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The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Medical Marijuana: Wisconsin Bill Gets Public Hearing

A Wisconsin bill that would allow seriously ill patients to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries got a public hearing Tuesday. The bill, AB 554 (and its companion SB 368) was introduced a little more than a month ago, but after a decade of preparation and statehouse hall-walking by the state patients' group Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY), it is moving fast. Tuesday's hearing was a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Health Committees.

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Wisconsin's Jacki Rickert and Gary Storck, with New Jersey's Jim and the late Cheryl Miller (photo courtesy immly.org)
IMMLY's Jacki Rickert, of Mondovi, who suffers from a connective tissue disorder, has long been a poster child for Wisconsin medical marijuana patients. On Tuesday, she urged lawmakers to make her medicine legal, saying it allowed her to reduce her consumption of morphine for pain.

"When your doctor looks at you and says, 'If we cannot get weight on you, you will die' - that's what it comes down to, 'You will die' -- you do whatever you have to do," Rickert, 58, told the lawmakers. "We've never wanted to break the law, but sometimes you have to."

Both houses of the Wisconsin legislature are controlled by Democrats, but that didn't stop Republican skeptics from blasting away. Republican Attorney General JB Van Hollen played the "but it's a federal crime" card.

"Make no mistake, the marijuana possession permitted by the bill to a user or caregiver is illegal under federal law, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000," Van Hollen said in written testimony -- completely ignoring the Obama administration's vow to not prosecute people using medical marijuana in compliance with state law.

Such a law would also make it more difficult to prosecute marijuana cases in state court, Van Hollen complained. People could claim they had a medical condition, even if they were not on the state registry, he said. "If the bills are enacted as drafted, law enforcement's and prosecutors' ability to enforce what would still be illegal is seriously disabled," he warned.

Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) argued that the bill was too broadly written, citing a Department of Health Services estimate that 2.5 million Wisconsinites have medical conditions that would qualify them to use medical marijuana. The agency estimated that only a fraction of that number -- from 1,700 to 17,000 people -- would actually register as medical marijuana patients.

But that didn't stop Strachota. "That is not really a narrow scope on this bill if half the citizens of the state would qualify to use medical marijuana," he said.

But proponents of the bill argued that it was tightly crafted to avoid the kind of loopholes that have turned California into a medical marijuana Wild West. The bill is the "most comprehensive and responsible legislation in the country," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) attacked the motives of advocates, claiming supporters were cynically using critically ill patients as a "façade" for legalization. "It's nothing more than a ruse for you to move forward for full legalization of marijuana," Vukmir said, drawing loud boos from the hearing audience.

Vukmir's comments also stirred Senate bill sponsor Sen. Joe Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) to insist that he was not trying to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "People shouldn't have to break the law to get pot for their mom or dad or son. Republicans and Democrats are doing that right now -- in your district, right in your backyard," Erpenbach told Vukmir.

Despite the Republican attacks, supporters of the bill think it can pass the legislature quickly. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), lead author of the bill, said he was confident it would pass the Assembly Health Committee and get an Assembly floor vote, while Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) has signaled that he will allow a Senate floor vote on the bill. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has said he supports medical marijuana.

Thirteen states currently have medical marijuana laws. The District of Columbia is about to be the 14th such jurisdiction, as officials there scramble to come up with a regulatory regime for the 11-year-old medical marijuana law that will only now be implemented after Congress ended a long-standing ban against spending District funds to do so. And New Jersey could be number 15, if, as expected, the Assembly votes to approve it next month.

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston

Beginning January 1, prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, will no longer file felony drug charges against people found with less than one one-hundredth of a gram of illegal drugs. Currently in Houston, people caught with trace amounts of drug or holding crack pipes with drug traces are routinely charged with felonies.

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crack pipe
But under a new policy promulgated by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, police are instructed to instead issue Class C misdemeanor tickets to people caught in possession of crack pipes or trace amounts of drugs. That means arrestees will face only a $500 fine, not the up to two years in state jail mandated by the felony charge.

The cops are not happy. "It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves," said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. "A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes," he told the Houston Chronicle.

But Lykos told the Chronicle there were good reasons to change the policy. Less than one-hundredth of a gram of a drug is not enough for more than one drug test, and defense attorneys often want to run their own tests, she said.

The policy change also "gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses," she added. "When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around."

Last year, Harris County prosecutors filed 46,000 felony cases, with 13,713, or nearly 30%, for possession of less than a gram of controlled substances. It is difficult to say how many of those would not have been charged as felonies under the new policy because most were charged only as possession of less than a gram.

While police are grumbling, defense attorneys are beaming. "It's a smart move and it's an efficient move and it lets us get down to the business of handling criminal cases of a more serious magnitude," Nicole Deborde, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, told the Chronicle.

Feature: With Passage of Medical Marijuana Bill Pending, New Jersey Patient Faces 20 Years for Growing His Medicine

Update: Wilson was convicted of some charges Thursday, but not the most serious one.

Just weeks before the New Jersey Assembly votes on pending medical marijuana legislation, a trial is set to take place that demonstrates precisely why such a law is needed. A sick Somerset County resident, John Ray Wilson, is looking at up to 20 years in prison for growing his own medicine.

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courthouse demo supporting John Ray Wilson, 2009
In the summer of 2008, Wilson, a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferer, was broke, had no health insurance, and was desperate for relief from the debilitating symptoms of his disease. Unable to afford pharmaceutical medications and having already resorted to alternative healing practices, when Wilson saw fellow MS victim Montel Williams talk on TV about how medical marijuana had helped him, he decided to try it for himself.

Wilson had even resorted to bee-sting therapy in a bid to relieve his symptoms, but it was marijuana that worked best, he said. "I was diagnosed with MS in 2002," he said. "I suffer from blurred vision, pain in my joints, and muscle spasms. I didn't have any medical benefits, so I tried to get some financial assistance to actually get some MS medicine, but that didn't succeed. I even tried getting stung by bees. Then I saw Montel Williams on TV saying he had MS and smoked marijuana and it helped. So I tried it, too, and it definitely helped, especially in relieving the pain and the muscle spasms."

Lacking access to medical marijuana, Wilson decided to try his hand at growing his own in the backyard of his Franklin Township home, and that's when his life took a real turn for the worse. A National Guard helicopter on a training flight spotted Wilson's garden and reported him to state authorities, who promptly seized his 17 plants, arrested him, and charged him with a number of drug possession and drug manufacturing offenses that could get him 20 years in prison. If convicted on the most serious charge -- maintaining a drug production facility -- Wilson would be ineligible for pre-trial diversion and would have to go to prison.

Wilson and his attorney explored plea bargain negotiations with prosecutors, to no avail. "We were prepared to settle for a reasonable deal, but the best they offered was five years in prison," he said.

Now, Wilson is going on trial. Jury selection is set to begin Monday.

It will be tough for Wilson to prevail. In October, Superior Court Judge Robert Reed ruled that his medical condition, and the fact that he had been taking marijuana to treat his condition, could not be revealed to the jury during the course of the trial.

"By striking my medical history from the trial, they've pretty much tied my hands behind my back," said Wilson. "Hopefully, we can get a jury that can see through what they're doing to me, but it's more than a little scary. The consequences of what they're doing would be horrendous for me. My health would definitely deteriorate in prison. Stress makes all the symptoms worse, and going to prison would definitely be stressful."

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Wilson with Jim Miller and Ken Wolski
"Wilson tried marijuana and found it does in fact help," said Ken Wolski, head of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, which has lobbied hard to pass a medical marijuana bill in the Garden State to protect patients. "Interestingly enough, a National MS Society expert opinion paper recently acknowledged that conventional therapies don't adequately control MS symptoms and marijuana does. But he will not be able to tell the jury he has MS, and that's the only reason he was using marijuana in the first place," said Wolski. "He's got no job, no health insurance, no access to medicine that might bring him some relief. He tries to eke out a living on eBay."

"This is exactly why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law," said Roseanne Scotti, head of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who has been walking the statehouse corridors in Trenton for years trying to get medical marijuana passed. "John Ray Wilson's case is every medical marijuana patient's worst nightmare," she added.

"He was using for medical purposes, but is precluded by the courts from introducing evidence as to why, and the court is correct -- this is the law in New Jersey," Scotti continued. "But that's exactly why we need to change the law -- so people like Mr. Wilson can get safe and legal access to medical marijuana, and we don't go around arresting and prosecuting someone patients seeking some relief."

"John Ray Wilson is a poster child for the legalization of medical marijuana," said Wolski. "So many people are outraged that he is facing 20 years for trying to treat himself and will not even be able to tell the truth during the course of his trial."

In a cruel twist of fate, Wilson is being prosecuted just weeks before New Jersey is likely to adopt a medical marijuana law. The state Senate has already passed it, and the Assembly will vote on it early next month. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has indicated he will sign it. Two of the bill's sponsors, Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), have highlighted Wilson's plight as indicative of why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law.

"It seems cruel and unusual to treat New Jersey's sick and dying as if they were drug cartel kingpins. Moreover, it is a complete waste of taxpayer money having to house and treat an MS patient in a jail at the public's expense," said Scutari. "Specifically, in the case of John Ray Wilson, the state is taking a fiscally irresponsible hard-line approach against a man who's simply seeking what little relief could be found from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. Governor Corzine should step in immediately and end this perversion of criminal drug statutes in the Garden State."

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But Corzine hasn't stepped in or stepped up. Instead, his office said it would wait until Wilson was convicted to consider a pardon.

"The attorney general and the governor didn't want to take any action, but they could make this case go away by exercising prosecutorial discretion," said Wolski. "They chose to let it move forward, and now its getting a lot of regional and national attention, and rightfully so, because it shocks the conscience of the community."

"The only way we're going see fewer of these cases come before the court is if the 'New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act' becomes the law of the land," said Lesniak. "This has been an issue that has taken years to resolve in New Jersey, and legislative approval and enactment into law are long past overdue. It's time that the Assembly posts this bill for a vote, so we can focus our attention on putting real criminals behind bars, and not piling on the suffering for terminal patients simply seeking a little relief from the symptoms of their diseases."

But while an Assembly vote is now set for next month, John Ray Wilson's trial will be over by then. Barring a miracle of jury nullification, Wilson will be drug felon. And in the meantime, he's going without his medicine. "I'm not going to buy marijuana on the street," he said. "That would get me thrown back in jail."

At the Statehouse: Sentencing, Drug Testing, Good Samaritan, Hemp, and SWAT Bills

As 2009 winds up, we present the last installment in our series of articles on drug reform in state legislatures. This week, we look at Good Samaritan bills, sentencing bills, drug testing bills, and a hemp bill and a SWAT bill.

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Rhode Island Senate chamber
Although we have tried to be comprehensive, we might have missed something. If we have, please write to us here.

Good Samaritan Bills

Connecticut: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 5445, was introduced in January and referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, where it got a hearing in March. It has not moved since.

Hawaii: A bill providing limited immunity from prosecution for overdose victims and those seeking to help them, HB 532, was introduced in January, passed the Health Committee on an 8-0 vote in February, and was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. It has now been held over for the 2010 session.

Maryland: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 1273, passed the House on a 135-0 vote in March, passed the Senate on a 47-0 vote in April, and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May.

Nebraska: A bill protecting drug overdose victims and those seeking to assist them from prosecution, LB 383, was introduced in January and got a hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, but has not moved since.

New York: A bill that would provide protection to drug overdose victims and those seeking to help them, A 8147, was introduced in May and referred to the Assembly Rules Committee in June, where it has sat ever since. A companion measure, S 5191, was introduced in April and has sat before the Senate Codes Committee ever since.

Rhode Island: A bill that would provide limited immunity from prosecution for drug overdose victims and those trying to help them, S 194, was introduced in February and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been stalled ever since.

Washington: A bill that would protect overdose victims and those trying to help them from prosecution, HB 1796, was introduced in January and approved by the Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in February. It was then referred to the House Rules Committee, where it died for lack of action.

Drug Testing

Kansas: A bill that would have required people who seek public assistance to undergo drug testing, HB 2275, passed the House on a 99-26 vote in March. It was referred to the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee at that time, but has not moved since.

Louisiana: A bill that would have required welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, HB 137, died in June on an 11-5 vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

Missouri: A bill that would have made it a crime to falsify a drug test or to sell or transport drug test adulterants, HB 446, was introduced in May and promptly went nowhere. It is currently "not on the calendar." A bill that would require drug testing of welfare recipients upon "reasonable suspicion," SB 73, won a hearing before the Senate Progress and Development Committee in February, but has been dormant ever since.

West Virginia: A bill that would have mandated random drug tests for people who receive food stamps or unemployment benefits, HB 3007, was blocked in committee. A last ditch effort to revive it via a House floor vote was defeated 70-30 on a straight party line vote. Republicans voted for it.

Sentencing

Louisiana: A bill, HB 630, which would grant parole eligibility to people sentenced to life without parole for heroin offenses, passed the House and Senate in the spring and became law without the governor's signature in July. It became effective August 15.

Massachusetts: The state Senate last month approved SB 2210, which grants parole eligibility to nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences. But the House recessed without taking action on the measure.

New Jersey: A bill that would give judges discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, SB 1866, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 23 and passed Senate yesterday. Its companion measure, A2762, passed the Assembly last year, and Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill.

New York: The legislature and Gov. David Paterson (D) came to an agreement in March on a second round of reforms to the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The reforms, which went into effect in October, included returning judicial discretion in low-level drug cases, expanding treatment and reentry services, expanding drug courts, and allowing some 1,500 people imprisoned for low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing.

Hemp

Oregon: Oregon became the 17th state to pass legislation favorable to hemp farming and the ninth state to remove legal barriers to farming the potentially lucrative crop as Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) in August signed into law SB 676, an industrial hemp act sponsored by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D). The bill removes all state legal obstacles to growing hemp for food, fiber, and other industrial purposes. It passed the House 46-11 and the Senate 27-2. Industrial hemp production remains prohibited under federal law.

SWAT

Maryland: Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill that will require law enforcement SWAT teams to regularly report on their activities. The bill was largely a response to a misbegotten drug raid last July in Prince Georges County in which Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and his family were doubly victimized -- first by drug traffickers who used their address for a marijuana delivery, then by Prince Georges County police, who killed the family's two pet dogs and mistreated Calvo and his mother-in-law for several hours. The bill, the SWAT Team Activation and Reporting Act (HB 1267), requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston Beginning January 1, prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, will no longer file felony drug charges against people found with less than one one-hundreth of a gram of illegal drugs. Currently in Houston, people caught with trace amounts of drug or holding crack pipes with drug traces are routinely charged with felonies. But under a new policy promulgated by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, police are instructed to instead issue Class C misdemeanor tickets to people caught in possession of crack pipes or trace amounts of drugs. That means arrestees will face only a $500 fine, not the up to two years in state jail mandated by the felony charge. The cops are not happy. “It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. “A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes,” he told the Houston Chronicle. But Lykos told the Chronicle there were good reasons to change the policy. Less than one-hundreth of a gram of a drug is not enough for more than one drug test, and defense attorneys often want to run their own tests, she said. The policy change also “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses,” she added. “When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.” Last year, Harris County prosecutors filed 46,000 felony cases, with 13,713, or nearly 30%, for possession of less than a gram of controlled substances. It is difficult to say how many of those would not have been charged as felonies under the new policy because most were charged only as possession of less than a gram. While police are grumbling, defense attorneys are beaming. “It's a smart move and it's an efficient move and it lets us get down to the business of handling criminal cases of a more serious magnitude,” Nicole Deborde, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, told the Chronicle.
Location: 
Houston, TX
United States

Medical Marijuana: In Slap to DA, Jury Acquits San Diego Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator

In a blow to hard-line San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has yet to find a medical marijuana dispensary she considers legal and who has coordinated a series of raids on dispensaries in recent years, a jury in San Diego Tuesday acquitted the manager of a local dispensary of marijuana possession and distribution charges.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/medmj-bag.jpg
California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Jovan Jackson, 31, a Navy veteran, cried as the not guilty verdicts were read. He was, however, convicted on possession of Ecstasy and Xanax, small quantities of which were found in his home during an August 2008 raid.

Still, Jackson expressed relief outside the courthouse. "I was very thankful," Jackson said. "This has been a long road. It hasn't been easy. I felt like a lot of weight was on my shoulders."

Jackson's was the first medical marijuana case to go to trial since a series of Dumanis-orchestrated raids on dispensaries in September that resulted in 31 arrests and the closing of 14 San Diego-area dispensaries. Dumanis led other mass raids in 2006 and in February of this year.

Jackson operated the Answerdam Alternative Care Collective, which was twice approached by undercover officers who had fraudulently obtained medical marijuana recommendations. Since the narcs had proper documentation under California law, and since they joined the collective by paying a $20 fee, Jackson let them purchase medical marijuana.

Prosecutors presented evidence of $150,000 in credit card receipts and five pounds of marijuana seized during raids at the dispensary as evidence that, "This case is about making money, plain and simple," as Deputy District Attorney Chris Lindberg put it to the jury.

But a large-scale operation is not out of line for a collective that boasted 1,649 members, as defense attorney K. Lance Rogers told the jury. He also reminded jurors that the narcs had signed up for the collective under false pretenses and that state law allows medical marijuana patients to legally buy marijuana from a collective that grows it.

Jurors agreed, acquitting Jackson on the marijuana charges. Jurors told reporters after the trial that they found Jackson innocent because the state laws regarding medical marijuana sales from collectives were vague.

"On a personal level, if you're going to hold somebody to a law, you have to define that law," said juror Perry Wright.

It's not the end for Jackson. He faces up to three years in prison on the Ecstasy and Xanax possession charges, although he will most likely receive probation. And he faces another round of marijuana distribution charges from a similar undercover buy made this year.

Given the verdict in this case, DA Dumanis might want to consider whether a re-run trial is worth the taxpayers' money and whether any of her pending dispensary prosecutions should go forward. But she probably won't.

Law Enforcement: Utah "Meth Cops" Lose Out on Health Claims

More than 50 Utah law enforcement officers have filed workers compensation claims over ailments they believe were caused by exposure to methamphetamine labs, but none have been approved, and most have been dismissed for lack of evidence or because officers sought dismissal in a bid to come up with evidence. Only five cases are still pending.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/methlab4.jpg
meth lab
"They have to have enough evidence to justify the claims," said Carla Rush, adjudication manager for the Utah Labor Commission, which handles the claims. "Preferably a doctor saying they have been injured in a work-related exposure to meth. That would be the best evidence."

Scores of Utah police officers participated in breaking down clandestine meth labs in the 1980s and 1990s, wearing only standard police-issue uniforms. That was before they understood the caustic nature of some of the chemicals involved in cooking meth. Now, officers on meth lab duty wear air tanks and hazmat suits.

Those officers from the old days began filing claims asserting that a variety of physical ailments they were suffering were the result of meth lab exposure. By 2006, the Utah legislature commissioned a half-million dollar study to explore the issue. But that study, which was meant to establish a causal link between meth exposure and everything from cancer to nerve damage, was inconclusive.

The state has also paid out tens of thousands of dollars to the Utah Meth Cops Project for a scientifically unsupported detox regime backed by the Church of Scientology. But toxicologists say that toxins would have left the officers' bodies long ago, and the detox program is little more than quackery.

How about a study of legalization, to eliminate the meth lab problem once and for all -- followed by a detox from the consequences of prohibition?

Law Enforcement: Federal Judge Slams NYPD for Widespread Lying in Drug Cases

The federal judge hearing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the NYPD by two men who claim they were busted on bogus drug charges has blasted the department as plagued by "widespread falsification by arresting officers."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judgeweinstein.jpg
Judge Weinstein
The comments from Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein came in his decision refusing to throw out the lawsuit by Maximo and Jose Colon, who claim that Queens narcs arrested them last year on false cocaine sales charges. A surveillance tape of the bust exonerated the brothers and led to the charges against them being dropped and the indictment of arresting Detectives Henry Tavarez and Stephen Anderson.

"Informal inquiry by [myself] and among the judges of this court, as well as knowledge of cases in other federal and state courts... has revealed anecdotal evidence of repeated, widespread falsification by arresting officers of the New York City Police Department," Weinstein wrote. "There is some evidence of an attitude among officers that is sufficiently widespread to constitute a custom or policy by the city approving illegal conduct."

Weinstein's attack came after he gave Afsaan Saleem, the attorney representing the city, a chance to document steps the department and prosecutors have taken to address false testimony -- often called "testilying" -- and fabrication of criminal charges by NYPD officers. Saleem couldn't come up with enough to satisfy the judge.

The Colon case is only the most recent of a number of scandals that have left the department's credibility tattered. This year alone, hundreds of drug cases have been dismissed because of corruption in the Brooklyn South narc squad, three officers have been arresting for covering up the sodomizing of a pot smoker in a Brooklyn subway station, and a Bronx detective was convicted of perjury.

As New York Civil Liberties Union president Donna Lieberman told the New York Daily News: "The NYPD has a serious credibility issue if federal judges are convinced the department puts officers on the stand who lie."

Medical Marijuana: San Diego Dispensary Operator Found Not Guilty

In a blow to hard-line San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has yet to find a medical marijuana dispensary she considers legal and who has coordinated a series of raids on dispensaries in recent years, a jury in San Diego Tuesday acquitted the manager of a local dispensary of marijuana possession and distribution charges. Jovan Jackson, 31, a Navy veteran, cried as the not guilty verdicts were read. He was, however, convicted on possession of Ecstasy and Xanax, small quantities of which were found in his home during an August 2008 raid. Still, Jackson expressed relief outside the courthouse. "I was very thankful," Jackson said. "This has been a long road. It hasn't been easy. I felt like a lot of weight was on my shoulders." Jackson's was the first medical marijuana case to go to trial since a series of Dumanis-orchestrated raids on dispensaries in September that resulted in 31 arrests and the closing of 14 San Diego-area dispensaries. Dumanis led other mass raids in 2006 and in February of this year. Jackson operated the Answerdam Alternative Care Collective, which was twice approached by undercover officers who had fraudulently obtained medical marijuana recommendations. Since the narcs had proper documentation under California law, and once they joined the collective by paying a $20 fee, Jackson let them purchase medical marijuana. Prosecutors presented evidence of $150,000 in credit card receipts and five pounds of marijuana seized during raids at the dispensary as evidence that, "This case is about making money, plain and simple," as Deputy District Attorney Chris Lindberg put it to the jury. But a large-scale operation is not out of line for a collective that boasted 1,649 members, as defense attorney K. Lance Rogers told the jury. He also reminded jurors that the narcs had signed up for the collective under false pretenses and that state law allows medical marijuana patients to legally buy marijuana from a collective that grows it. Jurors agreed, acquitting Jackson on the marijuana charges. Jurors told reporters after the trial that they found Jackson innocent because the state laws regarding medical marijuana sales from collectives were vague. "On a personal level, if you're going to hold somebody to a law, you have to define that law," said juror Perry Wright. It's not the end for Jackson. He faces up to three years in prison on the Ecstasty and Xanax possession charges, although he will most likely receive probation. And he faces another round of marijuana distribution charges from a similar undercover buy made this year. Given the verdict in this case, DA Dumanis might want to consider whether a re-run trial is worth the taxpayers' money and whether any of her pending dispensary prosecutions should go forward. But she probably won't.
Location: 
San Diego, CA
United States

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