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Drug Reform Progressed in 2014, Everywhere Except Here 

Tuesday, Dec 30 2014

In a year full of catastrophes and PR disasters, the country made strides in one area: solving its enduring drug problem in a less twisted way.

If not a full 12 steps towards healing, real progress was made almost everywhere: on sentencing reform, on how we understand "crackheads," and realizing just how intellectually bankrupt marijuana prohibition truly is.

Even seniors in Florida and lobbyist-owned members of Congress made historic strides on cannabis freedom: A majority of both voted in favor of easing America's war on weed, a move unthinkable just a few years ago.

Though in a perfect demonstration of how drug reform works, those "big steps forward" are mostly symbolic, with almost no immediate payout. Florida couldn't get the two-thirds majority it needed to legalize medical marijuana. And while Congress defunded Justice Department efforts to interfere with state-legal cannabis, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. And in every state, there are still plenty of people doing prison time over a plant.

Meanwhile, California stayed the course. The state's barely regulated billion-dollar industry chugged along in 2014; efforts to tame the beast with sensible regulations or curb medical marijuana abuse with outright legalization crashed and burned.

But at least there's legal weed in Portland.

So while we did some learning and changing in 2014, California is still partially living in drug war paranoia-land.


In March, rock star researcher Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia University neuroscientist, published a piece in The New York Times that attempted debunk one of society's uglier labels: crackhead. Crack is no more addictive than "regular" powder cocaine, and Hart's experiments with supposedly hopeless fiends — who, when offered a hit of crack or a small amount of cash, most often took the cash — suggests that drug use starts when the user lacks other opportunities (specifically, economic opportunity). Treating crack users more humanely is catching on, with the easing of Nancy Reagan-era laws that punish crack crimes more severely. But that hasn't been the case in San Francisco where Mayor Ed Lee's office squashed a plan to hand out free crack pipes — a potentially life-saving harm reduction model nearly identical to the well-established needle exchange program — before it was even fully discussed.


Remember 1998, when Seinfeld was on TV, when there was no such thing as a tech bus, and when America arrested fewer than 700,000 people for marijuana crimes? Marijuana arrests dipped below that threshold for the first time since the Clinton years; in 2014, some 693,000 people were busted for pot. Great. Not so great: Almost half of the arrests were for simple possession, according to the FBI. In California, where simple possession has been punishable with a citation since 2010, total arrests remained steady from 2013. Felony arrests, meanwhile remained the same in both the state and in San Francisco, where African-Americans comprise more than half of the busts, despite making up less than 6 percent of the city's population.


San Francisco's former police chief is now one of America's most liberal prosecutors. District Attorney George Gascon gave a TED talk in which he declared the drug war a failure, and backed up the talk by supporting sentencing reform measure Prop. 47, which voters approved in November. Moving forward, most drug possession crimes will be now be misdemeanors, not felonies, and anyone serving a prison term for simple possession could be eligible for release. That's good news, except for anyone caught in one of the San Francisco police department's legendary buy-busts, where an undercover cop asks a street addict for $20 worth of rock or pot. That's still a sales bust — and still a felony.


Mission District pot club Shambhala Healing Center made cannabis history earlier this month, when the dispensary beat the federal Justice Department's effort to shut it down. That's the first Bay Area club to take on the feds in court and win. And with that, the crackdown that closed one-third of San Francisco's licensed and permitted medical marijuana dispensaries appears to finally be over.


That progress arrived just in time for San Francisco to decide it doesn't want any more pot clubs. The city's Planning Commission recently rejected a second location for popular dispensary SPARC despite the project meeting all city guidelines. The problem, according to a pack of Excelsior neighbors and a police captain, is that the neighborhood has three already. This "clustering" phenomenon is a result of the city's decade-old marijuana zoning laws, which leaves 90 percent of the city off-limits to pot. Dispensaries lucky enough to be the first on the block get a near-monopoly on the marijuana trade.


In March, Gov. Jerry Brown answered a question about marijuana legalization with another question: "How many people can get stoned and still have a great state?" Perhaps Attorney General Kamala Harris, who in November suggested that legalization is "inevitable," could allay Brown's fear of "potheads." Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is still the state's most vocal political friend of the cannabis plant. Another reminder that the lite gov has much less power.


And finally, the question of regulation. The state's powerful police lobby surprised us all early in the year when it said it would be amenable to a regulated cannabis industry. That's a sea change from just a year ago, when cops wanted no cannabis industry. But in the end, the result was the same: no agreement in the Legislature and no strong statewide regulation.

California still has vague rules saying who can do what with the cannabis plant, as well as a patchwork of conflicting regulations among counties and cities; in Weed, voters in November approved bans on marijuana cultivation and dispensaries.

So what if Oregon and Alaska legalized marijuana, there's still no legal weed in Weed.


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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