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Medical Marijuana: California Judge Issues Injunction Blocking LA Dispensary Moratorium

A California Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the City of Los Angeles' moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries is invalid and granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the ban. The Green Oasis dispensary and a number of other collectives sued the city last month seeking to overturn the moratorium.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
They argued that the City Council violated state law when it extended its original moratorium in March. They also argued the measure was unconstitutionally vague.

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant concluded that the city did not follow state law when it moved to extend the moratorium, but had instead relied on an out-of-date local ordinance. "The city cannot rely on an expired ordinance," he said as he issued the injunction.

The injunction applies only to Green Oasis, but the ruling appears to challenge the city's ability to enforce the moratorium against the hundreds of dispensaries that have opened in the city in the last two years. According to some estimates, the city could have as many as a thousand dispensaries operating right now. With the Green Oasis ruling, other dispensaries will be inspired to join the lawsuit or file lawsuits of their own.

The ruling only adds to the confusion around the legality of dispensaries in California in general and Los Angeles in particular. Also on Monday, the Obama administration issued a memo saying that prosecuting medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal should not occur unless the providers are violating state law. But last week, LA District Attorney Steve Cooley argued that under his interpretation of state law, "100%" of LA dispensaries are illegal, and he was going to move against them.

In the meantime, more dispensaries continue to open in Los Angeles. And now, in the wake of this week's ruling, the LA city council is moving in an expedited manner to get a handle on them. It expects to have plans in place next week to begin to shut down hundreds. This is a battle that is far from over.

Feature: Busted for Handing Out Clean Needles -- The Mono Park 2 Fight Back in California's Central Valley

Hit hard by a double whammy of drought and economic slowdown, California's Central Valley has become a hotbed of methamphetamine and other injection drug use. Now, the dusty town of Modesto, in Stanislaus County, has become a focal point in the statewide and nationwide battle over how to help injection drug users. Last week, two volunteers at an unsanctioned needle exchange were in court in Modesto hoping to reach a plea bargain after they were arrested in April for handing out syringes. Now known as the Mono Park 2, they're looking at serious jail time for trying to save lives.

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mobile needle exchange/clinic site in nearby Fresno
The deal was supposed to be that Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager would drop drug paraphernalia possession charges against exchange volunteers Kristy Tribuzio and Brian Robinson if they agreed to quit handing out needles until there was a legal program in place. But that didn't happen. Instead, at the last minute, the DA rejected the plea deal. Another hearing is set for November 9. If the DA and defense attorneys cannot reach agreement then, the case will go to trial.

The case has its genesis in longstanding efforts to win official approval for a needle exchange in Modesto. California law allows for needle exchanges, but only as a local option. The county board of supervisors must declare a health emergency in order for needle exchanges to operate legally.

In a 2008 report, Containing the Emerging Threat of Hepatitis through a Syringe Exchange Program (begins on page 22), the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury recommended the county authorize syringe exchanges and implement them either directly or through a community based contractor. The effort also had the support of county public health officials, including Public Health Department, the Advisory Board for Substance Abuse Programs, the Local AIDS Advisory Implementation Group, and the Hepatitis C Task Force, who cited a high incidence of Hepatitis C. They cited research indicating that needle exchanges reduced the spread of blood-borne diseases, brought injection drug users into contact with public health workers, and did not result in increases in drug use.

But despite the input from the public health community and the grand jury report, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors a year ago voted unanimously against allowing needle exchanges. In so doing, they heeded their own prejudices and those of law enforcement over science-based policies and the advice of the public health community.

County Sheriff Adam Christianson and DA Fladager both spoke out against needle exchanges, saying they would enable drug users to continue their addiction. Fladager said needle exchanges sent the wrong message to young people and encouraged them to think the county would take care of them if they become addicted.

"All of the challenges we are faced with in Stanislaus County, the gangs, methamphetamine, crimes, all have elements of drug addiction," Christianson said. "A syringe exchange program enables people to continue with their drug addiction."

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used syringes collected by exchange -- they might otherwise have been discarded in public places
Noting that Hep C was not a big issue for the county because most patients are covered by insurance, Supervisor Bill O'Brien also objected on bizarre moral grounds. "Then there's the human issue. Giving a drug user a clean needle is not the best thing for him. Illegal drug use has a risk, and making it safer promotes it," he said.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini thanked the grand jury for the report, but then dismissively added, "Like many well-intentioned programs that don't work out, this will never work out and deliver the benefits promised."

Too bad the sheriff, the DA, and the county board don't agree with the nation's drug czar. "Needle exchange programs have been proven to reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases," Gil Kerlikowske told Congress during confirmation hearings earlier this year. "A number of studies conducted in the US have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. I understand that research has shown these programs, when implemented in the context of a comprehensive program that offers other services such as referral to counseling, healthcare, drug treatment, HIV/AIDS prevention, counseling and testing, are effective at connecting addicted users to drug treatment."

Given the knowledge base about the effectiveness of exchanges and the evident human need for them in Modesto, needle exchange advocates were not content to simply roll over and die. Instead, they created an unauthorized needle exchange in the city's Mono Park, also known as needle park by residents because of the used needles littering the ground there. The program was publicized and went along on a low-level basis without a hitch until April, when, after an elaborate undercover sting, police swooped down and arrested the exchange volunteers.

Kristi Tribuzio just happened to be volunteering with the needle exchange the day the bust went down. Now, she's one of the defendants. "There was a direct need for this, and when I found out there was an existing exchange -- I saw a flyer on a telephone pole -- I asked how is this happening?" she said. "I got involved; I was just going out there for the people. An undercover cop came up and did an exchange, and then, a little later eight to 10 undercover officers drove up with a drug dog and arrested us. It was pretty harsh and crazy," she recalled.

"Looking back, Brian and I think it was maybe naive of us to just go out there and do something that was helping people in line with other syringe exchange programs," said Tribuzio. "We didn't understand what the consequences could be."

Now, she and Robinson face up to a year in jail for violating the paraphernalia law. For Tribuzio, there were other consequences, including the loss of her contract position with the Stanislaus County drug and alcohol education and prevention program. "I was laid off two days after I was arrested. Because I was a contract worker, they didn't need a reason to fire me, and no official reason was given. Ironically, my employer supports needle exchange," she said. "Maybe that's why they laid me off instead of firing me for cause. Now, at least, I can get unemployment."

Tribuzio had previously worked as a substitute teacher, but she can't do that now, either. "I'm getting an MA in education, and I have a teaching credential, but my credential is now suspended," she said. "Imagine, a teacher in San Francisco could be doing just what I did, and there would be no problem."

That's because needle exchanges have been authorized by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, just as they have in most large California cities. But in more conservative locales, like the Central Valley, the fight is more difficult, and therein lies the problem -- and the solution -- said one prominent harm reductionist.

"What we need is to get legislation authorizing syringe exchanges on a statewide level rather than our current system, which requires that they be authorized by local authorities," said Hilary McQuie, Oakland-based Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Requiring local authorization means we have to deal with 54 jurisdictions instead of just one, and the politics makes it really difficult in conservative places like Fresno or Modesto. It will be really difficult to get syringe exchange approved in Modesto without a statewide mandate," she said.

Short of that, needle exchange advocates need to carefully lay the groundwork beforehand, she said. In that respect, the Modesto needle exchange perhaps suffered from political naivete. "The effort with the grand jury in Modesto was done in good faith, but the grand jury finding required a response from the Board of Supervisors within three months," she noted. "They hadn't really lined up their support with the Board, and the Board ended up voting against it. That was problematic."

While personally difficult for Tribuzio and Robinson, the battle over needle exchanges in Modesto has moved the issue forward locally and stirred support from around the country and the world. A Mono Park 2 Defense Committee has formed to back them. At last week's hearing, more than a dozen supporters were present in court, and the pair had letters of support from some 35 public health and harm reduction organizations here and abroad.

"We've gotten a ton of support from the harm reduction community," said Tribuzio. "This whole thing has been stressful and overwhelming for us, but they've given us a wealth of training, knowledge, and support, more than we ever expected. We've gotten support from people in other exchanges, and letters of support from around the world. We've also been building alliances with people in the community. Things in the Central Valley are crazy, and we can't turn our heads away in the face of disease. Now, at least, people are paying attention."

While Robinson and Tribuzio wait for their legal problems to be resolved, they continue to work with at-risk communities. "After the bust, we started Off The Streets, and that does everything except for needle exchange," said Tribuzio. "We're doing needs assessments, trying to get our fingers on the pulse of the community, trying to help where we can."

For McQuie, the trials and tribulations of the Mono Park 2 are, sadly, par for the course. "This is how most of the programs got started, doing them illegally, so they're in good company," she said.

Feature: Maine Medical Marijuana Dispensary Initiative Ahead in November Election Campaign

In a little more than two weeks, Maine residents will go to the polls to vote on a measure that would build on the state's decade-old existing medical marijuana law by creating a system of dispensaries. Despite some grumbling from the usual suspects and announced opposition from some not-so-usual suspects, proponents of the measure say they are confident it will win easily on November 3.

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Maine coast
Sponsored by Maine Citizens for Patient Rights and the Maine Medical Marijuana Policy Initiative, and funded primarily by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Maine Medical Marijuana Act would:

  • Establish a system of nonprofit dispensaries which would be overseen and tightly regulated by the state;
  • Establish a voluntary identification card for medical marijuana patients and caregivers;
  • Protect patients and caregivers from arrest, search and seizure unless there is suspicion of abuse;
  • Create new protections for qualified patients and providers in housing, education, employment and child custody;
  • Allow patients with Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer's disease access to medical marijuana;
  • Require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a procedure for expanding the list of conditions for which marijuana can be used; and
  • Keeps current allowable marijuana quantities at 2.5 ounces and six plants.

When voters go to the polls on November 3 to vote on Question 5, the Medical Marijuana Act, this is the question they will be asked: "Do you want to change the medical marijuana laws to allow treatment of more medical conditions and to create a regulated system of distribution?"

"We feel the campaign is in really good shape right now," said Jonathan Leavitt, who is leading the charge for the initiative.

The existing law needs reform to make it workable, Leavitt said. "In the 10 years since the medical marijuana law went into effect, it has barely been utilized because patients have not had a legal means of obtaining their medicine except to grow their own, and that's just not workable for a seriously ill patient," he said. "With this measure, qualified patients will have full access to their medicine through the establishment of not-for-profit medical marijuana dispensaries."

The measure's language protecting patients from discrimination in housing, employment, and child custody issues is necessary because patients have suffered in the past, Leavitt said. "This will provide a security blanket for qualified patients by really putting in black and white the full legal protections they need."

The child custody provision says that medical marijuana patients cannot be denied visitation or custody of a minor child unless their behavior is "unreasonably dangerous to the minor." That provision drew criticism from the Maine Prosecutors Association, which announced last month it is opposing the measure, but is not putting money into doing so.

"This law reeks of paranoia that the entire criminal justice system is not to be trusted," said association president Evert Fowle, without a hint of irony. Medical marijuana patients across the country, including Maine, have seen their children seized or have lost custody battles solely because of their medical marijuana use or production.

Physicians in Maine can be found on both sides of the question. Dr. John Woytowicz, a family physician in Augusta, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, "I don't start with medical marijuana as the first choice for a medical condition. It's part of a whole assessment of what can be done for a given condition. And I put it very frankly to the patient that I would like to explore all opportunities and this could be one of the options as well. My experience is for the appropriate patient, it can be a good option for them, and most people have been benefitted by it with the minimal amount of side effects." Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist with Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, told MPBN, "I would advocate for limiting access to marijuana and not to regard it as a medication."

The measure has drawn fire from one unexpected direction: the Maine Vocals, a group of longtime marijuana and medical marijuana legalization activists. The Vocals and its offshoot, Maine Citizens for Medical Marijuana, have announced they oppose the initiative.

"I favor what we have now and working to make it better," said Maine Vocals founder Don Christen. "But this isn't the way. They're just instilling the government into this program, and the government doesn't want it to work," he said.

"The initiative puts DHS in charge of the distribution centers and the overall medical marijuana law, and we're not happy about that because that's the department that has been taking people's children away," said Christen. "DHS is like law enforcement when it comes to medical marijuana. We would like instead to see it in a different department's hands, and with a board of patients and doctors instead of politicians."

"When it came to administering the dispensaries, it was either law enforcement or the Department of Human Services," Leavitt replied. "We thought DHS would be a better fit for questions around the medicinal use of marijuana. DHS also has a mandate to deal with child custody issues, so we included the child custody language because we want it crystal clear that patients will be protected, including around these issues."

Christen also took issue with the $5,000 fee required of dispensary operators. "That's a bit ridiculous," he snorted. "The cost will be prohibitive for a lot of people."

Leavitt responded that such fees had worked in other states and that they were necessary to ensure the measure did not impose a burden on taxpayers.

Christen also objected to the patient ID card system on both philosophical and practical grounds. "After 9/11, Maine opted out of the federal Real ID program," he said. "We don't believe in making lists of everybody up here. And the ID card system gives rights and privileges to those with cards that other patients don't have."

About that, Christen is correct, but only to a point. To enjoy the full protections of the measure, patients, caregivers, and dispensary operators must register with the state and obtain an ID card. Qualifying patients who do not obtain an ID card could still be subject to arrest, but could present their status as medical marijuana patients as an affirmative defense to prosecution and move to have the charges dismissed. But those same patients can be arrested today.

Christen also complained that the measure would bar people who have marijuana felonies from acting as caregivers or dispensary operators or employees. "Those who have marijuana felonies, including myself, will be taken out of the picture," he said, noting that he himself had only gotten out of jail on a marijuana charge 10 days ago.

"We say they haven't read the bill," Leavitt responded. "They talk about how they are fearful they will be knocked out of the loop because they are marijuana felons, but marijuana felons would not be considered felons under this measure."

Actually, the language is a bit ambiguous. It says that someone convicted of a "felony drug offense" cannot be affiliated with a dispensary, but also says that doesn't apply if the felony is more than 10 years old or if it was "an offense that consisted of conduct that would have been permitted under this chapter." Whether Christen would qualify might depend on whether the medical marijuana growing he was convicted for was found to be consistent with the new law's cultivation provisions, and perhaps with yet-to-be-written regulations.

Leavitt wasn't pleased with the not-so-friendly fire. "The Maine Vocals just haven't done the work to get something on the ballot, let alone passed," Leavitt said. "They're doing a great disservice to patients by speaking out against us."

But even with the criticism from the Vocals, it appears that Maine will be the next medical marijuana state to adopt the dispensary system.

Sentencing: New York's Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms Now in Effect

As many as 1,500 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders will be able to apply for release or shorter sentences under reforms to New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws that went into effect Wednesday. The partial reforms also mean increased judicial discretion in sentencing, allowing judges to send some offenders to treatment instead of prison.

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June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally, NYC (15yearstolife.com)
The reforms were signed into law in April by Gov. David Paterson (D) after he and the state legislature came to agreement on the issue. They build on earlier partial reforms passed in 2004 that addressed the lengthy sentences assigned to more serious drug offenders.

"Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, we did not treat the people who were addicted. We locked them up," Paterson said Wednesday at the Brooklyn Court House. "Families were broken, money was wasted, and we continued to wrestle with a statewide drug problem. The reforms that take effect today address those problems. By returning judicial discretion to the courtroom, we are reuniting families and fighting criminal activity and addiction in our communities," he said.

Because the reforms eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences and allow judges to order eligible defendants to treatment or diversion over prosecutorial objections, the State District Attorneys Association opposed the reforms. But they were championed by a formidable Drop the Rock coalition of drug policy, criminal justice, social justice, and other groups calling for repeal of the Rockefeller laws, as well as by the now Democrat-controlled legislature and statehouse.

"As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on Rockefeller charges and another 12 fighting the inhumane laws, I am thrilled that the law has been changed," said Anthony Papa, author of 15 Years to Life. "But, Rockefeller will only be real when those who are behind bars are allowed to come home and those who need help get treatment instead of a jail cell."

"New Yorkers fought for decades to reform the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, and we finally succeeded this year," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now we need to make Rockefeller reform work. Today marks another step towards our state moving in new direction on drug policy, one based on public health and safety. Thankfully, legal and human service agencies are stepping up to implement reform."

"Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by such a harsh and racist sentencing scheme," said Shreya Mandal, mitigation specialist for the Legal Aid Society. "These reforms will allow people to reclaim their dignity as we shift from a punitive criminal justice model to a much needed holistic public health model. Now it is time to see this reform through by empowering formerly incarcerated individuals with comprehensive re-entry planning." The Legal Aid Society is already working on 270 cases that should qualify for early release, according to the Associated Press.

But there is still work to be done getting drug offenders out of prison. While as many as 1,500 could get out early, they will leave behind another 12,000 or so, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Corrections. That's more than 20% of all New York state prisoners.

Asset Forfeiture: Texas DA Seeks to Use Seized Funds to Defend Herself in Lawsuit Over Unlawful Seizure of Same Funds

The Texas district attorney accused of participating in an egregious asset forfeiture scheme in the East Texas town of Tenaha now wants to use the very cash seized to pay for her legal defense in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by victims of the practice. The ACLU of Texas, which, along with the national ACLU, is representing the plaintiffs in the case, filed a brief last Friday with the Texas Attorney General's office seeking to block her from doing so.

Lynda Russell is the district attorney in Shelby County, where Tenaha is located. She is accused of participating in a scheme where Tenaha police pulled over mostly African-American motorists without cause, asked them if they were carrying cash, and if they were, threaten them with being immediately jailed for money laundering or other serious crimes unless they signed over their money to authorities.

Representing a number of victims, attorneys from the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Racial Justice Project filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in June 2008. According to the suit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated.

In one case, a mixed race couple, Jennifer Boatwright and Ronald Henderson, were stopped by a Tenaha police officer in April 2007. According to the lawsuit, they were stopped without cause, detained for some time without cause, and asked if they were carrying any cash. When they admitted they had slightly more than $6,000, a district attorney's investigator then seized it, threatening them with arrest for money laundering and the loss of their children if they refused to sign off. There was never any evidence they had committed a crime, and they were never charged with a crime.

The town mayor, the DA, the DA's investigator, the town marshal, and a town constable are all named in the lawsuit. While they claim to have acted legally under Texas asset forfeiture law, the lawsuit argues that "although they were taken under color of state law, their actions constitute abuse of authority." The suit argues that the racially discriminatory pattern of stops and searches violated both the Fourth Amendment proscription of warrantless searches and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

While either the county or the state would normally be expected to pony up for the DA's legal expenses for a lawsuit filed as a result of her performance of her duties, neither has done so. That's why Russell -- with a tin ear for irony -- requested that she be allowed to use the allegedly illegally seized money stolen from motorists. She has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether using the funds for her defense violates the state's asset forfeiture law.

"It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, legal director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable."

"The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials."

The ACLU of Texas is using the Tenaha case to push for asset forfeiture reform in the Lone Star State. One such bill stalled in the state legislature this year. "The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the group. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."

Press Release: Gov. Paterson to Speak Wed: Rock Drug Law Reform Becomes Active; 1,500 Eligible for Resentencing and Release!

For Immediate Release: October 7, 2009 Contact: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646)335-2264 1,500 Incarcerated People Eligible for Resentencing and Release, Judges Now Have Discretion Governor Paterson to Mark Milestone at Brooklyn Courthouse on Wednesday at 10 a.m. An Army of Legal Advocates and Human Service Agencies Stand Ready to Provide Reentry, Drug Treatment and other Services New York- On Wednesday, October 7, key elements of the Rockefeller Drug Law reform go into effect: Decision making authority is returned to judges, who can now divert people suffering from drug dependency into treatment and other service programs, instead of prison. And nearly 1,500 people currently incarcerated for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses under the Rockefeller Drug Laws can petition the court for resentencing and, if approved by a judge, will be released. After Governor David Paterson signed the reforms into law earlier this year, advocates and service providers have worked diligently to prepare for implementation. Legal aid and public defender agencies are providing legal counsel. Hundreds of social and human agencies around the state have volunteered to provide a broad range of services to those individuals who will be released from prison as a result of drug law reform. In New York City alone, over 100 human service agencies have agreed to work with legal aid and public defender agencies to provide services like housing, job training and drug treatment to those individuals returning from prison as a result of drug law reform. "As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on Rockefeller charges and another 12 fighting the inhumane laws, I am thrilled that the law has been changed, said Anthony Papa, author of 15 Years to Life. "But, Rockefeller will only be real when those who are behind bars are allowed to come home and those who need help get treatment instead of a jail cell." "New Yorkers fought for decades to reform the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, and we finally succeeded this year," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now we need to make Rockefeller reform work. Today marks another step towards our state moving in new direction on drug policy, one based on public health and safety. Thankfully, legal and human service agencies are stepping up to implement reform." "Rockefeller Drug Law reform symbolizes a critical time in our history, where we acknowledge the individual stories and personal struggles of those who have been most affected by such a harsh and racist sentencing scheme," said Shreya Mandal, Mitigation Specialist for the Legal Aid Society. "These reforms will allow people to reclaim their dignity as we shift from a punitive criminal justice model to a much needed holistic public health model. Now it is time to see this reform through by empowering formerly incarcerated individuals with comprehensive re-entry planning." Governor Paterson will be marking the milestone at an event at 10 a.m. at the Brooklyn Court House, 320 Jay St., Room 283. In addition to the Governor, two drug court graduates will speak at the event. ###
Location: 
NY
United States

Asset Forfeiture: Texas DA Seeks to Use Seized Funds to Defend Herself in Lawsuit Over Unlawful Seizure of Same Funds; ACLU Objects

The Texas district attorney accused of participating in an egregious asset forfeiture scheme in the East Texas town of Tenaha now wants to use the very cash seized to pay for her legal defense in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by victims of the practice. The ACLU of Texas, which, along with the national ACLU, is representing the plaintiffs in the case, filed a brief last Friday with the Texas Attorney General's office seeking to block her from doing so. Lynda Russell is the district attorney in Shelby County, where Tenaha is located. She is accused of participating in a scheme where Tenaha police pulled over mostly African-American motorists without cause, asked them if they were carrying cash, and if they were, threaten them with being immediately jailed for money laundering or other serious crimes unless they signed over their money to authorities. Representing a number of victims, attorneys from the ACLU of Texas and the ACLU Racial Justice Project filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in June 2008. According to the suit, more than 140 people, almost all of whom were African-American, turned over their assets to police without cause and under duress between June 2006 and June 2008. If a federal judge agrees that assets were in fact illegally seized, they should be returned to their rightful owners, whose civil rights were violated. In one case, a mixed race couple, Jennifer Boatwright and Ronald Henderson, were stopped by a Tenaha police officer in April 2007. According to the lawsuit, they were stopped without cause, detained for some time without cause, and asked if they were carrying any cash. When they admitted they had slightly more than $6,000, a district attorney's investigator then seized it, threatening them with arrest for money laundering and the loss of their children if they refused to sign off. There was never any evidence they had committed a crime, and they were never charged with a crime. The town mayor, the DA, the DA's investigator, the town marshal, and a town constable are all named in the lawsuit. While they claim to have acted legally under Texas asset forfeiture law, the lawsuit argues that "although they were taken under color of state law, their actions constitute abuse of authority." The suit argues that the racially discriminatory pattern of stops and searches violated both the Fourth Amendment proscription of warrantless searches and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. While either the county or the state would normally be expected to pony up for the DA's legal expenses for a lawsuit filed as a result of her performance of her duties, neither has done so. That's why Russell—with a tin ear for irony—requested that she be allowed to use the allegedly illegally seized money stolen from motorists. She has asked the state attorney general's office for an opinion on whether using the funds for her defense violates the state's asset forfeiture law. "It would be completely inappropriate for the district attorney to use assets which are the very subject of litigation charging her with participating in allegedly illegal activity to defend herself against these charges," said Lisa Graybill, legal director at the ACLU of Texas. "Texas has a long history of having its law enforcement officials unconstitutionally target racial minorities in the flawed and failed war on drugs and it is of paramount importance that those officials be held accountable." "The government must account for the misconduct of officials who operate in its name," said Vanita Gupta, staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, who represented African-American residents of Tulia, TX in high-profile litigation challenging their wrongful convictions on drug charges. "The state of Texas has seen egregious examples of racial profiling that result from poor oversight of criminal justice officials." The ACLU of Texas is using the Tenaha case to push for asset forfeiture reform in the Lone Star State. One such bill stalled in the state legislature this year. "The misuse of asset forfeiture laws by local officials is exacerbated by inadequate oversight," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the group. "The legislature must squarely address these reported civil rights violations via reform of forfeiture laws that strengthen protection against unconstitutional conduct and racial profiling."
Location: 
Tenaha, TX
United States

Public Health: Feds Finally Issue Warning on Tainted Cocaine

Three weeks ago, Drug War Chronicle reported on cocaine cut with the veterinary agent levamisole and asked what the federal government was doing about it. Ten days later, the feds responded to the situation, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) issuing a public health alert on September 21.

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The alert, sent out to medical professionals, substance abuse treatment centers, and other public health authorities, warned of the "life-threatening risk" that much of the US cocaine supply may be adulterated with the veterinary anti-parasitic drug. It has been linked to a serious, sometimes fatal, blood disorder called agranulocytosis, with SAMHSA saying there are at least 20 confirmed or suspected cases and two deaths in the US associated with the tainted cocaine.

Despite being first noticed by forensic scientists at least three years ago and by the DEA late last year, there has been little public awareness of the public health threat. SAMHSA expects the number of cases to rise as public and professional awareness spreads.

"SAMHSA and other public health authorities are working together to inform everyone of this serious potential public health risk and what measures are being taken to address it," said SAMHSA Acting Administrator Eric Broderick, DDS, MPH.

The addition of levamisole to cocaine is believed to be done by Colombian drug traffickers. Ingesting the tainted drug can seriously reduce a person's white blood cells, suppressing immune function and the body's ability to fight off even minor infections. People who snort, smoke, or inject crack or powder cocaine contaminated by levamisole can experience overwhelming, rapidly-developing, life threatening infections, SAMHSA warned. Other serious side effects can also occur.

The DEA is reporting that levamisole is showed up in over 70% of cocaine analyzed in July, and authorities in Seattle are reporting that 80% of persons testing positive for cocaine are also testing positive for levamisole.

In its alert, SAMHSA warned that:

THIS IS A VERY SERIOUS ILLNESS THAT NEEDS TO BE TREATED AT A HOSPITAL. If you use cocaine, watch out for:

  • high fever, chills, or weakness
  • swollen glands
  • painful sores (mouth, anal)
  • any infection that won't go away or gets worse very fast, including sore throat or mouth sores; skin infections, abscesses; thrush (white coating of the mouth, tongue, or throat); pneumonia (fever, cough, shortness of breath).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also getting in on the act. CDC will shortly publish a case report analysis in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and will be working with state public health authorities to collect information on the phenomenon. That information will be "used to guide treatment and prevention initiatives to address this public health concern."

One thing the feds are not doing is coming up with a test kit that would allow users to detect the presence of levamisole in cocaine. That's too bad, said Dr. Michael Clark, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of Washington Harborview Medical Center. "I thought to myself, why isn't there a test kit? It is easy to test for," he said. "It would be like testing your hot tub for its chemistry. Take a sample, mix some chemicals together, add a reagant, and see what turns what color."

Clark is working on developing just such a test kit. "It could be used at street level, and it could be used by a lot of public health and harm reduction groups. You want to identify levasimole before people ingest, very much like the Ecstasy testing. You could do the same thing with cocaine and levasimole," he said.

Feature: NORML Annual Conference Meets in Atmosphere of Hope, Determination, and Exhilaration

Riding a wave of enthusiasm about increasing prospects for marijuana law reform, hundreds of people poured into the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Francisco last Thursday for the 38th annual national conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). By the time it ended with a Saturday night NORML benefit, the conference had left most attendees even more energized than when they arrived.

Gathering under the slogan "Yes, We Cannabis" and sensing a fresh breeze blowing since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, conference organizers, speakers, and attendees spent three days in sessions devoted to medical marijuana issues, the prospects for legalization in California (and beyond), the change in public attitudes around marijuana, what parents should tell kids about pot, and much, much more.

The conference was California-centric, but understandably so. Not only was a California city the host for the conference, the Golden State's constantly mutating medical marijuana industry is creating an omnipresent and accessible distribution system, and California is now the home of four competing marijuana legalization initiative campaigns and a similar effort in the state legislature.

In between (and sometimes during) sessions, the pungent odor of pot smoke hung in the air over the Hyatt's outdoor patio as patients medicated and non-patients just plain got high. Hippie attire abounded, but in contrast to the stoner stereotypes, there were plenty of people in suits and ties toking away, too.

At least three newsworthy items came out of the conference:

  • At a Saturday press conference, Oaksterdam University head Richard Lee, the leading proponent of the legalization initiative most likely to actually make the November 2010 ballot -- because it has Lee's financial backing -- announced the formal beginning of signature gathering for the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act, which would allow California cities and counties the local option to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and a 25-square foot garden. Accompanied by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, "Marijuana Is Safer" author Mason Tvert, and fellow initiative proponent Jeff Jones, Lee also announced the measure's endorsement by former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who is running for mayor of Oakland.
  • State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), author of Assembly Bill 390, which would legalize the possession, growing, and sale of marijuana for people 21 or over, announced Friday that he will hold an informational hearing on his bill. The date is tentatively set for October 28 at the capitol in Sacramento. The current political climate has created a "perfect storm" for marijuana law reform, he said. "It's certainly connected to California's economy, which is in the toilet," he added.
  • Oakland City Council member and medical marijuana supporter Rebecca Kaplan (D) announced Saturday that the city is preparing to issue permits for medical marijuana growing and processing operations and for medical marijuana edibles production. The city already has issued permits to four dispensaries, and voters there this summer approved a dispensary-led initiative to add a special medical marijuana tax on them. "We gave permits for a federal felony for the dispensaries, and they didn't bust them -- even under Bush," she said. "We protected them." And now, Oakland is set to expand those protections to other sectors of the industry.

"There is no doubt that today, Sept. 25, 2009, is the moment of genuine zeitgeist to decriminalizing marijuana in America," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre as the conference opened. "This conference represents that we are at that tipping point."

But where the movement goes from here was open to heated and healthy debate. Thursday's sessions, which were devoted primarily to the intricacies of medical marijuana dispensing in California, saw detailed discussion of the minutiae of defining collectives and co-ops and operating within state law and the state attorney general's guidelines, but they also saw calls from some leading voices warning about the medicalization of marijuana.

Dr. Frank Lucido, a leading medical marijuana advocate, while lauding the work of the medical marijuana movement, said the weed should really be treated like an over-the-counter herbal supplement. "This should be out of the hands of doctors and in the hands of herbalists," he argued.

Similarly, Steven DeAngelo of the Harborside Health Center, an Oakland dispensary, pointed out that California's medical marijuana distribution system is creating a situation where "cannabis consumption is part of the mainstream." In a speech delivered at the conference, he argued that effective medical marijuana laws are paving the way for a day where medical recommendations are not required to obtain cannabis legally. "Most over-the-counter drugs are far more harmful than marijuana, but there are no restrictions on them," he said. "Let's not waste medical resources on something that doesn't require them."

But the most heated debates were around what is the best path toward outright legalization in California. With several initiatives and an assembly bill all in play, opinion was deeply divided on whether to wait for the legislative process to work its way, to support the Oaksterdam initiative -- which was almost universally considered the most conservative of the initiatives, but which also has the best chance of making the ballot -- or to support one of the competing initiatives.

Joe Rogosin, one of three Northern California defense attorneys who authored the California Cannabis Initiative, admitted that his initiative lacked the deep pockets of the Oaksterdam initiative, but argued that it was still superior to the Oakland effort. It repeals all state laws forbidding people 21 and over from possessing, growing, or selling marijuana.

"We don't want people to go to jail for cannabis," Rogosin said. "Unlike Richard's, our initiative actually legalizes cannabis."

While contending camps were fighting over who had the best initiative, other movement members were warning that none of them were likely to pass. Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia said that his group would not be devoting substantial resources to the initiatives and would not formally endorse them, but would render what low-budget aid it could if one of them actually makes the ballot.

California NORML head Dale Gieringer was blunt in his assessment of the measures' chances. "I don't expect any of them to pass," he said flatly.

As always, California pot politics is in turmoil, and while circular firing squads are not quite forming, the movement is in danger of shooting itself in the foot if it fails to get behind an initiative that makes the ballot -- or if it does get behind an initiative and that initiative loses badly at the ballot box.

There was, of course, much more going on at the NORML conference. Check out the NORML web site for updates with conference content. And keep an eye on California, because marijuana reform is one hot topic there now.

Marijuana: Daily 4:20 Protests Spark Saturday Arrest in Keene, New Hampshire

Daily marijuana legalization protests in the Central Square in Keene, New Hampshire, led to one arrest Saturday for marijuana possession and one Sunday -- but the victim in that arrest was later found to be smoking chocolate mint in his glass pipe and released without charges. The demonstrations began last Tuesday with a couple of dozen people gathering at 4:20pm to toke up as an act of civil disobedience and call for marijuana law reform. After Saturday's arrest, the protests continued, with about 100 people showing up Monday.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/freekeene1.jpg
(YouTube and freekeene.com)
The protests are being led by Free Keene, a local affiliate of the libertarian New Hampshire Free State Project. The project's stated goal is to persuade 20,000 libertarians to move to New Hampshire in a bid to shift the politics of the low-population Granite State.

Arrested Saturday was Richard Paul, 40, one of the protest organizers. Paul was arrested after police patrolling the square saw him smoking a joint. Protestors shouted at police, yelling "Leave him alone!" and "This is how they did it in Nazi Germany!"

After the arrest, about 50 protestors followed Paul and police officers to the police station, where they shouted through the door and sat in a circle smoking marijuana. No more arrests were forthcoming, though.

To confuse police at the protests at the square, some smokers smoked things other than marijuana. That was the case Sunday, when police arrested a protester identified only as "Earl" for puffing on a glass pipe. Embarrassingly for police, that substance turned out to be not marijuana but chocolate mint, and Earl was quickly released.

Protests continued this week in Keene and have now spread to Manchester. In the latter town, protestors sparked up in the presence of police, but failed to provoke any arrests.

Perhaps the cops have better things to do. And that's precisely the point.

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