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.
According to the @DrugPolicyOrg, in 2016 the US made over 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations with 84 percent of those for possession only. This policy is not sustainable; it needs to change.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
We need to acknowledge that the War on Drugs didn’t just fail; it was a failure to stay true to the values of equality and fairness that we hold dear. All drug use, opioid, cocaine, and otherwise, should be treated as an addiction, not criminal behavior.
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
To that effect, I’ve introduced a resolution that formally expresses an apology from the US House, while also demanding that anyone suffering from the disease of addiction, receive humane treatment focused on their disease rather than punishment. https://t.co/dNKKfJ7bhh
— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 13, 2018
“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.”
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.
Thank you @RepBonnie for introducing H.Res. 933, a resolution that apologizes for the drug war, calls out the unfair treatment of people of color under drug law enforcement & demands all future drug policies be grounded in evidence-based health solutions. #CongressionalApology pic.twitter.com/HardXdqf6R
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) June 13, 2018
See below the full text of the 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.
Federal Financial Regulatory Agency Head Says Marijuana Banking Among Most Challenging Issues
The head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) said this week that marijuana business banking represents one of the most “challenging issues that I have encountered” at the agency.
“At a federal level it is still an illegal substance. And at many state levels, it’s now legal, and it’s legal to frankly bank it at a state level,” Chair Jelena McWilliams said. “And so banks find themselves caught between the federal regulatory regime and the state.”
While Congress continues to debate legislation to resolve the conflict, McWilliams told Crain’s Detroit that in the interim, she tells banks there’s “so much uncertainty in this space that as a federal regulator, I still have to say, it’s illegal to bank marijuana. But to the extent that you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, please follow FinCEN guidance.”
“We know we have banks that are banking marijuana businesses, and you know, we can’t bless them and say ‘go ahead and do it,'” she added. “But to the extent you’re doing it because it’s legal in your state, follow FinCEN guidance.”
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued guidance in 2014 for financial institutions that service cannabis businesses.
Advocates have been encouraged that the bipartisan Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act could still advance through Congress this year. The legislation, which would protest banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, cleared the House last year and now awaits action in the Senate Banking Committee.
Separately, the bill’s language was inserted into a House-passed coronavirus relief package last month. Its chief sponsor in the chamber, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), recently said he feels there’s a 50-50 chance the legislation will make it past the Senate.
Multiple Republican lawmakers criticized the inclusion of the marijuana banking language in the House package, arguing that it is not germane and is part of a Democratic wish list. However, its Senate sponsor, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), told Marijuana Moment he disagrees and feels the SAFE Banking Act should advance through the vehicle of COVID legislation.
Beyond the bipartisan support for the standalone bill in the House last year, a coalition of 34 state and territory attorneys general—including seven Republicans—are urging Congress to pass the coronavirus legislation with the banking language.
Vermont Senate Votes To Double Amount Of Marijuana That Can Be Possessed And Grown Without Jail Time
The Vermont Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would double the amount of marijuana that can be possessed and grown without the threat of jail time
The legislation also contains provisions for automatic expungements that stand to clear the records for thousands of misdemeanor cannabis convictions.
While the state legalized possession of up to one ounce and cultivation of two plants in 2018, possession of a second ounce or third or fourth plant is currently considered a misdemeanor.
The expungement bill, which cleared the chamber in a voice vote, was amended to add language making it so possessing up to two ounces or growing that third or fourth plant would be treated as a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine and no jail time.
Possession of more than two ounces or four plants would be treated as a misdemeanor, and individuals convicted could go through a court diversion program.
The main component of the legislation as originally introduced, however, concerns expungements. Text of the bill states that the “court shall order the expungement of criminal history records of violations of 18 V.S.A. § 4230(a)(1) that occurred prior to July 1, 2020” and the “process for expunging these records shall be completed not later than July 1, 2021.”
“Upon entry of an expungement order, the order shall be legally effective immediately and the person whose record is expunged shall be treated in all respects as if he or she had never been arrested, convicted, or sentenced for the offense,” it continues. “The court shall issue an order to expunge all records and files related to the arrest, citation, investigation, charge, adjudication of guilt, criminal proceedings, and probation related to the sentence.”
Advocates say that thousands of Vermonters could see their records automatically cleared because of the revised possession language.
However, the bill must still advance through the House before going to the governor’s desk, and there may be logistical and procedural challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic.
This development comes as legislators and activists continue to push for the legalization of marijuana sales in the state.
Both the House and Senate approved legislation to create such a tax-and-regulate model for cannabis. A bicameral conference committee, which as been appointed to merge the differences between the chambers’ bills but has not met yet, is one of the last steps needed to allow for legal cannabis commerce. The Senate approved S. 54 with a veto-proof majority last year during the first half of the two-year legislative session. The House voted in favor of its version of the legislation in February.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) said last month that the legislature will reconsider the legislation to legalize marijuana sales later this year, though she feels lawmakers and the administration are appropriately focused on responding to the health crisis for now.
Gov. Phil Scott (R), who reluctantly signed the earlier noncommercial legalization bill into law, has voiced concerns with adding legal sales to the mix. In particular, he is worried about road safety issues. That said, top lawmakers and an administration official indicated earlier this year that the governor is “at the table” in discussions about the current legislation and would be open to using cannabis tax revenue to fund an after-school program he’s pushing.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Effort Gets Boost From Ouster Of Anti-Reform Senators
Several key New Mexico state senators who have helped to block marijuana legalization legislation are on their way out after Tuesday’s primary election.
The secretary of state has called at least major four races where progressive challengers in districts across the state have won their contests against conservative-leaning incumbents. The Senate president pro tem, Finance Committee chair and several other lawmakers who remain opposed to adult-use legalization were rejected by Democratic voters.
While marijuana reform wasn’t the only thing on voters’ minds, with other major issues such as reproductive rights being at issue in the election, cannabis legislation has been one area where candidates have been pressed during the course of their campaigns.
The results bode well for the prospects of enacting legalization within the next year—a policy supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). In recent interviews, the candidates replacing the incumbents have broadly embraced comprehensive reform.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen (D) lost on Tuesday. The leader was asked in a recent survey about her views on cannabis reform and said that “[a]t this time I will not support the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico” and simply committed to “look at all Legislation that comes before the Senate and evaluate it on its merits.”
She also voted against cannabis reform on several occasions, including for a proposed 2016 constitutional amendment to establish a legal marijuana market in the state.
Meanwhile, her challenger, Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce President Carrie Hamblen, said, “I support the legalization of recreational marijuana as it can provide much needed jobs, can be regulated, and communities can benefit from the taxation.”
“Plus, by legalizing it, we can stop criminalizing people of color and focus more on incarcerating those with legitimate crimes,” she said.
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith (D) lost his race against retired special education teacher Neomi Martinez-Parra. Smith’s panel declined to act on a House-passed legalization bill last year, ending its prospects. He also voted against the 2016 measure on the floor.
“I do not support legalizing the use until the federal government steps to the plate,” he said recently. “I have over 600 Border Patrol stationed in my district and they will enforce the federal law.”
Martinez-Parra, meanwhile, said the state “needs to diversify its revenue” and legalization represents an opportunity to that end.
“We cannot rely on oil as the major source of revenue,” she said. “I support legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana, as long as we have the right regulation in place to protect our children.”
Given the opening for Smith’s chairmanship, advocates say the prospects of enacting broader drug policy reform, even beyond marijuana legalization, will be significantly increased since he lost.
Another opponent to comprehensive cannabis reform, Sen. Clemente Sanchez (D), was also shown the door. The senator said that while he supports the state’s medical cannabis program, he felt “we need to ensure that the recreational sales do not hurt it and we are not there yet.”
“We need to make sure that law enforcement can test for impairment and we don’t have that yet. And most importantly we need to keep out of our youth,” he said.
During his time as chair of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, he made a floor motion to specifically request that a legalization bill be referred to his panel in order to kill it. He also voted against legal cannabis on the floor.
Pamela Cordova, a retired educator, beat the incumbent, and she has embraced comprehensive cannabis reform.
“I support legalizing recreational marijuana, with strong regulation and taxation,” she said. “I believe our limited law enforcement resources can be better spent addressing more serious criminal behavior. New Mexico will benefit from the millions of dollars in tax revenue to our general fund at a time we most need it.”
Sen. Richard Martinez (D) appears to have lost his race to Leo Jaramillo, though the secretary of state hasn’t called the race yet. The senator voted to kill a legalization bill in the Judiciary Committee this year, though his record also involves introducing legislation to establish safe injection facilities in the state and voting for the 2016 legalization measure. Even so, advocates say he’s become increasingly conservative in his votes.
Jaramillo, on the other hand, stated clearly that marijuana “should be legal for both medical and recreational purposes.”
“It will attract new industries to the state and trim New Mexico’s heavy economic independence on oil production,” he said. “The legalization of recreational cannabis will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The legalization of marijuana would be one step in a new direction.”
Sen. Gabe Ramos (D), who was appointed to the office last year, is out after losing to school psychologist Siah Correa Hemphill. He hasn’t cast a vote on legalization during his time in the seat, though advocates expected that he would align himself closer to the conservative faction of the party. When discussing the issue, he’s stressed that he would have to see the final product before making a decision, though he anticipated passage.
“I really want to see the actual bill before it gets on the floor,” he said in January. “I have a feeling that it’s going to pass, with restrictions.”
“We’ll have to look closely at those restrictions, what they’re going to be,” he added. “I know there’s a lot of concern from the legislators that I’ve talked to, but if we got a good bill with restrictions, I think it could pass. The proof will be in the pudding, he said, when it goes through the committees and then to the floor.”
Hemphill said “I support legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico as a way to free up law enforcement to address more pressing criminal activity.”
“With proper regulation and taxation, marijuana sales could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue for schools, roads, and healthcare,” she said.
While Tuesday night’s election results generally favored cannabis reform advocates, there were a couple examples of opponents holding on to their seats.
Incumbent Sen. George Muñoz (D) defeated a progressive challenger, and he’s previously voted against legalization. Likewise, Judiciary Chair Joe Cervantes (D) won his reelection race. His panel voted to table a legalization bill during the short session at the beginning of the year.
During that hearing, the chair raised concerns with provisions around labor union influence on the marijuana industry and directing the state to subsidize medical cannabis purchases for low-income patients. He also took issue with the specifics of language allowing people with past drug convictions to obtain licenses.
Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment that, overall, the election results mean that “New Mexico takes one step closer to legalizing cannabis.”
“As a result of last night’s primary, a handful of powerful Senate Democrats who supported the drug war status quo and blocked cannabis legalization year after year have lost their elections,” she said. “The Democratic candidates, if they win in November, are likely to vote in favor of cannabis and other drug policy reform measures.”
The vote “signals that New Mexico can become the next state to legalize cannabis for the right reasons: protecting consumers, keeping cannabis out of the hands of our children, putting medical cannabis patients first, reinvesting back into communities most harmed by prohibition and diversifying our economy.”
It remains to be seen whether legislators will again make an attempt to pass legalization legislation when they convene for a special session on June 18, but what’s clear is that voters sent a message by ousting these key senators: they’re ready for progressive change. When the new legislature is seated for the 2021 session, several Democratic opponents of legal cannabis will be gone, and they will likely have been replaced by supporters.
In December, a cannabis working group established by the governor released a poll showing overwhelming public support for cannabis legalization.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.