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Meet Mephedrone, the Latest "Drug Menace" [FEATURE]

Poison control centers, hospital emergency rooms, and law enforcement are all raising the alarm about a new, uncontrolled stimulant drug, and the first moves to ban the drug at the state level have already taken place. But the DEA has yet to act, and drug policy analysts say that a reflexive move to ban the drug may not be the answer.

Going, going, gone in Louisiana. Who's next?
The drug is 4-methylmethcathinone, also known as mephedrone, a synthetic derivative of cathinone, the psychoactive stimulant found in the khat plant. (To be completely accurate, there are actually a number of methcathinone analogues involved, but for brevity's sake we will refer simply to mephedrone.) It produces a stimulant effect that users have likened to that of cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines, or Ritalin.

The drug is being sold as bath salts, plant food, or plant fertilizer and typically marketed with the words "not for human consumption" under product names including Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky, Pure Ivory, and Sextacy. Marketers also use names with a local charge, such as Hurricane Charlie in Louisiana and White Lightning in Kentucky.

After hysterical press coverage of unproven mephedrone overdose deaths in England early last year, the drug was banned in the United Kingdom, and in November, the European Union banned mephedrone in member countries, citing a risk assessment from the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA).

But while that risk assessment found that mephedrone can cause acute health problems and lead to dependence, it found only tenuous links between mephedrone and any alleged fatalities. The risk assessment also cautioned that banning the drug could create its own problems. "Control measures could create an illegal market in mephedrone with the associated risk of criminal activity," EMCDDA warned.

But the European Union didn't listen, and now, politicians in the US states where mephedrone is most prevalent, are jumping on the ban bandwagon. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) issued an emergency rule making the possession, distribution, or manufacture of mephedrone illegal and placing it in Schedule 1 of the state's controlled substances act. That means violators could face up to 30 years in prison.

"These drugs have crept into our communities and they are hurting our kids," said Jindal as he announced the rule. "We have to do everything in our power to protect our children and to make sure our streets are safe for our families. The reality is that the chemicals used to make these dangerous substances have no legitimate use other than to provide a high for the user. Today’s announcement gives our law enforcement officials the tools they need to crack down on the people pushing these dangerous drugs. Indeed, our law enforcement officials can immediately take these drugs off the shelf -- and at the same time, it's now illegal to possess and use these dangerous chemicals."

This week, neighboring Mississippi is moving against the substance. At least two bills to ban mephedrone have been introduced and are moving through committees. The bills are likely to be combined. As in Louisiana, the bills envision harsh penalties, with offenders facing up to 20 years in prison.

News media reports warning of the new "menace" and urging authorities to act have also appeared in Georgia and Texas. Such news reports are often a precursor to legislative or administrative action.

That these first moves to ban mephedrone are taking place on the Gulf Coast makes sense because that is where the drug has made the deepest inroads. Louisiana Poison Control Center director Dr. Mark Ryan went public with news of mounting calls about mephedrone just before Christmas, and on Monday, the American Association of Poison Control Centers issued a nationwide alert about mephedrone.

The alert shows that, at this point, mephedrone is very much a regional phenomenon. Poison control centers around the country have taken more than 300 calls about mephedrone, 69 of them in just the first days of 2011. While poison centers representing 25 states have received calls, 165 of them were in Louisiana. Kentucky was second with 23 calls. In the Upper Midwest, however, there have been no calls about mephedrone.

"We got notice a few weeks ago about reports from other poison centers, but we're not aware of any coming to our regional center," said Rachel Brandt of the Sanford Poison Control Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which covers Minnesota and the Dakotas.

It's a much different story in Louisiana. "We got our first case on September 29 and shortly thereafter we began getting calls just about every day," said the Louisiana Poison Control Center's Dr. Ryan. "We reported to the state health department that this was coming up on our radar, that we were getting people with bizarre, off-the-wall symptoms, with some of them staying in the hospital for five to seven days and the symptoms not resolving very well. The state became very concerned, and so did we as the number of calls continued to increase."

According to Dr. Ryan, adverse responses to mephedrone can be extreme. "We are seeing people describing intense cravings even though they don't like the high," he said. "We're seeing guys discharged from the hospital showing up again a few days later. We're seeing people who are very anxious or suffering from extreme paranoia, we're seeing people with suicidal thoughts, we're seeing people with delusions and hallucinations. A common thread is that they describe monsters, aliens, or demons."

But while the adverse reactions can be disturbing, and while three deaths have been "linked" to mephedrone, there have been no verified mephedrone overdose fatalities. In one case, a 21-year-old man named Dickie Sanders committed suicide three days after ingesting mephedrone. Louisiana media also referred to two other deaths "linked" to the substance, but the connection to mephedrone use remains unproven.

"They're saying the other two are related, but there is no toxicology to back that up," said Dr. Ryan.

Dealing with new designer drugs is difficult and frustrating, Dr. Ryan said. "We banned six different substances after looking at the ones abused in European countries," he said. "But you can't ban everything, and you could make a different designer cathinone every day. It's like a cat chasing its tail."

The DEA is also taking a look at mephedrone. But unlike state legislators, which can act without the least bit of evidence, the DEA is charged with actually finding good reasons to add a new drug to the list of proscribed or controlled substances. While more than a dozen states have criminalized the psychedelic salvia divinorum based on little more than the fear someone somewhere might get high on something legally, the DEA has had salvia on its radar as a drug of concern for nearly a decade, but has yet to find the evidence it needs to schedule it. On the other hand, the DEA is susceptible to political pressure, as indicated by its quick action last November to ban synthetic cannabinoids after being asked to do so by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Mephedrone has been on the DEA's radar since at least September 2009, when an analysis of drug samples containing mephedrone was published in the agency's Microgram Bulletin. But a DEA spokesman told the Chronicle this week the agency has yet to act.

"This is a drug of concern," said DEA public information officer Michael Sanders. "We're looking into it right now. We see those drugs out there, but there is a lot of research that goes into actually scheduling something."

The DEA may be well served by not rushing to judgment, said drug policy analyst Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Prohibiting drugs has not worked in the past and there is no reason to assume it will now, he argued.

"Regulation is pretty much always better than prohibition because it means you can actually control the drug," he said. "You can regulate potency, quality, and all that stuff, but prohibiting it just drives it further into an unregulated market. Prohibition certainly has not controlled cocaine, ecstasy, or meth," Piper pointed out.

"It seems really strange that the political position around drugs in this country is that the only drugs people can legally use from now until the end of time are apparently alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine," Piper said. "And at least two of those substances are more dangerous than most of the other drugs. Every new substance is either banned immediately or eventually. This should be something for policymakers and voters to discuss and debate instead of just having knee-jerk responses."

That unfortunately has yet to happen, for mephedrone or for most drugs, and the drive to prohibit mephedrone is gaining steam.

Poor Economy Forces Georgia to Rethink Drug Criminalization

Location: 
GA
United States
The high price of enforcing criminal penalties on non-violent offenders has Georgia's new Republican governor rethinking a major linchpin in US domestic policy: the drug war. Roughly 19 percent of Georgia's prison population was incarcerated on drug offenses in 2009, according to a report by the Office on National Drug Control Policy. Nationally, nearly half of all arrests are due to laws criminalizing the cultivation, sales and use of cannabis, which has been shown to be less damaging to human health than alcohol or tobacco.
Publication/Source: 
The Raw Story (DC)
URL: 
http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/01/economic-crunch-forcing-georgias-conservative-governor-rethink-drug-criminalization/

Florida Drug Czar Office Falls to Budget Ax

newly unemployed drug war bureaucrat seeks position
The Florida Office of Drug Control is going out of business. The four-man fiefdom in the Sunshine State's drug war bureaucracy has fallen afoul of incoming Republican Governor-elect Rick Scott's war on state spending and was notified late last month that it would be out of business come this month.

The office was established by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and its FY 2010-2011 budget is $551,300. Its charge was reducing substance abuse in Florida and helping set state drug policy. The office put out an annual report, as well as other reports, compiled statistics, lobbied for tighter restrictions on the state's burgeoning pain medicine clinics, and sought funds for prescription monitoring when the state legislature failed to allocate them.

Office director Bruce Grant, Florida's "drug czar," unsurprisingly thought the decision to disband the office was a mistake and sent the wrong message. "It kind of says this is not a priority issue," he said, adding that the state's drug problems are not going away. "It's not a war that's going to be over tomorrow."

The duties of the Office of Drug Control will likely be taken up by law enforcement and the state Department of Health, but that didn't mollify Grant. "Somebody's going to have to pick up the ball," he said. "Frankly, the Department of Health is not the aggressive type of agency to do it."

In the meantime, the incoming governor has surgically excised a layer of drug war bureaucracy and saved Florida taxpayers a half a million bucks a year in the process. It's not much, but it's a start.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

This Year's Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories

A lot went on in the realm of drug policy reform in 2010. Here is our summation of what we think are the biggest stories of the year.

fire truck lent by Dr. Bronner's for SSDP/Prop 19 campus tour
Marijuana on the Verge -- Prop 19, Public Opinion, and the Looming Sea Change

California's tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 19, ultimately failed to get over the top on Election Day, but it garnered 46.5% of the vote, the highest ever for a legalization initiative, and generated reams of media coverage, making it the most watched initiative of any in the land this year. The battle for Prop 19 also yielded the broadest coalition yet behind marijuana legalization, as unions, dissident law enforcement groups, and Latino and African-American groups got on the legalization bandwagon in a big way for the first time. Launched with over a million dollars of funding from Oakland cannabis entrepreneur Richard Lee, the initiative garnered significant additional support during the campaign's final months, including a late $1 million donation from George Soros, but too little and too late to make a difference in the nation's largest and most expensive media market. The coalition that came together around Prop 19 is vowing to stay together and work to place another initiative on the ballot, most likely in 2012.

If California has legalization on the ballot in 2012, activists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all took steps this year to ensure that it won't be alone. Ill-funded and controversial legalization initiatives missed making the ballot in Oregon and Washington this year, but organizers in both states have vowed to try again, and Sensible Washington, the folks behind this year's effort there, already have a pro-legalization billboard up on I-5 in the Seattle area. In Colorado, organizers bided their time this year amidst the medical marijuana explosion there, but are busy laying the groundwork for a legalization initiative there.

This year also saw a legalization bill pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in January, a first in the US. While that bill died later in the session, sponsor Tom Ammiano (D-SF), reintroduced it in March and it awaits further consideration in Sacramento. In New Hampshire, a decriminalization bill passed the House in March, only to be killed in a Senate committee in April, while in Washington state, legalization and decriminalization bills got a January hearing before dying in committee later that same month. In Rhode Island, a decriminalization bill was introduced in February and a state legislative commission endorsed it in March, but the bill went nowhere so far. Later in the year, the California legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a decriminalization bill there. And in November, a marijuana legalization bill passed the House in the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands, marking the first time a legalization bill has passed a legislative chamber anywhere in the US. It was later defeated in the Senate. No legalization or decriminalization bills passed this year, but the day is drawing near.

A plethora of public opinion polls this year suggest why, as support for pot legalization is now hovering just under 50%. In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had support at 46%; in April, a Pew poll had it at 41%. By July, an Angus-Reid poll had support at 52%, while Rasmussen showed it at 43%. In November, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 46%, its highest level ever and a 15 percentage point increase over just a decade ago. Some of these polls showed majority support for legalization in the West, which will be put to the test in 2012.

Medical Marijuana -- the Ongoing Battle

The acceptance of medical marijuana continued in 2010, as two states, New Jersey and Arizona, along with the District of Columbia, became the latest to legalize the medicinal use of the herb. It's worth noting, however, that medical marijuana is not yet being produced or consumed in any of those places, even though the New Jersey legislation was signed into law in January and the DC medical marijuana initiative was actually revived last year. To be fair, voters only approved the Arizona initiative in November, and regulators there have three more months to come up with enabling regulations.

But the acceptance is by no means complete, and resistance from recalcitrant law enforcement and local governments continues apace. A medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota and an Oregon initiative to create a system of state-licensed, nonprofit dispensaries both failed in November. And despite efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through numerous state legislatures, none beside New Jersey came to fruition this year. Bills have stalled in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, even as they are continually pared back to be ever more restrictive in a bid to appease opponents.

Medical marijuana states that have less loosely written laws -- all via the initiative process, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana -- proved to be highly contested terrain in 2010. The blossoming of hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado this year led to the passage of regulatory legislation this summer, while a similar, if more limited outbreak of envelope-pushing in Montana has legislators there vowing to rein in the industry when they reconvene next year. In Michigan, law enforcement in some locales has arrested people in apparent compliance with the state law. In all three states, battles have also broken out at the city or county level, especially over efforts to ban medical marijuana operations. These fights will continue.

California is a world of its own when it comes to medical marijuana. The most wide open of the medical marijuana states, which, thanks to the language of Proposition 215, allows for medical marijuana to be recommended for virtually anything, it is also the state where legal and political conflict over medical marijuana is most entrenched. Despite more than a decade of litigation, the legality of selling medical marijuana remains unclear, and depending on the attitude of local authorities, dispensaries can be -- and are -- subject to raids and prosecution. The medical marijuana community dodged a bullet in November when Kamala Harris defeated dispensary arch-foe Steve Cooley, the Republican Los Angeles County prosecutor. Meanwhile, in communities across the state, battles rage over banning dispensaries, or, in happier circumstances, over how to permit and tax them. And medical marijuana is increasingly recognized for the big business it is. A growing number of California towns and cities this year voted to tax medical marijuana, and Oakland gave the go-ahead for massive medical marijuana mega-farms, although it may now retreat in the face of rumblings from the Justice Department. None of this got resolved this year, and the fight over medical marijuana in the Golden State is unlikely to wind down any time soon.

The DEA Continues to Misbehave

And then there's the DEA. It was in October 2009 that the Justice Department released its famous memo telling the DEA to butt out if medical marijuana operations in states that had approved them where not violating state law. While DEA raids have certainly declined from their thuggish heyday in the Bush administration, they have not gone away. After a Colorado medical marijuana grower had the temerity to appear on a local TV news program showing off his garden, the DEA raided him in February. The DEA also hit Michigan medical marijuana operations at least twice, in July and again early this month. The DEA has also raided numerous California medical marijuana operations this year, including the first collective to apply for the Mendocino County sheriff's cultivation permit program and a number of beleaguered San Diego area dispensaries. In most cases, the DEA is relying on the cooperation of sympathetic local law enforcement and prosecutors. Making the DEA live up to the Holder memo is a battle that is yet to be won.

The Obama administration's nomination of acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is not a good omen. Despite a horrendous record at the DEA, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles during the height of the Bush administration raids on medical marijuana facilities, and in St. Louis during the Andrew Chambers "supersnitch" perjury scandal, Leonhart's nomination has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to be approved by the Senate as a whole once she takes some actions to improve access to pain medications for seniors in nursing homes -- an issue on which Sen. Herb Kohl was said will cause him to place a hold on a floor vote until she and the agency address it.

Drug War Juggernaut Continues Rolling

While support for marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization continues to grow, and while a number of states have enacted sentencing reforms in response to fiscal pressures, the drug war juggernaut keeps rolling along, chewing up lives like so much chaff. US law enforcement made more than 1.6 million arrests on drug charges last year, more than half of them for marijuana offenses, marking the first year pot busts made up more than half of all drug arrests. The number is actually down slightly from the previous year, but only marginally so, as drug law enforcement keeps humming along. But in the current economic crunch, such a high level of enforcement and punishment may no longer be sustainable. A Pew report found that state prison populations had declined for the first time since the 1970s, if only by 0.4%, although the federal prison population, more than 60% of which consists of drug offenders, increased by 3.4%. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported than US jail populations had decreased for the first time in decades, dropping by 2.3% over the previous year. The tiny turnarounds are a good thing, but there is a long, long way to go.

Rolling Back the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


For the first time in the modern drug war era, Congress this year rolled back a harsh drug sentencing law. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses had been under the gun for more than decade as it became increasingly evident that the laws were having a racially disproportionate impact. Under the old law, five grams of crack would earn you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. Although a majority of crack users are white, blacks accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions. A bill to reduce, but not eliminate, the sentencing disparity passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and the Senate as a whole weeks later. The House Judiciary Committee had already passed a similar measure that would completely eliminate the disparity, but the House leadership chose to go along with the Senate, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but not completely eliminating it when it voted to approve the bill in July. President Obama signed the bill into law days later. While passage of the bill is a milestone, it leaves work undone. The sentencing disparity, while reduced, still exists, and thousands of prisoners sentenced under the harsh old law remain in prison because the new law lacks retroactivity.

Demands for Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients, the Unemployed, and Even Politicians

The impulse to score cheap political points by unleashing moralistic wrath on the poor and the unfortunate remained alive in 2010. As in years past, efforts to demand drug testing of unemployment recipients or people receiving welfare benefits went nowhere, but not for lack of trying. In fact, the year was bookended by such efforts, starting with a Missouri bill that would have mandated drug testing for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients upon "reasonable cause." That bill passed a Senate committee and the House in February, but died in the Senate after a Democratic filibuster. Similarly, drug testing bills in Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia all died, as did a silly Louisiana bill that would have allowed Louisiana elected officials to submit to a voluntary drug test and post the results on the Internet. Later in the year, successful Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, a call he has vowed to carry out as governor.

Attack of (on) the Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense under names like Spice and K-2 first showed up on the national radar last year, and by early 2010 the prohibitionist impulse began rearing its ugly head in state legislatures across the land. Containing synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, synthesized by a university researcher in the 1990s, the stuff was available at head shops, smoke shops, and corner gas stations everywhere, as well as on the Internet. Although no overdose deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported, there have been reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers by people under its influence. But it wasn't the alleged dangers as much as the fear that someone, somewhere could be getting high without getting into legal trouble that impelled a series of statewide and municipal bans. In March, Kansas became the first state to ban synthetic cannabinoids, followed by Alabama in April, Georgia in May and Missouri in July. Also banning the compounds this year were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Similar legislation was also proposed in several more states, including Florida, Ilinois, and New York. Then, in November, the DEA announced an emergency nationwide ban to go into effect in 30 days, meaning you have until Christmas to use the compounds legally. After that, you're a federal criminal.

SWAT Raids and Drug War Killings

It's not just the massive extent of the drug war that generates criticism, but the law enforcement violence and overkill that too often accompanies it. This year, the now infamous SWAT team raid in Columbia, Missouri, in February that left a dog dead and a family traumatized in a raid over marijuana went got national attention when a video of the raid went viral on the Internet at mid-year. Another SWAT raid in Detroit in May generated outrage when it resulted in the death of 7-year-old girl shot by a raider, and that same month, a Georgia grandmother suffered a heart attack when her home was mistakenly hit by the local SWAT team and DEA agents. And then there was the case of Trevon Cole, a 21-year-old black man killed as he knelt in his own bathroom as the apartment he shared with his pregnant girlfriend was raided over small-time pot sales. The police shooter, of course, was found innocent of any wrongdoing in a coroner's inquest, and now Cole's family is suing. So is the family in the Columbia SWAT raid.

Sentencing Reforms Continue in the States

In a bid to reduce corrections spending, a number of states in the last decade have moved to implement sentencing reforms, and 2010 saw the trend continue. In May, Colorado passed reforms that will reduce some drug use and possession sentences, allow greater judicial flexibility in sentencing, and keep some technical parole violators from being sent back to prison. But the package also increases some drug sales and manufacturing sentences. In June, South Carolina passed reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In August, Massachusetts passed reforms that will eliminate some mandatory minimums in a bill that was watered down from an earlier Senate version.  In all three cases, it was not bleeding hearts but bleeding wallets that was the impetus for reform.

A Congressional Drug Warrior Goes Down in Flames

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. This year is also notable for the spectacular May end to the career of inveterate congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The doughy cultural conservative crusader from the heartland resigned from Congress after admitting at a press conference to having an affair with a female staffer with whom he had once made abstinence videos. Souder is best known to drug reformers as the author of the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision of the Higher Education Act, and thus deserves credit for almost singlehandedly causing the formation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. But his enthusiasm for the war on drugs also led him to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources from 2001 to 2007, where he used his position to support harsh drug policies. He was, for instance, a staunch foe of medical marijuana and a loud voice against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendments, which would, if passed, have stopped federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. To be fair, Souder did offer committee legislation in 2006 to restrict the reach of his student aid penalty, and he was also a key Republican supporter of the recent "Second Chance" prisoner reentry funding legislation. Still, reformers are happy that one of the staunchest and most active drug warriors is out of Congress now, struck down by his own hypocrisy.

Arizona Medical Marijuana Act Goes Into Effect Today

Location: 
AZ
United States
Prop. 203, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, goes into effect today. This means the state health department has until April 16 to finish its rule-making process, two weeks more than it had expected. The Arizona Department of Health Services will publish the first draft of its rules Friday, kicking off a public-comment period.
Publication/Source: 
The Arizona Republic (AZ)
URL: 
http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2010/12/15/20101215jan-brewer-marijuana-act.html

Busted CA Medical Marijuana Patient Now Free to Leave Alabama

A California medical marijuana patient facing up to 10 years in prison in Alabama for possessing five grams of marijuana will now go free. In court proceedings in Anniston Monday, Michael Lapihuska agreed to a plea deal in which he was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation, with no drug testing. He is now free to leave Alabama, and will most likely do so within a matter of days. (See our earlier feature article on Lapihuska and his travails here.)

Get out of Dixie, Michael! (Lapihuska facing camera, image courtesy Alabamians for Compassionate Care)
An Alabama native, Lapihuska left the Heart of Dixie several years ago after serving 13 months in prison for possessing five grams of marijuana in 2003. Lapihuska, who suffers from depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), headed for greener pastures in California, where he became a card-carrying medical marijuana patient, but came home last December for a holiday visit.

On December 15, 2009, he was stopped by a police officer and accused of hitchhiking as he walked down a road. The officer demanded he be allowed to search Lapihuska, and Lapihuska complied. The search came up with a prescription bottle containing one gram of marijuana. Lapihuska explained that he was a registered California medical marijuana patient and produced a patient ID card.

But Alabama justice doesn't recognize medical marijuana, and Lapihuska was charged with his third marijuana possession offense, this one worth between two and 10 years in state prison. Under Alabama law, a first marijuana offense is a misdemeanor, but a second possession offense is a felony punishable by a year in prison. A third possession offense is a felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

Lapihuska's predicament soon won him the support of Alabama drug reform activist Loretta Nall and Alabamians for Compassionate Care, who unleashed a media campaign in the local press to gain support for Lapihuska and to try to shame local prosecutors into reducing the charges.

Lapihuska didn't make it easy. Determined not to once again be caught up in the tender mercies of the Alabama criminal justice system, Lapihuska rejected a a plea deal that would have seen him sentenced to probation, but also subject to drug testing. He told the Chronicle he would fail such a test because he continues to use marijuana to treat his symptoms.

At the Monday court hearing, prosecutors lowered the felony marijuana count to a misdemeanor and allowed Lapihuska to plead guilty to that count and an original misdemeanor possession count. Lapihuska must pay a $250 fine on each count, but that is effectively it.

"We beat them down," said Loretta Nall, Lapihuska's most effective and energetic backer. "They didn't want the media attention. They just wanted him out of there. The judge even asked if he was really going back to California."

Nall added that Lapihuska was going to get out of Alabama if she had to buy his plane ticket herself.

Even in Alabama, a little activism can go a long way. What looked like an obscene 10-year prison sentence has now been transformed into a token conviction, a token fine, and an invitation to go home.

Anniston, AL
United States

NJ Senate Demands Governor Fix Medical Marijuana Regulations

The New Jersey Senate Monday sent Gov. Chris Christie's (R) proposed medical marijuana regulations back to the drawing board. The Senate passed a resolution rejecting the draft regulations, and the state Department of Health and Senior Services now has 30 days to come up with regulations that actually fit with the state's Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act as passed by the legislature and signed into law at the beginning of this year.

The State Senate steps up to protect the medical marijuana law. (image from wikimedia.com)
Although it has been eleven long months since the act became law, Gov. Christie and his administration have been dragging their feet. First, Christie sought a delay in implementing the law and won a three-month reprieve from the legislature. Then, the administration released its draft regulations in October, only to be met with strong criticism from patients, advocates, and legislators. The regs were criticized for conflicting with the law as passed and being so restrictive as to make the program unworkable.

Last week, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), one of the key sponsors of the law, announced he had struck a deal with Christie, but that Faustian bargain was roundly criticized by patients and other legislators alike. Medical marijuana supporters in the state Senate refused to accept the deal, and Monday made that rejection official.

The New Jersey medical marijuana law was already the most restrictive in the nation before the Christie administration moved to make it even more so. It allows patients suffering from certain debilitating and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis to use and possess medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. It calls for the licensing of Alternative Treatment Centers where qualifying patients could safely access medical marijuana.

The Senate criticized four specific provisions of the regulations that are "not consistent with the intent of the legislature as expressed in the language of the Compassionate Use Act," including the requirement all qualifying medical conditions for which a patient may get medical marijuana be resistant to conventional medical therapy.  In the original legislation only certain medical conditions were required to meet this threshold.

It also rejected the limit of two Alternative Treatment Centers that will grow medical marijuana and four that will dispense marijuana. The original bill called for at least two Alternative Treatment Centers in the north, central and southern parts of the state.

And it rejected the draft regulations' arbitrary limit on the permissible levels of THC the medical marijuana may contain.  There was no such restriction in the original bill.

Finally, it objected to the two year waiting period mandated by the regulations before patients can petition to have new conditions added to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be accessed. No such waiting period was included in the original legislation.

"We urge the department to move swiftly to change the problematic sections of the regulations," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, which spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation.  "We are approaching the one year anniversary of the bill becoming law and patients are still suffering and still no closer to having safe and legal access to their medicine."

"I’m tired of fighting for what I deserve," said Diane Riportella, who suffers from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).  "I don't have much time left and want to see this program started before I'm no longer here."

Also playing important roles in passing the medical marijuana law and ensuring that it is implemented in accordance with the will of the legislature were the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Faith is Our Pathway, and the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

Now, the clock is ticking on the Christie administration. Its delays have been used up, its overly restrictive regulations have been rejected, and now it is time for it to just buckle down and do the right thing.

Trenton, NJ
United States

N.J. Senate Weighing Defying Governor Over Medical Marijuana

Location: 
NJ
United States
New Jersey's Senate may vote Monday to defy Gov. Chris Christie over his proposed strict medical marijuana regulations. The vote is scheduled even though Christie and the state Assembly's prime sponsor of medical marijuana struck a deal on regulations last week.
Publication/Source: 
Courier-Post (NJ)
URL: 
http://www.courierpostonline.com/article/20101210/NEWS02/101210058/N.J.-Senate-weighing-defying-governor-over-marijuana

DEA, State Cops Raid Legal Michigan Medical Marijuana Grows [FEATURE]

Once again, this time last week in Michigan, the federal DEA has teamed up with recalcitrant state and local law enforcement in a bid to negate the will of the public and the law of the land. Heavily-armed state and federal lawmen raided a pair of medical marijuana gardens in the town of Okemos, outside Lansing, breaking windows, throwing smoke grenades, and seizing thousands of dollars worth of equipment and medical marijuana plants -- all in a raid of a facility that is undeniably within the confines of Michigan's medical marijuana law.

Michigan marijuana activists take to the streets (courtesy Capital City Care Givers)
The gardens subleased to two individual caregivers by Capital City Care Givers in nearby Lansing contained a total of 40 marijuana plants. Under the Michigan law, caregivers can grow up to 12 plants each for up to five patients, as well as growing 12 plants for themselves if they are patients. That means the two caregivers should have been legally protected in growing up to 72 plants each, or 144 in total.

The apparent hole in the law that the DEA and the state police could be seeking to exploit is that the law does not directly address the issue of conjoined grows. It says only that caregivers can grow up to 12 plants for up to five patients and does not address more than one caregiver growing under the same roof. On the other hand, the law does not forbid such activities.

"This was an operation of the state police and the DEA," said Detroit medical marijuana activist Tim Beck. "The state police couldn’t even get a warrant from a local judge, so the DEA had to get one from a federal judge in Grand Rapids. The state police claim that they are captives of the local prosecutor, but in this case, the local prosecutor didn't cooperate with them, so they went around him to the feds."

"We were completely in compliance with the law," said Ryan Basore, proprietor of Capitol City Care Givers, whose grow was hit. "We had contacted the local, county, and state police, and they all gave the go ahead and said we were doing it legally. We had two different attorneys write up the leases and go through plant counts and make sure everything was correctly separated. Every caregiver was well under the limit."

That didn't stop the DEA, the state police, and the Tri-county Metro Narcotics Squad from behaving as if they were busting an Al Qaeda cell. Raiding agents threw smoke bombs in the building, paraded around with AK-47s, and stole the marijuana being grown by legally compliant caregivers. When asked about the Holder memo, the agents acted as if they were above the law. "Obama is not our president," Basore reported the agents saying."The people wanted change," Basore overheard another agent say as they effectively laughed in the face of their own superiors.

"All I can tell you is that this is an ongoing investigation in which we procured the search warrant," said Detroit DEA spokesman Special Agent Rich Isaacson. "Just because someone makes a claim that it is medical marijuana doesn't make it so."

When asked about the October 2009 Justice Department memo urging the DEA to quit going after medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal, Isaacson appeared to agree with the memo, but then suggested Capital Caregivers was somehow outside the state law. "If it's unambiguous that they're following state law, there would be better ways for the department to spend its resources," he said.

"Our mission is to target large scale drug trafficking groups," Isaacson said, but clammed up when confronted with the fact that the raids had seized only 40 plants. "That number may or may not be accurate," was all he would say.

Basore has been a prominent figure in the state's medical marijuana movement. He is a member of various cannabis patient groups and the Michigan Association of Compassionate Care Centers. He's been available to local and state media, and as a result, he has a very high profile. That could have been why he was targeted, his supporters suggested.

"This raid came about because Ryan Basore was in the media for the past few weeks talking about his desire to have regulated dispensaries," said Detroit attorney Matthew Abel. "He is a very successful businessman in this industry, and I think they just decided to take him down. They do that to anyone who goes public, and that's highly retaliatory against our First Amendment rights. He was talking to the press, so they took him out. That's pretty nasty."

"Ryan is high-profile, he's politically active and on TV all the time, but he's also scrupulously honest," said Beck. "That operation was absolutely straight up," he said.

"We're very troubled by the continuing raids involving the DEA that are occurring around the country, and we've been saying this for a long time," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. "It is not the purview of the federal government to enforce state or local laws. If the feds believe state or local law may have been violated, they should leave those cases to the state to prosecute. Only then we will find out if there were in fact violations of state or local law, because if those cases go to federal court, prosecutors will not risk opening the door to a medical marijuana defense," he said.

"The DEA conducts these raids and provides very little evidence of state law violations," said Hermes. "They rarely, if ever, produce any actual physical evidence of state law violations."

It's not just Michigan where the DEA is acting out, said Hermes. "We've seen well over 20 DEA raids since Justice issued its memo, and while that is for sure a less aggressive posture than the Bush administration, any raids are unacceptable if they are going to undermine the implementation of a state's medical marijuana law," he said. "That has been the effect in California and Colorado, where the DEA attempts to undermine the state medical marijuana law," Hermes argued.

"US attorneys have received notice that there was a change in policy, and that has filtered down to DEA agents across the country in medical marijuana states," Hermes continued. "Eric Holder and the Obama administration have given pretty broad latitude to use discretion in enforcing federal marijuana laws in medical marijuana states, and it's mostly US attorneys and DEA field agents who consider their targets to be violating state or local law. The shadow of the Justice Department memo is coloring enforcement actions, and hopefully we'll see fewer raids in the future, but it's that discretion that has resulted in the continuing raids."

"The DEA has been all over Michigan trying to subvert this law, running around recommending that municipalities pass laws saying that any activity which is contrary to state local or federal law is also illegal," Beck noted.  "That is being challenged in court by the ACLU."

For Basore, it's not just about picking up the pieces and starting over. "I'm thinking about suing the state of Michigan, said Basore. "I think I have an entrapment case. I would never have broken the law unless I was told it was okay to do, and some of those who told me it was okay were in on the raids."

And it is full speed ahead, recalcitrant state police and DEA be damned. "We haven't been charged with anything, we're legal to grow in Michigan, and our patients need their medicine," said Basore. "If they are going to rob us at gunpoint again, they're going to do it. But we'll keep doing what we're doing, we have the law on our side."

The feds don't even have to prosecute to have inflict severe pain, Abel said. "They clean you out, and then where are you?"

"There will be bankruptcies filed because of this," said Basore. "Most of our caregivers are in the their 60s, and they're not rich."

The DEA and reactionary state law enforcement officials are once again showing serious signs of thinking they are above the law. Someone needs to rein them in, whether through lawsuits, in the streets, or at the ballot box.

Okemos, MI
United States

NJ Pols Strike Medical Marijuana Deal, Patients Unhappy

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), a key sponsor of Garden State medical marijuana legislation, have announced a deal to end the impasse over the implementation of the state's medical marijuana law. But the medical marijuana community and patient advocates are saying not so fast.

A deal in Trenton? Not so fast, patients say. (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The state legislature passed a medical marijuana law at the end of last year, and it was signed into law by outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) days before he left office. Since then, Gov. Christie and his minions in state government have sought first to delay the implementation of the law and then to impose onerous and unnecessary restrictions on the way the program would operate.

That led to public hearings last month and passage of a resolution harshly critical of the proposed regulations on November 22. But now Gusciora has agreed to a compromise with the governor. Under the agreement, the state would see six growing and distribution sites instead of the two grows and four dispensaries that Christie had wanted.

New Jersey would also become the first medical marijuana state to impose potency restrictions on the medicine. Under the agreement, medical marijuana can contain no more than 10% THC. The agreement also requires patients with three nonfatal conditions -- seizures, glaucoma, and muscle spasms -- to exhaust all other treatments before receiving medical marijuana. And it requires doctors to attest that they have "provided education for the patients on the lack of scientific consensus for the use of medical marijuana." The agreement also undoes a provision that would have allowed for home delivery of medical marijuana to patients.

The agreement is "the best way to move forward on a responsible, medically based program that will avoid the significant fraud and criminal diversion that other states have experienced," Christie said. 

But patient advocates are not so sure. While welcoming the increase in the number of grows and dispensaries (back to the levels mandated by the law) and the removal of language requiring that all patients exhaust all other treatment options before using medical marijuana, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey also had a long list of problems with the agreement hammered out by Christie and Gusciora.

The cap on THC levels is "arbitrary, capricious, and inappropriate," the group said. A requirement that physicians register with the state in order to recommend medical marijuana is "unnecessary, outside the scope of the law, and will have a chilling effect on the program," the group continued. The compromise also blocks out all pain patients except those suffering from cancer and HIV/AIDS.

"Tens of thousands of New Jersey pain patients who have waited for the Compassionate Use Act to take effect will now find that the very law that was passed to protect them and provide them relief still does not protect them," the group said. "Medical decisions about this program are being made not in the realm of science, but in the realm of politics. The Health Department should function for public health, not a political agenda."

It's not completely a done deal. While, thanks to Gusciora, the Assembly has signed on, the Senate has to vote on a resolution demanding substantive changes in the regulations. That vote is set for next week and could force a month-long reevaluation of the health department's proposed regulations. Look for advocates to continue to fight to get the best -- not the most restrictive -- regulations possible.

Trenton, NJ
United States

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