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Charlottesville Says Decriminalize or Regulate Marijuana

The Charlottesville, Virginia, city council approved a marijuana-related resolution Monday night calling on the governor and the legislature "to revisit the sentencing guidelines that merit jail terms for simple possession, do away with rules that suppose intent to distribute without evidence and give due consideration to sponsored state bills that would decriminalize, legalize or regulate marijuana like alcohol."

Charlottesville City Council (City of Charlotteville)
[Editor's Note: To find the actual resolution, click on the link above, select "May 7, 2012 (with background)," then scroll to the very end of the PDF file.]

Under current law, possession of marijuana is classified as a misdemeanor carrying punishment of up to 30 days in jail and/or fines of up to $500. Subsequent convictions carry a jail sentence of up to a year and/or fines of up to $2,500.

The council had been presented with two resolutions, the version that passed and one that also included language making marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority, but councilors balked at the lowest priority language, saying they feared it would send the wrong message to children. Two of the five-member council supported the lowest priority language, but they dropped that in order to pick up a third vote on the decriminalization and regulation language.

"I think it's perfectly legitimate for us to say as an elected body that there are other priorities and that we're going the wrong direction when it comes to the war on drugs," said Councilor Dave Norris in remarks reported by the Charlottesville Daily Progress.

"Obviously, we don't have the power to decriminalize marijuana, but I think it does send the message actually in support of those who can," said Councilor Dede Smith.

"I think that decriminalization has more to with regulation and control than it does with saying it's okay," said Councilor Kristin Szakos, the swing vote who suggested the one-paragraph compromise.

Two council members, Mayor Satyendra Huja and Councilor Kathy Galvin, voted against any reform resolution.

"I think passing such a resolution... would detract from community health, safety and welfare of our citizens," said Huja.

"I honestly cannot think that this bully pulpit can be used to send such mixed messages to our children," said Galvin. "We are spending a lot of time talking about state and federal law. This is not something we should be spending local time doing."

City police lobbied against the lowest priority language, saying that marijuana possession is already a low priority, accounting for only about 100 arrests a year out of the 5,000 made by police, and that many of those busts were incident to arrest on other charges.

"The officers in the police department are duty bound to enforce the laws of the city, state and federal governments. However, all police departments must balance the pressing enforcement needs of a community with their resources," read a memo to councilors from City Manager Maurice Jones and city Police Chief Timothy Longo. "The Charlottesville Police Department has done exactly that by utilizing its funding to appropriately address higher priority crimes in our city than marijuana possession. Knowing this, staff believes it is unnecessary to include a directive from council to de-prioritize the enforcement of personal marijuana use."

Public comment at the meeting was mixed, with the first six speakers opposing the resolution. Some referred to their own struggles with addiction, while others described it as an insidious drug that robs addicts of true happiness.

"Charlottesville will become the city of potheads," warned city resident Melanie Roberts.

But local attorney Jeff Fogel supported the resolutions, including the lowest priority language, and called the war on drugs "a colossal failure" that led to violence. "I don't think we elected the police department to make policy or law in this community," Fogel said. "And you know what, I'm not sure the police department does either."

The resolution was citizen-initiated, brought to the council by Jordan McNeish. Formerly involved with Occupy Charlotte, the 23-year-old activist has since founded a local NORML chapter. He said he had been busted for pot possession in the past.

Charlottesville is now on the record for marijuana reform. Where are Norfolk and Newport News, Roanoke and Richmond?

Charlottesville, VA
United States

Connecticut Bill to Strengthen Racial Profiling Ban Passes

The Connecticut House Monday passed a bill to strengthen the state's 12-year-old racial profiling reporting, which some senators said was not being followed by police. The bill, Senate Bill 364, passed the Senate last month. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said in statement Monday he would sign it into law.

]"More than 10 years ago, as the mayor of Stamford, I was proud to stand with the men and women of the Stamford Police Department on Martin Luther King Day to announce that we did not tolerate racial profiling and would lead the efforts to ensure its elimination. As governor, I will continue to insist that every effort is taken to protect individual rights in every community and that racial profiling is eliminated," Malloy said. "This is a real problem that deserves a real solution, and my administration is committed to carrying out the spirit and letter of this law. I look forward to signing the bill when it arrives at my desk."

The original racial profiling law was pushed by then-Senator Alvin Penn, who spoke out loudly against the practice. Penn said he himself had been stopped by police for no reason except for his skin color. Penn died of pancreatic cancer in 2003.

That law required police departments to report on each traffic stop, noting the driver's race and the reason for the stop. In the first six months the law was in effect, police wrote 315,000 reports, and a 2001 study of those reports found that blacks accounted for only 8% of the state's population, but 12% of the traffic stops.

Still, the state's top prosecutor said at the time that the numbers did not suggest racial profiling.

"We did not find a pattern of racial profiling,'' said then Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey. "Minority drivers do not appear to be treated systematically any different than non-minority drivers.''

In the decade since then, the issue has quietly festered while police departments quietly quit reporting. According to Senate Democrats, only 27 of the state's 92 police departments are complying with the law.

Last month, the head of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Douglas Fuchs, told the Hartford Courant that most departments were complying with the law. He added that racial profiling data does not "accurately portray how Connecticut law enforcement across the state conducts business,'' although he did not explain why not.

But former state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who is now Gov. Malloy's (D) chief criminal justice advisor, disagreed. "The fact of racial profiling is very real. Almost every African-American has a story like that [of profiling], and very few white people do. It's real.''

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams (D) also disagreed, saying, "Racial profiling is a problem in Connecticut and throughout the United States… It's time to strengthen' the law."

Malloy said his administration hadn't waited for the law to pass to start working on its provisions.

"Our administration has already begun taking some of the steps required under the legislation," he said. "Last year, I instructed the Office of Policy and Management, with the help of Central Connecticut State University, to create the advisory group called for in the bill, and they have begun to develop standardized methods and guidelines to improve collection of racial profiling data."

Hartford, CT
United States

Connecticut to Become 17th Medical Marijuana State

The Connecticut Senate gave final approval to a medical marijuana bill early Saturday morning, and Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said in a statement later that same day that he will sign it. The bill, House Bill 5389, passed the House last week.

Connecticut State House, Hartford (wikimedia.org)
Medical marijuana is already legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

The middle-of-the-night final vote came only after medical marijuana foe Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) filibustered for most of the 10 hours of debate. She fruitlessly introduced various amendments in a bid to derail it, but none of them passed.

Boucher mixed statistics and stories as she argued that marijuana isn't medicine, that illegal use among youth would expand, that licensed dispensaries are "little more than dope dealers with licenses," and that federal non-recognition of medical marijuana could expose anyone involved in it to civil or criminal liability. But hers was a decidedly minority view.

"We can probably find a study that will contradict every single study Senator Boucher has cited this evening," said Sen. Eric Coleman (D-Bloomfield) co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The tightly crafted bill would allow patients with specified diseases and conditions to obtain a written certification from a physician allowing them to use medical marijuana. The marijuana would be grown indoors at one of no more than 10 licensed grows and sold at one of no more than 10 licensed dispensaries. It will be sold by specially trained pharmacists, who must be on staff at the dispensaries.

Gov. Malloy, whose office helped craft the law, said it was designed to avoid conflict with the federal government, which has been cracking down on medical marijuana distribution in states where it is more loosely regulated.

"We don't want Connecticut to follow the path pursued by some other states, which essentially would legalize marijuana for anyone willing to find the right doctor and get the right prescription. In my opinion, such efforts run counter to federal law. Under this proposal, however, the Department of Consumer Protection will be able to carefully regulate and monitor the medicinal use of this drug in order to avoid the problems encountered in some other states," he said in the Saturday statement.

"This legislation is about accomplishing one objective: providing relief to those with severe medical illnesses. I look forward to signing the bill when it reaches my desk."

Hartford, CT
United States

New Hampshire Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Killed

A bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana died last Wednesday in the New Hampshire Senate. The Senate voted without debate to kill the bill, which had passed the House by one vote in March, but faced a veto threat from Gov. John Lynch (D).

The bill, House Bill 1526, would have made possession of less than a half-ounce of pot a violation punishable by a $250 fine. A second offense would garner a $500 fine, and subsequent offenses would be considered misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine.

Under current New Hampshire law, possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

While the Senate did not debate the bill Wednesday, it had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. There, familiar tropes were trotted out on both sides of the issue, with opponents saying it would send the wrong message to kids and supporters saying saddling young people with criminal records over pot would harm them.

"This would undermine the fundamental message in the schools and that parents try to teach, and this is that using marijuana is a bad choice, is the wrong choice," said Assistant Attorney General Karin Eckel, who was also speaking on behalf of the state police chiefs association.

But the current law is not proportionate to the crime, retorted Claire Ebel, executive director of he New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. "The effect of marijuana convictions on young people includes the inability to be employed in most government agencies or to join the military. It means they can't get student loans," she said.

New Hampshire's stance on decriminalization is increasingly a minority one in the region. Pot is already decriminalized in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, and New York. Possession remains a misdemeanor only in Vermont and Rhode Island, along with the Granite State.

Concord, NH
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

President Obama is taking flak from comedians and politicians alike over the federal crackdown on dispensaries. Meanwhile, raids and legal battles continue to rage across the country. Let's get to it:

National

Last Thursday, Rep. Barney Frank criticized President Obama for the medical marijuana crackdown. "I think it's bad politics and bad policy," Frank said. "I'm very disappointed. I think it's a grave mistake. It's unfair and will hurt innocent people," he told The Hill. Frank said he has told Obama personally that he is "making a mistake on this," though he doubts medical marijuana will be an issue for the president in the 2012 campaign. "Not against Mitt Romney," Frank said.

On Saturday, comedian Jimmy Kimmel confronted President Obama over the federal medical marijuana crackdown as he hosted the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. "I do have one real question for you, Mr. President. What's with the marijuana crackdown? I mean, seriously, what's the concern, we will deplete the nation's Funyun supply?" he quipped. "You know, pot smokers vote, too -- sometimes a week after the election, but they vote." Go to the link above for Kimmel's complete marijuana segment.

California

The California legislature will vote on several bills that will seriously affect medical cannabis patients in the state, so patient lobby group Americans for Safe Access is leading a rare three days of outreach in Sacramento May 19-21. It's called the California Unity Conference and medical cannabis lobby day. "The conference is organized by Californians to Regulate Medical Marijuana, a statewide coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to pushing back on federal pressure on medical cannabis in California. We are planning two days of strategy and skills-building. Then on Monday, May 21, we will be going to the Capitol en masse to support good legislation and stop bad bills. Conference attendees will visit all 120 legislative offices that day. This is an important element in our state campaign this year, and your participation is crucial. Register online today."

Last Tuesday, the Garden Grove police chief called on the feds to raid dispensaries in his town. Chief Kevin Raney told the City Council Tuesday night his department has been in touch with federal agents and "they will be coming to Garden Grove in the future." The chief's comments came in response to complaints about the dispensaries from some council members and neighborhood associations. Councilman Bruce Broadwater called the growing number of dispensaries "a nightmare." There are an estimated 60 dispensaries in the city of 35,000.

Also last Tuesday, a Union City dispensary was ordered shut down after a battle with the city. CHA Wellness Center will have to close by the end of this week. It had opened in January after its owner won a permit to provide "holistic health care and relaxed products and services" and "packaged products for retail exchange." The city had told CHA it couldn't distribute medical marijuana and quickly issued a ban on operations and filed a civil complaint in Alameda County Superior Court when it found out it actually was a dispensary. The city council revoked its business license last Tuesday.

Also last Tuesday, Trinity County approved most of the cultivation standards drafted by the County Planning Commission and directed that the draft ordinance be prepared for final adoption as soon as possible. That will require at least two more public hearings. The proposed rules only apply to cultivation for personal use in a residential setting, establishing plant count limits or garden size based on the size of a parcel of land. Once adopted, they will replace temporary limits currently in place under an emergency moratorium with slightly more stringent requirements including one that all cultivation be conducted indoors on parcels of one acre or less. Proposed aggregate grow standards addressing large-scale marijuana operations have been sent back for additional work by the commission.

Also last Tuesday, Nevada County ordered staff to come up with an interim emergency and other cultivation ordinance for a hearing on May 8. The ordinance being proposed bars indoor home grows and allows them only in detached structures on properties where a patient or primary caregiver lives. Rural or residential properties under two acres could grow up to 75 square feet outdoors and no more than six plants indoors, no matter how many patients are involved. The proposed ordinance also includes other requirements.

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Democratic Party called on President Obama to end the federal crackdown. The party Central Committee passed a resolution demanding that President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and US Attorney Melinda Haag "cease all Federal actions in San Francisco immediately, respect State and local laws, and stop the closure of City-permitted medical cannabis facilities." It was cosponsored by 21 DCCC members including its author, Gabriel Haaland, Assembly member Tom Ammiano, State Senator Leland Yee, Supervisor David Campos, Supervisor David Chiu, former State Senator Carole Migden, and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

On Monday, the Berkeley Patients Group closed its doors. The venerable and well-respected dispensary fell victim to the ongoing federal crackdown. Last fall, US Attorney Melinda Haag threatened to seize the property, and its landlords served it with an eviction notice effective Tuesday. The BPG was seen as a model dispensary, employed dozens of people, and served thousands of patients. Its closure is a major blow to the state's medical marijuana industry.

On Tuesday, the city of Rancho Mirage appealed a court ruling that overturned its ban on dispensaries. The city hopes to "freeze" the case with the appeal, which seeks a stay, so it can reject a new dispensary that recently filed an application. A Riverside County District Court judge in March ordered the city to process the application.

Also on Tuesday, CANORML announced that a new zero-tolerance DUID bill had been introduced in the state legislature. The bill, SB 50, was originally a political reform bill, but was gutted and refiled by a pair of veteran drug warriors, Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), on April 16. The bill would make it a crime for a person to have a controlled substance in his or her blood while driving a vehicle. Since marijuana remains in the blood for as long as a week in chronic users, the bill would effectively make every MMJ patient who drives a de facto drugged driver.

Also on Tuesday, the Lakeport city council voted to oppose a cultivation initiative that is headed for the June 5 ballot in Lake County. Measure D would allow 12 plants to be grown on residential lots and up to 84 on larger lots. It was originally intended to undo a restrictive county cultivation ordinance, but the county board of supervisors rescinded that ordinance in the face of public pressure. The measure would only affect unincorporated sections of the county, but Lakeport is worried it could be next.

On Wednesday, patients presented House minority leader Nancy Pelosi with a petition bearing thousands of signatures from San Francisco voters asking her to help end the federal crackdown on dispensaries. Signatures were gathered by the Patient Advocacy Committee of the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Task Force. The petition asks that Pelosi help prevent the destruction of San Francisco's regulatory program that serves thousands of patients with safe and legal medical cannabis. It was cosponsored by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

Colorado

As of Monday, two of three Boulder dispensaries targeted by the feds had closed, and a third was set to shut down by next Monday, the deadline imposed by warning letters from federal prosecutors. Signs in front of The Med Shed and Fresh Republic informed customers that the stores were closed, while the Hill Cannabis Club was advertising a going-out-of-business sale. The three Boulder dispensaries were among 25 statewide ordered to close by prosecutors in a recent round of threat letters. That's addition to 23 that closed earlier after a first round of threat letters.

Connecticut

Last Wednesday, the House voted 96-51 to approve a medical marijuana bill. The vote came despite a threat letter from the US Attorney two days earlier. The bill would allow some producers to cultivate and grow the marijuana, and licensed pharmacists could provide the marijuana to patients. Patients would need to requalify every year in order to keep smoking medical marijuana. It is supported by Gov. Daniel Malloy (D).

Michigan

On Tuesday, a bill allowing state-regulated dispensaries was introduced in the House. Introduced by Republican Rep. Mike Callton, House Bill 5880 would give localities the option of allowing dispensaries, or "provisioning centers," where patients could purchase up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana every 10 days. The Marijuana Policy Project supports the bill.

Montana

On Monday, a former Miles City dispensary operator appealed his federal prison sentence. Richard Flor, 68, was sentenced to five years in federal prison on April 19 despite suffering from numerous physical and mental ailments. Flor, his wife and his son, all pleaded guilty to drug charges related to a grow at their home and to his role as co-owner of Montana Cannabis, which was targeted in the March 2011 DEA sweep of the state.

Oregon

Last Saturday, the Associated Press highlighted the race for the Democratic attorney general nomination, in which the state's medical marijuana community has weighed in heavily for retired judge Ellen Rosenblum over former federal prosecutor Dwight Holton, who presided over medical marijuana raids while he was US Attorney. Rosenblum has portrayed herself as a friend of medical marijuana. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be the next attorney general, since Republicans have yet to manage to field a serious candidate.

On Tuesday, DEA agents arrested six men whose gardens were raided by the agency last year. The men were growing under the rubric of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, but appear to have had quantities of marijuana above and beyond what is allowed under the law. 

Rhode Island

Last week, the US Attorney for Rhode Island sent threat letters to property owners who intend to lease space to dispensaries. US Attorney Peter Neronha cautioned owners that their property could be seized. He had also previously warned that the dispensaries, their landlords or investors could face civil or criminal sanctions, including the seizure of assets or property. Neronha met with Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) last Tuesday, and told him that while the feds might target large-scale operations, they don't intend to prosecute patients. Chafee last year blocked dispensaries from opening in the face of federal threats and now supports legislation that would limit the amount of marijuana dispensaries could distribute in a bid to ease the federal threat.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Judge Rejects Florida State Employee Drug Testing

A federal district court judge in Miami has thrown out Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) executive order requiring state employees to submit to suspicionless drug tests. The order violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures, the judge ruled.

Gov. Scott, a former health care executive, issued the order calling for random drug testing of all state employees in March 2011, but stayed it in the face of a legal challenge from the ACLU of Florida and the Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing thousands of state workers.

Scott argued that requiring drug tests was akin to statutory requirements that some state workers make financial disclosures, but US District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro wasn't buying it.

In her ruling last Wednesday, Ungaro called Scott's reasoning "hardly transparent and frankly obscure" and said it did not justify violating the Fourth Amendment. "He offers no plausible rationale explaining why the fact that a state employee's work product and financial status are publicly accessible leads to the conclusions that the employee's expectation of privacy in his or her bodily functions and fluids are then diminished," Ungaro wrote.

"The governor can't order the state to search people's bodily fluids for no reason -- the Constitution prohibits that sort of government intrusion," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "And the governor can't demand that people surrender their constitutional rights for the privilege of working for the state or receiving some other government benefit."

"Today's ruling is important because it reinforces the bright line which government may not cross," said ACLU cooperating attorney Peter Walsh. "If the state is going to require a drug test as a condition of keeping your job, it needs to have a reason, and simply being against drugs isn't enough."

In a statement last Thursday, Scott said he would appeal, but gave no acknowledgment of the constitutional issues involved.

"As I have repeatedly explained, I believe that drug testing state employees is a common sense means of ensuring a safe, efficient and productive workforce," he said."That is why so many private employers drug-test, and why the public and Florida's taxpayers overwhelmingly support this policy. I respectfully disagree with the court's ruling and will pursue the case on appeal."

Scott is not doing well with his drug testing campaign. A law he backed requiring drug tests for people seeking welfare has been temporarily blocked by a federal district court judge in Orlando, who has indicated she will likely find that measure also unconstitutional.

Miami, FL
United States

Bills to Drug Test the Poor Face Tough Going [FEATURE]

With states facing severe budget pressures, bills to require drug testing to apply for or receive public benefits -- welfare, unemployment benefits, even Medicaid -- have been all the rage at Republican-dominated state houses this year. Fail the drug test and lose your benefits. The bills carry a powerful appeal that plays well even beyond typically Republican constituencies, combining class, gender and racial stereotypes with a distaste for wasteful government spending. But they have also faced surprisingly tough opposition.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) workshop, District of Columbia
"If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don't need the public assistance," Colorado Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told the Associated Press in March after sponsoring a welfare drug testing bill. "I don't want tax dollars spent on drugs."

"The message of this bill is simple: Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City) in a statement on the passage of his welfare drug testing bill in the state House. "Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment."

Liebmann also struck another frequently-hit note -- a moral claim that such bills were necessary even if they didn't save taxpayer dollars. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."

Such rhetoric has sounded in statehouses across the land, with bills for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of people seeking public benefits introduced in almost half the states, even passing a couple -- Florida last year led the way (and this year passed a law mandating drug tests for state employees), and now Georgia this month has followed suit. West Virginia's governor has also instituted drug testing for enrollees in the state's job training program. But the most interesting trend emerging is how difficult it is to actually get them passed.

While Georgia legislators managed to get a bill through, bills have already been defeated in nine states so far this year -- Alabama Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming -- and a number of others are either dead in the water or running out of time as legislative session clocks tick down.

The states where welfare drug test bills have not yet died include Colorado (House Bill 2012-1046) , Illinois (House Bill 5364), Indiana (House Bill 1007), Kansas (House Bill 2686), Oklahoma (House Bill 2388), Ohio (Senate Bill 69) South Carolina (House Bill 4358), and Tennessee (House Bill 2725), while a "reasonable suspicion" bill is still alive in Minnesota (Senate File 1535). Bills targeting unemployment benefits are still alive in Arizona (Senate Bill 1495) and Michigan (House Bill 5412), while one aimed at Medicaid recipients is still alive in South Carolina (House Bill 4458).

The stumbling blocks for passage are threefold: First, there are serious reservations about the constitutionality of such bills. While the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the subject of requiring drug tests of public benefits recipients, it has held that forcing someone to submit to a drug test is a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus requires either a search warrant or probable cause. The high court has carved out only limited exceptions to this general rule, including people in public safety-sensitive positions (airline pilots, truck drivers), members of law enforcement engaged in drug-related work, and some high school students (those involved in athletics or extracurricular activities).

The only federal appeals court ruling on drug testing welfare recipients came out of Michigan a decade ago, and in that case, a divided panel found such testing unconstitutional. That case was not appealed by the state. In Florida, the welfare drug testing law passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott (R), has been stopped in its tracks at least temporarily by a federal district judge who has hinted broadly she will ultimately find it unconstitutional. Civil libertarians in Georgia have vowed to challenge its law as soon as it goes into effect.

Democratic legislators across the country have used the fear of unconstitutionality as a potent argument against the drug testing bills. They have also raised the specter of legal fees reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defend such bills in the courts, and that leads to the second objection to public benefits drug testing bills: they will not save taxpayer dollars, but will instead waste them.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to cut people off from potential benefits, especially when we've found that people on welfare aren't using their money to feed addictions," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. "In Florida, when they enacted their program, very few people tested positive. It ends up costing the state money to drug test."

Fox was referring to findings reported last week that in the four months last year that Florida's welfare drug testing law was in effect, only 2.6% of applicants failed the drug test and fewer than 1% canceled the test. With the state reimbursing those who took and passed a drug test, the program was a net loser for the state, costing it an estimated $45,000 during that four-month period.

The Florida findings are similar to the findings of an earlier Florida pilot program for welfare drug testing and the short-lived Michigan program, both of which reported very low rates of positive drug tests among their subject populations.

drug testing lab
While it appears that most public benefits drug testing bills being considered would be at best a wash when it comes to spending or saving taxpayer dollars, one unemployment drug testing bill, Senate Bill 1495 in Arizona, is likely to be doomed because it will trigger the withholding of federal tax benefits for business, costing Arizona businesses millions of dollars. That Republican-sponsored bill is now stalled in the House, and some normally staunch allies of the GOP are in the opposition camp.

"Arizona is moving forward with this bill that the Department of Labor says violates federal law," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The trade-off for this testing is a pretty steep tax hike on local businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce is opposing it because they care about taxes. We're hoping that the Chamber in other states will look at that as well."

A third stumbling block for public benefits drug testing bills is not legal or economic, but based on notions of justice and fairness. While Republican legislators talk about ensuring that taxpayer dollars aren't wasted on drug users, they seem decidedly disinterested in imposing drug testing burdens on recipients of taxpayer largesse who are not poor. They are not calling for the drug testing of beneficiaries of corporate tax breaks, for instance, and for the most part they are demonstrably uninterested in subjecting themselves to similar testing, although Democrats opponents of the bills have had fun and scored political points sponsoring amendments or bills to do just that in some states.

In Colorado, Democratic foes of a welfare drug testing bill submitted an amendment to drug test legislators and state officials complete with personalized urine specimen cups for House committee members.That amendment actually passed the committee, but was largely symbolic because even if the bill passed in the House, it was doomed in the Democratically-controlled state Senate.

Instead of the powerful, the bills target the most downtrodden and disadvantaged -- the poor, the sick, the jobless -- in the guise of helping them. They are part of a broader attack on the poor, some advocates said.

"Whether you're talking about attacks on welfare, abortion, or contraception, it's all connected," said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "Depriving low-income people, predominantly women, of basic financial support is part of creating a second class status for all women. Women can't make healthy decisions about their reproductive lives if they don't have enough food to eat for themselves and their children," she argued.

For Paltrow, the push for drug testing the poor "has been part of a concerted effort to undermine the notion of the social contract" that is ideologically-driven and mean-spirited. "Whether it's poverty or pregnancy, you make every problem one having to do with individual responsibility, and then you create a justification for taking away money from people who need it."

It's part of a larger move to privatize what should be public welfare and services, Paltrow argued. "You're transferring money from poor people to companies that do drug testing," she said. "That's an important part of trickling up all our money to the fewer than 1%."

While Paltrow saw malign forces at work, Piper could identify no grand conspiracy.

"We couldn't find any think tanks currently pushing this or any other common denominator in all the states other than that this gets media attention," he said. "Some dumb legislator reads something in the newspaper and decides to do it in his state. We don't see any indication the drug testing industry is pushing this. If there's a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy of stupidity, that's all."

There is another fairness issue in play as well. The rhetoric surrounding the politics of drug testing the poor suggests that it is aimed at mothers strung out on heroin or meth-ravaged fathers, but the most common drug cited in the failed Florida drug tests was marijuana. That gets the goat of the MPP's Fox.

"Considering that occasionally using marijuana is not going to affect your ability to be a productive member of society and that it has a low addiction potential, marijuana consumers are being kind of discriminated against," he said. "People who, for ideological reasons, would rather drug test everyone than pay for the welfare of a few people, especially when it's marijuana, why, that's just patently ridiculous."

Republican legislators may have thought they had a no-brainer of an issue with mandating drug tests for public benefits recipients, but for the reasons mentioned above, the going has been tougher than they expected. That doesn't mean no more such bills are going to make it through the legislative process -- one is very close in Tennessee -- but it doesn't suggest that pandering to stereotypes and prejudice isn't as easy a sell as they thought.

Legislators in some states have also responded by more narrowly crafting drug testing bills in hopes of passing constitutional muster. A Utah bill now signed into law requires drug tests for welfare recipients upon suspicion, and more such bills are in the pipeline, although they face the same ticking clocks as the more broadly drawn drug testing bills.

While the Republican offensive has been blunted, the battle is not over.

"I remain concerned that more states will pass stupid drug testing legislation, but still optimistic the courts will strike them down. They're trying to make them suspicion-based and less random, but even that may or may not pass court scrutiny," said Piper.

"This recession can't end quickly enough," he sighed. "When the economy is bad, they need to find scapegoats. Still, this isn't passing in most states, and to get bills passed, it may be that they have to water them down to the point where they're just not that effective."

West Virginia Governor Orders Job Trainee Drug Testing

It's not just Republicans hopping on the drug testing bandwagon. On Tuesday, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, issued an executive order requiring people who seek state-funding job training to first pass a drug test.

The order turns a pledge from this year's State of the State address into reality. It calls for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of all participants in the Workforce West Virginia program, which provides training for youths, adults, and displaced workers.

"I continuously hear from business leaders located all across the state, that they have jobs available but the candidates cannot pass a pre-employment drug screening," Tomblin said in a statement. "When this happens, we have wasted taxpayer dollars, hurt our businesses, and limit our economic growth."

Tuesday's order requires testing for 10 categories of drugs and will deny training for applicants for 90 days if they test positive. A second flunked test will bar them for one year. The order allows applicants to appeal over test results. The state will pay for the drug tests and will hire an outside contractor to administer them.

Last year, Indiana became the first state to require people seeking job training to undergo drug tests. West Virginia is so far the only other state to follow.

Tomblin has proven quite a fan of drug testing. He successfully championed a measure this year that requires random drug tests for safety-sensitive jobs in the state's coal-mining industry. The bill was part of a broader mine safety package inspired by the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in which 29 miners died. Autopsy results showed no evidence that any of those men were using drugs.

Labor leaders and other workers' rights advocates have questioned the need for drug testing. West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue has challenged industries to show more evidence that drug use among the state's workforce is a problem. He told the Charleston Daily Mail he thought it was an excuse for companies to hire out-of-state.

"I do believe that the over-abuse of drugs in this state is not as bad as everybody makes it to be," Perdue said Tuesday. "I've talked to too many people and learned of too many cases that show that it's not as serious as they say."

No word yet on any legal challenges to the executive order or the miner drug testing bill.

Charleston, WV
United States

Georgia Welfare Drug Testing Bill Signed Into Law

A Georgia bill, House Bill 861, requiring applicants for welfare to first pass a drug test is now law after Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed it Monday. It will go into effect July 1, but faces a legal challenge as soon as it does.

Georgia follows Florida in passing legislation requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants. The Florida law is on hold after a federal district judge questioned its constitutionality and issued a temporary restraining order while she ponders whether to make it permanent.

Backers of the Georgia law said it would be found constitutional, but it is essentially identical to the Florida law. Attorney Gerry Weber with the Southern Center for Human Rights told Georgia Public Broadcasting the federal courts have been clear on the issue of suspicionless drug tests.

"The Supreme Court said that there has to be a special need such as safety," he said. "Bus drivers, for example, can be subject to suspicionless drug testing because of the safety needs of children. But just because you think a particular category of people is using drugs more than others isn't a special need under the Constitution."

Weber also noted that the court in Florida found no evidence that welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the population as a whole, but bill backers said that wasn't the point.

"It's not a case of whether we think someone on welfare would want to do drugs more than anyone else," said Senator John Albers (R-Roswell). "The whole point of the legislation is saying that if you're going to get a free entitlement or benefit from the government, you're going to have to play by the same rules as everyone else."

Weber and the Southern Human Rights Center are going to challenge the law. He said he would file suit once the state starts demanding the tests.

Georgia welfare officials estimate that some 19,000 applicants will be affected by the law in its first year of operation.

Atlanta, GA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

It's taken ever so long, but it now looks like dispensaries will soon be operating in Arizona, New Jersey and Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the battles over medical marijuana continue across the country. Let's get to it:

Arizona

Last Wednesday, the state announced it would begin accepting dispensary applications next month. The Arizona Department of Health Services said it will accept applications for medical marijuana dispensaries from May 14 through May 25. Voters approved medical marijuana in November 2010, but Gov. Jan Brewer (R) dragged her feet on approving dispensaries, citing fears of federal prosecution of state employees. She lost in federal court. The health department will announce which dispensaries are awarded licenses on August 7.

California

Last Tuesday, a proposal to shut down dispensaries in Vallejo died in a split city council vote. Mayor Osby Davis had proposed sending cease and desist orders to the city's dispensaries, but the motion failed on a 3-3 vote. Later in the same meeting, the council voted 5-1 to have City Manager Dan Keen send a policy-clarifying letter, and warning, to all dispensaries. Keen's pending letter is expected to include information on the city's new medical marijuana business tax, approved by voters in November, and a reminder that the tax does not provide dispensaries with immunity to law enforcement. The letters are also to include an explanation of laws the city enforces in regard to dispensaries and a warning that dispensaries are subject to further potential raids. Several raids have occurred since late February, and operators have been arrested for allegedly violating state laws.

Also last Tuesday, a Murrieta dispensary won a victory in court when a Riverside Superior Court judge ruled this week that the city cannot bar it from opening. The Cooperative Medical Group might not reopen, though, because if it does, it could face another lawsuit from the city for violating a temporary moratorium on dispensaries. The moratorium runs through October 2013.

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Planning Commission approved a permit for a new dispensary in the SOMA district. That's the fifth new dispensary approved by the commission in the last two months. Five is coincidentally the number of dispensaries forced to close recently under federal threat. The city Planning Department staff had recommended the permit not be approved, but commissioners overrode them.

Also last Thursday, Orange County deputies raided the Charles Café, a small dispensary that was the last one remaining in Lake Forest. It was the third raid on the dispensary in the last six months, and now the Charles is shut down. The Orange County Sheriff's Department said it had executed a search warrant there, but had no information about any arrests or seizures. Lake Forest once had 40 dispensaries, but Lake Forest City Attorney Scott Smith wrote to the US Attorney for Southern California seeking assistance and got it. The feds cracked down on dispensaries, including a November 2011 raid on the Charles. It had already been hit by Orange County deputies the previous May.

Last Friday, two Long Beach dispensary operators won a new trial after the judge in their case sent a complimentary letter to prosecutors after they were convicted on marijuana sales and related charges but before they were sentenced. Joe Grumbine and Joe Byron saw their convictions thrown out after an appeals court found that Long Beach Superior Court Judge Charles Sheldon had a strong bias against medical marijuana defenses. The pair has maintained there was no illegal activity at the cooperatives, two in Long Beach and one in Garden Grove, but that they were the victims of overzealous police and prosecutors.

On Tuesday, a bill to regulate medical marijuana distribution statewide won a vote in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The bill, AB 2312, introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), would also prevent most bans on cooperatives and collectives and limit the amount of taxes cities and counties can collect.

Also on Tuesday, a bill that would have required state-issued ID for patients was dropped. The bill, AB 2465, introduced by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, was challenged as an unconstitutional violation of patients' rights under Proposition 215.

Also on Tuesday, a replacement for Richard Lee as head of Oaksterdam University was announced. Stepping up is Dale Sky Jones, who had been executive chancellor at the university and who had worked with Lee on the Proposition 19 campaign in 2010. See our feature story on this in this issue.


Colorado

Last week, a Fort Collins initiative campaign to overturn a dispensary ban got underway. Medical marijuana supporters filed a petition notice with the city clerk's office, and once the wording is approved, they will have 60 days to collect 4,214 valid voter signatures. If they do, the measure will appear on the November ballot.

Delaware

Last Thursday, the state issued proposed regulations for the medical marijuana program. The Department of Health and Social Services proposal does not include regulations for dispensaries. The department is taking public comment on the regulations through April 30.

Maine

Last weekend, a medical marijuana exposition in Augusta attracted hundreds of people. The Canna Maineia Medical Marijuana Exposition also featured live music and dozens of vendors. Much of the conference focused on providing information to patients on how to grow their own medicine.

Michigan

Last Friday, police raided a South Haven dispensary and arrested one man. The target was Tranquility Central, which police searched in an investigation into the "illegal sale and distribution" of marijuana.

On Tuesday, medical marijuana supporters demonstrated at the state capitol to protest proposed changes in the state's medical marijuana law. Legislators are considering a package of bills they say will clarify the voter-approved law, but patients say the changes infringe on their rights. The four bills have made it out of committee and await a House floor vote. HB 4834 would require a photograph for medical marijuana patient registration cards, extend the expiration from one to two years, and would allow law enforcement officers or officials to access medical marijuana patient information.  HB 4851 attempts to clarify the definition of “bona fide physician-patient relationship,” which is required for medical marijuana cardholders. HB 4853 lays out sentencing guidelines, and HB 4856 regulates the transportation of medical marijuana in cars.

On Monday, the city of Douglas extended its dispensary moratorium for another 60 days. The town first addressed the possibility of a medical marijuana operation in July 2010, and city planners drafted an ordinance, but the planning commission rejected it last week. The city is waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on pending cases.

Montana

Last Wednesday, Tom Daubert agreed to a plea bargain on federal drug charges. Daubert, one of the state's most well-known medical marijuana advocates, will plead guilty to conspiracy to maintain drug involved premises. He was a co-owner of Montana Cannabis, one of the dozens of dispensaries and other medical marijuana businesses raided by the feds in March 2011. He helped draft the state's voter-approved medical marijuana initiative and is the founder of the group Patients and Families United. He's looking at up to 20 years in federal prison.

New Jersey

On Monday, the state finally issued the first permit for a medical marijuana grow. The state Department of Health announced the permit for the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair.The center will need a second permit before it can begin providing marijuana to patients, but since it will take three to four months for the first crop to be harvested, the state is confident it can issue that permit before harvest time.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Greenleaf's owner "should stop complaining" about delays in implementing the state's program, which was signed into law in January 2010, but has yet to see a single dispensary sell any medical marijuana to any patient. Christie blamed legislators and former Gov. Jon Corzine (D) for forcing him to delay the program in order to address what he called concerns about security.

Washington

Last Thursday, a judge denied a temporary restraining order to block Bellingham from shutting down two medical marijuana cooperatives raided by police last month. The Northern Cross and The Joint collectives had sought the order, but Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Steven Mura denied it, saying it would be an "empty order."

Washington, DC

Last Thursday, the city health department announced it given four applicants preliminary approval to run dispensaries in the nation's capital. Seventeen potential operators had applied, and the four selected had all scored enough points to seek approval from their advisory neighborhood commissions. The move to advance the dispensary licensing comes two weeks after officials gave the green light to six medical marijuana cultivation centers. Those businesses now are pursuing business licenses and other permits in order to get final approval to open and operate.

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