As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.
But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.
And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.
For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:
Marijuana Goes Mainstream
Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"
Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.
The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.
In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.
Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.
And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open
During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.
The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.
Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.
This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.
While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D
Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.
The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.
This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"
In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.
Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.
But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms
Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.
New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.
Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.
It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.
In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River
While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.
It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.
But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.
Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs
After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.
Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills
The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.
Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity
The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.
The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.
On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.