Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.
Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal. Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year. And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.
Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars. Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime. Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition. Recently, the Federal Reserve denied a master account to a credit union in Colorado seeking to provide financial services to marijuana businesses.
Lawmakers who hope their colleagues in Congress will act face an uphill struggle. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New Jersey and New York, respectively, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, would allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use. It would also allow banks and credit unions to provide financial services to cannabis-based businesses in states that have legalized the drug. The bill has 16 sponsors, including two Republicans, but the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has not scheduled it for a hearing or a vote. An identical bill in the House with 17 sponsors, eight of them Republican, is also languishing in committee.
Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive. The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.
But both Congress and the White House should be doing more. Specifically, marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act, where it is classified as a Schedule I drug like heroin and LSD, and considered to have no medical value. Removing marijuana from the act would not make it legal everywhere, but it would make it easier for states to decide how they want to regulate it.
Even as Washington demurs, efforts to legalize marijuana continue in the states. In California, several activist groups are trying to get legalization measures on the 2016 ballot. The state was the first in the country to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, and a majority of residents favor legalizing recreational marijuana, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
State legalization efforts are not uniformly well thought out, which is another reason for Congress and the president to act. For example, activists in Ohio are trying to legalize marijuana with a constitutional amendment that would allow commercial cultivation of the plant on just 10 dedicated sites listed in the measure. This would grant a lucrative monopoly to a few businesses. Ohio officials will soon decide whether organizers have collected enough signatures to put the proposal on the ballot.
Direct democracy can sometimes produce good results. But it would be far better for Congress and the president to repeal failed laws and enact sensible drug policies.
VIA NY Times
DUBLIN, Calif—Scrawled on the inside of Barbara Scrivner's left arm is a primitive prison tattoo that says "Time Flies."
If only that were the case.
For Scrivner, time has crawled, it's dawdled, and on bad days, it's felt like it's stood completely still. She was 27 years old when she started serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison for selling a few ounces of methamphetamine. Now, 20 years later, she feels like she's still living in the early '90s—she's never seen or touched a cellphone, she still listens to her favorite band, the Scorpions, and she carefully coats her eyelids in electric blue eye shadow in the morning.
It's out there, outside of prison, where time flies.
On a sunny afternoon at a federal prison outside San Francisco last month, Scrivner nervously clutched a manila envelope full of photos of herself and her daughter that she keeps in her cell. As she displays the pictures, Scrivner’s daughter Alannah, who was just 2 years old when her mom was put away, changes from a redheaded, freckled young kid to a sullen teen to a struggling young mom. Scrivner changes in the photos, too. At first she's a plump-cheeked beauty with chestnut-brown hair, then she’s a bleached-blonde woman in her early 30s, before becoming increasingly gaunt as the years grind on.
Today, she most resembles a 40-something high school volleyball coach, in her grey sweatshirt and neatly brushed-out dark bangs. But instead of a whistle around her neck, Barbara wears a large silver crucifix — though she describes her relationship with God as "complicated."
"I believe in God," Scrivner says. "I'm really mad with him."
Her faith has helped her to try to make sense of what feels like an arbitrarily, even cruelly long sentence for her minor role helping her drug dealer husband. But 20 years behind bars has also tested that faith, and even caused her to question whether her life has any meaning or is worth living.
Scrivner is one of those rare prisoners who nearly everyone agrees is serving too much time for her crime. She started using drugs when she was just 8 years old, and moved on to meth as a freshman in high school, when she began dating the first of a long string of drug-using boyfriends. The drugs helped her escape the fog of depression that settled over her, in part created by the confused anguish she felt about being sexually abused as a child. By the time she was 20, she had been busted and served time in state prison for possessing meth — twice. That's when she met her husband, a heroin addict and meth dealer who became her downfall. When his drug ring was broken up by the feds, Scrivner refused to testify against him or any other members. She was prosecuted for conspiracy and slammed with a 30-year mandatory minimum, despite her minor role as an occasional helper to her husband.
The judge who sentenced her to 30 years said his hands were tied. He was forced to lock her up for that long because of a now-defunct mandatory minimum-sentencing regime. If he heard her case today, he'd give her 10 or 15 years, he's said. The prosecutors in the Portland, Ore., office that charged her agreed that if she were prosecuted today, she'd almost certainly get a sentence shorter than the 20 years she's already served.
Thousands and thousands of people like Scrivner are serving punishingly long sentences in federal prison based on draconian policies that were a relic of the "tough on crime" antidrug laws of the '80s and '90s. Thirty years after skyrocketing urban violence and drug use sparked politicians to impose longer and longer sentences for drug crimes, America now incarcerates a higher rate of its population than any other country in the world. This dubious record has finally provoked a bipartisan backlash against such stiff penalties. The old laws are slowly being repealed.
Now, in his final years in office, Obama has trained his sights on prisoners like Scrivner, and wants to use his previously dormant pardon power as part of a larger strategy to restore fairness to the criminal-justice system. A senior administration official tells Yahoo News the president could grant clemency to "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people locked up for nonviolent drug crimes by the time he leaves office — a stunning number that hasn't been seen since Gerald Ford extended amnesty to Vietnam draft dodgers in the 1970s.
The scope of the new clemency initiative is so large that administration officials are preparing a series of personnel and process changes to help them manage the influx of petitions they expect Obama to approve. Among the changes is reforming the recently censured office within the Justice Department responsible for processing pardon petitions. Yahoo News has learned that the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, who was criticized in a 2012 Internal watchdog report for mishandling a high-profile clemency petition, is likely to step down as part of that overhaul. Additional procedures for handling large numbers of clemency petitions could be announced as soon as this week, a senior administration official said, though it could take longer.
Scrivner's case has been emblematic of the harsh and inflexible sentencing regimes of the past, as well as the challenges of reforming them now. At the beginning of 2010, a year into Barack Obama’s presidency, she applied for clemency. She had petitioned once before, in 2005, and was denied under George W. Bush. "I was very hopeful when President Obama was elected president, because I listened to his speeches about reform in the prisons and I just knew he'd be fair with clemencies," she said.
But pinning her hopes on Obama turned out to be a dangerous thing.
"I'm tired, and if I don't get my clemency I'm going to try to kill myself. Bottom line," she says she told mental health professionals in the prison.
In November 2011, three years after Obama's re-election, she got the form rejection letter from Washington. Heartbroken and hopeless, she tried to overdose on a bottle of migraine medication, and was sent to a special mental health prison in Texas to recuperate.
As a candidate and civil rights law professor, President Barack Obama had spoken out about the need to reform the criminal-justice system, and clearly felt passionately about entrenched racial biases that resulted in people being treated unfairly by the courts based solely on the color of their skin. But in his crowded first term, his only foray into criminal justice was encouraging lawmakers to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which he signed in 2010, to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The disparity had the effect of punishing black drug offenders far more harshly than white ones, and was widely accepted to be outdated and unfair. (Obama's clemency push is meant to correct a broad set of inequities in the criminal-justice system, not just those that are racial. Scrivner, who might benefit from the program, is white.)
When it came to using his only unfettered presidential power — to pardon felons and to reduce the sentences of prisoners — Obama was incredibly stingy in his first term. Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls his record on mercy "abysmal." He pardoned just 22 people — fewer than any modern president — and commuted the sentence of just one. An applicant for commutation like Scrivner had just a 1-in-5,000 chance of getting a reduced sentence with Obama in his first term — compared with a 1-in-100 chance under Presidents Reagan and Clinton, according to an analysis by ProPublica.
According to former and current administration officials, the fault for this lay mostly at the feet of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, a small corner of the Justice Department that sifts through thousands of pardon and commutation petitions each year. The pardon attorney, former military judge Ronald Rodgers, sends his recommendations of whether or not to grant the petitions to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, which then sends them on to the White House. The pardon attorney was recommending that the president deny nearly every single petition for a pardon or a reduced sentence, according to one senior official in the Obama administration.
But even though the president was almost certainly aware that the pardon process was deeply flawed, he took no steps to fix it. In 2009, Obama’s top lawyer, Gregory Craig, drafted a proposal urging a more aggressive use of the presidential pardon and clemency power, and calling the current system broken. One of Craig's recommendations was to take the pardon attorney's office out of the Department of Justice entirely, so that the people vetting clemency petitions were not so close to the system that put prisoners away in the first place.
"I was of the belief that the current system for making pardon decisions was broken and it needed to be reformed," Craig said. His suggested reforms weren't implemented, and he left the White House that year.
Craig wasn't the only one to raise concerns to the White House early in Obama's tenure. A staffer in the pardon attorney's office, Sam Morison, wrote to a West Wing attorney to blow the whistle on his own office shortly after Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech in February 2009 saying America is a "nation of cowards" on race. The attorney general mentioned entrenched racial injustices in the criminal-justice system. In the spirit of that concern, Morison wrote, "I must bring to your attention the near total collapse of the pardon advisory process." He added that the pardon attorney's dysfunction disproportionately affected minorities, whose pardon petitions were far less likely to be approved than whites' over the years. Morison said the desire to reject petitions was so institutionally ingrained at the office that the president would never effectively be able to use his pardon power. No one replied to his memo.
The spirit of criminal-justice reform that interested the president had not trickled down to the pardon attorney. "There's all this bipartisan reform going on, but you have these people down there in their own little insular world and they just don't get it," one senior administration official said of the pardon attorney's office.
Near the end of his first term, Obama expressed his frustration with how few positive clemency petitions were landing on his desk. He began meeting with White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler and Holder to discuss how his pardon power could fit into his larger strategy of making the criminal-justice system fairer. (In mid-December, Holder followed up with a memo to Obama laying out his priorities for a second term in which he endorsed a more robust use of the pardon power as part of a broader criminal-justice reform initiative.) Over a series of five or 10 discussions, the president said he wanted more recommendations for pardons and commutations getting to his desk. The president complained that the pardon attorney's office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license.
Meanwhile, the pardon attorney became the target of a scathing Justice Department Inspector General report in December 2012, furthering the suspicion in the White House that the culture of the office was to reflexively deny petitions. Rodgers fell "substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty he owed to the President of the United States," the Inspector General said. The report concluded that Rodgers misrepresented the facts to the White House of a commutation request from Clarence Aaron, a man serving a triple life sentence for facilitating a drug deal. The pardon attorney's advice to the president to deny the grant, even though the prosecutor and judge supported it, "was colored by his concern ... that the White House might grant Aaron clemency presently and his desire that this not happen," the report concluded.
A year later, and after prodding from the Obama administration, the pardon attorney's office finally sent the president recommendations to commute the sentences of eight people serving life or near-life sentences for drug crimes, including Aaron. None of the eight people was politically connected or wealthy, traits that the president wants to avoid rewarding with his clemency power. A year after Rodgers was taken to task for denying Aaron's petition, Obama freed Aaron and seven others from prison. According to Ruemmler, the commutations were a message that the president was serious about wanting to see more clemency recommendations.
Even with these eight, Obama has granted just 10 commutations out of 10,000 requests. He granted 52 of the 1,600 pardon requests that made it to his desk. But a new initiative he directed the Justice Department to begin this spring might increase that number by hundreds, or even thousands.
SCRIVNER’S SECOND CHANCE
Far away from the policy debates in Washington, Barbara Scrivner recovered from her suicide attempt in Texas and was sent back to the federal prison in Dublin, Calif. Scrivner told herself she'd never let herself get her hopes up again, and returned to her daily routine of working in the kitchens all day and then beading and playing cards after work to keep her mind off the sluggish passage of time.
But last February, the Justice Department announced a new push for clemency for nonviolent drug offenders — an initiative that came out of Obama's meetings with Ruemmler and Holder. Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole solicited private defense attorneys around the country for more petitions for mercy from prisoners serving lengthy sentences for drug crimes that would most likely be prosecuted differently today, due to changes in the law. A group of advocates have created "Clemency Project 2014" to organize the petitions and send them to the Justice Department — they expect thousands to pour in.
Despite her trepidation about being let down again, one of those petitions is Scrivner's.
In theory, she is a model candidate for the initiative — a nonviolent drug offender who was subjected to a lengthy sentence because of mandatory minimum penalties that are no longer in effect. She graduated from a drug-addiction program in prison and became a certified drug counselor; she nearly completed her bachelor’s degree in Bible studies; and she's finally dealing with her previously undiagnosed mental illness issues.
But this isn't a story about someone who was falsely accused of a crime and wrongly locked up, and Scrivner is the first to admit that. She started dating drug dealers when she was just 14 and a freshman in high school. That’s when she first tried meth and got hooked on it. "It made me feel different than I felt before," Scrivner says. "It made me feel more euphoric, more happier. I was a pretty depressed kid."
A friend of her mother's boyfriend sexually abused her when she was just 6 years old — a secret she kept until telling a prison therapist during her first psychiatric evaluation years ago. The men her mother hung out with also gave her marijuana to smoke when she was just 8 years old. In prison, she was diagnosed as bipolar, and it dawned on her that she had been using drugs to self-medicate all through her childhood and early 20s. "I just went from one older man with drugs to another older man with drugs to another older man with drugs," she said. "And I just felt loyalties to them."
She has a lengthy rap sheet and went to prison twice before — both times when she was arrested for possession after police raided homes where her boyfriends stashed drugs. She met her husband when she was 20 years old, after she had just gotten out of jail the second time. A friend told her she thought she'd like him, because he also had just gotten out of jail. "I just clicked with him," she recalls. It was a bad match.
Scrivner decided to get clean when she discovered she was pregnant. Her husband continued using heroin and dealing meth, and was caught and sent to prison shortly after the baby was born. While he was there, Scrivner fell behind on the bills, and hocked her jewelry and other valuables to keep the lights on. She made a desperate jailhouse call to her husband, who said he’d get in touch with his friends and have them help her.
Barbara Scrivner's daughter, Alannah, shows her newborn son to her mother. (Courtesy of Barbara Scrivner)
Some of his friends visited her shortly afterward, and dropped off a few ounces of meth. Scrivner sold it, paid her bills, and got her jewelry back. Little did she know that the feds were about to bust her husband’s drug ring. They showed up a few months later and demanded she tell them everything she knew about the larger operation. When she didn't, they prosecuted her for conspiracy and slammed her with responsibility for the whole drug operation — more than 100 kilograms of meth. Mandatory sentencing guidelines at the time meant the judge had no choice but to give her 30 years. Her daughter, Alannah, has grown up since she was just a toddler with both her mother and father behind bars in federal prison on 30-year sentences.
Scrivner's case is unusual in that both the judge who sentenced her and the prosecutor's office that charged her say she has served enough time. It's rare for cases like hers to be turned down by the pardon attorney, according to Sam Morison, but not unheard of. The office does not disclose why it rejects candidates, so Scrivner has been left wondering what went wrong.
"It would be fair to say that this is an unusual case," said Kent Robinson, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney in Oregon, where Scrivner was originally prosecuted. Robinson's office supported Scrivner's earlier clemency petition with a letter calling for her release. "Certainly in the last 10 years we haven’t written a letter like this."
But questions still remain about whether the pardon attorney's office is actually capable of fairly and quickly processing Scrivner's and the thousands of other expected petitions. Holder has asked for seven additional staffers for the office in his 2015 budget request, but it's unclear when they would start.
Meanwhile, more than a year after pardon attorney Rodgers was called out by the Justice Department for misrepresenting Aaron's petition to the White House, the former prosecutor and military judge is likely to finally be pushed out and replaced, a senior administration official tells Yahoo News. Rodgers was not present in a March meeting of the Justice Department, White House officials and advocates about "Clemency Project 2014," suggesting that he was already being internally marginalized.
Advocates have long been skeptical that a significant number of clemency petitions will actually get processed quickly if the current pardon attorney remained in place, given the entrenched culture there. A former pardon attorney's office employee said he believes the office could try to run out the clock on the petitions, knowing full well that the president has only a few years left. New leadership could change that.
Meanwhile, Scrivner is trying not to get her hopes up that this time will be different. She struggles to understand what her life's purpose is and why her seemingly robust clemency application has not been successful.
If her petition is denied again, she has a little bit more than five years until she can be released to a halfway house near her daughter in Fresno. Her daughter Alannah says it will be strange to see her mother for the first time outside of prison walls.
Scrivner says the new petition has filled her with hope, which scares her, because she doesn't want to be let down again. The eye shadow runs down her face, creating blue tracks on her tanned cheeks. "Ten years is a long time to be in prison. And now it’s been 20 years."
"It just doesn't seem real to me," she said.
Last month, the president walked into the East Room to greet dozens of U.S. attorneys who traveled to the White House to discuss criminal-justice issues. The president told them he was expecting an influx of clemency applications for his new push, and warned that he wanted them to personally examine them all and not "reflexively" deny them.
"I take my clemency authority very seriously," he told them.
With just a few years left of Obama's presidency, Scrivner, and others, will soon find out if he means it.
Via Yahoo News
Bipartisan group says pot's 'Schedule I' classification 'makes no sense.'
Eighteen members of Congress are asking President Barack Obama, who recently said smoking pot is safer than drinking alcohol, to end marijuana's classification as one of the nation's most dangerous narcotics.
Marijuana is currently a “Schedule I” drug, meaning the federal government considers it to have high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.
Obama’s favorable comparison of marijuana to alcohol in a January New Yorker interview, in which he also reiterated his pot use as a youth, thrilled pro-marijuana activists. But his reluctance to promptly order his attorney general, Eric Holder, to reschedule pot accordingly is a frustration to the same policy reformers.
“You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer,’” the members of Congress wrote to Obama on Wednesday. “This is true. Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.”
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which created five tiers of restricted drugs, says the attorney general may "remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule."
If a substance is banned by international treaties – as marijuana is – the law grants the attorney general the power to place it "under the schedule he deems most appropriate."
Obama seemed confused about his administration’s power to reschedule substances during a Jan. 30 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
"What is and isn't a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress," Obama told Tapper. "It's not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws under – undergirding those determinations."
The cannabis caucus, however, is pointing to the law and asking Obama to “instruct Attorney General Holder to delist or classify marijuana in a more appropriate way, at the very least eliminating it from Schedule I or II.”
The letter asks for a classification lower than Schedule II to allow legal recreational and medical marijuana businesses access to tax benefits. Two states currently allow recreational marijuana use and medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who drafted the letter, told U.S. News in January the Obama administration can reschedule marijuana administratively much more quickly than Congress.
"I don't dispute that Congress could and should make the change, but it's also something the administration could do in a matter of days,” Blumenauer said. "We're in this 'Alice in Wonderland' world where the country has moved on, but we're still arresting more than two-thirds of a million people a year for something 58 percent of the population believes should be legal."
The White House’s press office did not respond to a request for comment on the congressional letter, but advocacy groups quickly released statements.
"No drug should be listed as Schedule I, which limits potentially lifesaving research into both benefits and dangers of a substance and guarantees a violent, illegal market for the product,” said Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Executive Director Neill Franklin in a statement. “This is even more true of marijuana right now, when after four decades of failure, states are doing their best to find something that works and federal regulations keep interfering with their ability to do so.”
Dan Riffle, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of federal policies, said: “When President Obama took office, he promised his administration's policy decisions would be based on 'science and the scientific process,' not politics or ideology. Every day marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, his administration is breaking that promise.”
Nearly 100,000 people have signed a Change.org petition urging Obama to reschedule pot.
In addition to Blumenauer, the members of Congress who signed the letter to Obama are Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Sam Farr, D-Calif., Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., Mike Honda, D-Calif., Jared Huffman, D-Calif., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., James McGovern, D-Mass., James Moran, D-Va., Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, Jared Polis, D-Colo., Mike Quigley, D-Ill, Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
Via US News
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said he doesn't think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."
"As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol," the president said an interview with "The New Yorker" magazine.
Smoking marijuana is "not something I encourage, and I've told my daughters I think it's a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy," Obama said.
Obama's administration has given states permission to experiment with marijuana regulation, and laws recently passed in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana recently went into effect. The president said it was important for the legalization of marijuana to go forward in those states to avoid a situation in which only a few are punished while a large portion of people have broken the law at one time or another.
The president said he is troubled at the disproportionate number of arrests and imprisonments of minorities for marijuana use. "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do," he said. "And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties."
He said in the interview that users shouldn't be locked up for long stretches of time when people writing drug laws "have probably done the same thing."
But Obama urged a cautious approach to changing marijuana laws, saying that people who think legalizing pot will solve social problems are "probably overstating the case."
"And the experiment that's going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge," the president said.
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance praised Obama's words, saying his use of the word "important" about the new Colorado and Washington laws "really puts the wind in the sails of the movement to end marijuana prohibition.
Critics of the new laws raise concerns about public health and law enforcement, asking whether wide availability of the drug will lead to more underage drug use, more cases of driving while high and more crime.
Via News Yahoo
In a major national security speech this spring, President Obama said again and again that the U.S. is at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”
So who exactly are those associated forces? It’s a secret.
At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.
The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it. Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Levin, would say only that the department’s “answer included the information requested.”
A Pentagon spokesman told ProPublica that revealing such a list could cause “serious damage to national security.”
“Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory. “We cannot afford to inflate these organizations that rely on violent extremist ideology to strengthen their ranks.”
It’s not an abstract question: U.S. drone strikes and other actions frequently target “associated forces,” as has been the case with dozens of strikes against an Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.
During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of Al Qaeda.
Sheehan said that by the Pentagon’s standard, “sympathy is not enough…. it has to be an organized group and that group has to be in co-belligerent status with Al Qaeda operating against the United States.”
The White House tied Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and “elements” of Al Shabaab in Somalia to Al Qaeda in a recent report to Congress on military actions. But the report also included a classified annex.
Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law who served as a legal counsel during the Bush administration and has written on this question at length, told ProPublica that the Pentagon’s reasoning for keeping the affiliates secret seems weak. “If the organizations are ‘inflated’ enough to be targeted with military force, why cannot they be mentioned publicly?” Goldsmith said. He added that there is “a countervailing very important interest in the public knowing who the government is fighting against in its name."
The law underpinning the U.S. war against Al Qaeda is known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and it was passed one week after the 9/11 attacks. It doesn’t actually include the words “associated forces,” though courts and Congresshave endorsed the phrase.
As we explained earlier this year, the emergence of new or more loosely-aligned terrorist groups has legal scholars wondering how effectively the U.S. will be able to “shoehorn” them into the AUMF. During the May hearing, many lawmakersexpressed concern about the Pentagon’s capacious reading of the law. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described it as a “carte blanche.”
Obama, in his May speech, said he looked forward “to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” But he didn’t give a timeframe. On Wednesday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., introduced an amendment that would sunset the law at the end of 2014, to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was voted down the same day, 185 to 236.
The AUMF isn’t the only thing the government relies on to take military action. In speeches and interviews Obama administration officials also bring up the president’s constitutional power to defend the country, even without congressional authorization.
A Taylor, MI man was resting at a Best Western motel in Arlington, Va., today after riding his motorized wheelchair about 600 miles from his home to the White House.
Curtis Kile, 52, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, said he made the trip — on sidewalks and road shoulders, through small towns and big cities — to raise awareness about the importance of medical marijuana for those with serious health problems.
After arriving at the White House gates about 8 p.m. Wednesday, “I just sat there for about 20 minutes — I was really amazed that we made it,” he said. Kile was accompanied by his son, Curtis Kile Jr., 17, who drove the family’s 2006 Econoline van equipped with a wheelchair lift.
The elder Kile returned to the White House on Thursday, spoke to a crowd gathered for a human rights rally and hoped to speak to President Barack Obama about how medical marijuana has helped him. But he said he had no appointment with the president or anyone else in the White House, and “I didn’t get a phone call or nothing from them.”
Still, he said, he was glad he made the journey, during which — short on money — the father and son often camped outdoors, with Kile sleeping in his wheelchair.
“I don’t think the trip was a waste. We were able to draw attention to the issue,” Kile said today. He said a Free Press article on his trip, published Monday, helped “double or maybe triple” donations to his effort. The duo plan to spend their return trip in motels because of that.
Kile’s pilgrimage drew attention “across the country,” said Rick Thompson, publisher of the Flint-based Cannabis Chronicles website. Those who support “legal and safe access” to medical marijuana have been disappointed in the Obama administration’s continued use of federal agents and drug laws to prosecute users of medical marijuana, even in states that have state laws that allow medical use, including Michigan, Thompson said.
New Book Exposes Obama’s Choom (Marijuana) Gang
A review of Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss’ forthcoming book “Barack Obama: The Story,” has generated renewed talk on Obama’s pot-smoking past as it included an excerpt about the Commander in Chief’s circle of friends, which nicknamed themselves the “Choom Gang.”
In the book, Maraniss details how Obama spent a lot of time at the Punahou School in Hawaii with a “self-selected group of boys who loved basketball and good times and called themselves the Choom Gang. Choom is a verb, meaning “to smoke marijuana.”
“As a member of the Choom Gang,” Maraniss writes, “Barry Obama was known for starting a few pot-smoking trends.” One of those was: “Total Absorption” or “TA.” “TA was the opposite of Bill Clinton’s claim that as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he smoked dope but never inhaled,” explains Maraniss. If you exhaled prematurely when you were with the Choom Gang, “you were assessed a penalty and your turn was skipped the next time the joint came around.”
Maraniss further states that Obama was known for his “interceptions,” which involved him elbowing his way in, out of turn when a joint was being passed around, shouting “Intercepted!” and taking an extra hit.” In addition, the author noted how Obama helped popularize a concept known as “roof hits.”
“When they were chooming in a car all the windows had to be rolled up so no smoke blew out and went to waste; when the pot was gone, they tilted their heads back and sucked in the last bit of smoke from the ceiling.”
Although “most members of the Choom Gang” went on to successful careers as writers, lawyers and businessmen, the same could not be said about the group’s drug dealer, Ray, who was killed a scorned gay lover. Maraniss wrote that Obama acknowledged Ray in a high school yearbook, but not his own mother as the politician wrote “Thanks Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang, and Ray,” Obama wrote, “for all the good times.”
David Maraniss’ “Barack Obama: The Story,” is set to hit stores on June 19.
Obama's War on Pot
In a shocking about-face, the administration has launched a government-wide crackdown on medical marijuana
by: Tim Dickinson
Back when he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama insisted that medical marijuana was an issue best left to state and local governments. "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," he vowed, promising an end to the Bush administration's high-profile raids on providers of medical pot, which is legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
But over the past year, the Obama administration has quietly unleashed a multiagency crackdown on medical cannabis that goes far beyond anything undertaken by George W. Bush. The feds are busting growers who operate in full compliance with state laws, vowing to seize the property of anyone who dares to even rent to legal pot dispensaries, and threatening to imprison state employees responsible for regulating medical marijuana. With more than 100 raids on pot dispensaries during his first three years, Obama is now on pace to exceed Bush's record for medical-marijuana busts. "There's no question that Obama's the worst president on medical marijuana," says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "He's gone from first to worst."
The federal crackdown imperils the medical care of the estimated 730,000 patients nationwide – many of them seriously ill or dying – who rely on state-sanctioned marijuana recommended by their doctors. In addition, drug experts warn, the White House's war on law-abiding providers of medical marijuana will only drum up business for real criminals. "The administration is going after legal dispensaries and state and local authorities in ways that are going to push this stuff back underground again," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a former Republican senator who has urged the DEA to legalize medical marijuana, pulls no punches in describing the state of affairs produced by Obama's efforts to circumvent state law: "Utter chaos."
In its first two years, the Obama administration took a refreshingly sane approach to medical marijuana. Shortly after Obama took office, a senior drug-enforcement official pledged to Rolling Stone that the question of whether marijuana is medicine would now be determined by science, "not ideology." In March 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized that the Justice Department would only target medical-marijuana providers "who violate both federal and state law." The next morning, a headline in The New York Times read OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO STOP RAIDS ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISPENSERS. While all forms of marijuana would remain strictly illegal under federal law – the DEA ranks cannabis as a Schedule I drug, on par with heroin – the feds would respect state protections for providers of medical pot. Framing the Obama administration's new approach, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske famously declared, "We're not at war with people in this country."
That original hands-off policy was codified in a Justice Department memo written in October 2009 by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden. The so-called "Ogden memo" advised federal law-enforcement officials that the "rational use of its limited investigative and prosecutorial resources" meant that medical-marijuana patients and their "caregivers" who operate in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law" could be left alone.
At the same time, Ogden was concerned that the feds not "be made a fool of" by illegal drug traffickers. In that vein, his memo advised U.S. attorneys to focus on going after pot dispensaries that posed as medicinal but were actively engaged in criminal acts, such as selling to minors, possession of illegal firearms or money-laundering. The idea, as Holder put it, was to raid only those hardcore traffickers who "use medical-marijuana laws as a shield."
The Ogden memo sent a clear message to the states: The feds will only intervene if you allow pot dispensaries to operate as a front for criminal activity. States from New Mexico to Maine moved quickly to license and regulate dispensaries through their state health departments – giving medical marijuana unprecedented legitimacy. In California, which had allowed "caregivers" to operate dispensaries, medical pot blossomed into a $1.3 billion enterprise – shielded from federal blowback by the Ogden memo.
The administration's recognition of medical cannabis reached its high-water mark in July 2010, when the Department of Veterans Affairs validated it as a legitimate course of treatment for soldiers returning from the front lines. But it didn't take long for the fragile federal detente to begin to collapse. The reversal began at the Drug Enforcement Agency with Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush administration who was renominated by Obama to head the DEA. An anti-medical-marijuana hard-liner, Leonhart had been rebuked in 2008 by House Judiciary chairman John Conyers for targeting dispensaries with tactics "typically reserved for the worst drug traffickers and kingpins." Her views on the larger drug war are so perverse, in fact, that last year she cited the slaughter of nearly 1,000 Mexican children by the drug cartels as a counterintuitive "sign of success in the fight against drugs."
In January 2011, weeks after Leonhart was confirmed, her agency updated a paper called "The DEA Position on Marijuana." With subject headings like THE FALLACY OF MARIJUANA FOR MEDICINAL USE and SMOKED MARIJUANA IS NOT MEDICINE, the paper simply regurgitated the Bush administration's ideological stance, in an attempt to walk back the Ogden memo. Sounding like Glenn Beck, the DEA even blamed "George Soros" and "a few billionaires, not broad grassroots support" for sustaining the medical-marijuana movement – even though polls show that 70 percent of Americans approve of medical pot.
Almost immediately, federal prosecutors went on the attack. Their first target: the city of Oakland, where local officials had moved to raise millions in taxes by licensing high-tech indoor facilities for growing medical marijuana. A month after the DEA issued its hard-line position, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag warned the city that the feds were weighing "criminal prosecution" against the proposed pot operations. Abandoning the Ogden memo's protections for state-sanctioned "caregivers," Haag effectively re-declared war on medical pot. "We will enforce the Controlled Substances Act vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana," she wrote, "even if such activities are permitted under state law." Haag's warning shot had the desired effect: Oakland quickly scuttled its plans, even though the taxes provided by the indoor grows could have single-handedly wiped out the city's $31 million deficit.
Two months later, federal prosecutors in Washington state went even further, threatening state employees responsible for implementing new regulations for pot dispensaries. U.S. attorneys sent a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire, warning that state employees "would not be immune from liability under the Controlled Substances Act." Shocked by the threat – "It subjected Washington state employees to felony criminal prosecution!" – Gregoire vetoed the new rules. A similar federal threat in Rhode Island forced Chafee to follow suit, putting an indefinite hold on the planned opening of three state-licensed "compassion centers" to distribute marijuana to seriously ill patients.
In isolation, such moves might be seen as the work of overzealous U.S. attorneys, who operate with considerable autonomy. But last June, the Justice Department effectively declared that it was returning to the Bush administration's hard-line stance on medical marijuana. James Cole, who had replaced Ogden as deputy attorney general, wrote a memo revoking his predecessor's deference to states on the definition of "caregiver." The term, Cole insisted, applied only to "individuals providing care to individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses, not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana." Pot dispensaries, in short, were once again prime federal targets, even if they were following state law to the letter. "The Cole memo basically adopted the Bush policy," says Kampia, "which was only that the Justice Department will not go after individual patients."
In reality, however, the Obama administration has also put patients in the cross hairs. Last September, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms moved to deprive Americans who use medical marijuana of their gun rights. In an open letter to gun sellers, the ATF warned that it is unlawful to sell "any firearm or ammunition" to "any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for me dicinal purposes." If your doctor advises you to use medicinal pot, in other words, you can no longer legally own a gun. Hunting advocates were outraged. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, wrote a furious letter calling on the Justice Department to reassess its "chilling" policy, declaring it "unacceptable that law-abiding citizens would be stripped of their Second Amendment rights."
Since the federal crackdown began last year, the DEA has raided dozens of medical-cannabis dispensaries from Michigan to Montana. Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, claims the federal action is necessary because the state's legalized pot dispensaries have been "hijacked by profiteers" who are nothing more than criminals.
It's true that California has no shortage of illegal pot dealers. Nonmedical marijuana is the state's largest cash crop, raking in an estimated $14 billion a year. And demand is growing, in part because former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger thwarted a ballot measure aimed at full legalization in 2010 by removing criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of pot. But instead of focusing limited federal resources on off-the-grid growers in places like Humboldt County, who are often armed and violent, Haag targeted Matthew Cohen, a medical-marijuana farmer in Mendocino who was growing 99 plants under the direct supervision of the county sheriff. As part of a pioneering collaboration with local law enforcement, Cohen marked each of his plants with county-supplied tags, had his secured facility inspected and distributed the marijuana he grew directly to patients in his nonprofit collective.
Cohen appeared to be precisely the kind of caregiver that the Ogden memo advised should be given safe harbor for operating in "clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law." But last October, DEA agents stormed Cohen's farm in the middle of the night and cut down his crop. Sheriff Tom Allman, who learned of the raid on his turf only an hour before it was executed, was outraged. "Matt Cohen was not in violation of any state or local ordinances when federal agents arrived at his location," Allman says. In January, Haag took the fight to the next level, threatening county officials like Allman with federal sanctions. Three weeks later, county supervisors voted to abandon the program to license and monitor Mendocino's legal growers. "This is a huge step backward," says Allman.
Haag's treatment of urban dispensaries has been equally ham-handed. She recently shuttered one of the oldest dispensaries in the state, a nonprofit that serves a high percentage of female patients in Marin County, which has the nation's highest rate of breast cancer. She has threatened to seize the properties that landlords rent to legal pot dispensaries. And in San Francisco, she targeted Divinity Tree, a cooperative run by a quadriplegic who himself relies on prescribed cannabis for relief from near-constant muscle spasms. At a time of high unemployment and huge budget deficits, the move killed more than a dozen jobs and deprived the state of $180,000 in annual tax revenue. In San Diego alone, the feds have shut down nearly two-thirds of the county's dispensaries. Statewide, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union estimates, the federal crackdown has destroyed some 2,500 jobs in California. It also sent street prices soaring by at least 20 percent, putting more money in the hands of actual criminals.
In addition, the federal war on medical marijuana has locked pot dispensaries out of the banking system – especially in Colorado, home to the nation's second-largest market for medicinal cannabis. Top banks – including Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America – are refusing to do business with state-licensed dispensaries, for fear of federal prosecution for money-laundering and other federal drug crimes. In a House hearing in December, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado warned Attorney General Holder that strong-arming banks will actually raise the likelihood of crime. If pot dispensaries have to work outside the normal financial system, Polis told Holder, "it makes the industry harder for the state to track, to tax, to regulate them, and in fact makes it prone to robberies, because it becomes a cash business."
The IRS has also joined in the administration's assault on pot dispensaries, seeking to deny them standard tax deductions enjoyed by all other businesses. Invoking an obscure provision of the tax code meant to trip up drug kingpins, the IRS now maintains that pot dispensaries can deduct only one expense – ironically, the cost of the marijuana itself. All other normal costs of doing business – including employee salaries and benefits, rent, equipment, electricity and water – have been denied.
The agency has used the provision to go after Harborside Health Center, one of the largest and most respected providers of medical cannabis in California. Its Oakland branch, serving 83,000 patients in conforming with state law, paid more than $1 million in city taxes last year – placing it in the top 10 percent of local businesses. "It's incredibly tightly run and very, very professional," says Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But it's also big – and it may be that big is bad as far as the feds are concerned." Slapped with an IRS bill for $2.5 million in back taxes, Harborside now faces bankruptcy. "It's profoundly inaccurate to characterize us as a 'drug-trafficking' organization," says Harborside president Steve DeAngelo. "We are a nonprofit community-service organization that helps sick and suffering people get the medicine they need to be well. This is not an attempt to tax us – it's an attempt to tax us out of existence."
Supporters of medical marijuana are baffled by Obama's abrupt about-face on the issue. Some blame the federal crackdown not on the president, but on career drug warriors determined to go after medical pot. "I don't think the federal onslaught is being driven by the highest levels of the White House," says Nadelmann. "What we need is a clear statement from the White House that federal authorities will defer to responsible local regulation."
The White House, for its part, insists that its position on medical pot has been "clear and consistent." Asked for comment, a senior administration official points out that the Ogden memo was never meant to protect "such things as large-scale, privately owned industrial marijuana cultivation centers" like the one in Oakland. But the official makes no attempt to explain why the administration has permitted a host of federal agencies to revive the Bush-era policy of targeting state-approved dispensaries. "Somewhere in the administration, a decision was made that it would be better to close down legal, regulated systems of access for patients and send them back to the street, back to criminals," says DeAngelo. "That's what's really at stake."
The administration's retreat on medical pot is certainly consistent with its broader election-year strategy of seeking to outflank Republicans on everything from free trade to offshore drilling. Obama's advisers may be betting that a tough-on-pot stance will shore up the president's support among seniors in November, as well as voters in Southern swing states like Virginia and North Carolina that are less favorable to drug reform. But the president could pay a steep price for his anti-pot crackdown this fall, particularly if it winds up alienating young voters in swing states like Colorado, where two-thirds of residents support medical marijuana. In November, Colorado voters will likely consider a referendum to legalize all pot use for adults – and undercutting enthusiasm for the issue will only dampen turnout that could benefit the president. "Medical marijuana is twice as popular as Obama," notes Kampia. "It doesn't make any political sense."
The sharpest and most surprising rebuke to the administration has come from centrist governors who are fed up with the war on medicinal pot. In November, Gregoire and Chafee issued a bipartisan petition to the DEA, asking the agency to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, the same as cocaine and meth – one with a recognized medicinal value, despite its high potential for abuse. "It's time to show compassion, and it's time to show common sense," says Gregoire. "We call on the federal government to end the confusion and the unsafe burden on patients."
A petition by two sitting governors is historic – but it's unlikely to shift federal policy. Last June, after a nine-year delay, the Obama administration denied a similar petition. An official at the Department of Health and Human Services left little hope for reclassification, reiterating the Bush-era position that there is "no accepted medical use for marijuana in the United States."
For law-enforcement officials who handle marijuana on the front lines, such attitudes highlight how out of touch the administration has become. "Whether you call it medical or recreational, the marijuana genie is out of the bottle, and there's no one who's going to put it back in," insists Sheriff Allman of Mendocino, whose department had been targeted by federal prosecutors for its attempts to regulate medical pot. "For federal officials who plug their ears and say, 'No, it's not true, it's not true,' I have some words for them: You need to get over it."
Obama’s Opportunity: Will the White House Snub Marijuana Yet Again?
By Erik Altieri, NORML Communications Coordinator
Last week, the White House launched the next in its long line of social media engagement initiatives, this one entitled “Your Interview With the President.” The concept was simple, anyone could upload their question to the President on YouTube, others would vote on them, and the highest rated ones would be posed to the Commander in Chief in a Google+ Hangout on January 30th.
This seemed to be a logical opportunity to ask the administration about marijuana legalization. Last Tuesday, I posted NORML’s question to the White House YouTube page for consideration. We asked, “With over 850,000 Americans arrested in 2010, on marijuana charges alone, and tens of billions of tax dollars being spent locking up marijuana users, isn’t it time to regulate and tax marijuana?”
The reception was overwhelmingly positive, in just several hours the question received over 4,000 “thumbs up” votes and was one of, if not the, most popular question on the service. Then a peculiar thing happened, the question was removed. After becoming the most positively voted upon question in less than a day, the White House removed the question, deeming it “inappropriate.”
We informed our audience of the censorship and encouraged them to engage the White House on their own, using our question or a one of their own choosing. Over the next several days the program was inundated with marijuana law reform questions. At first, many met the same fate as our original question and were removed from the site. It seems our persistence ended up paying off and the page administrator finally gave up trying to censor the incoming questions and most marijuana inquiries have remained up since.
Voting closed last night at midnight and I made some rough calculations of the final results to see how we performed. Of the top 160 questions asked, marijuana reform questions accounted for 105 of them. Reposts of our question brought in an estimated 17,524 up-votes in addition to the 4,028 the original received before being removed. Combined, that is over 21,000 votes for one question, which is 5 times as many votes as any other question on the page. The 105 marijuana reform questions in the top 160 brought in over 74,000 votes, dwarfing any other topic.
Now, we wait. “Your Interview With the President” is scheduled to take place tomorrow, January 30th. Considering this is the same individual who previously stated that, “we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws” and that legalization is a “perfectly legitimate topic for debate,” maybe he will take this opportunity to address the issue seriously for once. In an election year, this could go a long way towards winning back those who feel disenfranchised with the administration over a perceived lack of progress on the issue and amped up raids on medical programs in states such as California and Colorado.
The American people are ready for our debate Mr. President, are you?
Obama says he’s not willing to end the drug war
The war can't be over....there are still plenty of innocent ones left......-UA
Posted on 07.22.11 By David Edwards, rawstory.com
“Much is being asked of our generation,” a doctoral student named Steve told the president at a town hall event in Maryland. “So, when are our economic perspectives going to be addressed? For example, when is the war on drugs in society going to be abandoned and be replaced by a more sophisticated and cost effective program of rehabilitation such as the one in Portugal?”
“I have stated repeatedly — and it’s actually reflected in our most recent statement by our office of drug policy — that we need to have an approach that emphasizes prevention, treatment, a public health model for reducing drug use in our country,” Obama said. “We’ve got to put more resources into that. We can’t simply focus on interdiction because, frankly, no matter how good of a job we’re doing when it comes to an interdiction approach, if there is high demand in this country for drugs, we are going to continue to see not only drug use but also the violence associated with the drug trade.”
After several minutes of explaining U.S. efforts to help Mexico fight transnational drug dealers, the president got to the point.
“Just to make sure that I’m actually answering your question, am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No.”
“But I am willing to make sure that we’re putting more resources on the treatment and prevention side,” Obama added.