During his term as president so far, Donald Trump has told police to “please don’t be too nice” when making arrests, applauded the death penalty for people who sell drugs and, earlier this month, ordered the violent clearing of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park so he could pose with the Bible in front of a church.
But as Trump’s approval ratings plummet amid ongoing protests over racism and police brutality, Republican operatives are coming to his aid. Last week they went on the offensive, attacking Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s own record on criminal justice issues.
“From the war on drugs, to police militarization, Joe Biden has a long record of supporting questionable criminal justice policies,” says a memo published on the Republican National Committee (RNC) website. “Hoping to distance himself from decades of bad policy, Joe Biden is now calling for reforms to his own legislation.”
“Biden was a forceful supporter of the war on drugs, a war which he says did not go far enough,” one subheadline in the document reads.
Biden spent his Senate career implementing legislation that created the mass incarceration that plagues the black community today.
Biden played a central role in passing the 1994 Crime Bill—in the 15 yrs after the bill passed, our incarcerated population DOUBLED.
— GOP (@GOP) June 16, 2020
The memo appeared shortly before Trump signed an executive order imposing a set of limited police reforms. Though reform advocates have derided the measure as superficial, the GOP argues that it nevertheless shows Trump is better equipped than Biden to handle the current moment.
“Rather than call for reforms of his own policies” as Biden is now doing, the RNC memo says, “President Trump has taken action…to promote police accountability and community safety.”
The memo’s claims against Biden come as no surprise to reform advocates, who have long criticized his law-and-order approach to drug policy. For nearly three decades in the Senate, Biden vocally supported the expansion of police powers and funding, including escalating the war on drugs. Many policies Biden once championed are now coming under fire.
In 1984, for example, then-Sen. Biden—”along with segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond,” the Republican memo notes—spearheaded a law that expanded civil asset forfeiture, allowing prosecutors to seize property from people who sometimes hadn’t even been convicted of a crime. In 1990, he sponsored the National Drug Control Strategy Act, which allowed law enforcement to use that seized property to purchase “firearms, ammunition, and personal safety equipment for investigative and enforcement personnel.”
“Many have criticized the program,” the GOP memo says, “saying it was a for-profit incentive to take people’s property.”
After decades of pushing policies such as the war on drugs & police militarization, Biden is calling for reform on some of his own legislation.
Meanwhile, Pres. Trump is taking valuable action!
He signed an Executive Order that promotes police accountability & community safety.
— GOP (@GOP) June 19, 2020
In the mid-1990s, Biden supported legislation that allowed the Department of Defense to transfer surplus military equipment to domestic police forces, a program the GOP memo says “has been directly credited for the widespread militarization of police departments across the United States.” More than $7.4 billion in equipment has been transferred since the program launched in 1997.
Biden was also a key backer of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided billions of dollars in funding for police and prisons. He often argued that controlling crime required even more spending on police and prisons.
In 1989, for example, he criticized a proposal by President George H.W. Bush to escalate the war on drugs, saying the plan was “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.” The then-senator wanted to “hold every drug user accountable,” the memo quotes him saying.
The proposal, Biden said at the time, “doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”
In the months after Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, a black man, in 1991, Biden was a leading proponent of a so-called police officer’s bill of rights, which aimed to protect officers during internal investigations. A New York City police commissioner said in the Washington Post that the measures would “seriously undermine the ability of law enforcement administrators across America to discipline police officers.”
Criminal justice reformers say the memo’s criticisms of Biden’s are legitimate but overlook the Republican party’s own role in creating and perpetuating the country’s problems of mass incarceration, police brutality and racism.
“The GOP needs to hold a mirror to its face as they make these claims,” said Maritza Perez, director of national affairs for Drug Policy Action, the advocacy arm of Drug Policy Alliance. “Both parties have helped build the system of mass incarceration we have today. Both sides of the aisle have historically supported funding law enforcement over community investments.”
And despite Trump’s recent executive order, few reform advocates believe that his desire to rein in police violence is sincere. ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero described the White House’s response as “empty words of sympathy, anemic reforms, and hollow rhetoric.”
The Brennan Center, which advocates for police reform, said Trump’s executive order makes “only cosmetic changes when the nation is ready for law enforcement’s racism to be pulled out by its roots.”
For example, while the executive order bans the police use of chokeholds that prevent a person from breathing, the administration has said it does not apply to neck holds that cut off blood supply to the brain. The ban also doesn’t apply “if an officer’s life is at risk,” which critics say is a major loophole given officers’ tendency to overstate the danger presented by suspects, especially black men.
Reducing use of chokeholds that restrict airway does NOT also restrict the use of holds that restrict **blood flow to the brain.**
You might recall that that the lawyer for the police officer who put Eric Garner in a neck restraint insisted it was not a 'chokehold'
— Tim Mak (@timkmak) June 16, 2020
Other than emphasizing Trump’s recent executive order, the GOP memo is silent on the role that Trump and other Republicans have played in the criminal justice system’s dysfunction. It fails to mention Trump’s own support for what the memo calls “questionable criminal justice policies.”
In 1989, for example, as Trump began publicly flirting with the idea of running for office, a group of five black and Latino men, known as the Central Park Five, were wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman. In response, Trump took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers with the headline: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
In 2017, shortly after taking office, Trump spoke to a group of law enforcement officials in Long Island and encouraged officers to be “rough” with suspects. He assured law enforcement that “we have your backs 100 percent. Not like the old days.”
In the same speech, Trump congratulated himself for allowing local police to obtain surplus military equipment, telling officials, “When you wanted to take over and you used military equipment—and they were saying you couldn’t do it—you know what I said? That was my first day: You can do it,” he said. “And I tell you what—it’s being put to good use.”
Though the president signed modest criminal justice reform legislation into law and has granted clemency to a handful of people convicted of drug crimes, Trump has also repeatedly applauded foreign governments’ use of the death penalty against people who sell drugs. “It’s interesting,” he said as recently as February. “States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.”
Trump’s reelection campaign, however, doesn’t seem to be bothered by the hypocrisy of attacking Biden for behavior that Trump himself seems to support. Earlier this month, the campaign lobbed another attack at Biden, characterizing him of being a “typical Washington career politician who spent decades building up America’s mass incarceration system and poisoning the public discourse with race-baiting, divisive and inflammatory remarks.”
“Biden hasn’t just stoked America’s racial divisions over the course of his decades in Washington,” the post on the Trump campaign’s website says. “Biden was the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, which targeted Black Americans.”
As some reformers pointed out, other than the fact that Trump is a relative newcomer in politics, the very same criticisms could be said of his behavior as president.
“Joe Biden’s record on drug policy is quite abysmal,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the advocacy group NORML, told Marijuana Moment at the time. “Unfortunately, despite not having a long legislative record like Biden for direct comparison, Donald Trump’s history as it relates to racial justice and drug policy is also quite horrendous.”
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore
Majority Of Connecticut Residents Back Marijuana Legalization And Expungements, Poll Finds As Reform Bills Advance
As bills to legalize marijuana in Connecticut move through the legislature, a new poll finds that the reform has strong support among residents.
The survey from Sacred Heart University (SHU), released on Tuesday, found that about 66 percent of people in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, while 27 percent are opposed.
If the policy change is enacted, 62 percent said those with prior marijuana convictions should have their records expunged.
Younger people and those who identify as Democrats were more likely to back ending prohibition, compared to those 65 and older or Republicans.
Further, the poll asked about perceived harms of cannabis, and 77 percent said they felt the plant carried “fewer effects” or comparable effects as alcohol. About 72 percent drew the same contrast between marijuana and other drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and prescription painkillers.
These figures are largely consistent with a previous poll that SHU conducted in February.
And like that prior survey, nearly half of Connecticut residents again expressed that they still believe that there are potential negative public safety implications of legalization, even if they support the policy. In this case, 48 percent said they agree that allowing recreational cannabis would lead to a “significant” increase in impaired driving.
Two in five respondents said they agree that marijuana is a gateway to other drugs. The poll involved interviews with 1,000 residents from March 23-31.
But while these figures largely align with the last SHU survey, one thing that has changed is that reform legislation has started to advance in the legislature, including a bill being backed by the governor.
The Judiciary Committee approved Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) proposal, which was amended to more comprehensively address social equity issues, last week. That said, legislative leaders have indicated that the bill is fluid and will likely see additional revisions down the road.
A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.
One amendment that was adopted to the governor’s bill would provide for the free erasure of past marijuana convictions for possession or sales of up to four ounces of cannabis or six mature plants—a policy that is evidently backed by most residents in the state.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
For his part, House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last month that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”
Should that effort fail, the speaker said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. Lamont made similar remarks last week.
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Remembering Cannabis Legalization Pioneer Steve Fox
This post is a remembrance of longtime cannabis policy activist Steve Fox from his colleagues at VS Strategies and Vicente Sederberg LLP.
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
We are truly heartbroken to share news of the passing of our partner and dear friend Steve Fox. Steve served as managing partner of VS Strategies since co-founding it in 2013, and he was a leader at Vicente Sederberg LLP since its formation in 2010.
We welcome the celebration of Steve’s life through the sharing of thoughts and memories, and we ask for respect and privacy for his family, friends, and coworkers who are still reeling from this loss. We have also started a GoFundMe page to support Steve’s wife and daughters as they navigate their way through this extremely difficult time—https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-family-of-steve-fox
With wisdom beyond his years and a pioneering spirit, Steve was an “old soul” with a knack for seeing things in a new light. He was strongly principled, deeply empathic, and fiercely kind. And despite his usually soft-spoken and lighthearted demeanor, his opinions rarely went unheard and always carried significant weight.
His passion for politics and policy were exceeded only by his passion for people—his family, friends, and colleagues, as well as the multitude of strangers that he knew were being affected every day by politics and policy. He had a burning desire and uncanny ability to envision and effect positive change, both societally and in those closest to him. He was not just a remarkable human being, but a truly transformational leader.
Steve was always the first to volunteer and the last to seek credit. He was beyond generous with his time and patience, and perpetually understanding. He relished opportunities to provide counsel and guidance, and the feeling was mutual for those who received it. He was warmly regarded as a mentor by no fewer than a dozen current and former members of our firm, including all seven of us.
Steve was one of the first political professionals to enter the marijuana advocacy space. At a time when cannabis policy was just a blip on the political radar and most savvy up-and-comers were unwilling to dip a toe into the space, Steve dove in headfirst. While many viewed it as a losing cause that wasn’t worth the fight, he saw it as a cause worth fighting until it was won. And in working to legalize and regulate cannabis for medical and adult use, he found a way to fight simultaneously for several of his core values: To promote justice and compassion, to advance freedom and liberty, and to nurture and inspire the human spirit. Humbly righteous, judiciously aggressive, and relentlessly ethical, he was committed to doing the right thing, doing it the right way, and doing whatever it takes to get it done.
When he joined the Marijuana Policy Project in 2002, Steve was the only full-time cannabis lobbyist on Capitol Hill. He would remain at the forefront of the cannabis policy reform movement for nearly two decades, playing pivotal roles in several major victories at the federal and state levels.
Steve was a lead drafter of Colorado’s historic Amendment 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use, and he managed all aspects of the successful campaign behind its passage and implementation. He also conceptualized and co-founded Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), which laid a lot of groundwork for the legalization effort and contributed to a seismic shift in the U.S. cannabis policy debate. In 2009, he co-authored the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?,” which is based on the SAFER strategy.
Steve was always thinking step ahead of the rest. Long before cannabis was legalized, he envisioned a legal, organized, and responsible cannabis industry. He played leading roles in conceptualizing and establishing several of the nation’s largest and most influential cannabis trade organizations, including the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Cannabis Trade Federation, and the U.S. Cannabis Council. He regularly led working group meetings and calls, and he was a frequent speaker at cannabis conferences.
Steve’s role in cannabis community cannot be overstated. He was a trailblazer in the movement to end prohibition, and he was an architect and caretaker of the legal industry that is quickly replacing it. He beat the path, built the shelter, and worked tirelessly to make it as welcoming, accessible and beneficial as possible. He always put the mission—the wellbeing of others and the betterment of society—ahead of himself.
No one was more reluctant to sing their own praises while being so deserving of a louder refrain.
In 2013, Steve received a highly esteemed award from the Drug Policy Alliance in recognition of his long-term spearheading of the Colorado legalization effort. With an audience of hundreds and the spotlight squarely on him, he used the better part of his brief acceptance speech to give recognition to the people and organizations who had supported and worked alongside him. He reserved only the final thought for his own personal message and dedication. It was to his parents, for raising him to believe in the Jewish philosophy “Tikkun olam”—to “repair or heal the world” through beneficial and constructive acts. That is what drove Steve to take on the cause of cannabis policy reform. And it was what drove Steve to be the person he was.
Tikkun olam. Mission accomplished, dear friend.
And the entire VSS and VS family
Biden’s Pick To Lead DEA Voiced Openness To State Medical Marijuana Program
President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) previously described a New Jersey medical marijuana bill as “workable” while serving at the state’s attorney general.
Although the former top state prosecutor, Anne Milgram, doesn’t appear to have publicly detailed her personal views on cannabis reform, the limited comments she made over a decade ago signal that, at the very least, she’s open to allowing states to enact their own marijuana policies despite federal prohibition.
That’d be a big deal, as far as advocates are concerned. Having a DEA administrator who appears flexible with respect to state cannabis reform efforts would be a notable development given the role that the official plays in federal marijuana policy.
However, Milgram’s on-the-record remarks on the issue are admittedly minimal. In 2009, when the New Jersey legislature was considering a medical cannabis legalization bill, she called the proposal “workable,” according to a one-word quote included in an Associated Press report.
After the legislation was amended, a spokesperson for the then-attorney general said the change “tightens up the provisions…that could have become loopholes by people seeking to divert marijuana for illicit purposes.”
Biden announced Milgram as his pick to be the next DEA administrator on Monday, and now her nomination heads to the Senate. It is possible that she will be asked to elaborate on her views during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Milgram’s prior statements are far from an explicit endorsement of medical cannabis legalization, but they do indicate that the nominee is not vociferously opposed to state-level reforms as has been the case for prior DEA administrators. And in combination with other Biden cabinet picks, that bodes well for advocates.
Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear during his oral and written testimony before the Senate, for example, that he does not feel the Justice Department should use its resources to go after people acting in compliance with state marijuana laws. That stands in contrast with President Donald Trump’s first selection for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who rescinded Obama-era guidance deprioritizing prosecutions over state-legal cannabis activity.
The DEA, with authority delegated from the Department of Justice, plays an important role in determining the schedule status of marijuana and other drugs. If the agency’s administrator were to acknowledge the medical benefits of cannabis, it would deeply undermine its current classification in Schedule I, which is supposed to be reserved for substances with no therapeutic value.
That said, while the Justice Department and DEA play a key role in federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration is binding on the attorney general’s classification decision.
To that end, the former attorney general of California, Xavier Bacerra, was confirmed by the Senate to lead HHS, and he has a considerable record supporting cannabis reform and working to protect California’s legal program from federal interference.
Meanwhile, Biden has yet to nominate someone to run the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), despite earlier reporting that a selection was imminent.
The presumed leading candidate to be White House drug czar—Rahul Gupta, the former chair of the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Advisory Board—has played a critical role in overseeing the implementation and expansion of a state medical marijuana program and has publicly recognized both the therapeutic and economic potential of cannabis reform.
But while any pro-reform appointment is notable in the new administration, the DEA administrator has played a historically antagonistic role opposing federal or state policy changes as they concern cannabis. And so Milgram would stand out as an especially significant pick to that end.
The nominee would be taking over the defense to a number of pending lawsuits from marijuana and psychedelics reform advocates and patients if confirmed.
For example, Seattle doctor hoping to expand access to psilocybin mushrooms for terminally ill cancer patients is taking DEA to court over the agency’s recent denial of an application to legally use the psychedelic in end-of-life treatment.
Scientists and veterans sued the federal agency last year, arguing that the legal basis DEA has used to justify keeping marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional. They asked for a review of its decisions to reject rescheduling petitions in 2020, 2016 and 1992. DEA subsequently requested that the court dismiss that suit.
The agency has also been taken to court over delays in approving additional cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
The Scottsdale Research Institute alleged that DEA has been deliberately using delay tactics to avoid approving cultivation applications. A court mandated that the agency take steps to make good on its promise, and that suit was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
In March 2020, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party.