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Sentencing: Obama Administration Tells Congress to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

In a break with the Bush administration, Justice Department officials called Wednesday for the first time for Congress to pass legislation that would undo the vast disparities in sentences for those convicted of crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. For years, drug reformers, civil rights groups, and even the US Sentencing Commission have called for the disparities to be undone, saying they have had a racially disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.

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Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) opens the hearing
Under federal sentencing laws adopted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the 1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to generate the same sentence. Historically, blacks have accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack convictions, with whites accounting for less than 10%.

Competing bills have been introduced to eliminate or reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, but in previous years they have not gotten far. With the administration now behind eliminating the disparity, this year could be different.

Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee Wednesday that the administration supported bills that would equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The disparity should be "completely eliminated," he said.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He added that a Justice Department panel is reviewing a broad range of criminal justice topics, including sentencing reforms.

It's about time, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, citing the racially disproportionate crack conviction figures. "These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

US District Judge Reggie Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, also addressed the committee. The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today," he said. "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me," said the judge, who is black.

Sentencing reform advocacy groups were also on hand for the hearing. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told the subcommittee the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on blacks, including people like FAMM client Eugenia Jennings, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for twice trading small amounts of crack for designer clothes.

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," Price said.

Even former DEA head and enthusiastic drug warrior Asa Hutchinson had little good to say about the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. "When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said.

A number of bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Now, the fight will be to ensure that eliminating the disparity means reducing crack sentences, not increasing powder ones.

Click here to view archived video of the hearing.

Feature: Marijuana Reform Approaches the Tipping Point

Sometime in the last few months, the notion of legalizing marijuana crossed an invisible threshold. Long relegated to the margins of political discourse by the conventional wisdom, pot freedom has this year gone mainstream.

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Is reason dawning for marijuana policy?
The potential flu pandemic and President Obama's 100th day in office may have knocked marijuana off the front pages this week, but so far this year, the issue has exploded in the mass media, impelled by the twin forces of economic crisis and Mexican violence fueled by drug prohibition. A Google news search for the phrase "legalize marijuana" turned up more than 1,100 hits -- and that's just for the month of April.

It has been helped along by everything from the Michael Phelps non-scandal to the domination of marijuana legalization questions in the Change.gov questions, which prompted President Obama to laugh off the very notion, to the economy, to the debate over the drug war in Mexico. But it has also been ineffably helped along by the lifting of the oppressive burden of Bush administration drug war dogma. There is a new freedom in the air when it comes to marijuana.

Newspaper columnists and editorial page writers from across the land have taken up the cause with gusto, as have letter writers and bloggers. Last week, even a US senator got into the act, when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) told CNN that marijuana legalization is "on the table."

But despite the seeming explosion of interest in marijuana legalization, the actual fact of legalization seems as distant as ever, a distant vision obscured behind a wall of bureaucracy, vested interests, and craven politicians. Drug War Chronicle spoke with some movement movers and shakers to find out just what's going on... and what's not.

"There is clearly more interest and serious discussion of whether marijuana prohibition makes any sense than I've seen at any point in my adult lifetime," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not just the usual suspects; it's people like Jack Cafferty on CNN and Senator Jim Webb, as well as editorial pages and columnists across the country."

Mirken cited a number of factors for the sudden rise to prominence of the marijuana issue. "I think it's a combination of things: Michael Phelps, the horrible situation on the Mexican border, the state of the economy and the realization that there is a very large industry out there that provides marijuana to millions of consumers completely outside the legal economy that is untaxed and unregulated," he said. "All of these factors have come together in a way that makes it much easier for people to connect the dots."

"Things started going white hot in the second week of January," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We had the fallout from the Michael Phelps incident, the Change.gov marijuana question to Obama and his chuckling response, we have the Mexico violence, we have the economic issues," he counted. "All of these things have helped galvanize a certain zeitgeist that is palpable and that almost everyone can appreciate."

"The politicians are still very slow on picking up on the desires of citizens no matter how high the polling numbers go, especially on decriminalization and medical marijuana," said St. Pierre. "The polling numbers are over 70% for those, and support for legalization nationwide is now at about 42%, depending on which data set you use. Everything seems to be breaking for reform in these past few weeks, and I expect those numbers to only go up."

"It feels like we're reaching the tipping point," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "I've been feeling that for a couple of months now. The Michael Phelps incident sent a clear message that you can be successful and still have used marijuana. He's still a hero to lots of people," she said.

"I think we're getting close now," said Langston. "We have moved the conversation to the next level, where people are actually taking this seriously and we're not just having another fear-based discussion."

"There is definitely momentum building around marijuana issues," said Denver-based Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), which has built a successful strategy around comparing alcohol and marijuana. "Yet we still find ourselves in a situation where change is not happening. Up until now, people have made arguments around criminal justice savings, other economic benefits, ending the black market -- those things have got us to where we are today, but they haven't been enough to get elected officials to act," he argued.

"The problem is that there are still far too many people who see marijuana as so harmful it shouldn't be legalized," Tvert continued. "That suggests we need to be doing more to address the relative safety of marijuana, especially compared to drugs like alcohol. The good arguments above will then carry more weight. Just as a concerned parent doesn't want to reap the tax benefits of legal heroin, it's the same with marijuana. The mantra is why provide another vice. What we're saying is that we're providing an alternative for the millions who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol."

With the accumulation of arguments for legalization growing ever weightier, the edifice of marijuana prohibition seems increasingly shaky. "Marijuana prohibition has become like the Soviet Empire circa 1987 or 1988," Mirken analogized. "It's an empty shell of a policy that continues only because it is perceived as being huge and formidable, but when the perception changes, the whole thing is going to collapse."

Still, translating the zeitgeist into real change remains a formidable task, said Mirken. "It is going to take hard work. All of us need to keep finding ways to keep these discussions going in the media, we need to work with open-minded legislators to get bills introduced where there can be hearings to air the facts and where we can refute the nonsense that comes from our opponents. Keeping the debate front and center is essential," he said.

Mirken is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "We have to be prepared for an empire strikes back moment," he said. "I predict that within the next year, there will be a concerted effort to scare the daylights out of people about marijuana."

Activists need to keep hammering away at both the federal government and state and local governments, Mirken said. "We are talking to members of Congress and seeing what might be doable. Even if nothing passes immediately, introducing a bill can move the discussion forward, but realistically, things are more likely to happen at the state and local level," he said, citing the legalization bill in California and hinting that MPP would try legalization in Nevada again.

Part of the problem of the mismatch between popular fervor and actual progress on reform is partisan positioning, said St. Pierre. "Even politicians who may be personally supportive and can appreciate what they see going on around them as this goes mainstream do not want to hand conservative Republicans a triangulation issue. The Democrats are begging for a certain degree of political maturity from the reform movement," he said. "They're dealing with two wars, tough economic times, trying to do health care reform. They don't want to raise cannabis to a level where it becomes contentious for Obama."

The window of opportunity for presidential action is four years down the road, St. Pierre suggested. "If Obama doesn't do anything next year, they will then be in reelection mode and unlikely to act," he mused. "I think our real shot comes after he is reelected. Then we have two years before he becomes a lame duck."

But we don't have to wait for Obama, said St. Pierre. "We expect Barney Frank and Ron Paul to reintroduce decriminalization and medical marijuana bills," he said. "I don't think they will pass this year, but we might get hearings, although I don't think that's likely until the fall."

It's not just that politicians need to understand that supporting marijuana legalization will not hurt them -- they need to understand that standing its way will. "The politicians aren't feeling the pain of being opposed to remain," St. Pierre said. "We have to take out one of those last remaining drug war zealots."

Feature: Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Junior High Girl Strip Search Case

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding, a case that originated in a school administrator's decision to subject then 13-year-old Savannah Redding to a strip search after another student said she had obtained prescription-strength Ibuprofen tablets from her.

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US Supreme Court
The case began when administrators in Safford, Arizona, received a tip from a student and his parents that another child possessed the tablets and planned to give them to other students at lunch. Authorities confronted the second student and found Ibuprofen tablets in her possession. The second student told administrators she had obtained the pills from Redding.

Redding was escorted to the principal's office, and Redding's backpack and outer clothes were searched, but no pills were found. She was then told to remove her outer clothing in front of the school nurse and an administrative assistant, both female. Standing in her underwear, she was ordered to pull out her bra and underwear to allow any hidden pills to fall free. None did.

Redding and her parents then sued the school district for violating her constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Redding won in the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, and the school district appealed to the Supreme Court.

The justices' questions during oral arguments Tuesday suggested that, as they sought to find a balance between student privacy and public school safety, they were tilting toward the latter. They appeared inclined to give school administrators broad authority to do what is necessary to protect kids from drugs.

That's what attorneys for the school district argued. "Searching any place where she might be reasonably hiding that contraband was constitutionally permissible" because the school district was acting as guardian, not law enforcement, said Matthew Wright, counsel for the district. "It's not like a criminal issue where they're trying to prosecute. This is a case where they're trying to protect," Wright said. "It is best for this Court to defer to their judgment... and not second-guess those rules."

Justice David Souter, noting that the drug at issue was Ibuprofen, interjected that, "At some point, this gets silly."

Still, Souter also remarked that it could have been a more dangerous drug, and the consequences of not acting could be tragic: "My thought process is, I would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search, if we can't find anything short of that, than to have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry."

Justice Antonin Scalia pressed Wright about whether a body cavity search would be permissible. While Wright tried to dance around that question, saying body cavity searches were not done because school officials were not trained to do them, Scalia kept pressing. In the end, Wright conceded that "I could see that result."

Despite concerns about how far school administrators could go in searching for drugs, the justices seemed even more concerned about more dangerous drugs. The justices repeatedly asked hypothetical questions about what if it had been heroin or methamphetamine instead of Ibuprofen.

When it came time for Redding's side of the case to be argued, a Justice Department attorney took the lead. "We believe that without some particularized suspicion or some specific indication that this, the location, was a likely one to contain the drugs, that this search was excessively intrusive," said attorney David O'Neil. "And this is not a new standard."

"We agree with the federal government that before conducting an intrusive strip search a school needs to have location-specific information," argued Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "And while this case can begin and end with that well-accepted proposition, it's also important to recognize that a school needs greater -- a greater degree of suspicion to conduct a strip search than to conduct an ordinary backpack search. This search violated the clearly established point that in order to conduct an intrusive search of one's body, the searching official needs to at least reasonably believe that the object is located underneath the undergarments. The Fourth Amendment does not account -- it does not countenance the rummaging on or around a 13-year-old girl's naked body."

Justice Stephen Breyer tried to get Wolf to elaborate on "how bad" such searches really were, noting that students often changed clothes at school for gym class, but that only inspired Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, to intervene. "It wasn't just that they were stripped to their underwear," she said incredulously, referring to Redding and another girl similarly searched at the school. "They were asked to shake their bra out, to stretch the top of their pants and shake that out."

While the justices were weighing constitutional rights and student safety, youth rights advocates had little trouble sorting out the issues. "Strip searching eighth graders is way over the line," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "This kind of thing is a horrid example of the failure of our drug search policies in public schools. They said they were trying to protect the children, but who was protecting Savannah Redding from the humiliation inflicted on her by school officials?"

Students deserve the same constitutional rights as anyone else, said youth sociologist and Youth Facts founder Michael Males. And school districts should be making better choices, he added.

"Students should only be detained or searched under the same rules applied to adults," Males said. "If authorities have probable cause to suspect illegal behavior that would satisfy standards of reasonable suspicion, they can detain and search suspects. School strip searches require a very high level of probable cause, yet they typically seem based on gossip."

Males called the Redding case "particularly bizarre," noting that it only involved Ibuprofen. "School officials didn't seem interested in searching lockers, desks, or anywhere except inside the girl's underwear," he noted. "These kinds of traumatic cases are, again, why I keep arguing against raising hysteria about teenage drug use."

"Adults inspecting children's private parts is something we should be very wary of," said SSDP's Langston. "This was all over prescription-strength Ibuprofen, there was no evidence Savannah even had it except for the word of another student who was in trouble herself. If the Supreme Court allows this to stand, we will have given too much power to school officials to conduct such searches."

It's not just students but the school districts themselves that suffer from overbroad search policies, Males said. "These types of school searches have wound up costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in legal costs and, to my knowledge, virtually never find anything, which raises questions of why administrators are allocating scarce education resources to them."

The Supreme Court will decide the case later this summer. All indications are it will reverse the appeals court and uphold this expansion of school administrators' authority to do "whatever it takes" to protect students from drugs.

Obama's Fraudulent Pledge to Respect Medical Marijuana Laws

The legal plight of medical marijuana provider Charlie Lynch has provided a useful instrument with which to measure the new administration's commitment to respecting state medical marijuana laws. Attorney General Eric Holder has stated that only cases involving violation of state laws will be pursued, prompting the judge in Lynch's trial to request guidance from the Dept. of Justice before handing down the sentence. Here's what came back:

…in response to the Court's inquiries, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General has reviewed the facts of this case and determined that the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of defendant are entirely consistent with the policies of DOJ and with public statements made by the Attorney General with respect to marijuana prosecutions.

Huh!? That can only be true if Lynch violated California's medical marijuana laws, which hasn't been proven in court (he was only charged under federal law), and is entirely inconsistent with his well-documented cooperation with local authorities including the city council and chamber of commerce.

Charlie Lynch is exactly the sort of defendant we aren't supposed to be seeing anymore under Obama, and yet here he is, scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday and the new administration won't lift a finger to stop it. He'll likely receive a 5-year mandatory minimum for doing something the President has repeatedly said would not be prosecuted under his administration. It's just that simple.

On Thursday, we'll find out exactly how much Obama's campaign promises were worth. This won't go down quietly. Stay tuned.

No Joke

You Can Make a Difference

 

Dear Friends,

Tell President Obama it's time for a serious debate about marijuana prohibition.

Take Action Now
Email the president.

"I don’t know what this says about the online audience," joked President Obama during his first virtual town hall meeting. He was dismissing an idea submitted by tens of thousands of Americans: making marijuana legal.

This week, President Obama is visiting Mexico and seeing first hand the drug war violence that is spilling over our southern border, violence you and I know is fueled by marijuana prohibition.

Now that he’s seen what’s really happening, you have the chance to tell the president it's time for a serious discussion about the consequences of marijuana prohibition.

Thousands of people have been killed in the drug war in Mexico in the last couple of years. The drug traffickers are stockpiling machine guns and grenades and now are operating in hundreds of U.S. cities. This level of violence is the inevitable result of policies that create a lucrative black market.

You and I understand that ending marijuana prohibition would reduce violence and corruption the same way ending alcohol Prohibition did. I hope now that President Obama has seen the grisly consequences of marijuana prohibition first hand, he will no longer joke about marijuana law reform. Join me in telling him: This issue is deadly serious, and it's time to put all options on the table.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network

 

 

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ONDCP: Addiction Specialist Nominated as Assistant Drug Czar

The Obama administration announced last Friday it was naming a prominent addiction specialist to the number two post at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), widely known as the drug czar's office. If confirmed by the Senate, University of Pennsylvania psychologist A. Thomas McLellan would be deputy director of ONDCP.

McLellan would serve under former Seattle police chief and yet-to-be-confirmed director of ONDCP, Gil Kerlikowske. The nominations of Kerlikowske, a progressive police executive not overtly hostile to drug law reform, and McLellan, a well-respected scientist and researcher, suggest that the Obama administration is moving away from the politicized and ideologically-driven ONDCP of the Bush years.

McLellan is considered a leading researcher on a broad range of issues related to addiction. Working at the Veterans Administration in the 1980s, he developed the addiction severity index and the treatment services review, two measures that characterized multiple dimensions of substance use. He later worked with the state of Delaware to tie payment for treatment at state-funded centers to predetermined measures of success.

In 1992, McLellan co-founded the Treatment Research Institute to study how to transform promising research findings into clinical practice. He is editor in chief of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, and has published some 400 articles on various facets of addiction and treatment.

One of those was a groundbreaking 2000 article comparing drug addiction to other chronic medical conditions. In it, he urged consistent application of the disease model, noting that if diabetes patients relapsed after treatment, doctors would conclude that intervention had worked and more treatment was needed.

Drug addiction should be treated no differently, he suggested: "In contrast, relapse to drug or alcohol use following discharge from addiction treatment has been considered evidence of treatment failure," he wrote.

For those who view the disease model of addiction, humanely applied, as an improvement over arresting and imprisoning drug users, the McLellan nomination signals real potential progress. But for those who view the disease model as less an analog than a fuzzy metaphor, the nomination could signal the expansion of the therapeutic state in the name of our own good.

Feature: ASA in Federal Appeals Court Seeking to Force Government to Correct Medical Marijuana Misinformation

The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) was in federal appeals court Tuesday arguing that it and its members had the right to force the federal government to correct inaccurate statements about the therapeutic properties of marijuana. Lawyers for the Obama administration opposed them.

In 2004, ASA filed a petition under the Data Quality Act seeking to force the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to correct its statements that marijuana has no accepted medical use in the United States. The Data Quality Act requires federal government agencies to use reliable science when making regulations and disseminating information.

After two years of delays, HHS rejected ASA's petition. The group then filed suit in federal district court to force HHS to comply, but the trial judge threw out the lawsuit, finding that the act did not provide for judicial review. ASA then appealed to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is where Tuesday's hearing took place.

"The science to support medical marijuana is overwhelming," said ASA executive director Steph Sherer. "It's time for the federal government to acknowledge the efficacy of medical marijuana and stop holding science hostage to politics."

The Obama administration has vowed to make science -- not ideology -- the basis for federal government policies. On March 9, President Obama issued a memorandum to all executive department and agency heads saying: "The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions," and calling for "transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking."

But it had other concerns last Tuesday, when Justice Department lawyers argued against ASA in court. Assistant US Attorney Alisa Klein told a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit that the law allowing private citizens to seek correction of government information had "no judicially enforceable rights" and that it requires only that agencies review such requests -- not that they act on them. Otherwise, she said, the courts would be swamped with requests to second-guess government decisions on a multitude of subjects.

The government's position would make the law meaningless, retorted Alan Morrison, founder of Public Citizen's Litigation Group, who argued the case along with ASA chief counsel Joe Elford. While some disputes are too subjective for courts to intervene, others can be measured objectively. "Two plus two is four, not five," Morrison noted. The law provides judges a role in keeping the government honest, he added.

Members of the three-judge panel seemed torn. "The statute is amazing and troubling," said Judge Marsha Berzon. But she told Klein that the law appears to allow people affected by government misinformation to get it corrected, under court order if necessary.

"The case before the 9th Circuit is about the right of private parties to seek action to challenge the government's dissemination of false information," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "When HHS says on its web site that there is no currently accepted medical use of marijuana in the US, we and our members suffer by having to counter that disinformation. We have to educate the public, public officials, physicians, and lawyers on the reality of medical marijuana, and we are using that as giving us standing for the lawsuit."

ASA executive director Sherer herself claims to have suffered from government misinformation. In the group's brief to the appeals court, it relates how Sherer rejected medical marijuana as a treatment for her condition based on government statements it had no medical value. Only after suffering serious side effects from conventional medications and at her physician's urging did she finally try medical marijuana, and then found it brought her relief.

"Our aim is to correct the misinformation that the federal government is disseminating about medical marijuana, specifically that marijuana has no medicinal value," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "We are using an administrative mechanism -- the Data Quality Act -- in order to achieve that, but the government has so far refused to respond substantively to our petition."

A victory at the 9th Circuit would mean that the ASA lawsuit could move forward. That would most likely mean the case would be remanded back to district court to force the federal government to issue a substantive response to the ASA petition.

"If they agree their information is inaccurate and not based on scientific evidence, they would simply correct the statements they are making," said Hermes. "But if they do not choose to admit that they are disseminating unscientific information, we may have to challenge them on the merits again in district court," he said.

While an eventual victory in the case would have no immediate impact on federal medical marijuana policy, said Hermes, it could help lay the foundations for moving marijuana off Schedule I as a dangerous drug with no accepted medical use. "That could be the first domino in a series of falling dominos that will affect federal policy," he said.

The 9th Circuit is now considering the case.

Feature: Mexico's Congress Hosts Forum on Marijuana Regulation, Decriminalization

President Obama flew into Mexico City Thursday to, among other things, restate his support for the existing drug war paradigm as he reiterated his backing for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's bloody war against Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and violent drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels. It's too bad he didn't schedule his trip for a few days earlier, because then he could have seen a new drug policy paradigm being born.

Earlier in the week, the Mexican Congress held a three-day debate on the merits of decriminalizing the personal use of marijuana. The debate, known as the Forums on the Regulation of Cannabis in Mexico, brought together government officials, elected representatives, academics and experts in a lively discussion of Mexican marijuana policy.

Although Mexico is a socially conservative country, and marijuana use is popularly -- if unfairly -- associated with lower-class criminality, the blood-stained fall-out from President Calderón's war against the cartels is creating social and political space for reform discussions that would have been impossible a decade ago. Since Calderón unleashed the Mexican army against the cartels at the beginning of 2007, the death toll has climbed to more than 10,000, and the spectacular, exemplary violence has shocked Mexican society.

While President Calderón has proposed legislation that would offer pot smokers treatment instead of jail, Calderón and his ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) have stopped short of calling for legalization or decriminalization. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) supports decriminalization, while the smaller Social Democratic Party (PSD) has called for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs.

In 2006, Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, moved to pass decriminalization legislation. But he pulled the bill after being pressured by the US.

While Obama has not weighed in on marijuana legalization or decriminalization in Mexico, the DEA has. Either course would mark "a failure" of US and Mexican drug policy, DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Placido told El Universal Wednesday. "The legalization of marijuana in Mexico would create more misery and more addicts," he said. Nor would it weaken the cartels, he argued; instead, they would simply shift their attention to other illegal activities.

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''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
PSD Deputy Elsa Conde last year introduced three bills that would legalize medical marijuana, legalize hemp, and decriminalize marijuana possession, but the debate in Congress this week does not pertain to any particular piece of legislation. Instead, it lays the groundwork for future policy changes. Lawmakers have said they wanted to hear various viewpoints before considering any changes in the law.

Even the ruling PAN appears open to some sort of reform. "It's clear that a totally prohibitive policy has not been a solution for all ills," said Interior Department official Blanca Heredia. "At the same time, it's illusory to imagine that complete legalization of marijuana would be a panacea."

When it came to marijuana, said Heredia, neither total legalization nor prohibition should be the policy, but something in between. "Every new solution is necessarily partial," she said. "Every decision runs risks and brings with it new problems. We have to try to balance things carefully, to rigorously analyze the impact that different proposals would have on the drug market and the organized crime industry."

Javier González Garza, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) in the Chamber of Deputies, said that while he favored decriminalizing marijuana, the topic should be discussed separately from other types of drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, and the synthetics.

"What we don't want is the criminalization of our youth for consuming or carrying marijuana," said González. "That is the central point. If we made consuming or carrying marijuana a serious crime, there aren't enough jails in Mexico to hold everybody."

While the politicians talked politics, others took the discussion to loftier realms. Philosopher Rodolfo Vázquez Cardoso questioned whether it is ethically justifiable to criminalize the possession of drugs for personal use. He noted that while the theme of most discussion was the harmful effects of drug use, the central theme should instead be that of freedom.

"There is no legitimate objective of the judicial system to promote good living or virtue because that enters into conflict with the capacity of each individual to choose freely and rationally how to live his life and choose the ideals of virtue in accord with his own preferences," said Vázquez. Drug prohibition, he added, is based on "repressive paternalism" and violates the principle of personal autonomy.

For Ana Paula Hernández of the Angélica Foundation, human rights and the rule of law were key concerns. She cited the "unmeasured militarization of the country as a consequence of the war against organized crime" and warned that those most affected by the drug war were the poor peasant communities that were "the weakest link" of the drug production chain.

"These ideas about controlling prohibited drugs are innovative," said political scientist and drug policy expert Luis Astorga. "When it comes to drugs, we don't have to follow the path of the United States, which hasn't worked. We need to develop ideas and policies distinct from those of the US. We have a very good opportunity to do something independent, as they have in Europe and Canada," he said.

But Armando Patrón Vargas of the National Council Against Addiction in the Health Department said decriminalization wasn't necessary because Mexico doesn't criminalize drug addiction. "I don't see any urgent need to modify the status [of marijuana] and decriminalize use," he told the forum. The Mexican government guarantees treatment of addicts, he said, even if the investment in treatment is inadequate.

Dr. Humberto Brocca, a student of herbal and traditional medicine and a member of the pro-reform Grupo Cáñamo (Cannabis Group) told the forum it was time to end the prejudice and social stigma against pot smokers and urged legislators to be fearless in moving toward regulation "because fear is not a good advisor."

Brocca told the Chronicle Wednesday that while he did not expect quick change in the drug laws, the forum was a start. "It means that society is demanding some truth about important issues," he said.

Even the half-measure of decriminalization would make a big difference, he said. "It would take cannabis out of the criminal circuit and it would lower prices and guarantee good quality," Brocca said. "It would also remove cannabis from its role of rebellious banner for youth, thus making it less attractive for them. It would also help law enforcement to not waste its time on petty issues and focus on important ones, like going after the traffickers. And it would liberate the many people who currently serve time for nothing."

Mexico's lawmakers have had their chance to discuss marijuana law reform. Now it is time to craft and pass the necessary legislation to put those reforms in place. But with mid-term elections coming up in a couple of months, little is likely to happen before then.

Free Speech: Grand Jury Subpoenas Prominent Pain Relief Advocate Who Has Criticized the Prosecution of a Kansas Physician

Siobhan Reynolds, head of the pain patient and doctor advocacy group the Pain Relief Network, has been targeted for a grand jury investigation of obstruction of justice for her role in supporting a Kansas physician and his wife in their legal battle against federal prosecutors who accuse them of unlawfully prescribing pain relief medications at their clinic.

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Siobhan Reynolds at 2004 Congressional briefing
Reynolds, a tireless activist for the cause of adequately treating chronic pain, publicly questioned the government's case against Steve and Linda Schneider and worked to support their defense. That must have aroused the ire of Assistant US Attorney Tanya Treadway, who is prosecuting the case, because this isn't the first time Treadway has tried to shut Reynolds up.

Last July, Treadway sought a gag order barring Reynolds and the Schneiders from talking to the press and another order barring Reynolds from talking to "victims" and witnesses in the case. The judge hearing the case, US District Court Judge Monti Belot, denied that motion to stifle dissent.

At the time, Treadway said in court documents that Reynolds had a "sycophantic or parasitic relationship" with the Schneiders and alleged that she was using the case to further the Pain Relief Network's political agenda and her own personal interests. Reynolds and the Pain Relief Network advocate against federal prosecutions of pain relief doctors, whom they see as victims of overzealous federal prosecutors and DEA agents who know little about proper medical care standards.

Now, Treadway is at it again. In a subpoena made available to the Associated Press, she demands that Reynolds turn over all correspondence with attorneys, patients, Schneider family members, doctors, and others related to the Schneider case. She also demands that Reynolds turn over bank and credit card statements showing payments to or from clinic employees, patients, potential witnesses and others.

The feisty Reynolds has no intention of complying. Instead, she has filed a motion seeking to throw out the grand jury subpoena. In that motion, she argues that forcing her to turn over such information would destroy her work as a political activist and violate her First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

She told the AP she would go to jail before turning over any documents. "This is an attempt to silence and intimidate me. I am going to fight it as far as I need to," she said. "If I were to give in here, lawful advocacy against the United States in court will effectively be brought to an end. So... a lot is at stake here."

Obama Declares War on American Drug Users

Speaking in Mexico today, President Obama embraced the exact hard-line drug war philosophy he rejected on the campaign trail:

Obama acknowledged that the United States shares responsibility for bloodshed and kidnappings in Mexico that have spilled across the border into the United States. Acknowledging that U.S. drug use fuels the cartels, Obama said, "I will not pretend this is Mexico's responsibility alone."

"We have a responsibility as well, we have to do our part," Obama said. He said the U.S. must crack down on drug use and the flow of weapons into Mexico. [AP]

Specifically, he said, "We have to crack down on drug use in our cities and towns," and while I've been accused at times of giving Obama too much credit when it comes to drug policy, there's just no silver lining in any of this. A crackdown is a crackdown. Anyone who talks that way is a full-blown drug warrior. He's always talked tough when it comes to Mexico, but this flat-out endorsement of busting drug users here at home is a new low.

Thus, Obama becomes a rather peculiar specimen as far as drug war politics are concerned. This is a guy who's talked about decriminalizing marijuana and "shifting the model" in the war on drugs, only to then take a step backwards after achieving enough to power to actually move those ideals forward in a meaningful way. Some have questioned his sincerity all along, but I don't. Drug policy reform just makes sense, so when I hear someone talking about it, I assume they understand the words coming out of their own mouth.

…which brings me to the tragic conclusion that Obama is doing all of this even though he knows it's wrong. Lives are being lost in a brutal and escalating war, while billions are being wasted away during an escalating economic meltdown, and he's opting to fan the flames rather than show real leadership. It's arguably even more disgraceful than what we've seen from our opponents in the past, because Obama bears the burden of knowing the truth.

Regardless of whatever the hell is going on in the President's head, it is just a fact that the American people have never been so sick of the war on drugs as they are this exact moment. There is a national dialogue about our drug policy taking place in the press on a daily basis, fueled to no small extent by Obama's own hypocrisy and intransigence. Determined though he may be to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, Obama will not escape scrutiny as they did. That much is already clear.

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