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Medical Marijuana: In Wake of Holder Comments, Federal Judge Postpones Sentencing of California Medical Marijuana Provider Charles Lynch

Charles Lynch expected to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum federal prison term Monday for operating a medical marijuana dispensary legal under state and local laws, but it didn't happen. Instead, US District Court Judge George Wu postponed the proceedings, telling prosecutors he wanted more information about what appears to be a Justice Department change of heart and policy regarding such prosecutions.

Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would only prosecute medical marijuana providers who violated both state and federal law. Lynch's case is one where he was clearly in compliance with state law in operating his Morro Bay dispensary.

Under Bush administration policy, which did not recognize any distinction between medical and non-medical marijuana, California dispensary operators were targeted for DEA raids and federal prosecutions with no regard for their compliance with state laws. Prosecutions like those of Lynch, who was found guilty in federal court last August, generated loud and boisterous solidarity movements, protests, and scorn toward the federal government.

Judge Wu said he did not believe the apparent change in policy would affect Lynch's conviction, but he said he wanted to consider any new information about the policy change before he imposed sentence on the 47-year-old Lynch.

Federal marijuana law calls for mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving more than 100 pounds or plants, as was the case with Lynch. We can only hope, given the apparent turnaround in federal policy, that Judge Wu finds a way to make his sentence fit the new reality.

Feature: More Than A Quarter Million Marijuana Smokers in Drug Treatment Each Year -- Are We Wasting Valuable Treatment Resources?

Even as the demand for drug treatment slots continues to grow, an increasing number of people who enter drug treatment are being treated for marijuana as their primary drug of abuse, leading some observers to question whether scarce drug treatment resources are being wasted on people who don't need drug treatment. In its most recent set of drug treatment statistics released last week, the 2007 Treatment Episode Data Sets (TEDS), the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that some 288,000 people underwent treatment for marijuana that year, or 15.8% of all drug treatment episodes.

marijuana -- sometimes but not usually a reason for treatment
The number is actually down slightly from its 2005 peak of 301,000 people in treatment for marijuana, but in line with trends for the past decade. Since 1997, the number of people getting treatment for marijuana each year has increased by roughly 50%, or about 100,000 people.

Former drug czar John Walters was fond of using the increase in the number of people being treated for marijuana to argue that it showed the increasing seriousness of marijuana use as a drug problem, but a closer look at the SAMHSA paints a different picture.

Of the people getting treatment for marijuana in 2007, 37.7% had not even smoked in the past month, raising questions about whether they even met the standard (but still arguable) definitions of marijuana abuse or dependence. When you add in the number who had smoked 1-3 times in the past month, the number rose to 53%. Other data set numbers raise similar questions. Only 14.8% of people in treatment for marijuana were self-referrals, as opposed to 56.9% getting treatment because they were ordered to by a court and another 28% in treatment because of referrals from family, schools, employers, or substance treatment or medical providers.

By way of contrast, the self-referral percentages for other drugs are much higher. Among alcohol users in treatment, 29% were self-referrals, for heroin, 58%; cocaine, 36%. Only methamphetamine users had a similar self-referral rate, with 20%.

People in treatment for marijuana are also younger than people in treatment for other drugs. For marijuana, 40% were under 19 at the time of admission, compared to 9% for stimulants, 11% for alcohol, 5% for opiates, and 3% for cocaine. A whopping 75% of people in treatment for marijuana were under age 30, compared to no more than 40% for any other of the major drugs.

The American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) defines substance abuse as "a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by one or more of the following occurring within a twelve-month period:

(1) Recurrent substance use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home (e.g. repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use, substance related absences, suspension, or expulsions from school; neglect of children or household).

(2) Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g. driving an automobile or operating a machine when impaired by substance use).

(3) Recurrent substance related legal problems (e.g. arrest for substance related disorderly conduct).

(4) Continued substance use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by effects of substance (e.g. arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication, physical fights).

While it would appear questionable that all those people being treated for marijuana fit those criteria, a SAMHSA researcher said this is indeed the case. Deborah Trunzo, DASIS team leader for SAMHSA's Office of Applied Statistics, said that DSM diagnosis is not reported by all states, but in those states that did report: "Almost three quarters of marijuana admissions for whom DSM diagnosis was reported in 2007 had a DSM diagnosis of marijuana abuse or dependence. The remaining quarter had a DSM diagnosis of abuse or dependence on another substance or a psychiatric disorder. The data from 2006 were similar."

The no use in the past month figures for marijuana are not that shocking either, said Dr. Peter Delaney, Assistant Surgeon General and director of the Office of Applied Studies at SAMHSA. "You may have noticed that 29% of all admissions report no use of their primary substance in the 30 days prior to admission ranging from a low of 16% for heroin to a high of 50% for hallucinogens," Delaney pointed out. "There are a number of explanations for this including individuals coming into treatment may have been on a wait list and may not be currently using their primary drug of choice while preparing to enter treatment -- individuals enter treatment from the jail, other treatment settings, or are referred from court even though they have been abstinent for some time."

There are other explanations, too, Delaney said. "Some people may not be using marijuana presently but report it as the 'favorite' drug, others who are referred for marijuana problems may actually be reporting that alcohol is the problem but the referral trumps the report and finally, as one of the state representatives noted when asked about this phenomenon, many individuals entering treatment do not tell the truth about their use, and providers often see increases in reporting of use at discharge because treatment works."

Not surprisingly, drug reformers, academics and treatment professionals had significantly different takes on the SAMSHA marijuana treatment numbers and what they mean.

"There really is marijuana dependence, and there is an effective treatment for it, but, as the SAMSHA data reveal, it has little to do with what's going on in treatment programs around the US," said Dr. Mitch Earleywine, associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York -- Albany and author of "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence."

The problem is with the way marijuana fits into the hallmark symptoms of dependence, which are tolerance and withdrawal, Earleywine said. "It is hard to document marijuana tolerance, but the Marinol (THC) studies show tolerance so everyone assumes there must be marijuana tolerance. Also, novice users are less good at knowing how much of a hit they can hold, so experienced users often look more sensitive to marijuana because they're really just more efficient about how they smoke," he said.

Marijuana withdrawal is so subtle it took 2,000 years to document, Earleywine added. "The symptoms are irritability, moodiness, disturbed sleep, craving for marijuana, and -- get this -- loss of appetite," he noted. "When withdrawal occurs, it appears to dissipate within about three weeks, at most." For Earleywine, marijuana withdrawal is about as serious as withdrawal from caffeine.

"The SAMSHA data's suggestion that folks in treatment haven't used marijuana in a month makes it pretty clear that they aren't really dependent at the time of treatment," Earleywine said. "That fact doesn't mean they couldn't benefit from some therapy, but it confirms that an inpatient stay is ridiculous. And yes, someone addicted to crack or meth is missing the chance if some marijuana user is in the program instead."

Noting that only about 15% of people in treatment for marijuana sought treatment themselves and more than half are there because of the courts, Earleywine suggested that most of the rest don't need to be there, either. "Usually, those remainder folks are in there because some family member found a joint and demanded treatment. As you can imagine, clinical work with these guys can be a complete waste of time."

He cited a case in point. "I remember one case that involved a woman in her early twenties in a wheelchair who lived with her parents," he related. "Her folks found her stash and sent her to a ritzy place filled with Betty Ford types. The poor woman had no negative consequences at all. The first week she kept stating this fact but it was interpreted as 'denial,' so she had to spend the next two weeks pretending she really had a problem so the staff would tell her parents that she was making progress."

Earleywine was similarly critical of the DSM-IV criteria for dependency that included repeated legal problems related to smoking pot. "Obviously, these are a confounding of drug laws and enforcement practices. If abuse statistics rise, it can have little to do with the drug or the rates of misuse and everything to do with how much the cops feel like busting people."

"These figures show that there are an awful lot of people in treatment for supposed marijuana abuse or dependency who, by everything we can glean from the numbers, don't look very much like addicts," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They are disproportionately employed compared to people in treatment for other drugs, especially when you consider how young the population in treatment for marijuana is. Their lives have not been rendered unlivable by a drug problem, but because of an arrest, they are given a choice between treatment and jail when they actually need neither," he said.

"What is really striking is the extraordinarily high percentage of people referred by the criminal justice system versus the amazingly low percentage of self-referrals. These are not people who walked into the clinic saying 'I need help,'" Mirken said.

"These are people being coerced into treatment mandated by the courts," said Paul Armentano, Deputy Director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Nationally, more than half have been referred to treatment by the criminal justice system. These are people who have been arrested, they're likely not regular users, they quit using while going through the court system, but are mandated to take treatment to avoid going to jail. You don't see this pattern when it comes to other drugs, where people are much more likely to seek treatment themselves."

"These figures reflect the obsessions and myopia of the Bush administration," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Part of it reflects the ideology of abstinence -- that once you're in the system you have to stay clean. But it means that people who are recreational marijuana users are unnecessarily put into treatment, wasting their time, money, and energy, and wasting valuable treatment resources. Most people understand that marijuana treatment programs are mostly silly, but everyone has to participate in the charade because possession or use of marijuana remains a criminal offense."

Patricia Greer, president of the executive committee of the Association for Addiction Professionals, was reluctant to downplay marijuana abuse or dependency, but did hint that perhaps some people in treatment did not need to be there. "If you are a chronic user, you could probably use treatment," she said, "but if you're a recreational user just smoking on the weekend, why not treat it like a DWI with a little counseling?" she suggested.

Greer was also hesitant to differentiate between problems with different drugs. "Empirically, they may look different, but in terms of psychological dependence, they are very much alike," she said. "The question is whether your life is unmanageable, are you experiencing employment, school, or relationship consequences. If so, you have a problem. Marijuana may not look that serious, but if it's serious to the people around you, then, yes, it's serious."

There is a small percentage of the marijuana using population who can fairly be identified as dependent, said Armentano. "The Institute of Medicine study said that among those who smoked marijuana, about 9% may exhibit some symptoms of dependency at some point in their lives. Other reviews have placed that number much lower," he noted. "Still, there are a small number who probably are, and those are the people who are voluntarily checking themselves in for treatment."

But there is dependency and then there is dependency, Armentano argued. "People become dependent on all sorts of things, but it's important to delineate marijuana from many other substances when we're talking about physical dependence," he argued. "If alcohol addicts try to quit cold turkey, they can die from withdrawal, and alcohol is not alone in that. But if we're talking about marijuana, we're not talking about serious withdrawal symptoms; we're talking about a little irritability and maybe a couple of nights of trouble falling asleep."

"The majority of our people are being treated for alcohol dependence," said Christine Jones, clinical supervisor for the Pennington County City/County Alcohol and Drug Program in Rapid City, South Dakota. "People with chronic alcoholism remain our biggest problem. For a few years, we had an awful lot of meth, but now it's OxyContin and prescription opiate abuse."

When asked specifically about marijuana, Jones said it is common as a secondary drug of abuse, but her facility was mainly treating alcoholism and meth and opiate dependence. "We have a few who are primary marijuana abusers, but the numbers are way higher for alcohol," she said. "Most of our clients are court ordered."

That led Jones to ask whether the treatment community was doing its job properly. "The question is how well does the substance abuse field do at gate-keeping so that it is addressing clinical needs rather than judicial concerns," said Jones. She said that treatment providers should be assessing clients through procedures such as the American Society for Addiction Medicine's patient placement criteria, which uses a six-dimensional matrix to assess treatment needs. "It is the responsibility of the drug and alcohol field to ensure that the level of treatment they are obtaining is appropriate for what their needs are," she said.

"If you have a marijuana smoker, and he is using occasionally and holding a job and maintaining his responsibilities, it's a misuse of money to send him to a treatment center," said Jones. "Use isn't an automatic indicator that someone needs treatment, but if someone is having repeated problems with marijuana and lots of other problems in his life, you might want to take a look at how the problems and the marijuana use are related," she said.

But drug reformers remained unconvinced, and had suggestions for what to do. "We need to change our marijuana laws," said Mirken. "There is probably a small percentage of people who have a genuine problem with marijuana, and treatment should be available for them, but not coerced treatment for marijuana possession, which is leading to a completely dysfunctional situation. In most states, there are waiting lists for treatment slots. You have to ask how many treatment slots are being occupied by court-ordered marijuana treatment when there are folks with serious problems with cocaine and heroin sitting on waiting lists and not getting help. If that's the case, it's an outrage."

"The single most important thing we can do is make treatment available for people who want it before they get arrested," said Nadelmann. "To the extent that people are being diverted to treatment in the criminal justice system, we have to insist on the primacy of treatment principles over criminal justice principles. When the criminal justice system is involved in drug treatment, that means coerced abstinence, and that's a fundamental problem. Abstinence may work for some people, but it is a mistake to apply that to entire populations of people with drug issues caught up in the criminal justice system," he said.

"There's a superb treatment for marijuana dependence developed by Roger Roffman at the University of Washington and his colleagues," said Earleywine. "It consists of about 12 sessions of outpatient meetings that focus on identifying why you want to quit, what situations usually lead to use, how to change your thoughts about use, how to prevent relapse, how to handle various life stressors, and great ways to plan alternative fun activities. Extremely few programs around the country use this approach. Most of the drug treatment centers around the country have inpatient stays and 12-step meetings with the occasional watered-down group version of some of the topics from the established treatment."

"It's absurd to mandate people attend treatment who don't need it, it's a waste of taxpayer and private dollars," said Armentano. "There are hundreds of thousands of people seeking treatment for real drug problems who can't get it because treatment slots are limited. To think that we are sending hundreds of thousands of marijuana users to treatment who don't need it at a time when treatment resources are so limited is just ridiculous. This is a policy that is purposefully endangering the health of those who most desire or need drug treatment."

Feature: Failed Drug War Policies in Mexico? Let's Try More of the Same

Mexico and its wave of prohibition-related violence were front and center in Washington this week as the Obama administration unveiled its "comprehensive response and commitment" to US-Mexico border security and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico to preach renewed support in the fight against the powerful drug trafficking organizations, but also to enunciate a mea culpa for the US role in the bloody situation.

US Border Patrol
More than 9,000 people -- including more than 600 police and soldiers -- have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon sent out the Mexican armed forces to subdue the cartels at the beginning of 2007, with the pace of killing accelerating last year and early this year. Now, some 45,000 Mexican army troops are part of the campaign, including more than 8,000 that are currently occupying Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, which has seen some of the highest levels of violence anywhere in the country. More than 1,600 were killed there last year, and more than a hundred so far this year.

Calderon intervened in ongoing rivalries between various trafficking organizations, helping to turn what had been turf wars for valuable drug smuggling franchises into a multi-sided battle pitching the cartels against each other and Mexican police and soldiers. The prize is a cross-border smuggling fortune estimated at anywhere between $10 billion and $40 billion and based on Americans' insatiable appetite for the drugs it loves to hate (or hates to love).

On Tuesday, the White House presented its plan to secure the border, including the disbursement of $700 million in previously authorized Plan Merida assistance to Mexico, ramped up enforcement on the US side of the border, and an increased emphasis on demand reduction in the US.

The Plan Merida aid will provide surveillance and information technologies, training for rule of law and justice reform, assistance to Mexican prosecutors in crafting effective witness protection programs, and five helicopters for the Mexican Army and Air Force and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican Navy. Here in the US, the Department of Homeland Security is bringing its numerous resources to bear, including doubling Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripling the number of DHS intelligence analysts working the border, beefing up Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff in Mexico, bringing more surveillance technology to ports of entry, bringing more drug dogs to the border, and targeting flows of guns and money south as well as drugs north.

The DEA is adding 16 new agents on the border to its current 1,170 already there and forming four new Mobile Enforcement Teams to go after Mexican meth traffickers, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is moving 100 agents to the border and continuing its program of tracing guns used in drug cartel violence. Even the FBI is getting in on the act by forming a Southwest Intelligence Group to act as a clearinghouse for all FBI activities involving Mexico.

"The whole package we announced today is not only about enforcement and stopping the flow of drugs into the United States and helping Mexico against these very brutal cartels, but it includes money for more drug courts and reduction in demand," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview Tuesday. "So, we look forward to working on the demand side as well as the supply side, but I'll tell you, where the Department of Homeland Security is concerned, it's all about border safety and security and making sure that spillover violence does not erupt in our own country."

Secretary of State Clinton sang much the same tune in Mexico this week, but also bluntly accepted US responsibility for the violence, saying that decades of US anti-drug policies have been a failure and that US demand for drugs drove the trade.

"Clearly what we've been doing has not worked," Clinton told reporters on her plane at the start of her two-day trip. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she added. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Clinton's visit came as the chorus calling for change in US prohibitionist drug policies is growing louder. Last month, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico called on the US to radically reassess its drug policies, and increasing concern over the violence in Mexico and its spillover in US border states is only turning up the volume of the calls for legalization.

Law enforcement on the border wants much more help -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called for 1,000 more agents or even National Guard troops -- but Zapata County (Texas) Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez, Jr., head of the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Association, said the administration move was a start. "The plan the president announced is a help," said Gonzalez. "But we still haven't seen the plan that was supposed to be in place last year."

Gonzalez's remote Zapata County has not seen much spillover from the violence across the river, but that's not the case elsewhere, the sheriff said. "As chairman of the association, I hear regularly from my colleagues that what we are seeing is spillover that has been going on for some time -- extortions, kidnapping, robberies. What we're concerned with now is that with the squeeze on in Mexico, there will be even more spillover here."

While security officials and law enforcement were talking more drug war, other observers doubted that the initiative would have much impact on the cartels and could make an intractable problem even worse. But they also saw an opportunity to advance the cause of ending America's reliance on drug prohibition as the primary approach to drug use.

"This is not a major departure from what was budgeted under the Bush administration," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The most important assistance the US can provide is intelligence-related assets, as in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s -- CIA or NSA-type information that helps the Mexicans target the most violent and powerful of the traffickers. Providing financial assistance to help pay local police more is also helpful, but beefing up the border is largely symbolic and is responding to both legitimate concerns as well as media and political hysteria around this. This is not a departure, not a major new initiative."

"The biggest problem in all this is that Calderon's policies have thrown gasoline on the fire," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "It was utterly foolish of Calderon to get in the middle of a cartel turf war. Those people are all about making money, and the violence isn't going to decline until the cartels reach a modus vivendi among themselves. There are rumors they are trying to do that; they want the killing to stop so they can get back to business."

Neither should we take much comfort in Mexico's ability to occasionally kill or capture a leading cartel figure, said Tree. "It's like killing Al Qaeda's number three man," he laughed grimly. "All it means is someone below him is going to move up, or there will be a struggle to see who replaces him."

For Tree, the situation in Mexico is taking on the ominous aspect of Colombia in the 1990s, where the breakdown of public security led to vigilantism and death squad activity, the predecessors of the Colombian paramilitaries. "When people became to realize the state was powerless to stop prohibition-related violence, it opened the door for other criminal activities, including kidnapping, and what makes this really dangerous is that now the ability of the state to protect individuals comes into question."

But Tree also noted that the situation in Mexico is forcing American media and policymakers to at least address calls for drug legalization. "This is doing what Colombia and Afghanistan couldn't do, which is to bring the violence of prohibition right to our door step and rub our faces in it," said Tree. "Calderon got in between some hornets' nests with a fly swatter, and now people in both countries have to make a choice. Mexicans supported this at first, but when they realized this isn't ending but is instead getting worse, they asked why he picked this fight."

"I'm worried about the militarization of the border and the assumption that that will fix this," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC. "On the other hand, it seems to be causing a growing crescendo of people wanting to talk about drug legalization. It's as if a critical mass has been arrived at. The recent statement by the three Latin American presidents was a voltaic shock to get the discussion going, and with the violence in Mexico, one has to acknowledge that a preponderance of the evidence shows the present model for drug control is not working. Even though there is a huge, formidable self-interested drug prohibition lobby, the logic of legalization is becoming so compelling it becomes all but impossible not to address it."

That political space to discuss legalization is changing things, Birns said. "Organizations like my own, which were timorous about taking on this issue now feel much more at ease with the clear recognition that everything else has failed. The possibility of legalization has to be seriously reviewed, inspected, and debated now."

Nadelmann suggested the current crisis could and should open debate about effective demand reduction strategies. "If we want to help Mexico by reducing demand, and want to give the notion more than lip service, then we have to remove the ideological inhibitions that limit our ability to effectively reduce demand," he said. "A small number of drug users consume a significant portion of all drugs. The traditional answer is to get more serious about drug treatment and rehab, but it could also mean providing addicts with legal sources of the drugs they are consuming. We know it works with heroin; the same approach deserves to be tried with cocaine and meth."

"The other thing we can do," Nadelmann argued, "is to move in the direction of legalizing marijuana. We know have 40% of Americans in favor of it, and it's approaching 50% out West. This is the first time a furor over drug-related violence has been so powerfully linked with marijuana prohibition. That mere fact that so many law enforcement people are saying it lends it credibility. This is putting the notion of marijuana legalization as a partial solution to prohibition-related violence on the edge of the mainstream political discussion in the US. With the Ammiano bill in California, Barney Frank's bill waiting to be introduced, Sen. Webb pushing for his commission, the conversation is really bubbling up now."

And so it goes. As the prohibition-related violence in Mexico continues and as the US appears to be heading down the reflexive path of fighting drug war failure with more drug war, the prohibitionist consensus grows ever more brittle. It's a shame that so many Mexicans have to die to get us to shift the direction of our dialogue on drugs.

Medical Marijuana: DEA Raids San Francisco Dispensary Despite Holder Vow

One week after Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would not raid or prosecute medical marijuana providers unless they were breaking both state and federal law, DEA agents Wednesday evening raided Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco. The clinic is a cooperative operating under temporary city permits as it completes the city licensing process and thus, apparently legal under state law. Now, medical marijuana providers and activists don't know what federal policy really is.

Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic (from bayareacannabis.org)
The raid on Emmalyn's was done by the DEA only -- no state or local law enforcement was involved -- and the DEA, typically tight-lipped, has not explained how or whether Emmalyn's was in violation of state law.

"Because so little information has been released thus far, we have more questions than answers," added Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "But with an actual shooting war along our Mexican border, not to mention federal law enforcement there being so overwhelmed that traffickers coming through the border with up to 500 pounds of marijuana are let go, it's very hard to believe that this is the best use of DEA resources, especially in a city with an active program to license and regulate medical marijuana providers."

"It's déjà vu all over again at the Justice Department," said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The ink's barely dry on the Obama administration's kinder, gentler approach to medical marijuana, and the DEA is up to its old tactics. San Francisco sets the standard for medical marijuana dispensary regulation. Surely, state and local authorities are capable of policing their own system, just as the feds surely have more pressing issues to address."

"It is disturbing that, despite the DEA's vague claims about violations of state and federal laws, they apparently made no effort to contact the local authorities who monitor and license medical marijuana providers," said MPP California policy director Aaron Smith. "For an agency that for eight years said it couldn't care less about state law to suddenly justify raids as an effort to uphold state law simply doesn't pass the smell test."

Holder has twice made remarks suggesting a shift in federal policy toward medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal, but only in response to direct questions. He has not issued an unsolicited policy statement or issued any policy directives.

"Attorney General Holder needs to be specific about when federal law enforcement will and will not harass medical marijuana patients and their providers," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Justice Department needs to prioritize. Even if a medical marijuana patient or provider is in technical violation of some state law or regulation, that doesn't mean the federal government should be wasting scarce resources arresting people over it. Doesn't the Obama Administration have more important issues to deal with right now?"

Uh-Oh! Medical Marijuana Raid in San Francisco

Very unsettling:

Federal drug agents raided a medical marijuana facility in San Francisco Wednesday night.

The raid occurred at Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic at 1597 Howard Street. DEA spokeswoman Casey McEnry told CBS 5 the documents regarding the raid are sealed, so the DEA was not able to give many details.

"The documents relating to today's enforcement operation remain under court seal. Based on our investigation we believe there are not only violations of federal law, but state law as well." [CBS]

By claiming the case involves violations of state law, DEA is able to maintain the appearance of abiding by the attorney general's pledge to respect state medical marijuana laws. We're left to wonder if that will now become their blanket justification, to be invoked each time they elect to move in on an established medical marijuana provider. No one was arrested in today's raid, so we'll likely be waiting a while to find out what the hell happened.

The skeptical interpretation is that nothing's changed, that the feds will simply be more careful with the wording they use to describe future enforcement efforts that target medical providers. A worst-case scenario would the adoption of a policy in which the full force of federal law is brought down upon any medical marijuana provider who is accused of even a minor violation of state law. Defendants facing only federal charges would have no means to contest the grounds on which they were targeted to begin with. The practical value of Obama's purported policy shift would be negligible.

However, even if that's DEA's gameplan (which wouldn’t surprise me at all), I doubt it could withstand scrutiny. The salient question of why DEA is usurping the responsibilities of state law-enforcement won't escape notice and press coverage of these events grows increasingly competent as the issue continues to boil.

Obama's position on medical marijuana owes a great deal to pure political pressure resulting from the deep unpopularity of the raids themselves. The public simply hates this and won't be satisfied with a fictitious shell-game solution that merely reframes what DEA is actually doing.

Yet Another Chance to Ask Obama About Marijuana Laws

So far, Obama's favorite thing about being president is getting to read all the marijuana-related questions on his website. If it weren't, then he'd surely have stopped inviting us to submit questions, right? He loves you. Each and every one of you.

That's why WhiteHouse.gov is now accepting your questions on the economy. It's broken down into several categories, but multiple sections are utterly dominated by marijuana reform questions. Apparently, Americans' #1 economic concern is that marijuana is illegal.

As we've done several times now, let's make damn sure the new administration sees the potency of our movement by keeping drug policy reform questions in top position. The site also encourages you to vote against questions you're less interested in, so feel free to do that too.

The point isn't that marijuana laws are necessarily the top economic issue right now, but rather that the drug war went over budget a long, long time ago. It's one bad program that needs to go immediately if we're serious about making responsible decisions in tough times. Filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders was bad enough when we still had the money to do it. Those days are behind us and no excuses remain for the political culture that has long championed the grand fiasco that now festers before our eyes.

At this moment of grave economic uncertainty, the obligation of our leaders to justify their programs and expenditures has never been greater. Unless or until Obama can come forward and confidently defend every damn dollar that is poured into the war on drugs, these questions will continue to dominate every public forum he holds.

Medical Marijuana: California Dispensary Operator Faces Decades in Federal Prison at Sentencing Monday

The Obama administration may have put an end to the DEA raids on medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal (see story here), but the legacy of the Bush administration's crusade against medical marijuana continues. Morro Bay, California, dispensary operator Charles Lynch is a case in point. After having been convicted of federal marijuana law violations, he goes to court for sentencing Monday, where he faces a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence and the possibility of up to 100 years behind bars.

Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Lynch did everything by the book. Before opening his business in April 2006, he first contacted the DEA, which eventually told him it was "up to cities and counties" to decide about dispensaries. He also sought and received all necessary business permits from the city of Morro Bay.

But that didn't stop a local law enforcement official bent on shutting down his Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers from going after him. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges unleashed an 11-month investigation into Lynch and the dispensary. He and his deputies surveilled the premises, took down license plate numbers and stopped the vehicles of dispensary workers and clients, and even resorted to using criminal undercover informants in a failed bid to get Lynch to violate state law.

Sheriff Pat Hedges couldn't find enough evidence against Lynch to even get a search warrant from state courts, so he turned to the DEA. On March 29, 2007, the feds hit full-force, raiding the dispensary and Lynch's home in full paramilitary attire. Lynch was not arrested at the time, and reopened the dispensary on April 7, 2007. The DEA then threatened the dispensary's landlord with seizure of his property if he didn't evict the Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers. On May 16, 2007, the dispensary shut down for good.

The DEA wasn't done with Lynch. Two months later, in yet another paramilitary-style raid, they arrested Lynch at his home and charged him with five counts of violating the federal marijuana laws.

After a trial in which -- as is always the case in federal court -- neither California's medical marijuana law nor the fact that Lynch was operating under it could be admitted as evidence, a jury convicted him of all counts in August 2008.

Lynch has received strong support from his local community, as well as sympathizers across the state and country. Demonstrations have been (and will be) held to demand justice in his case. Whether community support for Lynch or the Obama administration's commitment to not prosecute cases that do not involve violations of state medical marijuana laws will have any impact will only be found out Monday.

With the Obama administration's pronouncements so far on medical marijuana, it may be that the era of federal raids on medical marijuana providers is over. But as long as people like Charles Lynch are facing years in federal prison and others are serving sentences there, there is still some unfinished business if justice is to be served.

Medical Marijuana: Attorney General Holder Sends Another Signal -- No DEA Busts Unless You Violate State Law

Three weeks after Attorney General Eric Holder first signaled an end to DEA raids against medical marijuana providers, he has reiterated those remarks. Again in response to a question posed at his weekly Wednesday press conference, Holder said federal agents would only target medical marijuana distributors who violate both state and federal law.

Eric Holder
Thirteen states have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana even though federal law considers all marijuana possession, production, and distribution illegal. The conflict has been most intense in states with the broadest medical marijuana laws, California in particular. The DEA has raided dozens of dispensaries operating in the state in recent years, and US Attorneys have occasionally prosecuted their operators, exposing them to harsh federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.

"The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Holder said Wednesday at the Justice Department. But he was quick to add that the feds will go after anyone who tries to "use medical marijuana as a shield" for dope dealing.

"Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's inconsistent with federal and state law."

During his election campaign, President Obama promised repeatedly to end the raids on California dispensaries, but raids continued after his election and even shortly after he took office, prompting Holder's original statement three weeks ago. No raids have occurred since then.

Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes told the Associated Press he welcomed Holder's remarks. "It signals a new direction and a more reasonable and sensible direction on medical marijuana policy," he said.

But, he added, there is still unfinished business left over from the Bush administration's crusade against the dispensaries. More than 20 California medical marijuana providers are currently being prosecuted in federal court, including San Luis Obispo County dispensary operator Charles Lynch (see story here), who could face decades in prison when sentenced on Monday.

"There remains a big question as to what the federal government's position is on those cases," Hermes said.

Another question is just how aggressive the DEA and the US Attorneys will be in determining that a given operation is violating state law. Perhaps in recognition of medical marijuana's broad support in California, the feds have tended to portray dispensary busts as targeting "drug dealers," not legitimate medical marijuana providers.

And yet another question will be the degree to which hostile local law enforcement entities attempt to sic the feds on dispensary operators, as was the case with Lynch.

Latin America: Mexico Prohibition Violence Catches Washington's Eye, New Initiatives Pending

When lawmakers in Washington managed to tear themselves away from the AIG bonus scandal, much of their attention this week was focused on Mexico. With prohibition-related violence there showing no sign of a let-up -- more than a thousand people have been killed already this year -- legislators held a number of hearings this week to assess the threat and see what the Obama administration plans to do about it.

DEA Spanish-language poster targeting Mexican trafficking organization (2007)
At a joint hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations posed a direct threat to the US. Citing a recent Justice Department report, he said they have a presence in at least 230 US cities.

But Durbin also said some of the blame resides north of the border. "The insatiable demand for illegal drugs in the United States keeps the Mexican drug cartels in business every day," he said.

"The facts about what is going on in Mexico are staggering, imposing an enormous threat to the United States," concurred Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

In the face of increasingly shrill congressional demands to "do something," Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who oversees the border as head of the Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration is working on an integrated plan to address the seemingly unending violence, much of it taking place in the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexican cities on the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

He said likely measures would include efforts to clamp down on the flow of guns into Mexico, tightening border security, and increased support for the Mexican military. "I think we'll have good plans come out of this work this week," he said.

Renuart also hinted that the new plan could involve more boots on the ground in the border region. "Certainly, there may be a need for additional manpower," he said. "Whether that is best suited or best provided by National Guard or additional law enforcement agencies, I think, this planning team will really lead us to," he told the committee.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed some 50,000 troops in his war against the cartels, including some 8,500 who occupied Juárez and took over policing duties there last week. But Calderón's two-year-old offensive has only led to increasing levels of brutal and exemplary violence. More than 2,000 people died in the cartel wars in 2007, more than 5,000 last year, and the pace of killings this year should yield similar numbers.

But DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Plácido told the joint committee that the escalating violence was a "desperate attempt" by traffickers to fight off the government offensive. "DEA assesses that the current surge in violence is driven in large measure by the government of Mexico's offensive against these traffickers who, in turn, perceive themselves as fighting for a larger share of a shrinking market," he said.

With passage of last year's Mérida Initiative, the US has pledged some $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid to Mexico over the next three years. The first tranche of that aid has already been delivered, providing Mexico with helicopters and sophisticated surveillance equipment.

On Wednesday, in the week's first concrete action to crack down on the border, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was sending 50 Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to the border to try to cut down the flow of weapons headed south.

Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

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