Mandatory Minimums

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Sentencing Reform: Massachusetts Bar Association Forms Drug Policy Task Force

The Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) will form a drug policy task force, MBA President David White, Jr. announced last week. The task force will examine current drug policy and consider reforms, White said.

"We look to build a coalition from a broad spectrum of the Massachusetts health care, business and law enforcement communities. The coalition will take a hard look at the difficult questions of drug addiction and punishment of drug-related crimes," said White. "This is one part of our effort to improve sentencing in Massachusetts. Reforms of the current sentencing system will reduce crime, rebuild families and communities and save money," he added.

White's announcement came as a two-hour symposium on sentencing at the Statehouse Great Hall came to an end. During that symposium, panels of legislators, advocates, and attorneys suggested that the Bay State could see meaningful sentencing reform for the first time in years.

"I'm more optimistic than ever that we can have a useful discussion," said panelist state Sen. Robert Creedon Jr., Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

Mandatory minimum sentencing came under attack from several panelists, including at least one law enforcement official. Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral said mandatory minimums make treating inmates with drug problems more difficult and constitute obstacles to rehabilitation.

"The sheriffs, we are on the forefront of reentry programs, but we are stymied by mandatory minimums that don't allow us to classify people for acceptance into some of our programs," Cabral said.

Other panelists at the symposium included Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan Fox, Families Against Mandatory Minimums vice president and general counsel Mary Price, Washington state Rep. Roger Goodman (who leads the pioneering King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project), and several ranking Massachusetts elected officials.

White was named head of the MBA earlier this year. He has said that sentencing reform is one of his top priorities.

Marijuana: Florida Bill Would Toughen Penalties for Growing

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), an inveterate drug warrior dating back to his days in the US Congress, and two hard-line state legislators have unveiled a bill for the 2008 state session that attempts to crack down on the Sunshine State's flourishing indoor marijuana growing industry. The bill, which is not yet available on the Florida legislature's web site, would dramatically decrease the number of growing plants needed to prosecute someone as a drug trafficker, a first-degree felony with a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mccollumetal.jpg
McCollum press conference
Under current Florida law, growers can be charged as traffickers only if they grow more than 300 plants. Federal marijuana laws require 100 plants to trigger the equivalent offense. But under the "Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act," it would take only 25 plants to trigger a trafficking charge.

But there is more nastiness embedded in the measure. It would also create new penalties for those who own a house for the purpose of growing marijuana and those who live in the house or take care of the grow op. It would also ratchet up penalties for people who have both kids and a grow op, and ratchet them up even higher if the kids are three or under.

The bill is a response to an apparent explosion in marijuana grows in Florida. According to McCollum's press release announcing the measure, indoor grow ops were detected in 41 of Florida's 67 counties. The number of indoor grows busted in Florida ranks it second only to California, the release said.

The bill will not be heard until next spring's legislative session, but that didn't stop McCollum and his legislative and law enforcement allies from getting the ball rolling earlier this month. "As Florida's Attorney General, my priority is protecting our children and our communities from the devastation of illegal drugs," said McCollum. "This legislation targets those who grow marijuana for profit."

"Every time law enforcement can detect a grow house and arrest those involved with it, less crime will be on our streets," said cosponsor Senator Steve Oelrich (R-Gainesville), adding that the main purpose of this legislation is eliminating the spread of illegal drugs in Florida. "This legislation will provide law enforcement with critical tools to get these narcotics out of our kids' hands and put drug traffickers behind bars."

"In Florida, those who use grow houses to traffic drugs belong in prison," added Representative Nick Thompson (R-Fort Myers). "Under this legislation we are clearly telling drug dealers, 'if you grow, you go!'"

"Whether grown outdoors or in a garage, marijuana today is extremely potent and dangerous and the cultivation of this illicit drug will not be tolerated by DEA," chimed in Mark Trouville, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Miami Field Division.

With some months until the bill is actually considered, saner heads will have time to craft a response. It remains to be seen if they will emerge to do so.

Obama Comes Out Against Mandatory Minimums

It's about time. We've been concerned about Obama's perspective on drug policy, but it looks like he's coming around:

Washington, D.C. (AHN) - Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) outlined his civil rights platform Friday, saying that if elected president, he would target racial disparities in the U.S. justice system through a host of measures, including relaxing drug sentencing laws.


"We have a system that locks away too many young, first-time, non-violent offenders for the better part of their lives - a decision that's made not by a judge in a courtroom, but all to often by politicians in Washington and state capitals around the country," Obama said. [AHN]

Obama also pledged to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity, which he's sounded reluctant to do previously.

How could anyone disagree with him? Sentencing reform has become standard fair for the democratic candidates, and I've yet to hear the republicans dispute it. Maybe, just maybe, this one issue can escape the icy death grip of partisan politics. Maybe we can all just agree to stop treating petty drug offenders like murderers and rapists. Can we give this a try? Please?

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
Location: 
United States

Paey Starts Afresh with Call from Crist

Location: 
FL
United States
Publication/Source: 
St. Petersburg Times
URL: 
http://www.sptimes.com/2007/09/22/Pasco/Paey_starts_afresh_wi.shtml

Medical Marijuana: Bryan Epis Re-Sentenced to 10 Years in Federal Prison

Bryan Epis, the first California medical marijuana provider tried in federal court for growing marijuana, was sentenced last Friday to 10 years in federal prison -- again. Epis was convicted in 2002 of growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants and served 25 months of his original 10-year sentence before being released on appeal bond.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/bordenepis.jpg
David Borden and Bryan Epis at the 2005 NORML conference
The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered the lower court to reconsider Epis' conviction, but it found him guilty again.

Epis argued all along that he was a medical marijuana patient who worked with other patients within California law at a medical marijuana grow in Chico. But prosecutors portrayed him as an entrepreneurial mastermind with plans to distribute marijuana across the state.

In an unusual move, Circuit Court Judge Frank Damrell refused prosecution requests to immediately take Epis into custody, noting that the 9th Circuit had earlier ordered him released "without comment," a move Damrell described as "unprecedented in my experience. The law requires such an action be supported by exceptional circumstances, so I can only assume that they found exceptional circumstances," Damrell said. "My suspicion is the 9th Circuit would grant bail again," the judge added.

Damrell set an October 22 hearing date for a forthcoming motion for bail pending appeal.

Epis' attorney, Brenda Grantland, has argued that prosecutor Samuel Wong and DEA agents intentionally misinterpreted documents seized at Epis' home when it was searched in June 1997. Wong described the documents as a statewide marketing plan, saying Epis' "goal was to go statewide and use Proposition 215 as a shield to manufacture and traffic marijuana."

Grantland told Damrell that the 9th Circuit was "very interested" in her allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and perjury by narcotics officers in the case. Damrell agreed that the appeals court "may have some interest" in the issues Grantland raised.

For his part, Epis told the court he was a martyr for medical marijuana.
"If Proposition 215 had not passed, I wouldn't be standing here today," Epis told Damrell. "I'm being prosecuted because I have a heart. I've seen too many people suffer and die from cancer and AIDS not to try to help them. I'm not ashamed of what I did, but I am sorry for my family."

Pain Patients: Florida Prisoner Richard Paey is Pardoned

Richard Paey, the wheelchair-bound Florida pain patient sentenced to 25 years in prison as a drug dealer for seeking desperately-needed medications, may be a free man by the time you read this. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) granted Paey a full pardon on Thursday after a brief hearing in Tallahassee. Paey and his family had only sought clemency.

Paey was severely injured in a 1985 auto accident. A New Jersey physician provided him with prescriptions for necessary pain relievers, but when Paey moved to Florida he took pre-signed prescription forms with him. He was arrested in 1997 and charged with illegally possessing and trafficking in about 700 pain pills obtained with those prescriptions.

Under Florida's draconian drug laws, persons in possession of that amount of pain medication are treated as drug traffickers. Standing on principle, Paey refused plea offers from the state and was ultimately convicted and sentenced to the mandatory minimum 25-year sentence.

Paey's case became a cause celebre for the country's growing pain patient and doctor movement. In August, the governor's office announced that it would grant a waiver allowing Paey to seek clemency. In most cases, inmates cannot seek clemency until they have serve 1/3 of their time.

Thursday, Gov. Crist and three members of the Florida cabinet heard Paey's appeal for clemency. Though the state's parole commission had recommended against granting time-served, Crist went further, granting him a full pardon and ordering he be released immediately. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Crist allowed Paey's attorney, John Flannery to speak for nearly 30 minutes -- the usual time limit is five minutes, then allowed Paey's wife, three children and a family friend to speak as well.

Crist then commented, "I want to move that we grant a full pardon," continuing, "We aim to right a wrong and exercise compassion and to do it with grace," the governor said. "Congratulations... and I state he should be released today."

For further information on the Paey case, click here.

Richard Paey's Torturers Must be Held Accountable

As we celebrate Richard Paey's freedom today, it is important to remember that his tragic fate was no accident. Many people worked very hard at tax-payers' expense to put this innocent and miserable man behind bars. They deserve recognition today as well.

Certainly, these events vividly depict the insanity of a war on drugs that targets seriously ill people for trying to treat their own pain:
State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug-war statutes, these prosecutors could pursue distribution charges against him based solely on the amount of medication he possessed (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify a person as a "drug trafficker"). [National Review]
Yet, as Radley Balko revealed at National Review, the persecution of Richard Paey involved so much more than the reckless enforcement of short-sighted laws. This was a prolonged and deliberate campaign on the part of malicious prosecutors and vengeful prison officials.

*Prosecutors blamed Paey's harsh sentence on Paey himself, claiming that he should have accepted a plea bargain. As Balko explains, they essentially retaliated against him for asserting his factual innocence and insisting on his right to a jury trial.

*Prison officials transferred Paey further away from his family after he gave a New York Times interview that was critical of the State of Florida.

*Prison medical staff threatened to withhold Paey's medication, also in apparent retaliation for his interview with the New York Times. Since he could die without it, this was the functional equivalent of a death threat and caused him great distress.

Now that Florida's Governor and Cabinet have concluded that Paey did nothing wrong, it is time to examine the way he was treated throughout this great travesty. If there are sociopaths working in Florida's criminal justice system, that's something Governor Crist would want to know about. If we can afford to imprison people for decades in order to protect ourselves from drugs, surely we can also afford to evaluate public servants who wield extraordinary power in order to ensure that they aren't deeply disturbed.

Mentally healthy people do not persecute the seriously ill, even if the drug war says it's ok.
Location: 
United States

Richard Paey Receives Full Pardon

The plight of Richard Paey has been shocking even by the drug war's rock bottom standards. Sentenced to 25 years in a Florida prison for possession of the pain medication he used to treat his own crippling back pain, Paey spent the last 3½ years behind bars.

Today, he is free:
Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously to grant Paey a full pardon Thursday morning for his 2004 conviction on drug trafficking and possession charges.

"We aim to right a wrong and exercise compassion and to do it with grace," the governor said. "Congratulations … and I state he should be released today."

With that, Paey's wife Linda, their three children, a family friend and attorney John Flannery II hugged and cried at the podium, the entire cabinet meeting room erupting into applause at 9:40 a.m. [St. Petersburg Times]
Justice in the war on drugs is a rare spectacle, and it is just delightful to witness. We've reported endlessly on this case, as have so many others, and it is wonderful to find that these efforts have not been in vain.
Location: 
United States

The justice system in America is not color blind, study shows

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Pensacola News Journal (FL)
URL: 
http://www.pensacolanewsjournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070802/NEWS01/708020329/1006

I'm as angry as I've been in a long time over this one...

This one has me as angry as I've been in a long time. Tampa Bay, Florida, area resident Mark O'Hara served two years of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for 58 Vicodin pills. (Vicodin is an opiate pain reliever.) Sound like an extreme sentence for such a small amount, even if it was trafficking as the charges read? But there's more. O'Hara had a prescription for the pills. He's a pain patient. His doctor confirmed that he had prescribed the Vicodin to O'Hara and that he had been treating O'Hara for years. But prosecutors moved against him, and -- astonishingly -- argued to the judge that the jury shouldn't be informed that O'Hara had a prescription for the Vicodin, because there's no "prescription defense." And the judge -- doubly astonishingly -- actually bought it. Never mind the fact that the drug law O'Hara was charged with violating specifically exempts people who have a prescription. The appellate judges who threw out his conviction used words like "ridiculous" and "absurd" to describe it. Sickeningly, prosecutors have yet to say that O'Hara is off the hook and won't be taken to trial again. I think we need to organize on this one and press the system to do justice to the prosecutors and judge for the terrible atrocity they committed against Mark O'Hara. Knowingly imprisoning an innocent person is the functional equivalent of kidnapping. It should be treated as such. Prosecutors Mark Ober and Darrell Dirks should be in chains; their continued status as individuals holding power in the criminal justice system poses a threat to the safety of all Americans. The judge who enabled the kidnapping, Ronald Ficarrotta, may only be completely incompetent, but I'm not sure he should get that benefit of the doubt. Read more at Reason.
Location: 
Tampa, FL
United States

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