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Michigan Repeal Marijuana Prohibition Initiative Gearing Up [FEATURE]

A campaign to repeal marijuana prohibition in Michigan is getting ready to hit the streets with an army of volunteer signature-gatherers in a bid to put the issue before the voters in November. Campaign staffers said Tuesday state approval of final changes in the language of the proposed ballot initiative could come any day, and then petitioners will go to work.

Michigan state flag
"We are waiting for the Board of Canvassers to approve our language, and then we'll begin collecting signatures," said Brandy Zink, volunteer coordinator for the Committee for a Safer Michigan. "We're organizing at this very moment, getting our volunteers lined up."

The campaign will have until July 9 to gather the more than 322,000 valid voter signatures it needs to make the November ballot.

The ballot initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment that would repeal the state's marijuana laws. The entire text of the amendment is as follows:

"For persons who are at least 21 years of age who are not incarcerated, marihuana acquisition, cultivation, manufacture, sale, delivery, transfer, transportation, possession, ingestion, presence in or on the body, religious, medical, industrial, agricultural, commercial or personal use, or possession or use of paraphernalia shall not be prohibited, abridged or penalized in any manner, nor subject to civil forfeiture; provided that no person shall be permitted to operate an aircraft, motor vehicle, motorboat, ORV, snowmobile, train, or other heavy or dangerous equipment or machinery while impaired by marihuana."

If the initiative were to pass, Michigan's marijuana laws would be rendered unconstitutional, and it would be "immediately incumbent on the legislature to repeal these mentions of marihuana throughout the criminal laws and infractions," the campaign said. The campaign would then ask the legislature to adopt sensible taxes and regulations, but believes "they'll beat us to it."

The campaign also argues that repealing the marijuana laws is within the purview of individual states and would not create a conflict with federal law that could preempt repeal. "The state of Michigan has the sovereign power to adopt and amend a constitution and both pass and repeal laws concerning everything not specifically reserved to the federal government," the campaign argues.

The repeal initiative is largely a response to the intense hostility with which some segments of Michigan law enforcement, led by Attorney General Bill Schuette (R), have reacted to the state's medical marijuana law, approved by 63% of the voters in 2008. Schuette, who sees the medical marijuana law as a cover for drug dealing, used a 2010 appeals court ruling that some sales of medical marijuana at dispensaries were illegal to declare that all dispensaries were illegal, unleashing a round of raids on dispensaries.

Last June, Schuette struck again against medical marijuana, issuing an opinion that: "The possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even if it is possessed for medicinal purposes in accordance with the state law."

That has led to doctors across the state refusing to sign medical marijuana recommendations for fear of prosecution, which in turn has led to a tightening of access for patients. The supply situation has been further aggravated by actions in more than 60 Michigan counties or cities to restrict or ban medical marijuana. Just last month, an Oakland County circuit court judge ruled against a Birmingham couple who, with the help of the ACLU, had sued to overturn bans in several Oakland County communities.

"Our amendment is directed at the abject failure of marijuana prohibition, and also the interference by state officials with implementing our medical marijuana law and their increased aggression against patients and caregivers," said campaign spokesperson Charmie Gholson.

She accused the state law enforcement establishment of plotting to undo the will of the voters by going through the courts.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose war on medical marijuana sparked the initiative campaign
"When the people of Michigan overwhelmingly passed that law, the prohibitionists knew they would need a supermajority to amend it because it was voter-initiated," Gholson said. "What we see them doing is arresting people anyway in hostile areas throughout the state, then the judge would rule against them, then the prosecutor would appeal. They're working these cases up to the conservatively-stacked state Supreme Court."

Zink, too, cited the hostile response of law enforcement, the Michigan courts, and Attorney General Schuette to the state's voter approved medical marijuana law as the motive force behind the initiative campaign.

"The medical cannabis community and others here are concerned about this issue in part because of abuse of our law here by law enforcement and our attorney general," said Zink. "We've been holding meetings since October trying to come up with ways to resolve this, and after much debate and deep thought, we decided to just end cannabis prohibition in Michigan."

For the time being, at least, the campaign is relying on volunteers to get the signatures. That's a tough task when you need more than 322,000 valid signatures, but the campaign is undaunted.

"Right now, it's an all-volunteer effort, and it's going well," said Zink. "Our web site has been up for less than two weeks, and we've got volunteers recruited in nearly every county. It's a very dedicated and passionate group of people. "The community is fairly unified," Zink said. "Everyone has fought really hard for what we have, and some are a bit fearful of a backlash from law enforcement and the attorney general. But we're already being attacked by them anyway, and we've decided we have to fight for what is right."

It takes money to run an initiative campaign and pretty big money to run anything other than an all-volunteer campaign in a state the size of Michigan. The campaign is currently engaged in fundraising at the state level and hints that it may seek outside support as well.

"We're working on fundraising and hoping people will make contributions to the Committee for a Safer Michigan," Zink said. "We're doing our best right here in Michigan, and while we would love outside support, we haven't actively sought it… yet."

Using the initiative process, Michigan was the first state in the Midwest to legalize medical marijuana. Now, it could become the first state in the country to repeal pot prohibition, but only if the Committee for a Safer Michigan manages to make the ballot in the first place, and then to convince Michigan voters to pass their initiative.

United States

Florida Medical Marijuana Bills Filed

For the second year in a row, medical marijuana legislation has been filed in Florida, and for the first time ever, bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate. The bills, House Joint Resolution 353 and Senate Joint Resolution 1028, ask the legislature to approve a referendum on medical marijuana for the November ballot.

Florida Decides activist Catherine Jordan
If the legislature approves the resolutions, the referendum must then win the approval of 60% of the voters. If 60% of the voters approve it, the state constitution would be amended to include medical marijuana language.

Under the resolutions, patients with a doctor's recommendation and his or her primary caregiver would have an affirmative defense if charged with a marijuana offense as long as the amount of marijuana was not greater than the amount set by the state and could still mount an affirmative defense if it was, provided that greater amount is "medically necessary." The amount is not set in the resolutions; instead, the legislature would be charged with setting quantity limits in the event the referendum passes.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing. Still, Florida activists are happy to see them and will be present in Tallahassee to lobby for them.

"This is the first time since 1978 that cannabis advocates will have a sustained presence in the legislature," said veteran activist Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network.  "Sick and dying people need access to this medicine now, she told the Gainesville Sun.

The group has also created a Florida Decides web site with a petition to Gov. Rick Scott (R) asking him to urge the legislature to bypass the referendum process and just pass a medical marijuana bill directly. So far, that petition has 2,876 electronic signatures.

While the House version has a handful of cosponsors, the sole sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami). She told the Sun she had originally sponsored the bill as a courtesy to constituents, but after researching it, has embraced the cause.

Now, it's up to the rest of the legislature to embrace the cause, and James and the Florida Cannabis Action Network are there to help them see the light.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

Poll Finds Washington State Voters Split on Marijuana Legalization

An Elway Research poll released January 4 found more support for than opposition to marijuana legalization in Washington state, but support was under 50%. When asked if they favored legalization, 48% said yes, with 45% opposed.

That marks a decline in support from the last Elway Research poll in July, when 54% favored legalization.

The poll results come just days after New Approach Washington handed in over 355,000 voter signatures in its bid to get its Initiative 502 on the November ballot. The initiative would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and over and would regulate and tax marijuana sales at stores operated by the state Liquor Control Board. (All liquor stores in Washington are also operated by the state.)

The Elway polls asked generic questions about marijuana legalization. A November KING-TV/Survey USA poll that asked about specific provisions in I-502 found greater enthusiasm among voters. That poll had support at 57%.

Noting that the Elway Research poll only asked the generic question, New Approach director Alison Holcomb told the Seattle Times it didn't mention provisions in I-502 that are popular with voters, such as age restrictions and designating marijuana tax revenues for health and prevention programs.

"Our research over the years has shown us that voters really care about what the details are," she said.

United States

Statewide Colorado Marijuana Initiative Turns in Signatures
the ski town Breckenridge, Colorado (which voted for legalization in 2009)
Proponents of a Colorado marijuana legalization initiative turned in more than 159,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office Wednesday, nearly twice as many as the 86,500 required for the measure to be approved for the November ballot. The state has 30 days to verify the signatures and approve the measure for the ballot.

The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce or six plants (three mature plants) by people 21 or over. It would also compel the state of Colorado to come up with regulations for commercial marijuana cultivation and sales by July 1, 2013.

The campaign for the initiative is being spearheaded by two well-known, Colorado-based activist organizations, SAFER Colorado, led by Mason Tvert, and Sensible Colorado, led by Brian Vicente. The campaign estimates that legalizing and regulating marijuana would save the state $80 million a year in law enforcement costs and generate $40 billion a year in tax revenues.

Rep. Jared Polis, a prominent legalization supporter, at National Cannabis Industry Association press conference, April 2011
"This is a job well done and a crucial first step to ensure Coloradans have a chance to make history," said Art Way, Colorado Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports the measure. "There's simply no denying the intense groundswell for change. This initiative is another indication that Colorado is moving away from non-sustainable drug policies that don't benefit society at large," said Way. "The selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition and the often undue collateral consequences associated with prohibition should impel all who believe in individual liberty to support this initiative."

Initiative organizers will have their work cut out for them. A Public Policy Polling survey of Colorado residents in December asked "in general, do you think marijuana usage should be legal or illegal," and legal won by a margin of 49% to 40%. Earlier polls had slightly higher levels of support, but the conventional wisdom among initiative experts is that initiatives should be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins.

Still, it now appears that voters in at least two states -- Colorado and Washington -- will have the opportunity to legalize marijuana this year.

Denver, CO
United States

The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]
We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:

Progress on Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.

In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.

Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority support among the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.

Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.

In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.

The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.

Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.

Medical Marijuana Advances…

In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.

And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.

…But the Empire Strikes Back

Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.

Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.

There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.

It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.

Synthetic Panic

Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.

Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.

At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.

The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly

overcrowded Mule Creek State Prison, CA
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning in November.

Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.

Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.

Drug Testing the Needy

drug testing lab
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.

The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.

While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.

But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.

Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War

Drug War 40th anniversary demo, San Francisco
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.

In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.

Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges

Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, the ban was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

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.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

US Drug War Deaths

As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.

Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms (some in their own homes) and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.

People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.

Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.

The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.

In Conclusion...

Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.


Medical Marijuana Update

So much is going on in the world of medical marijuana that we cannot adequately cover it all through news briefs and the occasional feature article. The news briefs and feature articles will, of course, continue, but we now include a weekly medical marijuana update at least noting all those stories we are unable to cover more comprehensively. Here's the latest:


On December 14, a federal judge in San Diego rejected a request from medical marijuana advocates for an injunction to halt federal enforcement actions against dispensaries there. The ruling followed his November ruling rejecting a temporary restraining order. US District Judge Dana Sabraw rejected arguments that the feds were engaging in selective prosecution by not targeting dispensaries in other states and that use of medical marijuana has become a protected right. Sabraw noted that the federal government was prosecuting some dispensaries in other states and ruled that using marijuana as medicine is not a fundamental right protected by the US Constitution. The suit is not dead, but the government is now expected to file a new motion to dismiss the case.

Also on December 14, NORML dismissed James Benno, the director of its Redding chapter, after his angry outburst during a meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors the night before as the supervisors voted to ban dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas. NORML also apologized to the supervisors and suspended the Redding chapter. Benno's behavior prompted an editorial in the Redding Record Searchlight, Nasty Outbursts do Nothing for Marijuana Cause.

On December 15, the Fresno city council voted to ban outdoor medical marijuana cultivation within the city limits. Fresno County banned outdoor grows last year. The vote came after Fresno police went to the council seeking an immediate ordinance "to prevent the cultivations from starting next year." Police cited the shooting death of a local man during an attempted marijuana heist in a backyard last year. The emergency measure took effect immediately and must be renewed within 45 days. A final permanent ban is expected in April, and it would make growing marijuana a violation of (no pun intended) the city's weed abatement ordinance. Local growers are holding meetings to figure out what to do next.

On December 15, the Butte County Registrar of Voters certified a referendum petition turned in by opponents of a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in the county. The petitioners are trying to reverse a recent vote by county supervisors to ban dispensaries. Supervisors will take up the issue at their next meeting. They can either reverse their decision or put the matter before the voters on the June ballot.

On December 15, medical marijuana advocates filed a proposed 2012 ballot initiative to license, regulate, and tax the industry at the state level. The initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act was filed by a coalition that includes Americans for Safe Access, California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents some dispensary workers.

"We think that this initiative will create a level playing ground that law enforcement will embrace because it creates a sensible process," said Dan Rush, national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' medical cannabis division. "The US attorneys became hostile to medical marijuana in California and what we are doing is offering a responsible, dignified and sincere approach to the citizens of California."

Look for a feature article on the initiative in coming weeks. 

On Friday, Sacramento County's Magnolia Wellness Center closed down but only after offering free grams and discounts on top-tier medical marijuana strains to its clients. Hundreds of customers of what was possibly the largest dispensary in the county lined up for the final day, with many expressing great unhappiness with the federal crackdown and an aggressive campaign by the county to shut down dispensaries via citations for building code and zoning violations. The county had seen as many as 99 dispensaries open in the past two years. Now there are only five left. The closing of Magnolia left 25 unionized bud tenders and other workers out of jobs in a county where the unemployment rate is 11.8%.

On Saturday, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Novato closed its doors in the face of threats of federal prosecution. The Alliance was the oldest operating dispensary in the state and had a good working relationship with local officials, but ran afoul of the feds because it was located too close parks and schools. It closed after it was served an eviction notice by its landlord, who had received a threat letter from US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag. Co-founder and longtime Alliance operator Lynette Shaw also formally severed her connection with the Alliance, saying she was "in great danger," presumably of federal prosecution.

On Monday, San Diego medical marijuana collectives unveiled a proposed ballot initiative that would regulate storefront operators and generate additional revenue through a sales tax to the city of San Diego. The move comes after years of futile efforts to get the city council to enact a friendly ordinance regulating dispensaries and as both local and federal prosecutors are cracking down on dispensaries in the area. The same collectives earlier this year collected enough signatures to successfully repeal a restrictive city ordinance. If they get enough signatures this time, the measure will be on next November's ballot.


On December 15, three medical marijuana dispensary operators were sentenced in federal court to a year in prison each. Joshua Schultz, Jesse Leland, and Jason Burns could have faced a five year prison sentence, but the US Probation Office recommended two to 2 ½ years under sentencing guidelines.

US District Court Judge Charles Lovell went a step further, saying: "The sentencing range that established the guidelines has been, in the judgment of the court, excessive for utilization in this particular case under what I find to be very unusual circumstances. While it is true that the law was violated and while it is true that the computation set forward by the US Probation Office complies with the guidelines in an ordinary case, this is not an ordinary case as to each of the three defendants."

The three men had all operated dispensaries in compliance with Montana state law and believed they were safe from federal prosecution because of the Justice Department's 2009 Ogden memo. But their dispensaries were among more than two dozen hit in March raids by the feds, and they were arrested and jailed on about 25 charges each, including manufacturing and distributing marijuana and money laundering.

On Tuesday, a Whitefish man who helped run a medical marijuana dispensary was sentenced to a year and half in federal prison. Ryan Blindheim, 34, had helped operate the Black Pearl dispensary in Olney along with Evan Corum, also of Whitefish. Corum earlier pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to six months in prison. Blindheim pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. Black Perl was among the more than two dozen medical marijuana businesses raided by the feds in March.


On December 14, Seattle marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt filed a lawsuit challenging the city's ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. The lawsuit argues that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it requires dispensary operators to admit they are taking actions that are illegal under federal law.

Teens Rejecting Alcohol, Tobacco; Selecting Marijuana [FEATURE]

The annual Monitoring the Future survey of substance use by eighth, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and it shows students are drinking and smoking tobacco at historically low levels, but marijuana use is on the rise. Teen use of other drugs also generally declined, except for a slight increase in use of prescription drugs reported by seniors.

About one-third of seniors reported smoking pot during the past year, up slightly from the previous year. That's well above the 20% who did so in 1991, the nadir for teen marijuana use, but well below the more than 50% who did so in 1979, the apex of teen marijuana use. The number of seniors reporting annual pot use has been creeping up slightly since about 2007.

Federal drug war bureaucrats bemoaned the uptick in teen pot smoking at a Washington, DC, press conference rolling out the research results, but marijuana law reform activists had a different take on the numbers and what they mean.

Daily tobacco smoking by teens was down by 50% compared to the mid-1990s, while adolescent binge drinking had declined by 25% since 1997. About 10% of high school seniors reported daily cigarette smoking and about 20% reported smoking within the last month, down 40% from 1997. At all three grade levels, more students smoked pot in the last month than smoked cigarettes.

"The decrease is very dramatic," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But despite the dramatic results, the prevalence of teen smoking and drinking is still high, so we can't become complacent. The troublesome news is that marijuana use has been trending upwards in the last few years. We've seen a significant decline in the perception that marijuana is risky. Fewer kids see smoking marijuana as having bad health effects."

While careful to point out that responsible marijuana reform activists do not encourage teen substance use, Mason Tvert, head of the activist group SAFER (Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and coauthor of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? dared to suggest that young people who do use drugs are making smarter choices about which drugs they choose to use.

"We're always concerned about young people using drugs, but it's clear that more young people are understanding that marijuana is a less harmful substance and making that choice," said Tvert. "While we certainly don't want to promote marijuana use among minors, this report suggests they are making the safer choice to use marijuana rather than alcohol."

Tvert attributed both the rise in teen use and the decline in their perceptions of marijuana's risks to their increasing exposure to knowledge about marijuana.

"Ultimately, people are hearing more and more about the facts surrounding marijuana, and as they continue to hear that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, that it doesn't contribute to violence, that there is no danger of a deadly overdose, they are increasingly more comfortable making that choice."

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske used the Wednesday press conference to blame medical marijuana for the rise in teen pot smoking. 

"These last couple years, the amount of attention that's been given to medical marijuana has been huge," he said. "And when I've done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, 'Well, if it's called medicine and it's given to patients by caregivers, then that's really the wrong message for us as high school students.'"

While Volkow and Kerlikowske lauded the use of prevention campaigns in reducing teen smoking and drinking, they did not say why such a strategy was not appropriate for marijuana, nor did they break with the prevailing prohibitionist approach to marijuana.  That led to criticism from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

"This report, once again, clearly demonstrates that our nation's policymakers have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to addressing teen marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, MPP executive director. "Political leaders have for decades refused to regulate marijuana in order to keep it out of the hands of drug dealers who aren't required to check customer ID and have no qualms about selling marijuana to young people."

"The continued decline in teen tobacco and alcohol use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people," Kampia continued. "It's time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives -- to keep marijuana away from young people -- and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the easy access to marijuana that our irrational system gives teenagers."

"The decline in cigarette smoking is great news -- not just because it's the most deadly drug but also because it reveals that legal regulation and honest education are more effective than prohibition and criminalization," said DPA publications manager Jag Davies. "It's absurd, though, that the survey doesn't also include the fiscal, health and human costs of arresting more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges, including more than 750,000 for marijuana possession alone."

"Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm," Davies continued. "A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse itself -- such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission -- and the problems associated with drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration, erosion of civil liberties, and egregious racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees."

"Arresting people for marijuana simply does not stop young people from using it, and it never will," said Kampia. "It is time for a more sensible approach."

Washington, DC
United States

Marijuana Legalization Fares Well in Colorado, Massachusetts Polls

Two polls released late last week show strong support for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Massachusetts. Both states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot, and activists in both states are working toward legalization. In Colorado, an effort to put a legalization initiative on the ballot next year is well underway, while in Massachusetts, this year's emphasis is on legalizing medical marijuana.

In Massachusetts, a DAPA Research poll conducted for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition/NORML found that 58% support legalizing marijuana and regulating it like other agricultural commodities with sales prohibited to underage persons. The figure was 69% for Democrats, 44% for Republicans, and 54% for "other."

Support for legalization rose to 62% when respondents were asked if a proposed law would tax and regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana to adults like the state currently regulates alcohol. The figure was 70% for Democrats, 56% for Republicans, and 60% for "other."

The poll also found that 54% opposed the federal government disregarding state laws in states that legalize marijuana, while only 35% supported the federal government disregarding state law.

The Massachusetts poll was conducted in November. It surveyed 600 Massachusetts voters by telephone and has a margin of error of +/-4%.

"The data strongly suggests that Massachusetts voters are more ready than voters in any other state to end prohibition and establish reasonable regulation of cannabis cultivation and commerce for all purposes," said Steven Epstein, a founder and currently an officer of MassCann/NORML. "The data also establishes that if the legislature does not enact a law allowing medical use of marijuana this session the voters will overwhelmingly, perhaps 80%+, approve the voter initiative for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana at the ballot box in November."

"Legalization is essential to ending crime created by the prohibition of cannabis," said Cara Crabb-Burnham, a member of MassCann/NORML's board of directors. "It is important to recognize legal vendors will card customers and keep it out of the hands of children."

In Colorado, a Public Policy Polling survey asked "in general, do you think marijuana usage should be legal or illegal," and legal won by a margin of 49% to 40%. A similar question about medical marijuana showed support at 68%, with only 25% saying it should be illegal. No cross tabs were available for the poll.

The poll surveyed 793 Colorado voters from December 1 to 4. The margin of error for the survey is +/-3.5%.  It was conducted via automated telephone interview.

The poll sends a mixed message for Colorado legalizers. It demonstrates that marijuana legalization is more popular than pot prohibition in the Rocky Mountain State, but not quite popular enough to win at the polls next year. The conventional wisdom among initiative experts is that they should be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins.

But Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Colorado Independent said he had seen polls showing stronger support than this one and that it was early yet. "I think it will go higher as the campaign heats up," he said.

Medical Marijuana Update

So much is going on in the world of medical marijuana that we cannot adequately cover it all through news briefs and the occasional feature article. The news briefs and feature articles will, of course, continue, but beginning now, we will also include a weekly medical marijuana update at least noting all those stories we are unable to cover more comprehensively. This first update was updated daily through today for release with this week's Drug War Chronicle issue. Subsequent updates will appear as a regular weekly feature. Here we go:


On November 30, the governors of two medical marijuana states, Christine Gregoire (D) of Washington and Lincoln Chafee (I) of Rhode Island, called on the Obama administration to reschedule marijuana. The next day, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) said he would join them, but that same day, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said he would not.


As of the end of November, the US Attorney's Office in San Diego reported that more than 60% of the 222 dispensaries in the region have closed their doors since it began sending threat letters in October to the outlets and their landlords. That's 139 dispensaries gone in far Southern California, and the feds said they expected another 20 or so to close in the next two weeks.

On November 28, a federal judge in San Francisco declined to issue a temporary injunction blocking a federal crackdown on dispensaries in the Bay Area. US Attorney Melinda Haag had ordered those clubs to close, because they were too close to schools on parks. Two of the targeted dispensaries, San Francisco's Divinity Tree and Medithrive, have already shut down to avoid criminal prosecution or seizure of their properties. A third, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, may be about to follow (see below).

Also on November 28, the last dispensary in the Stockton area shut down after receiving one of those October threat letters from federal prosecutors. County officials had banned dispensaries. One other dispensary shut down in October, and two more are on hold as city officials await clarification from state and federal authorities.

That same day, the city of Novato voted to renew its expiring moratorium on dispensaries for another year and said city staffers would move to shut down two dispensaries operating in violation of city zoning ordinances. The moratorium does not apply to the two dispensaries because they were grandfathered in, but staffers said they are prohibited under city zoning rules, which do not name marijuana sales as an allowed use.

Also on that same day, the Amador County Board of Supervisors temporarily banned outdoor medical marijuana grows in the wake of a September killing during the attempted robbery of a medical marijuana grow. A task force drafting regulations for outdoor grows will meet later this month. Amador County Counsel Gregory Gillott said Fresno, El Dorado, Glenn and Lassen counties all have similar bans on outdoor growing.

On Novmber 30, a Marin County judge declined to quash an eviction order aimed at closing the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana dispensary in Fairfax. The Marin Alliance is the longest operating dispensary in the state, but it could be doomed after being targeted by federal prosecutors in October. Founder and operator Lynette Shaw has until December 9 to answer the ruling and request a trial, but said this week she wasn't sure she will stay open.

That same day, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said that any sales of medical marijuana are illegal. After raids last month that targeted a half-dozen dispensaries and more than a dozen other locations and persons, the department said Proposition 19 and laws passed to regulate medical marijuana in the state "do not authorize sales of marijuana."

Also on November 30, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich announced that his office is targeting nine dispensaries to be shut down because they're within 600 feet of a school. He said he would seek $2,500 a day penalties if they stay open while being sued. Meanwhile the city reports that 372 marijuana businesses had filed to begin paying a city business tax by the October 31 deadline. An unknown number had not filed, but city officials said there could be as many as 500 dispensaries in the city, down from a peak of 850.

On December 1, prosecutors in Oroville dropped the charges against three members of a Chico-area medical marijuana collective because, they said, one of their codefendants was seriously ill. The three had been charged with marijuana cultivation and possession with intent to distribute after their Mountainside Patient Collective in west Chico was raided in a June 30, 2010, sweep of seven dispensaries and 11 residences raided that day.

Also on December 1, disgruntled residents of Northern California's Lake County filed a notice of intention to circulate a petition for "Lake County Act to Adopt Federal Marijuana Laws." The petition's statement of reasons explains, "Voters of Lake County, California, need an alternative to the aggressive pro-pot agenda being pushed by entities within and outside of the county." If the petition receives enough signatures, it would qualify as an initiative on the June 2012 ballot.

On Monday, the city of Oakland advanced in its plan to double the number of dispensaries from four to eight. It posted on its web site the 10 finalists for the four club permits. They are: Oakland Community Collective; G8 Medical Alliance, Inc.; Tidewater Patients Group; AMCD, Inc.; Agramed; East Bay Conscious Collective; South Bay Apothecary Collective; Magnolia Wellness Inc.; Abatin Wellness Center of Oakland; and Green Light District. Public hearings begin in January.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors passed an amendment to the zoning code that will effectively bar medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county. "Notwithstanding any provision of the zoning code, any land use activity or establishment that contravenes state or federal law or both is prohibited," the amendment reads. There are seven or eight dispensaries left in the unincorporated area of the county.

Also on Tuesday, the Redding City Council voted to seek a court order to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. At least seven dispensaries remained open this week despite a city ban that went into effect last week. The vote came after a Shasta County Superior Court judge last week denied a request for a temporary restraining order against the city's ban. A hearing for a preliminary injunction against the ban is set for January 17.


The Committee for Compassionate Medicine, which is seeking to put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot next year, announced December 1that it had had handed in more than 74,000 signatures and planned on handing in another 10,000 by next week's deadline. They need 68,911 valid voter signatures to make the ballot, so even if they get that additional 10,000, it's still going to be a very close call, given that some sizeable fraction of signatures gathered will be found to be invalid.


An Oakland County circuit court judge November 28 threw out a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and two medical marijuana patients against the cities of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, which had passed ordinances saying it is unlawful for anyone to engage in an activity contrary to state, local, or federal law. The judge dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs had not been charged with any crimes. The ACLU and the plaintiffs had hoped to force a ruling on whether state and local law enforcement had to obey the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, but they didn't get it.

On November 29, two Oakland County dispensaries were raided by the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team. Police arrested three people at one dispensary and four at the other and seized a combined five pounds of medical marijuana and three pounds of edibles. No charges have been filed yet.

New Jersey

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released November 30 found overwhelming Garden State support for medical marijuana and high levels of support for marijuana law reform as well. A whopping 86% of respondents supported the availability of medical marijuana, while 60% thought penalties for pot use should be relaxed, just over half didn't think pot possession should be a crime, and one-third would completely legalize its sale and use.

The poll was released just a day after Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced that he had appointed a law enforcement figure, retired State Police Lt. John O'Brien to oversee the program, which has yet to actually serve a single patient nearly three years after it was passed into law. The first strictly-regulated compassion centers are set to open next year.

The state Department of Health and Human Services last month finally published rules and regulations for the program, which were roundly denounced by the Coalition for Medical Marijuna-New Jersey, the state's leading patient advocacy group.


On Monday, the Issaquah City Council set rules governing medical marijuana collective gardens to limit such operations near schools, parks and other collective gardens. The measure sets a 1,000-foot buffer between a collective garden and a community center, school or another collective garden. The ordinance also sets a 500-foot buffer between a collective garden and park, preschool or daycare center. Its passage was greeted with applause by medical marijuana advocates present at the meeting.


At a November 28 news conference at the state capitol in Madison, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) announced that he is introducing  LRB-2466, the Jackie Rickert Medical Marijuana Act (JRMMA), named after the wheelchair-bound patient, activist, and member of Is My Medicine Legal Yet, the state's most prominent medical marijuana activist group.

Pocan and state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) will be the lead sponsors of the bill, which died without a committee vote last session. Activists in Wisconsin have been working for a decade to pass medical marijuana legislation. Whether it will happen this session, given the bitter political atmosphere and Republican nomination at the state house remains to be seen.

Tacoma Passes Lowest Priority Marijuana Initiative

Voters in Tacoma, Washington, overwhelmingly approved an initiative Tuesday directing the city to make adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. The measure passed by a margin of 65% to 35%.

Organized under the auspices of the Cannabis Reform Act for the City of Tacoma, the initiative, known as I-1, directs Tacoma police and prosecutors to "make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of cannabis (a/k/a 'marijuana') offenses the lowest enforcement priority, as this term may be defined in their policies and procedures manuals, for adult personal use."

Supporters of the initiative included medical marijuana patients, who argued that it would allow sick people in Tacoma to use their medicine without fear of legal consequences. Supporters also argued that the implementation of the measure would free up law enforcement resources for more serious matters.

But Tacoma prosecutors and law enforcement officials said the new law wouldn't change much. They said marijuana possession offenses aren't a priority now.

Tacoma is following in the footsteps of Seattle, just a few miles north on Interstate 5, which passed a lowest priority initiative in 2003. While Seattle saw hundreds of annual pot possession arrests before passing its initiative, that number dropped to dozens after it passed. Since City Attorney Pete Holmes took office last year, there has been just one prosecution for simple marijuana possession.

In Tacoma, by contrast, 463 marijuana possession cases were prosecuted last year -- so much for their not being a priority -- and 159 so far this year. Initiative proponents said Tacoma could do better by doing less when it comes to prosecuting pot possessors.

Tacoma, WA
United States

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