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Medical Marijuana Update

It's mainly news from California this week, with DEA and LAPD raids leading the way, but also snippets from Colorado and Montana, and the DEA head on the hot seat. Let's get to it:

National

On Wednesday, DEA administrator Michelle Leonhardt ran into tough questioning (go to 47:15) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on DEA oversight. After Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) repeatedly and fruitlessly asked her whether meth or heroin is worse than marijuana, the best she could come up with was "all illegal drugs are bad." Nor would she concede under repeated questioning from Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) that marijuana causes less harm than meth. Cohen also went after Leonhardt on medical marijuana.

"Have you ever seen a person who had cancer and used marijuana to alleviate their condition?" Cohen asked. "I have, and would you agree it has some benefit for somebody who is dying, that marijuana is the only thing that makes him eat and smile according to his 80-year-old mother?"

"That's between him and his doctor," Leonhardt replied.

"Then why does the DEA take the position that medical marijuana is wrong?" Cohen asked before Leonhardt got a reprieve because his time was up.

California

Last Thursday, the DEA raided the G3 Holistic dispensary in Upland and federal prosecutors issued indictments for six people in connection with the raid.The folks behind G3 had operated three dispensaries, but shut down two after being warned to close by the feds eight months ago. Three operators of the chain as well as three workers involved in an Ontario grow warehouse that supplied it were taken into custody. All are charged with  conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, possession of pot with intent to distribute it, and maintaining a drug location. They all face up to life in prison if convicted. The defendants were due in court in Riverside today.

As of last Thursday, there are no more dispensaries in Whittier. Whittier Hope Collective shut its doors after receiving a threat letter from federal prosecutors June 5. The Whittier City Council on a 3-2 vote in October 2009 approved a conditional-use permit allowing Whittier Hope Collective to operate. Nearly a year later the dispensary opened. The collective even joined the Whittier Area Chamber of Commerce. Now, its 5,000 members will have to go elsewhere.

Last Tuesday, Lake County supervisors directed county staff to draft an interim urgency ordinance restricting medical marijuana cultivation in unincorporated areas of the county. Staff will take under consideration comments from the Board of Supervisors, the public, and the Lake County Medical Marijuana Cultivation Ordinance Advisory Board. The supervisors are expected to consider the draft ordinance next week.

Last Friday, the IRS announced it had seized the bank accounts of a Sacramento dispensary. The DEA had raided the El Camino Wellness Center earlier in the week. The IRS said it seized $870,000 from bank accounts in what it described as a money-laundering investigation. The seizures underscore efforts by federal authorities to crack down on dispensaries by employing laws traditionally used to target money transfers by narcotics traffickers. The IRS referred to the dispensary as an "illegal marijuana store." El Camino opened in 2008 and last year became the first Sacramento dispensary issued a permit under a city regulatory program for medical marijuana outlets. The city is still collecting voter-approved taxes on local dispensaries, amounting to $1.1 million between July 2011 and March of this year.

Also last Friday, a Shasta County medical marijuana collective threatened to sue the county over its ban on dispensaries. The Medicine Man Collective Spiritual Center Corporation filed a claim earlier in the week saying the ban will have robbed them of $17.2 million by 2013. It is demanding a meeting with county officials to revise the rules, and says it will seek that amount in court if the county doesn't comply. The collective claims it had served some 20,000 patients in the past. County supervisors passed an ordinance banning pot collectives indefinitely in the unincorporated part of the county in December, and they also passed the county's first-ever ordinance limiting growing. The county counsel has 45 days from the date the claim was filed to accept or reject it.

On Monday, a San Diego initiative to regulate dispensaries failed to make the ballot. Citizens for Patient Rights and the Patient Care Association needed to gather 62,000 valid signatures to qualify, but collected fewer than 20,000. Proponents said the federal crackdown and prosecutions by San Diego DA Bonnie Dumanis had depleted dispensary ranks and impeded the flow of money needed to raise the signatures. The same groups last year collected more than 40,000 signatures to successfully repeal a city ordinance that medical marijuana dispensary directors and patients believed was too restrictive. They plan to pursue another initiative or to work with the new city council and mayor to pass regulations after the fall election.

Also on Monday, activists in Del Mar asked the city council to adopt a dispensary ordinance after collecting signatures from well over 10% of Del Mar voters. The Patient Care Association led the signature drive and hopes the council will immediately pass the Compassionate Use Dispensary Regulation and Taxation Ordinance in order to serve medical pot patients in Del Mar sooner rather than possibly later. But Del Mar officials opted to instead receive a report on the measure. By doing so, the council will have the choice to either adopt the ordinance within 10 days of receiving the report, to be issued by mid-July, or order an election. The Patient Care Association expects to qualify ballot measures in Solana Beach and Lemon Grove by the end of the week and in Encinitas by the end of the month. The proposed compassionate use dispensary ordinance would impose a 2.5 percent sales tax on medical pot to benefit the city's general fund.

Also on Monday, the Oaksterdam Cannabis and Hemp Museum announced plans to relocate. The museum, which is affiliated with Oaksterdam University, is being forced out of its present location by the April DEA and IRS raids on Oaksterdam properties, and must relocate by the end of the month. The relocation is a result of concerns raised by the City of Oakland about having the publicly accessible museum in a shared space with a downtown Oakland medical cannabis dispensary. The museum has been closed since the raids.

Also on Monday, the San Francisco City Attorney filed a brief defending the rights of local governments in California to issue permits authorizing medical cannabis collectives to serve their patients, urging the state Supreme Court to reverse a Court of Appeal holding that such regulation is substantially preempted by federal law. The amicus brief authored by Dennis Herrera and joined by Santa Cruz County Counsel Dana McRae argues that discretionary permitting, an integral element in planning and land use policy, is particularly essential for local regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries. The appellate court's October 4, 2011 ruling in Pack v. Long Beach, Herrera and McRae contend, wrongly hinders the ability of local governments to protect public health and safety effectively, and to enact policy innovations tailored to local needs.

Also on Monday, the San Leandro City Council again punted on regulating dispensaries and grows. The council agreed to take up the issue again next month. A moratorium is in effect until September 30, but city staff has warned the council it should have an ordinance in place before then. The council has been hesitating, waiting to see what happens with a dispensary regulation bill in Sacramento.

On Tuesday, Tulare County supervisors voted to oppose a statewide dispensary regulation bill over fears the regulations could limit local control of marijuana dispensaries and grow sites. The bill, Assembly Bill 2312, sponsored by Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would require commercial marijuana growers to register with a new Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement, and counties and cities could tax marijuana if local voters agree. It passed the Assembly last month, and is set for a Senate committee hearing next week.

Also on Tuesday, the LAPD raided two dispensaries in Woodland Hills because of "illegal sales" of marijuana. Witnesses identified the dispensaries as Green Joy and Green Magic, both on Ventura Boulevard. The raids were carried out by the Topanga Narcotics Division. The LAPD has been busy in the San Fernando Valley, with the department claiming that it had wiped out all cannabis stores in its Devonshire Division.

Also on Tuesday, Long Beach police raided a downtown dispensary just hours before the city council was to hear a report on enforcement of its four-month-old dispensary ban. Hit was THC Downtown, which had applied for a permit through a lottery process (while the city still handed out permits), failed to win the lottery, but opened anyway. Police said three employees and two security guards would face misdemeanor charges of violating the city's ban on dispensaries that were not permitted.

On Wednesday, patients and activists rallied in Sacramento to protest last week's raid on the El Camino Wellness Center. "The Obama administration is betraying patients and lying to the public," said Kris Hermes, spokesperson with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), one of the groups organizing Wednesday's protest. "The president and the attorney general have said publicly that the Justice Department is not targeting state-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries, but that's exactly what it's doing." Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder told members of the House Judiciary committee that, "We limit our enforcement efforts to those individuals, organizations that are acting out of conformity with state law." However, by all accounts, El Camino was acting in full conformity with local and state laws.

Colorado

On Monday, the Commerce City City Council approved regulations under which medical marijuana businesses must apply for a conditional permit, and then for a business license. The program goes into effect July 1. License applicants must sign waivers that release the city from any liability for injuries or damages if state or federal agencies seek arrest or prosecution. The ordinance creates rules for regulating dispensaries, cultivation facilities, production and manufacturing of medical marijuana products.

Montana

Earlier this month, state Democrats added support for medical marijuana to their party platform. The new plank says that, because voters approved the use of medical marijuana, the Democratic Party supports "the right of qualified patients with a medical condition where marijuana is appropriate (to) have safe access to medical marijuana." Party spokesmen said the measure didn't spark much debate at the party convention. Some 61% of voters approved the Montana Medical Marijuana Act in 2004, but a combination of federal raids and changes by the Republican-led state legislature have left the program in tatters.

NY GOP Kills Marijuana Decriminalization Reform

New York decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, but New York City police continue to arrest 50,000 people a year for pot possession after stopping-and-frisking them, then tricking them into emptying their pockets and revealing their baggies of weed, triggering the misdemeanor offense of public possession of marijuana.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
In a bid to end that practice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the Democratically-controlled Assembly moved to reform the decriminalization law by removing the public possession provision with Assembly Bill 10581, but Monday night, Republicans and their Conservative Party allies in the Senate effectively killed it.

The Senate Republicans caved under pressure from Conservative leader Mike Long, who threatened to not allow any Republicans who supported the bill to appear on the Conservative Party line. The Senate then refused to take up the bill. That means the mass arrests, predominantly of young people of color, for what should, under state law, be only a ticketable offense, will continue, costing the state tens of millions of dollars each year.

The Republican failure to act comes in the face of widespread law enforcement support for the reform, including NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the district attorneys in all five New York City boroughs and suburban Nassau County, and even the New York City Patrolman's Benevolent Association. Kelly called the reform "a balanced approach," while Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance said it would bring greater "safety and fairness" to the criminal justice system and it was "the right thing to do."

"The Senate Republicans have single-handedly decided to continue ruining tens of thousands of lives -- mostly those of young people of color -- every year. Opposing law enforcement and the clear political consensus in the state is not just heartless -- it's a political miscalculation that will come to haunt them," said Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

"Even Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have come out in support of this legislation. So what's holding up the Senate from passing smart reforms that will eliminate the tens of thousands of unlawful arrests taking place in the city every year?" said Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer with VOCAL New York.

Last week, the New York City Council passed a resolution by an overwhelming margin calling for an end to racially biased, costly, unlawful arrests. The resolution, introduced by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Oliver Koppell, was cosponsored by a majority of council members. The resolution came a day after hundreds of community activists went to Albany to deliver thousands of signatures to demand the New York State Senate pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in public view.

"The New York Senate Republicans are doing what Republicans do best at the federal and local level -- they are obstructing progress and paralyzing government. The Republican Conference in the State Senate is completely out of touch with our communities of color in New York City and because of their inaction, tens of thousands more of our young people of color will be arrested before the end of this year, saddling them with a criminal record," said Mark-Viverito. "The governor, our mayor, the police commissioner, the city council, five district attorneys and criminal justice advocates are all on the same page here. Marijuana was decriminalized in 1977; all we are trying to do is close the 'in public view' loophole that is allowing thousands of unjust arrests of black and Latino youth in our communities."

"It wasn't too long ago that we referred to the 'three men in a room' when discussing the leadership structure in Albany. Now when we talk about leadership in the Senate, we should talk about 'one guy in Brooklyn,' said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "While we are disappointed by the lack of action, we're not going anywhere. This campaign for reform has already scored a major victory by bringing this issue to the attention of New Yorkers and the entire country. We cannot and will not accept a situation where the laws are applied differently to different people based on their race or ethnicity or where they live. We'll keep pushing for reform, for fairness, equality, and justice. Given the overwhelming support by law enforcement for this proposal, I think Majority Leader Skelos and even Mr. Long will come to do what’s right."

Albany, NY
United States

Needle Exchange Funding Returns in Senate Appropriations Bill

The Harm Reduction Coalition has reported that language authorizing the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs has been included in the Senate's Fiscal Year 2013 Labor, Health & Human Services appropriations bill. Funding had been approved for FY 2010 and 2011, but the formerly longstanding ban on federal funding was reinstated in December for FY 2012.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to once again vote for the ban on needle exchange funding in its version of the appropriations bill. Having funding language in the Senate version will give Senate negotiators something to negotiate on needle exchange when the bills are reconciled, which probably won't happen until after the November elections.

The language approved by the Senate is compromise language that only bans federal funding "in any location that has been determined by the local public health or local law enforcement authorities to be inappropriate for such distribution." The Harm Reduction Coalition calls that language "consistent with what we advocated for" and notes that the same language allowed needle exchanges in 10 jurisdictions and multiple SAMSHA-funded programs to use federal funds.

The Senate appropriations bill also includes some other good harm reduction news. In its non-binding report, it calls for an overdose prevention public awareness campaign. That report does not specifically mention the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which the Coalition had sought, and the Coalition said it would continue to lobby on that issue.

And, like last year, the bill includes $10 million for viral hepatitis screening. The funding announcement for those dollars from last year's bill has now been released and includes $1.6 million for hepatitis C testing and referrals to programs reaching out to injection drug users, including needle exchanges.

The report accompanying the FY 2013 bill also "notes the high incidence of hepatitis among injection drug users and urges SAMHSA to implement viral hepatitis testing as a standard of care in drug-treatment programs, consistent with the HHS Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis."

Washington, DC
United States

Oklahoma Governor Signs Prison Reform Bill

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill designed to lower the state's prison population. The state's incarceration rate is first in the nation for female prisoners and third highest for males.

Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester (wikimedia.org)
The bill, House Bill 3052, is expected to control the increase in prison growth by increasing substance abuse treatment, reducing violent crime, strengthening supervision, and reducing recidivism. The aim is to reduce prison costs, which have risen 41% in the past decade, while the prison population increased 15% and violent crime decreased 4%.

The bill requires substance abuse and mental health screening of defendants before they are sentenced so those who need treatment will be able to access it. It also requires that all freed prisoners do at least nine months of parole in a bid to reduce recidivism. And it provides for "intermediate revocation facilities" for parole and probation violators short of sending them back to prison. A measure that would have effectively reduced some sentences by allowing good time to accrue from the beginning of the sentence was dropped in the face of legislative opposition.

"Increasing public safety is a top priority of my administration and a primary function of state government. The reforms in HB 3052 will help to reduce crime and ensure our streets are safer for Oklahoma families," Fallin said in a signing statement. "In addition to lowering crime rates, reducing the incarceration rate and giving law enforcement more resources to fight crime, this bill will help us to save taxpayer dollars by helping our corrections system operate in a more efficient and effective way."

The bill was the result of years of effort by House Speaker Kris Steele (R-Shawnee) and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman (R-Sapulpa), who shepherded it through the legislature. It came as part of the Oklahoma Justice Reinvestment initiative, a project of the Council of State Governments' Justice Center designed to enact "smart on crime" policies.

"Today marks the beginning of a tougher, smarter fight against crime," said Steele. "Police will get more resources, offenders will be held more accountable, prisons will have the space to incarcerate dangerous criminals and Oklahoma will be much safer as a result. We’re thrilled to have been part of the unprecedented collaboration across our entire criminal justice system that has delivered this meaningful law to the people of Oklahoma."

"We've made a historic public safety reform that puts Oklahoma's broken criminal justice system back on a sustainable path," said Bingman. "By being both tough on crime and fiscally conservative, this law will reduce violent crime, give crime fighters the tools to do their job and ensure our criminal justice system keeps Oklahoma families and communities safe."

The new law goes into effect November 1.

Oklahoma City, OK
United States

Dutch-Only Cannabis Coffee Shop Policy Meets Resistance [FEATURE]

A Dutch government policy aimed at barring foreign tourists from buying marijuana in the Netherlands went into effect in three southern border provinces Tuesday, but it didn't go exactly as authorities planned.

Amsterdam cannabis "coffee shop" (wikimedia.org)
In the southern border city of Maastricht, hundreds of demonstrators filled a central square to protest the move, waving signs saying "Away with the Weed Pass," "No Discrimination Against Belgians," and "Dealers Wanted!" and toting a six-foot long joint. Meanwhile, cannabis coffee shop owners across the city closed their doors to protest the imposition of the scheme, leaving the city's mayor ruffled and pot-buyers to seek out street dealers.

The weed pass plan is the brainchild of the rightist Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government, which collapsed last month. But the Dutch parliament had already approved the plan, and it is still scheduled to go into effect nationwide beginning January 1.

Under the weed pass plan, cannabis coffee shops will be forced to become "members only" clubs, with membership limited to 2,000 people per club. Members must register their identities, and only Dutch citizens and residents will be allowed to join the clubs.

Marijuana remains illegal in the Netherlands, but under a policy of pragmatic tolerance in effect since 1976, the Dutch government has allowed for the sale of small amounts of marijuana through the coffee shops. The current lame duck government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, playing to its conservative base, has moved against the coffee shops as part of a broader anti-drug campaign that has also seen it label hashish a "hard drug" and move to criminalize khat, which is used almost exclusively by the country's small Somali immigrant population.

The weed pass plan is now in effect in the provinces of Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeland, which border Belgium and/or Germany. Reuters reported that most coffee shops in cities such as Eindhoven, Roermond, and Tilburg were also shut, or were ignoring the weed pass.

"We've been selling cannabis to anybody who comes, as normal," said William Vugs, owner of the 't Oermelijn coffee shop in Tilburg. "We are being forced to discriminate against foreigners. They don't just spend their money here, they buy groceries and fill up their cars, too," he said.

Vugs said his shop served 800 customers a day, about one-fifth of them from Belgium. Turning them away would have economic consequences beyond the coffee shops, he said.

Vugs is one of the coffee shop owners who hopes to block the weed pass in court by arguing that it is discriminatory. That's the plan concocted by the Maastricht Coffee Shop Union (VOCM), which announced in a press release Monday that it would challenge the law in court.

"Too much is still unclear about the privacy concerns, but also on the exact requirements of the minister, said VOCM leader Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht. "Therefore we will not register customers and will continue to sell to anyone aged 18 and older who can identify himself. "

Instead, in a surprise move, the city's coffee shops closed their doors -- except for Easy Going. Josemans opened long enough to refuse to sell pot to a group of foreigners, who then proceeded to a local police station to file a discrimination complaint. Such complaints will be the basis of the looming legal challenge to the weed pass.

Josemans then stayed open, selling marijuana to anyone who asked for it, and local police arrived shortly.

"The police paid me a visit about a half an hour later and warned me I was violating the new rules, and if I do it again, I'll be closed down for a month," he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. But he added that he planned to continue selling to all comers and that he expected his shop to be shut down. He would then take his case to the European Court of Justice, he said. "Discrimination is never the right answer,"Joseman said.

Previous efforts to overturn the law, both in the Dutch courts and the European Court of Justice, have failed, but the coffee shop owners and their supporters are determined to try again.

Tuesday also saw competing press conferences in Maastricht, with the mayor and city officials at one and coffee shop supporters at the other, held in front of Easy Going.

Maastricht Mayor Onno Hoes said the city supported the weed pass plan and that the coffee shop owners were "rude" to close their doors. "I did not think the owners would be so cheeky," he complained. "By doing this, they are hurting the local population."

But not the street drug dealers, who, according to the VOCM, are flocking to the city to take advantage of the ban on sales to foreigners.

"Maastricht is now faced with drug runners who have never been spotted in the city before, coming from Liege, eastern Europe and northern France," the group said. "They are using flyers explaining the new rules that were issued by the city of Maastricht in order to lure tourists! Thus we are rapidly returning to a long gone past where a separation of markets for cannabis and hard drugs did not exist and dealers controlled the streets."

Former head of the Netherlands Police Union Hans van Duijn echoed that sentiment at the press conference in front of Easy Going. "Everyone who is rejected here will walk a few meters down the street to the drug dealers who drive over from Rotterdam, among other places, and ride around in large numbers," he said.

The primary reasons the Dutch adopted the pragmatic tolerance policy allowing for the coffee shops were to separate "soft" and "hard" drug markets and to reduce the number of street dealers. But it appears the weed pass policy will have the opposite effect.

"This weed pass is a bizarre U-turn by a government of moralistic politicians looking for ways to score points among the conservative part of the nation," said Joep Oomen, director of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) from his home next door in Belgium. "It is a slap in the face of the millions of non-Dutch residents who visit the coffee shops every year without ever causing any nuisance, as well as of Dutch society as a whole, that will now be faced with an increasing illegal cannabis circuit."

Oomen noted that street dealers in Maastricht Tuesday were openly defying authorities by giving interviews on Dutch TV.

"Nobody expects that people looking for good quality cannabis will now cease to do that," he continued. "They will just not be allowed in the coffee shops anymore and will instead find their stuff on the streets."

For ENCOD, the weed pass plan is a repressive last gasp that could have unintended consequences, good as well as bad.

"We consider this as a last convulsion of a dying body," Oomen said. "The problems that this effort to end the coffee shop model will create will cause the Dutch public to see that the only real solution is to regulate the 'back door' of the coffee shops."

Oomen was referring to the peculiarity in the current Dutch system which allows for marijuana to be sold, but does not allow for a legal supply for the coffee shops. That has resulted in increasing black market pot production.

The issue of the "back door" was also on Joseman's mind.

"Let's forget this right wing hobby and focus on the real problem -- the 'back door,'" he said. "This is the Achilles heel of Dutch cannabis policy. When we finally start to regulate the cultivation of cannabis and supply to the coffee shops, we will kill three birds with one stone: significantly less crime, huge profits for public health, and one billion euros a year extra in the national treasury."

But first, the coffee shops have to deal with their current "front door" problem. The looming court cases are one avenue, but the September elections set to replace the current government provide another one.

"Our hope is on the outcome of the trial processes that have started today in Maastricht and Tilburg by the closure of the coffee shops that refuse to carry out the new measure, and on the general elections in September," said Oomen. "Predictions are that at least two of the five left-wing parties that are currently in opposition will participate in the next government, and they will cancel the new measures or at least diminish their impact."

Netherlands

Bills to Drug Test the Poor Face Tough Going [FEATURE]

With states facing severe budget pressures, bills to require drug testing to apply for or receive public benefits -- welfare, unemployment benefits, even Medicaid -- have been all the rage at Republican-dominated state houses this year. Fail the drug test and lose your benefits. The bills carry a powerful appeal that plays well even beyond typically Republican constituencies, combining class, gender and racial stereotypes with a distaste for wasteful government spending. But they have also faced surprisingly tough opposition.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) workshop, District of Columbia
"If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don't need the public assistance," Colorado Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told the Associated Press in March after sponsoring a welfare drug testing bill. "I don't want tax dollars spent on drugs."

"The message of this bill is simple: Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City) in a statement on the passage of his welfare drug testing bill in the state House. "Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment."

Liebmann also struck another frequently-hit note -- a moral claim that such bills were necessary even if they didn't save taxpayer dollars. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."

Such rhetoric has sounded in statehouses across the land, with bills for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of people seeking public benefits introduced in almost half the states, even passing a couple -- Florida last year led the way (and this year passed a law mandating drug tests for state employees), and now Georgia this month has followed suit. West Virginia's governor has also instituted drug testing for enrollees in the state's job training program. But the most interesting trend emerging is how difficult it is to actually get them passed.

While Georgia legislators managed to get a bill through, bills have already been defeated in nine states so far this year -- Alabama Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming -- and a number of others are either dead in the water or running out of time as legislative session clocks tick down.

The states where welfare drug test bills have not yet died include Colorado (House Bill 2012-1046) , Illinois (House Bill 5364), Indiana (House Bill 1007), Kansas (House Bill 2686), Oklahoma (House Bill 2388), Ohio (Senate Bill 69) South Carolina (House Bill 4358), and Tennessee (House Bill 2725), while a "reasonable suspicion" bill is still alive in Minnesota (Senate File 1535). Bills targeting unemployment benefits are still alive in Arizona (Senate Bill 1495) and Michigan (House Bill 5412), while one aimed at Medicaid recipients is still alive in South Carolina (House Bill 4458).

The stumbling blocks for passage are threefold: First, there are serious reservations about the constitutionality of such bills. While the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the subject of requiring drug tests of public benefits recipients, it has held that forcing someone to submit to a drug test is a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus requires either a search warrant or probable cause. The high court has carved out only limited exceptions to this general rule, including people in public safety-sensitive positions (airline pilots, truck drivers), members of law enforcement engaged in drug-related work, and some high school students (those involved in athletics or extracurricular activities).

The only federal appeals court ruling on drug testing welfare recipients came out of Michigan a decade ago, and in that case, a divided panel found such testing unconstitutional. That case was not appealed by the state. In Florida, the welfare drug testing law passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott (R), has been stopped in its tracks at least temporarily by a federal district judge who has hinted broadly she will ultimately find it unconstitutional. Civil libertarians in Georgia have vowed to challenge its law as soon as it goes into effect.

Democratic legislators across the country have used the fear of unconstitutionality as a potent argument against the drug testing bills. They have also raised the specter of legal fees reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defend such bills in the courts, and that leads to the second objection to public benefits drug testing bills: they will not save taxpayer dollars, but will instead waste them.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to cut people off from potential benefits, especially when we've found that people on welfare aren't using their money to feed addictions," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. "In Florida, when they enacted their program, very few people tested positive. It ends up costing the state money to drug test."

Fox was referring to findings reported last week that in the four months last year that Florida's welfare drug testing law was in effect, only 2.6% of applicants failed the drug test and fewer than 1% canceled the test. With the state reimbursing those who took and passed a drug test, the program was a net loser for the state, costing it an estimated $45,000 during that four-month period.

The Florida findings are similar to the findings of an earlier Florida pilot program for welfare drug testing and the short-lived Michigan program, both of which reported very low rates of positive drug tests among their subject populations.

drug testing lab
While it appears that most public benefits drug testing bills being considered would be at best a wash when it comes to spending or saving taxpayer dollars, one unemployment drug testing bill, Senate Bill 1495 in Arizona, is likely to be doomed because it will trigger the withholding of federal tax benefits for business, costing Arizona businesses millions of dollars. That Republican-sponsored bill is now stalled in the House, and some normally staunch allies of the GOP are in the opposition camp.

"Arizona is moving forward with this bill that the Department of Labor says violates federal law," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The trade-off for this testing is a pretty steep tax hike on local businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce is opposing it because they care about taxes. We're hoping that the Chamber in other states will look at that as well."

A third stumbling block for public benefits drug testing bills is not legal or economic, but based on notions of justice and fairness. While Republican legislators talk about ensuring that taxpayer dollars aren't wasted on drug users, they seem decidedly disinterested in imposing drug testing burdens on recipients of taxpayer largesse who are not poor. They are not calling for the drug testing of beneficiaries of corporate tax breaks, for instance, and for the most part they are demonstrably uninterested in subjecting themselves to similar testing, although Democrats opponents of the bills have had fun and scored political points sponsoring amendments or bills to do just that in some states.

In Colorado, Democratic foes of a welfare drug testing bill submitted an amendment to drug test legislators and state officials complete with personalized urine specimen cups for House committee members.That amendment actually passed the committee, but was largely symbolic because even if the bill passed in the House, it was doomed in the Democratically-controlled state Senate.

Instead of the powerful, the bills target the most downtrodden and disadvantaged -- the poor, the sick, the jobless -- in the guise of helping them. They are part of a broader attack on the poor, some advocates said.

"Whether you're talking about attacks on welfare, abortion, or contraception, it's all connected," said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "Depriving low-income people, predominantly women, of basic financial support is part of creating a second class status for all women. Women can't make healthy decisions about their reproductive lives if they don't have enough food to eat for themselves and their children," she argued.

For Paltrow, the push for drug testing the poor "has been part of a concerted effort to undermine the notion of the social contract" that is ideologically-driven and mean-spirited. "Whether it's poverty or pregnancy, you make every problem one having to do with individual responsibility, and then you create a justification for taking away money from people who need it."

It's part of a larger move to privatize what should be public welfare and services, Paltrow argued. "You're transferring money from poor people to companies that do drug testing," she said. "That's an important part of trickling up all our money to the fewer than 1%."

While Paltrow saw malign forces at work, Piper could identify no grand conspiracy.

"We couldn't find any think tanks currently pushing this or any other common denominator in all the states other than that this gets media attention," he said. "Some dumb legislator reads something in the newspaper and decides to do it in his state. We don't see any indication the drug testing industry is pushing this. If there's a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy of stupidity, that's all."

There is another fairness issue in play as well. The rhetoric surrounding the politics of drug testing the poor suggests that it is aimed at mothers strung out on heroin or meth-ravaged fathers, but the most common drug cited in the failed Florida drug tests was marijuana. That gets the goat of the MPP's Fox.

"Considering that occasionally using marijuana is not going to affect your ability to be a productive member of society and that it has a low addiction potential, marijuana consumers are being kind of discriminated against," he said. "People who, for ideological reasons, would rather drug test everyone than pay for the welfare of a few people, especially when it's marijuana, why, that's just patently ridiculous."

Republican legislators may have thought they had a no-brainer of an issue with mandating drug tests for public benefits recipients, but for the reasons mentioned above, the going has been tougher than they expected. That doesn't mean no more such bills are going to make it through the legislative process -- one is very close in Tennessee -- but it doesn't suggest that pandering to stereotypes and prejudice isn't as easy a sell as they thought.

Legislators in some states have also responded by more narrowly crafting drug testing bills in hopes of passing constitutional muster. A Utah bill now signed into law requires drug tests for welfare recipients upon suspicion, and more such bills are in the pipeline, although they face the same ticking clocks as the more broadly drawn drug testing bills.

While the Republican offensive has been blunted, the battle is not over.

"I remain concerned that more states will pass stupid drug testing legislation, but still optimistic the courts will strike them down. They're trying to make them suspicion-based and less random, but even that may or may not pass court scrutiny," said Piper.

"This recession can't end quickly enough," he sighed. "When the economy is bad, they need to find scapegoats. Still, this isn't passing in most states, and to get bills passed, it may be that they have to water them down to the point where they're just not that effective."

Oakland 4/20: "Obama, You're Alienating Your Base" [FEATURE]

4/20 is supposed to be a day of cannabis celebration, but in Oakland last Friday it was a day of protest and demonstration. Angered by the ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana distribution and shocked and infuriated by the April 2 raids on Oaksterdam University and associated businesses, protestors gathered outside the federal building in downtown Oakland to denounce the administration before marching to President Obama's Northern California campaign headquarters to deliver a letter demanding the administration cease and desist.

Delivering a message to the Obama campaign: Back off!
"Terrorist Haag Wanted for War Crimes Against Humanity," read one hand-made sign, an expression of the widespread anger against the US Attorney for Northern California, who has targeted Northern California dispensaries as part of the ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana distribution.

Printed green, white, and red "Cannabis medicine, let states regulate" sign waved among the crowd, as chants of "Obama, keep your promise!" and "Stop the lies, legalize!" echoed through the courtyard of the towering federal building.

But it's not just marijuana advocates who are angry. "What happened here two weeks ago with the raid of Oaksterdam was an attack on our local and our members," said Matt Witemyre, special project union representative for UFCW Local 5, which represents Northern California dispensary workers. "We're here to register our displeasure with the administration's actions and we're stopping by campaign headquarters to let them know we do not support these policies. We're here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. They had good jobs and good benefits, and in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the country in decades, the administration is destroying these jobs. It makes no sense," he fumed.

Richard Lee addressing an admiring and supportive crowd.
"We're behind you 100%," said Bob Swanson, representing Oakland Supervisor Nate Miley. "We ask that President Obama back off and rein his people in. Marijuana is medicine; let the people have it. Leave Richard Lee alone -- he's a good man and had done wonders for Oakland."

Lee himself made an appearance. "This was supposed to be a day of celebration, but it's a day of protest," he said to loud cheers and cries of support.

There was also support from the other side of San Francisco Bay, with representatives of San Francisco United, a medical marijuana coalition opposing the federal attacks, standing in solidarity with their brethren in the East Bay.

"We are outraged and disgusted with what happened here two weeks ago," said SF United's Stephanie Tucker, referring to the Oaksterdam raids. "We won't be treated this way. Obama, you are alienating your voter base. Rein in the Department of Justice and the US Attorneys. They are going after a peaceful and well-regulated community," she said to more cheers.

The president isn't winning friends in Oakland...
"We're here to protest the outrageous use of federal resources and what our federal government has done, raiding Oaksterdam and many other well-respected and -loved cannabis establishments here in California," said California NORML executive director Dale Gieringer. "This is not the kind of change we were expecting from the Obama administration."

Friday was also Gieringer's birthday, and the crowd gave the veteran activist a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" to mark the occasion.

"They said they wouldn't waste Justice Department resources on medical marijuana, but we've seen DEA raids all up and down the state, we've seen Treasury attacking the banks, we've seen the IRS going after dispensaries, we've seen BATF saying that medical marijuana patients don't have the right to bear arms, we've seen the Justice Department deny that marijuana has any medical value," Gieringer continued.

"They've turned down a rescheduling petition after nine years of delay and ignored hundreds of studies to the contrary. This administration was supposed to respect science, but it's turned its back on it. This makes no sense at all, and we're going to deliver a message to the Obama administration," he said before leading the chanting, banner-waving crowd on the short march to Obama campaign headquarters.

Passing cars honked in support as the crowd gathered in front of Obama headquarters. Richard Lee's replacement as head of Oaksterdam, Dale Sky Jones, and UFCW representative Dan Rush hand-delivered a letter to campaign staffers demanding the administration cease and desist.

...and neither is US Attorney Melinda Haag.
"What advantages do we derive from continuing this failed policy of prohibition?" asked Jones. "They're committing robbery with a badge, empowering terrorists and cartels, and denying a proven medicine to patients in the guise of keeping it from our kids. We ended the first failed Prohibition. We can do it again, President Obama. We must repeal prohibition," she insisted.

After handing over the letter at the doorway to the campaign headquarters, the crowd lingered to chant and wave signs, making sure the campaign noticed their presence.

"The local staff has heard our cries, and they support us," said Jones. "They will take the letter we've written and deliver it straight to him."

The Obama campaign has gotten the letter, but has it gotten the message? Time will tell, but the demonstrators in Oakland Friday put the campaign on notice that the administration is losing friends in California with its attacks on medical marijuana.

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

Oakland, CA
United States

Obama's 2012 Drug Strategy: The Same Old Same Old [FEATURE]

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, and while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

Drug war spending continues to exceed treatment and prevention spending (ONDCP)
"We will continue to pursue a balanced approach… in a national effort to improve public health and safety," wrote Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head Gil Kerlikowske in the introduction to the strategy. "We will work to prevent illicit drug use and addiction before their onset and bring more Americans in need of treatment into contact with the appropriate level of care. We will continue to build on the administration’s progress in reforming the justice system, ensuring that laws are applied fairly and effectively -- protecting public safety while also ensuring that drug-involved offenders have the opportunity to end their drug use and rebuild their lives."

But that's only one half of the administration's approach. The other half, as Kerlikowske makes clear, it continued adherence to classic war on drugs strategies.

"We will continue to counter drug produc­tion and trafficking within the United States and will implement new strategies to secure our borders against illicit drug flows," the drug czar wrote. "And we will work with international partners to reduce drug production and trafficking and strengthen rule of law, democratic institutions, citizen security, and respect for human rights around the world."

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug control under the proposed budget, nearly half a billion dollars more than this year. And despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years. In fact, the 58.8% of the proposed budget that would go to drug war programs is exactly the same percentage as George Bush's 2008 budget and even higher than the 56.8% in Bush's 2005 budget.

ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske
In the 2013 drug budget, treatment and early intervention programs would be funded at $9.2 billion, an increase of more than $400 billion over this year, but most of that increase is for treatment covered under the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Grant programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including Access to Recovery, early screening and referral, and drug courts are all reduced under the 2013 budget, although drug courts would see an increase in funding under the Department of Justice's Problem Solving Justice Program.

One area where treatment funding is unequivocally increased is among the prison population. Federal Bureau of Prisons treatment spending would jump to $109 million, up 17% over this year, while the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program for state prisoners would be funded at $21 million, up nearly 50% over this year.

The drug strategy's rhetorical emphasis on prevention is not reflected in the 2013 budget, which calls for a 1% decrease in funding. SAMHSA prevention grants and Drug Free Communities funding would decrease slightly, while the administration seeks $20 million to restart the much maligned and congressionally zeroed-out Youth Drug Prevention Media Campaign.

On the drug war side of the ledger, domestic anti-drug law enforcement spending would increase by more than $61 million to $9.4 billion, with the DEA's Diversion Control Program (prescription drugs) and paying for federal drug war prisoners showing the biggest increases. The administration anticipates shelling out more than $4.5 billion to imprison drug offenders.

But domestic law enforcement is only part of the drug war picture. The budget also allocates $3.7 billion for interdiction, a 2.5% increase over the 2012 budget, and another $2 billion for international anti-drug program, including assistance to the governments of Central America, Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

Critics of the continued reliance on prohibition and repression were quick to attack the new drug strategy and budget as just more of the same.

"The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it's just that: talk," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "Instead of continuing to fund the same old 'drug war' approaches that are proven not to work, the president needs to put his money where his mouth is."

"This budget is appalling. The drug czar is trying to resurrect those stupid TV ads, like the one where a teenager gets his fist stuck in his mouth," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "The budget intentionally undercounts the federal government's expenditures on incarcerating drug offenders, who comprise more than half of the federal prison population. And the budget dangerously proposes a massive escalation in using the military to fight drugs domestically. Congress should just ignore this budget and start from scratch. Specifically, Congress should not provide the Obama administration with any money to go after nonviolent marijuana users, growers, or distributors."

In the 2013 drug strategy, the administration is highlighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing attacking the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

For Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, the 2012 drug strategy was all too familiar.

"This strategy is nearly identical to previous national drug strategies," he said. "While the rhetoric is new -- reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure -- the substance of the actual policies is the same. In reality, the administration is prioritizing low-level drug arrests, trampling on state medical marijuana laws, and expanding supply-side interdiction approaches -- while not doing enough to actually reduce the harms of drug addiction and misuse, such as the escalating overdose epidemic."

The release of the drug budget comes just days after President Obama returned from the Summit of the Americas meeting, where he was pressed to open up a debate on legalizing and regulating drugs by sitting Latin American presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala. And it comes as marijuana legalization is at the cusp of majority support and trending upward.

It is past time to keep making minor adjustments -- a slight funding increase here, a decrease there, a shift of emphasis over there -- in what is fundamentally a flawed and failed policy, said LEAP's Franklin.

"The chorus of voices calling for a real debate on ending prohibition is growing louder all the time," said Franklin. "President Obama keeps saying he is open to a discussion but he never seems willing to actually have that discussion. The time for real change is now. This prohibition strategy hasn't worked in the past and it cannot work in the future. Latin American leaders know it, and President Obama must know it. Let's stop the charade and begin to bring drugs under control through legalization."

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Releases 2012 National Drug Control Strategy

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, but while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug law enforcement under the proposed budget, and despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years.

The administration is high-lighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

This year's drug strategy looks like last year's drug strategy, which looked like Bush administration drug strategies, which looked like Clinton administration drug strategies. When it comes to the federal drug war, it's more of the same old same old.

Look for an expanded version of this news brief Thursday afternoon, with deeper analysis and commentary from drug war observers.

Washington, DC
United States

Most of North Carolina Grand Jury's Cases Are Drugs

A Pitt County (Greenville), North Carolina, grand jury offered up a batch of indictments on April 9 that suggest that the war on drugs is generating most of the criminal justice system activity in the county. This snapshot offers a revealing glance at just what law enforcement and prosecutors are spending their resources on, at least with this grand jury.

City Hall, Greenville (wikimedia.org)
Grand juries are empanelled by local prosecutors to bring charges when prosecutors believe they have evidence a person can be charged with a crime. Grand jury indictments are a strong indicator of law enforcement and prosecutorial priorities.

Overall, the April grand jury indicted 37 people felony charges. Only two were for violent offenses, both of which were assaults with a deadly weapon. Another two people were indicted for child sex offenses.

One person was indicted for possession of a stolen firearm and carrying a concealed weapon, one for obstruction of justice, one for breaking and entering, and four more for various theft offenses (obtaining property under false pretenses, larceny by an employee, larceny of a merchant, financial card theft).

Overall, 15 people were indicted on non-drug offenses. But 22 were indicted in cases where drugs were the leading charge, and eight of them were indicted for possession of marijuana with the intent to sell and deliver. That's 22% of all the indictments, or nearly one-quarter of the grand jury's business.

Another four people were charged with possession of cocaine with intent to sell and deliver, three people were charged with trafficking heroin/opium, three with trafficking a Schedule II controlled substance (pain pills), two with conspiracy to traffic cocaine, one with possession of cocaine, and one with attempting to obtain a controlled substance by fraud.

Drug possession or sales cases thus accounted for a whopping 60% of all indictments by the April 9 grand jury. If drug possession and sales were not criminal offenses, police and prosecutors could use those resources elsewhere, or elected officials could decide that police and prosecutors don't need as many resources and reallocate those taxpayer dollars to more fruitful ventures. Or they could lower taxes.

Greenville, NC
United States

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