01/14/18 Earl Blumenauer

Committees of the New York State Assembly hear about marijuana legalization from panels of experts, and Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) speaks on the House floor about marijuana law reform.

Century of Lies
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Earl Blumenauer
Download: Audio icon col011418.mp3



JANUARY 14, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

On Tuesday, January Ninth, Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer spoke during Morning Hour on the floor of the US House in regard to the new marijuana enforcement memo issued by attorney general sessions. HereÔÇÖs Representative Blumenauer:

EARL BLUMENAUER: Friday, the Trump administration declared war on state legalization of marijuana as they come out on the wrong side of history and the American public.

The Obama administration recognized that the vast voter-driven movement to legalize marijuana at the State level was something that couldn't be stopped and, in fact, that the federal government shouldn't interfere. Their Justice Department issued guidance, known as the Cole amendment, that, as long as these voter-approved State legalization efforts were enforced rigorously and thoughtfully, the federal government wouldn't interfere with what the voters wanted.

Friday, Sessions and the Trump administration overruled that guidance and declared open war on the part of 93 US attorneys to feel free to interfere with what local voters have decided.

This is strongly opposed by the American public. Over 60 percent in poll after poll show that Americans favor legalization of marijuana. When it deals with medical marijuana, that percentage is over 90 percent. We have seen state after state, approve medical marijuana including Florida, with a 71 percent ``yes'' vote in November of 2016.

And if the question is, regardless of how you feel about marijuana, should the federal government interfere with what the voters have decided, three out of four voters say the federal government should keep their hands off it.

Luckily, at least as far as medical marijuana is concerned, they are protected from interference by the Justice Department because of the amendment that I have authored with my friend Dana Rohrabacher. It is in the continuing resolution. It needs to be in any long-term funding bill. In fact, we should embrace an amendment by our colleague Tom McClintock from California, that would expand those protections to any State legal marijuana activity.

The Justice Department is not just on the wrong side of history and the American public, they are missing a chance to cure the damage caused by selective and cruel enforcement of marijuana laws. We are still arresting tens of thousands, mostly young men of color, especially African-American men, for something the majority of Americans now think should be legal.

We miss a chance to win the war against opioid death and addiction. In states that have medical marijuana, surprise, there are fewer pills prescribed. The longer the states have had medical marijuana, the lower the overdose deaths. In California, which has had medical marijuana the longest, there are a third fewer opioid deaths. We are missing an opportunity to build on that.

We are missing the opportunity to increase the hundreds of millions of dollars that are now going to the state tax coffers to deal with education and addiction and law enforcement through state legal efforts and away from the drug cartels and the black market. Indeed, if we clean up this mess, we will have billions of dollars to devote to public purposes and further undermine the strength of drug cartels that use the black market to fund their efforts.

It's past time that Congress steps up and fixes this mess. The good news is that this reckless action by the Trump administration and Jeff Sessions will accelerate the time that we support what state and local governments should do: rationalize our cannabis policy and stop this ineffective, failed prohibition.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer speaking on the floor of the US House in regard to the new marijuana enforcement memo issued by attorney general Sessions.

The other amendment to which Representative Blumenauer alluded, the McClintock-Polis Amendment, is a rider to the Department of Justice appropriations bill, and it would forbid the Department from spending any funds to go after state legal marijuana programs or businesses ÔÇô any marijuana program or business, both medical and adult social use.

On Friday, January Twelfth, 69 members of the US Congress, Representatives from both parties, signed a letter to the House leadership asking that the McClintock-Polis Amendment be included in the fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill. The full text of that letter is available at the website of Representative Jared Polis, that URL is Polis.House.Gov, that's Polis.House.Gov. They tried this amendment a year ago, a letter just like this went to the House leadership in April 2017, and it had 16 signers. This year there were 69.

You are listening to Century of Lies, we're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.Net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

In spite of the bluster from attorney general Sessions, there has been quite a bit of progress on marijuana law reform at the state level recently.

On Tuesday, January Ninth, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to approve a bill to partially legalize and regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana for adult social use in that state. The measure, HB656, was then referred to the House Ways and Means Committee rather than being sent to the state Senate for consideration.

According to NORML, the committee can either decide to take no action, and send the bill on to the state senate; or it could hold hearings then send it back to the House floor for another vote. The chair of that committee, Representative Patrick Abrami, is not a supporter of legalization, and the governor has already indicated that he will not sign the measure.

In the state of Vermont, a bill to legalize marijuana has passed both the state house and senate. The bill was approved by the state senate on Wednesday January Tenth. It's now at the governorÔÇÖs desk awaiting his signature, and Republican Governor Phil Scott has already indicated that heÔÇÖs going to sign it. This measure legalizes personal cultivation and possession only, and does not legalize and regulate a commercial market.

And in New York state, on Thursday January Eleventh, three committees of the New York State Assembly held a joint hearing on the subject of marijuana decriminalization and regulation. They were the Assembly Standing Committee on Codes, the Assembly Standing Committee on Health, and the Assembly Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

WeÔÇÖre going to listen to some of that hearing now. WeÔÇÖre going to listen to Kassandra Frederique, with the Drug Policy Alliance; Alyssa Aguilera, with Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, otherwise known as VOCAL-New York; and first up is Andrea ?ô S??illeabh?íin, with the Partnership for the Public Good.

ANDREA ?ô S?ÜILLEABH?üIN: I'm Andrea ?ô S??illeabh?íin, Deputy Director of Partnership for the Public Good, which is a community based thinktank that unites 276 organizations working to build a better Buffalo-Niagara, so thank you for the opportunity to testify today and to bring our perspectives from western New York into the conversation.

In November, together with Open Buffalo and the Drug Policy Alliance, we released a policy brief analyzing the last five years of data on arrests for low level marijuana possession within the city of Buffalo and across Erie County, and I'll briefly share the findings of our research, and consider the potential positive impacts of smarter marijuana laws on racial equity and public health in western New York.

For a state that decriminalized marijuana 40 years ago, it's shocking how many people we still arrest for possessing it. Over the five years from 2012 through 2016, there were 2,659 arrests for simple possession in Erie County, of which 2,145 were in the city of Buffalo. In 2016, arrests for low level marijuana possession made up ten percent of all misdemeanor drug arrests in Erie County.

The racial disparities in these arrests are also shocking. In Erie County, where 18 percent of the population are people of color, 76 percent of the arrests for simple possession were people of color, and in Buffalo, where 51 percent of residents are people of color, 86 percent of the arrests were people of color.

And African Americans in our region are particular targets for arrests, although representing only 13.5 percent of Erie County, they accounted for 71 percent of marijuana arrests during this period.

And mostly we're talking about young people in these numbers, who in many ways have the most to lose from being arrested. Last year, 58 percent of those arrested for low level possession in our county were 25 years old or younger, and 83 percent were 34 years old or younger.

When these young people are convicted, even of the lowest level marijuana charge, they face severe and long term consequences, and we know research tells us that young white people use marijuana slightly more than young people of color, so it's grossly unfair that it's overwhelmingly people of color being hurt by these outdated enforcement actions.

And as we've already heard a little bit today, this unequal enforcement of marijuana prohibition comes at a high cost for our low income and communities of color in Buffalo and across the state, from over policing and overly aggressive police tactics, to the long term effects of involvement in the criminal justice system, including criminal records that limit individual's access to housing and mortgages, student loans, and education opportunities.

And a lot of our work at Partnership for the Public Good is on overall criminal justice and police reform, and our communities are really saying, marijuana prohibition has justified an invasive police presence that damages their relationships with law enforcement, and advocates in Buffalo insist that ongoing racially disparate arrests for marijuana harm community police relations and undermine their daily efforts to try to build that trust.

At Partnership for the Public Good, we believe that public policy should be based on facts and on careful analysis of the costs and benefits to society. Our current marijuana policies are not based on facts, and they impose terrible social costs, while yielding very few benefits.

So we support marijuana taxation and regulation because it is based on facts, and because it will improve public health and safety by making it easier to restrict use by minors, by making it easier for problem users to get help and treatment, by making it easier to keep dangerous additives and chemicals out of marijuana, and bringing marijuana out of the underground economy where it fuels violence and crime.

It will reduce racial inequality by addressing one of the offenses with the very worst racial disparities in enforcement, and reducing the severe collateral consequences, mostly for young people of color, that they're suffering from marijuana arrests.

And it will save the public money on wasteful enforcement, and generate new tax revenue that can be used to repair some of the damage done by this unequal enforcement, and the overall negative impacts of the war on drugs.

Ourselves, together with a coalition of community organizations in Buffalo, have joined the Start Smart New York Campaign, convened by the Drug Policy Alliance, which correctly asserts that legalization of marijuana is smart for communities, for racial justice, and for the state's economy.

Among our 276 partners in Buffalo-Niagara, we hear the growing call for smarter marijuana laws, and at the core of our organizational model is a process we run each year, where every fall, we lead a democratic debate and vote among our partners and they determine what we call a community agenda, and that names the top ten policy changes that they want to see to local or state policies, to advance equality, sustainability, and cultural vibrancy in our region.

And just recently, in December, marijuana regulation was voted onto our 2018 Community Agenda, and this is by a very diverse group of partners from local blocks clubs to health services organizations to environmental alliances, arts groups, church groups. This isn't surprising, we've already heard public support for legalization has continued to increase nationally, now up over 60 percent, but we're really seeing this among our own alliances in Buffalo as well.

So our new 2018 Community Agenda calls on New York state to pass and implement the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which has been introduced in the New York State Assembly by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes, one of our representatives from the city of Buffalo, and it also calls on our mayor, Byron Brown, to immediately end low level marijuana arrests by designating simple possession the lowest level enforcement priority for the Buffalo Police Department, so we're also pursuing those city level options.

So together with our partners, we urge the New York State Legislature to end prohibition, create a system to tax and regulate marijuana, and repair and reinvest in communities most harmed by the war on drugs. Thank you.

ALYSSA AGUILERA: Hi, good morning. My name is Alyssa Aguilera, and I'm the co-executive director of VOCAL New York. Thank you to the New York State Assembly for the opportunity to testify today.

VOCAL New York is a statewide grassroots organization. We build power among low income people impacted by HIV/AIDS, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. We've been around for about 20 years. In addition to doing advocacy around drug policy and criminal justice reform, we also run a syringe exchange in Brooklyn, so we know very well the impact of the opioid epidemic on our communities, and so, you know, that's something that's very important to us, and we're very supportive of the idea of how pain management and marijuana can be a path forward for many people.

And, I'm here today to express our support for marijuana legalization, and in particular to support Assembly Bill 3506, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. There are a lot of reasons to support marijuana legalization, but today I'd like to focus my testimony on the way marijuana has hurt black and brown communities, and fueled mass incarceration across New York state.

In particular, I support this legislation because it will not only end marijuana arrests, but also repair the harms that have already been committed.

For many years, we, along with our partners at the Drug Policy Alliance, have been leading the fight to end marijuana prohibition in New York. Our members who are low income black and Latino individuals have borne the brunt of marijuana enforcement over the last 40 years.

Our members are arrested, jailed, and sent to prison because of marijuana possession. They live with permanent criminal records. They lose access to public housing and benefits. They are at risk of deportation, and face other serious collateral consequences, all because of the way, the racist way in which marijuana laws are enforced.

And even in a more progressive De Blasio era, this reality still rings true. In 2016, 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black or Latino, and racial disparities are similar in other parts of the state, as we heard from our partners in Buffalo.

I'd like to just uplift a couple of stories of our members, and the way that marijuana prohibition has impacted their lives.

Shaprice, 21, young black man, was leaving his grandmother's house, running home to catch the train so he could make curfew at his shelter. The cop saw him running through the projects, tackled him, illegally searched his pockets and found a small amount of marijuana. He was arrested, held for three days, missed work, lost his job, and lost his bed at the shelter.

Anastasia, 19, black, was in a car with her boyfriend, getting beat up. A bystander called the police. When the police came, they found a small amount of marijuana in her car. She was arrested, and now has a marijuana conviction on her record.

Carl, 66, is living with HIV and uses marijuana to gain an appetite. He can't afford marijuana through the medical program. He has to risk arrest to buy marijuana on the street.

Those are just some of the stories of our members who every day, you know, are just living in the crosshairs of the police, who have really -- who, you know, there's a tale of two cities, really, with marijuana, when you're having such extreme racial disparities, for some people, it's, you know, it's really not a big deal to get it, and to use it, and for others, it can really upend your life.

And that's why we're here today.

It's time for these arrests to end. There should be no more loopholes in the law, no more extreme racial bias, no one should be arrested for marijuana possession, no matter their race or where they live.

The other aspect of this legislation that is very important to us in the way in which past harms will be repaired. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act contains several positions for -- provisions for people who have been impacted by prohibition, people who have been convicted of low level possession, including possession in public view, and low level sale, will have that conviction vacated from their record.

Other offenses related to possession or sale that were previously misdemeanors or felonies will be reclassified and or sealed. People currently incarcerated for such offenses would either be released or have their offense reclassified, and sentence appropriately reduced pursuant to the new statute.

I think this is so important, you know, we cannot change the law, moving forward, with looking backward and repairing the harms that people are living with and continue to live with for the last 40 years.

These provisions are vital to any changes in the marijuana program, and I really do encourage you all that, you know, as this gets negotiated, that we consider these to be, you know, critical to the development of this law.

And, you know, Assemblymember Peoples-Stokes was mentioning this early, but, you know, there's such a shame in the drug war, shame in the way that marijuana prohibition has hurt black and Latino communities, and it will be even a continued shame if all the money that is going to come in through legal marijuana is not used to repair the harms and put money in the pockets of people who have been hurt the most.

You know, when black and Latino people are selling marijuana, they're criminals, they're thugs, they're gang members, but when white folks in California are doing it, they're entrepreneurs. We really need, you know, we've been doing this work for more than half a decade, trying to change the laws so that black and Latino people stop getting arrested for marijuana, and the room looks very different today.

When we're fighting for our communities, we want to make sure that the people who have been most harmed are centered in all the benefits this is have -- that are going to really come. We know that legalization is inevitable, that the money is going to come, and we need black and Latino communities that have been hit hardest by the drug war to get the most of that money. Thank you.

KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: Good morning, my name is Kassandra Frederique, I am the New York State Director at Drug Policy Alliance. While we do focus on ending marijuana prohibition, our goal is wholesale. We need to end the drug war for all drugs, and recognizing that prohibition in any way is not getting us any closer to health, and it's not getting us any closer to public safety.

I think most of the Assemblymembers know that I tend to freestyle, and speak from my mind, I think I might be a policy rapper, but today, this is super important to me, and with the help of my staff, Deputy State Director Melissa Moore, and our new father on staff, Policy Coordinator Chris Alexander, prepared my comments today, so I'm going to respect them by sticking to the script.

The momentum for reforming marijuana enforcement in New York is undeniable, as recent polls indicate. New Yorkers across the state have clearly signaled they do not want people to be arrested for marijuana, with more than two thirds of New Yorkers supporting legalizing marijuana for adult use, and using revenue from taxing and regulating marijuana to address the $4.4 billion budget deficit in New York.

Ending marijuana prohibition and taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use in New York is smart for our communities, for racial justice, and for our state's economy. The evidence, which you will hear today, is clear, and New York legislators face a crucial decision.

Following attorney general Jeff Sessions rescinding the Cole Memo, which previously instructed the Department of Justice to allow states to implement their own marijuana laws, with limited federal interference, New York must decide whether we acquiesce to the Trump administration, or stand up and fight for progressive values, as Governor Cuomo and other New York legislators have pledged to do with regard to immigration, labor, civil rights, education, and environmental concerns in the face of damaging federal policy.

Just this week, immediately on the heels of the attorney general's announcement, Vermont's senate approved a legalization bill, and New Hampshire's house voted to legalize marijuana, issuing a direct rebuke to the return to the war on drugs mentality that contributed significantly to mass incarceration -- mass incarceration, and has hugely detrimental impacts on New York.

More than 800,000 people alone have been arrested across New York in the last 20 years, despite the state legislature, shout out to Assemblyman Dick Godfrey, passing the marijuana decriminalization bill, including the more than 23,000 arrests for marijuana possession alone in 2016. Clearly, marijuana decriminalization has failed New Yorkers.

These arrests also are extremely racially biased. Although drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, black and Latino individuals are arrested for possessing marijuana at vastly disproportionate rates.

In 2016, more than 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession were black and Latino. Nearly 70 percent of those arrested were under 30, and over a third were under the age of 21.

I want to stop here and add that as a black New Yorker, I want to be very clear that black New Yorkers in Manhattan, in which I reside, were arrested more than all the white people in the rest of the five boroughs.

I want to say that again: black people that live in Manhattan were arrested, there were more numbers of those people, than all the white people arrested in New York City. Full stop.

Many New Yorkers don't know that the state decriminalized marijuana possession 40 years ago, and that that law is still on the books. They are unaware, primarily because more than 60 people on average are arrested every day for marijuana possession in New York state, making marijuana possession one of the top arrests.

These arrests have been largely justified by a loophole left in the law allowing police officers to distinguish between public and private possession. Because possession in public view remains a crime, this loophole, coupled with pervasive racially biased over policing of certain neighborhoods, has resulted in continued mass arrests for personal possession of marijuana despite decriminalization.

In New York, marijuana decriminalization has fallen short, and will continue to do so. It has not succeeded in curbing the costs or the harms of prohibition, and has instead made the need for reform clearer.

The failure of decriminalization is most evident in New York City. In 2014, then Police Commissioner Bill Bratton issued a statement in coordination with Mayor De Blasio that instructed NYPD officers to no longer make an arrest when they had discovered marijuana on a person in the course of a search.

The accompanying police instruction, Order 43, represented a clarification of the existing law to law enforcement. This policy change represented a visible shift from NYPD's previous practices, and signaled the potential for the increased efficacy of New York's 1977 decriminalization statute.

However, the result has been much more of the same. In 2015, arrests dropped significantly. But 2016 saw those numbers increase once again. More importantly, although arrests have been generally reduced from their 2014 levels, the racial disparities in who is being arrested has remained consistent, with more than 8 in ten of those arrested being black and Latino. Again, despite similar rates of usage across all ethnic groups.

Legalizing marijuana is also imperative because of the state's medical marijuana program. Thanks again, Assemblymember Dick Godfrey. It is currently falling far short of the patients' needs. The New York State Legislature passed the Compassionate Care Act in 2014, making New York the 23rd state to legalize medical marijuana, but the program has struggled to provide the type of care that was promised.

Despite recent efforts to improve New York's medical marijuana program, including adding newly added qualifying conditions, and additional registered dispensaries, many patients continue to lack access to medical marijuana for the treatment of a variety of approved qualifying conditions, and the conditions that may not have been included in the medical marijuana program.

The challenges patients are facing in accessing medical marijuana are threefold: geographic limitations created by the state in allowing very few medical marijuana dispensaries; difficulty in finding a practitioner who is certified to recommend medical marijuana to a patient; and the current unaffordability of medical marijuana under the program.

While the number of approved licenses and approved locations has increased, and a list of registered doctors has been made available, patients are still unable to access the program fully due to the astronomical cost of the medicine.

New York is facing a crisis of overdose deaths, and it is not lost on us that some might criticize calls for marijuana legalization amid this moment. However, a growing body of research is pointing to how access to legal marijuana markets, including medical marijuana and recreational adult use, has been associated with significantly lowering deaths among opioid deaths than in states without legal marijuana.

DOUG MCVAY: You just heard Andrea ?ô S??illeabh?íin, with the Partnership for the Public Good; Alyssa Aguilera, with VOCAL-New York; and Kassandra Frederique, with the Drug Policy Alliance, on January Eleventh testifying before a joint committee meeting of the New York State Assembly on marijuana decriminalization and regulations.

And thatÔÇÖs all the time we have. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. IÔÇÖm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.