This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.
Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes -- and he's still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.
[image:1 align:left]Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.
Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts -- African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population -- and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.
In Bernard Noble's case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state's harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as "the bitch.") Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.
Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.
Taking into account Noble's minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.
"Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture."
It has also shattered Noble's family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother's house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He's been locked up ever since.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]But there's renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it's a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.
If Jindal's record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.
"This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker," said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. "He's been in there 44 months, and he's not even close to finishing his sentence. He's just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment."
Noble's sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.
The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses -- staffing and inmate care and programs -- as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.
Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn't happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.
Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.
"Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it's mostly black men fed into the prison system from there," said Cadore. "Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him."
Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.
[image:3 align:left]"What's rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community -- the black community," Dore pointed out. "We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that's black, and it has a gender, and that's mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier."
Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he's just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.
"If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state," said Cadore.
"We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We're in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do," she continued. "Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they're not paying attention or that they're not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?"
A near total victory for the Kettle Falls Four, California continues to wrestle with medical marijuana, CBD cannabis oil bills pop up, and a Utah medical marijuana bill stays alive. Let's get to it:
Last Tuesday, the Riverside city council voted to send an initiative to the ballot that would allow some medical marijuana dispensaries. The measure will be on the June 8 ballot.
Last Thursday, the Clear Lake city council adopted an ordinance banning grows within the city. Councilmembers said that was the only way to eliminate large grows, but patients and advocates protested loudly, to no avail. Legal action by patients and advocates is coming next.
On Monday, the Pismo Beach city council killed a proposed ban on medical marijuana deliveries. The council had voted last month to introduce an amendment to do so, but chose not to conduct a second reading.
On Tuesday, the San Diego city council cleared a key hurdle for dispensaries to open by rejecting environmental appeals filed against them. That means the six proposed dispensaries are one step closer to getting final approval from the Planning Commission.
Also on Tuesday, Tehama County supervisors voted to ban medical marijuana grows. The only exception is for locked outbuildings. Gardens that are currently in compliance will be grandfathered in, but only until next January.
On Monday, a jury acquitted a medical marijuana patient in a historic verdict. A Broward County jury effectively nullified the state's marijuana laws by acquitting a defendant who testified that he grew and used pot for medicinal purposes. Jesse Teplicki testified at his trial that he smoked marijuana to treat the nausea and suppressed appetite that had been plaguing him for years. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning with a verdict of "not guilty." Teplicki, 50, was looking at up to five years in state prison if convicted.
Last Thursday, a CBD cannabis oil bill passed the House. The House approved House Bill 1, which allows for the use of low-THC, high-CBC cannabis oil to treat seizures and other major health conditions. The measure now goes to the Senate.
On Monday, a new, weaker CBD cannabis oil bill was filed in the Senate. The House last week passed a CBD cannabis oil bill, but now, Sen. Lindsey Tippins has filed a new bill that would not make the drug available, but would instead set up a four-year study. The Tippins bill is not yet up on the legislative website.
On Sunday, a new poll showed strong support for medical marijuana in the state. A new Des Moines Register poll has support for medical marijuana at 70%, up from 59% a year ago. The state approved a CBD cannabis oil bill last year, but patient advocates say that law is useless because it doesn't provide for distribution of the medication.
Last Monday, a CBD cannabis oil bill won a House committee vote. For the first time, a measure allowing some form of medical marijuana has won a vote in the state legislature. The House Health and Human Services Committee Monday approved House Bill 2282, which would allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil for seizure disorders.
Last Thursday, the state issued licenses for CBD cannabis oil production. The Department of Agriculture this week issued two licenses for the cultivation of low-THC marijuana to be used to make CBD cannabis oil for patients. The licenses went to two St. Louis-area nonprofits.
Last Thursday, a CBD cannabis oil bill got delayed. The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is delaying a bill that would legalize low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil. Lawmakers decided Tuesday to bump any action back by at least two weeks. The bill is House Bill 197.
Last Friday, a medical marijuana bill won a Senate committee vote. The state Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 259, a full-blown medical marijuana bill (except that it doesn't allow smoking it).
On Tuesday, the bill moved again. A bill that appeared delayed only a day earlier was approved for a third Senate reading Tuesday night. Senate Bill 259 would allow people with qualifying illnesses to use marijuana in edible or liquid form and would establish dispensaries to distribute it. If the Senate approves it one more time, it then goes to the House.
On Wednesday, the Kettle Falls Four won acquittal on most counts. A federal jury in Spokane acquitted the medical marijuana-growing family of four out of five counts, including the most serious ones, but found them guilty of growing between 50 and 100 plants. Federal prosecutors brought the case despite pot being legal in Washington state and despite federal guidance that suggests they shouldn't have. After the verdicts were read, prosecutors sought to jail the four pending sentencing, much to the disbelief of the courtroom crowd, but the judge didn't go for that.
[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]
Chronicle AM: Nationwide Majority for Pot Legalization, WV Welfare Drug Test Bill Dies, More (3/4/14)
The General Social Survey for the first time has a majority for marijuana legalization, DC cops start returning arrestees' marijuana, a Utah medical marijuana bill is still alive, Canada's Tories ponder decriminalization, Britain's Lib Dems talk drug policy reform, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
"Gold Standard" of Polls Finds Majority Support for Legalization Nationwide. For the first time, the General Social Survey, considered to be the gold standard for public opinion polls, has a majority of Americans favoring legalization. The survey, conducted between March and October of last year, has 52% saying pot should be legalized, with 42% opposed, and 7% undecided. Support for legalization is up nine points over the last General Social Survey, conducted two years ago. As recently as 1996, only 32% supported legalization.
DC Police Return Arrestee's Marijuana. This is what happens when pot is legal. A man who had been arrested and released at the 6th District police station in Northeast DC demanded that police return his marijuana. "You have my marijuana, you have my weed," witnesses reported the man saying. The cops gave it back. "This property was less than two ounces of marijuana, and was returned to the arrestee with the other property held at the time of his arrest," explained Gwendolyn Crump, the DC police department's chief spokeswoman.
Georgia Legalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Tucker) has filed a bill that would legalize marijuana and allow retailers to sell up to two ounces at a time to people 21 and over. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.
Responsible Ohio Files Revised Legalization Proposal. The group, which wants to create 10 designated commercial grows in the state for its financial backers, handed in 3,164 signatures along with its revised constitutional amendment initiative language. State Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) had earlier rejected the group's initial ballot summary language. If the new language is approved, Responsible Ohio must gather 305,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Kettle Falls Four Win Acquittal on Most Counts. A federal jury in Spokane acquitted the medical marijuana-growing family of four out of five counts, including the most serious ones, but found them guilty of growing between 50 and 100 plants. Federal prosecutors brought the case despite marijuana being legal in Washington state and despite federal guidance that suggests they shouldn't have. They continued the prosecution after Congress passed language barring the Dept. of Justice from spending funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. After the verdicts were read, prosecutors sought to jail the four pending sentencing, much to the disbelief of the courtroom crowd, but the judge didn't go for that.
Utah Medical Marijuana Bill Moves. A bill that appeared delayed only a day earlier was approved for a third Senate reading Tuesday night. Senate Bill 259 would allow people with qualifying illnesses to use marijuana in edible or liquid form and would establish dispensaries to distribute it. If the Senate approves it one more time, it then goes to the House.
West Virginia Welfare Drug Testing Bill Killed. Sponsor of the bill, Del. Patrick Lane (R) conceded today that the bill was dead for the session after the House voted yesterday to table it. The bill would have mandated drug testing based on reasonable suspicion.
Detroit Cops Launch 17th Mass Drug Raid. Police Chief James Craig's Operation Restore Order resulted in the city's 17th mass drug raid yesterday. Nearly 180 officers were involved, but at the flagship bust of the day, a "drug house," police found no one, only a small amount of drugs, but managed to shoot and kill a pit bull. Craig said the raids have resulted in 1,172 arrests, the vast majority on drug charges, and the seizure of $4.5 million worth of drugs. He didn't say whether they had had any demonstrable impact on drug availability in the city.
Canada Tories Ponder Decriminalization Bill. The Conservatives are considering whether to introduce a bill to let police issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana. The decision on whether to move forward in the current parliament, which only lasts another 12 weeks, is in the hands of Justice Minister Peter McKay. Even if no bill is filed this session, Tories could use the notion as a means of countering the Liberals in forthcoming elections. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has called for outright legalization.
British Lib Dems Promise Drug Policy Reforms. Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg said today his party would hand control over drug policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health, review marijuana legalization in the US, and consider decriminalization. The party, which is an uneasy junior partner with the Conservatives, says their proposals are "the most far-reaching drug reform policies ever put forward by a major political party ahead of an election."
Mexico Nabs Zetas Cartel Leader Omar Trevino Morales. The Zetas leader is only the latest of an ever-growing list of top drug gang leaders captured or killed by Mexican authorities. Trevino Morales, known as "Z-42," was arrested in a predawn raid in Monterrey. He is the brother of Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, who was arrested in 2013. The Zetas' other original leader, Heriberto Lazcano, was killed by Mexican marines in 2012.
Mexico Cartel Violence Spiking in Tamaulipas. The northeastern state, which borders Texas's Rio Grande Valley region is seeing road blockades, assaults on media, and deadly shootouts. At least 12 people were killed in Reynosa and Matamoros shoot-outs last month, and two more were killed in Nuevo Progreso last Saturday. The violence is being blamed on rival factions of the Gulf Cartel.
Chronicle AM: INCB Scolds US, Uruguay on Pot; DC & NYC Top Cops on Marijuana, Iran Executions, More (3/3/15)
The top cops in DC and New York City offer wildly contrasting remarks on marijuana, Iran hangs drug offenders, while Indonesia prepares the firing squad for them, a Florida man gets acquitted of a marijuana cultivation charge in Florida by convincing a jury it was medical, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Delaware Governor Says Legalization Won't Happen on His Watch. "We've got a lot more to learn" before legalizing marijuana, Gov. Jack Markell (D) said in an interview. "I'm certainly willing to look at the decriminalization aspect. I am not in support of doing what they've done in Colorado or Washington state or a few other places, doing full legalization," Markell added. "It's not gonna happen while I'm governor. It may be the right thing. But I don't think we know. I think we need to take a few years and see what the impact has been in some of these other states." The legislature will take up a decriminalization bill this month.DC City Council Approves Emergency Action to Ban Cannabis Clubs. The council voted unanimously today to ban cannabis clubs, as well as smoking it in bars, clubs, and virtually anywhere else outside a private residence. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the legislation was needed to close a loophole that could allow cannabis clubs, but legalization proponents criticized the move, saying it was unneeded and overly broad. They also warned that passage could render void an agreement they had with Bowser to try to tamp down public displays of pot smoking that could provoke congressional hardliners.
DC Police Chief Says All Marijuana Arrests Do Is "Make People Hate Us." DC Police Chief Kathy Lanier has said that alcohol is a bigger problem than pot and that arresting people for marijuana doesn't accomplish anything. "Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop," Lanier said while speaking at the American News Women's Club. "They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem. All those marijuana arrests do is make people hate us."
NYPD Commissioner Blames Marijuana for Jump in Murders. The NYPD blames marijuana for a 20% increase in homicides in the city. "The seemingly innocent drug that's being legalized around the country -- in this city, people are killing each other over marijuana," said Commissioner Bill Bratton. Reform advocates were quick to point out that the killings were a function of prohibition, not anything intrinsic to marijuana.
Maine Bill Seeks to Block Local Legalization Initiatives. Rep. James Campbell (I-Newfield) has filed a bill that says municipal marijuana legalization petitions "may not be approved for inclusion on the ballot or considered at any town meeting." The measure, LD 67, is currently before the Senate Committee on State and Local Government. Legalization proponents have successfully used local initiatives to win votes in some of the state's largest cities.
Texas Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) yesterday introduced House Bill 2165, which would legalize marijuana by removing all mention of the drug from state statutes. "Let's allow the plant to be utilized for good -- helping people with seizures, treating warriors with PTSD, producing fiber and other products -- or simply for beauty and enjoyment," Simpson said.
Washington Senate Passes Bill to Ban Marijuana Vending Machines. The Senate voted 47-0 yesterday to approve a bill banning pot sales in vending machines or drive-through windows. The measure is Senate Bill 5903. It now moves to the House.
In Historic Verdict, Jury Acquits Florida Patient on Marijuana Charge. A Broward County jury effectively nullified the state's marijuana laws Monday by acquitting a defendant who testified that he grew and used pot for medicinal purposes. Jesse Teplicki testified at his trial that he smoked marijuana to treat the nausea and suppressed appetite that had been plaguing him for years. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning with a verdict of "not guilty." Teplicki, 50, was looking at up to five years in state prison if convicted.
Utah Medical Marijuana Bill Held Up. Sen. Mark Madsen (R-Saratoga Springs) tried to persuade his colleagues to hold a quick vote on Senate Bill 259 after a brief debate yesterday, but that didn't happen. The bill is now on hold with 10 days left in the session.
Wyoming Legislative Interim Committee Could Take Up Asset Forfeiture Reform. After the state Senate failed to override a veto of a civil asset forfeiture reform measure by Gov. Matt Mead (R), the Joint Judiciary Committee met yesterday to come up with a list of topics it wants to consider before the next session. Asset forfeiture reform is one of them, but the final decision will be made by a Management Committee consisting of legislative leaders from both parties.
Rehabilitation and Reentry
New Mexico Bill Restricting Use of Criminal Record Queries for Job Applicants Passes Senate. The Criminal Offender Employment Eligibility Act (Senate Bill 583) passed the Senate yesterday and heads to the House. The "ban the box" bill bars private employers from asking on an application form if someone has a criminal conviction, or from considering a conviction before the final round of an employment decision. Six other states have similar law. New Mexico already has a similar law that applies to public employees.
INCB Annual Report Scolds US, Uruguay Over Marijuana Legalization. The UN's drug watchdog body, the International Narcotics Control Board, has wagged a finger at Uruguay, which became the first country to legalize marijuana, and at the US, where two states were singled out for criticism for having legalized it. The scolding came in the INCB's annual report, released today.
Leading Paraguayan Senator Calls for Marijuana Reforms. Senator Blas Llano, chair of the National Congress, has called for an end to pot prohibition in a bid to "put an end to the drug traffickers' business." Paraguay is the leading marijuana producers in South America and second only to Mexico in Latin America.
Iran Hangs Eight for Drug Offenses in Past Week. At least people have been executed for drug crimes by Iranian authorities in the past week, according to the death penalty watch group Hands Off Cain. Iran executed hundreds of drug offenders last year and dozens so far this year. It is the world's leading drug executioner.
Indonesia Prepares to Execute 10 For Drug Offenses. Nine foreigners and one Indonesian citizen are set to be executed by Indonesian authorities later this week. Preparations at the execution site have been completed, and the prisoners are set to be transferred there tomorrow. The killings of foreigners have led to diplomatic disputes with some of their home countries, but that has not deterred Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has consistently supported the death penalty for drug smuggling.