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Successful Constitutional Case Against Death Penalty Works For War on Drugs, Too

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The movement to restore civil liberties and resolve systemic racial injustices in the criminal justice system scored a major victory on Thursday. And no, this time we’re not talking about ending the war on drugs. Or at least not yet.

Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty, with the state Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment is unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

If you’re already seeing parallels to arguments for ending drug prohibition, you’re not alone.

Many of the same points the court made in their ruling against the death penalty ring true for the war on drugs, too. For example, the court argued that death sentences have been disproportionately carried out against black defendants, at a rate more than four times higher than it is for white defendants.

There were three main factors the justices cited as justification for abolishing capital punishment.

  1. “There is significant county-by-county variation in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty, and a portion of that variation is a function of the size of the black population but does not stem from differences in population density, political orientation or fiscal capacity of the county.
  2. Case characteristics as documented in the trial reports explain a small portion of variance in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty.
  3. Black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.

“The most important consideration is whether the evidence shows that race has a meaningful impact on imposition of the death penalty,” the justices wrote in their opinion. “We make this determination by way of legal analysis, not pure science.”

“Given the evidence before this court and our judicial notice of implicit and overt racial bias against black defendants in this state, we are confident that the association between race and the death penalty is not attributed to random chance. We need not go on a fishing expedition to find evidence external to Beckett’s study as a means of validating the results. Our case law and history of racial discrimination provide ample support.”

Similarly, drug reform advocates have long maintained that prohibition is racially discriminatory given disproportionate rates of enforcement and arrests for drug-related offenses. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime, compared to white Americans. That’s in spite of the fact that rates of consumption are roughly equal among both groups.

What’s more, a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black men serve drug sentences that are about 13 percent longer than those applied to white men.

The Washington court said another factor that contributed to their decision concerned “contemporary standards and experience in other states.”

“We recognize local, national, and international trends that disfavor capital punishment more broadly. When the death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner, society’s standards of decency are even more offended.”

The parallel here couldn’t be more clear. If such trends demonstrate a need to review and reform an existing law, the same rationale could theoretically apply to drug prohibition. A majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical or adult-use, and national interest in changing federal marijuana laws has steadily grown in recent years. Beyond marijuana, a broader drug reform push has included calls to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Of course, marijuana is already legal in Washington, and no other states have yet legalized drugs, so this part of the ruling’s applicability to a potential case seeking to strike down broad drug prohibition in the state might not be quite ripe yet.

While it’s unclear whether the constitutionality of prohibition could be reasonably challenged on similar legal grounds, the similarities are striking. The justification for capital punishment was another point of interest for the justices, who noted that the system failed to achieve its “penological goals” of “retribution and deterrence.”

For all intents and purposes, drug prohibition too has failed to achieve similar goals. Decades of drug war have not appreciably deterred consumption. From 2001 to 2013, the rate of marijuana use among American adults almost doubled, for instance.

The Cato Institute analyzed the impact of the drug war in a 2017 report. It concluded that prohibitionist policies “fail on practically every margin.”

“Economic thinking illustrates that these failures are not only understandable, but entirely predictable. As a result of prohibition and the changes it induces in the market for drugs, increased disease, death, violence, and cartels are all expectable outcomes. Moreover, economics can help us link together these policies with other issues, such as race relations and police militarization.”

A last note from the Washington Supreme Court justices:

“Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington’s death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote. “Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.”

Now swap “death penalty” with “drug prohibition” in that last quote… Fits like a glove.

Trump Administration Seeks Public Comments On Marijuana Reclassification

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

Mitch McConnell Says Hemp Could Replace Tobacco And Argues That’s Why Voters Should Reelect Him

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Thursday that his role in getting industrial hemp legalized is at “the top of the list” of reasons Kentuckians should reelect him next year.

He also said that hemp could essentially replace tobacco, historically a big cash crop for the state that could take a hit under new legislation he introduced to raise the age requirement for tobacco sales from 18 to 21 nationwide.

“How does my job as majority leader help you? Help Kentucky?” McConnell said at a press conference. “At the top of the list I would put hemp.”

Then he pivoted into a discussion of his tobacco legislation, saying that his proposal to deter young tobacco use “underscores the transition in our state from tobacco to something new.”

McConnell led a ten-year federal buyback program meant to compensate tobacco farmers, whose profitability has sunken. He said one factor that contributed to Kentucky’s high rates of tobacco use was industry loyalty, with farmers and other industry workers feeling loyal to the crop that earns them their living and, therefore, choosing to smoke it.

He made a similar point at an earlier press conference Thursday, arguing that the ubiquity of tobacco farms “only further enhanced the view that I ought to be using this product which provides my livelihood” and that “Kentucky agriculture is moving in a much different way with industrial hemp, which we hope to lead the nation in.”

“What comes next? Well, in the previous Farm Bill five years ago, I inserted a provision that allowed pilot projects—because remember hemp was considered a controlled substance under federal law going back to right after World War II so it was treated like this more controversial cousin that we’ve all heard of,” he said, referring to marijuana. “Some states are actually legalizing that, but that’s not what we’re involved in. We’re talking about industrial hemp.”

“The pilot projects showed that there was a good deal of interest in Kentucky, particularly among young farmers,” he said, adding that his success in getting the president to sign the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation that legalized hemp is “an example of how my being in the job I’m in benefits our state.”

McConnell, who also touted his hemp provision in his reelection launch video last week, boasted about how his position as majority leader gives him access and influence. He called the Senate Agriculture Committee chair and got him to include hemp legalization in the Farm Bill. Nobody in the committee tried to shoot it down. But, because the House Agriculture Committee didn’t include hemp legalization in their version, McConnell said he leveraged his power to get the proposal past the goal line and to the president’s desk.

“When you have two different versions, you have a conference to work out the differences before they go back to each house,” he said. “Who appoints the conferees? I do. Who did I appoint? Myself.”

The majority leader also requested that Rep. James Comer (R-KY) be appointed a House conferee, ensuring a smooth process that would kept hemp legalization intact.

“Nobody ever made an effort to take it out. The reason I make this point is there’s certain advantages to Kentucky having someone like me in this job because I allows us to punch above our weight,” he said. “My being in the position I’m in I think really helps Kentucky.”

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp Legalization Achievement In Reelection Campaign Ad

Photo courtesy of WLKY.

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Culture

Lots Of Politicians And Companies Are Tweeting About Marijuana On 4/20

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It’s 4/20 again, and that means another slew of tweets from politicians and mainstream brands looking to use the marijuana holiday as a hook to get their message out.

Here’s a roundup of some of the best, funniest, most important or otherwise notable cannabis-related tweets of the day…

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a presidential candidate:

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a presidential candidate:

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), a presidential candidate:

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK), a presidential candidate:

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee (D), a presidential candidate:

Former San Antonio, Texas Mayor Julián Castro (D), a presidential candidate:

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang:

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY):

House Committee on Small Business:

Congressional Black Caucus:

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV):

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN):

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA):

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA):

Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL):

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN):

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM):

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D):

Los Angeles, California City Council President Herb Wesson (D):

Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney Kim Foxx (D):

The American Civil Liberties Union:

Ben & Jerry’s:

Denny’s:

Hidden Valley Ranch:

Carl’s Jr.:

Boston Market:

George Washington’s Mount Vernon:

Bill Maher:

Miley Cyrus:

311:

The Onion:

Ben & Jerry’s Stands Out From Companies Just Trying To Make Money From 4/20

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Politics

State-Legal Marijuana Use Makes Immigrants Morally Unfit for Citizenship, Trump Administration Warns

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A federal immigration agency clarified on Friday that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—is an immoral offense that makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship.

When applying for naturalization, the process of gaining citizenship, individuals must have established “good moral character” in the five years preceding the application. Good moral character is a vague requirement that has been criticized by scholars and civil rights advocates, as assessing morality is arguably subjective.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), state-legal marijuana consumption renders individuals morally unfit for citizenship. The new policy clarification reflects a sentiment once expressed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

The USCIS memo says that “violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing [good moral character] for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.”

Further, an applicant “who is involved in certain marijuana related activities may lack GMC if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws,” the document says. The policy also applies to individuals who worked in the state-legal cannabis industry.

There have already been reports of people being denied citizenship due to their proximity to state-legal marijuana businesses. Earlier this month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock hosted a group of immigrants who said their work in the state’s cannabis industry was being used as justification by federal officials to deny them citizenship.

“In Colorado, cannabis has been legal for 5 years. For work in a legal industry to be used against an individual trying to gain citizenship is a prime example of why we need to harmonize our state and federal laws to ensure that states like Colorado that have moved to legalize cannabis can act in our own authority to expand and regulate our cannabis industry,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), told Marijuana Moment in reaction to the Trump administration memo.

Legalization activists also criticized the move.

“The cruel treatment of immigrants for offenses related to something as minor as marijuana is illustrative of the way this administration has used the war on drugs to pursue communities of color,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “It also shows that pursuing a state by state approach to federal policy doesn’t work for these communities. Federal descheduling is essential.”

While the federal policy deeming marijuana use a violation of “good moral character” standards for immigration purposes was already on the books, it seems the spread of state-level cannabis legalization has prompted the agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, to issue the clarification.

“A number of states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) have enacted laws permitting ‘medical’ or ‘recreational’ use of marijuana. Marijuana, however, remains classified as a ‘Schedule I’ controlled substance under the federal CSA,” the updated USCIS policy manual now reads. “Schedule I substances have no accepted medical use pursuant to the CSA. Classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law means that certain conduct involving marijuana, which is in violation of the CSA, continues to constitute a conditional bar to GMC for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.”

“Such an offense under federal law may include, but is not limited to, possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana. For example, possession of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes or employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct that violates federal controlled substance laws. Depending on the specific facts of the case, these activities, whether established by a conviction or an admission by the applicant, may preclude a finding of GMC for the applicant during the statutory period. An admission must meet the long held requirements for a valid ‘admission’ of an offense. Note that even if an applicant does not have a conviction or make a valid admission to a marijuana-related offense, he or she may be unable to meet the burden of proof to show that he or she has not committed such an offense.”

The underlying policy does provide an exception for “a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

An additional update to the policy manual stipulates that the exception “is also applicable to paraphernalia offenses involving controlled substances as long as the paraphernalia offense is ‘related to’ simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”

That detail wasn’t included in an earlier 2014 version of the USCIS policy manual.

The policy alert is similar to an update the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) issued in 2017 when the federal gun purchase application form was revised to include a warning that the “use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside” and therefore disqualifies applicants.

But the USCIS clarification also reflects a recent ratcheting up of anti-immigration policy moves under the Trump administration.

Jason Ortiz, vice president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that the new memo reflects a “callous and irrational decision” by the administration and “is a reminder that without comprehensive cannabis reform our communities of color will continue to be prosecuted and subject to deportation for activity that is legal for affluent communities around the country.”

“Proposals such as the STATES act which seek to simply ease the risk on business do not address these deeper issues related to federal prohibition,” he said. “Considering the devastating effects our war on drugs had on Latin America, immigration reform must be a necessary component of any comprehensive cannabis legalization policy.”

People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

This story has been updated to include comment from Neguse.

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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