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New Resolution Demands Congress Apologize For Failed Drug War

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Congress must recognize the failures of the war on drugs and apologize to the individuals and communities that have been harmed in its wake, a new House resolution implores.

The measure was introduced by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CBWG), on Tuesday. It calls on the House of Representatives to acknowledge the racist underpinnings of the drug war, the excess spending on drug enforcement efforts and the need to treat drug addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.

“The War on Drugs didn’t just fail to stem the damage of addiction, its very declaration failed to meet the values of equality and justice our nation was founded on,” Coleman said in a press release. “Congress has rightly decided to tackle the opioid epidemic with evidence-based policies that seek to solve the issue of addiction. But for years, we criminalized addiction in ways that caused irreparable harm not just to users, but their families, neighborhoods, and communities.”

The resolution largely focuses on the racial disparities in how drug addiction has been characterized and addressed over past decades. As the drug war heated up and substances such as crack cocaine were targeted, consumers were often treated as “criminals,” whereas individuals suffering from opioid addiction are commonly described as “victims,” the text of the resolution states.

“As we offer up funding and resources to address the disease of addiction among overwhelmingly White users, we must acknowledge our failures to do the same with victims of color.”

The resolution reflects a growing movement in Congress to reform federal cannabis laws, with groups like the CBC emphasizing the racially disproportionate nature of drug enforcement efforts. For example, the CBC introduced a 1,300-page omnibus bill last month that called for the descheduling of marijuana and the establishment of a “reinvestment fund for communities negatively impacted by the War on Drugs.”

The CBC also released a position statement last week reiterating its stance that marijuana should be decriminalized and calling for “automatic expungement for those convicted of misdemeanors for marijuana-related offenses, and an easy path to expungement for those previously convicted of felonies for marijuana-related offenses.”

Congressional Black Caucus Calls For Major Marijuana Reforms

This isn’t the first time House members have floated the idea of issuing a formal apology for the failed drug war.

Last year, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) filed a bill that would have established a commission to study the impact of mass incarceration and forced prison labor on black Americans. It also sought answers from the commission as to whether the federal government should “offer a formal apology on behalf of the people of the United States to the African-American victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ and their descendants” and whether “any form of compensation to the victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ and their descendants is warranted.”

Coleman’s new resolution is supported by 27 cosponsors and a number of civil rights and drug policy organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP and the Sentencing Project.

See below the full text of the resolution: 

RESOLUTION

To acknowledge that the War on Drugs has been a failed policy in achieving the goal of reducing drug use, and for the House of Representatives to apologize to the individuals and communities that were victimized by this policy.

Whereas, until the early 1900s, most of today’s illegal substances were not regulated by the Federal Government, and there was no “War on Drugs”;

Whereas, in the 1930s, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, who was a strong opponent to marijuana, pushed a heavy propaganda campaign to demonize marijuana use, stating that it caused people to be violent and criminals;

Whereas much of this propaganda was racially charged against the Mexican-American community, for example as Commissioner Anslinger testified to the 75th Congress in 1937 that, “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions”;

Whereas, in 1937, the 75th Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act which criminalized marijuana, and laws passed during the following years were introduced to institute mandatory minimum sentences for those who bought, sold, and used the drug;

Whereas over the course of the next few decades, studies conducted by scientists did not find any connection between the use of marijuana and violent behaviors, and in 1973 the Shafer Commission Report on Marijuana and Drugs concluded that, “The Commission believes that the contemporary American drug problem has emerged in part from our institutional response to drug use. … We have failed to weave policy into the fabric of social institutions.”;

Whereas despite mounting evidence, the Federal Government’s approach to the abuse of drugs continued to be one of criminalizing drug abuse instead of treatment;

Whereas, on June 18, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, stating that drug abuse is “public enemy number one”;

Whereas the Federal Government’s attitude toward drug use as a criminal problem only intensified with stricter drug laws, and the Government put little to no focus on treating those impacted;

Whereas the War on Drugs was admitted to be a move by the Nixon administration to attack his political opponents, and in 1994, President Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman admitted in an interview that the War on Drugs was a tool to arrest and manipulate Blacks and liberals stating, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”;

Whereas in 1986, the 99th Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act establishing, for the first time, mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of having specific amounts of cocaine;

Whereas, in 1989, drug czar William Bennett announced a $7,900,000,000 plan to combat the drug epidemic, but 70 percent of that amount went to hiring more law enforcement personnel and building prisons;

Whereas that money could have been better used to help provide treatment to the victims of those on heroin, cocaine, and other drugs;

Whereas, in 1986, the 99th Congress increased the sentences for dealing and possessing crack cocaine, and in a few years, enhanced law enforcement presence loomed over and aggressively policed communities of color;

Whereas to this day, these laws greatly target communities of color, dramatically increasing the incarceration rate of these communities and imposing a stigma that people of color are the main users of drugs, despite White Americans using at a similar if not greater rate;

Whereas Professor of Sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, Craig Reinarman, and Professor of Sociology at Queens College, Harry G. Levine, studied the use of crack cocaine in the United States and later published in their book, entitled “Crack in America”, which stated that, “In the spring of 1986, American politicians and news media began an extraordinary anti-drug frenzy that ran until 1992. Newspapers, magazines and television networks regularly carried lurid stories about a new ‘epidemic’ or ‘plague’ of drug use, especially of crack cocaine. They said this ‘epidemic’ was spreading rapidly from cities to the suburbs and was destroying American society. It is certainly true that the United States has real health and social problems that result from illegal and legal drug use. But it is certainly also true that the period from 1986 through 1992 was characterized by anti-drug extremism.”;

Whereas the use of opiates such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, heroin, and fentanyl has skyrocketed since the late 1990s and the amount of prescription opioids legally sold nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, despite no change in the amount of pain that Americans reported;

Whereas the National Center for Health Statistics suggested that there were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, and that a majority of these deaths come from synthetic opioids like fentanyl;

Whereas these drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing car accidents;

Whereas, on March 29, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an Executive order to establish the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and in a preliminary report the Commission has recommended that the opioid crisis, among other things, should be “declared a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act”;

Whereas many scholars, journalists, and civic leaders have addressed the strong contrast to the urgency of helping those impacted by opioids compared to those who were impacted by crack cocaine and other substances during the War on Drugs;

Whereas the terminology used to describe those impacted by the opioid epidemic is “victims”, and the terminology used to describe those impacted by the War on Drugs is “criminals”;

Whereas if the concept of equity was considered, meaning that individuals fairly receive what they need in order to create a level playing field, the same funds and support going to help those impacted by opioids will also go to help those impacted by heroin, cocaine, and the other drugs classified in the War on Drugs;

Whereas as stated by Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, “White brothers and sisters have been medicalized in terms of their trauma and addiction. Black and brown people have been criminalized for their trauma and addiction.”;

Whereas, on October 26, 2017, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, which allows access to the Public Health Emergency Fund at the Department of Health and Human Services, which has only tens of thousands of dollars; and

Whereas there has been no formal action by the United States Government to treat the epidemic of drug abuse and the War on Drugs as a health issue: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that—

(1) the War on Drugs has failed to achieve its goal of reducing drug use;

(2) the War on Drugs has created conditions in the United States that has allowed the opioid epidemic to be as deadly as it is;

(3) the War on Drugs is a racially charged policy that has led to the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, disproportionately affecting communities of color, stigmatized these communities as the cause of the drug problem, and has economically, politically, and socially crippled these communities for decades;

(4) in order to help those impacted, drug use has to be seen as a health issue and not a criminal issue;

(5) the House of Representatives should seek to hereby reconsider all laws associated and consistent with the War on Drugs, and prioritizes effective, evidence-based health policy solutions for individuals and communities suffering from addiction;

(6) the House of Representatives should enact civil remedies and restorative justice for any individual who has been incarcerated or otherwise punished through the Federal criminal justice system due to laws associated and consistent with the War on Drugs;

(7) Congress affirms that all individuals suffering from the disease of addiction be treated humanely, with equity and respect as all people struggling with any other health matter; and

(8) the House of Representatives hereby apologizes to the individuals and communities harmed through the War on Drugs and acknowledges that actions by this body have demonized and crim­i­nal­ized addiction for more than 80 years instead of accurately treating it as a health concern.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves

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President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.

Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”

“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.

“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.

“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”

In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.

Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:

Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.

Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.

During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.

Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.

He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.

Trump Issues Signing Statement On Medical Marijuana Provision Of Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference

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The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.

Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.

“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.

“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.

Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.

“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.

“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”

And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.

The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.

During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.

The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.

Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.

The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.

Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill

But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”

Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.

Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.

This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.

Two More Governors Call For Marijuana Legalization During Budget Speeches

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization

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A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”

“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.

If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.

The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.

“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”

“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”

Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.

While a House bill would prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana by those under 18, another bill in the Senate allows patients under 18 to smoke only if two doctors agree it to be the best method.

The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.

“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”

The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.

If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.

Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee

This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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