California Begins Recreational Marijuana Sales

More than two decades after California became the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana use, on January first it becomes the final West Coast state to legalize pot for recreational purposes — a move approved by California voters in November 2016, in a referendum known as Prop 64.

While this is good news for cannabis enthusiasts, those with visions of unencumbered marijuana use in the California sunshine will find that reality is not quite so cut-and-dried — meaning, simple — referring to the processing of tobacco leaves.

Most importantly, while seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use, the U.S. federal government still considers it a controlled substance, classified with heroin and LSD as illegal drugs. Elsewhere, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, and Maine and Massachusetts are set to legalize recreational pot in 2018.

Federal versus state law

Former White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in February 2017 that the Department of Justice may be looking into legal marijuana use in the future.

“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming around so many states… the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an opponent of legalized pot, said in November that he is taking a close look at federal enforcement of anti-drug laws that include marijuana. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” he said at a Senate hearing in 2016.

Federal and state laws come more into play in California, which has several U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, at which federal agents, mainly searching for illegal immigrants, are also empowered to seize pot stashes and prosecute the owners.

The Associated Press quotes Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of the federal Customs and Border Protection agency, as calling drug seizures at border checkpoints an “ancillary effect”of enforcing immigration laws.

In addition to 34 permanent checkpoints along the U.S. border with Mexico, Border Patrol operates more than 100 “tactical” stops that may appear or disappear as needed, as far as 161 kilometers inside the U.S. border.

AP reports that people found with pot at those checkpoints are typically photographed and fingerprinted, and their stashes seized. The report says those people often aren’t charged with a crime, however, because pot possession in small amounts is considered a low-priority offense.

The checkpoints are legal. Border Patrol agents say they help catch illegal immigrants who have made it past the U.S. border and might disappear into a large city; and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that agents can question people at checkpoints even if they have no reason to believe anyone inside the car is in the country illegally.

Bureau of Cannabis Control

Meanwhile, California has created its own Bureau of Cannabis Control to regulate the growing and sale of cannabis.

Bureau spokesman Alex Traverso told the Los Angeles Times that about eight enforcement officers will be in place by January 1.

The bureau has issued fewer than 200 temporary business licenses so far, although cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are expected later to issue their own local licenses, which will be required to get a state permit. Only a few dozen retail outlets are expected to be up and running by January 1.

Many localities inside California have not yet approved recreational pot use — and some may choose not to do so at all. Cannabis Control did not start issuing licenses to sell recreational cannabis until mid-December, so many applications are still in the works.

San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and Eureka are among the towns where pot stores can open on January 1.

Still proponents of legalized pot say bringing the drug out into the open makes it possible to tax sales of cannabis — which lawmakers hope will result in $1 billion a year in new tax revenue for the state. The money will come from a 15 percent state excise tax on every cannabis purchase. Local governments can place additional taxes on top of that — or they can ban pot shops entirely, if they choose.

Daniel Yi, a spokesman for the L.A.-area dispensary Med Men, says he expects an eighth of an ounce of pot to go for about $35 when two Med Men shops begin selling to recreational users on January 2. He told Reuters news agency that three other locations will probably not begin selling to recreational users for a few more weeks.

Keeping out of trouble

Further moves to keep control on the industry include guidelines for retailers, and age and use limits for consumers.

Pot sales will be restricted to people who are age 21 or older, but anyone visiting the state who is of age may buy and consume marijuana at legal outlets. Prop 64 specifically prohibits marketing of pot products to minors.

Pot shops cannot be within 180 meters (600 feet) of a school and they must maintain 24-hour surveillance. They also cannot open before 6 a.m. and must close by 10 p.m.

California anti-smoking laws make it illegal to smoke pot in places where regular tobacco smoking is banned. Employers may still subject employees to drug tests to ensure a drug-free workplace.

Drivers are being warned not to drive after using pot. While it is harder to measure a person’s intoxication level after smoking pot than it is after alcohol consumption, Hound Labs of Oakland is developing what it says is a “marijuana breathalyzer” for cops and employers to gauge whether a person has been using while driving or on the job.

L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell says he worries about people getting behind the wheel while high.

“The public’s perception is that weed is innocuous, that this is something they did 40 years ago and it is no big deal,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Well, today’s marijuana is not yesterday’s marijuana. The active ingredient, THC, is so much higher today than back 40 years ago.”

As for food products containing THC, Californians will be able to consume them in any public place where food is normally consumed. The publishers of Mother Jones magazine say at least one of their readers wrote in to ask if there will be cannabis ice cream — and the answer, they say, is yes. Medical marijuana users have been consuming it for years. But there’s a catch: the amount of THC allowable in such items is limited to 10 milligrams per serving.

One other effect of the new pot law is that it will reduce penalties on people who have been convicted for pot crimes in the past. In addition to making pot more available, the law that legalized it, known as Prop 64, also makes pot crimes once viewed as felonies into lower-level misdemeanors. That means some people currently in California jails for selling or possessing pot could see their sentences reduced.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

China’s 2017 Movie Ticket Sales Rise 13.5 Percent

China’s total domestic movie ticket sales rose 13.5 percent in 2017 to 55.9 billion yuan ($8.6 billion), a state news agency said Monday.

The top-grossing title was the mainland-made action picture “Wolf Warrior 2,” which took in 5.7 billion yuan ($875 million), the Xinhua News Agency said, citing data from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

China is the second-largest global film market and is narrowing the gap with the United States, where last year’s domestic box office is estimated to have declined 2.6 percent from 2016 to $11.1 billion.

Mainland-made movies accounted for 54 percent of 2017 ticket sales, or 30.1 billion yuan ($4.6 billion), according to Xinhua.

The No. 2-grossing title was the Hollywood action movie “The Fate of the Furious,” which earned 2.7 billion yuan.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Pence Carving a Role as Presidential Envoy

U.S. vice presidents historically have held widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, Vice President Mike Pence’s role appears likely to broaden.

On overseas trips to Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region, and a recent holiday visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pence has embraced the role of presidential envoy.

WATCH: Mike O’Sullivan’s Video Report

His work on international and domestic policy is more than merely symbolic, says Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, who has written two books on the changing vice presidency.

“Vice President Pence seems to be included and involved in decision making in the White House,” Goldstein notes. “And the vice president,” he adds, “has been laudatory, at time adulatory towards the president in his public comments.”

​‘Biggest cheerleader’

Some of Pence’s critics say he has taken on that role excessively, notes Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

She calls Pence “the president’s biggest cheerleader,” but argues that Pence serves as more than a publicist.

“He also has influence within the West Wing of the White House,” she says.

​Other VPs

That was not the case with vice presidents through much of U.S. history.

John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, famously said the job “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s VP, called the job “standby equipment,” notes Jeffe, yet some recent vice presidents have become important players in their administrations.

Joe Biden and Al Gore, and even Dan Quayle were not afraid to confront their bosses when they disagreed with them and were rewarded with expanded duties, Goldstein says.

But Pence has taken on a unique role under a president who often makes controversial statements — when Trump questioned, for example, “the commitment to the joint defense provisions of NATO,” Goldstein says, or said he had not ruled out military action in restoring democracy to Venezuela to stop what the administration calls the nation’s slide to dictatorship.

The vice president has “cleaned up those statements,” Goldstein explains, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and its commitment to diplomacy and economic sanctions in dealing with Venezuela.

Pence played a similar role, said Jeffe, after Trump appeared to equate the white nationalists behind violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the counter-protesters who rejected their racist message. Pence said the Trump administration condemns white supremacist fringe groups “in the strongest possible terms.”

Support not guaranteed

Pence has at times distanced himself from the president, however.

When Trump supported Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who was defeated in December following allegations that he had once made sexual overtures to young teenagers, Pence remained silent on the endorsement but said he found the allegations against Moore disturbing.

Pence is an evangelical Christian and social conservative, and Goldstein says that while it’s impossible to know what is said behind closed doors, Pence may have had a hand in White House moves that have pleased conservatives, such as loosening environmental regulations on American businesses and appointing conservatives to judicial posts.

Pence, unlike Trump, is an experienced politician, having served as a longtime congressman and Indiana’s governor.

“Pence knows the players on Capitol Hill,” Jeffe says, and “Pence is trusted by the Republican players at least on Capitol Hill.” In his role as president of the Senate, which is assigned to the vice president under the U.S. constitution, Pence has cast six tie-breaking votes for passage of bills backed by the administration.

Goldstein adds that “members of the leadership in Congress who have some misgivings about the president see Vice President Pence as somebody who comes from their political world and as somebody they are comfortable dealing with.”

As a presidential envoy, whether comforting victims of a Texas hurricane or representing the United States in Argentina or Australia, Pence is carving out his role.

“And he’s trying to walk a fine line between being supportive of the president,” Goldstein says, “trying to placate his constituency of one, and yet at the same time not entirely embrace some of the controversial tweets and other statements that the president makes from time to time.”

It’s not easy task in an age of populism when policy debates take place through social media and the political rules are changing, analyst Jeffe says.

She says Pence, whose roots are in the old politics, has a political future tied to the success of a president who is breaking all the rules. So far, these analysts say, Pence has been walking the fine line as vice president successfully.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Report: Australian Diplomat’s Tip a Factor in FBI’s Russia Probe

An Australian diplomat’s tip appears to have helped persuade the FBI to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, during a meeting in London in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.

Australia passed the information on to the FBI after the Democratic emails were leaked, according to the Times, which cited four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

“The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016,” the newspaper said.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to comment, saying in a statement that the administration was continuing to cooperate with the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller “to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.”

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI and is a cooperating witness. Court documents unsealed two months ago show he met in April 2016 with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London who told him about Russia’s cache of emails. This was before the Democratic National Committee became aware of the scope of the intrusion into its email systems by hackers later linked to the Russian government.

The Times said Papadopoulos shared this information with Downer, but it was unclear whether he also shared it with anyone in the Trump campaign.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

Disasters Pounded North America in 2017 but Were Down Globally

North America couldn’t catch a break in 2017. Parts of the United States were on fire, underwater or lashed by hurricane winds. Mexico shook with back-to-back earthquakes. The Caribbean got hit with a string of hurricanes.

The rest of the world, however, fared better. Preliminary research shows there were fewer disasters and deaths this year than on average, but economic damages were much higher.

While overall disasters were down, they smacked big cities, which were more vulnerable because of increased development, said economist and geophysicist Chuck Watson of the consulting firm Enki Research.

In a year where U.S. and Caribbean hurricanes caused a record $215 billion worth of damage, according to insurance giant Munich Re, no one in the continental U.S. died from storm surge, which traditionally is the No. 1 killer during hurricanes. Forecasters gave residents plenty of advance warning during a season where storms set records for strength and duration.

“It’s certainly one of the worst hurricane seasons we’ve had,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.

The globe typically averages about 325 disasters a year, but this year’s total through November was fewer than 250, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain in Belgium. They included flooding and monsoons in South Asia, landslides in Africa, a hurricane in Ireland, and cyclones in Australia and Central America. Colombia experienced two different bouts of floods and mudslides.

Lower tolls

Disasters kill about 30,000 people and affect about 215 million people a year. This year’s estimated toll was lower — about 6,000 people killed and 75 million affected.

Was it a statistical quirk or the result of better preparedness? Experts aren’t certain, but say perhaps it’s a little bit of each.

“This has been a particularly quiet year,” said Debarati Guha-Sapir, who heads the disaster research center. “The thing is not to be … complacent about this.”

But quiet depends on where you live.

The U.S. had gone more than a decade without a Category 3 storm or larger making landfall on the mainland. The last few Septembers — normally peak hurricane month — had been particularly quiet, but this year, Harvey, Irma, Jose and later Maria popped up and grew to super strength in no time, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

“September was just bonkers. It was just one after the other. You couldn’t catch a break,” he said.

There were six major Atlantic hurricanes this year; the average is 2.7. A pair of recent studies found fingerprints of man-made global warming were all over the torrential rains from Harvey that flooded Houston.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina estimated that economic damage from this year’s disasters, adjusted for inflation, were more than 40 percent higher than normal, mostly because of Harvey, Irma and Maria. By many private measures, Harvey overtook Katrina as the costliest U.S. hurricane, but the weather service hasn’t finished its calculations yet.

Much of the hurricane-related damage and deaths in the Caribbean — from storm surge and other causes — is still unknown. The National Hurricane Center hasn’t finished tallying its data.

Uccellini of the weather service said warmer than normal waters and unusual steering currents made the hurricanes especially damaging, combined with booming development in disaster-prone areas. 

“We are building in the wrong places. We are building in areas that are increasing in risks,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

​Devastating wildfires

Wildfires blazed nearly year-round in the U.S., fanned by relentless winds and parched conditions. About 9.8 million acres of land have burned, mostly in the West, nearly 50 percent more than the average in the past decade. A wildfire that ignited in early December in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles grew to be the largest in California history.

Scientists connect drier weather after heavy rains — leading to buildup of fuel that can catch fire and burn easily — to a combination of man-made warming and a natural La Nina, the climate phenomenon that’s the flip side of El Nino, said Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb.

Worldwide, drought affected significantly less land and fewer people this year, and heat waves were less severe compared with those in the past.

Landslides were more frequent and deadlier this year, mostly because of the Sierra Leone landslide that killed 915 people, Guha-Sapir said.

Earthquakes worldwide were dramatically down. As of mid-December, there had been only seven earthquakes of magnitude 7 or larger compared with about 15 in a normal year. Two powerful quakes struck Mexico in September, including one that hit on the anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City quake.

The back-to-back Mexico quakes were unrelated, said geophysicist Ross Stein of Temblor Inc., a company that provides information about seismic risk. 

“We have to remember that coincidences really do happen,” he said. 

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled Back Obama-era Policies

Every attorney general leaves his imprint on the U.S. Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is no exception.

Since being sworn in as the nation’s 84th attorney general in February, the former Republican senator and federal prosecutor has moved to radically overhaul the Justice Department and its approach to law enforcement.

From scrapping civil rights protections for transgender people to ending leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, Sessions has rolled back a host of policies his two immediate predecessors — Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, both chosen by former President Barack Obama — enacted to promote civil rights and social justice.

The policy reversals have not been without their critics.

While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.

​Blistering criticism

Sessions’ singular success in remolding the Justice Department is widely acknowledged. The irony is that it has come in the face of sometimes blistering personal criticism of the attorney general by his boss, President Donald Trump.

An early and ardent supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most coveted positions in the administration.

But his relationship with Trump soured after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March, following revelations that Sessions had not disclosed meetings with Russia’s former ambassador to Washington during the presidential campaign.

Trump is said to have become so frustrated with his attorney general over the summer that he said he would not have picked Sessions for the job, had he known Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia probe.

But the attorney general largely shrugged off the criticism, saying at a news conference in July that he was “confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” and later traveling around the country to sell Trump’s tough on crime and immigration policies.

Here is a look at seven major Obama-era policies Sessions has rolled back, or attempted to, since taking office:

​Keeping private prisons

In his first act as attorney general in February, Sessions scrapped an Obama administration plan to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. The 2016 direction to the Bureau of Prisons was sent after a harshly critical report about private prisons by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But Sessions said the Obama policy “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Dropping transgender protections

Also in February, Sessions directed the Justice Department to withdraw a guidance issued in 2016, requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

In October, Sessions rescinded another policy memo issued by the Obama administration that said the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s employment discrimination prohibitions applied to transgender people. Rights group Human Rights Campaign called the move “discriminatory” against the transgender community and a “dangerous change of course.”

​Targeting sanctuary cities

With the Trump administration vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, it has fallen to Sessions to enforce one of the administration’s most controversial policies: cutting off federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In April, Sessions sent letters to nine sanctuary jurisdictions requiring proof of compliance. In July, he announced that sanctuary cities would not be eligible for millions of dollars in funds for policing.

Chicago and Philadelphia later sued Sessions and the Justice Department over the sanctuary plan. In November, a federal judge permanently blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.

Reviewing consent decrees

In April, Sessions ordered a review of Obama-era reform agreements between the Justice Department and police agencies, saying, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Known as “consent decrees,” a dozen such court-enforced agreements were struck between the Obama Justice Department and local police departments. Sessions has said the agreements have demoralized police departments, but civil rights advocates say they have helped produce necessary reforms.

Charging and sentencing policy

In a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of leniency in sentencing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Sessions directed federal prosecutors in May to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.

The guideline rescinded a 2013 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder directing prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory-minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Sessions said the new charging policy “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” But critics, such as former Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, have slammed it as a failed “one-size-fits-all” policy that has swelled America’s prison population.

​Affirmative action

In October, the Department of Justice announced it had reopened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions policy, raising fears the administration will target affirmative action policies widely practiced by American universities and colleges.

The Justice Department probe was triggered by a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups. The Justice Department said the investigation is limited to the complaint against Harvard, but civil rights activists fear the probe is part of a broader effort to undermine affirmative action policies that date back decades and that supporters say have leveled the playing field for otherwise disadvantaged students.

Return to debtors’ prison?

On Dec. 21, Sessions rescinded a 2016 Justice Department letter advising local courts against hitting indigent defendants with stiff fines and fees.

The 2016 letter said the changes were “needed to guarantee equal justice under law to everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances.”

Sessions said he was rescinding the letter and 25 other so-called “guidance documents” because they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.” The move provoked a firestorm, leading critics to decry it as a “criminalization of poverty” and a “return to debtors’ prisons.”

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!

White House, Congress Prepare for Talks on Spending, Immigration

The White House said on Friday it was set to kick off talks next week with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on immigration policy, government spending and other issues that need to be wrapped up early in the new year.

The expected flurry of legislative activity comes as Republicans and Democrats begin to set the stage for midterm congressional elections in November. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party is eager to maintain control of Congress while Democrats look for openings to wrest seats away in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney and legislative affairs director Marc Short will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan — both Republicans — and their Democratic counterparts, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the White House said.

That will be followed up with a weekend of strategy sessions for Trump, McConnell and Ryan on Jan. 6 and 7 at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, according to the White House.

The Senate returns to work on Jan. 3 and the House on Jan. 8. Congress passed a short-term government funding bill last week before taking its Christmas break, but needs to come to an agreement on defense spending and various domestic programs by Jan. 19, or the government will shut down.

Also on the agenda for lawmakers is disaster aid for people hit by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, and by wildfires in California. The House passed an $81 billion package in December, which the Senate did not take up. The White House has asked for a smaller figure, $44 billion.

Immigration

Deadlines also loom for soon-to-expire protections for young adult immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers.”

In September, Trump ended Democratic former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected Dreamers from deportation and provided work permits, effective in March, giving Congress until then to devise a long-term solution.

Democrats, some Republicans and a number of large companies have pushed for DACA protections to continue. Trump and other Republicans have said that will not happen without Congress approving broader immigration policy changes and tougher border security. Democrats oppose funding for a wall promised by Trump along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc,” Trump said in a Twitter post Friday.

Trump wants to overhaul immigration rules for extended families and others seeking to live in the United States.

Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of the president, said he would work with Trump to protect Dreamers.

“We can fix DACA in a way that beefs up border security, stops chain migration for the DREAMers, and addresses the unfairness of the diversity lottery. If POTUS [Trump] wants to protect these kids, we want to help him keep that promise,” Flake wrote on Twitter.

Debt ceiling

Congress in early 2018 also must raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a government default. The U.S. Treasury would exhaust all of its borrowing options and run dry of cash to pay its bills by late March or early April if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling before then, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Trump, who won his first major legislative victory with the passage of a major tax overhaul this month, has also promised a major infrastructure plan.

$1*/ mo hosting! Get going with us!