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IRS Rules Against Oakland Marijuana Dispensary, Demands Millions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Oakland, CA
United States

WA State Dems Endorse Marijuana Legalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bellingham, WA
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexington, SC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orlando, FL
United States

Few Florida Welfare Applicants Fail Drug Tests So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FL
United States

Alabama Bill Would Drug Test Medicaid Recipients

Lawmakers in Alabama are pushing the envelope on the drug testing of people who receive public benefits. While legislators in a number of states have targeted welfare or unemployment recipients for drug testing, a bill in Montgomery would require drug testing of Medicaid recipients.

Poor Alabamians who use drugs would be ineligible for Medicaid under a proposed law. (image via Wikimedia)
Distinct from Medicare, the federal program aimed at senior citizens, Medicaid is run by the individual states and is designed to make health care accessible for low-income people who are blind or disabled. It also covers low-income pregnant women, children, seniors, and people residing in nursing homes.

Pre-filed by state Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), Senate Bill 26, also known as the Patient Accountability and Personal Responsibility Act, would require that Medicaid recipients undergo random suspicionless drug tests at least once each year and that new applicants undergo a drug test before deemed eligible for Medicaid benefits. The cost of the drug tests would be added to recipients' premiums (e.g. poor people will have to pay for the drug tests).

People who fail to take a drug test or test positive would be denied Medicaid benefits. There is no provision for treatment, but those who are thrown off the rolls could be reinstated if they pass another drug test a year later. The drug test results could  not be used in any criminal proceedings "without the consent of the person tested."

The bill would not apply to nursing home residents, prisoners, people in mental hospitals or those in other long-term care facilities.

Lawmakers favoring the bill claimed the number of illegal drug users getting state-funded health care has "skyrocketed" in recent years, with the cost estimated at "unknown millions." State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) told WHNT News the proposed law would save taxpayer money while forcing accountability on Medicaid recipients.

"If you want to use drugs and you want the taxpayers to pick up the tab on your health care, if this bill passes, forget about it," said Senator Orr. "If I'm going to use illegal drugs that are going to hurt myself, why ask taxpayers to fund my medical care?"

Random suspicionless drug testing for welfare recipients and state employees have been struck down by various state and federal courts as violating the right to be free of unwarranted searches, although a new Florida welfare drug testing law has yet to be challenged. Lawmakers told WHNT News they thought the Alabama bill is more legally sound because it only deals with public health programs, and if the bill ever becomes law, they are likely to find out in the courts if their legal theory is correct.

SB 26 has passed a first reading and has been assigned to the Senate Health Committee.

Montgomery, AL
United States

NAACP Calls for End to War on Drugs

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has now officially broken with the war on drugs. At its 102nd annual convention in Los Angeles Tuesday, the nation's oldest and largest black advocacy group passed an historic resolution calling for an end to the drug war.

screening of "10 Rules for Dealing with Police," NAACP national conference, July 2010
The title of the resolution pretty much says it all: "A Call to End the War on Drugs, Allocate Funding to Investigate Substance Abuse Treatment, Education, and Opportunities in Communities of Color for A Better Tomorrow."

"Today the NAACP has taken a major step towards equity, justice and effective law enforcement," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.  "These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America."

The resolution noted that the US spends over $40 billion a year to battle against drugs and locks up hundreds of thousands of low-level drug offenders, mostly from communities of color. Blacks are 13 times as likely to be imprisoned for low-level drug offenses as whites, despite using drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, the group noted.

"Studies show that all racial groups abuse drugs at similar rates, but the numbers also show that African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison for drug-related charges at a much higher rate," said Alice Huffman, President of the California State Conference of the NAACP, which last year endorsed California's Prop 19 marijuana legalization initiative. "This dual system of drug law enforcement that serves to keep African-Americans and other minorities under lock and key and in prison must be exposed and eradicated."

Instead of choking the US criminal justice system with drug offenders, the resolution called for an investment in treatment and prevention programs, including methadone clinics and treatment programs proven effective.

"We know that the war on drugs has been a complete failure because in the forty years that we’ve been waging this war, drug use and abuse has not gone down," said Robert Rooks, director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. "The only thing we've accomplished is becoming the world's largest incarcerator, sending people with mental health and addiction issues to prison, and creating a system of racial disparities that rivals Jim Crow policies of the 1960's."

Neill Franklin, an African American former narcotics cop from Baltimore and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, made a presentation about ending the war on drugs to the conference Monday, and had more to say Tuesday.   

"The NAACP has been on the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and social justice in this country for over a century. The fact that these leaders are joining others like the National Black Police Association in calling for an end to the 'war on drugs' should be a wake up call to those politicians - including and especially President Obama - who still have not come to terms with the devastation that the 'drug war' causes in our society and especially in communities of color."

Although passed by delegates to the convention, the resolution must be ratified by the NAACP board of directors in October. Once that happens, the NAACP's 1,200 active units across the country will mobilize to conduct campaigns advocating for the end of the war on drugs.

The African-American community has long suffered the brunt of drug law enforcement in this country, but has proven remarkably resistant to calls to reform our drug policies, in part because it has also suffered the effects of drug abuse. That the nation's leading African-American organization has taken a stand against the drug war is a big deal.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

California Marijuana Legalization Initiative Approved for Petitioning

A California marijuana legalization initiative was approved Monday to start seeking signatures to place it on the 2012 ballot. The Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act of 2012 campaign is being led by former Judge Jim Gray, Libertarian Party and pot legalization figure Steve Kubby, and activist William McPike.

You could grow 25 of these tax-free under a new California initiative. (image courtesy the author)
According to the state attorney general's official summary, the act would "decriminalize marijuana, sales, distribution, possession, use, cultivation, processing, and transportation by persons 21 or older." The initiative would also halt pending pot prosecutions for actions that would be legal if it were in effect, prohibit advertising (except for medical marijuana), and prohibit zoning restrictions on pot cultivation and processing.

Existing agricultural taxes and regulations would be applied to commercial marijuana cultivation. Individuals could produce up to 25 plants or 12 pounds of marijuana a year under a non-commercial exemption.

An accompanying fiscal impact statement said passage of the initiative could bring "savings of potentially several tens of millions of dollars annually" in not prosecuting and jailing pot people and "potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in net additional tax revenues."

Proponents have until December 19 to collect the signatures of at least 504,760 registered voters. That kind of massive effort is almost impossible to do without a large campaign treasure chest, but it's hard to know what kind of resources the campaign has because proponents have not yet filed any campaign finance activity reports with the secretary of state.

The Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative is only the first out of the gate. Backers of last year's Proposition 19, which fell short at the ballot box, are working on a new initiative for 2012, and there are likely to be other efforts as well. Which one or ones actually make it past the signature-gathering stage will depend on who finds the funding.

Sacramento, CA
United States

La Crosse, Wisconsin, Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession

La Crosse, Wisconsin, has decriminalized the possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana, as well as pot-related drug paraphernalia. The final move came last Thursday night, when the city's Common Council overrode Mayor Matt Harter's veto of the measure.

The decriminalization measure, authored by District 3 council member Chris Olson, allows city law enforcement to cite small-time marijuana law violators with an offense under the municipal code instead of a criminal misdemeanor under state law.

In achieving the decrim victory, the council had to overcome two vetoes by Mayor Harter. Harter said last month he vetoed the measure because it would be perceived by the public as being "soft" on drug use.

But Olson argued that allowing police to issue municipal citations would create revenue for the city and give "a first-time offender a second chance." He also criticized Police Chief Ed Kondracki for saying he would not have his officers enforce the ordinance.

"We shouldn't be setting policy being dictated by an individual," Olson said.

But a police spokesman later said that Olson was mistaken and that the department would allow officers to issue citations under the ordinance if they wished. The spokesman also noted that the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department has yet to cite anyone under a similar county ordinance, instead charging them under state law.

La Crosse isn't the first Wisconsin locality to decriminalize pot possession. Madison, the state capital, did in 1977, and Milwaukee, the state's largest city, did in 1997. A number of other cities and counties have done so since then.

La Crosse, WI
United States

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