Budgets/Taxes/Economics

RSS Feed for this category

Medical Marijuana Update

Monday's federal raid on Oaksterdam University in Oakland has ignited a firestorm of criticism of heavy-handed federal efforts to clamp down on medical marijuana distribution. Meanwhile, battles continue to be fought from Washington, DC, to local city halls.

National

On Monday, lawmakers from five states urged the Obama administration to back off from its policy of interference in state medical marijuana programs. The lawmakers are Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-CA), Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-WA), Rep. Antonio Maestas (D-NM), Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-NM), Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-CA), Rep. Deborah Sanderson (R-ME) and Sen. Pat Steadman (D-CO). They called on President Obama to live up to his campaign promise to leave the regulation of medical marijuana to the states, adding raids would only "force patients underground" into the illegal drug market. "Please respect our state laws," the lawmakers wrote. "And don't use our employees as pawns in your zealous and misguided war on medical marijuana."

On Tuesday, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson criticized the Oaksterdam raids, saying the Obama administration needs to "find better things to do with our tax dollars than raiding Richard Lee's home in selective enforcement of a bad law." Johnson, who governed as a Republican, is seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination this year.

On Wednesday, six national drug policy groups called on the Obama administration to end its assault on medical marijuana providers. They were the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Marijuana Policy Project, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "You have turned your back as career law enforcement officials have run roughshod over some of the most professional and well-regulated medical marijuana providers," the groups said in a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. "We simply cannot understand why you have reneged on your administration's earlier policy of respecting state medical marijuana laws… "We hope that you will immediately reconsider your drug control strategy and will work with, not against, states and organizations that are attempting to shift control of marijuana cultivation and sales, at least as it applies to medical marijuana, to a controlled and regulated market."

California

Last Monday, three San Francisco supervisors expressed concerns about the city Health Department's stance on medical marijuana. Supervisors David Campos, Scott Wiener, and Christina Olague signed on to a letter to the department questioning "some recent media statements" from the department, especially regarding its decision -- since rescinded -- to ban edible medical marijuana products.

Last Thursday, collective members in Murrieta said they were being targeted by police. The conservative Riverside County town is in an ongoing fight with the Green House Cannabis Collective, and collective members told Fox LA that police were pulling them over on pretexts to search their vehicles. One patient and volunteer showed Fox LA a GPS tracking device he found attached to his vehicle after being pulled over by police. The property owner of the collective said he was being fined $109,000, but that city officials offered to drop the fine if he would evict the collective. City officials had no comment, but one told the station off-camera that they don't want marijuana businesses in their city. Period.

Also last Thursday, an Arcata woman sued the city and the police over a raid at her home. Barbara Sage, 64, alleges that officers had an unlawful search warrant and used excessive force in investigating marijuana cultivation at the residence she shared with her husband. She argues that police didn't have sufficient probable cause for the search because they failed to present any evidence that the Sages' suspected marijuana cultivation fell outside the bounds of state and local medical marijuana laws and regulations. The Sages had grown medical marijuana in compliance with state law and local regulations, but were not growing any when police arrived. Aside from the probable cause issue, Sage argues that police violated the "knock-notice" rule, which requires them to announce their presence and that they are serving a warrant when entering someone's home, and that Hoffman failed to include a statement of expertise and qualifications to support the warrant. She also claims officers used unnecessary force when they came into her home with guns drawn, allegedly pulled her sick husband from bed -- tearing oxygen tubes from his nose -- and put him on the ground in handcuffs. "This rough treatment affected his mood drastically, and he went into a state of depression after the search that hastened his death," the suit claims.

Last Friday, an appeals court ruled that a dispensary does not owe the city of Dana Point $2.4 million. The city had shut down the Beach Cities Collective in January 2011, alleging violations of building codes and state law, and the two sides have been embroiled in lawsuits ever since. The city won the $2.4 million summary judgment from an Orange County Superior Court judge, but the 4th District Court of Appeals threw out the judgment, finding that it was improper because the facts in the case are still in dispute. The city has spent $400,000 trying similar tactics against two other dispensaries. Once there were six dispensaries in Dana Point; now, there are none.

Also last Friday, Vallejo police raided the same dispensary for the second time in a month. Police hit the Better Health Group and arrested owner Jorge Espinoza, 25, and three workers on suspicion of selling marijuana. That makes the fourth dispensary raid in the city since February 21. Better Health was raided the first time on February 29. The city has passed a measure to tax dispensaries, but its police continue to raid them anyway.

Also last Friday, medical marijuana regulation initiatives were announced in five cities in the San Diego area. The cities are Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Lemon Grove and La Mesa. The proposed ballot measures largely mirror one planned for the city of San Diego. All are being coordinated by Citizens for Patient Rights in connection with the Patient Care Association, a trade organization of and for nonprofit dispensaries. None of the five cities currently allow medical marijuana dispensaries. A judge last year ordered the lone collective in Del Mar closed. A separate group of medical marijuana supporters has launched a citizen-initiated petition to reverse a dispensary ban in Imperial Beach.

On Saturday, San Francisco's HopeNet Cooperative stayed open in defiance of federal threats. US Attorney Melinda Haag had warned the dispensary's landlords it had to close by last Friday or the property could be seized and the owners imprisoned. Similar letters from Haag have led five other San Francisco dispensaries to shut down since October 7. The letters warn of 40-year prison terms and asset forfeitures if the "marijuana distribution" is not stopped.

On Monday, DEA and other federal agents raided Oaksterdam University, associated businesses, and the home of Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee. Lee was briefly detained, but later released without charges. DEA and IRS agents accompanied by US marshals seized seedlings, computers, and records, effectively shutting down the school, although it has vowed to reopen. Oakland police had to provide crowd control for the feds as angry emergency response protestors spilled onto Broadway.

On Tuesday, hundreds of medical marijuana supporters rallied in San Francisco. Although the rally had been planned in advance of Monday's Oaksterdam raids, the federal assault on the movement icon energized and outraged attendees, who marched from city hall to the federal building to tell US Attorney Melinda Haag to knock it off. The rally drew support from city supervisors, state legislators, and state officials.

Also on Tuesday, a Los Angeles judge denied a business license for a medical marijuana testing lab. Golden State Collective Cannabis Laboratories had sought the license, but was denied by city officials. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the city's decision.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles NORML director Bruce Margolin announced he is running for Congress. He is challenging veteran Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman in the newly created 33rd District. He emphasized ending the failed war on drugs in his announcement.

Also on Wednesday, a Butte County judge denied a motion to suppress the evidence in a medical marijuana case that is fueling outrage over the seizure of children from their parents. Daisy Jean Bram and Jayme Jeff Walsh are charged with marijuana cultivation and sales as well as child abuse charges -- apparently for nothing more than having children in a home where marijuana was being grown. Earlier, a judge had thrown out the child abuse charges, saying there wasn't sufficient evidence for them, but Butte County prosecutors refilled them. The children have since been returned to Bram's care.

Arizona

On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a bill barring medical marijuana on college campuses. The law prohibits the possession or use of medical marijuana at public universities, community colleges, and child-care facilities. The bill was the brainchild of Rep. Amanda Reeve (R-Phoenix) and was supported by prosecutors. Medical marijuana advocates foresee a legal challenge on state constitutional grounds.

Colorado

On Tuesday, the state announced it is cutting its medical marijuana regulatory staff because the state isn't collecting enough revenues from licensing fees to pay for them. The Department of Revenue said it would lay off 20 of 37 staffers at the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. The department blamed the shortfall on a state moratorium on medical marijuana licenses, which is set to end this summer.

Maine

Last Wednesday, Portland saw its first dispensary open for business. The dispensary will eventually serve about 100 patients. It is the second Wellness Connection of Maine dispensary to open in the state.

Michigan

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved four medical marijuana bills that compromise patients' rights. The Marijuana Policy Project says it will absolutely oppose one and will oppose two more if not amended. Click the link above for details on the bills.

Montana

On Tuesday, four medical marijuana providers suing the federal government were arrested on federal drug charges. The attorney representing the four in their civil lawsuit over last year's raids on medical marijuana businesses across the state said they were indicted on Tuesday and last Thursday. The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the searches of more than 26 homes, businesses and warehouses is before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Their claim was rejected by a district judge in January.

Ohio

Last Wednesday, the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment campaign held a press conference to kick start its signature-gathering effort. They have until July 4 to turn in 385,000 valid voter signatures in order to make the November ballot.

Washington, DC

Last Friday, DC officials selected six growers for the city's medical marijuana program. Later this summer, the city will select up to eight dispensary operators. By then, the chosen growers should have a crop to provide to the dispensaries, and the law approved by voters in 1998, but blocked by Congress until 2009 will finally be in effect.

Also on Friday, the weGrow medical marijuana superstore opened on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The supplier of lights, hydroponic equipment and other growers' goods advertises itself as "the one-stop-shop for the products and services one would need to grow plants indoors -- from tomatoes to medical marijuana."

Feds Raid Oaksterdam University

Federal agents raided Oaksterdam University and associated businesses in downtown Oakland Monday morning shortly before 8:00am local time. The entire building was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, and an hour later, agents were spotted carrying trash bags filled with unknown materials to a waiting van.

Also hit in the early morning raids were the nearby Oaksterdam Museum, the Oaksterdam gift shop, and the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. None of those businesses actually distribute medical marijuana.

The Bay Citizen reported that Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee had been detained at his home and that four university plant tenders had been arrested. The Bay Citizen also reported that the former location of Lee's Blue Sky dispensary had been raided.

Oaksterdam University is the beating heart of the Oakland cannabis revival, which has helped revitalize the city's downtown core. Founded in 2007, it was the first institution in the country devoted to providing instruction in medical marijuana cultivation.

Owned and operated by Richard Lee, who put his personal fortune into getting 2010's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana on the ballot, the university has trained thousands of people in how to grow their own medicine and other aspects of medical marijuana business. It has also served as an organizing center for the Bay area medical marijuana movement.

Medical marijuana defense groups, such as Americans for Safe Access, were mobilizing their members Monday morning and calling for supporters to head to the scene. They did so in large and angry numbers, shouting obscenities and imprecations at the federal agents. Oakland police were called in for crowd control after protestors spilled onto Broadway. Two people were arrested during the protest.

Federal officials were tight-lipped, with IRS spokeswoman Arlette Lee saying little more than that the raids were part of "an ongoing investigation."

Federal officials have been cracking down on California dispensaries for the past year, breaking with an earlier Obama administration stance that it would not bother operations that were in compliance with state law.

While in some cases, the federal crackdown has been assisted, or even instigated by, local officials, that is not the case in cannabis-friendly Oakland. The city has worked closely with medical marijuana providers and derives substantial tax revenues from them. It recently announced plans to double the number of dispensaries in the city from four to eight.

A previously scheduled press conference and protest march in San Francisco set for Tuesday should be even more energized after Monday's raids directed at what many see as the heart of the California medical marijuana scene.

Stay tuned.

Oakland , CA
United States

Fight Is On to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor in California [FEATURE]

At the end of February, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would make drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor in California. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have taken the cost-saving and rehabilitation-aiding step of not making felons out of mere drug users.

California needs to reduce prison and jail overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
The measure, Senate Bill 1506, would make the possession of any controlled substance -- except up to an ounce of marijuana, which is already decriminalized -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. Under current law, possession of controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, is a felony punishable by either up to 16 months in county jail or two to three years in state prison.

A felony conviction doesn't just mean jail or prison time. It becomes a permanent barrier to reentry into society, making access to education, employment, and housing more difficult, as well as barring people with such convictions from obtaining professional licenses and subjecting them to various other obstacles.

The bill is backed by an array of drug policy, civil liberties, and human rights groups, including early supporters the American Civil Liberties Union, the California State NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Budget-conscious California voters have shown an interest in drug sentencing reform in the past. In 2000, they passed Proposition 36 to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment by a margin of 61%. Since then, the state's economic situation has only gotten worse, and pressure to do something about its gargantuan $9.3 billion corrections budget is on the rise.

A Lake Research Partners poll released last April found that 72% of respondents favored changing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with 40% saying small-time drug possession for person use should be considered an infraction, with no jail time. Strong support for such a reform cuts across party lines, with support among Democrats at 79%, among independents at 72%, and among Republicans at 66%.

"Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use," said Sen. Leno. "In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders," he said.

"This bill merely revises the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor," Leno told the Chronicle Tuesday. "It will save the counties about $160 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the state another $65 million. Thirteen states have already done this, and they have higher rates of treatment and lower rates of drug use and property and violent crime."

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford," said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. "California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans."

Drug possession would be a misdemeanor in California rather than a felony if SB 1506 passes (wikimedia.org)
"The goal is to make the penalty closer to what people think it should be," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy analyst for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "People think a felony charge is too harsh, and there is pretty universal support for treating drug use more as a health issue and prioritizing law enforcement resources for people convicted of serious offenses," she told the Chronicle.

The push for the bill is picking up steam, Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We have quite a broad coalition, and the list of groups coming out in support is long and getting longer by the day," she said. "We have faith, treatment, and housing groups; we have job placement organizations; we have family members and other folks who realize the this penalty is just too harsh. We've just added two more: California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense attorneys' group, and the William Velasquez Institute, a group that will bring Latino communities into the process of helping to shape policies that impact them."

While an impressive coalition is budding to support the bill, and while polls suggest strong public support for such a measure, not everybody is on board, particularly law enforcement. 

"We're opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons," said John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney who is a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "We don't think it's appropriate to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors because of severe unintended consequences. No one in California is being incarcerated for a first or second drug possession offense; instead, they are sent to a Proposition 36 drug treatment program," Lovell told the Chronicle.

"We believe this will create a disincentive for people to participate in a Prop 36 treatment program, and that is not a good thing," the lobbyist continued. "To the extent we can have a successful treatment result, that is one less person in a cycle of drug addiction."

"Oh, please!" exclaimed Dooley-Sammuli. "Lovell said the same kinds of things when Prop 36 passed. They were saying the sky would fall, that nobody would be in treatment and there would be crime in the streets, but the crime rate continues to go down."

Given the current fiscal constraints on the state criminal justice system, the "real world" result of downgrading drug possession to a misdemeanor would be that drug offenders essentially walk free, Lovell said.

"Say a person is convicted of meth possession," he said. "He is told he has a choice of Prop 36 treatment or going to the county jail, but the jails are all filled to capacity, and nobody does any time for a misdemeanor offense. An attorney representing such as person is ethically bound to say 'If you refuse treatment, there is no real sanction at all,'" Lovell maintained. "These will be misdemeanants, not felons, not under supervision and not breaking the cycle of addiction, which means the crimes they commit to purchase their dope will continue," he said. "It's not like you get a scholarship to pay for the cost of your meth."

But the bill provides for up to three years probation -- five years in some cases -- and would allow judges to order drug treatment as a condition for probation.

Saying that the state will benefit from saving money on not prosecuting drug users as felons is "a hackneyed argument," Lovell said. "If you say it will save money because these people aren't being supervised, yes, it will save that money, but if they're not being supervised they're more likely to go out and commit the economic crimes addicts commit. It's not so much a savings as a cost shift," he argued.

"We do not see this bill as yielding any positive public policy results," Lovell summed up.

"None of California's existing programs to make treatment available will be affected by this," countered Dooley-Sammuli, "and counties will have the freedom to use these dollars more wisely to make treatment more available. Compared to five years ago, treatment dollars have absolutely been gutted, and we're really working to identify ways to preserve funding so we can protect treatment. It's really disingenuous for our opponents to talk about this getting in the way of access to treatment. If Jerry Lovell is worried about access to treatment, we call on him to support this bill."

Leno responded more tersely to Lovell's arguments. "He's a dogmatic extremist. If you think drug use is a bad thing, the states that have actually lowered drug use are not felony states," the San Francisco Democrat said. "By making these offenses misdemeanors, we can remove barriers to housing, education, and employment -- the very things a felony conviction makes it more difficult to obtain, those unintended consequences of a felony conviction."

Now, it's up to the measure's supporters to get it moving. The bill will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee next month. For it to pass this year, it has to get out of committee, win approval in the Senate, and then go through the same process in the Assembly. And it has to happen by August, when the session ends.

"It's a very tight time-frame," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We're still educating people about this bill, but this is a serious effort, and we believe we can get that support with the right coalition partners and more education. Sen. Leno doesn't introduce bills just to make a statement, but because he thinks they have a political chance."

"We're looking for support anywhere and everywhere," Leno said. "We are talking to law enforcement agencies to educate them that there is no data showing that felony convictions reduce drug use."

There's clearly some work to be done on that score. But more important is getting actual legislators to vote for the bill.

"I believe there will be significant, and hopefully sufficient, Democratic support for the bill," said Leno, "and I'm also hoping Republican colleagues will see we can't waste the money and must invest in evidence-based programming."

California has the chance to pass a smart, cost-effective, and humane drug sentencing reform bill, but the clock is ticking.

The other states that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor are Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Battle for Restored Needle Exchange Funding Heats Up [FEATURE]

After 20 years of walking in the political wilderness, public health and harm reduction advocates for federal funding for needle exchange programs made it to the Promised Land in December 2009, when the Democratic-controlled Congress overturned the longstanding funding ban. But just two years later, led by the Republican-controlled House and with the acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Congress reinstated the ban in its 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

Needle exchange advocates arrested on Capitol Hill Wednesday (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
Advocates were outraged and dismayed by the congressional action, but are determined to fight back to restore funding for a harm reduction practice repeatedly proven to save lives and reduce the spread of infectious blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. This week, they came out swinging with a national day of action Wednesday that saw organized call-ins to members of Congress and civil disobedience actions leading to dozens of arrests at the offices of four of them, as well as actions in a dozen others cities across the county.

Although the funding ban's main proponents are Republicans, repealing the ban is actually the states' rights, deregulation position. Each year the federal government authorizes funding for grants to states to be used for AIDS prevention and treatment. When the ban was temporarily lifted, it neither increased nor decreased the amount of AIDS funding, but it meant that states could choose for themselves whether or not to use some of those funds to support needle exchange programs.

The activists have science and the evidence on their side. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

More than 200 needle exchange programs operate across the country in cooperation with local law enforcement officials and health departments, but many are in danger of closing their doors or cutting back services without access to federal funds. That puts lives and the public health at risk.

Needle exchange supporters said the restored the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), needle sharing by injection drug users accounts for 8,000 new cases of HIV and 15,000 new cases of hepatitis C each year. In New York City, there has been a 75% reduction in new HIV cases as a result of instituting such programs, according to a 2005 study cited by HRC.

"We need Congress to stand behind public health and science, and declare a cease-fire on syringe exchange," said HRC executive director Allan Clear. "All of the research tells the same story: Syringe exchange prevents infections, promotes drug treatment, and reduces drug use. Congress must stop treating syringe exchange as an ideological pawn in partisan politics."

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress has restored it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

Cherry blossoms bloom in DC as arrestee is detained (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
The renewed ban on federal funding for needle exchanges couldn't come at a more inopportune time. With a wave of drug users who began their careers with opioid pain pills finding succor in the needle, making access to clean needles more difficult is likely to make matters worse.

"We need to support syringe exchange programs now more than ever," said HRC policy director Daniel Raymond. "Health officials in many states report a disturbing new trend of hepatitis C outbreaks in young people, driven by a new wave of injection drug use linked to the prescription painkiller epidemic. We're in danger of starving programs of federal funds, just when the demand for syringe exchange is increasing."

In Washington, while a coordinated campaign of phone calling kept the congressional switchboard humming, dozens of AIDS and harm reduction activists went to Capitol Hill and held sit-ins at the offices of four House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) for their role in reinstating the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs last December.

Carrying signs reading "Syringe Exchange: A Fix for AIDS," the activists chanted and blocked doorways before being arrested by Capitol Police. They were expected to be booked and released later Wednesday.

At least 32 people were arrested at Congress, according to Housing Works, a New York City-based group that provides services for AIDS sufferers. Housing Works participated in the action as part of the We Can End AIDS Coalition, an umbrella group coordinating a July 24 mass protest in Washington around economic justice and human rights for AIDS patients.

"Our government should be embarrassed as this year's host of the International AIDS Conference to have sneaked this into an unrelated bill under the cloak of night last December," said Housing Works CEO Charles King. "The US cannot be any shining example to the rest of the world on how to end the AIDS epidemic when we’re still fighting foolish policies that reject what we know works."

Wednesday's action was only an opening skirmish in what will be a determined battle to restore the federal funds. The AIDS, public health, and harm reduction communities are not going to just roll over and play dead while Congress makes decisions that will result in real people becoming really dead.

"We refuse to let the close-mindedness of anti-science conservatives dictate public health policy," said Clear. "We can't afford these political games, and we can't afford any more new infections. Our communities are struggling; Congress needs to listen and show leadership by rescinding the funding ban."

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Marijuana Initiatives Starving for Cash [FEATURE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mill Valley, CA
United States

Congress Okays Drug Tests for Unemployment Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

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

National

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

Alabama

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

California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hawaii

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

Montana

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

Vermont

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

Virginia

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

Washington

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

Missouri Drive to End Marijuana Prohibition Gets Going [FEATURE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MO
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School