Political MoJo

Why Is This US Attorney So Gung-Ho on Prosecuting a Respected Medical-Pot Dispensary?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 4:29 PM EST
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.

Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.

"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.

In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.

The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.

Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.

"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."

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5 States Where Republicans Are Getting Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 2:04 PM EST

A growing group of conservatives are stepping back from their traditional "tough on crime" stance and taking a lead on reforming the criminal justice system. There's even talk that congressional Republicans and Democrats could come together on the issue: Earlier this week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bipartisan prison reform bill. (Though it seems to have considerable flaws.)

At the state level, Republicans have already been taking on the issue. Here are five states where Republican governors and their fellow GOP lawmakers are taking on broken prison systems and the harsh laws that have fueled the incarceration boom:

Nebraska: Members of Nebraska's legislature have introduced several bills that address the state's overcrowded prisons. These include two bills introduced Wednesday, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for a slew of crimes (including distributing cocaine and heroin) and limit Nebraska's "three-strikes" law to violent crimes. While the Cornhusker State's legislature is nonpartisan, a majority of bills' cosponsors are affiliated with the Republican Party, including Sen. Jim Smith, the head of the state branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Republican Governor Pete Ricketts reportedly supports the push for prison reform, as does the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that recently released recommendations for decreasing incarceration that have drawn support from the Nebraska ACLU.

Utah: Republican state Representative Eric Hutchings is sponsoring legislation that aims to reduce Utah's prison population and decrease recidivism. The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would decrease the charge for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican, has put aside $10.5 million for recidivism reform.

Illinois: Governor Bruce Rauner's agenda includes a plan to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by instead sending them to community programs. Earlier this week, he created a commission of lawmakers, cops, and activists to recommend reforms to the state's criminal justice system. More details about his plan will come out when he releases his 2016 budget recommendations next week.

Alabama: The legislature-appointed Alabama Prison Reform Task Force is gearing up to propose a new bill for the next legislative session, which begins in March. Led by Republican state Senator Cam Ward, an outspoken Second Amendment defender, the task force is seeking ways to cut down the state's prison population, which is more twice its intended size. One of Ward's ideas? Making re-entry easier by throwing out draconian laws for ex-felons, like those preventing them from getting driver's licenses.

Georgia: A similar task force, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, has been recommending reforms to lawmakers. Formed in 2011 by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, the group has pushed the state to stop imprisoning juveniles and reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which slashed $20 million off the cost to house inmates in Georgia. The council's current agenda includes initiatives to improve reentry for ex-felons.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "I Wasn't 100 Percent Sober" During SOTU Address

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 12:21 PM EST

Contrary to earlier speculation that she had power-napped through last month's State of the Union Address because it was just so damn dull, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed on Thursday it was actually due to the fact she wasn't exactly "100 percent sober."

The 81-year-old justice told a crowd of George Washington University students:

The audience for the most part is awake, because they're bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we're not, at least I wasn't, 100 percent sober. Because before we went to the State of the Union, we had dinner together... Justice Kennedy brought in... it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine, and I vowed this year, just sparkling water, stay away from the wine, but in the end, the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.

According to Ginsburg, she was thankfully flanked by colleagues, who, like any good friends, casually nudged her awake when they noticed her dozing off. Watch below:

Real Talk on Cops and Race From the Head of the FBI

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 4:15 PM EST

In a rare and candid speech on Thursday, FBI director James Comey urged police officers to begin engaging in honest conversations about broken race relations in America, saying it was time for officers to stop resorting to "lazy mental shortcuts" that have too often lead to the mistreatment of minorities.

"Those of us in law enforcement must re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice," Comey said in an address to Georgetown University. "We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement. We must understand how that young man may see us."

The speech follows the high-profile police killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the widespread anger expressed over the lack of grand jury indictments against the officers in both deaths. The fatal shootings sparked massive protests across the country, with demonstrators demanding for police reform.

On Thursday, Comey referred to both Brown and Garner, along with the two NYPD officers who were shot execution-style in their patrol car in December. Calling their deaths a "crossroads," Comey said it was time for law enforcement agencies to acknowledge that a large portion of police history "is not pretty" and rife with instances of persisting, unconscious prejudices.

Comey's rationale aligns with psychological studies indicating that even in the absence of overt racist views, individuals–particularly police officers–often act with bias, especially in instance where a split-second decision is required. 

"If we can’t help our latent biases, we can help our behavior in response to those instinctive reactions, which is why we work to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all," he said. "Although the research may be unsettling, what we do next is what matters most."

Read the full speech below (emphasis ours):

The Internet Is Freaking Out About This Video of Obama Using a Selfie Stick

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 1:06 PM EST

BuzzFeed got Obama to use a selfie stick. Here is the video.

 
 

Why is a selfie stick news? Because when the president does it, it's news.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: America Is Ready to Accept a Pro-Gay-Marriage SCOTUS Ruling

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 9:46 AM EST

In a new interview with Bloomberg on Wednesday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she believes Americans are set to accept a constitutional decision legalizing gay marriage in the country, saying it would "not take a large adjustment" for people to eventually come around on the issue. 

"I think it's doubtful that it wouldn't be accepted," Ginsburg said. "The change in people's attitudes on that issue has been enormous."

The justice's comments are yet another indication the Supreme Court will rule in favor of gay marriage this June, when justices will hear a monumental case deciding if the Constitution provides the right for same-sex marriages.

"In recent years, people have said, 'This is the way I am,'" Ginsburg added. "And others looked around, and we discovered it's our next-door neighbor–we're very fond of them or it's our child's best friend, or even our child. I think that as more and more people came out and said that 'this is who I am,' the rest of us recognized that they are one of us."

Earlier this week, President Obama said he thinks the court will make a historic "shift" in this summer's ruling and that it's time to recognize "same-sex couples should have the same rights as anybody else." 

In the court's decision not to block gay marriage in Alabama on Monday, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent that the ruling offered another "signal" that gay rights advocates will be similarly successful this summer. Despite the decision, however, several Alabama counties still refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Even with such defiant opposition, Ginsburg maintained a positive outlook. 

"One way or another it will be decided before we leave town in June."

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In the Nation's Capital, Fewer Than Half of Black Males Graduate From High School

| Thu Feb. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EST

The term "black lives matter" has become the battle cry for Americans outraged by the recent deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other unarmed black men at the hands of police. Indeed, the folks at the Schott Foundation for Public Education aim to help make those lives matter before they come to a premature end. Black Lives Matter, its fifth annual report on the state of black youth in the public schools, looks at suspension and graduation rates and points to some alarming trends.

For example, according to the report, 15 percent of black males nationwide have been suspended from school, versus only 5 percent of white boys. Missouri, Michigan, and Florida have some of the highest suspension rates for black boys: greater than 20 percent. These findings parallel a March 2013 study by the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, which found that black students and students with disabilities are suspended at "hugely disproportionate rates."

Of the Florida ninth graders who were suspended once during freshman year, only 52 percent ever graduated.

All of this information is presented in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline; data has shown suspensions increase the likelihood of students dropping out, and many end up in the criminal justice system. In 2013, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that about 75 percent of Florida ninth graders who were never suspended as freshman graduated from high school. Those suspended once had a 52 percent graduation rate. For those suspended multiple times, the rate was just 38 percent.

Nationally, the Schott report notes, only 59 percent of black males graduate from high school, versus 80 percent of white males. The worst rates were found in Washington, DC, and in Nevada—both had graduation rates of less than 50 percent for black males.

That's a bleak picture. But the report also aims to highlight the achievements of young black men who graduate from high school, such as the more than two million with four-year college degrees and those who have left significant marks in the world of business, finance, science, and the arts.

A new report finds that black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls."

The high suspension and low graduation rates received national attention last January: President Barack Obama rolled out his first "school discipline guidelines," which hold schools legally responsible for the disparate impact of their disciplinary actions on different races. In February 2014 the president announced his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. With more than $200 million in foundation support, it aims to help black youths finish school and stay out of the criminal justice system. 

The Schott report comes one week after the publication of Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, a new report from Columbia Law School that highlights an even greater disparity in the rates of punishment for black girls: Crunching data from the Department of Education, the authors found that black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls, whereas black boys were suspended three times as often as white boys.

"We must challenge the assumption," says Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the report's lead author, "that the lives of girls and women—who are often left out of the national conversation—are not also at risk."

Montana GOP Legislator Wants to Ban Yoga Pants

| Wed Feb. 11, 2015 10:46 AM EST

Montana Republican state Rep. David Moore has a plan to guide America out of the darkness—ban yoga pants.

Moore, who is upset that group of naked bicyclists pedaled through Missoula last year, decided that what his state really needs right now is tighter regulations on trousers. His proposed bill, HB 365, would outlaw not just nudity, but also "any device, costume, or covering that gives the appearance of or simulates the genitals, pubic hair, anus region, or pubic hair region." Per the Billings Gazette:

The Republican from Missoula said tight-fitting beige clothing could be considered indecent exposure under his proposal.

"Yoga pants should be illegal in public anyway," Moore said after the hearing.

Moore said he wouldn’t have a problem with people being arrested for wearing provocative clothing but that he'd trust law enforcement officials to use their discretion. He couldn’t be sure whether police would act on that provision or if Montana residents would challenge it.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Moore said.

Merlin's pants! According to the Great Falls Tribune, Moore elaborated that he also believes Speedos should be illegal.

HB 365 continues a miraculous stretch for the Montana legislature. Just last December the Republican-controlled legislature issued new dress-code guidelines for the state capitol, advising women that they should "should be sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines."

Update: Moore's bill has been tabled.

Man Arrested for Fatal Shootings of Three Muslim Students Near University of North Carolina

| Wed Feb. 11, 2015 10:27 AM EST
Chapel Hill police officers investigate the scene of three murders near Summerwalk Circle in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Update, February 11, 2015, 11:24 a.m.: In a statement, police say the shootings may have stemmed from a parking dispute. "Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking. Hicks is cooperating with investigators," a police spokesman said Wednesday.

A 46-year-old man was arrested for the fatal shootings of three Muslim students inside an apartment complex near the University of North Carolina on Tuesday. 

Police say Craig Hicks was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. The victims are Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. The sisters were reportedly enrolled at North Carolina State University; Barakat was a student at Chapel Hill's school of dentistry.

 

Spencer turned himself into police Tuesday night "without incident," according to Chatham County Sgt. Kevin Carey. While officials are still investigating a motive behind the murders, news of the students' deaths quickly sparked alarm over concerns of racial bias. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter was also created.

 

On Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged police to investigate the murders as a possible hate crime. An official statement from the council specifically addressed Spencer's Facebook account, in which he allegedly called himself an "anti-theist" and spoke out against "radical Christians and radical Muslims."

"Based on the brutal nature of this crime, the past anti-religion statements of the alleged perpetrator, the religious attire of two of the victims, and the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric in American society, we urge state and federal law enforcement authorities to quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive in this case," CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad said in the statement.

"Our heartfelt condolences go to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the local community."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the alleged shooter's name. This has since been corrected.

Here Is the First Lawsuit Over Concussions in Pop Warner Football

| Tue Feb. 10, 2015 6:25 AM EST

In the past year, both the NFL and the NCAA have settled multimillion-dollar lawsuits over concussions and football-related trauma, and complaints have even trickled down to the high school level. Next up in the legal crosshairs? Youth football. 

On Thursday, Debra Pyka, the mother of Joseph Chernach, a 25-year-old Wisconsin man who committed suicide in 2012, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pop Warner, claiming that cognitive damage from his three years in organized youth football was responsible for his death. The lawsuit claims Chernach suffered from postconcussion syndrome and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease most often associated with former NFL players, as a result of "numerous" concussions he sustained starting when he was 11. 

Chernach did not play football beyond high school; BuzzFeed reported in December that in a university examination of the brains of 19 people who played youth and high school football, Chernach was one of four people to test positive for CTE. 

The fatal combination altered Chernach's "cognition, behavior, and mood" in the years leading up to his death, according to the lawsuit:

 
 

Pyka's lawsuit came eight days after Boston University researchers released a study on former NFL players who'd played football before age 12. The study, published in Neurology, showed that repeated hits earlier in their careers could raise the odds of cognitive decline as adults. 

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of Pop Warner's medical advisory committee, dismissed the BU study, telling ESPN's Outside the Lines that the effects on former professional athletes and those who never made it to that level are incomparable. The study's lead author, Dr. Robert Stern, countered that although the study does not show what happens to those beyond the professional level, it "does suggest something that I think makes logical sense. The logic is you shouldn't hurt your brain over and over and over again as a child."

This isn't the first high-profile lawsuit brought against Pop Warner over on-field injuries. Last March, the family of 16-year-old Donnovan Hill, who suffered a spinal injury in 2011 while making a tackle during a game, refiled a personal-injury complaint against Pop Warner and Hill's coaches in California. Among other things, Hill's lawyers argued that his coaches improperly taught him to tackle head-first. (Pop Warner later implemented rules limiting contact during practice and banning head-to-head contact.)

Meanwhile, participation in youth football has dwindled since 2008, in part due to the fear of on-field injuries. An espnW/Aspen Institute Project survey last September found that 82.3 percent of parents surveyed considered preventing their children from playing football as a result of those risks.  

Read the rest of the complaint below: