Drug reform policy took center stage at the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire on Friday, with candidates weighing in on issues such as decriminalizing possession of controlled substances and how to address substance misuse.
At one point, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg was pressed to defend racial disparities in his city’s marijuana enforcement rates.
In a separate exchange, Buttigeig was asked about his proposal to decriminalize possession of all drugs—a plank included in both his mental health and racial justice plans. But the candidate contested the premise of the question, saying that he simply wants to end incarceration for possessing illegal substances, a semantic distinction that he’s made before.
“No, what I’ve called for is that incarceration should no longer be the response to drug possession. What I’m calling for is that we end the use of incarceration as a response,” he said. “This does not mean that it will be lawful to produce or distribute those kinds of harmful drugs, but also, as we know from the opioid crisis, some of this has been driven by companies that were acting irresponsibly with substances that were lawful.”
— ABC News (@ABC) February 8, 2020
The remarks are a continuation of Buttigieg’s resistance to embracing terminology commonly used by drug reform advocates. In December, the candidate stressed that his proposal to end the threat of incarceration for drug offenses is not a “blanket decriminalization of a lot of other harmful substances.”
Major drug policy reform groups have long characterized removing the threat of incarceration for drug offenses—particularly first offenses—as decriminalization. However, others contend that the imposition of any criminal penalties, whether or not they come with time in jail, does not reflect a true decriminalization policy.
“These kinds of addictions are a medical issue, not a moral failure on the part of somebody battling that addiction,” the former mayor said, adding that the country should invest in harm reduction policies such as medication-assisted treatment to mitigate the risk of drug overdoses.
Later, Buttigieg was center stage for a discussion about the way marijuana criminalization is enforced across racial lines.
The candidate was asked about the rate of cannabis possession arrests during his time as mayor, with the moderator saying that racial disparities increased after he took office.
“On my watch, drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average—and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana,” he countered, saying that his administration made a decision to target drug enforcement resources in cases connected to gang murders.
The former mayor added that there’s “no question” that systemic racial bias has been a factor in cannabis arrests.
Buttigieg revisited a point he made during campaign stops in Iowa prior to this week’s caucus: while it has become a largely mainstream idea that the country needs to take a more health-focused approach to substance misuse amid the opioid crisis, many voices were missing decades ago when the government increased criminal penalties for drug offenses that disproportionately impacted communities of color.
“That is one of the reasons why I am calling for us as a country to take up those reforms that end incarceration as a response to possession,” he said.
The candidate emphasized that legalization of cannabis would be coupled with policies that retroactively removed criminal records for those previously convicted.
.@LinseyDavis on racial disparity in marijuana arrests in South Bend: You called it "evidence of systemic racism” … weren’t you the head of the system?
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 8, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was prompted by the moderators to weigh on whether Buttigieg offered a sufficient explanation for his city’s cannabis enforcement record.
“No,” she said. “You have to own up to the facts. And it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system.”
Buttigieg attempts to explain the increase in black arrests in South Bend under his leadership for marijuana possession.
ABC's Linsey Davis: "Sen. Warren, is that a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg?"
Warren: "No." pic.twitter.com/iesdxQTXK3
— Axios (@axios) February 8, 2020
“We need to rework our criminal justice system from the front end on what we make illegal all the way through the system and how we help people come back into the community,” she said.
Earlier in the debate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked about his support for decriminalizing opioids. Pressed about the potential cost of his campaign proposal that people who overdose “should be sent to mandatory treatment centers for three days to convince them to seek long-term treatment,” the candidate said pharmaceutical companies should foot the bill.
“As president, we will take back those profits [from drug companies that market opioids] and put them to work right here in New Hampshire so that if you are seeking treatment, you have resources to be able to pursue it,” he said. “This is not a money problem fundamentally, this is a human problem. But money cannot be the obstacle.”
Yang also voiced support for opening supervised consumption sites for illegal drugs, adding that “if you are seeking treatment, you have to know you are not going to be sent to jail.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his part, said he wants to “end the war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”
Decrying a “racist system, from top to bottom,” the senator called for an end to private prisons.
We’re going to end the War on Drugs.
We’re going to end private prisons and detention centers.
We’re going to end cash bail. #DemDebate
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 8, 2020
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator played a leading role in enacting several punitive drug laws, made a point during the debate of saying that he now wants “no one going to jail for a drug offense.”
“They go mandatory treatment,” he said. “No prison.”
Biden also pointed to his early work to support and fund drug courts. “I set them up,” he said. “I wrote it into law.”
As the candidates were on stage, the Republican National Committee targeted Biden’s drug war record in a tweet.
Joe Biden would be disastrous for the US.
❌Under VP Biden—America LOST 200K manufacturing jobs
✔️Under Pres. Trump—America ADDED 514K manufacturing jobs
❌Biden’s "War on Drugs" worsened the opioid epidemic
✔️For the 1st time in 29 yrs—the # of fatal overdoses is down
— GOP (@GOP) February 8, 2020
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) faced a question about her record as a prosecutor and whether she regrets sending people to jail for drugs.
The senator replied by pointing to her record running what she called “one of the most successful drug courts in the country.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ABC News.
DEA Seeks Contractor Capable Of Burning Four Tons of Marijuana Per Day
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reached out for help burning “at least” 1,000 pounds of marijuana per hour for eight hours straight.
Every year, DEA seizes millions of marijuana plants and literal tons of raw cannabis, which eventually end up being destroyed. The successful contractor in Arizona would be responsible for burning marijuana and other controlled substances seized as evidence in drug cases “to a point where there are no detectable levels, as measured by standard analytical methods, of byproduct from the destruction process.”
“DEA shall inspect the incinerator to ensure no drug residue remains,” the agency said.
DEA posted the work description earlier this month in what’s called a “sources sought notice,” an initial step before a formal request for proposals is sent.
“This is not a request for proposals and does not obligate the Government to award a contract,” the post says. “The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is conducting market research, and is encouraging all businesses, including small businesses, to respond to this notice.”
An accompanying statement of work gives a behind-the-scenes look at the DEA’s process of destroying seized drugs. Typical boxes weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, for example, but can weigh up to 200 pounds. Contraband might come in on “semi-trucks, tractor trailers, cargo vans, fork lifts, etc.,” the work description says.
“The drugs are usually tightly compressed ‘bricks’ or ‘bales,’” it continues, and are packaged in all sorts of materials: cardboard, wrapping paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, packing tape, “duct tape and derivatives,” plastic evidence bags, “grease/oil” and others. Contractors will be expected to burn that stuff, too.
To avoid potential contact highs, there must be ”proper ventilation” and “no smoke buildup” will be allowed. Other mandates include closed-circuit cameras that capture the entire process, which DEA reserves the right to access, as well as background checks and regular drug tests of all personnel.
Armed DEA agents and contractors will be present during scheduled burns.
The work is also very hush-hush, so whoever gets the job shouldn’t expect to regale friends with stories of the latest large-scale federal weed burning sesh.
“The contractor and its personnel shall hold all information obtained under the DEA contract in the strictest confidence,” the work description says. “All information obtained shall be used only for performing this contract and shall not be divulged nor made known in any manner except as necessary to perform this contract.”
The work would start January 1 of next year and the contract would expire in 2026 unless terminated sooner. The deadline to send information for would-be contractors was Friday.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.