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Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

California Marijuana Initiatives Starving for Cash [FEATURE]

Proponents of four out of five of the California marijuana initiative campaigns came together to tout the merits of their various measures at a public meeting in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the road from San Francisco, Tuesday night. But the take away message from the confab was that every single one of the initiatives is in serious trouble if it doesn't get a large cash injection -- and soon.

the crowd listens in Mill Valley
Three of the initiatives, Regulate Marijuana Like Wine 2012 (RMLW), the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012 (RCPA), and the California Cannabis Hemp & Health Initiative of 2012 (CCHHI), offer competing, though mostly similar, versions of legalization, while the  Marijuana Penalties Act of 2012 would expand decriminalization. The fifth initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act of 2012 (MMRCTA), seeks to bring statewide regulation to the state's confused and chaotic medical marijuana marketplace.

Disinterested but detailed summaries of each initiative are available at the state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) initiative fiscal analysis web page, and are highly recommended reading for those interested in the finer picture of what each initiative does. But in summary, according to the LAO, each of the three legalization initiatives would change state law to legalize marijuana possession by adults and regulate the legal commerce in it.

Equally striking, in the LAO's analysis, each of the three legalization initiatives would save the state either "potentially tens of millions of dollars" (RMLW) or "potentially the low hundreds of millions" (RCPA, CCHHI) annually in pot prohibition enforcement costs foregone. At the same time, any of the three would generate "potentially hundreds of millions of dollars" annually in tax revenues, while the MMRCTA would generate "tens of millions of dollars" in potential additional revenues.

The LAO took care, however, to point out that its fiscal impact estimates, and especially its revenue estimates, depended highly on the nature of the federal response to marijuana legalization in California. The figures cited above happen only if the federal government allows  a legal marijuana commerce to thrive.

With that pot of green gold from legalization enticingly foreseeable, even if the path past federal intransigence is unclear, the frustration of initiative campaigners at their inability to raise money to get on the ballot is evident. With each day that passes without a paid professional signature-gathering campaign underway, the cost of gathering each signature goes up. And the clock is ticking. The initiatives have only until April 20 to turn in 504,000 valid voter signatures.

"Time is running out to get these initiatives on the ballot," RMLW campaign presenter Steve Collett, a Los Angeles attorney, told the crowd. "We're going to need to raise some money to do it. We think we need about $2 million to get on the ballot, and then we can reap $230 million a year forever."

Collett pointed to RMLW's list of endorsements and a poll it commissioned showing 62% support for the measure as enticements to potential funders. RMLW is going to need those funders, and it's in the best shape of any of the legalization initiatives.

The RMLW campaign had only raised $131,000 by the end of December, according to the California Secretary of State, and only another $20,000 since then. It currently has only 40,000-50,000 signatures gathered. The other campaigns are in even worse shape.

"We're all down to the last minute," said Oakland attorney Bill Panzer, spokesman for the RCPA campaign. "If we don't get money to get professional signature-gatherers, we don't get on the ballot," he added. "But," he reminded the audience, "with Proposition 215, we got most of the signatures in five weeks with the professionals."

Dale Gieringer of MMCTR and Bill Panzer of Repeal
CCHHI campaign spokesman Buddy Dusy was mum about fundraising, but said the campaign had 130 paid signature-gatherers. "We need to do it for Jack Herer," he said.

California NORML
head Dale Gieringer, who acted as spokesman for the MMRCTA campaign, said it was in do or die negotiations with potential funders right now and has a team of experienced campaign professionals ready to go.

"These are very critical negotiations going on right now, and we will know within another week or so if this comes through," he said. "If we don't get the money, we're not going to get on the ballot."

"Proposition 19 was the wrong election year, it was poorly drafted, and it was opposed by people in our movement who feared for patients' rights, but it still did very well," said Panzer. "Any of these initiatives can pass if they make it to the ballot."

But Gieringer argued that fixing medical marijuana needed to come first.

"All the polls I've seen show that legalization is very dicey in California, but when you talk about medical marijuana and the need for regulation, support is in the 60s," he told the crowd. "It's hard to call on the public to further liberalize the marijuana laws when they feel things are chaotic enough with medical marijuana. We have to demonstrate that we can regulate medical marijuana to make the public comfortable enough to move on to the next step, legalization."

Although there was talk Tuesday about forging unity, none of the initiative campaigns was prepared to give up and go to work for the other. That leaves three legalization campaigns and the medical marijuana initiative all competing for the same funding, and all of them -- so far at least -- coming up short.

While, barring a miracle, seeing marijuana legalization on the California ballot this year looks extremely unlikely, perhaps the movement can get its act together for 2014 or 2016. At least, the campaigns are starting to talk about it.

"We need a coalition of all the legalization people to create an organization that will be a true legalization coalition in California," said Collett. "We have the same long-term objectives, but differences about how to go about it. Sometimes egos get in the way, but we have to focus on the 70,000 Californians getting arrested for marijuana every year."

Mill Valley, CA
United States

Congress Okays Drug Tests for Unemployment Benefits

As part of a deal approved Friday to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits through 2012, Congress has given its okay to allow states to drug test people applying for those benefits. The move, initially opposed by Democrats, came after the Democratic leadership bowed to Republican pressure in its eagerness to get the bill passed.

Republicans had initially called for drug testing for everybody seeking unemployment benefits, but Democrats balked before backtracking and agreeing to allow testing for those who lost their jobs because of drug use and those applying for jobs in industries where drug testing is prevalent.

It's worth noting that people fired from their jobs for drug use are fired "for cause" and not laid off for lack of work, and thus are ineligible for unemployment benefits anyway. But the provision allowing for drug testing in industries where it is common could expose hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers to drug tests before they could receive unemployment checks. None of those workers was laid off because of drug use.

The deal effectively moves the burden of drug testing from employers, who freely decide whether they think testing has more benefits than costs, to state governments and their taxpayers -- at least in those states that decide to use the new tool. Drug testing is also more likely to be imposed on lower skilled workers than on white collar workers because those sectors are where drug testing is most prevalent now.

Democratic lawmakers downplayed the extent of drug testing about to be foisted on laid-off workers, while Republicans said they would be widespread. The bill requires the Labor Department to draft regulations to determine who will be subjected to drug testing. Those subject to drug testing will be those unemployed workers "for whom suitable work as defined under the state law is only available in an occupation that regularly conducts drug testing as determined under regulations issued by the Secretary of Labor," a Democratic staffer explained to the Huffington Post.

"I think it's a small percentage," Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), ranking Democratic in the House committee overseeing unemployment insurance, told the Post.

But Republicans cited employer surveys to argue that drug testing would be widespread, with one survey reporting that 84% of employers required drug tests for new hires.

"That's total nonsense," said Levin. "No way 80%."

But while Democrats and Republicans quibbled over how many jobless workers would be forced to endure the intrusive and humiliating ritual, the Drug Policy Alliance was clear and concise in its opposition to the move.

"This policy is a terrible one-two punch to the gut for thousands of struggling Americans," said Bill Piper, the group's national affairs director. "Congress has paired a generous taxpayer subsidy for corporations that drug test with a slap in the face for those struggling to find work, feed their families and keep their homes. The American people have a right to be upset over being forced to subsidize the violation of their civil liberties, when they try to access a program that they pay for with every paycheck. Drug testing is expensive and ineffective, and distracts from evidence-based policies that actually reduce the problems associated with drug use and misuse."

Washington, DC
United States

Meet Obama's Proposed 2013 Federal Drug Budget [FEATURE]

The Obama administration this week released its Fiscal Year 2013 National Drug Control Budget, and it wants to spend nearly $26 billion on federal anti-drug programs. Despite all the talk about the staggering federal debt problem and current budget deficits, the administration found nothing to cut here. Instead, the proposed budget increases federal anti-drug funding by 1.6% over fiscal year 2012.

Drug War Autopilot and Co-Autopilot: ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
The proposed budget is remarkable for how closely it hews to previous years, especially in regard to the allocation of resources for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) versus those for supply reduction (domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction). The roughly 40:60 ratio that has been in place for years has shifted, but only incrementally. The 2013 budget allocates 41.2% for treatment and prevention and 58.2% for law enforcement.

"This is very much the same drug budget we've been seeing for years," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The Obama drug budget is the Bush drug budget, which was the Clinton drug budget. Little has changed."

"It's really just more of the same," said Sean Dunagan, a former DEA intelligence analyst whose last assignment in northeastern Mexico between 2008 and 2010, a when prohibition-related violence there was soaring, helped change his perspective. Dunagan quit the DEA and is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"There are very minor adjustments in how the drug spending is allocated and bit more money for treatment, but there's a significant increase in interdiction, as well as a $61 million increase for domestic law enforcement," Dunagan noted. "They're trying to argue that they're abandoning the drug war and shifting the focus, but the numbers don't really back that up."

The proposed budget also demonstrates the breadth of the federal drug spending largesse among the bureaucratic fiefdoms in Washington. Departments that catch a ride on the drug war gravy train include Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, and Veterans' Affairs, as well as the federal judiciary, District of Columbia courts, the Small Business Administration, and, of course, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

"It's just the same old programs being funded through the same old stove-pipes," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "In a way, it's ironic. When Congress passed the legislation creating the drug czar's office in 1988, the idea was for the drug czar to look at all the federal anti-drug spending and come in and say he was going to take the funds from one program and shift them to a more effective program. I think many in Congress hoped he would shift resources from law enforcement to treatment and prevention because there was evidence that those sorts of programs were more effective and a better use of resources. That didn't happen," he said.

"The people who run the bureaucratic fiefdoms at Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, State and Treasury have outmuscled the drug czar, and now the drug czar's budget announcements are reduced to public relations and spin," Sterling continued. "They take some $15 or $20 million program and bullet-point it as significant, but that's almost nothing when it comes to federal drug dollars."

The Justice Department alone would get $7.85 billion, up almost $400 million from FY 2012, with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the DEA among those Justice components seeing funding increases. BOP spending would increase by about 8%, while the DEA budget would increase from $2.35 billion to $2.38 billion. On the other hand, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which lost its congressional patron with the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), has been zeroed out.
 

"The hundreds of millions of dollar increases in funding requested for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is particularly outrageous," said Sterling. "There are too many people doing too much time they don't need to be doing. Obama has the power to save hundreds of millions of dollars by commuting excessively long sentences. He could reduce the deficit and increase the amount of justice in America.

"He could tell the BOP he was ordering a cap on the federal prison population that now has a sentenced population of 198,000, Sterling continued, on a roll. "He could order them that whenever a new prisoner arrives, they have to send him the names of prisoners who may have served enough time for their crimes for him to consider for immediate release from prison. He could ask all the federal judges to send him the names of people they have sentenced to longer terms than they think are just. If he had the heart to reach out to those prisoners who are serving decades for minor roles and their suffering families, if he had the brains to put in place the means to achieve those cost-serving measures, and if he had the guts to actually use the constitutional power he has to do it, that would be great."

"That increase in incarceration spending really jumps out at me, too" said Dunagan. "To make their claim that they're not going to be locking up small-time dealers and users is pretty disingenuous."

Pentagon spending on interdiction and other anti-drug activities would decline somewhat, with the budget proposing $1.725 billion for 2013, a decline of $200 million from the 2012 budget. But interdiction spending goes up elsewhere, as Dunagan noted.

And State Department drug spending would take a hit. Spending would decline by just more than $100 million to $687 million, but most of that decrease would come from reduced funding for alternative development assistance, while State's other drug-related program, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), would see only a $6 million decrease.

While funding for prevention and treatment would increase by 4.6% under the proposed budget, some treatment and grant programs are seeing cuts, while criminal justice system-based approaches are getting more money.

"I'm concerned that the budget seems to be emphasizing drug courts and criminal justice-based drug treatment," said Piper. "They're cutting SAMHSA, which funds a lot of treatment, but increasing spending for prison-based treatment."

The $364 million earmarked for SAMHSA's treatment programs is a $61 million reduction from FY 2012, while drug courts saw a $17 million increase to $52 million and BOP drug treatment programs saw a $16 million increase to $109 million.

The new drug budget also resurrects the drug czar's widely criticized National Youth Media Campaign, dropped last year when Congress failed to fund it.

"I'm also disappointed that they put back in funding for the drug czar's failed youth media campaign, which Congress eliminated last year," said Piper. "It's only $20 million, and you can hardly do a national media campaign with that, but still."

This is only the administration's budget proposal, of course, and Congress will have plenty of opportunities to try to cut (or increase) portions of it. Still, the proposed budget is a window on the thinking of administration that has talked the talk about how we are no longer in a war on drugs, but has taken only stumblingly tiny steps toward walking the walk. And drug reformers aren't liking what they're seeing.

"LEAP thinks this is misguided," said Dunagan. "The only thing that's different is the rhetoric used to spin it, and even that is a sort of tacit acknowledgment by the administration that people don't really like the drug war, but substantively, there's very little different from the past."

"Between the drug budgets and his war on medical marijuana, we're very disappointed in Obama," said DPA's Piper.

"We should be disappointed in the Obama administration," said Sterling. "There was supposed to be change. This was the University of Chicago law professor, the Harvard-trained lawyer, who was going to bring in his own people and make real change. I'm very disappointed in his drug policies and criminal justice policies. My disappointment with his policy failures don't have anything to do with the economic crisis or the geostrategic situation he inherited.

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

From action in state legislatures to raids at dispensaries, there's no let-up in the medical marijuana action around the nation. Here's the latest:

National

Last Thursday, Americans for Safe Access filed an appeal brief in the DC Circuit to compel the federal government to reclassify marijuana for medical use. In July 2011, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) denied a petition filed in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC), which was denied only after the coalition sued the government for unreasonable delay. The ASA brief filed is an appeal of the CRC rescheduling denial.

Alabama

The Michael Phillips Compassionate Care Act (House Bill 25), which seeks to enact legal protections for authorized medical marijuana patients, has been marked for reintroduction in the Alabama legislature for the session starting on February 7th. It is currently assigned to the House Committee on Health. A separate medical cannabis bill, House Bill 66, has also been prefiled in the House and is also before to the House Committee on Health.

California

Last Tuesday, Union City issued a temporary ban on dispensaries, suspending the approval of business licenses or permits for medical marijuana dispensaries and their operations for 45 days. But the recently opened CHA Wellness Center was still operating as of the weekend and said it had every right to. City officials disagree.

Also last Tuesday, the Fresno city council voted to extend a temporary moratorium on outdoor grows for another 10 months after Police Chief Jerry Dyer told the council the grows were a magnet for crime and violence. Fresno Police say there have been at least five shootings and one homicide as the result of outdoor growing operations within the city limits. Police say many big marijuana growing operations have already moved indoors. Dyer said he expected to have a permanent outdoor cultivation ordinance ready by April.

Last Friday, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed issued a memo calling for the city to kill its medical marijuana ordinance. He cited the California Supreme Court's decision to review four medical marijuana cases dealing with varying interpretations of the state's law, as well as potential ballot initiative that could go before the voters in November. The city will remain in talks with dispensaries and will continue to collect taxes on them.

On Sunday, the last dispensary in La Puente closed its doors in response to the ongoing federal crackdown. La Puente Co-op was the last of three city dispensaries to go out of business in response to threat letters from the Southern California US Attorney. Azusa Patient Remedies and Trinity Wellness Center shut down the previous week. The San Gabriel Valley town was once home to 10 dispensaries.

On Monday, the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients said it had provided the Los Angeles city council with two motions to regulate dispensaries. The move comes as the council inches toward a total ban. The first motion, "public nuisance abatement," proposes that city officials start enforcing current laws to deal with complaints like loitering and sales to minors, just as the police handle such problems around liquor stores. The second motion calls for a "ban with abeyance" or a soft ban, which would create a ban that allows patient associations to prove that they that are operating in compliance with local and state law, allowing the ban to be held in abeyance as long as they continue to be in compliance.

Also on Monday, narcotics officers from the LAPD Devonshire Division raided and shut down the last dispensary in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. The raid was at the Herbal Medical Care facility, and three people were arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana for sale, 50 pound of marijuana and 156 plants were seized, and so were the dispensary's medical records. Police vowed to "target" some 200 other San Fernando Valley dispensaries. Since December 2008, police in the Devonshire Division have shut down 37 of what were once 60 dispensaries operating there.

Also on Monday, San Francisco announced it would resume licensing and inspecting dispensaries. The move comes after the agency said last week that the application process was suspended. Under clarified rules, existing dispensaries must sign a statement swearing that all medical marijuana sold on-site is cultivated in California and comes from a grower who is a member of the dispensary's nonprofit collective. New applications stopped being processed in December following a ruling in a state appeals court. In that case, Pack vs. the City of Long Beach, the court ruled that California cities violated federal law by regulating and permitting medical marijuana. That ruling was vacated when the California Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal, and San Francisco's city attorney gave the health department the green light to resume its program January 20, but the department had announced last week that all applications were still on hold indefinitely.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco controller's office reported that dispensaries in the city did an estimated $41 million in sales last year, generating $410,000 in medical marijuana sales tax revenues.

Also on Tuesday, Senate Bill 129 died for lack of action in the state legislature. Introduced by Sen. Mark Leno and sponsored by Americans for Safe Access, the bill would have protected the employment rights of medical marijuana patients.

Also on Tuesday, DEA agents and local law enforcement raided the Balboa Medical Center in Kearney Mesa, near San Diego. They seized medicine and medical records, but made no arrests.The raid came after similar raids on dispensaries in the area last week.

Hawaii

House Bill 1963
, which seeks to restrict the state's medical marijuana program and remove chronic pain as a qualifying condition for patients, is set for a hearing Thursday in the House Committees on Health and Public Safety and Military Affairs.

Montana

On Monday, the Missoulian reported that DEA agents investigating medical marijuana distribution had asked witnesses whether state Sen. Diane Sands (D-Missoula) might be involved in a marijuana conspiracy.Sands has been deeply involved in the state's battles over medical marijuana. She is not the only legislator being looked at; at least one more said he would not speak publicly for fear of "additional harassment."

Vermont

The Vermont Department of Public Safety has announced guidelines for the state's first medical marijuana dispensaries
. Dispensaries must operate as nonprofits and must be more than 1,000 feet from schools or daycare facilities. Would-be operators will have to pay $2,500 just to apply for one of the four dispensary certificates. If approved, dispensaries would pay the state $20,000 dollars for the first year, and $30,000 in the years to follow. Patients can go to dispensaries by appointment only, and only one patient at a time is allowed in the dispensary. There are also stiff requirements for inventory control, building security, and background checks for operators and employees.

Virginia

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee killed a resolution that would have asked the governor to petition to DEA to reschedule marijuana. The resolution had been filed by Delegate David Englin (D-Alexandria).

Washington

Last Thursday, 42 state legislators signed a letter asking the DEA to reschedule marijuana so that it could be prescribed and sold in pharmacies. That same day, lawmakers introduced a resolution to the same effect. It is scheduled for a hearing Friday in the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee. The letter and resolution piggyback on Gov. Christine Gregoire's existing petition to reschedule marijuana, which is also supported by a handful of other states.

Missouri Drive to End Marijuana Prohibition Gets Going [FEATURE]

A Missouri campaign to place an initiative to end marijuana prohibition on the November ballot has entered the signature-gathering phase, and petition-toting volunteers across the Show Me state are hunting for registered voters as the campaign looks for funds to help it get over the top. The effort is off to an enthusiastic start.

"Nearly 500 trained petitioners have now hit the streets," said campaign director and Kansas City area coordinator Amber Langston. "I'm happily overwhelmed with the enormous response we've received since launching our initiative."

The campaign is called Show-Me Cannabis Regulation (SMCR), and was put together by attorney Dan Viets, a long-time marijuana reformer and a member of the national NORML Legal Committee and board of directors, Missouri NORML chapters, and other marijuana legalization advocates and supporters.

The initiative, a constitutional amendment, calls for marijuana legalization for persons 21 and over, a process for licensing marijuana production and sales establishments, and allows the legislature to enact a tax of $100 a pound on retail sales. It also includes a provision lifting criminal justice system sanctions against people imprisoned or under state supervision for nonviolent marijuana offenses that would no longer be illegal and the expunging of all criminal records for such offenses. The initiatives would also allow for the use of marijuana for medical reasons by minors (with parental consent).

Petitioners must obtain the signatures of a number of registered voters equal to 8% of the total votes cast in the 2008 governor's race from six of the state's nine congressional districts. The campaign said that comes out to about 144,000 valid signatures, which means it needs to collect 200,000 or more to have a reasonable margin of comfort. Signatures must be turned in by May 6.

"We just started training volunteers in December, and we've been hitting it hard for the last three weeks," said St. Louis-area campaign coordinator John Payne. "We've gathered about 10,000 signatures already, and we're confident we're on pace to meet our targets," he added.

"It's an all-volunteer effort at this point," but SMCR doesn't intend for it to stay that way, said Payne. "We think we can get this on the ballot for a half a million dollars or so, and then, it's just a matter of getting the right message across."

The campaign doesn't yet have any state-level polling to bolster its case, but plans to do so shortly. In the meantime, it points to last October's Gallup poll, which showed, for the first time in history, a majority of Americans support legalizing cannabis for personal use with 50% in favor nationwide and 54% in the Midwest.

"We've raised a few thousand dollars already and have some funders who will hopefully be putting a fairly large sum of money in our account," Payne said. "We've been operating on a shoe string, but we're gearing up for more. We have an established campaign and a lot to show for what we've done so far on the cheap. If there are any donors out there looking for a good place to invest, they should take a look at us."

The campaign reports no sign of organized opposition at this point, but is casting a wary eye on one of the state's bigger economic interests: the beer brewers.

"We know the beer lobby put up money against Proposition 19. If we see any organized opposition, we expect it to come from the brewers," Payne said. "But if Bud and Busch get involved, we think most people will see through that as self-interested."

The campaign is also keeping an eye on the Missouri Narcotics Officers Association, whose Jason Grellner seems to be the go-to guy on drug issues for the media, including the initiative campaign, said Payne. But maybe law enforcement opposition can be blunted, he suggested.

"Our most effective argument has been the public safety argument -- every minute a police officer spends arresting someone for smoking a joint is a minute not spent on rape or murder or armed robbery," said Payne. "We need to focus our law enforcement resources on more important things; lots of people get that, even if they're not sympathetic."

Economic arguments are also part of the arsenal, Payne said.

"This is a state where we've repeatedly had to cut the budget because of tax shortfalls, and we can show we could be saving about $100 million a year," he explained, citing economist Jeffrey Miron's report on the budgetary implications of prohibition for the states. "That resonates."

Then there are potential tax revenues.  A $100 a pound tax on retail sales could generate not insignificant funds for the state, but some consumers grumble a bit at the prospect, Payne said.

"The potential revenues are a selling point for some people," he said; "for others, it's a bit of a turnoff, but they don't not sign the petitions."

SMCR and its army of volunteers has 14 weeks to get the job done, or to snare major funding to ensure the job gets done. But there's some serious competition for big donor dollars out there. Legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington have already handed in enough signatures to appear set to make the ballot, and there are also legalization initiative campaigns in California, Michigan, and Oregon, as well as a new California medical marijuana initiative.

Can Show-Me Cannabis Regulation show the rest of us how to get it done? Stay tuned.

MO
United States

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

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