices that showcased patients who had reclaimed their lives from chronic pain, and an expert in the videos claimed the drugs came without serious side effects.

Sales of the painkillers mushroomed, and during the first years of this century, pain management through opioid prescriptions became the expectation.
 

In 2011, Portenoy and others began reversing their recommendations as addictions to opioids, either prescription drugs or illegals like heroin, began to rise.

“Clearly,” Portenoy said, “if I had an inkling of what I know now then, I wouldn’t have spoken in the way that I spoke. It was clearly the wrong thing to do.”

But it wasn’t until last year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for prescribing the drugs to alert doctors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered oxycodone and fentanyl carry warnings about addiction.

Yes, there should be the expectation of personal accountability. Abusing prescription medications or turning to the illegal drug trade to feed an addiction are irresponsible acts. But given that we’re talking about highly addictive substances in the first place, the AGs are easily within their right to question whether prescription drug makers were cynical in promoting their medicines.

We’ll have to wait to review the findings to know exactly how to respond. But, as with investigations that revealed corrupt practices in cigarette sales, it’s certainly reasonable to think that drug makers should be on the hook to help cover the societal damage this epidemic has created.

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com

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