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Seattle Pilot Program Offers Treatment Not Arrest [FEATURE]

The Belltown neighborhood near downtown Seattle is a charming, vibrant urban locale, located just south of the city's landmark Space Needle. Filled with bars and cafes and desirable condos, it is a nighttime hot spot, but it is also a neighborhood where a relatively small number of problematic drug users have reduced the quality of life for residents and businesses alike. According to a recent study by the Seattle Police Department, some 50 people in Belltown were responsible for a whopping 2700 arrests.

4th Ave. & Wall St., Belltown neighborhood (Chas Redmond via wikimedia.org)
Now, instead of cycling those people through more endless -- and expensive -- rounds of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and supervision, local officials and the Seattle Defender Association have embarked on an innovative pilot program in which beat officers will offer to take low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to drug treatment instead of arresting them, booking them into jail, and prosecuting them.

The pioneering program will allow officers the discretion to offer treatment to people charged with crimes such as public intoxication or drug possession, but not people with records of violence or those accused of dealing drugs. Offenders can decline the offer of treatment and instead be arrested and go through the criminal justice system.

Known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the pilot program is designed to improve public safety and order and reduce the criminal behavior of program participants. It is based on successful "arrest referral" programs that have been operating in the United Kingdom for the past several years. The program has strong support from local elected and law enforcement officials.

"We are looking for effective public safety solutions,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. "If drug dealing and crime could be solved by arrests alone, we would have solved this problem a couple thousand arrests ago. LEAD offers a promising alternative to traditional responses to street-level drug dealing, and we look forward to tracking its results in Belltown."

"We know that the issue of chemical dependency in our society cannot be solved by law enforcement alone. It is a complex social problem that requires a comprehensive social solution,” said Seattle Chief of Police John Diaz. "LEAD provides our front line police officers with the discretion necessary to ensure that treatment diversion is utilized as a viable alternative to incarceration."

"Sheriff Sue Rahr and her staff support the concepts that act as the basis for the LEAD program, and we look forward to our participation," said King County Sheriff Major James Graddon. "Respect, open communication and common goals among some historically adversarial groups have created a positive environment to move this program forward. Using the formal criminal justice system for all offenses is costly and has proven to not necessarily be the most effective way to impact future offender behavior."

Graddon was referring to strained relations dating back to the last decade between the Seattle Police and the Defender Association, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation to indigent defendants. In a bid to reduce tensions and work together on the common goal of reducing the number of repeat offenders cycling through the system, the Defender Association and law enforcement began discussing possible responses to the continuing problem of drug-user generated low-level crime with back in 2008. The LEAD program, which rolled out in Belltown a month ago now and which will also be tried in the Skyway neighborhood of unincorporated King County, is the fruit of those discussions.

Mayor McGinn at LEAD program press conference (mayormcginn.seattle.gov)
Defender Association Deputy Director Lisa Daugaard has been a prime mover in getting the program going. Given that the state of Washington faces a $2 billion budget deficit and looming social service cuts, Daugaard managed to obtain $4 million in grants from private foundations, including the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation, to pay for four years worth of LEAD services, including not only drug treatment, but also job training, housing assistance, and educational opportunities.

"Now, because of the dismantling of the social safety net, these LEAD resources may be the only way that some people will be able to get treatment, housing, and other services," said Daugaard.

LEAD supporters hope that the by the end of the four-year pilot period, the program will be able to demonstrate that it can generate cost savings worthy of being picked up by state and local government. They aren't the only ones watching with interest. Stateline, a media outlet covering state government issues across the land, reported last week that Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland, and the state of New Mexico have already expressed interest in the program.

As a pilot program, LEAD will undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine whether it has been a success. It that proves to be the case, it could be expanded in other Seattle and King County locales, officials said.

"The LEAD pilot has the potential to help people struggling with addiction and save public dollars at the same time," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "We can work in partnership to replace a downward spiral toward jail with support and resources. Our families and neighborhoods are better off when those headed for the criminal justice system are instead given the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life."

It won't take four years to see what kind of impact LEAD has on Belltown and Skyway. Within a matter of weeks or months, we should be able to see whether this experiment in smart policing is working and produces a model that can be adopted elsewhere.

Seattle, WA
United States

SF "De Facto Drug Decriminalization" Sees Violent Crime Decline

Drug arrests in San Francisco have declined dramatically over the past two years without causing a spike in violent crime, calling into question the link traditionally made by law enforcement between drug law enforcement and reducing violent crime.

Drug arrests AND violent crime are down in San Francisco. (wikimedia.org)
According to figures compiled by the San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco police made 9,505 drug arrests in 2009, but that number dropped dramatically to 5,834 last year. As of October 15, there had been only 3,751 drug arrests this year, leaving the city on pace to end the year with fewer than 5,000 if current trends continue. That means drug arrests declined 39% in 2010 over 2009 totals and are on track to decline another 25% this year

Meanwhile, violent crimes have also decreased during the same period, although not so dramatically. In 2009, police reported 7,391 violent crime arrests; a year later, that figure had dropped to 7,139. As of October 15 this year, police had logged 5,366 violent crimes (the figure last year at the same date was 5,715). If the current rate continues to year's end, the number of violent crimes should drop to somewhere near 7,000.

That's a 3% decrease in violent crime in 2010 and another 6% decrease this year. This even as drug arrest rates also plummet.

"This has been somewhat of a de facto decriminalization of drugs -- in other words, they're not being prosecuted," San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey told the Examiner. "And it does not appear that violent crime in San Francisco has risen, so it may say something about the necessity for the war on drugs."

Hennessy said he noticed a shift in 2010 after the police department's drug lab was embroiled in scandal and hundreds of drug cases were dropped. The jail population dropped dramatically then, possibly because of fewer arrests and prosecutions for drug crimes, he said.

Former San Francisco Police Chief and current District Attorney George Gascon told the Examiner that as police chief, he began focusing more on mid-level drug dealers and drug offenses associated with violent crimes, sending some minor drug possession cases to neighborhood and community courts. He said he is continuing that approach as district attorney.

Street level police said they were continuing to make low-level buy-bust and undercover operations, particularly near schools, but acknowledged that the department has less grant money for certain drug enforcement operations. Also, budget cuts have shrunk the force and resulted in less overtime.

"We're doing more with less," said Capt. Joe Garrity, whose district includes the Tenderloin, a drug dealing hotspot in the city. But drug arrests were declining there, too.

UC Santa Cruz professor of sociology and legal studies Craig Reinarman told the Examiner the majority of drug arrests are traditionally been for petty offenses, mostly marijuana. "The relationship between those arrests and violent crimes was always more tenuous than police like to let on," he said.

Hmmm… maybe San Francisco is on to something.

San Francisco, CA
United States

Canada Mandatory Minimum Crime Bill Set to Pass [FEATURE]

The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been trying for years to pass a harsh drug crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for growing as few as six marijuana plants. This year, with the Conservatives now holding an absolute majority in parliament, it looks like the Conservatives will get their wish..

Parliament Hill, Ottawa
"The bill will pass," said Eugene Oscapella, head of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation, who testified against the bill in parliament last week and who was attacked by Conservatives for doing so. "The government has a clear majority, and under the parliamentary system, MPs will vote like trained seals. Even though I know Conservative MPs who disagree with this, if you spit in the face of the prime minister, you will be out of the caucus."

The Tories rolled out this year's version of their perennial drug bill last month as part of an omnibus anti-crime bill known as Bill C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act. Ironically, the government's "tough on crime" initiative came just weeks before Statistics Canada reported that the country's homicide rate had declined to levels not seen since 1966. Overall violent crime is down, too.

The omnibus bill runs to 110 pages and brings together nine separate previous proposals to strengthen police and prosecutorial powers aimed at child sex predators, violent offenders, drug traffickers, and "out of control" youthful offenders. In addition to Canada's first mandatory minimum sentences, the package also includes tougher pre-trial custody conditions, restrictions on the use of probation, and lengthier sentences for violent and youthful repeat offenders.

"Since coming into office, our government has accomplished a great deal when it comes to cracking down on crime and better protecting Canadians," said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson as he introduced the omnibus bill last month. "By moving quickly to reintroduce and pass the Safe Streets and Communities Act, we are fulfilling our promise to Canadians by taking action to protect families, stand up for victims and hold criminals accountable."

"Our government remains committed to fighting crime, protecting Canadians and holding offenders accountable," said Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews. "Canadians gave us a strong mandate to improve safety for Canadians where they live, work and raise their families."

Voters may have given the Tories a mandate at the polls, but it's not clear that it was Tory crime policies driving the vote. A Nanos poll earlier this summer had only 2% of respondents selecting "fighting crime" as their highest priority for the Harper government. Instead, respondents were much more concerned about the provision of health care (40%) and reducing the deficit (26%).

Canada's other major political parties, the Liberals and the New Democrats, both oppose the bill, as does a broad swath of civil society. The Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network are among the groups opposing the bill, as are criminal defense attorneys, prisoners' advocates, and critics who point toward falling crime numbers and question whether the country can afford a massive expansion of its prison system.

The government has so far declined to specify projected costs of the bill or reveal its own projections about how much the prison population would increase under the bill.

"We believe the substance of this legislation both to be self-defeating and counterproductive, if the goal is to enhance public safety," vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association's National Criminal Justice Section Eric Gottardi said last week. "It represents a profound shift in orientation from a system that emphasizes public safety, rehabilitation and reintegration to one that puts vengeance first."

"The Conservatives are completely divorced from the reality of what's going on," said NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies (Vancouver East) during a 10-minute House of Commons speech attacking the bill. "They have branded themselves and wrapped themselves in a cloak of crime and punishment, and as a result they are blind to evidence, they are blind to the costs, they are blind to the fact that we have the lowest crime rate since 1973, they are blind to building safe and healthy communities, they are blind to the horrendous experience of the United States and its war on drugs regime that is now being slowly repealed -- including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing... because of its catastrophic failure on people and society overall. They are blind to the evidence here in Canada and they are blind to the real impacts of what these bills will have on the lives of people and on communities overall."

The Tories are "only interested in manipulating people, creating fear, division, and creating a 'them and us' scenario," Davies continued. "I believe from the bottom of my heart that this omnibus bill is offensive because it is politically motivated and will have enormous negative impacts."

It's not just progressives, or even Canadians, who are upset by the bill. Crime-fighting conservative Texans have come out against it, citing their own unhappy experience with "lock 'em up and throw away the key" policies. "You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up," said Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. "And there will come a point in time where the public says, 'Enough!' And you'll wind up letting them out."

Still, with the Conservatives holding a solid parliamentary majority, the bill's passage now appears to be all but a done deal. That doesn't mean the fight against it will go away, though -- not before it passes and not after it passes. The lawyers are already gearing up for that second phase of the struggle.

"They are trying to ram this through as quickly as possible, and I don't know what can be done to stop it," said Oscapella. "It will have to be done at the back end, by means of constitutional challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But that will take years."

Canada

Obama Met With San Francisco Medical Marijuana Protest [FEATURE]

Hundreds of angry medical marijuana patients and supporters gathered in San Francisco's South of Market Tuesday to greet President Obama as he appeared at a $5,000 a head fundraiser at the W Hotel. They were joined by hundreds of other protestors, mainly Occupy San Francisco members and environmentalists upset with the Keystone pipeline.

Boisterous crowds tried to send the president a message in San Francisco (Image: Phil Smith)
The president never saw the demonstrators -- he entered the building through a back entrance a block away from where protestors had gathered -- but boisterous chants of "DEA, Go Away!" and "Whose State? Our State! Whose Medicine? Our medicine!" echoed through the streets as police watched impassively.

It was the second straight day of medical marijuana protests aimed at the president. He got similar treatment Monday in Los Angeles.

The California medical marijuana community is upset with the president over what it sees as a multi-pronged attack on medical marijuana production and distribution by agencies of the federal government (sometimes in cahoots with recalcitrant local officials). Despite Obama's campaign pledges and the Department of Justice's October 2009 memo directing federal prosecutors to back off from medical marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law, the pace of DEA raids has only accelerated since he took office in January 2009.

It's not just the DEA. The Department of the Treasury has been going after financial institutions that do business with the medical marijuana industry, forcing banks to submit to onerous record-keeping of their dealings and persuading some of them to drop their medical marijuana customers. Similarly, the IRS has joined the attack, refusing to allow dispensaries to deduct standard business expenses and hitting them with whopping past due tax bills.

Most recently, the four US Attorneys who cover California held a much ballyhooed press conference in Sacramento announcing that they were going after what they described as an industry out of control. They announced a campaign aimed at dispensary and grow operations landlords, sending out a wave of letters threatening property owners with asset forfeiture and even stiff criminal charges if they don't throw out their clients.

But while the feds say they are targeting people who abuse the system  for profit, they have recently gone after some of the most respected, regulated and compliant operations in the state. Steve De Angelo's Harborside Health Center in Oakland is the biggest target of the IRS and was recently handed a $2 million tax bill after its expenses were disallowed; Lynette Shaw's Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana is the longest-licensed dispensary in the state and enjoys impeccable relations with local officials, but its landlord was hit with a threat letter; and Matt Cohen's Northstone Organics Cooperative is the first licensed grow -- with every plant tagged -- under Mendocino County's cutting edge regulatory scheme, but was raided by the DEA earlier this month.

Occupy San Francisco makes an appearance. (Image: Phil Smith)
The effects of the renewed federal campaign of raids and intimidation couldn't be any clearer than the message that now greets visitors to Northstone's web page. "We are closed due to a federal raid on our farm," the message reads. "The entire crop was eradicated. We are closed until further notice. We will be sending out an e-letter informing memberships of what they can do as well as upcoming protests. We apologize for the inconvenience."

"Contrary to DOJ claims that they are targeting abusive profiteers, their list of targets includes some of the most respected and best regulated facilities in the state," said California NORML director Dale Gieringer.

Federal prosecutors are also targeting a trio of San Francisco dispensaries for being within a thousand feet of a school or playground, citing a federal drug-free school zone statute that enhances penalties for drug crimes committed within that forbidden zone. But California law allows dispensaries within 600 feet of schools and playgrounds.

In the case of the two Mission area dispensaries within a thousand feet of a school, the dispensaries operated there before the school arrived, and the school has made it known that it has no problems with them. In the case of the dispensary located near a playground, advocates point out that several bars and sex clubs nearby are in closer proximity to the kids.

"The DOJ's complaints represent a frivolous and cynical attack on land use decisions that properly belong to local government," said Gieringer. "This is a blatant example of federal government over-regulation run amok."

"It feels a little Kafkaesque," said medical marijuana and legalization proponent state Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) at a press conference preceding the protest. "We've been sandbagged by US Attorneys acting like thugs. I almost expect a drone to come down on a dispensary in Fresno one of these days," he said, barely cracking a smile.

Ammiano wants a meeting with Department of Justice officials on the issue, he said. "Why don't they lean on the banks for the foreclosures, instead of medical marijuana?" he asked. "I'll be damned if I know what Justice, IRS, and the rest are thinking right now."

What a difference a couple of years makes. (Image: Phil Smith)
Lynette Shaw, whose Marin Alliance dispensary is being threatened, called out the president. "After we helped put Obama in office, I thought we were in the clear," she said. "Obama, you have the power to issue an executive order and stop this," she challenged.

"The US Attorneys said they were going after the criminals, but that's not true," said Harborside's DeAngelo. "Northstone Organics, the Marin Alliance, and Harborside are all 100% compliant. The targeting by US Attorneys suggests they either need to learn how to aim or to learn how to tell the truth," he said.

It's not just about patients and dispensaries, but also about jobs and the economy, said several speakers. "If the federal government closes down the dispensaries, thousands of hard-working Californians stand to lose their jobs," said United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 Cannabis Division Coordinator Mike Witemeyer, whose union has organized dispensary workers. "We stand with the patients."

"With the federal budget on empty, the economy in disarray, our prisons overflowing, and prohibition-related violence raging across the border, it's an outrageous misuse of federal resources to wage war on medical marijuana," said California NORML's Gieringer. "Federal anti-drug bureaucrats are afraid because the dispensaries are proving that it's possible for marijuana to become a safe, legal, tax-paying industry and so expose their own last-century policies as bankrupt and obsolete."

It's unclear what the Obama administration thinks it is gaining with its ever more hostile policies toward medical marijuana production and distribution in California. What is clear is that it is alienating many people in California who voted for Obama in 2008.

San Francisco, CA
United States

IRS Rules Against Oakland Marijuana Dispensary, Demands Millions

In a decision that advocates warn could cripple the industry, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled that Oakland's Harborside Health Center cannot deduct standard business expenses on its taxes and sent the dispensary a whopping $2.5 million tax bill.

Most businesses are able to deduct standard business expenses, such as rent and payroll, from their federal tax bill, but Harborside chief financial officer Luigi Zamarra told the Bay Citizen the IRS had determined the dispensary cannot deduct standard business expenses because it is involved in "the trafficking of controlled substances."

Harborside is the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the country, with more than 83,000 members, and pulled in $22 million in sales last year. It has already paid the IRS $500,000 in taxes for 2007 and 2008, the years for which the agency now claims it owes the additional $2.5 million.

Although the IRS is happy to take Harborside's money, the federal government considers marijuana nothing more than a Schedule I controlled substance. The IRS attack on Harborside is part of an Obama administration assault on medical marijuana distribution using the regulatory apparatus of a number of federal agencies, ranging from the Treasury to the DEA.

Harborside said it would appeal the ruling and warned that if it stood, the entire medical marijuana dispensary industry could be endangered.

"We can't live with the conclusions that the IRS has come to and neither can the industry," Zamarra said. "If the IRS ultimately prevails, we would close our doors and go away because the business model wouldn't work,” he said.

Ironically, on the same day it announced the adverse IRS ruling, Harborside also announced it had paid the last installment of its $1,081,450 tax bill to the city of Oakland, which collects a 5% tax on dispensaries.



Oakland, CA
United States

WA State Dems Endorse Marijuana Legalization

The Washington state Democratic Central Committee Saturday endorsed a marijuana legalization initiative, throwing the party's weight behind the effort to put the measure on the ballot for the November 2012 election.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/downtown_seattle.jpg
downtown Seattle
The Central Committee voted 75-43 for a resolution supporting Initiative 502, which would legalize the possession of marijuana by adults and allow for its sale through pot-only stores regulated by the state liquor control authority. Initiative sponsors New Approach Washington estimate that marijuana legalization under its model would generate more than $200 a million a year in tax revenues, with more than half of that earmarked for public health programs.

The Democrats cited, among other things, law enforcement costs of marijuana prohibition and the revenues that could be gained with legalization. They noted that marijuana possession arrests, with mandatory 24-hour jail stays, accounted for half of all Washington drug arrests. 

I-502 is controversial among some segments of the marijuana legalization and medical marijuana communities because it also includes a per se driving under the influence provision. The initiative sets a blood THC level of 5 nanograms per millileter above which drivers are presumed to be impaired, but some activists argue that such a provision will result in the arrest and conviction of pot-accustomed drivers who are not actually impaired.

That didn't seem to bother the Democratic Central Committee too much, though. The committee included that provision in its long list of "whereases" in support of the initiative, noting that "this per se limit will not apply to the non-psychoactive marijuana metabolite carboxy-THC that can appear in blood or urine tests for days or even weeks after last use."

I-502 is supported by the ACLU of Washington, whose Alison Holcomb has taken a leave of absence to spearhead the campaign, and has been endorsed by prominent Washington figures, including former US Attorney John McKay (the man who prosecuted Marc Emery, ironically), Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, and travel writer and TV show host Rick Steves.

Organizers have until next July to gather 241,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. But I-502 is an initiative to the legislature, meaning that if it passes the signature-gathering hurdle, it would then go before the state legislature in the upcoming session. If the legislature refuses to act, the initiative would then go before the voters in November 2012.

Bellingham, WA
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

Washington, DC
United States

SC Gov. Haley Talks Trash About Drug Use and the Unemployed

South Carolina's Republican Gov. Nikki Haley wants to drug test unemployment recipients before they can receive benefits, she told a group of supporters last Thursday, and she wants it so bad she was willing to resort to lying about the extent of the problem.

Nikki Haley (image via Wikimedia)
"I so want drug testing. I so want it," Haley said during a question-and-answer session at the Lexington Rotary Club. But she added that that some hurdles had to be cleared first. "We have to make sure this works. We have to see what the return is on it. And, we have to see federally and legally if we can do it."

As for why South Carolina needs to drug test unemployment applicants, Haley claimed that huge numbers of applicants for jobs at the Savannah River Site nuclear facility failed post-interview drug tests.

"Down on River Site, they were hiring a few hundred people, and when we sat down and talked to them -- this was back before the campaign -- when we sat down and talked to them, they said of everybody they interviewed, half of them failed a drug test, and of the half that was left, of that 50%, the other half couldn't read and write properly," Haley said."That's what we have in South Carolina," she continued. "We don't have an unemployment problem. We have an education and poverty problem."

But as the Huffington Post reported Friday, Haley was full of it. The Post talked to Jim Giusti, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, which runs the facility. He said he had no idea what Haley was talking about.

"Half the people who applied for a job last year or year 2009 did not fail the drug test," Giusti said. "At the peak of hiring under the Recovery Act we had less than 1% of those hired test positive." And the River Site doesn't even test applicants, Giusti added. "We only test them when they have been accepted," he said.

South Carolina does not have a demonstrable problem with drugged out unemployed workers. What it does have is an unemployment rate of 10.9% and an unwillingness to spend state money to support the unemployed. In June, Gov. Haley signed into law a bill cutting unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks while lowering unemployment taxes on businesses.

At least four other Republican controlled states have slashed the length of time out of work people can receive unemployment benefits, but no state has yet to pass a law requiring drug testing for unemployment beneficiaries, although several have been introduced this year. Republican-controlled Wisconsin and Indiana have passed laws that cut unemployment benefits for job applicants who fail a drug test.

If Gov. Haley's fictions about drugged out workers are the best that proponents of drug testing the unemployed can do, perhaps the South Carolina legislature will reject her welfare for drug testing labs proposal.

Lexington, SC
United States

Veteran, ACLU Challenge Florida Welfare Drug Test Law [FEATURE]

Florida's new law requiring applicants for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to take and pass a drug test in order to receive benefits is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLUFL). The group filed a class-action lawsuit in federal district court in Orlando Tuesday arguing the new law was unconstitutional and seeking a temporary injunction to block its implementation.

Under the law, which passed Florida's House and Senate in April and May respectively, applicants can be denied public assistance for a year if they fail the drug test and denied for three years if they fail a second drug test. Persons who complete drug treatment can regain eligibility, and the children of people denied benefits can receive funds through a designated trustee.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtest.jpg
drug testing kit
"It's our view that not only is this program unconstitutional and illegal, but it is a public policy that rests on ugly stereotypes," said ACLUFL executive director Howard Simon at a Wednesday morning press conference.

The lawsuit, Lebron v. Wilkins, names a Central Florida man, Luis Lebron, as the lead plaintiff. Lebron, a Navy veteran, single father, and University of Central Florida student who is looking for work, was denied TANF benefits after refusing to submit to a drug test. Lebron, who also cares for his disabled mother, did accounting and payroll work in the Navy and in the private sector before returning to college. He is expected to graduate with an accounting degree in December.

"Florida's new law assumes everyone who seeks public assistance has a drug problem," said Lebron. "They don't know that I'm in school right now so I can get a good job to provide for my son and mother, and it feels like they don't care. I have to prove to them that I'm not breaking the law. It makes me sick and angry that for no reason at all and no suspicion, I have to prove I'm not using drugs. The Fourth Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, and it says no searches without probable cause."

The pivotal question, Lebron said, is whether the searches are reasonable. "Searches must be based on individualized suspicion," he noted. "In the Navy, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution. Now, I'm asking for the Constitution to defend me."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) championed the new welfare drug testing law, arguing that welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the population at large and that the law would save Florida taxpayers money. A number of similar bills have been filed in other states as well, and rumblings of Congressional hearings on the proposal have been heard inside the Beltway as well.

But so far the numbers have failed to borne out Scott's claims about welfare recipients or budget savings. A 1996 study of alcohol and illicit drug use by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that welfare recipients' use rates to be the same as the population at large. And according to Florida's Department of Children's Services, only about 2% of TANF applicants have tested positive for drugs in the new program so far. At that rate, the state will arguably save a few tens of thousands of dollars each year in a program that is budgeted at $168 million a year. But even those savings are debatable, given that it is difficult to factor in the costs of administering the program -- or defending it against legal challenges or individual claims of false positives.

The one clear winner in the welfare drug testing program is Florida's drug testing industry. Each TANF applicant must take a drug test at a cost of $30-35 and pay for it out of his own pocket. If the test comes back negative, the state reimburses the applicant. The net result is a transfer of funds from the TANF program to drug test providers.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/rickscott.jpg
Gov. Scott
But the ACLUFL lawsuit does not rely on a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, it relies on the argument, vetted in both federal appeals courts and the Florida courts, that suspicionless drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable searches.


"Our legal claim is straightforward and should come as no surprise to the state of Florida," said Maria Kayanan, the lead attorney in the case. "The only state in the country to try this in the past failed miserably. Throughout the session, legislative staff warned the legislature that this law raised legal challenges."

Kayanan was referring to Michigan, which enacted a law requiring suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients in the 1990s. That law was overturned as unconstitutional by a federal district court judge in a decision upheld by the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"This is bad policy, it's a mess, and we hope the court recognizes that suspicionless drug testing absent a clear showing of risk to public safety violates the Fourth Amendment," she said.

Federal courts have held that government-imposed drug testing absent particularized suspicion is unconstitutional except in very limited circumstances. The courts have carved out exceptions allowing drug testing in occupations where the public safety is at risk, for law enforcement personnel involved in drug enforcement, and for high school students engaged in extracurricular activities, but that is as far as the federal judiciary has been willing to bend the Fourth Amendment to date.

"This is a slippery slope," said Randy Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, which is co-counsel in the case. "While implemented here to go after people in need of public assistance to protect their families, who is next? People who apply to get a fishing license? Contractors who contract with the state? It is very important that people see this as a slippery slope. That is why we have stepped forward to challenge this unconstitutional bill enacted by the legislature."

"After the Michigan law was struck down, a number of states have started rekindling this idea, but Florida was the first state to enact this," said Simon. "But this public policy that the legislature adopted at the urging of the governor is based only on ugly stereotypes and talking points. He keeps saying that taxpayers have a right to know their money is not being used to subsidize drug addiction. But this method is unconstitutional, and we are confident it will be found unconstitutional again."

In response to a question echoing a commonly heard plaint, Simon explained why workers in the private sector must sometimes submit to drug testing when welfare applicants do not.

"The government is bound by the Constitution and private employers are not," he pointed out. "Things that may be appropriate in the private sector are impermissible when done by the government. The governor is also a lawyer, but he must have slept through constitutional law."

"I served my country, I'm in school finishing my education and trying to take care of my son," Lebron said. "It's insulting and degrading that people think I'm using drugs just because I need a little help to take care of my family while I finish up my education."

Now, a federal court in Florida will decide if requiring Lebron to submit to a drug test, is not only insulting and degrading to him, but unconstitutional. With efforts to impose similar laws on welfare applicants and people seeking unemployment benefits underway in a number of other states and possibly Congress, this Florida case will have ramifications reaching far and wide.

Orlando, FL
United States

Few Florida Welfare Applicants Fail Drug Tests So Far

During his election campaign last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) campaigned on, among other things, cutting government spending by reducing the welfare rolls through drug testing. Welfare recipients were more likely than average citizens to be drug users, he claimed.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtest.jpg
drug testing paraphernalia
Scott successfully pushed his welfare drug testing bill through the legislature, and the program went into effect July 1. But preliminary results undercut his claims of high drug use rates among people seeking welfare benefits and they suggest that the vaunted savings to taxpayers will not be very significant.

According to the Tampa Tribune, the state Department of Children and Families is reporting some preliminary numbers. So far, at least 1,000 applicants have undergone drug testing, and only 2% have failed their drug tests. Another 2% have, for reasons unknown, failed to complete the application process.

These numbers suggest that not only are Florida welfare recipients not a bunch of lazy junkies getting high on the backs of taxpayers, but that they actually use drugs at a significantly lower rate than the population as a whole. [Ed: Drug testing proponents might argue that the program is causing applicants to stop using drugs in order to quality for benefits. But that ideas squares neither with the "addict" characterization commonly made about welfare recipients nor the weeks that marijuana remains detectable in the bloodstream after its last use.]

According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.7% of the population nationally over age 12 used an illicit drug in the previous month. The rate was 6.3% for those ages 26 and up. The 2006 national survey disaggregated usage rates by state and found a figure of 7.69% of people 12 and over using within the past month in Florida.

The ACLU of Florida, which is studying a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the warrantless, suspicionless mandatory drug tests, told the Tampa Tribune the Florida law is based on stereotypes of poor people.

"This is just punishing people for being poor, which is one of our main points," said ACLU of Florida spokesman Dan Newton. "We're not testing the population at-large that receives government money; we're not testing people on scholarships, or state contractors. So why these people? It's obvious -- because they're poor."

These initial numbers also suggest that the welfare drug testing program will not be a big money saver for the state. Under the law, while welfare applicants and recipients must pay for the drug tests out of their own pockets, the state must reimburse those who test negative. At an estimated $30 a pop for the drug tests, that creates significant expenditures for the state.

Those expenditures are canceled out by the savings the state makes by not making welfare payments to those who test positive. If the current 2% positive test result rate holds true, the Tampa Tribune calculates, the state could save somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 a year.

But that's a drop in the bucket in a program that is predicted to cost $178 million this year, and it doesn't include staff costs and other resources the state has expended to implement the program -- nor the cost if even one person testing positive ends up in an emergency room or courtroom as a result. And even the small savings projected by the Tribune could be wiped out by the cost of defending what is likely to be found an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of Florida welfare applicants and recipients to be free of unwarranted searches.

FL
United States

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