(This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)
The US government wants to throw Marsha Austin out of the country. The 67-year-old grandmother came from Jamaica to New York as a lawful resident in 1985, and has lived here ever since with her husband, seven children (two more are in Jamaica), grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All are legal residents or US citizens.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]By her own admission, she had problems with drugs. "I live in a drug-infested area," she said of her neighborhood in the Bronx, and she succumbed to the lure of crack cocaine in the wake of her mother's death. Jones racked up several minor convictions before getting popped for making a $5 purchase for an undercover officer in 1995.
That was "attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree," to which she pleaded guilty on her public defender's advice. The attorney failed to tell her the conviction could lead to deportation.
Her convictions led to little or no jail time, but in 2010, as her husband's health faltered, she violated probation by drinking alcohol. She did 90 days in jail, but instead of walking out, she was seized by immigration authorities at the end of her sentence and spent the next 2 ½ years in immigration jail awaiting deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly opposed her release, claiming she was under mandatory detention for her drug offenses, but then released her unexpectedly in 2013. She's been in treatment since then and now proudly reports that she's been "clean as a whistle" for the past five years. Now, her husband's health is failing, as is the health of her daughter, who suffered a breakdown after her own daughter suffered a serious illness.
"My kids and my grandkids, that's what I'm living for now," she said.
But she remains in limbo. The US government still wants to send her back to Jamaica, arguing that she is subject to deportation for the "aggravated felony" of buying $5 worth of crack for a narc.
She's not alone. Beginning late in the George W. Bush years and continuing through the Obama administration, the US has been deporting and trying to deport immigrants for drug offenses at a record clip. According to a just released report from Human Rights Watch, more than 260,000 non-citizens -- legal residents and illegal immigrants alike -- were deported for drug offenses between 2007 and 2012. Shockingly, 34,000 people were deported for marijuana possession offenses alone.
The trend is upward. The number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug crime was up 22% over that period, while the number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug possession offense was up even more, at 43%.
Tens of thousands more have been or are being detained indefinitely in immigration jails fighting pending deportation orders. Such extended imprisonments wreak havoc on the families who husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, are caught up behind bars.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]The sweeping action against non-citizens comes as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on "criminal aliens," but seems disproportionately harsh when applied to low-level drug offenders, especially people who have lived all or most of their lives here and have strong family and community roots in this country. It is also at odds with the trends toward drug decriminalization and even legalization now at play in the country.
The Human Rights Watch report, "A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses," documents how the US government is routinely breaking up families by initiating deportation proceedings for drug offenses, often ones decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. Researchers interviewed more than 130 affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, and incorporated new data obtained from ICE.
Here are some of the cases examined in the report:
"Raul Valdez, a permanent resident from Mexico who had grown up in the Chicago area from the age of one, was deported in 2014 because of a 2003 conviction for possession of cannabis with intent to deliver, for which he had been sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Ricardo Fuenzalida, a permanent resident from Chile now living in New Jersey, was held without bond for months fighting deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.
Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants, despite having successfully completed a California diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.
Abdulhakim Haji-Eda, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the US at the age of 13, has been ordered deported as a drug trafficker for a teenage drug sale in Seattle. Now 26 years old, he has no other convictions, and is married to a US citizen with two US citizen children and another on the way.
"Antonio S.," who came to the US from Mexico when he was 12 and was eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a "DREAMer" under the executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was detained for over a year in Colorado and deported after a conviction for possession of marijuana, a municipal violation to which he pleaded guilty without an attorney.
"Alice M.," a 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, [was barred] from living in the US with her US citizen fiancé because of a single 1992 conviction for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned long ago in Canada.
"Mr. V.," a refugee and permanent resident from Vietnam, was ordered deported in 2008 for a 1999 conviction for possession of crack cocaine. Although he has since been granted a full and unconditional pardon from the state of South Carolina, Mr. V. remains under a deportation order and only remains in the US because of restrictions on the repatriation of certain Vietnamese nationals."
[image:3 align:right caption:true]"Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses," said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses."
The report notes that the Obama administration has been sensitive to the injustices of the war on drugs and urges it to be as sensitive to the harsh effects of its deportation policies related to drug offenses. But it is not just the federal government that can act to improve the situation. Here are the group's recommendations:
"To the United States Congress
Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple possession of drugs.
Ensure that all non-citizens in deportation proceedings, including those with convictions for drug offenses, have access to an individualized hearing where the immigration judge can weigh evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, and other equities against a criminal conviction.
Ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with convictions for sale, distribution, or production of drugs are only considered to have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" through case-by-case determination that takes into account the seriousness of the crime and whether the non-citizen is a threat to public safety.
Ensure that non-citizens who are barred from entering the US and/or gaining lawful resident status because of a criminal conviction, including for drug offenses, are eligible to apply for individualized consideration, i.e., a waiver of the bar, based on such factors as the above mentioned.
Eliminate mandatory detention and ensure all non-citizens are given an opportunity for an individualized bond hearing.
Redefine "conviction" in immigration law to exclude convictions that have been expunged, pardoned, vacated, or are otherwise not recognized by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred.
Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.
To the Department of Homeland Security
Provide clear guidance to immigration officials that a positive exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be appropriate even in cases involving non-citizens with criminal convictions, with particular consideration for lawful permanent residents and non-citizens whose most serious convictions are for nonviolent offenses, including drug convictions, that occurred five or more years ago.
Provide all non-citizens who have been in detention for six months or more with a bond hearing.
To State and Local Governments
Ensure drug courts and diversion programs do not require a guilty plea from defendants that would constitute a conviction that triggers deportation, mandatory detention, and other immigration consequences even upon successful completion of the program.
Remove barriers to post-conviction relief for non-citizens convicted of nonviolent drug offenses through legal error, including through guilty pleas obtained without adequate advice from defense counsel on the potential immigration consequences of the plea.
Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use."
To be comprehensive and thorough, drug reform must encompass immigration law reform, too.
A legislative compromise would let Oregon counties where voters opposed legalization ban pot shops, the Colorado Supreme Court rules in favor of employers over medical marijuana patients, two big eastern cities are on the verge of shifting their drug enforcement policies, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Powerful Arizona Business Group Will Oppose Legalization Efforts. One of the state's most influential business groups, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry, has announced it will oppose looming legalization initiatives there. The group said it is worried about more workplace injuries and workers' compensation claims. "We arrived at our decision after careful consideration of the experiences of other states that have legalized marijuana, the arguments of proponents and research by our foundation. After looking at all the facts, we've determined that there is no upside to the legalization of recreational marijuana," said Chamber President and CEO Glenn Hamer. "The negative consequences that could result from legalization affect our business environment and the public's health."
Oregon Legislators Make It Easier to Ban Pot Sales in Eastern Counties. In a bid to get their legal marijuana regulation bill, House Bill 3400, back on track, leaders of the committee dealing with marijuana have agreed to new legislative language that would allow local governments to ban pot sales in counties where at least 55% of voters rejected the Measure 91 legalization initiative in 2014. All of those counties are in the sparsely populated and politically conservative eastern part of the state.
Colorado Supreme Court Rules Employers Can Fire Medical Marijuana Patients for Off-Duty Use. The Court today affirmed lower court decisions allowing employers to fire employees for marijuana use while off-duty. The decision hinged on the state's lawful off-duty activities statute. The Court held that in order for the off-duty conduct to be considered "lawful," it must be legal under both state and federal law. The unanimous decision was not a surprise to advocates working to reform marijuana law and policy in Colorado. The case is Coats v. Dish Network. Coats is a quadriplegic who worked in customer service for Dish, but was fired after a random drug test turned up marijuana metabolites.
Washington, DC, Police to Shift Drug Enforcement Focus. DC Metro Police Chief Cathy Lanier has announced that the department will revise its drug war strategy by focusing on suppliers instead of street-level buyers and by putting undercover officers back in uniform. "Our main goal is the supply," Lanier said. "We don't want to focus police efforts on just people who are addicted. We want to be focusing on the people who are bringing the stuff in."
Boston Mayor Says City Could Offer Addicts Treatment Instead of Arrest. Mayor Marty Walsh (D) said that Boston could follow in the footsteps of nearby Gloucester and offer treatment instead of arrest to opiate users seeking help. Gloucester recently announced it had adopted that policy. "I commend Gloucester for what they're doing," Walsh said. "I think it's a great idea, a great pilot program, I'm looking forward to seeing how it works and taking that model and possibly using it here in Boston." The chance of the city adopting the program is "probably pretty good... I'm not sure when, but it's probably fairly good odds," he said.
>Costa Rican Ministry of Health Releases Criteria for Pending Medical Marijuana Bill.Earlier this month, the Costa Rican Ministry of Health outlined the details for the implementation of a pending bill to research and regulate marijuana for medical and industrial purposes. The bill was introduced by ruling Citizen Action Party legislator Marvin Atencio last year to tax marijuana products and regulate the use of medical marijuana through registration cards for patients provided by the Ministry of Health. Ten months after Atencios's proposal, the Ministry of Health released its criteria for the implementation of the bill. Among the conditions specified by the Ministry are that medical marijuana must be used as a last resort and that recreational use of marijuana will continue to be illegal. Medical marijuana will be distributed through conventional drug stores and will follow the same prescription rules outlined by the Costa Rican Social Security System. One of Atencio's proposals to issue marijuana identity cards was discarded by the Ministry under the argument that it would entail discrimination. Atencio responded by saying that the cards would protect medical marijuana patients in encounters with law enforcement. Other conditions included the implementation of educational campaigns for the general public on what is permissible under the new bill and an emphasis on an existing law prohibiting the monopolization of research on marijuana and hemp plants.
There's a new report on the impact of marijuana legalization in Ohio, the CDC sounds the alarm on "Spice," a CBD cannabis oil for kids bill passes in Delaware, and more.
[image:1 align:left]Marijuana Policy
Ohio Marijuana Policy Task Force Says Legalization Will Create 35,000 Jobs. A task force commissioned by ResponsibleOhio, which is leading a legalization initiative campaign, issued a 187-page report Thursday that estimated legalization would bring 35,000 jobs to the Buckeye State. Those jobs would provide wages of around $1.6 billion, the report said. The task force was led by Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Prosecutor Joe Deters.
Delaware Legislature Approves Youth CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The state Senate Thursday unanimously approved Senate Bill 90, which would allow children with epilepsy to use CBC cannabis oil. The bill, also known as Rylie's Law after 9-year-old Rylie Maedler, who suffers from severe seizures, already passed the House and now heads to the governor's desk.
New Synthetic Drugs
CDC Sounds Alarm on Synthetic Cannabinoids. The number of phone calls to poison control centers and the number of deaths related to synthetic cannabinoids ("spice") has tripled this spring compared to last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The CDC reported that 15 people had died in the first five months of this year, up from five during the same period last year. For perspective, the CDC reported in April, that there were 44,000 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2013, more than half of them from prescription drugs.
ACLU Sues Indiana Town Over Mandatory, Suspicionless Drug Tests for Public Assistance. The ACLU of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against the town of Black Township on behalf of a woman who was denied public assistance because she failed to take a drug test. It's not that she failed a drug test; the woman suffers from physical disabilities and was unable to physically urinate into a specimen cup. She sought an alternative means of doing the drug test, but the town refused to allow it. While the ACLU is suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act on that count, it also asserts that the town's policy of mandatory, suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment, a position in line with federal court decisions.
Colombian Senator Will Push for Full Legalization During Looming Medical Marijuana Debate. Senator Roy Barreras of the coalition U Party said Thursday that he will attempt to amend a proposal to allow medical marijuana to turn it into a full legalization bill. That debate is set to take place next month. Barreras cited security issues, saying it is not drugs but "prohibition that is generating the mafias."