Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro proposed a criminal justice plan pledging that if he is elected president he will legalize marijuana, expunge prior cannabis convictions and invest in communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
The “First Chance Plan,” released on Wednesday, is designed to take a preventative approach to people entering the criminal justice system while also providing resources for those who’ve already been incarcerated. The 2020 Democratic candidate pointed to the war on drugs as an example of a policy that “became a siege against people who are poor, the most vulnerable individuals, and the most marginalized communities.”
“Today more than 2 million people are incarcerated, and more than half a million folks are locked up for non-violent drug offenses, disproportionately young African American and Latino men,” he said. “The human costs are staggering: families torn apart, billions wasted in taxpayer dollars, and the lost potential of a generation.”
My #FirstChance Plan:
✔️Justice for Communities of Color
✔️End Police Violence
✔️Legalize Marijuana, Expunge Records
✔️Abolish the Death Penalty
✔️Fair Trials for All
✔️Heal The Wounds of Mass Incarceration https://t.co/dvXzJekckt
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 23, 2019
Castro said punitive federal drug laws, including the 1994 crime bill that another candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, played a leading role in enacting, have “enabled the over-policing of communities of color, creating a system of mass incarceration and a less just nation.”
To correct the problem, addiction should be treated like a public health issue, Castro said. Treating the problem through the criminal justice system has “shattered communities, strengthened criminal groups, and locked up those who did not deserve it.”
While not explicitly endorsing the decriminalization of drug possession as some other candidates have, Castro is calling to “end the War on Drugs” and “address the opioid crisis and other challenges of drug addiction as primarily public health issues, not seek to further harm the individuals and communities suffering addiction.”
“As president, I will bring our misguided War on Drugs to an end.”
That involves legalizing cannabis, expunging the records of those with non-violent marijuana convictions on their record and placing a federal tax on sales, while using that revenue to help those most impacted by prohibition.
“We will regulate the market and place a tax on all recreational sales, investing billions in revenue generated in the communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs,” the plan says.
We talk a lot about second chances, but too many people in our nation never even got a first chance.
My #FirstChance plan connects the dots between housing, education, and health to ensure everyone has a first chance in life.
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 23, 2019
In order to promote equity in the legal industry, Castro said he would also create grant programs “that support minority-owned businesses and prioritize people directly affected by the war on drugs in receiving marijuana business licenses.”
The wide-ranging plan also includes proposals to end drug sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, as well as launch a federal review of all sentencing guidelines to stop other racial disparities.
Castro said he’d launch initiatives aimed at preventing misuse of what he called “dangerous” drugs and treating addiction. Further, he pledged that pharmaceutical companies whose actions contributed to the country’s opioid problem would be held accountable “for their role in the suffering of millions. ”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-IVT), a rival presidential candidate, rolled out his own marijuana-focused plan on Thursday that pledges to deschedule the substances within the first 100 days of his administration, ban tobacco companies from participating in the industry and encourage nonprofit business models.
And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), another contender, also released a plan on Thursday that emphasizes the need to treat addiction in the public health sector. His proposals include decriminalizing possession of all drugs and investing in harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites.
Like several other presidential candidates, Castro said he would use presidential clemency powers to immediately affect change in the criminal justice system. He pledged to create an independent commission to review the thousands of cases of non-violent drug offenders serving time in federal prison, with the panel making recommendations to him about clemency opportunities.
“This is the single biggest step we can take to immediately reduce the unacceptable size of our prison population and set an example for the rest of the country that the era of mass incarceration must end,” he said.
“There are an estimated 17,000-plus people serving unjust and excessive sentences in federal prisons right now, often for non-violent drug offenses.”
He is also pledging to “pass legislation requiring states that receive benefits to lift the lifetime ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for people with felony drug convictions.”
Notably, Castro recognized that reform in the federal prison system isn’t enough to end mass incarceration. That’s why he’s proposing “a top-to-bottom audit of every federal dollar to find the ways in which the federal government subsidizes cruel and harmful practices in state and local prison systems, and support efforts to redirect resources towards restorative justice.”
Other non-drug specific reform proposals in his plan include abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, ending the death penalty and solitary confinement and restoring voting rights for individuals who were incarcerated.
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Supreme Court Justices Discuss Marijuana Policy During Immigration Case Arguments
A Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday concerning the fate of a program protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children featured a brief conversation about federal marijuana enforcement policy.
Justices questioned the difference between what President Trump’s administration did—issuing memos ordering the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to be wound down—and what the Obama administration did when his Justice Department told prosecutors not to pursue marijuana cases in states that legalized it.
During the discussion about prosecutorial discretion, Justice Samuel Alito asked if courts have jurisdiction to review or overturn instances where prosecutors make a policy change for a “certain category of drug cases,” by declining to pursue those that involved “lesser amounts of drugs.”
An attorney representing the so-called “Dreamers,” Theodore Olson, said he didn’t think it would be.
But Olson said the comparison wasn’t valid because the DACA program “invited [Dreamers] into the program, provided other statutes which have not been challenged by the government, provided benefits that were associated with that decision, and individuals relied upon that for five years.”
In other words, while the Justice Department has historically issued guidance and allowed for prosecutorial discretion for issues such as drug crimes, DACA rises to a different standard, in part because of the benefits it provided to hundreds of thousands of eligible immigrants.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, sought clarification about the “limiting principle” that the attorney was using to distinguish DACA from other prosecutorial discretion decisions.
Olson said it’s “a composite of principles” and a “categorical determination involving a substantial number of people.”
“Let me just stop you there, though, because if it’s categorical and a large number of people, I can think of a lot of prosecutorial decisions involving drug cases, the treatment of marijuana in our society today under federal law—perhaps it would be cocaine, five kilograms,” Gorsuch said in the exchange, which was first noted by Politico. “Whatever is in the attorney general memo affects lots of people on a categorical basis every day.”
The justice appeared to cite the Obama-era Cole memo as an example. That guidance, which was rescinded by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early 2018, advised prosecutors to use enforcement discretion and not target state-legal cannabis programs despite ongoing federal prohibition.
“There’s an entire industry in a lot of states involving marijuana that would argue they’re relying on memos issued by the attorney general that we will not enforce marijuana laws, for example,” Gorsuch said.
“I think that is completely different,” Olson contended. “They are not invited to participate into a program, to reveal the business that they’re in, to come forward, to take advantage of benefits.”
Gorsuch countered that cannabis businesses “have a lot of economic interests at stake” and would argue that “billions of dollars are at stake [and] we’ve relied on the attorney general’s guidance memos.”
Groups Push Congress To Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana Sales
More than a dozen advocacy organizations sent a letter to House and Senate leadership on Wednesday, urging them to allow Washington, D.C. to implement a regulated marijuana market.
While D.C. voters approved an initiative legalizing low-level possession and home cultivation of cannabis in 2014, congressional lawmakers have attached riders to spending legislation each year since that have blocked officials in the nation’s capital from using local tax dollars to enact a retail sales component.
“It is critical that Congress support D.C.’s right to home rule and the ability to spend local tax dollars as they deem fit, especially in regard to the regulation and taxation of marijuana,” the groups—including Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), ACLU of D.C., NORML and Competitive Enterprise Institute—wrote.
In its latest spending bill for Fiscal Year 2020, the House Appropriations Committee stripped the rider from the chamber’s version of the legislation, and Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), who has sponsored the measure in years past, didn’t attempt to reinsert it. That bill passed the House in June.
But in the Senate version, the rider remained intact, meaning that it will come down to negotiators on a bicameral conference committee to decide which version is sent to President Trump’s desk.
“Current law has interfered with the District’s efforts to regulate marijuana, which has impacted public safety,” the reform groups’ letter states. “Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model.”
“Such a model would free up law enforcement resources to focus on reducing violent crime,” it continues. “It would also allow legitimate entrepreneurs to start businesses, create jobs and spur economic development.”
The National Cannabis Industry Association, Sentencing Project, Northwestern University School of Law, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, R Street Institute and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, among other organizations, also signed the letter.
We joined 17 other organizations in sending this letter today to House and Senate leadership.
Here’s what we believe: It is time for Congress to support DC’s right to self-determination and lift the rider prohibiting them from regulating marijuana. https://t.co/RdGRbvELSl pic.twitter.com/lE6Er3A0X6
— The Leadership Conference (@civilrightsorg) November 13, 2019
“Under these conditions—where marijuana is essentially decriminalized, but there is no legal access for adult use—D.C. has been left with a complicated grey market that is both unsafe and a far cry from the racial and economic justice promises of the Initiative 71 campaign,” Queen Adesuyi, DPA’s policy manager for national affairs, said in a press release.
“It’s time that Congress get its hands off of D.C. and allow D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and other relevant D.C. stakeholders to deliver on the promises of equity and justice for those disproportionately impacted by racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws,” she said.
Bowser, who is a champion of D.C. statehood and cannabis reform, announced in May that she was sending a bill to the District Council that would provide for the retail sale of marijuana in the city. She’s repeatedly implored lawmakers to remove the rider preventing the local government from fully following through on the will of voters.
Congress: Keep your #HandsOffDC and #RemoveTheRider preventing us from establishing a safe & equitable cannabis regime for adult use. Together, with Congresswoman @EleanorNorton, we fight for the rights of 702,000 disenfranchised DC residents.
— Mayor Muriel Bowser (@MayorBowser) October 8, 2019
“Keep your #HandsOffDC and #RemoveTheRider preventing us from establishing a safe & equitable cannabis regime for adult use,” she wrote in October, linking to a petition. “Together, with Congresswoman [Eleanor Holmes Norton], we fight for the rights of 702,000 disenfranchised DC residents.”
Another area of interest for cannabis reform advocates as it concerns the appropriations process centers on the possible expansion of a rider shielding state marijuana laws from federal interference. Since 2014, Congress has enacted such a policy that only covers medical cannabis policies, but this year the House approved a version that would cover adult-use marijuana programs as well. However, the Senate bill contains only the current medical-focused language, meaning that it will be up to conference committee negotiators to decide.
While the current continuing resolution providing funds for federal agencies is set to expire on November 21, lawmakers are discussing another stopgap funding measure that would push the deadline to December 20.
Read the full letter on the D.C. marijuana rider below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Prohibition Is Delaying Federal Response To Vaping Crisis, CDC Says
Marijuana’s ongoing illegal status under federal law is delaying health officials’ response to the rise in vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, a top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday.
During a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) mentioned that her state is the only one in the country that hasn’t experienced reports of lung injuries due to vaping, adding that Alaska has a voter-approved legal cannabis market.
“In our state, retail marijuana is commercialized, it’s tested by our state laboratories,” the senator said. “Is the CDC providing any information to state regulatory bodies—whether it’s Alaska or other states that have legalized—on testing these products for these compounds that are our concern?”
She followed up to ask if there are “any barriers preventing federal officials from working with our state marijuana labs on this topic.”
CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat replied that the agency is in touch with state health departments, many of which are involved in regulating the cannabis industry, and that they provide guidance. However, because marijuana remains a federally controlled substance, she said there “are some challenges with shipment of specimens [for testing] because of the scheduling of drugs.”
“I think it’s just delaying it, I don’t think it’s stopping it,” she added.
Watch the marijuana exchange at 1:54:22 into the video below:
But as numerous lawmakers stressed throughout the hearing, there’s no room for delays, as more than 2,000 Americans have experienced lung injuries from vaping and almost 40 have died. CDC recently announced that an analysis of lung fluid samples from 29 patients in 10 states turned up evidence indicating that adulterated vape cartridges containing vitamin E acetate may be the cause.
And over the last six months, there have been 2,051 Americans hurt and 39 have died – including two in Tennessee – from vaping-related lung illnesses, many from vaping with THC, the derivative of marijuana that makes people high.
— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) November 13, 2019
Schuchat emphasized during a separate House hearing last month that while most vaping cases seem connected to THC-containing products, the vast majority have been obtained from illicit sources that wouldn’t be subject to the same testing standards as those enforced in regulated state markets.
She made similar remarks earlier this month during an appearance on C-SPAN and suggested that federal regulation of THC products could mitigate vaping injuries.
Still, there was a case in Oregon where a man who purchased vaping products from a licensed dispensary later fell ill and died—though officials said it’s not clear whether there’s a direct link at this point. In any case, the CDC official’s point about delays due to shipping complications arising from prohibition raises concerns at a time when data is urgently needed.
Also during the Senate hearing, Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, was asked by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) whether the agency has “jurisdiction over THC products and, if so, what is the authority?”
“I think on a case-by-case basis, when it comes down to the facts, if we were to take an action because of the presence of THC, it would be because the investigation has continued—because we’re going after the supply chain here,” Zeller said. “How did these products get onto the market in the first place?”
The official noted that as a regulatory agency, FDA is not in the business of going after individuals for personal possession or use of THC products; rather they have “investigators on the ground to try to get at how did they get into the chain of distribution and commerce in the first place.”
“If we can identify the responsible party—because with THC we’re talking about an illicit compound so it’s not like someone is going to step forward and say, ‘yeah I did it’—If we can find the responsible party, if we can do the product analysis that shows that the THC is present, with or without these oils that seem to be making it worse, then in theory we could use authorities that we have under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” he said.
“We could act, depending upon the facts, under Food and Drug authorities,” he said.
The comment was quickly applauded by prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, which has argued that recent vaping issues represent an example of why cannabis legalization efforts should be halted.
During a Senate hearing, a representative from the @FDA admits the agency has the authority to crack down on THC supply chains in response to the #PotVapingCrisis.https://t.co/Ft6l0ifEib pic.twitter.com/BVZYGO7cox
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) November 13, 2019
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) shared a different perspective, siding with reform advocates who say that calls to prohibit vaping products in response to the crisis are misguided because that policy change could exacerbate the problem by bolstering illicit sales and leaving consumers less protected against contaminated products.
“It seems to be primarily deaths and horrific medical problems from vaping illegal products,” the senator said. “What we’re going to do in response to that is make more vaping illegal. It seems kind of counterintuitive. It seems if you make more things illegal, maybe you get more people vaping illegal products and you have more problems.”
Photo courtesy of Senate HELP Committee.